Neuroscience is the scientific study of the function and structure of the Brain and Nervous System.
Somatics is the exploration of the first hand experience of the Brain and Nervous System through movement.
So if you are practicing Somatics you can call yourself a Neuroscientist!
Below is a link to an excellent article by Carrie Day CCSE, and Martha Peterson CCSE that explains in detail how Hanna Somatic Education takes adavantage of neurological principles to eliminate chronic pain and improve movement. Check it out…
Isn’t it interesting that we must PAY attention? The very notion that we PAY attention suggests that in return for paying attention we might receive something. What might the payment of attention garner in return?
Awareness? Information? Knowledge?
In the case of Somatics in return for the paying of attention to the internal sensations of your own movement you receive rich sensory information or feedback from the sense receptors within your muscles. You receive more awareness of what muscles are tight and stiff and which muscles are free and relaxed. You receive an opportunity to voluntarily relax and lengthen stiff, tight muscles. And when you pay attention to carefully and slowly relaxing and lengthening your stiff, tight muscles you receive more comfort and more freedom of movement.
And what happens if you never pay attention to sensory receptors within your muscles, or never pay attention to your ability to move? Your ability to move is taken away, little by little until one day you realise that your movement account is empty, or worse still overdrawn.
A daily Somatics practice gives you an opportunity to pay your attention dollars into your movement bank account. This will accumulate over time into a surplus of movement potential. Then when you need to withdraw from your movement account you will have plenty of movement credit (ability to move freely and without pain).
Start investing today!
The Somatic Exercise below allows you to pay attention to your back muscles and learn how to relase and relax them quickly and easily…
Often, when we have pain, there is a perception that there is one particular muscle that is causing the problem. Such as, “Oh its my psoas/piriformis/hamstring” etc. And while that may be where you feel the pain or restriction, it is not necessarily where the problem is.
Muscle never work in isolation, they can’t. In order for one muscle to contract, another, opposing muscle must relax, this immediately means you have another muscle brought into play. Muscles work in groups and fire in patterns of contraction to facilitate movement. So a sore or tight psoas/piriformis/hamstring is really just one part of a much bigger habituated involuntary full body pattern of contraction. In Somatic Education we call this Sensory Motor Amnesia.
The Three Reflexes we work with in Somatic Education; Green Light Reflex, Red Light Reflex and Trauma Reflex, are examples of universal full body patterns of muscular contraction. These reflexes are common to all creatures with a spine and nervous system so it is important to be able to recognise them in yourself.
It’s that pesky hamstring again! Or is it?
From a Somatics perspective, we look for the connection between the problem/pain area and the three Reflexes mentioned above. For example tight/sore hip flexors, could be as a result of habituated Red Light Reflex. If it is only the hip flexors on one side, or perhaps the piriformis on one side, it may suggest a Trauma Reflex. A chronically tight and painful lower back can be caused by habituated Green Light Reflex. In order to address problems like these you must first relax the muscles of the relevant reflex and then improve the functioning of the entire movement system. As a living, breathing, conscious Soma* you are a SYSTEM OF MOVEMENT. Movement dysfunctions must be addressed by looking at that system in its entirety and improving its functioning in its entirety.
How is this done? Well, first we look at posture for signs of habituation of the Three Reflexes. Usually all are present to some degree. In that case which one is most dominant? What way is the brain and nervous system holding the body? Looking at the entire system.
We watch the client walking. What parts of the body move freely, which parts of the body do not move freely? Which side bears more weight? Again, we are looking at the entire system.
Then we palpate, that is we feel the tonus or hardness of the muscles, both standing and on the plinth/worktable. Are they tight? Which ones are tight? Which ones are soft? What is the relationship between them? What changes in the tonus from standing to laying down? Where is the Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA)? Again looking at the entire system.
Then we decide which reflex to address first based on our observations. With that decision made we educate the client through gentle guided movement patterns and full body pandiculations. They learn how to sense the Three Reflexes (see links above), these universal full body patterns of contraction. How to recognize them, how to contract into them VOLUNTARILY and more importantly, how to RELAX out of them VOLUNTARILY.
Working in this way, by educating the client, allows for systemic improvements in movement, comfort and pain reduction. Because clients learn how to do these movements for themselves, they can repeat the process at any time by themselves. Thus becoming more self aware, self correcting and independent.
So with all that said. Do you have a muscle that seems to be tight or sore? If so, explore your movement a little further. Which parts of your body move freely and comfortably? Which parts do not move freely and comfortably? With a little investigation you may find that it is never just one muscle.
At this time of year many people start thinking about New Year Resolutions. Often these resolutions will involve getting fit or losing weight. Your success or ability to lose weight and/or get fit will be intrinsically linked to your ability to move well. We get fit by moving and we lose weight by moving. If we cannot move well and without pain our chances of fulfilling these particular goals are slim… pardon the pun!
So with that said it would make sense to address your ability to move and perhaps make improving your movement one of your new years resolutions. When you can move well and without pain you will be more inclined to continue with your chosen exercise regime/activity. You will also be less likely to pick up an injury that might scupper your progress.
Moving freely and without pain is the foundation stone upon which you can build your new healthier lifestyle for the new year. Somatics is all about improving your movement. A daily somatics practice will lead to;
Pain relief: You are unlikely to keep up a new fitness regime if you have pain. Somatics can resolve your chronic pain issues (read more here)…
Improved movement: Somatics improves your movement by eliminating Sensory Motor Amnesia leading to greatly improved movement (read more here)…
Improved posture: When you release and relax you muscles your posture improves automatically (read more here)…
Improved balance, coordination and proprioception: When you can contract and relax all your muscles voluntarily you will have better control of your whole body (read more here)…
Improved sleep: When your muscles are relaxed it is easier to fall asleep and stay asleep (read more here)…
All of these benefits will go a long way towards helping you achieve your fitness or weight loss goals for the new year. If you would like to learn some of the most fundamental Somatic Movements right now you can head over to the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel where I’ll be adding more movements weekly.
The human organism requires two things in order to survive, fuel (in the form of food and water) and oxygen. Without food we might live for a few weeks, without water a few days, but without oxygen we will expire in a matter of minutes. Our ability to breathe freely, dictates how efficiently we can take in oxygen and also expel carbon dioxide. So the purpose of breathing is two fold, to get oxygen into the body and also to get gaseous waste, in the form of carbon dioxide, out of the body. Anything that reduces the efficiency of this process will lead us to experience a certain amount of stress. The degree to which breathing is compromised is directly proportional to the level of stress experienced. If breathing is compromised just a little, we may not really notice it all that much, but it is certain to affect our performance and well being. Obviously, if breathing is compromised a lot we will certainly notice it.
Deep breathing has long been utilised as a means of alleviating stress and calming the mind and body. But what if you cannot breathe deeply? What if there was so much tension in your body that you could not fill your lungs to their full capacity nor empty them fully?
If you observe the breathing of an infant you will notice something. It is accompanied by very little effort and/or movement. Only the gentle rise and fall of the belly. Breathing in this way, the way we are designed to breathe, is effortless, requiring the work of few muscles but the relaxation of many muscles. The main muscle of inhalation is the diaphragm. In its relaxed state, it has a dome or umbrella shape. When it contracts, the dome flattens out downwards, this flattening out makes the thoracic cavity larger, creating a vacuum that sucks air in, expanding the lungs. The flattening diaphragm also gently pushes the stomach and intestines downwards to make room for this expansion of the lungs. When the the diaphragm relaxes back into its dome shape, it decreases the space in the thoracic cavity pushing the air out of the lungs again. Simple, elegant, efficient.
This free expansion of the lungs is dependant on many muscles being able to lengthen and relax fully. The ribs that form a cage around our lungs are all attached to each other by muscles called intercostals. When these intercostals are able to to relax and lengthen the ribs are free to spread apart like fingers accommodating the expanding lungs within.
The rectus abdominus, your ‘six pack’ muscle, connects the sternum to the pubic bone. When this muscle can relax and lengthen, the stomach and intestines can be gently pushed downwards and outwards by the action of the diaphragm to accommodate the expanding lungs.
The internal and external obliques which wrap around the space between ribs and pelvis also must relax and lengthen to facilitate the internal organs moving downward and the ribs expanding with each inhalation.
You cannot breathe as deeply and freely as possible if you have chronic muscular contraction in the muscles that attach to the ribs or cross the ribs. That is a lot of muscles.
By learning how to release and relax these muscles we can breathe easier, inhaling more air with less effort. This is a very important skill to possess as our breathing has such a profound effect on how we feel. When our breathing is weak and shallow, we feel anxious, fearful and fatigued. When our breathing is deep and free we feel relaxed, calm and content.
Releasing the muscles of Red Light Reflex greatly improves breathing as it involves most of the muscles mentioned above. Somatic movements such as Arch & Curl (see below) address these muscles. Arch & Curl is just one of the many Somatic movements that also allow us to gain greater freedom and control of the muscles that can restrict our breathing. By spending some time releasing and lengthening these muscles our breathing will be deeper and freer and require less effort.
So how does your breathing feel? Can you breathe deeply and freely into your belly? Or do you breathe into your chest? Do you think you would benefit from being able to breathe deeper with less effort?
It is impossible to talk about Hanna Somatic Education without discussing the man who developed it, Thomas Hanna PhD. His contribution to the realm of Somatic Education has been both ingenious and profound. But, most people have never heard of him. So, who was Thomas Hanna?
In my last post I talked about the difference between stretching and Pandiculation. Based on the number of emails I received in relation to that article I want to clarify how Pandiculation relates to the other main elements of Somatic Education which are;
You can’t fix a problem that you are not aware of. In the context of Somatic Education, Sensory Motor Amnesia is the problem, the Three Reflexes are how the problem presents and pandiculation is (one of) the tools we use to address and resolve the problem.
SMA shows itself in the body as habituated contraction of Three Reflexes. These are brain reflexes, if you are conscious and reading this, then you have a brain, and if you have a brain, you will be susceptible to habituation of these three reflexes. I encourage you to read the three blog entries on each of the reflexes.
When we habituate any or all of the Three Reflexes we will inevitably have movement deficits and/or muscle pain. The extent of either will be dependant on the subtlety or severity of our Sensory Motor Amnesia. Regardless, the approach to resolving the SMA is the same. We must remind the brain how to use the affected musculature correctly. We do this by voluntarily recreating the Three Reflexes and then slowly decreating them.
In the case of Green Light Reflex, this involves purposely contracting the muscles of the Green Light Reflex, which is all the muscles of the back of the body. This allows us to take voluntary/deliberate/conscious control of those muscles, and then voluntarily/deliberately/consciously relaxing them slowly and under control. This simple act of pandiculating reduces the resting level of tension in the muscles for better movement, reduced pain and improved comfort.
Below is my video demonstrating a simple Somatic Movement to address Green Light Reflex, pandiculating the muscles of the back of the Spine, with an emphasis on the lower back muscles. I would advice watching the video first and then doing the movement whilst listening again.
Here is another simple Somatic Movement that addresses Red Light Reflex. Again watch the video first and then do the movement whilst listening to the video.
As you can see from the videos, Somatic Movements are performed, slowly and gently with the intention of something like a yawn. Try these out and leave a comment on your experience.
You can find more of my free videos on the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel where I will be breaking down all of the most fundamental Somatic Movements.
If you are interested in books on Somatics, I’ve provided a short list below;
How can our movement habits create pain and decrease our ability to move well?
Habituation is the simplest form of learning. It occurs through the constant repetition of a response. When the same bodily response occurs over and over again, its pattern is gradually “learned” at an unconscious level. Habituation is a slow, relentless adaptive act, which ingrains itself into the functional patterns of the central nervous system. (Thomas Hanna, Somatics 1998)
We get good at what we repeatedly do, that is how our brain learns, through repetition. We will get good at things we do intentionally AND things we do unintentionally. If we repeatedly stand in a certain way or walk in a certain way, eventually that way will become learned and automatic. When it becomes automatic we are no longer conscious of it. It becomes our ‘normal’.
The Green Light Reflex is the reflex that drives us forward into the world. It is an inherently positive reflex. Without it we would never have learned to crawl or walk. However, every time your phone rings, someone calls your name, a deadline looms, you rush to be on time, the bodily response is the same, your Green Light Reflex is triggered. All the muscles of the Green Light Reflex contracting, to ready you for action.
In modern society, most people have very busy lifestyles and are constantly under demand from their jobs, children, emails, phone calls, text messages, social activities, hobbies etc. This constant triggering of the Green Light Reflex, leads to habitually and chronically tightened back muscles in exactly the way described by Thomas Hanna in the quote above.
Your ‘normal’ becomes a learnedstate of contraction, always ready for action and unable to relax fully. You develop Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), forgetting how to release and relax all the musculature of the back of the body. A stiff, sore back and reduced ability to move freely becomes inevitable at this point.
The Red Light Reflex is the complete opposite of the Green Light Reflex. It is a withdrawal reflex, a tightening of all the front of the body in an attempt to make ourselves small and hideaway from fear or danger. Red Light is triggered by fear, danger or threat, .ie when we hear a loud noise, or someone yells ‘duck!’. It can equally be caused by spending too much time slumped in front of a laptop, tv, tablet or smartphone. Nowadays this seems to be a major cause of Red Light Reflex. Many hours with our heads pointed down, back rounded and our shoulders slumped forward gazing at our ever smaller screens (PCs > laptops > tablets > smartphones). If we spend a lot of time in this position, or under threat, we are essentially learning how to stay in that position. Belly tight, hip flexors tight, shoulders forward, head down. Again this state of learned contraction becomes our new ‘normal’. And while it is very useful for looking at gadgets or working at a screen, it is not so useful when we want to do something (anything) else. Eventually, you develop Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), forgetting how to release and relax all the musculature of the front of the body. A stiff, sore neck and shoulders and reduced ability to breathe deepy and move freely becomes inevitable at this point.
We can habituate any posture or movement pattern that we use regularly, whether it is helpful or not.
Think about it, do you always sit in the same chair in your living room? In the same position? It just feels comfortable right? Well that’s because you have unintentionally learned to sit in that way. It’s an example of habituation. Do you always carry your infant on the same side hip? Habituation. When you drive do you always sink into one side? Or put your elbow on the centre console? Habituation. When you stand do you always cross your arms? Or your legs? Or lean into one side? How do you walk? Always wear your bag on the same side? Again these are all habituations. One sided habits can lead to Trauma Reflex. Much of what we do each and every day is automatic and performed unconsciously. But some of these movement habits may be causing you to have pain due to the constant contraction of the muscles involved.
Becoming aware of our movement habits can help us to identify which ones may be causing us to have pain or reducing our ability to move well. Once identified, Somatic Exercises or Clinical Somatics Lessons can help us to release these habituated patterns of muscular contraction for less pain, more self awareness and more freedom of movement.
In this post, I described The Green Light Reflex. When this reflex becomes habituated, it can often cause back pain, particularly in the low back.
But how does the Green Light Reflex cause back pain?
When the thick strong muscles of the spine, known collectively as paravertebrals, are involuntarily stuck in contraction (SMA) they draw the spinal vertebra closer together, this causes the lower back to arch forward excessively. This is often referred to as lordosis, or lordotic posture. It is easily identified by a lower back that is pulled to the front, it also makes the belly protrude and tilts the pelvis anteriorly.
Neutral posture (left), and a typical Green Light posture (right)
Some points to notice, in the figure on the right.
The excessive arching of the lumbar spine
The change in angle of the rib cage and pelvis due to the tightening of the back muscles
The drawing drawing back of the shoulders and head
The corresponding forward position of the hips
The hyperextension of the hips and kness
The protuding of the belly as a result of the overarched low back
When these paravertebrals are stuck in contraction, they will make any type of forward bending action more difficult. In order to bend forward freely, you must be able to relax and lengthen all the muscles along the back of the spine. If you cannot voluntarily relax and lengthen these muscles you have what we call in Clinical Somatic Education, Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).
Paravertebrals (the muscles running either side along the length of the spine) that are habitually contracted pull the vertebra (bones of the spine) closer together. This can compress any or all of the nerves that exit the spinal cord in the lumbar area or any other area of the back, leading to trapped nerves, sciatica or similar complaints.
This compression of the spinal vertebra can also create a situation where the intervertebral discs that are supposed to act as shock absorbers between each vertebra, are pushed out of place leading to bulging/herniated discs. This spinal compression is also what causes “wear & tear” in the lumbar spine. Even if you don’t have nerve pain or bulging discs from habituated Green Light Reflex, the constant contraction of the paravertebrals leads to fatigue and aching muscles in the back.
So an habituated Green Light Reflex can be the cause of several problems from a reduction in mobility all the way to herniated discs. Each of these problems occur along a spectrum of Green Light Reflex. At the low end of the scale, .ie minimal green light reflex you might expect to have reduced forward bending ability, and at the high end of the scale you might expect, tension headaches, chronic pain and bulging or herniated discs.
These are not the only issues that can occur as a result of habituated Green Light Reflex. It can also lead to tension headaches, neck pain, shoulder pain, tight hips, hamstrings and calves, knee pain and other issues. But the mechanism by which these problems occurs is the same. Chronic involuntary contraction (SMA) of all the muscles of the back of the body. In the image below those muscles are highlighted in green.
So what can we do about it? Well in truth the solution is quite simple. We must RELEARN optimal control of all the muscles of the back of the body. When we relearn proper control we will have the ability to relax and lengthen these muscles to their full and proper resting length. When this has been achieved pain is reduced or eliminated and movement quality improves.
How do we relearn proper control of these muscles? We pandiculate them using safe simple Somatics Exercises or through a series of Hands On Clinical Somatic Lessons. If you would like to learn how to release and relax all the muscles of the Green Light Reflex for a looser more comfortable back and freer movement, try one of my online classes here.
Red Light Reflex is an habituated and ongoing tightening of all the muscles of the front of the body. When you forget how to relax and lengthen the muscles of the front of the body you can develop many problems over time. In Clinical Somatic Education we call this inability to release and relax muscles Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). With Red Light Reflex the main muscles involved are the muscles of the belly (Abdominals), chest (pectorali major and minor), shoulders (upper trapezius) and inner thighs (adductors). So how does involuntary chronic tightness in these muscles lead to pain and poor movement?
Neutral posture (left), and a typical Red Light posture (right)
Some points to notice, in the figure on the right.
The forward curving of the spine
The change in angle of the rib cage and pelvis due to the tightening of the belly and chest muscles
The drawing together of the rib cage and pelvis due to the tightening of the belly muscles
The corresponding forward position of the head and the shoulders as a result
The bending of the legs and arms
The reduction in true height as a result of the spinal curve
As you can see from the image above Red Light Reflex causes a curving forward of the spine. This creates a situation where the back muscles are always lengthened but at the same time working hard to keep you upright in gravity and maintain your head position. This constant workload creates sore, tired back muscles and leads to pain in the mid and upper back.
Neutral posture, absence of Red Light Reflex >>>>> Red Light Reflex
Some points to notice, in the figure on the right.
The sunken chest, rounded back and shoulders forward
The head pulled forward of the centre line
Neck and shoulder Pain
When the belly, chest and frontal neck muscles are tight making the spine curve forward, they draw the head and shoulders forward too (refer to images above), creating a rounded back and stooped posture. This makes it difficult to stand up “straight”. The constant forward and shrugged position of the shoulders can also cause discomfort and pain whilst limiting your ability to turn your head left or right and also to raise you arms straight overhead. The shoulders must rest in a neutral position in order for the neck and arms (and in turn the elbows and wrists) to move freely and function properly. When the shoulders and head are constantly drawn forward this reduces the amount of space internally in the front of the chest and neck. This means less space for all the nerves and blood vessels which innervate the shoulders and arms. When these nerves and blood vessels are compressed or inhibited it leads to problems in the…
Arms, Elbows, Wrists and Hands
Problems in the arms, elbows, wrists and hands are also often due to habituated Red Light Reflex. The brachial plexus, which is the main nerve that innervates the (upper limbs) arms runs between the scalene muscles of the neck, through the area behind the collar bone and just behind the attachment of pec minor (small blue chest muscle in image below) towards the armpit. When the chest and neck muscles are habitually contracted, as is the case with Red Light Reflex, they can compress the brachial plexus causing; Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, tingling and numbness in the arms and hands, weakened grip, carpal tunnel syndrome, cold hands etc. This is yet another example of tightness in the centre of the body leading to problems at the extremities.
You can also see in the image below the intercostals, these are the muscles that are found in between each of the ribs. In Red Light Reflex these muscles will also be habitually contracted to some degree. As you can imagine, if these muscles cannot relax fully your ability to breathe deeply is reduced. In this situation the ribs are no longer free to expand making space for the expanding lungs. As a response to this we begin to chest breathe which adds further fatigue and tightness to the muscles of the chest, neck and shoulders. Chest breathing is inefficient and can cause systemic low level anxiety and fatigue due to insufficient oxygen intake. Belly breathing in contrast is efficient and helps you feel relaxed and energised. Belly breathing is only possible when we are able to let our abdominals and intercostals (between the ribs) relax and lengthen. The image below highlights the chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor) and the abdominals for clarity.
Right side Pectoralis Major , Left side Pectoralis Minor and Abdominals highlighted in blue
As you can see Red Light Reflex can contribute to a myriad of complaints. The good news is it is relatively straight forward to release and relax all the muscles of the Red Light Reflex using safe simple Somatic Exercises or through Clinical Hands On Lessons. Through Somatics you will learn how to recreate these Reflexes voluntarily so that you can DECREATE them voluntarily. We do this by pandiculating all the muscles and movement patterns involved in each reflex (Green Light, Red Light and Trauma). This allows YOUR BRAIN to regain control of your muscles, and in turn your body and movement. If you would like to learn more, you can try an online class with me here.