It is estimated that approximately 30% of people over the age 18 in the United States suffer from back pain or sciatica (pain in the sciatic nerve that runs from the lower back to the bottom of each leg). If you are in a group of adults, look to your left, then look to your right: at least one of you probably has back pain! Much of this pain could be avoided if more people knew about Somatic Movement.
Back pain can interfere with your daily activities, your work, your sleep, and your quality of life. Many people resort to medication, surgery, or other invasive treatments to cope with their back pain, but these often come with side effects, risks, and limitations.
What if there was a natural, safe, and effective way to relieve your back pain without drugs or surgery? A way that addresses the root cause of your pain and helps you regain control over your body and your movement? A way that teaches you how to prevent future pain and injury by improving your posture, mobility, and awareness?
That way is called Somatic Movement (in the tradition of Thomas Hanna).
What is Somatic Movement?
Somatic Movement is a form of mind-body education that helps you release chronic muscle tension, improve your posture and alignment, and restore your natural movement patterns. It is based on the principle that most chronic pain and dysfunction are caused by habituated muscle tension (or what Hanna called “sensory-motor amnesia”), a condition in which your brain forgets how to sense and control certain muscles due to stress, trauma, injury, or habit. As a result, these muscles become chronically contracted and tight, causing pain, stiffness, reduced range of motion, poor posture, and impaired function.
Back pain is often the result of what Thomas Hanna described as the “green light” reflex. This reflex is helpful when we need it, as it contracts muscles in the back of the body to get us ready to go. It occurs even slightly before we’re consciously aware of the need to move, such as when there’s a knock at the door or the phone rings. In most highly industrialized societies the green light reflex is triggered hundreds of times per day (or more) and our brains adjust to consider a more contracted state as the new normal. We then lose the ability to consciously, voluntarily release this habituated tension.
Somatic Movement teaches you how to reawaken your sensory-motor awareness and retrain your brain to relax and coordinate your muscles more efficiently. It uses gentle and slow movement patterns that help you to explore and release the patterns of tension in your body. By doing so, you can relieve your back pain and improve your overall health and well-being.
How Somatic Movement Can Help Relieve Back Pain
Back pain is typically not caused by structural problems such as spinal misalignment, bulging discs, or joint irritation. These are effects, not causes. The real cause of back pain is habituated muscle tension that pulls the body out of alignment and compresses the nerves.
Somatic Movement can help you regain control over your back muscles by teaching you how to sense and release them. By doing so, you can:
- Reduce or eliminate muscle spasms that cause pain and inflammation
- Restore proper alignment and balance to your spine and pelvis
- Increase blood flow and oxygen to your tissues
- Enhance joint mobility and stability
- Prevent further injury and degeneration
- Improve your posture and movement efficiency
Somatic Movement can also help you address the underlying factors that contribute to habitual tension and back pain, such as stress, emotional tension, poor habits, or lack of awareness. By learning how to relax your body and mind, you can:
- Reduce the effects of stress hormones on your muscles and nerves
- Release emotional trauma stored in your body
- Break free from habitual patterns of tension and movement
- Develop a more positive and confident attitude towards yourself and your body
- Increase your awareness of how you use your body in daily life
- Learn how to adapt to changing situations and demands
How to Practice Somatic Movement for Back Pain
Somatic Movement is easy to learn and practice at home or anywhere else. All you need is a comfortable surface, such as a mat or a carpeted floor, some loose-fitting clothing, and some time to focus on yourself.
There are many somatic exercises that target different areas of the body and address different types of habituated muscle tension. Some examples are:
- Arch & Flatten: This exercise helps you release the muscles along the spine that may contribute to lower back pain.
- Back Lift: This exercise helps you release muscles in the back of the body, particularly the diagonals from your shoulders to your opposite hips.
- Arch & Curl: This exercise helps you release the muscles in the front of the body that may contribute to upper back pain.
- Side Bend: This exercise helps you release the muscles on the sides of the body that may contribute to lateral back pain.
- Washrag: This exercise helps you release the muscles in the waist and shoulders that may contribute to rotational back pain.
You can find detailed instructions for these exercises online or in books here.
The key to practicing these movements is to pay attention to your internal sensations, and to move Soft, Small, Slow and Smooth.
Somatic Movement is not a quick fix or a magic bullet. It is a process of learning and discovery that requires your active participation and commitment. However, the rewards are well worth it. By practicing a few minutes each day, you can reclaim your natural ability to move with ease, grace, and joy.