How your Brain sees your Body

The Sensory and Motor Homunculus Men
The Sensory and Motor Homunculus Men

What is the deal with these weird looking figures? Why are they proportioned the way they are? Why the giant hands? And the oversized mouths? And what does it have to do with our brain? Lets investigate…

These figures are called the Sensory and Motor Homonculus Men. They are proportioned like this to illustrate how much of the sensory cortex and the motor cortex is devoted to sensing and moving the different areas of the body. So the hands and mouth are oversized because large areas of the brain are given over to operating the hands and mouth.

The Sensory Motor Cortex (below) is the part of your brain that deals with sensing (sensory) and moving (motor) your muscles.

SMA Brain Diagram
The Sensory Motor Cortex

Different areas of the sensory motor cortex are responsible for sensing and moving different parts of your body. The diagram below is called a sensory motor homunculus, it maps out which parts of the sensory motor cortex sense and move which body parts. The sensory homunculus (blue) receives information from the muscles regarding muscle tension/length, joint angles, load etc. The motor homunculus (red) sends motor commands back to the relevant muscles based on the aforementioned sensory information.

Sensory Motor Homunculus Map

The commands from the motor cortex are a signal to the muscles to either increase the level of tension (contract), reduce the level of tension (relax) or maintain the level of tension. This back and forth of information, from the brain to the muscles, creates a sensory motor feedback loop. Sensory input arrives from the muscles into the sensory cortex > motor impluses exits the motor cortex and go back to the muscles > sensory input in > motor impulses out… and round and round it goes.

As you can see from the image above, your hands and face/mouth/tongue take up a huge part of both the sensory cortex and the motor cortex. Physically they may be small but neurologically they are massive. This makes sense when you begin to consider a) the many, many ways which we can use our hands and the very fine control we have over them and b) the fine control of the mouth, tongue and larynx that is required to speak.

Handwriting for example, requires a huge amount of brain processing power to be executed correctly. Perhaps that is why learning to write is such a laborious process. Writing, drawing, painting, playing an instrument, carving, pottery, sculpting all these activites require great skill and sensorimotor control of the hands. So to do any sort of fine work with the hands is to use and stimulate large portions of the sensory motor cortex of the brain. This suggests that the old saying “to be good with your hands” should maybe be understood as “to be good with your brain.” A point that is well illustrated in this interesting article that asks “Why does writing make us smarter?”

Interestingly the advent of computers, smartphones and touch screens has led to a sharp decline in real world hands-on skills being practiced. Now we seem to do everything virtually, on a computer screen. We have begun to use our hands mostly to tap keys and swipe screens, and in doing so we have reduced somewhat, the amount of stimulation that the sensory motor cortex receives. If we are not using our hands to their full potential, then maybe we are not using our brains to their full potential. I wonder what the long term implications of this will be on us and our society? As the old saying goes “Use it or lose it”. Only time will tell.

But for now let’s get back to the sensory motor cortex. As noted previously, another very large portion, approximately one third of the sensory motor cortex, is devoted to the sensing and controlling of the face, mouth, lips, tongue and larynx. Again this makes sense when we consider that as humans we speak. Speech requires a great deal of brain power to orchestrate. The lips, tongue and larnyx have to coordinate with our diaphragm in order to deliver intelligible speech or in a further refinement, to sing.

So with one third of the sensory motor cortex dedicated to the hands and another one third of the sensory motor cortex dedicated to the face/mouth/lips/tongue/larynx, there is only one third left. Just one single third of your sensory motor cortex devoted to the largest parts of the body! Your trunk, spine, hips, shoulders and limbs.

That is comparatively a very small section of the sensory motor cortex that is responsible for sensing and moving a very large area of the body.  Is it any wonder then, that the areas of our bodies that have the least cortical (brain) representation are the same areas that are most susceptible to movement deficits and muscular pain? Back pain, hip pain, shoulder pain anyone?

The trunk, hips, shoulders, and neck are supported by a very small section of the cortex. This means less processing power for a large area of the body. This being the case it would make sense that we might have to spend a little more time maintaining our brains control over these parts of our body, making sure the modest amount of the sensory motor cortex that is apportioned to these areas is stimulated regularly.

Movement of all and any kind provides massive amounts of stimulation and sensory information to the brain. We traditionally think of information as purely intellectual, words, numbers, facts, data etc. But for your sensory motor cortex, MOVEMENT IS INFORMATION. And the more information your brain has about your body, the better you can sense and organise your movement.

So how can we help ourselves in this regard? A Somatic movement practice is a great place to start. Practicing somatic movements slowly and smoothly allows us to re-establish, maintain and refine our sensory awareness and our motor control. By relearning how to move our trunk and spine comfortably through their normal and natural ranges of motion. Then when basic control has been re-established, we can get on with enjoying our favourite acvtivities whatever they may be. (Running, walking, lifting, climbing, dancing, yoga, gardening, tennis, the options are endless).

You can start learning how to do all this right now by checking out the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel. If you’d like some help with a particular movement or muscular pain I offer online 1-1s via Zoom. No matter where you are in the world, it’s never been easier to Learn Somatics. So take advantage today.

As always thanks for reading.

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The Clues in Our Language

Look at the words and phrases below, think about what they describe, what do you notice?

Uptight, high strung, wound up, uneasy, nervy, restless.

All these words imply tightness or tension, and as we know, tension is always muscular tension. There seems to be a subliminal understanding, clearly reflected in our language, that excessive tension is negative, or at least unhelpful.

Now lets look at words/phrases that mean the opposite.

Calm, easy-going, laid-back, unworried, at ease, peaceful.

Again an implicit understanding that an absence of tension is a positive or at least more favorable state.

Which of these sets of words or phrases best describe you?

You can learn how to release muscular tension, resolve muscle pain and relieve stress through the practice of Somatic movements. Check out the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel to start right now. Need help? Take an online 1-1 session with me.

Photo by Clarissa Watson on Unsplash

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The Fine Art of Relaxation

What does it mean to be relaxed? How can we define relaxation? It can be a somewhat elusive notion.

A quick google of the definition provides the following:

‘the state of being free from tension and anxiety.’

There’s that word again – tension. And anxiety too! So to be relaxed is to be in a state that is free from tension and anxiety.

So how could we practice relaxation?

What might this relaxation practice look like?

It seem we’d have to be practicing how to be free from tension or anxiety. That means we’d have to know how to reduce tension and calm anxiety.

Most advice around how to relax is quite vague. Many practices are suggested without any clear description of how EXACTLY these practices help you to achieve relaxation. That is not to say that they don’t, suggestions such as Tai Chi, Chi Gung, Yoga, Massage, Meditation, etc are all perfectly valid but the HOW is never really explained in any real way. The question remains as to what are the mechanisms that lead to the relaxation. These mechanisms seem to be poorly understood, or at least poorly explained.

From a Somatic perspective to ‘relax’ is to relax YOUR MUSCLES. If your muscles are relaxed you will feel relaxed. If your muscles are tense you will feel tense and perhaps anxious. This is the giant elephant in the room.

It is impossible to feel relaxed when your muscles are held tight and tense. Conversely it is impossible to feel stressed/anxious when your muscles are relaxed.

So, If we had a means of relaxing our muscles quickly and easily we could use that to ‘relax’.

This is where a Somatic Movement practice comes in. A clear, concise way to literally relax and lengthen our muscles swiftly, with the added bonus of improved sensory awareness and motor control.

Somatic Movements are full body pandiculations. First, you deliberately TENSE your muscles. They’re already tight anyway, we may aswell tighten them on purpose. This reestablishes the neural connection between your brain and your muscles. This action in and of itself puts the muscles back under your voluntary control. Then you SLOWLY AND DELIBERATELY RELEASE THAT TENSION until your muscles are back at rest, relaxed. You have just used your brain to very deliberately ‘relax’ your muscles. If the untightening phase of the movement is not smooth. You simply repeat it and focus on taking out the bumps. Usually 3-4 repeats will provide an immediately perceptible difference to your sense of relaxation, softness, comfort and control. And the more skilled you become at doing this, the easier it becomes. It is a learning process. You can learn how to relax.

Once you have actually relaxed your muscles by pandiculating, doing things like getting a massage or meditating or tai chi or taking a walk etc. will be even more enjoyable and effective.

You need to BE relaxed in the first place to get the most out of many of the practices touted as good for relaxation.

As Thomas Hanna once said, “It’s hard to meditate with a crick in your neck”.

So if you are looking for a way to “relax” after a hard day at work, a tough training session or a stressful life experience you could Learn Somatics. You’ve nothing to lose, except your tension!

You can try this right now using these short Somatic movement playlists I’ve created for you on YouTube.

This one is for all of the muscles of the back of the body.

And this one for the muscles of the front of the body.

See if you don’t feel more relaxed after practicing them.

Enjoy, and as always thanks for reading.

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

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How do YOU walk?

Walking. It’s so simple. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. It’s one of those things you don’t really think about too much, or at all. That is, until you can’t do it any more, or it causes you pain and discomfort.

Walking upright on two legs is a quintessentially human characteristic. No other creature on earth walks like we do.

Well except for this guy, sometimes you just gotta strut!

Upright bipedal locomotion walking requires a different type of brain than that which is required for quadrupedal locomotion. So the fact that human brains are unique and our method of locomotion is unique are not coincidental. Daniel Wolport maintains that the only reason you (or any other creatures) have a brain is to organise movement. And the most fundamental human movement is upright walking. There are of course two other distinctly human characteristics we could discuss here. Namely speech/language and opposable thumbs. But I will save them for another day.

The entire first 0-24 months of our lives is a self-guided, self-directed developmental journey towards walking. Almost everyone learns to walk purely through a process of trial and error movement exploration. We learn to roll over, sit, crawl, and eventually walk, and run. And all of this before we ever learn how to think. Movement proficiency first, cognitive development second. Hmmm….

Compare this to the quadrupedal animals that can walk within moments of birth. Interestingly it is generally prey animals that can walk immediately, for obvious reasons; to escape predators. Predators can take a bit longer as their parents will provide food and protection in the meantime. Just like humans.

But how do you walk? Do you walk well? Can you walk freely and comfortably? That is, can you walk for long distances without getting fatigued? Or experiencing pain and/or stiffness? Or maybe you don’t walk much at all because it causes pain or discomfort.

Look at the soles of a pair of your shoes that you walk in a lot? Are the wear patterns symmetrical? If they’re not why do you think that is?

Do you wear high heels a lot? Do you think wearing them changes the way you walk? Do they make your feet/ankles/knees/hips or even your neck, hurt? Do you think that might be problematic in the long run?

Because walking is such a fundamental movement pattern it makes a fantastic means of assessment. In Somatics we use walking as a before and after. Why? Because it can tell us an awful lot about how free or stiff our bodies are and how much unneccesary muscular tension we may be holding. The three reflexes, when habituated, also have a very strong influence on our gait/walking pattern. Being unable to walk freely can indicate an injury, disability or simply excessive muscular tension.

Have you ever thought about how you walk? Why would you, you’ve been doing it for years. But walking smoothly and freely requires you to be relaxed. Particularly in your trunk. The arms should be able to swing freely and the legs too. The shoulder girdle needs to be resting squarely on the ribs and the waist needs to be relaxed so the hips can rotate forward and back and also tip up and down/side to side. Walking ‘freely’ requires you to be ‘free’. And running even more so.

Walking freely is low effort, efficient, smooth, comfortable and can be sustained over long distances easily.

Walking that is not smooth, efficient, comfortable and free cannot be sustained over long distances because it will cause either excessive fatigue, stiffness or pain.

It’s also worth noting that we evolved walking over highly varied and uneven terrain. Beaches, rocks, plains, mountains, sand, stone, grass. The uniform, flat even paths of modern civilisation are a very new phenomenon. Walking over uneven ground is far more demanding than walking on the flat and also requires much more freedom of movement through the trunk and also through the hips and ankles as you have to orient your hips, legs and feet so you can navigate the surface and maintain your balance as you do so.

If you’ve never really thought about how you walk, let me guide you through a Walking assessment via the audio file below. You can listen directly here or download the audio to your device and follow along the next time you go for a walk.

I’d love to hear what you learn from it.

Learn Somatics Walking Assessment – To download: Right click > Save audio as

Don’t forget you can Learn Somatics with me directly from anywhere in the world via 1-1 online Sessions. All you need is an internet connection and enough floor space to lay down.

Thanks for visiting, until next time…

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

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A Tight Belly Means a Tight Body

There is a preoccupation in the modern world with tight toned bellies. In an effort to hold in our bellies we constantly contract the muscles of our stomach and torso, sucking our guts in. As we continue this ritual every day we gradually forget how it feels to let these muscles relax. The feeling of holding our bellies tight becomes ‘normal’.

But what are the implications of habitually tight belly muscles?

  1. Poor posture: a tight belly will draw your ribs down, and your head and shoulders forward, instantly creating that stooped bent over posture so reminiscent of the old and infirm, yay!
  2. Painful Back: this bent over posture then places extra strain on your back as your back muscles must compensate for your tight belly, working even harder than normal to keep you upright. Sweet!
  3. Tight, stiff, sore Shoulders: a tight belly limits your ability to extend your thoracic spine and in turn your ability to raise your arms overhead.
  4. Shallow Breathing: A tight belly will inhibit your ability to breathe deeply. When you cannot relax your belly muscles, your diaphragm cannot contract or relax fully and your ribcage cannot expand fully, this limits the amount of air you are able to inhale. Gasp!
  5. Anxiety: the reduction in your ability to breathe can contribute to low level anxiety as your body responds to this ongoing oxygen deficit. 😦
  6. Chest Breathing: when you can’t breath in to your belly, you have to breath into your chest, chest breathing is inefficient and uses far more energy than belly breathing and can lead to even more tightness in the neck and shoulders.

The above are all characteristics of what Thomas Hanna called Red Light Reflex. or Startle Reflex. An involuntary and automatic reflex that tightens all the muscles of the front of the body.

You can avoid all of the negative consequences of a tight belly by pandiculating the belly muscles and all the muscles of the front of the trunk. The result is more upright posture, freer breathing and broader chest and improved shoulder mobility. Check out the video below to see just how easily this can be achieved using the simple Somatic Movement called Arch & Curl. Give it a try and see if you like how it makes you feel.

By the way, there is nothing wrong with wishing to have a toned belly or a lean body. It’s a perfectly reasonable and admirable goal. But being lean and being tight are two completely different things. You can have a lean body that is relaxed or a portly body that is tight. Or vice versa. In reality leanness and muscular tonus have very little to do with one another. But certainly sucking in your gut all day by constantly contracting your belly muscles is a not a habit we want to form.

As a further irony if your low back muscles are tight, they will push your belly forward as your back arches. Thus creating a belly. In that case relaxing your lower back muscles will allow your belly to recede as if by magic. No diet required!

Everything feels easier when your muscles are relaxed, consider practicing Somatic Movements daily so you can stay relaxed, limber and comfortable all over. If you need help or would like to learn from me, hit me up!

Thanks for reading! 

www.learnsomatics.ie

Relax and Comfort Your Lower Back

What if there was a safe, quick and simple way to make you lower back feel less tight, less painful, and much more comfortable. Wouldn’t you want to hear about it?

Often times lower back pain is caused by the muscles of the low back simply being too tense. This muscular tension is an anutomatic and involuntary response to stress. Muscles that are too tense are being held tightly in contraction by your brain. If you suffer from low back pain, check the tension of your lower back for yourself by simply feeling the muscles with your fingers. Press the muscles on either side of the spine in the lower part of your back, from the base of the spine up to where the ribs begin in the back . If they feel hard to the touch and also tender when you press them you can be pretty sure your brain is holding them tighter than is necessary.

So what can you do about it? If you watch the video below you will see a demonstration of ‘Arch & Flatten’, a simple Somatic movement that when performed correctly will relax and lengthen those tight, sore low back muscles.

We do this by tensing and tightening the lower back muscles deliberately and then slowly, and again deliberately, relaxing them back to their proper resting length. This act is called ‘pandiculation’, animals do this reflexively throughout the day. Give it a try and afterwards see if your back doesn’t feel lighter, longer and much more comfortable. You can also feel the muscles again with your fingers and you will find they feel softer and more pliable. Soft muscles are relaxed muscles, and relaxed muscles are comfortable muscles. Win, win!

Arch & Flatten: the simplest way to relax your lower back muscles

Congratulations. You’ve just learned how to more fully control your lower back muscles. Practicing this simple movement every day for just a few minutes will help you to maintain a pain free and comfortable back. Try it for a few days and let me know how you get on.

If you found that video helpful and would like to learn more you can find more videos here.

Enjoy your more comfortable lower back! I’ll be posting new videos regularly so you can start to integrate a Somatic movement practice in to your daily routine.

As always thanks for visiting.

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How Old Would You Think You Are?

Imagine that you had no birth cert, no passport or no driver’s licence. Nothing that had a record of your date of birth. How old would you think you are?

It’s an interesting question. Of course if you had grey hair (or no hair) you could probably guess that you were a mature adult. But what if you had no mirror to see your reflection? How then could you gauge how old you were? You’d probably have to base your guess on how you ‘felt’. If you felt stiff, sore and creaky you’d probably guess you were old, or at least older. And if you were supple and agile you’d probably guess you were young, or at least younger.

But let’s flip this on its head for a second. If you had never known when you were born or how old you were, would your hair have greyed when it did? Would ‘aging’ proceed more slowly? Without all the cultural expectation that we attach to specific birthdays and milestones, would you feel less ‘old’?

An awful lot of our perception of age is cultural. Tied into life events and stages. We are told that after the exuberance of youth comes an inevitable slow decline into decrepitude. But how much of this is true ageing and how much of it is social and cultural conditioning, a kind of bizarre self fulfilling prophecy?

It also leads to another question. What is ‘ageing’? Even a new born baby is ageing, so ageing is just living. There is also the fact that there are older folk who seem to be very much unaffected as they age. Still maintaining their faculties and physical capabilities. If just one person can age successfully then becoming decrepit doesn’t have to be inevitable.

Much of the feeling of being old is a result of the deterioration of our ability to move well. Stiffness creeps in. Pain spreads. Our confidence in our own ability dwindles. We stop doing the activities we once took for granted.  As a result of moving less, our movement deteriotates further, and downhill we go.

But there is nothing about deterioration of movement that is directly tied to ageing. You can be young and unable to move well and be old and still able to move well.

If you were say, a Potter, with 50 years of pottery experience you would expect to be an expert, maybe even a master, at pottery. Why does the same development of mastery not apply to movement? I’m guessing it’s because nobody really practices general movement with the same diligence and attention as they do to their craft/vocation.

But what if we ceased reinforcing the patently false notion that aging inevitably leads to a slow decline into increpitude?

What if we were to treat our general movement as a skill to be practiced, maintained and refined throughout our lifetime? But how? By taking responsibility for our movement and working diligently to restore, maintain and refine our ability to move well as we age.

Independence is lost when we cannot move well enough to look after ourselves. If you can move well, whether you are 19 or 90, you can look after yourself (and others) better. You can go where you want to go and do whatever you choose to do.

If you cannot move well, your world suddenly shrinks. You may need assistance to go where you want to go, and help to do what you want to do. Maybe you can’t go up steps, or stand unaided, or cook yourself a meal, or sit on the floor, or drive a car, or cycle a bike, or take a walk through the countryside, or participate in the sports and activities you once loved to do. Essentially, your options are reduced exponentially. Freedom is lost.

Conversely if you can move well as you age, your options remain very much open. Moving well begins with maintaining your most basic movement patterns and functions. Being able to flex and extend the spine, side bending of spine and rotation of spine. If these abilities are maintained, you will be in good shape no doubt. Sitting, standing, and most important of all walking will all benefit from proper control and freedom of the trunk and spine. Maintaining your ability to walk freely and comfortably may be the most important thing you do for yourself as you age. A regular Somatic movement practice can be an invaluable tool in this regard.

So ask yourself, if you didn’t know when you were born, based on how you feel, and how you move, how old would you think you were?

As always thanks for reading…

Photos by Seb [ P34K ] Hamel on Unsplash and Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash

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Learn Somatics on YouTube

Learn Somatics is now on YouTube. Check out the trailer for a teaser of what’s in store.

If you’ve been enjoying the blog, check out my new videos. Whilst all the ideas and concepts of Somatics are interesting to read about, it’s really all about the movement practice. So check out my new YouTube channel where you will find breakdowns of the most important and useful movements. Watch first, then follow along for the full experience. I’ll have a new video for you each week so that you can begin to build a regular Somatic movement practice into your routine.

Enjoy!

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How do YOU Sleep?

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

You often hear it said that you spend about a third of your life in bed. Note that’s in bed, not necessarily asleep. But judging by the data available about sleep or lack of it, people spend more like about a sixth, of their life asleep. That is definitely not enough sleep to function even normally, never mind optimally.

Sleep is a non-negotiable. If you go for long periods without getting enough sleep, your quality of life, and your health, is going to suffer significantly. Further, your performance in everything you attempt to do while you are awake is going to be severely compromised. Sleep is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity. In fact… “a chronic lack of sleep puts people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders.” (Source)

The diagram below highlights just how damaging insufficient sleep really is.

Image source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6473877/

Well I’m going to say something really obvious about sleep now; You must be relaxed to get to sleep and stay asleep. Well, duh!

If you are not relaxed but are in fact in a state of arousal/excitement you will struggle to get to sleep and stay asleep. A state of arousal/excitement means you are in Sympathetic Nervous System state, also known as ‘fight, flight or freeze.’ The clue is in the name there, ‘fight, flight or freeze.’ These are not states that are conducive to deep restful sleep.

Unfortunately there are many, many stressors in our modern environment that can put us in Sympathetic Nervous System mode, particularly if we have to, or choose to, interact with these stressors in the hours before bedtime. We live in an ‘always on’ culture, and while this has some advantages it also has many disadvantages. Humans are not designed to be always on. You’re phone is. But you? Not so much. Work, screens, emails, phones, kids, partners, money, the news and so on, all of these are stimuli. You do not want to be highly stimulated when you are going to bed, if you want to experience high quality deep sleep.

If you can relax yourself before bed, your chances of getting to sleep and staying asleep will increase massively, as will the quality of your sleep. Getting into that Parasympathetic state is essential. The Parasympathetic Nervous System state is also known as ‘REST, digest and repair.’ Part of the ‘repair’ that goes on during deep sleep is the clearing of waste products from the brain. That sounds like something you’d want to keep on top of. It also offers an explanaion as to how lack of sleep can increase your risk of Alzheimers disease and other neurological disorders as noted previously. Check out this excellent TED Talk for more on that.

So how can we increase our chances of getting a good nights sleep? One of the most common comments I hear from clients after their first experience of Somatics goes something like this; “I had a great sleep after my appointment/class.” This is something I experienced myself when I first began practicing Somatics so I can relate, one moment I’m practicing my Back Lifts on the floor, next thing I’m fast asleep, drooling away. Good times…

But how could slow movements improve sleep? Well when you practice Somatic movements, you are very carefully and deliberately reducing muscle tension that has accumulated during the day. To reduce muscle tension is to relax your muscles. To relax is to shift into that Parasympathetic Nervous System mode, that ‘rest, digest and repair’ mode. An improvement in the duration and quality sleep is then much more likely.

If you’d like to improve the quality of your sleep consider learning Somatics and making it part of your bedtime routine. Deep, restful sleep can become a reality and not just a pipe.. eh.. dream?

Thanks for reading.

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Learn Somatics on the Prymal Podcast

I was honored to be a guest on the excellent Prymal Podcast hosted by my friend Danny Campion. I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first, but it was a fantastic experience. Dan and I had a great conversation about Somatics and lots more. If you’ve been enjoying the blog you should hopefully enjoy the podcast too.

You can listen to the podcast here

Be sure to checkout Danny’s podcast library for more great content. I’ll have a freshly baked blog post for you next week.

In the meantime, thanks for reading (and listening).

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