At this time of year many people start thinking about New Year Resolutions. Often these resolutions will involve getting fit or losing weight. Your success or ability to lose weight and/or get fit will be intrinsically linked to your ability to move well. We get fit by moving and we lose weight by moving. If we cannot move well and without pain our chances of fulfilling these particular goals are slim… pardon the pun!
So with that said it would make sense to address your ability to move and perhaps make improving your movement one of your new years resolutions. When you can move well and without pain you will be more inclined to continue with your chosen exercise regime/activity. You will also be less likely to pick up an injury that might scupper your progress.
Moving freely and without pain is the foundation stone upon which you can build your new healthier lifestyle for the new year. Somatics is all about improving your movement. A daily somatics practice will lead to;
Pain relief: You are unlikely to keep up a new fitness regime if you have pain. Somatics can resolve your chronic pain issues (read more here)…
Improved movement: Somatics improves your movement by eliminating Sensory Motor Amnesia leading to greatly improved movement (read more here)…
Improved posture: When you release and relax you muscles your posture improves automatically (read more here)…
Improved balance, coordination and proprioception: When you can contract and relax all your muscles voluntarily you will have better control of your whole body (read more here)…
Improved sleep: When your muscles are relaxed it is easier to fall asleep and stay asleep (read more here)…
All of these benefits will go a long way towards helping you achieve your fitness or weight loss goals for the new year. If you would like to learn some of the most fundamental Somatic Movements right now you can head over to the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel where I’ll be adding more movements weekly.
The human organism requires two things in order to survive, fuel (in the form of food and water) and oxygen. Without food we might live for a few weeks, without water a few days, but without oxygen we will expire in a matter of minutes. Our ability to breathe freely, dictates how efficiently we can take in oxygen and also expel carbon dioxide. So the purpose of breathing is two fold, to get oxygen into the body and also to get gaseous waste, in the form of carbon dioxide, out of the body. Anything that reduces the efficiency of this process will lead us to experience a certain amount of stress. The degree to which breathing is compromised is directly proportional to the level of stress experienced. If breathing is compromised just a little, we may not really notice it all that much, but it is certain to affect our performance and well being. Obviously, if breathing is compromised a lot we will certainly notice it.
Deep breathing has long been utilised as a means of alleviating stress and calming the mind and body. But what if you cannot breathe deeply? What if there was so much tension in your body that you could not fill your lungs to their full capacity nor empty them fully?
If you observe the breathing of an infant you will notice something. It is accompanied by very little effort and/or movement. Only the gentle rise and fall of the belly. Breathing in this way, the way we are designed to breathe, is effortless, requiring the work of few muscles but the relaxation of many muscles. The main muscle of inhalation is the diaphragm. In its relaxed state, it has a dome or umbrella shape. When it contracts, the dome flattens out downwards, this flattening out makes the thoracic cavity larger, creating a vacuum that sucks air in, expanding the lungs. The flattening diaphragm also gently pushes the stomach and intestines downwards to make room for this expansion of the lungs. When the the diaphragm relaxes back into its dome shape, it decreases the space in the thoracic cavity pushing the air out of the lungs again. Simple, elegant, efficient.
This free expansion of the lungs is dependant on many muscles being able to lengthen and relax fully. The ribs that form a cage around our lungs are all attached to each other by muscles called intercostals. When these intercostals are able to to relax and lengthen the ribs are free to spread apart like fingers accommodating the expanding lungs within.
The rectus abdominus, your ‘six pack’ muscle, connects the sternum to the pubic bone. When this muscle can relax and lengthen, the stomach and intestines can be gently pushed downwards and outwards by the action of the diaphragm to accommodate the expanding lungs.
The internal and external obliques which wrap around the space between ribs and pelvis also must relax and lengthen to facilitate the internal organs moving downward and the ribs expanding with each inhalation.
You cannot breathe as deeply and freely as possible if you have chronic muscular contraction in the muscles that attach to the ribs or cross the ribs. That is a lot of muscles.
By learning how to release and relax these muscles we can breathe easier, inhaling more air with less effort. This is a very important skill to possess as our breathing has such a profound effect on how we feel. When our breathing is weak and shallow, we feel anxious, fearful and fatigued. When our breathing is deep and free we feel relaxed, calm and content.
Releasing the muscles of Red Light Reflex greatly improves breathing as it involves most of the muscles mentioned above. Somatic movements such as Arch & Curl (see below) address these muscles. Arch & Curl is just one of the many Somatic movements that also allow us to gain greater freedom and control of the muscles that can restrict our breathing. By spending some time releasing and lengthening these muscles our breathing will be deeper and freer and require less effort.
So how does your breathing feel? Can you breathe deeply and freely into your belly? Or do you breathe into your chest? Do you think you would benefit from being able to breathe deeper with less effort?
The medical model generally views joint pain or problems as structural in nature and on occassion this is indeed the case. However, a far more common cause of joint problems is chronically tight and contracted muscles around a joint. Chronically tight muscles are not a structural problem they are a functional problem. Our muscles can easily become too tight as a result of our responses to everyday stresses, from performing repetitive tasks, a lack of movement or from an injury, impact, fall or surgery. These patterns of habitually tight, tense muscles show up in our bodies as the previously discussed Green Light, Red Light and Trauma Reflexes.
How do chronically tight muscles cause joint pain?
When the muscles that articulate a joint are ‘stuck’ at a high level of contraction they are shorter and tighter than is optimal. Short, tight muscles will draw the bones of the joint closer together compressing the joint and leading to pain and restricted movement. If the bony structures in the joint are being pulled too close to each other by the tight muscles these structures can begin to rub off each other and can eventually wear down the cartilage that protects the ends of the bones. So, over time what began as a functional muscular problem becomes a structural problem.
In the case of the hip joint, pain can be caused by habitually contracted gluteals, piriformis and tensor fascia latae. These are all muscles that articulate the hip and leg. However it is never just one muscle that causes the problem as muscles always work in concert. The problem is always a larger, full body pattern of contraction. One sided hip pain, for example is often the result of a Trauma Reflex. It follows then, that an effective solution to the problem cannot only address one muscle. Learning to release the Trauma Reflex and regain balance and control of the muscles of the centre of your body will go a long way towards resolving your hip pain by addressing the entire body and improving control throught out the body.
By improving the function of the muscles around a given joint and addressing the full body pattern of contraction we can release ALL the muscles back to their true resting length. Then, compression of the joint is reduced and normal range of motion and comfort of the joint are restored. This outcome can be achieved safely, quickly and easily through the educational process of Somatics Education (aka Hanna Somatics). You must address the full body pattern of contraction by RELEARNING how to regain control over ALL the muscles involved in the pattern of contraction.
If you have tight painful joints and restricted movement and would like to learn how to release and relax your muscles for freer more comfortable movement, check out Learn Somatics on YouTube for a thorough break down of all the most fundamental and useful Somatic Movements.
We all have a certain capacity for stress, some of us can handle more, others less. The one thing we all have in common though is that we all respond to stress in the same way. We contract, and our muscles tighten. If the stress is ongoing, the contraction and tightening are ongoing.
Let’s compare our personal capacity to handle stress to a bucket. Some people have large buckets, some people have small buckets, and some have medium size buckets.
When we experience stress, a little (or maybe a lot) of water is added to our bucket. Over time, we experience more stresses and our bucket fills up with water until eventually there is no more room for any more. The bucket is now heavy and cumbersome. At this point our capacity to handle stress is reached and then breached as represented by the water beginning to pour out over the sides of the bucket. We now have a very heavy and unwieldy bucket spilling water everywhere.
What happens when our stress levels exceed our capacity to deal with the stress?
We have all, at one time or another, experienced times in our lives when we underwent high or ongoing levels of stress. When we have to endure high levels of ongoing stress we inevitably get sick, we get tired, we age quicker, we become unhappy, we become irritable… So as the bucket fills up with water, our bodies become tighter and tighter due to the involuntary muscular contractions in response to the stress. Our bodies EXPRESS stress as tension, and they express excessive stress as excessive tension.
Unfortunately, stress is an unavoidable part of life, so the bucket is going to fill up in response to stress whether we like it or not. But! If we could empty the bucket somehow…
Well there is a very simple way to empty the stress bucket, a daily Somatic Movement practice.
Somatic Movements are simple floor based movement patterns that allow you to quickly and easily lower the level of tension in your muscles in a systematic way by pandiculating, effectively tipping water out of your bucket. An empty bucket can take more water if necessary (read handle more stress!) and in this way allow you to be more resilient to the every day stresses we all experience. A daily Somatic practice will allow you to start and/or finish each day, with an empty, light and easy to carry ‘bucket’.
If you would like to learn how to use Somatic Movements to manage stress, improve your movement and eliminate muscle pain, get in touch with me here…
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!
Big 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.
What is the Red Light Reflex and why must we be able to recognize it??
The Red Light Reflex, also called the Startle Reflex, is an automatic brain reflex that is activated every time we are startled or feel we are in sudden danger .ie; when we hear a loud noise, or someone yells ‘duck!’. It can equally be caused by spending too much time slumped in front of a laptop, tv, tablet or smartphone.
The purpose of Red Light Reflex is to contract all the major muscles of the front of our body so as to enable us to make ourselves smaller. This protects the soft and vulnerable internal organs located in our abdomen. Red Light is in effect the very opposite of the previously described Green Light Reflex. Green Light involves mostly muscles of extension (expansion), where as Red Light involves mostly muscles of flexion (withdrawal). Throughout our evolution, Red Light Reflex served a very practical and useful purpose. If Green Light is the ‘fight’ or the ‘flight’, Red Light is the ‘freeze’, or ‘play dead’. It is a shrinking away from fear or danger. Animals in the wild do this all the time as a means of hiding from predators, making themselves small and withdrawing into themselves. The main muscles involved are indicated in the image below, also involved but not indicated are the hip flexors, flexors of the arms and legs, and the internal rotators of the arms and legs.
Just as Green Light Reflex can cause problems when it becomes habituated, so too can the Red Light Reflex. It can lead to chronic neck pain, headaches, jaw pain, hip pain, mid back pain and shallow breathing. Shallow breathing in and of itself leads to low level anxiety as the body becomes stressed due to a lack of oxygen. This can lead to fatigue, depression and sleep problems. The wooden mannequinn below approximates the Red Light Reflex as it typically appears.
Do you recognise this type of posture in yourself, or in others? It is, unfortunately, very common in modern society. Again, this type of stooped over posture is often associated with the aging process, but it is merely an habituated physical response to fear and stress, and one that is easily reversed. But before we get to that there is one more brain reflex to discuss. Next up… The Trauma Reflex.
The Red Light Reflex is an automatic Brain Reflex triggered when we are startled or feel we are in danger.
It allows us to withdraw from a perceived threat by causing all the muscles of the front of the torso to tighten.
If habituated it can cause neck, jaw and mid back pain, shallow breathing and fatigue.
The slumped posture it creates is associated with aging but it can be easily reversed.
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?
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.
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…
The Green Light Reflex is an automatic brain reflex.
Green Light Reflex helps us to move forward by contracting the muscles of the back of our bodies.
It is activated many times during the day.
If we activate it too much without turning it off, we forget HOW to turn it off.
When this happens we develop back pain, stiffness, and restricted movement.
Habituated Green Light Reflex can cause herniated discs, back pain, neck pain, sciatica and knee pain among others.