Massage is amazing to help relax tight muscles, but sometimes you can’t get in for a massage. Other times, just rubbing that nagging spot doesn’t seem to relax it. I’ve had well intentioned people rub hard on my tight shoulders, only to have them feel sore and angry afterwards. In cases like this, I like to share the principles of Somatics with my clients to easily release their tension.
Somatics works. It explains why some areas stay tense and offers simple tools to help them release. Somatics is empowering because it is something you can do anytime, and in fact it is so natural that you even moved this way in your mother’s womb!
What is Somatics?
The term Somatics was coined by Thomas Hanna, and means “the body as perceived from within.” Hanna discovered that every single person develops patterns of muscle tension over time. These patterns get encoded in your brain, and limit your ability to move or relax muscles. Contracted muscles affect the entire body, just like a tight thread in a sweater shifts the whole sweater. Hanna called these unconscious contractions “Sensory Motor Amnesia” or SMA. Stress, repetitive movement, lack of movement, and injury all cause SMA. Your Sensory Motor Cortex, the area of your brain responsible for sensing and contracting your muscles, actually “forgets” how to relax your muscles. This explains why you can’t just let it go.
So how do you undo this nasty habit of SMA? You need to consciously “relearn” how to relax by performing a pandiculation: a big name for an incredibly easy type of movement.
A pandiculation is the way that the brain relearns how to relax and lengthen contracted muscles. If you’ve ever yawned, then you’ve already pandiculated. A yawn contracts and then slowly relaxes your neck, jaw, and shoulders. Just watch your cat or dog when they wake up to see pandiculation in action, this is how an animal prepares their muscles for movement. And though we sometimes forget, we are animals too.
How do you do it? First: actively contract the tight muscle(s) gently and with awareness. Second: slowly release the contraction bit by bit until the muscle is fully lengthened and relaxed. Third: pause. Then repeat at least two more times. You may notice some difficulty contracting the area or some jerkiness when you release the muscle. This is SMA, it is entirely normal, and it will smooth out the more you pandiculate.
These easy movements not only feel good, they work because they give tons of information to the brain. By actively contracting a tense area, the Sensory Cortex of the brain receives information from receptors in the muscles. As you slowly release the area, the brain gets information from the muscle at each new reduced level of tension. The pause at the end gives the brain a chance to sense the complete change in muscle length and tension. If you pandiculate regularly in the mornings and throughout the day after not moving, moving repetitively, feeling stressed, or getting an injury, you are guaranteed to experience improved movement, less muscle pain, better coordination, and more relaxation.
The majority of my clients and I experience upper shoulder and neck tension from holding stress in our shoulders, or working with our heads tilted down for hours. I recommend you check out this simple video to get a feel for Somatics and easily release tension in your levator scapula! This muscle attaches from the corner of your shoulder blade to the side of your neck, it lifts your shoulders, and it is the main culprit when you have a stiff neck. You can apply these movements to anywhere you have tension – just contract the tight area, slowly release, and pause and notice how your tension melts away.
If you enjoyed this, I regularly incorporate Somatics into my massages, so come on in and I can answer any questions you have. I highly recommend Hanna’s book “Somatics” for a thorough explanation. The book also contains a series of movements that release tension throughout the body, your “daily cat stretch.” Have fun using this incredibly easy tool to release your muscle tension and change your life!