Lenore Foster is a Certified Yoga Teacher and Somatics Educator serving clients in Lorne Park, Port Credit and South Mississauga. She provides yoga and Somatics classes and privates in her home studio.
What is Somatics?
Somatics - or Somatic Education - is a safe, gentle, and holistic approach to eliminate chronic muscle pain for the long term.
It is somatic in the sense that the learning occurs within the individual as an internalized process - it's a "reprogramming" of the brain.
First developed by Thomas Hanna, PhD, it is unique in that it uses the brain, the central control system of the muscles, to relearn movement patterns that will serve you. You are taught - through slow, gentle movements - how to relax the muscles that contribute to your pain.
Because it is an internal process (using the sensory-motor nervous system), it requires participation of the individual, as you learn to pay attention to the sensations in the body as you move.
You can hear a sample of how Somatics works by listening to this fundamental Somatics exercise below.
Is Somatics for you?
Somatics is for you if you'd like to take charge of your health and wellness and be able to learn valuable tools to help yourself. You will learn to eliminate dysfunctional patterns of movement that originate in the neural pathways of your brain, and regain control of your affected muscles. You will also learn how to recognize automatic reflexes in your body that are largely unconscious and when habituated cause postural problems.
It's also for you if you feel like you've tried everything else and nothing seems to help.
The body is designed as a self-regulating system to function well for decades. Learn to self-regulate again - tapping into your own power to heal!
Here is a sample of the issues Somatics can help people with:
* chronically tight muscles (back, hips, shoulders, neck, etc)
* Piriformis syndrome
* Sacro-Iliac joint problems (S-I joint)
* IT band problems
* Knee pain
* Carpal tunnel syndrome
* Upper-cross syndrome
* Frozen shoulder
* Plantar fasciitis
* Herniated discs
How do our muscles get chronically tight?
The pain or discomfort you have likely has to do with the type of society in which we live. In urban-industrial societies, where stress is highest, there exists the greatest incidence of pain. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, stress has been classified as the health epidemic of the 21st century.
Most pain and posture problems are directly related to how your body responds to stress, and your muscular habits.
There’s such a focus on external tasks that many people have lost the ability to perceive the internal messages of their own bodies. We notice only the pain - which is considered a desperate, too-late message from the body. Most pain is related to how your body responds to stress, and your muscular habits. Let’s look at these now.
How your body responds to stress
Every single day, unbeknownst to you, your nervous system is responding to daily stresses and traumas with specific muscular reflexes. These reflexes are hard-wired and are designed to protect you. These come from the reptilian part of your brain (think: fight/flight), so there's no thinking involved - it's completely unconscious and automatic. Your nervous system plays a huge role in your life!
When these muscular reflexes are repeatedly triggered, the body "learns" to hold these contractions unconsciously in the "lower" parts of the brain (cerebellum). This is called Sensory Motor Amnesia because it's like the conscious, voluntary part of the brain (the cerebral cortex) has "forgotten" how to control these muscles. These chronically tight muscles change our posture and cause us aches and pain.
The body responds to stress in 3 distinct ways:
Green Light Reflex
The Green Light Reflex makes you GO (aka the Landau Response). It immediately flexes the muscles of the back.
When you were about 3 months of age, you were able to lift your head, arch your back and extend your legs - the back muscles came to life. This led to crawling, and then to walking. This reflex is triggered when you need to take action: respond to a request, catch a train, get to an appointment, take your kid to hockey practice. In primitive times, the green light reflex brought you into swift action to fight off a predator.
The constant repetition of such situations and the Green Light response makes these muscular contractions chronic and habituated. The back muscles can learn to stay overly-contracted, pulling the back into an exaggerated arch. A habituated Green Light Reflex can lead to conditions such as herniated disks, neck pain, shoulder pain, and low back pain.
Someone with a habituated green light response, will often have an soldier-like posture with arched back, toes pointing outward and locked knees.
The Red Light Reflex makes you STOP (aka the Startle Reflex). It immediately flexes the muscles of the front of the body - primarily the abdominal muscles - and shrugs shoulders up and forward. This is triggered in response to fear or worry - the body withdraws to protect itself in response to negative emotions: depression, anxiety, grief, fear, or even someone honking their horn. In primitive times, the red light reflex shut down your breathing and tucked you inward (making you smaller) so a predator would not detect you.
A habituated Red Light Reflex can lead to chronic neck pain, jaw pain (as with TMJ), a dowager’s hump, hip pain, knee pain and shallow breathing. The inability to breathe fully deprives your brain, blood and muscles of the oxygen they need to function properly. This in turn can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, sleep problems and exacerbate allergies.
Someone with a habituated red light response, will often have rounded shoulders and a tucked pelvis, with bent, knocked- knees. The head is often pulled forward.
When these hard-wired muscular reflexes are repeatedly triggered in our environment, the body "learns" to hold these contractions.
The Trauma Reflex makes you AVOID - it protects you from injury. It Or, if you’re already injured, it helps protect the injured area. Think of someone throwing a ball at you as you flinch sideways to avoid being hit. Or, if you do get hit by the ball, the muscles of the body cringe inward toward the site of impact.
The Trauma Reflex occurs involuntarily in response to accidents and injuries and the need to avoid further pain as you compensate due to an injury. This reflex involves the muscles of the trunk rotators, which, when contracted, hike the hip on one side and twist the spine slightly. Examples of this would be the repetitive task of holding a young child on your hip, a sudden fall, limping on one side in response to a twisted ankle on the other side, repetitive one-sided action in certain sports, being stung from a bee, surgery or suffering from appendicitis.
Examples of a habituated trauma reflex include scoliosis, frozen shoulder, sciatica, walking with a limp or having one leg "shorter" than the other. It can affect balance.
Someone with a dominant trauma reflex will have a tilt to the torso or head, and one shoulder higher or more forward than the other.
Your muscular habits can also cause tight muscles and contribute to your pain. There are many things you do that are unconscious. How you fold hands, cross arms and legs, hold a child on one hip, or drive a car. Even how you chew your food (do you primarily chew on your right side or left side?) As well, things can go awry when adapting to an injury. e.g. moving differently as a broken foot heals. This maladaptation changes your muscular habits so that when your injury heals, you’ve already developed new habits that interfere with normal functioning.
Other examples include how you sit, how you bend to pick something up, how you reach up into the cupboard, or how you carry your purse. It can also be something you do repeatedly one way, such as swing a golf club, tennis racket, or hockey stick. Many sports are a one-sided endeavour. Or maybe you are misusing your body, e.g. your back is slumped and rounded as you sit at the computer. When we are busy and focused on the task at hand, we are not as aware of our posture and habits.
How do you get rid of these tight and painful muscles?
Pain is almost always caused by muscular imbalances, as opposed to structural problems. By relearning movement in the sensory-motor center of the brain (the cortex), your muscular reactions to stress can be overcome and you gain control and lengthen your muscles.
The primary method used in Somatics to lengthen and release tight muscles is pandiculation, which uses the body's Pandicular Response. It's actually already built into our nervous system - we do it when we wake up in the morning (think stretching arms overhead and yawning as you lengthen your toes away from you). It's designed to wake up the brain and ready you for action. Cats and dogs also do this when they wake up from a nap and "stretch". To pandiculate, then, is simply a voluntary contraction of a muscle -- which takes the muscle off auto-pilot -- and then a very slow release of that muscle. The more you can sense this activity, the more precise your motor control becomes. And the more precise your motor control, the better you can sense it. The practice and repetition of this is how we relearn.
Often where the pain exists is not necessarily where the problem is. For example, if the shoulder is tight and limited in its movement, it's often a whole body movement pattern that is contributing to this. So with Somatics, it's not about "fixing" the shoulder, but rather identifying how the body moves as a whole to see where one might be overcompensating, and relearning the bigger movement pattern.
But doesn't stretching help lengthen the muscles?
As mentioned above, the muscles only move or change when the brain tells them to. The muscles are like good soldiers and only do what they're told. A stretch is a passive movement and does not involve the brain. Altering the muscle through manipulation, stretching, strengthening, injection, etc. will not have any lasting effect.
With Somatics, there is an internal process that occurs where new sensory information is input into the sensory-motor feedback loop, allowing the motor neurons of the brain to regain control the muscles fully, and permanently. Daily Somatics exercises are recommended to reinforce and maintain these patterns of movement and muscle control.
Benefits of a regular Somatics practice
Somatics increases the flexibility of the muscles and improves the range of motion of the joints, with no aggressive stretching or risk of injury. This will help in all sports and activities (including yoga!). In addition, ineffective movement patterns (for example, a bad tennis or golf swing, an inefficient habit in running) can be more easily identified by the central nervous system using Somatics, so they are remapped into "best movement practices" for the sport or activity in question. Consequently, coordination and accuracy can also improve. All these gains can decrease the risk of injury, improve recovery time, and increase athletic performance.
How can I try Somatics?
If you are curious to try Somatics, and see what it can do for you, please listen to the audio below, which is a sample of a Somatics movement for the low back. You can also attend a Group class or try a Private session.
Lenore Foster is a Certified Yoga Teacher and Somatics Educator serving clients in Lorne Park, Port Credit and South Mississauga. She provides yoga and Somatics group classes and private hands-on Somatics sessions in her home studio. Call her at 905-271-2505
Want to relieve tight back muscles in 3 minutes (using Somatics)?
Click below to hear audio instruction of a fundamental Somatics movement called Arch and Flatten, which is designed to help you gain control of chronically tight back muscles.
Certified Yoga Teacher and Somatics Educator
1309 Ambleside Drive, Mississauga, ON
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