Use your brain to change your pain

sitting-is-painfulSitting has been called the new smoking. Not everybody smokes, but everybody sits. If you think how many hours we sit during a single day, multiply that by seven and again by 52 weeks. That’s a large percentage of our waking hours we spend sitting! Over the course of a year dysfunctional habituated sitting can pose significant muscular problems.

Question, “how you are sitting right now?” Are you collapsed on your sofa, sitting bolt upright at your desk, or hunched over your kitchen table? All of these different postures have been practiced for many years and because of this we are no longer aware what is correct posture. Our brain learns that this posture is normal and stores this information away. The problem is that the brain is filing away postural information that inhibits our ability to self-correct. Over time what we think is straight is actually curved!

So let’s explore a little deeper why this happens. Muscles never move unless the brain gives them a signal to move. If your muscles keep getting a signal from the brain to tighten as when hunched forwards over a computer, they will remain in this position unless your brain tells them to relax. If you have practiced this posture for many years there is an exaggerated level of muscular contraction in your shoulders and chest. Surely you can change this?

The are two parts of the brain that are responsible for movement, the motor cortex, controlling voluntary movement and the sub cortex, which stores learnt movement. Let’s go back to hunching over a desk. When the motor cortex teaches your muscles to tighten whilst working on a computer, your chest muscles contract which rounds your shoulders and back and tightens your neck. Over time the sub cortex learns this postural habit and records this as normal. You have effectively set your muscles on cruise control. This involuntary, habitual tightening is known as sensory motor amnesia. To put it simply, sensory motor amnesia is the inability to consciously control your muscles and coordinate movement. Your muscles remain so tight that they simply won’t relax. Therefore muscular pain is more often than not caused by the inability to control the muscles from a brain level.

Another factor is the brain’s response to stress. Every mental reaction has a mirrored physical response, whether it starts with a thought of excitement, anticipation, anxiety or anger. Everything that we feel and experience within our environment is sent as sensory feedback to the brain. The brain digests this information and sends motor commands in response. If this continues for the long-term, the muscular response remains in a contracted state and sensory motor amnesia is created. Therefore when medical practitioners comment, “it’s all in your head”, this is actually correct.

It was Thomas Hanna, Ph.D. an American neurophysiologist, movement educator and a philosopher who coined sensory motor amnesia and created Hannah Somatic Education. Hanna believed that,” If you can sense it and feel it, you can change it.” He designed a form of movement education based on improving the sensory motor system to regain awareness and control over the body. Working with specific movements, Hannah taught his clients how to undo the effects of sensory motor amnesia and replace it with sensory motor remembering.

Hannah’s experience working with thousands of clients lead to creating a frame work of three distinct full body reflective patterns that are adopted in response to stress. These reflexes are natural adaptations to the lives we live. Muscular problems are created when we get stuck in one of these reflexes and cannot release out of them.

The first reflex Hannah called, the Green Light Reflex. When we react to life’s daily stress and demands, the muscular response contracts our back muscles. Think of what your body does when you are rushing around to get things done, your back muscles tighten to move forward. When this posture is habituated it looks like a soldier on parade: the lower back is tightly arched, the shoulders and head are pulled backwards and the buttocks are contracted. If this is left unchecked it can is a major contributing factor to lower back pain.

The opposite of this response is one of withdrawal, when we feel anxious, apprehensive, scared or depressed. This is a universal pattern common to all animals. Hanna coined this the Red Light Reflex. This is also the adaptive posture that we habitually take on when we sit for long hours slumped over our desks. Our chest muscles tighten and shoulders round, this contracts our diaphragm making it difficult to breathe with ease. The pelvis tucked under and hip flexors contracted. When this reflex is adapted, people assume that this is the result of the ageing process. This is not the case, but a learnt habituated posture that can be reversed.

The third distinct reflex is known as Trauma and occurs is in response to accidents or injuries. If you’ve had a fall, the muscles on the opposite side of your body tighten in compensation to lighten the load on the injured side. This pulls the centre of the body away from the injured side to protect and creates a torque in the centre of the body. If this is left unchecked this unbalanced posture creates chronic muscular problems that involve uneven leg length, tight painful hips, knees and foot problems.

You may be asking yourself at this stage how does this magic all work? The answer is called pandiculation. It’s what every cat and dog does upon waking. They start by tightening the front of its body and follow by lengthening the back and then reverses the action. It looks like stretching but the key is that the animal is actively lengthening from a contraction. It’s like a full body yawn.

Have a go; yawn as if you’ve just woken. Notice how your chest muscles and arms tighten, back arches and then you slowly stretch outward. It a deliberate tightening, followed by a slow voluntary lengthening of the muscle, then a complete relaxation. Because of its voluntary nature, you are working from the motor cortex, the part of the brain that teaches your muscles to be more responsive.

Try this movement out to experience how Somatic Movement works to release tension and lengthen your back muscles.


Arch & Flatten

  • Lie down on your back with your knees bent hip distance apart. Place your arms away from your body with the palms up. Take several breaths into your belly and allow your abdominals to relax.
  • Inhale and slowly roll your tailbone down into the floor. Allow your lower back to arch slightly. Only arch as far as this is comfortable. Sense how this movement contracts your lower back muscles, but lengthens the front of your body.
  • Tilt your pelvis backwards and allow your back muscles to lengthen as you release the arch and float your back to the floor. Completely relax.
  • Repeat this action, arching to voluntarily contract your back muscles and releasing to voluntarily lengthen your back muscles.
  • After repeating these movements 10 to 15 times relax your legs back down onto the ground and sense do the muscles of your lower back feel softer, less arched, longer and more relaxed.

Learn more in Tanya’s workshops at Qi: November 16, 17 or 18

Meet Tanya Fitzpatrick

Tanya FitzpatrickTanya Fitzpatrick draws on a varied background of bodywork and has been teaching movement since 1999. She is a certified as a Somatic Movement Educator, an advanced yoga teacher trainer, and a Body-Mind Centering Professional.

She has trained hundreds of individuals and groups how to move without pain and is regarded as one of Ireland’s leading Movement Educators. Her experience in coaching cutting edge movement education, has helped her clients to move in ways they never thought possible.

As a teacher, Tanya stimulates and transforms her groups through her effective and powerful training, giving them the ability to reach their full movement potential. She always shares high quality content with a commitment to integrity and excellence and does it with an approachable and compassionate manner with a contagious sense of fun.

Preview Tanya’s Approach HERE

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