Somatic Exercises Instead of Stretching

Have you ever asked “Why are my muscles tight, and what can I do to help correct this?”

The brain and nervous system control both sensation and motor control of muscles. When we move, the brain receives constant sensory feedback about our surroundings as it figures out how to move us in the most efficient manner. Therefore, the brain is the control center of the muscles.

Muscles can become chronically tight from physical and emotional stress, bracing after injury, surgery or trauma, or from holding certain postures (ex: computer work, playing musical instruments, etc) for extended periods. Our muscle tension can become reflexive – they keep firing (or tensing) on their own without our conscious awareness or ability to control them. The dialogue between your brain and muscles becomes disconnected.

The resulting patterns of muscular contraction that develop can result in such common conditions as chronic back pain, neck, shoulder and hip pain, limited mobility, joint pain, poor posture, shallow breathing, and uneven leg length for example.

For tight, sore muscles, stretching has always been one of the most widely “prescribed” treatments. Stretch before and after your workout, stretch if your back hurts….when in doubt, stretch.

Recently, however, there is more evidence to suggest that static stretching is not only over rated, but that it doesn’t prevent injuries, or even lengthen muscles properly. Static stretching can cause harm if habitually contracted muscles are incapable of relaxing; a protective reflex in the muscles is evoked (the “stretch reflex,”), which causes muscles to contract back against the stretch.

A more effective answer to habituated, learned muscle tightness is to actively reset muscle length at the level of the central nervous system. What is required is to retrain the brain to retrain the muscle to lengthen and relax.

The practice of Somatics is a more effective approach at relaxing habitually contracted muscles through active movement. The term is derived from the word “Somatic” (Greek “somatikos”, soma: “living, aware, bodily person”) which means, pertaining to the body, experienced and regulated from within.

Somatics encompasses holistic body-centered approaches that help people reconnect with self through movement practices that promote psycho-physical awareness, neuro-muscular repatterning, as well as directed intention to facilitate changes.

Somatics differs from passive stretching because it is active: it begins with a conscious, voluntary contraction of the affected muscle or muscle groups, past the point of their present state of habituation. Then, by lengthening the muscles from that full contraction, the brain resets the muscles’ length and tonus. This method gives strong feedback to the brain, allowing it to “refresh” its sensation of those muscles, and to slowly reset their length. This action occurs at the level of the nervous system, thereby conferring greater sensation, motor control and coordination of the muscular system. By learning to regain awareness, sensation, and motor control of muscles, the brain can remember how to relax and move the muscles properly.

Stretching can quite often be uncomfortable, especially when the muscles are tight due to a protective reflex. Somatics, on the other hand, should be much more comfortable because the person is actively moving through their available range of motion; only up to the edge of tension at most. Somatics has an elegant simplicity to it, and most people find the movements very pleasurable and relaxing.

If your chronic pain is being caused by unconscious bracing or a habit of tensing from stress, it is never too late, even if you have experienced pain or limited mobility for decades. With Somatics, you are actively and consciously engaging in the process of re-awakening your brain’s ability to relax your muscles. Given the right conditions, it is never too late to re-program the way your brain is communicating with your muscles!

To see what Somatic exercises look like, there are several examples demonstrated on Youtube. When on Youtube, if you search “charliemurdach” you will find lots of somatic exercises.

For an example of a simple somatic shoulder exercise, try: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBMgXJZQ9jE

For an example of a somatic hip exercise, try:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGuBU-1M0xM

To learn more about Somatics, you can also check out the website: http://hannasomatics.com/

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