The Fastest Route to a Pain-free Body: Clinical Hanna Somatics sessions

Janet (not her real name) came to my office this week complaining of hip pain. Walking upstairs was painful and laborious – and she was only in her 30’s.  She had, as she put it, “a list a mile long of things I’ve tried” in her search for long term pain relief.  “I’m told I have piriformis syndrome. If I could just get my right buttock to relax, I think I could finally begin to feel better,” she said.

In a Clinical Somatics session that focused on the Trauma Reflex, Janet learned – very quickly – to release her tight waist muscles, ribcage and trunk rotators.I taught her to release the entire pattern of contraction that was causing her buttock to spasm: her tight buttock, abdominals and abductor muscles. Working with sensory feedback from my hand, she contracted these muscles as a pattern, then slowly released them into a fuller, more relaxed length. This technique is called assisted pandiculation – it resets the muscle control, function and length at the level of the central nervous system.  Twice more she pandiculated those same muscles, until she reached her own comfortable limit, flopping her leg inward easily.  She also learned the Back Lift to begin to relax her tightly contracted back muscles.

What happened next took me by surprise:

She began to yell, “Oh my God, oh my God! I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it!”

“Are you alright? Does anything hurt?” I asked. She’d scared me!

“No, no, no, it’s just that I finally relaxed my buttock! I’ve been saying this all along and nobody believed me! This is my eureka moment!

Janet left the office with an ability to move her hips in a way she hadn’t been able to for eight years.

Most muscle pain problems are functional in nature, not structural

Why did this clinical Somatics session help her when years of physical therapy, trigger point therapy, massage, acupuncture and medical treatments hadn’t? Because Janet’s problem wasn’t structural; it was functional. She suffered from Sensory Motor Amnesia, the habituated compensatory response to two traumatic accidents. Her muscles had learned to adapt, resulting in a twisted pelvis, altered gait and tight hip joint.  As Janet learned to release the entire pattern of tightness on her right side (and compensatory tightness on her other side) and improve the function of her muscles, her hip pain abated, and her muscle coordination and balance improved.

Janet wasn’t completely out of pain. She has more to learn and practice in order to change her old way of holding her body to a new, more free sense of movement. Her brain’s “new normal” will take time to integrate. In addition to a few more clinical sessions I told her to attend every Hanna Somatic Movement class and workshop she possibly could.  Being free and in control of your movement involves life-long learning. I give this same advice to every client I work with. While private clinical sessions are profoundly and rapidly effective, attending only a few sessions is like taking a few piano lessons and expecting to perform like Chopin or Mozart!

People often ask, “why do I need to come to class if I’m doing private sessions and feel much better?” The answer is simple: life is dynamic, as is movement. Every day there is the possibility of change and stress. Classes gives you the opportunity to learn more, differentiate your brain and movement, and become more skillful. Learning to override old habits and takes time! The more you sense and feel as you move, the more you can learn. The more you can learn, the more you can master. The more you master an awareness of yourself, from the inside out, the more adaptable and resilient you will be throughout your life. Eventually efficient movement will become your brain’s default mode as you become more self-monitoring, self-correcting, and self-healing. Varying your daily Somatic Movement routine with classes and workshops and fun, functional movement makes your brain smarter and keeps you out of pain.

Click here to find a workshop, class or training near you.

Click here to purchase Martha’s Pain Relief videos.

Why Is One Leg Shorter Than The Other? The Trauma Reflex!

Here are three frequent questions my clients ask me:

Why do I have one leg shorter than the other?

Why do I have hip pain, knee or foot pain but only on one side?

I’m told that my pelvis is rotated because I have a weak core. Is that true?

The answer:

Leg length discrepancy, one side hip, knee, and foot pain, sciatica, tilted posture, piriformis syndrome, and a rotated pelvic are all the result of an habituated Trauma Reflex. No, the core is not necessarily “weak.” It is likely so strong and tight – within the pattern of the Trauma Reflex – that the center of the body cannot fully relax, rotate and side bend evenly on both sides.

When you respond to any physical trauma, a sudden blow to the body, a slip, fall or crutchesaccident of any kind, the brain instantly, involuntarily, and often violently, contracts the muscles of the waist (the oblique muscles), the trunk rotators (lattisimus dorsii, abdominals, adductors and abductors of the legs) and the muscles that allow the pelvis to swing freely (quadratus lumborum and iliopsoas) in an attempt to avoid injury or to prevent further pain after the accident has occurred. If you’ve ever prevented what could have been a terrible fall you know the wrenching pain that comes with the sudden twisting movement that helps you regain  your balance.

If the accident is severe or violent – a car accident or a sudden slip on the ice, for example – the brain Trauma reflex - frontteaches these muscles to stay tight and contracted. If you injure yourself on one side of your body and need to protect that injured limb until it is healed (as occurs when using crutches), you can inadvertently learn to walk with a limp once the injury is healed. A one-sided job, like sitting at a computer and using the mouse all day with one hand can create a strong imbalance on one side of the body.

When muscles stay tight the brain loses the ability to fully contract and release the muscle. The ability to fully release the muscle is what gives the muscle power. This state of elevated muscle tonus and tension that won’t relax is called Sensory Motor Amnesia. In the case of an habituated Trauma Reflex your brain integrates and organizes this learned and involuntary full-body imbalance into a “neutral” and “balanced” that, as those of you have ever suffered an accident or injury, can sense is out of balance, tilted, rotated and uncomfortable. Not to mention inefficient.

How do you learn to regain symmetry and balance in the center of your body? Muscles that have learned to stay tight and contracted due to stress must learn to relax, release, and move freely again. It’s muscle reeducation. Many people can benefit from one-on-one clinical sessions with a qualified Somatic Educator skilled in the methods of Thomas Hanna. However, many people can also easily learn to do this on their own, at home.

The video below can help you learn to lengthen both sides of the waist evenly so you can regain your internal awareness (“somatic” awareness) and proprioception for improved balance and a smoother gait. This easy awareness exercise is best done after you learn to relax and release the waist muscles by doing arch and flatten, the side bend and the washrag.

To learn more Hanna Somatic Exercises and learn to relieve muscle pain and improve mobility, and somatic awareness, you can purchase my Pain-Free series of DVDs. Enjoy the video and enjoy standing tall!

Piriformis Syndrome Part 2 – Releasing the Iliopsoas Muscle Video

Here’s what WebMD has to say about piriformis syndrome:

Piriformis syndrome usually starts with pain, tingling, or numbness in the buttocks. Pain can be severe and extend down the length of the sciatic nerve (called sciatica). The pain is due to the piriformis muscle compressing the sciatic nerve, such as while sitting on a car seat or running. Pain may also be triggered while climbing stairs, applying firm pressure directly over the piriformis muscle, or sitting for long periods of time.

From a Hanna Somatic Education point of view, piriformis syndrome is just another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia.

Piriformis syndrome is caused by habituation of the Trauma Reflex, a full-body reflex pattern that is evoked in response to an accident, injury, surgery, or one-sided repetitive movement. The muscles of the waist and trunk rotators (the obliques, lats, abdominals, iliopsoas muscle, adductors, and abductors) become chronically contracted on one side of the body, causing the pelvis to hike and/or rotate slightly. This pattern of muscular imbalance causes the piriformis muscle to involuntarily over-contract in an effort to maintain balance. Piriformis syndrome is in the same category as neck and shoulder problems, plantar fasciitis, chronic back pain, TMJ, sciatica, or joint stiffness. It’s a functional muscle problem in need of a functional solution: sensory motor retraining of the brain to muscle connection in order to teach the frozen, contracted muscles involved in the pattern of piriformis syndrome to relax and release. The end result is relaxed and coordinated muscles, restored muscle function, a greater sense of body awareness, and no more pain.

Try these simple self-assessment tools to become aware of how piriformis syndrome is being created in your body:

  • Stand in the mirror and take a look at yourself. Are your shoulders level?
  • Close your eyes and sense the weight into each leg. Is it the same on both side?
  • Put your hands at the waistline, right on the top of the pelvis. Are your hips level?
  • Lay on your back and lift your legs up to 90 degrees above your hips. Look at your ankle bones. Do they meet, or is one ankle bone higher than the other?

If you notice imbalances in your posture, then you know that your movement habits are causing your pelvis to twist or tilt and your back and buttock muscles to work harder on one side than the other. Hanna Somatics can teach you to change that.

A daily routine of Hanna Somatic Exercises to prepare your body for movement is the first step to reversing the pain of piriformis syndrome.

A Somatic movement practice reinforces more optimal movement patterns. You will learn to move more efficiently when your muscles are fully under the control of your brain. There are times when it’s necessary to tweak these exercises, or target the offending muscles a bit more directly.

Remember that it’s never just one muscle causing the problem when you find yourself out of balance or moving inefficiently. In the video below you will engage muscles that would normally coordinate together with the piriformis.  Have a look and try them out for yourself. Let me know how it goes.

Visit the Essential Somatics® store for easy-to-follow instructional DVDs. Learning the basic movements of Somatics goes a long way toward educating you and your muscles to get rid of chronic back, neck, shoulder, hip, knee, foot or joint pain – and keep yourself moving pain-free for the rest of your life.

How to Regain Your Form: Horseback Riding, Falls, and the Trauma Reflex

I got bucked off of a horse and landed hard enough on my right hip to warrant a trip to the ER. Luckily, nothing was wrong in the x-rays. Fast forward a few years and I started to notice pain in my hip flexors when riding. I would get off of the horse and feel stiff – more on the right than the left. Years went by and my pain included both hips, and back pain. When I sit for a long period of time, I stand up like a 90 year old woman. When I read through your website, I find myself feeling like someone can finally describe my pain!

“Laura” came to me for Hanna Somatics because she realized that her back and hip pain was probably due to Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) – the condition of chronically contracted muscles that results from muscular adaptation to stress (accidents, injuries, repetitive movement). She wanted to learn to relax her back and hip joint muscles, which had become taut and painful from years of compensating from her original riding accident as well as from long hours in the car and at the computer.

A fall off a horse evokes the trauma reflex and contributes to hip, neck, and shoulder pain.

Laura had developed a typical, habituated Trauma Reflex pattern of compensation: one side of her waist muscles and trunk rotators was tighter than the other side. This occurred due to her sudden fall off her horse many years earlier. Her brain – the command center of the muscles – had forgotten how to control her muscles and no matter what she did to try and relax them, nothing gave her long-term relief. This is a common response to an accident.

In order to ride she had developed compensatory patterns that enabled her to stay on the horse, even though one hip couldn’t move as well as the other. Her brain had expertly compensated by over-tightening her hip flexors as she rode, sat at her computer, or drove her car.

Laura also had slightly slumped and tight shoulders – indicative of the Red Light Reflex pattern. She said she had been kicked by a horse and knocked flat on her back on the ground. She was stuck in a dark vise of muscular contraction, as occurs with whiplash. Fluid movement of the spine was almost impossible.

When the back muscles are too tight, one’s riding form is stiff. The back doesn’t relax and coordinate with the muscles of the front of the body. The brain recruits muscles it doesn’t need to help you stay balanced on your horse. The horse no doubt senses your tension and you ride as if you had the emergency brake on. Neither horse nor rider is happy.

The only long-term solution is to retrain the muscles of the back, waist, and front of the body to relax and lengthen again. This will restore proper balance, symmetry and muscular coordination.

Here are some conditions that are the result of an habituated trauma reflex:

  • Sciatica
  • Restricted and painful hip joint
  • Leg length discrepancy
  • Loss of balance due to uneven weight distribution/tilted posture
  • Piriformis syndrome
  • Uneven gait, with more pressure into one hip/knee/foot
  • Knee pain
  • Plantar fasciitis

Laura, my equestrian client, learned to use the technique of pandiculation to relax and lengthen her back, waist, and hip muscles. This eliminated her pain because her brain learned to voluntarily release and relax the muscles that had been tightly and painfully contracted. She now practices the gentle, easy Somatic Movements I taught her to do at home; these movements reinforce the brain’s ability to self-correct should stress threaten to take over.

Despite her car commute and long hours at the computer, Laura is moving well and back in control of her body. No more visits to the chiropractor, physical therapist or doctor for her pain! Horseback riding is also still very much a part of her life – but now it’s easier to do.

To learn to relieve muscle pain easily and rapidly on your own, check out the Essential Somatics® store.


Pain Relief from Piriformis Syndrome: A Somatic Approach

It’s never just one muscle that causes your muscle pain.

It doesn’t matter if you have sciatica, piriformis syndrome, plantar fasciitis or even a herniated disc. You aren’t a jumble of separate body parts randomly put together; you’re a living, breathing, constantly changing system, controlled by the brain and coordinated to move as a whole, efficient, coordinated system. That’s the way your sensory motor system sees it. I know it often can feel like, “if I can only relax my X muscle, then my life would be grand.” It would be nice if that were the case, but it’s not.

Yes, you can have a piriformis muscle that feels like the culprit, but it’s important to ask yourself: Why is my piriformis muscle only hurting on one side of my body?

Muscle pain is the result of a FULL BODY PATTERN of contraction.

Once you learn to regain control of the painful muscle and its synergists, then you can regain efficient, effortless movement as well as pain relief for that pesky piriformis.

In the case of piriformis syndrome the unconscious part of the brain (the part responsible for habits/learned movement/reflexes) is contracting the piriformis constantly because the pelvis is out of balance – twisted and rotated in most cases. This is called a Trauma Reflex.

Most people don’t consider the connection between the command center (our brain) and what our muscles are doing. Our muscles do not have a mind of their own – they respond only to the brain. In order to release all muscles involved in the pattern of the Trauma Reflex and regain balance in the center of the body, you will learn:

  • Which movement pattern got you into the problem in the first place
  • How to prevent your pain from coming back (Somatic Exercises!)
  • How to be more aware of your body as you move on a daily basis
  • How to create more efficient and coordinated movement

Below is a video clip about how to address piriformis syndrome from a somatic perspective. For those of you who already have my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD, you’ll see that I’m giving you some pointers for the Back Lift, and a variation for the Steeple Twist that specifically helps for piriformis syndrome.

Why Am I Limping, and Is It Cause For Concern?

Many clients have posture that is “out of balance”; their hips and pelvis are not level, their leg length is uneven, their gait is not smooth. Some clients have said, “Just the other day someone asked me why I was limping, and I never even noticed I limped… all I know is that my back is killing me!”

They’re not concerned about their limp, because their limp feels “normal.” This feeling of “out of balance” feeling “balanced” is an example of Sensory Motor Amnesia, in which the brain literally forgets how to sense, move and control muscles efficiently. We compensate, habituate and adapt to what happens to us in life (accidents/injuries are common) so our muscles no longer move freely the way they once did. When you lose awareness of the way in which you move – something that only you can experience – there is cause for concern.

Most of my clients with back, hip or piriformis pain often accompanied by a limp were treated unsuccessfully by physical therapy, bodywork of all kinds, drugs, and cortisone shots. What was missing in their treatment was the simple understanding of how a limp develops as a compensatory, full body pattern, which muscles are involved in the need to limp, and how to reverse the pattern and move freely again. Back, hip joint, knee pain, sciatica and piriformis syndrome pain are common conditions easily reversed with Hanna Somatics.

Limping means the center of your body is out of balance.

When we walk we are meant to walk with a smooth, even gait. Our pelvis is perfectly designed for upright, bipedal locomotion. The more we allow the pelvis to move as we walk, the more efficient and effortless our movement will be and the less joint stress and pain we will have. Below is a great video of balanced, strong walking and upright posture – a necessity for African women carrying items on their heads.

This kind of natural movement is “the norm” until something occurs to change that.

When we have an accident – a slip on the ice, a fall on our coccyx, or a bone break – the involuntary part of our brain immediately contracts certain muscles of the trunk to protect that area. This is called the Trauma Reflex. We learn to compensate until the injury is healed. The latissimus, obliques, adductors, abductors and abdominal muscles all contract instantly, in a pattern, as we twist and rotate in an attempt to regain our balance or protect our injured limb – as in the photo at right.

This kind of functional problem of one side of the waist and trunk tighter than the other can, over time, create true structural damage, like hip joint pain, labral tears, osteoarthritis, and hip joint impingement.

The Trauma Reflex causes us to limp, putting more weight into one side of the body.

When you get stuck in this particular stress reflex, pain isn’t far behind. You begin to walk like a car with one flat tire, galumphing from side to side. The easiest way to reverse a limp is to get the brain back in control of the muscles. Those who have had an accident or injury would be wise to seek the clinical help of a skilled guidance of a Certified Hanna (Clinical) Somatic Educator for a series of clinical sessions in order to restore full muscle function and movement.

Somatic Exercises for limping

For those who own my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD, the following exercises focus on the waist muscles/trunk rotators, and are excellent for helping to restore a free and balanced gait:

  • Side bend – releases and lengthens the waist muscles for equal movement of the pelvis.
  • Washrag – brings in gentle twisting of the pelvis, and shoulders, as the waist lengthens
  • Human X* – the quintessential movement of “crawling,” which lengthens both sides of the body
  • Steeple twist* – increases the ability to twist and lengthen the center of the body – back, abdominals, waist
  • Walking exercises, part 1 & 2* – freeing the pelvis and reintegrating a healthy pattern of walking.
  • Hip lift and reach – from my Pain-Free Leg and Hip Joints DVD

* found on the Pain Relief Through Movement DVD

How To Relieve That Pain in the… Glutes

Yesterday I got an email from an attorney who’d bought my DVD several months ago:

Your first DVD was great. For months, I had a recurring pain at the top of my right glute, which radiated down my leg. After figuring out which Somatic Exercises worked best to relieve the tightness and regain the ability to relax the muscle, the pain is gone and if it recurs, I know how to relieve it.

I asked him which Somatic Exercises were the ones he’d figured out worked best for him. His answer was:

  • Cross lateral arch and curl
  • Walking lessons, part 2

People are individuals, yet all humans’ brains respond the same way to stress. This is the beauty of Thomas Hanna’s discoveries. Every human being tightens the back or front of the body, or the side of the body when responding to stress, be it mental, emotional, or physical.

I created my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD so that people could learn to relieve pain on their own, at home. It’s great to hear from those, like the customer above, who has devoted time to getting to know his body again, and refining his physical awareness (proprioception) in order to figure out where his Sensory Motor Amnesia was and how to reverse it rapidly. I believe this can occur when we FEEL our Somatic Exercises, rather than simply DO them. When you FEEL your movement, you know what works for you and what doesn’t.

FEELING is different from DOING

When we DO something, our attention is often more in our head than in our body. I’ve seen many students “perform” the Somatic Exercises more concerned as to whether they’re “doing them correctly” than to “what the movement FEELS like as they do it.  When feeling and sensing, rather than rote “doing” is the medium, you’ll find the results to be superior. Feeling and sensing opens the channels of learning. Your brain starts to coordinate your muscles in such a way that the movement becomes easier and easier to do. It’s much like a deer treading a path in the forest.

Here are a few pointers about the benefit of these two movements for anyone with pain in their gluteal muscles – especially in the gluteus minimus, at the “top” of the buttocks:

Cross Lateral Arch and Curl

This exercise creates more rounding through the front of the body on a diagonal plane, which helps to further lengthen the back muscles on the diagonal. Not only do you lengthen through the upper back to curl yourself up, elbow toward the opposite knee, but you also release the lower back muscles on the side of the knee that curls up toward the elbow. If the top of your buttocks (glut minimus) is tight and painful, this movement will help release the lower back and the buttock as they coordinate together.

Walking Exercises, Part 2

This movement, done after “Part 1,” which I call the “knee dropping inward” movement – reminds the pelvis that it can move in a nice rocking movement, as it should when we walk. The back muscles, waist, and abdominals all lengthen to allow the leg and knee to move over the foot, as would occur in walking. Many of us learn to keep our pelvis rigid when we walk. This makes for clunky, inefficient walking, and contributes to hip pain. We don’t want to walk like “America’s Next Top Model,” but it’s important to allow the hips and pelvis to move slightly in walking. For those with buttock pain, this movement reminds the muscles of the core to lengthen and relax as they coordinate together to move the pelvis. The buttock contracts slightly in this exercise, as it coordinates the walking movement.

Learn these movements, and many more using my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.