Yoga and Somatics from the Inside Out
“The most important thing for you to remember is that Somatic Exercises change your muscular system by changing your central nervous system”
– Thomas Hanna (founder of Hanna Somatic Education)
What causes muscular pain, stiffness and tension?
Have you ever wondered why despite your best efforts (regular exercise, massage, physical therapy) your back, hip, neck or shoulder pain either doesn’t go away or comes back within a short period of time?
Well, you’re not alone. A lot of people have this experience and it can feel very frustrating and demoralising. I personally lived with chronic neck and shoulder tension for many years which always seemed to return no matter what I did. So frustrating not to mention sore. Why does this happen to so many of us?
To answer this question, it helps to know what causes our muscles to become tight in the first place. Our muscles contract in response to accidents, injuries, illnesses and habitual, repetitive movements as well as to the emotional stresses of daily life. So far, so good. But this is only part of the puzzle.
The role of your brain
Did you also know that your brain and nervous system control your muscles? When we learn any kind of movement (like riding a bike) at first it seems as if we will never get the hang of it but before long we have mastered it and it has become involuntary, meaning we no longer need to think about what we are doing. However, in exactly the same way we can also learn patterns of movement or ways of holding the body that are not so helpful to us.
For example, you’re sitting at your computer and before you know it your shoulders have tightened, rounded and hunched up towards your ears.When we hold our bodies in this position for long enough the brain learns to keep our muscles there – even when we stop working at the computer and want to relax, the shoulders remain tight. They cannot and will not relax because they are no longer under our voluntary control i.e. your brain can no longer sense and feel the muscle contraction.
Sensory Motor Amnesia
Thomas Hanna called this Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) and it is the missing link in why so many approaches to pain relief and freedom of movement provide temporary solutions at best. To find a more permanent way to release muscle tension it makes sense that we need to help the brain regain voluntary control of the muscles. In this way, we can relearn to relax tight muscles which are the most common cause of muscular pain and stiffness.
Somatic Exercises are Unique
Somatic Exercises seek to address the root cause of most chronic muscular pain and stiffness – Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). It does this through simple, natural and pleasurable movements that are performed slowly and gently so that your brain can become aware of the internal sensations within your body.
This will enable your brain and central nervous system to regain control over your muscles. As a result your muscles will release tension, relax and lengthen. Once you learn the movements, 15 minutes a day is often all that is required to enable you to stay supple and flexible and to be able to move freely and with ease.
Somatic Exercises are unique in that they use a method call pandiculation to help muscles relax and reset to their natural length.
Pandiculation is what enables Somatic Exercises to be so effective, so quickly because it engages your brain. And it’s what a cat or dog does every time it gets up from resting. If you’d like to move like an animal, next chance you get watch closely how a cat stretches. Funnily enough, it looks like a stretch but it isn’t – it is a pandiculation which involves 3 components:
- Tightening a muscle group tighter than it already is (so your brain can consciously sense the muscle contraction)
- Then slowly lengthening and releasing those muscles
- Before completely relaxing them
It’s also what we do when we do a full body yawn. Why not try it: Imagine you’ve just woken up and do a nice yawny stretch. Doesn’t it feel good? Did you notice your body contracting first before slowly releasing, lengthening and relaxing?
This is the way we perform the Somatic Exercises and why they feel so good to do and are so effective.