Movement to Clear the Mind and Reawaken the Body

This New Yorker article reflects my experience exactly.

Recently I took a long hike in, Snowdonia, North Wales. This part of the IMG_5277world is a completely new landscape for me. The weather, windy and rainy, was weather I avoid at all costs when hiking. This time, however, I embarked on a hike up Mt. Snowdon, the tallest mountain in Wales, and decided to not let the weather get in my way. My experience was unlike any hike I’d taken in years: new smells, shifting clouds and light patterns, and terrain that challenged my brain and balance. The best part of the hike is that I took it with a dear friend.

According to Dr. John Ratey in his book, Spark, I had just experienced one of the most useful and effective activities one could ever have for the brain –  the winning combination of:

  • vigorous physical exercise
  • done outdoors in nature
  • with another person, preferably a good friend

Not only does movement, outside in nature, with another person, strengthen our physical body, but it changes our brains and can be a defense against ADHD, depression, Alzheimer’s and other issues.

There is nothing that clears my mind and helps me attune to my movement and mental state the way hiking and walking does. There’s no time for mental chatter; the movement and sensory appreciation of the surroundings takes precedence. What is it about moving – in nature – that changes the way one feels? Is it just the physical exertion? The beautiful surroundings? The smells? The sounds of nature, so unfamiliar to those of us living in the suburbs or inner city? Or was it all of the above, a sensory and motor experience that can only be had when one puts one foot in front of the other and leaves the city and concrete behind? For some it’s not only the movement, but IMG_3267the way in which it is done.

My daughter, her friend and I were hiking last year in New Hampshire. My daughter tends to have problems finding shoes that fit comfortably. Blisters are an intimate friend. A third of the way up the mountain my daughter said, “oh man, these boots are giving me blisters!!” I replied, “you can go back, but I’m continuing on up. Or you can take off those boots and finish the hike barefoot. That might be fun!” And she did; she continued up and climbed all the way back down. When we reached the bottom she remarked that hiking barefoot over rocks, gravel and dirt had given her a completely different appreciation of her feet, her legs, her hips and her gait. In fact, she said, her whole body felt different!

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, writes that exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development as well as for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. From my own personal experience I couldn’t agree more.

The Mystery of “Muscle Knots” Solved: Sensory Motor Amnesia

There is some confusion as to what “muscle knots” are and where they come from. This article from the New York Times posits: “How do they happen and how can they be prevented? Are they harmful and should they be treated?” Allow me to answer these questions in the simplest way possible:

“Muscle knots” are not mysterious; they are areas of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA)

Sensory Motor Amnesia is habituated muscle tension that develops when we become habituated to stress and/or certain ways of moving. These areas of accumulated, learned muscular tension are stuck at the level of the central nervous system and cannot, physiologically, release and relax.

If you’ve ever had back, neck or shoulder pain and gone to a massage therapist to work the knots out of your back, only to have the knots return, it seems that there is little that can be done. Not so. The reason these knots seem to stick around despite the best massage therapist’s effort, and why they don’t show up on scans and MRIs is because what is happening in the muscle is a neurological event in the brain – a functional problem of the sensory motor system. SMA is not a medical problem that can be diagnosed through conventional medical methods. It is a functional  problem of the sensory motor system that can be easily “unlearned” through Hanna Somatic Education.brain-side

Muscle knots can be prevented first and foremost by understanding how SMA develops in your brain due to repetitive stress responses and/or repetitive, habituated movement habits. Muscles have two functions: contract and relax. When muscles can no longer fully relax this is an indication that you have accumulated muscle tension that you are no longer fully aware of. The only way to fully release these “knots” is to make sure that the brain is fully in control of the muscles.

Muscles knots are only harmful when they get in the way of free, efficient movement.

Movement is medicine, movement is life, and painful muscle tension can cause you to move less efficiently and, for most people, minimize the amount of movement you do. In order to live a healthy, free life we need to be able to move strongly, vigorously, and with endurance for as long as we live. If you’re not planning on moving a lot then muscle knots won’t hurt you. The lack of movement will, however.

Treatment of tight muscles doesn’t work. Reeducation of tight muscles does.

If you want to untie a knot, you must look at the cord carefully then gently undo the tangle. Yanking on the cord will only make the knot tighter.

– Thomas Hanna

Muscle knots can’t really be “treated” successfully – for the long term.  Treatment is what bodyworkers and doctors do when they attempt to fix tight muscles (or postural imbalances) from the outside; there are therapists who can help provide short term relief, yet muscle tension Pandiculation demonstrated (1)develops from the inside out (Sensory Motor Amnesia) and, since humans are self-regulating, self-sensing beings, not cars or bicycles that need fixing, their muscles must be educated so they can contract and release fully in order to get rid of muscle knots.

Through active involvement of the brain – rather than through manual manipulation – people can more easily and safely learn to  eliminate muscle knots, restore full muscle function in all planes of gravity and prevent them from coming back by doing three simple things:

  • Become aware of your daily movement habits and reflexive responses to stress. Repetitive contraction of muscles without full relaxation creates muscle knots.
  • Learn to pandiculate instead of stretch. Animals pandiculate up to 40 times a day!
  • If you have chronic muscle tension, learn how to eliminate your patterns of Sensory Motor Amnesia with a daily routine of Somatic Exercises**

Muscle knots are not an inevitable part of life; they are a symptom of stress adaptation.

**You can also learn to eliminate your patterns of SMA through a series of hands-on clinical Somatics sessions with a skilled and certified practitioner.

Freedom and Habits: Can They Exist at the Same Time?

How easily we allow our old habits and set patterns to dominate us! Even though they bring us suffering, we accept them with almost fatalistic resignation, for we are so used to giving in to them. We may idealize freedom, but when it comes to our habits, we are completely enslaved. Still, reflection can slowly bring us wisdom. We may, of course, fall back into fixed repetitive patterns again and again, but slowly we can emerge from them and change.

While this quote comes from Rigpa, a Buddhist website, it is the same philosophy underpinning Hanna Somatics. From a Hanna Somatics perspective it means that set patterns and habits, while useful in many ways, can dominate our posture and movement if we are unaware of them and unable to control them.  The fixed habits of walking that develop through trial and error as toddlers are critically important. They allow us the freedom to move forward in life. Yet, when other habits take over and become fixed patterns, like slumping at the computer, gritting our teeth when we’re angry, tightening our bellies when we’re anxious, contracting our back muscles as we rush through our busy lives – we gradually lose our sense of well-being and our freedom. Unconscious habits can change who we are.  getty-cartwheel

Habitual responses to stress become muscular habits at the level of our brain and nervous system. Once we develop a habit we are helpless to change it until we spend thoughtful time becoming aware of:

  • What the habit feels like (back pain, hip pain, sciatica, neck pain).
  • How it shows up in our bodies (slumped shoulders, face forward, leg length discrepancy).
  • How it is limiting us (“I used to dance and now it just hurts my hip… I can only walk a few blocks and then my back gives out…”).

Many people feel defeated: “Well, I’m not getting any younger.” “It’s all down hill from here…” or “I probably ache because of my age.” Many accept their unfortunate limitations with fatalistic resignation. They feel trapped and frustrated by muscle pain and few sensible solutions as they seek a solution to their pain “out there” – massage therapy, bodywork, physical therapy, the latest trends and remedies to relax muscles. They don’t realize that in most cases the answer lies within their own brain and sensory motor system, and how an awareness of what they’re doing repeatedly, (whether emotional, physical or psychological) can be the piece of the puzzle that they’re missing.

This is the message of Hanna Somatics: freedom comes through awareness of one’s ability to sense and control oneself from the inside out as they move through life. It is a patient and persistent practice of awareness – of what it feels like to be you, how your old habits have created habits of pain and limitation, the meaning you have given to what has happened to you over the years, and how you can change limitation to freedom – on your own, from the inside out. We need habits in our lives; they create a necessary element of stability – in movement. It’s whether these habits serve us or not that is the question.

What does freedom look and feel like to you?

Movement Mornings: Do You Start Your Day With Movement?

I am always inspired when I meet people whose curiosity about movement takes them into exploration outside the box. One such person is the ever-curious Panayiotis Karabetis of Movement Mornings. I was a recent guest on his podcast  and we had a blast recording it. Here are some highlights from our discussion:IMG_4689

  • Pandiculation vs. Stretching
  • How to move “somatically”
  • Martha’s 3 should’s in life
  • Moshe Feldenkrais and Thomas Hanna
  • A brief history and explanation of Hanna Somatics
  • Sensory Motor Amnesia
  • Making room for play in your life is important
  • Falling apart as we get older is a choice
  • Pain-free moving starts with walking

Click here to listen and enjoy!

Here’s what Panayiotis has to say about Movement Mornings and its dedication to sharing the good news about movement:

As movers, we’re motivated by a unique force that makes our fidgety goals impossible to ignore and that’s what Movement Mornings sets out to explore. Each month, we dive into the morning routine of influential people in the movement community to share new insights and inspire us to get better at what we love doing most: moving!