How Movement Education Can Prevent Obesity and Improve Learning

Daily movement improves overall health.

I’ve written before about the importance of daily, vigorous movement for everyone. One doctor cites studies in a compelling video that shows that daily movement is the best prescription doctors could possibly give to us to help us improve our overall health. You don’t necessarily need to go to the gym – just find an activity you enjoy, and do it every day. “Movement education” is akin to eating habits: first and foremost we learn it at home. However, it is also the responsibility of our society to encourage movement in every aspect of life – from the creation of recreational areas, available playgrounds for underprivileged children, parks, bicycle lanes, and longer gym periods at school.

Movement enhances creativity.

I encourage my clients with desk jobs to get up at least once an hour to do simple movements that “wake up” their muscles. This keeps muscles from getting tight and “frozen.” It also stimulates the brain, relaxes the nervous system and enhances creativity.

Thomas Hanna wrote about the importance of encouraging somatic awareness in our lives, especially when children go to school. In schools children are encouraged to stop paying attention to their bodies and movement when they are constantly reminded to stop fidgeting, keep their feet on the floor, etc.

In the Western world, children sit at desks, eyes facing forward. They are rewarded for sitting still and keeping quiet. They learn to ignore the sensations of their own bodies. They learn to stop moving. Even on playgrounds children are told not to run in order to prevent any injury or liability on the part of schools.

It’s old news to say that children are getting heavier and moving less, creating a true public health crisis. Children who don’t move become adults who don’t move, and who risk developing Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), joint pain, diabetes, and musculoskeletal problems. I will leave it to Dr. Kwame Brown to further explain the detrimental effects of “movement-deprivation” on young children and adults. Suffice it to say that the more one moves, the more one’s brain develops.

For anyone in the teaching profession and for those working with children in any capacity, I would highly recommend Dr. Brown’s work. He will be teaching his first New Jersey Move Theory weekend seminar in Pompton Lakes, NJ.

Here’s a video of Kwame teaching children, through play, the basics of movement:


Why You Should Vary Your Movement

One of the basic Somatic Exercises we teach is called the “Seated Twist.” It is a wonderful exercise that never ceases to astound my students. In this exercise you learn to increase your range of motion and ability to twist around yourself by doing seemingly random things like moving your head while keeping the body still, or shifting your eyes side to side without moving the head. It is a gentle exercise, with no forcing whatsoever.

Varying your movement can improve your movement.

I love teaching this exercise because my students experience the dramatic changes that can occur in their movement merely by differentiating movement in simple ways. In this Basic Human Movements video from his Intervention: Course Corrections DVD, Strength coach Dan John points out this same principle in regards to strength training. He notes that athletes often sequence their workout drills according to what they want to do. However, if they really want to quicken their progress, they should do the movements they don’t already do. People are amazed that simply doing more of what you don’t normally do can increase motor control, strength, and athletic ability.

One of the reasons this works so well is because movement variation stimulates the brain with new and different sensory feedback. The result is improved motor output. You improve your overall movement and strength without having to push harder.

This doesn’t just apply to movement; it applies to life: the way in which we live our lives shows up in our bodies. Give yourself permission to explore new ways of solving life’s problems and suddenly, often with less struggle, those problems sometimes solve themselves. I like to call this giving yourself “permission to explore.”

Differentiated movement creates intelligent motor control.

Moshe Feldenkrais, originator of the Seated Twist exercise, developed some extraordinary movements based on what he called “Differentiated Movement.” He discovered that differentiating patterns of movement brings instantaneous improved coordination and range of movement in the muscular system. Seemingly random differentiations – moving the head separately from the torso, the eyes separately from the torso and head – increases our ability to move and twist the whole body – eyes, head, neck, shoulder girdle. This occurs not through force, but through intelligent sensory awareness of what we’re doing, yielding greater motor control.

When I was a young ballet dancer, I would occasionally get frustrated and take a day off to do something completely unrelated to dancing. My favorite “other” activity was vigorous bicycle riding. I’d look for the steepest hill possible and just ride. I’d get a vigorous upper body workout, then return to the dance studio and find that my ability to do the steps that had seemed impossible had improved – without practice – and with little effort. I was differentiating and didn’t know it!

For those who simply want to improve their mobility and overall health by, for example, walking, it’s also important to vary your movement.  Take a different route, find an uneven path to stimulate your sense of balance. Jog for a block and then return to walking! It’s easy to get stuck in the repetitive movements of today’s society: sitting with  eyes straight ahead, driving, working at a computer.  These repetitive, “stuck” postures are the source of back, neck, shoulder, hip and knee pain. It’s critical that we remind our muscles that they can move in varied ways  – bending, reaching, twisting, rotating, pulling, pushing.

Try this fun exercise!

When you’re struggling with a movement, stop. Do something different for a few minutes: circle your arms like a windmill, run in place or do “the twist.” Make it fun. Then return to the original movement. Is there a change? If so, what kind? Is the movement easier?

Somatic Exercises stimulates your brain.

For professional athletes, a short routine of Somatic Exercises is an excellent use of movement differentiation. You move slowly as you focus on sensory awareness and proprioception. You practice movements you probably think you don’t need to practice (like side bending, twisting, moving the shoulders and hips in different directions). You’ll find that those different movements help to increase your overall movement mastery, with less force and struggle.

Visit the Essential Somatics® store to purchase DVDs or Move Without Pain!

Is Yoga Dangerous? Not When Done Somatically

In an article called “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” by William J. Broad the question of  yoga injuries is discussed. Many yoga teachers are hesitant to admit that they suffer from injuries. Yoga in its original form is a true somatic discipline (“somatic” meaning being aware of what it feels like to be you). The way it is taught in most yoga studios in the United States is more like fitness than mindful, somatic movement.

For many Yoga students the element of somatic awareness is completely absent. The goal for many is to look like the teacher and get into the posture no matter what. This is how injuries occur.

“Athleticized” Yoga causes injury.

The rise in Yoga injuries and muscle pain says more about the way in which many embrace Yoga than it does about (most) Yoga postures. This is similar to Thomas Hanna’s contention about the source of most back pain:

“The prevalence of back pain has everything to do with the kind of lives that we live and the kind of society in which we live.”

We live in a culture that “athleticizes” everything, and Yoga is high on the list. Yoga can be practiced in a non-competitive way with the sole goal being one of mastering movement and improving posture and breathing. So can life. The answer lies in the awareness of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

3 Ways People Get Injured in Yoga

#1 They have Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) and don’t know it. As you attempt to perform a Yoga movement, some muscles won’t lengthen fully, while others over-work. You may be able to do an asana on one side (triangle pose, for example), yet not the same way on the other. You keep stretching and breathing, but the muscles don’t release the way you’re told they should.

#2 They don’t know that they are stuck in a full body reflex pattern of muscular imbalance. SMA presents in patterns of contraction. If you’ve had a trauma, regaining muscular balance, symmetry, and coordination is critical before engaging in any sport – much less yoga.

If you do any sport or vigorous activity when your muscles are stuck in a specific Stress Reflex, you’re bound to get injured sooner or later. Certain muscles will be recruited involuntarily when the muscles you’re supposed to be using can’t function optimally

(Hint: Our major goal in Hanna Somatics is to teach you to reverse SMA as it presents within the three somatic reflex patterns. It’s easy and it gives you back control of your body!)

#3 They over-stretch.

You can read more about my take on stretching here. When you stretch a muscle quickly, or beyond its comfortable length, you will evoke the Stretch Reflex. It is a protective spinal cord reflex which contracts the muscle against the stretch to save it from injury. Over-stretching is a major factor in Yoga injuries, from hamstring pulls to lower back injuries.

Instead, learn to pandiculate. Pandiculation resets the muscle length and restores full muscle function at the brain level. In fact, you can easily learn how to pandiculate many of your Yoga stretches!

Ultimately, if you’re getting injured doing yoga, you’re doing something wrong – or you’re overdoing it.

Hanna Somatics and Yoga complement each other. Hanna Somatics can improve your yoga practice and help you prevent many of the common injuries associated with Yoga.  Many Yoga teachers are in fact becoming Hanna Somatic Exercise Coaches and incorporating Somatic Exercises into their classes.

To learn more about Hanna Somatics and how it can help you eliminate chronic muscle pain and regain balance and symmetry, check out the Essential Somatics® store.

Compression Fractures, Back Pain, and How to Get Relief

I just received this testimonial from a client from upstate New York who came to see me. He learned how compensation to a severe injury experienced had caused muscular pain, and how to begin to reverse it. He is now doing a daily routine of Somatic Exercises to keep the muscles of his back, waist, and hips more relaxed for easier, more comfortable movement. Read his testimonial below…

Trauma compression fracture pain – solved:

I recently suffered my second trauma compression fracture to one of the vertebrae of my back.

The treatment for this fracture was to wear a rigid back brace during all waking activities.  I had significant pain with this injury and needed strong pain killers for two months just to function. Having gone through this healing process five years ago I was familiar with how long it takes to get back to what I would call full functioning. I am a long time Tai Chi student and also enjoy many other physical activities and challenges. As a result of my recent injury I researched body work and decided that Hanna Somatics would be very complimentary to my Tai Chi practice.

I had two private clinical Somatic Education sessions with Martha Peterson in December 2011. Prior to the first session I was not able to lay flat on my back.  Martha worked to help me understand how to move my upper back muscles and I was able for the first time to lay flat on my back. During the second session we worked on the Trauma Reflex, specifically with the Side Bend and Hip Hike practices.

After this practice I was able to lie flat with zero pain. This was a huge improvement for me and tears of joy rolled down my cheeks!

As the days have passed there is still much work and healing for me. I know all this is a process of two steps forward and one step back. From my own experience of teaching Tai Chi and healing from injuries, I recognize that Martha is a superior and passionate practitioner. I look forward to future work with Martha and know that each session will be an adventure in healing and gaining control of how to move effectively with less pain.

Thank you Martha!

D.L., People Manager, Anheuser-Busch