Tips For Getting The Most Out of Your Somatic Exercise Routine

Somatic Exercises, when done between 10 – 15 minutes daily, are profoundly effective at keeping you pain-free no matter what your stress. However, the single biggest benefit of Somatic Exercises is one of IMPROVED SENSORY MOTOR AWARENESS. This means that the exercises help remind your brain to FEEL (sensory) and MOVE (motor) your muscles so that your self-awareness is more accurate and your muscles move more efficiently.

Recently a reader told me that he does his Somatic Exercises faithfully, but finds that the same problem – a tight back, sore neck, achy shoulders, “that low back pain on the right side” – keeps cropping up. Why is this?

The answer is that you need to apply the awareness you gain from the Somatic Exercises to everything you do during your day. Here are a few coaching tips to help you apply the improved awareness and muscle control you gain from Somatic Exercises to your daily life:

  • Become aware of movement patterns inherent in your job. If your is a repetitive physical job (gardening, landscaping, typing on the computer, driving, lifting packages, holding children), begin to notice the pattern of movement and the muscles involved that contribute to your pain.  Gardening is usually one-sided, as is holding children. Driving requires sitting and using one leg to accelerate or brake more than the other.
  • Become aware of how you sit. Is your pelvis at an angle? Is your back over-arched? Do you shift/slouch into one hip? Do you slump forward? Arch & Flatten, the Back Lift, Cross Lateral Arch & Curl, and the Seated Awareness Exercise target the back and abdominal muscles and help to improve awareness of how you sit. Find them on my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.
  • Do a few minutes of seated Somatic Exercises every hour if you work at a desk. Even 5 minutes every hour can remind your muscles that they don’t have to stay “frozen.” This will keep your brain in voluntary control of your muscles so they can be as relaxed as possible.
  • Become aware of how you drive. See “how do you sit” above. Many of us clutch the steering wheel when stressed. This locks down the shoulders and creates upper back and neck pain. The “seated twist” is great for reversing tension that comes from driving.
  • Use a mirror to help you see your own posture. Becoming aware of what you really look like – as opposed to what you think you look like – helps you to self-correct so that what you sense internally agrees with what you see in the mirror.
  • Become aware of how you reflexively respond emotionally to upsetting events or the need to get something done. This is hugely important!  Our brains adapt to stress by tightening our muscles – even when we’re not moving. The Somatic Exercises teach you to regain voluntary muscular control, but you are the only one who knows how emotional upset affects you. Do you tighten your back? Hunch your shoulders? Stop breathing when worried? The Steeple Twist and Human X are wonderful catch-all movements that relax the front, sides and back of the body for a full body stress-buster.
  • Add more movement to your day. There are lots of great functional movements you can do that take only a few minutes. This helps to differentiate your movement habits.  Here’s a link to some great ideas for “movement snacks” from Frank Forencich of Exuberant Animal. My Reach To the Top Shelf movement takes 2 minutes to do and can be done anywhere:

Stand with feet apart and both arms up. Slowly reach up with the right arm and let the entire right side of your body lengthen. Allow the left hip to slide upwards (look closely at the middle photo) as you roll up onto the ball of the left foot.

Come back through neutral and reach up with the left arm as if reaching for something high on a shelf. Allow the right hip to slide up as you roll up onto the ball of the right foot. Be sure to keep both knees straight. Repeat this sequence 3-5 times, reaching with one arm, then the other. You’re lengthening one side of your body as you shorten the other side! It’s like a full body yawn!

How To Prevent a Hip Replacement

In the New York Times recently there was an article about hip replacement surgery and the rise in complaints about a specific kind of hip replacement. Hip replacements are the most common joint replacement surgery, numbering 500,000. About 5,000 people suffer from the debilitating side-effects from faulty hip replacements. That’s a lot of pain.

In certain specific cases a full hip replacement is life-giving, and the best (and probably only) option for preserving quality of life and movement. Those with necrosis of the hip, long term wear and tear due to undiagnosed compensation or scoliosis, severe impact trauma, certain bone diseases, and rheumatoid arthritis can cause deterioration of joints and are examples of those who are prime candidates for hip replacement surgery.

Joint replacements are on the rise. “There is a huge swell of elderly patients from the baby boom who will come through the system and be candidates for artificial joints,” explains researcher Steven M. Kurtz, PhD. Why is this? Age? Genetics? Deterioration of the human species?

Hip replacements that are not disease related can be prevented with Somatic Education, Somatic Exercises, and improved proprioception and movement.

“The system” of which Dr. Kurtz speaks of is the medical system. Most of my clients have been through “the system;” they’ve seen every specialist, from orthopedists to physical therapists, and they still have muscle pain. If doctors had a basic understanding of sensory motor training and Somatic Education they might help prevent a large number of hip and knee replacements, thus saving millions of dollars.

Aging baby boomers can remain active, flexible, and pain-free if they retain proper muscle function, control, and body awareness.

Being able to sense how you respond to stress in your body is the first step.  If you have an accident, a fall or a trauma to your body, being able to notice how your your movement changes in order to compensate, and having someone to coach you back to balanced, symmetrical movement, are two important elements that go a long way toward preventing hip replacement. I’ve written a series of blog posts about hip pain, with suggestions of Somatic Exercises that will help begin releasing the muscles that cause most hip pain. They’re worth reading.

As a reminder: MRIs, X-rays and third person diagnostics show only physical structure. They don’t show how your brain has learned to compensate muscularly. Nor do they show the state of sensory motor amnesia that is responsible for most chronic, non-disease-based hip pain. This is only diagnosable by watching someone move and noticing the lack of balance and coordination that results. I’ve worked with dozens of clients complaining of hip pain with muscles on one side of their body (usually trunk rotators – the lattisimus, rectus abdominus, obliques, adductors and abductors)  that are so tight that the hip simply isn’t moving. Rarely do I work with someone who has bilateral hip pain. Why?

Many cases of hip pain are an habituated compensation problem and not a problem of the hip joint itself.  It is a problem of the brain – the command center of the muscles.

This pattern of compensation is called the Trauma Reflex.  Dancers, athletes, anyone who’s ever taken a sudden fall, all reflexively invoke the trauma reflex.  This alters one’s gait, creating unequal pressure into one hip more than the other.  A lack of variety in movement (squatting, dancing, hiking on uneven surfaces) and an excess of sitting only more deeply entrenches the problem. An habituated trauma reflex left unchecked for decades is a recipe for a future hip replacement. Help the client to become aware of their reflexive tightening of the muscles that are causing that pelvic imbalance, unequal weight bearing, leg length discrepancy or twisted pelvis… and the pain goes away.

Hip pain is often the result of faulty function of muscles and movement. It is reversible with Hanna Somatic Education.

To begin to learn Somatic Exercises that will reverse hip pain, improve body awareness, muscle control and coordination, and improve flexibility, check out my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD. You’ll be glad you did.

Are Athletes Smarter Than the Rest of Us?

In my Somatic Education training we had to write a paper on why the study of neurophysiology was important to the practice of Hanna Somatic (Clinical Somatic) Education.
The unique methods used in private clinical sessions of Somatics are based in neurophysiology: the brain controls the  muscles, and movement gives feedback to the brain, making the brain more efficient at coordinating muscles and movement and improving posture. Muscle dysfunction can only be changed through movement.

In an Exuberant Animal workshop I took a while ago, Frank Forencich gave a talk about the positive brain changes that occur through daily vigorous movement. He brought up the stereotype of the “dumb jock,” and how false that stereotype is. Studies are showing that they just might have smarter brains than most of us!

Practice is the main reason that athletes’ brains – and by extension their movement – function better. Athletes are constantly predicting the next move and honing their brain’s ability to respond to whatever is happening.  In the article linked above, they cite a brain study of people learning to juggle. After a week of practice, the jugglers were already developing extra gray matter in some brain areas. These brain changes continued for months, the scientists found. As soon as someone starts to practice a new sport – and I would add a new movement, in general –  the brain begins to change, and the changes continue for years.

Not everyone has the time, nor the desire to become an athlete. However, the brain benefits of adding new and challenging new ways of moving are available to all, athlete, scientist, carpenter or web designer. Somatic Movement is an excellent way to challenge our brains, change our bodies, reduce our pain and keep ourselves smarter as we age.

The first step is awareness. Somatic Movement is meant to increase the brain’s awareness of how it feels to be in your own body in space. The word for that is proprioception. Needing heightened and honed proprioceptive skills isn’t just the domain of an elite athlete. Proprioceptive skills, sorely lacking today in many sedentary young people, is crucial to one’s survival.  A lack of proprioception can cause chronic back, neck, shoulder, hip, knee and foot pain. It can cause people to lose their balance and limit their movement, causing accidents.

In young people a lack of proprioception, I dare say, can lead to decreased self-esteem, more attention deficit, and a lack of problem solving skills. If learning a new skill increases brain matter, does this have anything to do with the learning issues of today’s children? This is why vigorous movement (no matter what it is) is so important for young people.

Proprioception can be improved through Somatic Movement – so you can use your brain to become better at whatever it is you love to do. I’m convinced that you can become as smart as an athlete, as long as you challenge yourself with movement.

Chronic pain and injuries can get in the way of a movement filled life. Diligent, patience and persistent practice of basic movement patterns that flex, extend, side bend, twist and rotate your body as a whole will engage your brain to stay in control of your movement, ready for whatever comes your way. Somatic Movement can be done while lying down or while seated. Once you feel you’ve released your tight muscles, and regained aware and control of your movement, move on to an activity that is challenging for your brain and body.

It doesn’t need to be a triathalon, gymnastics, or a spinning class. Ballroom dancing, yoga, hiking, swimming and exuberant play-based fitness will challenge your brain to change your body and movement, and keep you healthy for longer than you thought possible.