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

You Are Not a Mind and a Body

I often use the following diagram to help explain the concept of the ‘Soma’. I have found it to be a useful way to elaborate on this idea. In his book Somatics, Thomas Hanna defined ‘Soma’ as ‘the body experienced from within’. That is, your first-person internalised experience of yourself.

So let’s say the circle above represents your physical body and all its associated physical sensations. Hunger, thirst, hot, cold, pleasure, pain, tension, fatigue, and so on. These sensations are constantly changing. So we include arrows on the circle to reflect this ever changing flow of sensations

Now we add a second circle to represent your mind or mental faculties. All your thought processes essentially. We add an arrow to this circle to indicate that thoughts and mental activity are also always in flux, changing, flowing.

And we add a third overlapping circle. This overlapping circle represents your emotional world, your moods and feelings. Again these are transient, fleeting ever changing, so we add the arrow.

Traditionally in western culture we tend to look at these facets of ourselves as somewhat separate from each other. Mental health as distinct from physical health etc. But the reality is…

…you exist right in the middle where all these elements converge and overlap. That is the point from where we live out our first-person experience of ourselves. The ‘Soma’;And what is it that we experience? The constant flow of ever changing physical sensations, mental activity, thoughts and emotions. All three aspects of our experience are overlapping and concurrent, and they all have direct influence over each other. The following would be a closer visual representation of what we experience…

The divisions between our physical, mental and emotional experience becoming far more indistinct.

Our thoughts influence our emotions and in turn our physical body – mind racing, feeling anxious and tense.
Our emotions influence our physical body and in turn our thoughts – one can be physically sick with worry/fear/apprehension.
Our physical body influences our emotions and in turn our thoughts.- angry and frustrated by chronic muscular pain.

Because they can all influence each other we can use one to make a change to another. Like using exercise to improve mental health, or breathing exercises to calm our emotions and quiet our mind.

But it is not so much that these elements influence each other, rather that they are different elements of the same thing as illustrated by the diagram. Looked at it in this way we begin to realise that there is no such thing as a mental state that is distinct from a physical or emotional state. There are really only unified states of being that encompass all facets of our experience; mental, emotional and physical. ‘Somatic’ states if you will.

To ‘experience your body from within’ is to experience all these facets of yourself, simultaneously, in real time, like we all do, all day every day.

So what is the relevance of all this?

Of the three elements, mental, emotional, and physical, the easiest one to manipulate is actually the physical, because we have, or can very quickly develop, direct control our our muscular system. This is where a Somatic movement practice comes in. By learning how to regulate your own muscle tension and increase your awareness of your physical body, you are also learning how to regulate an increase your awareness of your thoughts and emotions. Because as we have discovered, they are all just different elements of your ‘Soma’, your direct first-person experience of your own process. When regulating the ‘physical’, what you are actually doing is regulating your physical, mental and emotional, your unified state of being.

When you can release the muscular tension that accumulates in the physical body, you are also releasing the associated thoughts and emotional states that are bound up in the physical state. Because it’s all the one process. You are not a mind and a body, you are a constantly moving, changing, evolving, growing, self-aware process. You are a body, experienced from within. You are a ‘Soma’.

If any of these ideas resonate with you and you think you’d like to learn more about Somatics, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to get in touch. You can contact me here and you can find my online Somatic movement classes and 1-1 options here.

Thanks for reading!

learnsomatics.ie

Can Stress Management be Simple?

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Stress. It’s unavoidable. No matter your circumstances you are going to experience, and have to manage, some degree of stress in your life. But what is stress?

“Stress has many faces, and creeps into our lives from many directions. No matter what causes it, stress puts the body and the mind on edge. It floods the body with stress hormones. The heart pounds. Muscles tense. Breathing quickens. The stomach churns.
The body’s response to stress was honed in our prehistory. Collectively called the “fight-or-flight” response, it has helped humans survive threats like animal attacks, fires, floods, and conflict with other humans. Today, obvious dangers like those aren’t the main things that trigger the stress response. Any situation you perceive as threatening, or which requires you to adjust to a change, can set it off. And that can spell trouble.
Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. It can dampen the immune system, increasing susceptibility to colds and other common infections. It can contribute to asthma, digestive disorders, cancer, and other health problems. New research even supports the notion that high levels of stress somehow speed up the aging process.
Though stress is inevitable, you can help control your body’s response to it. Exercise, meditation, invoking the relaxation response, and mindfulness are great stress busters.”
https://www.health.harvard.edu/topics/stressSource

From the above, the point we’re most interested in is this: “Muscles tense.” What they are saying is that stress causes involuntary muscular tension. That’s a problem. This muscle tension happens subconsciously. We are not really aware of it. This muscle tension, as well as making us feel stressed, can lead to chronic muscle pain and stiffness.

When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress… https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body

This also leads to automatic activation of the SYMPATHETIC nervous system (‘fight or flight’ response). The physiological effects of activation of the SYMPATHETIC nervous system (SNS) include:

  • ACCELERATED Heart Beat (anxiety anyone?)
  • HIGH Blood Pressure (uh oh)
  • INHIBITED digestion (hello belly ache)
  • RELAXED Bladder up (I never used to make night time trips to the bathroom?)
  • CONTRACTED Rectum (why am I constipated?)
  • Secretion of STRESS HORMONES from the adrenal glands (I can’t shake this bad mood)
  • SUPPRESSION of the immune system (why am I always sick?)
  • REDUCED growth (suppression of growth hormones) (that little cut still hasn’t healed)
  • SLEEP PROBLEMS (so tired all the time)
  • MEMORY DYSFUNCTION (sorry, I totally forgot about your birthday)

Doesn’t sound like much fun does it?

Do any of these sound familiar to you? If so, you may be suffering from some degree of chronic stress and the chronic SNS activation that goes along with that. SNS mode is not necessarily a negative state, as indicated above it is necessary to respond to a threat/situation appropriately. The problem is when we find ourselves in a state of chronic SNS activation. As humans, we are well-equipped to deal with short periods of SNS activation, then ideally, when the perceived threat has ended, we would return to PARASYMPATHETIC Nervous System (PNS) activation. PNS is, or should be, our default mode (also known as ‘Rest, Digest and Repair’ mode).

PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system activation has the opposite effects to the Sympathetic Nervous System:

  • SLOWER heart beat (feeling calm…)
  • LOWER blood pressure (…and relaxed…)
  • STIMULATION of digestion (…and well nourished)
  • NORMALISED bladder function (no more getting up in the night)
  • RELAXATION of rectum (regular as clockwork)
  • INHIBITS secretion of STRESS HORMONES from the adrenal glands (happy mood, happy days)
  • STIMULATION of the immune system (I can’t remember the last time I was sick)
  • NORMALISED growth hormone responses (that cut has healed right up)
  • DEEPER more restful sleep (Zzzzz..)
  • NORMALISATION of memory functions (I planned a surpise for your birthday)

That all sounds much more conducive to feelings of relaxation right?

But how do we switch back to PNS mode, or ‘invoke the relaxation response’ when we are chronically stressed?

Well, if you could somehow release the involuntary muscular tension that is triggered in response to stress you could deliberately switch back to PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system mode. Somatic Movements provide us with a simple and straight forward way to do just that. They use a technique called pandiculation to reduce muscular tension (and reduce pain and improve movement, bonus!). Pandiculation works by re-establishing your voluntary control over your muscles and in the process, relaxing them. This leads to de-activation of the SYMPATHETIC nervous system (fight, flight or freeze mode) and activates the PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system (rest, digest and repair mode).

This makes Somatic Movements a simple and effective stress management tool. By learning how to monitor, regulate and control your own muscle tension you are learning how to monitor, regulate and control how you respond to stress. With practice you can become more resilient to the myriad effects of stress. You can literally learn how to relax, and activate your Parasympathetic Nervous System, any time, on demand. Becoming an expert at relaxing. Sceptical? Take less than 3 minutes and try a pandiculation right now by listening to the audio below;

The pandiculation technique utilised in the audio above can be applied to all the muscle groups in the body for total body relaxation. By deliberately releasing the muscle tension triggered by stress you can return to a state of relaxation and calm. When you are relaxed you can sleep better, when you sleep better you will feel more refreshed, when you are more refreshed, you can think more clearly, when you think more clearly you can make better decisions, when you make better decisions… well, who knows what good things might happen!

When stress is unavoidable, simple, effective stress management techniques become essential. So why not Learn Somatics? You’ve nothing to lose… except all that tension.

If you’re interested in learning how to use Somatics to release muscle tension and manage stress check out my Online Class offerings and 1-1 options here. Alternatively you can visit the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel and start learning today.

As always thanks for reading.

learnsomatics.ie

More Thoughts on Posture

Posture is the upright organisation of the body in gravity. It is how we hold ourselves when we are not actively thinking about it. Therefore posture is a subconscious process. Hence why telling someone to ‘Stand up straight!’ is an exercise in futility.

Working in the realm of Hanna Somatic Education, we look for signs of the Three Reflexes in clients’ posture. Green Light Reflex (Spinal Extension), Red Light Reflex (Spinal Flexion) and Trauma Reflex (Lateral Spinal Flexion/Extension, Spinal Rotation). These Reflexes are brain events, that is to say they are automatic motor responses originating in the brain, affecting skeletal musculature, instructing that musculature to contract/tighten into an observable pattern.

Posture indicates what the Nervous System is doing at the involuntary/subconscious level. When we assess posture we are assessing subconscious brain activity. Posture is a finger pointing to the moon (or brain in this case!).

“It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory” Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon

For example, consider a very stooped posture, with rounded shoulders and head forward, flat lower back and pelvis tucked under. This would be indicative of Red Light Reflex (Spinal flexion). I do not think the person has ‘bad’ posture or that they need to strengthen their muscles of extension. I merely note that their nervous system at the subconscious level, is drawing them into the pattern of flexion. If this is the most prominent pattern of contraction of their posture or process, it gives me a starting point from which to work.

Once we begin to see posture not as a result of biomechanical structure but as a result of continuous subconscious brain output, we can change our approach. The focus shifts upstream to the brain, not down stream to the muscles and/or bones. Now the goal will be to change subconscious nervous system output. New problem, new solution.

So how do we change this continuous subconscious brain output? The answer is surprisingly simple. The client must voluntarily go into the subconscious pattern of contraction. Make the involuntary, voluntary. Make the unconscious, conscious.

By choosing to contract into the pattern of tension deliberately the client regains voluntary control of all the musculature involved.  Patterns of muscular contraction are primary, as this is how the brain reflexes are expressed. Groups of muscles, contracting into general, observable and consistent full body patterns. These voluntary muscular contractions, into the full body pattern, send new sensory information all the way to the sensorimotor cortex, the movement learning part of the brain. Once the client has reestablished voluntary control of the musculature involved in the pattern, they can sense it, ‘feel’ it contracting, they now have three options available to them;

1. Increase the level of contraction in the musculature, going further into the pattern
2. Maintain the level of contraction in the musculature, holding the pattern
3. Reduce the level of contraction in the musculature, relaxing out of the pattern

In this instance, the best choice is to select option 3, to reduce the level of contraction and relax back to rest. This act of voluntary contraction, followed by slow voluntary relaxation and then a moment of complete rest,  is called a pandiculation. You can find a detailed description of pandiculation here.

By pandiculating several times, the client can quickly learn to become proficient at contracting AND relaxing these muscles that unconsciously have drawn them into a full body pattern of contraction (flexion in this example). This act of pandiculating changes nervous system output at the brain level, reducing motor output to the muscles involved in the pattern. When the nervous system activity changes, the muscles involved in the pattern relax and the posture follows along.

The goal is not to change the posture, the goal is to change the habitual/unconscious motor output of the nervous system. The posture shifts or changes as a result of reducing unnecessary nervous system motor output. Postural changes are a by product of practicing Somatics rather than a goal.

You can now learn Somatics with me from the comfort of your own home. Check out my online learning options here. Or you can visit the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel to start learning right now.

As always thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie

New Year, New Resolutions, New You?

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!

new-years-resolutions2_dreamstime_m_17232559


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.

Or perhaps you’d like to learn from me directly. No problem, check out my online learning options here. I’d love to help you.

Whatever your goals, have a happy, healthy and active new year!

As always thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie

Hard Body, Soft Bed – Soft Body, Hard Bed

When I first began practicing Somatic Movements for myself a funny thing happened, I kept falling asleep when I would do the Backlift. I would lay down on my belly on the hard carpetted floor to do some Backlifts, I would begin with slow, careful contraction of my back muscles, lifting my head arm and opposite leg, and then slowly relax back to the floor under control…

…and then I would wake up about 20 minutes later in a little puddle of drool, slightly confused but very relaxed. The slow gentle release of tension in the muscles of my back as I pandiculated the Backlift, created a deep sense of relaxation and without even realising it I would drift off.

You see when you pandiculate, your muscles relax, soften and lengthen, reducing the level of tension in your body. And as they do this your whole body becomes more soft and pliable, making the hard floor feel more and more comfortable.

This led me to thinking about how many people sleep on incredibly expensive orthopedic mattresses. The manufacturers promise that it will feel like floating on a cloud, or being weightless. And I’m sure it does, but therein lies the problem. If YOU are hard, tense, stiff and immobile, you have to sleep on a bed that is soft and yielding in order to be comfortable. But, if YOU are soft and yielding in your body, suddenly the hard floor begins to feel just fine and comfortable. YOU begin to accommodate the floor.

Remember for hundreds of thousands of years we didn’t have beds or matresses. So as an experiment of sorts, I began sleeping on the floor. I did this for about a month. I slept on carpetted floor, on top of a yoga mat and a blanket. And whilst I did go back to sleeping in my bed, I slept just as well on the floor as I did in the bed. I will still periodically sleep on the floor, just because it feels good.

floor_sleep

When I teach clients Somatic Movements on the floor, a question I often ask them at the end of their class is “Do you feel like you could go to sleep where you are now on the floor?” And they always, without exception, answer with a kind of surprised, “Yes!”

I am not suggesting you throw out your bed and begin sleeping on the floor, but you could certainly use your comfort level on the floor to give you an idea of how much unneccesary tension you are holding in your body involuntarily (Sensory Motor Amnesia). If laying on the floor is very uncomfortable, you can be sure your body is tighter and more contracted than it needs to be.

If you would like to learn Somatic Movements that will enable you to release and relax your whole body try one of my online classes here or visit Learn Somatics on YouTube. With a daily Somatics practice the floor can be your friend again, just like it was when you were a kid.

As always thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie

Pandiculation: Movement Medicine

Pandiculation is the simplest way to restore muscle function and reduce  excess muscle tension, but what is it and how does it work?

Pandiculation is something we are all familiar with, even if we’ve never heard of it. A ‘yawn’ is a reflexive pandiculation, and something we have all done countless times. We normally think of a ‘yawn’ as a stretch but on closer inspection this is not the case. When we yawn we actually tighten or contract the muscles of our jaw, neck, upper back and often our arms and shoulders, we then slowly relax back to rest. So far from stretching when we yawn, we first contract and then slowly relax, and that is exactly what pandiculation involves.

If you would like to see some truly expert pandiculating, find yourself a cat. Cats possess incredible agility, phenomenal reflexes, can climb anything, turn on a six pence and contort themselves into some bizarre positions in order to clean themselves. They also pandiculate, a lot. Most animals in the wild will pandiculate somewhere in the order of 40-50 times a day. Whenever they wake from sleep they will automatically pandiculate. And why do they do this?

TO PREPARE THEIR NERVOUS SYSTEM AND THEIR MUSCLES FOR MOVEMENT!

Lion_PandaBig cat, big pandiculation.
This lion is pandiculating his back
and neck, not stretching his belly

That is the function of pandiculation, preparing the muscles for movement. Keep that in mind.

So with the ‘what?’ covered, let’s get into the ‘how?’. Pandiculation starts with a strong voluntary contraction/tightening of a muscle or group of muscles (this is a Motor output). This contraction/tightening of the muscles is sensed and measured by the sensory receptors within the muscles (muscle spindle fibres) and the tendons (golgi tendon organs). These sensory receptors send this new sensory information (input) from the muscles to the Sensory Cortex of the brain. Namely that the length of the muscle has reduced and the level of tension in the muscle has increased. This new input allows the Sensory Motor Cortex to ‘sense’ or become ‘aware of’ the muscle or muscles in question.

Once this has occured the next step is to slowly and carefully contract less… contract less… contract less all the way back to complete rest. By going slowly, we allow the Sensory Cortex time to sense the muscle lengthening and the reduction in the level of contraction/tension. When the contraction has been fully released we come to complete rest and pause. This pause is critically important as it again, allows the Sensory Cortex the time to sense that the muscle length and level of tension have changed.

By systematically pandiculating all the major muscle groups we can reduce the level of tension held involuntarily in the body at a given time. Essentially we are deliberately relaxing all our muscles. The result is improved movement, a reduction or elimination of muscle pain, improved co-ordination and proprioception and a deep sense of relaxation.

Remember muscles that are tight/contracting are working. Work requires energy. Unnecessary tightness/contraction is unnecessary work. It is a waste of energy. Your energy.

By pandiculating the muscles involved in the Three Brain Reflexes (Green Light, Red Light and Trauma) we can reset these patterns of contraction so that the muscles can be at rest, no longer distorting our posture, causing pain and draining our energy.

If you would like to Learn Somatics to pandiculate all the muscles of the body and improve your movement head on over to Learn Somatics on YouTube to get started today.

As always, thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie