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.

learnsomatics.ie

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

www.learnsomatics.ie

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

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

It’s Never Just One Muscle

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.

hamstring runnerIt’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.

*Soma: the body experienced from within

Learn Somatics online with me, check out my online learning options here!

Or checkout the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel to start learning right away.

As always thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie

Somatic Movement – The Basics and some Resources

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;

Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA)

&

The Three Reflexes (Green Light, Red Light and Trauma)

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.

Everyone has some degree of SMA, from a little to a lot. Read more about what SMA is and how it develops, here.

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.

Here they are;

Green Light Reflex

Red Light Reflex

Trauma Reflex

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;

Books about Somatics

Somatics by Thomas Hanna

The Body of Life by Thomas Hanna

Move Without Pain by Martha Peterson

Move Like an Animal by Edward Barrera

The Sustainable You by John Loupos

If you think you’d like to Learn Somatics online with me, you can check out my online learning options here.

As always thanks for reading

www.learnsomatics.ie

Stretching Vs. Pandiculation – What’s the difference and why does it matter?

Let’s look at the key differences between stretching and pandiculation. Pandiculation is used extensively in Clinical Somatic Education to regain the brain’s control of tight painful muscles.

Stretching sends sensory information only as far as the Spinal Cord
When a muscle is stretched, the sense receptors within that muscle send information to the spinal cord to indicate that the length of the muscle has changed, in this case lengthened. The spinal cord in response sends an impulse to the muscle being stretched, triggering a contraction (tightening), it also sends an impulse to the opposing muscle inhibiting a contraction. So, stretching a muscle causes it to respond by contracting. This is counter to what you’re are trying to achieve when you stretch. This is a very basic explanation of the stretch reflex. As you can see the brain is not involved in the process at all, the stretch reflex is a spinal cord reflex.

2015-05-08_0919

Pandiculation sends new sensory information all the way to the Brain
When a muscle is contracted, the sense receptors within that muscle send information all the way to the Sensory Motor Cortex of the brain (see image below) to indicate that the length of muscle has changed, in this case shortened and also that the level of tension in the muscle has increased. Because this information has reached the brain, the muscle can be sensed or ‘felt’. It is now under your conscious control. At this point you can choose to increase, maintain or decrease the level of contraction. When pandiculating you will slowly decrease the level of contraction all the way down to complete rest. But the take home point is you ellicit full cortical control over the muscle when you contract it voluntarily.

SMA Brain Diagram

Stretching is passive
Stretching is passive, you are not actively using the muscle, you are merely pulling on it, there is no brain involvement.

Pandiculation is active
During a Pandiculation you are actively using the muscle, your brain is involved in the process.

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Stretching decreases potential power output of  the muscles involved
Passive stretching and even PNF* stretching temporarily reduce the potential power output of the muscle.

Pandiculation increases sensation & awareness of the muscles involved
Pandiculation strengthens the connection between the sensory motor cortex of the brain and the muscle. The muscle can be sensed more clearly and control of both functions of the muscle (contraction and relaxation) are increased. This is because the muscle is both contracted and relaxed slowly and carefully during a pandiculation, essentially allowing you to practice both functions.

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Stretching provides no new sensory information to the brain
Because the brain is not involved in a passive stretch there is no new sensory information for the brain. Therefore no new learning takes place. This may be the most important difference between stretching and pandiculation

Pandiculation provides lots of new sensory information for brain
Because the brain is very much involved in the process of Pandiculation there is a large amount of new sensory information for the brain. Therefore new learning takes place.

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Stretching can be painful
Passive stretching is generally uncomfortable and can even be painful especially if Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) is present.

Pandiculation feels good
Pandiculation performed correctly feels very pleasurable and relaxing. It has the feeling of a yawn.

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No attention required to stretch
There is no focused attention required to pull on a limb and evoke a stretch.

Attention required to paniculate effectively
Focused attention is absolutely required to perform an effective Pandiculation, both to contract the desired muscle and also to control the slow relaxation phase so that it feels smooth.

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Temporary change in length
Passive stretching confers only a temporary change in length, if any, as the muscles reflexively recontract in response to the stretch.

Long term change in length
Pandiculation confers more permanent changes in muscle length as you brain LEARNS a new longer resting length for your muscles. Please note the changes in muscle length that are achieved through pandiculation are as a result of the reduced level of tension in the muscle. They are not as a result of tissue remodelling.

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Stretching does not eliminate Sensory Motor Amnesia
Passive stretching does nothing to eliminate the habituated levels of chronic muscular contraction that are typical of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).

Pandiculation eliminates Sensory Motor Amnesia
Pandiculation eliminates SMA quickly and easily by returning control of the muscle to Sensory Motor Cortex and allowing you to learn how to relax and lengthen your muscles.

These are the main differences between Stretching and Pandiculation. One final point to note is that often when people stretch they will stretch muscles in isolation, whereas with pandiculation one contracts many muscles at once. This allows us to release large patterns of contraction more quickly and effectively.

The learning component of pandiculation allows you to develop better sensorimotor control over your muscles, and muscles that you have full control over will not cause pain. It is only those muscles which you have lost control over that become chronically tight and painful. The pain is the warning sign that you do not have control any more.

If you would like to learn more about Somatics and how it can help you to improve your movement, relieve stress and reduce or eliminate your muscle pain, check out my online classes here.

 

~

www.learnsomatics.ie

Low Back Pain and Green Light Reflex

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.

Stickman_Template_Green_Light

Neutral posture (left), and a typical Green Light posture (right)

 

Some points to notice, in the figure on the right.

  1. The excessive arching of the lumbar spine
  2. The change in angle of the rib cage and pelvis due to the tightening of the back muscles
  3. The drawing drawing back of the shoulders and head
  4. The corresponding forward position of the hips
  5. The hyperextension of the hips and kness
  6. 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).

Spinal_Highlighted

Paravertebrals

 

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.

Muscles involved in Green Light Reflex 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.

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www.learnsomatics.ie

Neck and Shoulder Pain and The Red Light Reflex

How does The Red Light Reflex cause, neck pain, shoulder pain, back pain, problems in the arms and wrists , shallow breathing and poor posture?

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?

Stickman_Template_Red_Light

Neutral posture (left), and a typical Red Light posture (right)

 

Some points to notice, in the figure on the right.

  1. The forward curving of the spine
  2. The change in angle of the rib cage and pelvis due to the tightening of the belly and chest muscles
  3. The drawing together of the rib cage and pelvis due to the tightening of the belly muscles
  4. The corresponding forward position of the head and the shoulders as a result
  5. The bending of the legs and arms
  6. The reduction in true height as a result of the spinal curve

 

Back Pain
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.

Birds-Eye-Red-Light

Neutral posture, absence of Red Light Reflex >>>>> Red Light Reflex

 

Some points to notice, in the figure on the right.

  1. The sunken chest, rounded back and shoulders forward
  2. 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.

Breathing
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.

 

Chest_Abs_Highlighted

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.

~

www.learnsomatics.ie

Injuries and The Trauma Reflex

Injuries can cause Trauma Reflex and Trauma Reflex can cause injuries. How?

Injuries can occur as a result of an impact or fall. When we anticipate an impact, we instinctively turn away from it which generally results in a side on impact. Then, the muscles on the side of the body around the site of impact reflexively contract to protect you from said impact. If this impact is hard enough or ceates enough of a ‘shock’, this muscular contraction or tightening can become habituated. Our brain behaves as if the impact or injury is still happening. When a pattern of muscular contraction becomes habituated you develop Sensory Motor Amnesia in regards to the muscles involved. You forget how to sense them and move them. So in the case of a hard impact or nasty fall, you inadvertently develop a habituated Trauma Reflex. Your waist muscles on one side becoming stuck in contraction. These tight waist muscles draw the hip up towards the ribs and the ribs down towards the hip, shortening your waist. There is also generally some rotation of the spine involved. The figures below illustrate this;

Stickman_TemplateNo Trauma Reflex >>>>>>>Trauma Reflex of right side of body

Some points to notice, in the figure on the right.

  1. The curving of the spine making it shorter on the right side
  2. The drawing together of the rib cage and hip on the right side
  3. The compensatory tilting of the head in an attempt to bring the eyes level with the horizon
  4. The asymmetrical level of the shoulders, and in turn the hands
  5. The increased angle of the thigh bone in relation to the knee as a result of the tilted hips

These are examples of the kinds of postural distortions that a Trauma Reflex causes. The maybe subtle or pronounced depending on the case. When these distortions become habituated, you are no longer in balance like the figure on the left. Even though the cuts, scrapes and bruises from your impact may have healed, your nervous system is still in injury mode. Holding one side of your body tight. If you get stuck in a Trauma Reflex you are likely to incur further injuries because your balance and symmetry have been compromised. This is due to the habituated muscular tightness in the muscles on one side of the body.

If we look from above we can see the spinal rotation that usually accompanies Trauma Reflex more clearly;

Birds-Eye-TraumaNo Trauma Reflex >>>>>>>Trauma Reflex of right side of body

Some points to notice, in the figure on the right.

  1. The rotation of the right shoulder backwards and the corresponding forward rotation of the left shoulder
  2. The compensatory rotation of the pelvis (the blue box) in opposition to the shoulders
  3. The asymmetrical positioning of the feet
  4. The compensatory rotation of the head in relation to the shoulders

Smooth gait (walking pattern) is dependant on the ability of the centre of the body to be relaxed, and able to rotate freely. If you cannot fully lengthen one side of your waist and allow your spine to rotate freely along its axis, your gait will not be smooth or balanced. You will walk with more weight on one side, this can lead to one sided back, hip, knee and ankle pain as one side of your body must work harder than the other. This is easy to visualise when you look at the figures above and imagine those same asymmetries in motion. These asymmetries also lead to increased ‘wear and tear’ in the joints of the affected side which over time can lead to structural problems within the joints themselves. Trauma Reflexes are also the cause of many alleged leg length discrepancies. The short side waist creating a false ‘short’ leg.

When Trauma Reflex is accompanied by Green Light Reflex (which occurs often), we begin to see complaints like Sciatica, and Plantarfasciitis developing due to th habituated muscular tightness on one side plus habituated tightness in the back of the body.

Trauma Reflex can also develop in more innocuous ways. For example slouching to one side as we sit at a desk and use a computer mouse for hours at work. Or holding a baby on one hip for long periods repeatedly. The end result will be the same, the loss of the ability to lengthen the waist muscles on one side of the body and, over time, mysterious one sided pains in the body.

So in this way, an injury can lead to Trauma Reflex and a Trauma Reflex can lead to further injuries. If not addressed it can become a vicious cycle of injuries and pain.

Some more examples of how Trauma Reflex can develop include;

  1. Drawing an injured leg off the ground to protect it from weight bearing, people do this when they use crutches or sprain an ankle
  2. Falling down stairs
  3. Slipping off a kerb or on ice
  4. Performing one sided activites repeatedly, these can be, and often are occupational, recreational or sporting
  5. Sitting into one side of your hip, out of habit. If you always sit in the same corner of your couch for example

You get the picture. Fortunately, it is quite simple to eliminate a Trauma Reflex with Somatic Movements, either via Clinical Hands On Sessions or Somatics Movements. Somatics teaches you how to pandiculate the affected muscles, restoring the brain’s control of those muscles and simultaneously lengthening them back to their correct resting length. The end result is softer, more relaxed muscles a smooth gait and a body that is in balance and capable of equal right/left movement in all directions.

You can learn online with me here. Or you can explore at your leisure on the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel.

As always thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie