The Clues in Our Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Clarissa Watson on Unsplash

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The Fine Art of Relaxation

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

A quick google of the definition provides the following:

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

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

So how could we practice relaxation?

What might this relaxation practice look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy, and as always thanks for reading.

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

www.learnsomatics.ie

How do YOU walk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for visiting, until next time…

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

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

Relax and Comfort Your Lower Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always thanks for visiting.

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

Green Light means Go!

What is the Green Light Reflex and why must we be able to recognize it??

The Green Light Reflex is an automatic brain reflex that is triggered every time we are called to action, .ie; when our phone rings, when someone calls our name, when we have a deadline looming, when we notice a new email in our inbox etc. The job of Green Light Reflex is to contract all the major muscles of the back of our body so as to enable us to move forwards (see image below). When this reflex is triggered the muscles of the back extend the spine, the shoulders are pulled back, the lower back is pulled into an arch, the head is pulled back somewhat, the glutes, hamstrings and calves tighten, straightening the legs and rotating the legs outward. It is a very positive reflex, it is this reflex which enabled us to learn how to roll, crawl, walk, run and move out into the world. However, if it is activated too frequently, or too much, it can become habituated. What does this mean?

Green Light_72ppi

Well, the brain gets very good at what it does repeatedly, repetition of actions is the method by which the brain LEARNS. So if a reflex is activated REPEATEDLY the brain LEARNS to be ready to perform that action (activating all the muscles of the back of the body) at all times. The brain will then hold those muscles at a low level of contraction ALL THE TIME. At this point it becomes an involuntary action, in that you are no longer aware that you are doing it. What you will be aware of though is the result of the habitual contraction namely, fatigue and pain in your lower back, neck and hips or any combination thereof.

Habituated Green Light Reflex can lead to back pain, herniated discs, sciatica, hip pain and knee pain. You will also notice that you cannot bend forward easily any more, as in order to bend forward, your back muscles need to relax and lengthen, but as you have habituated contraction of all the muscles of the back of your body, you cannot do that. So now you have lost voluntary control of the muscles of your back. In Somatic Education we would say you have developed Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) in relation to the Green Light Reflex. You can activate the reflex still, in fact you are really good at that, but you have forgotten how to turn it off. The wooden mannequinn below approximates the posture of Green Light Reflex.

Mannequin_Stress_Reflex

If you’re past 30 years of age, you put it down to aging. But let’s be clear, habituation of the Green Light Reflex has nothing to do with aging and everything to do with how you respond to the many different stresses you experience in your life. It is a neurological event that results in a FUNCTIONAL problem. If you regain control over the neurological (brain) event, you can solve the functional muscle problem.

The Green Light Reflex is just one of three sub cortical brain reflexes that are of concern to Somatic Educators. Check back soon to learn about the other two…

Summary:

  1. The Green Light Reflex is an automatic brain reflex.
  2. Green Light Reflex helps us to move forward by contracting the muscles of the back of our bodies.
  3. It is activated many times during the day.
  4. If we activate it too much without turning it off, we forget HOW to turn it off.
  5. When this happens we develop back pain, stiffness, and restricted movement.
  6. Habituated Green Light Reflex can cause herniated discs, back pain, neck pain, sciatica and knee pain among others.

You can start learning how to regain control of the Green Light Reflex right now by visiting Learn Somatics on YouTube.

As always, thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie