Somatics Follow Up

This is Part 23 of a serial blog originally titled 'Martha Carter's Healing Journey'. In Part 22, it’s All About Retreats! I share the value of retreats, why they’ve long been a part of my life, and what they reveal, heal, and shift in all of us - alongside some great photo collages of past TOPS retreats. In Part 21, I reflect on a conversation with my mom on New Year’s eve about health and healing which ultimately prompted me to list (and share!) my top ten favourite self-care suggestions for 2019. Missed the earlier posts? Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8,  Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, and Part 20.

In my December 2018 blog post, I wrote about how I was starting to learn a gentle body-mind technique called Somatics. Since that time, I have continued to explore this work, finding many interesting and helpful connections.

To review quickly, Somatics, derived from the Greek word ‘soma’ meaning body, is a field within bodywork and movement studies which emphasizes internal physical perception and experience. Many physical techniques are considered ‘somatic’ - including yoga, pilates, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, Rolfing; even Contemporary Dance, and any other approach that focuses on the ‘body as perceived from within’.

The term, introduced in the 1970s by American philosopher and movement therapist Thomas Hanna, is used to describe his personal approach.

In his book, ‘Somatics: Reawakening The Mind's Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health’, he explains:

“The fact is that during the course of our lives, our sensory motor systems continually respond to daily stresses and traumas with specific muscular reflexes.These reflexes, repeatedly triggered, create habitual muscular contractions that we cannot - voluntarily - relax. We no longer remember how to move about freely. The result is stiffness, soreness, and a restricted range of movement.

The habituated state of forgetfulness is called SENSORY MOTOR AMNESIA (SMA). It is a memory loss of how certain muscle groups feel, and how to control them. And because this occurs in the central nervous system, we are not aware of it, yet it affects us to our very core.

This is my good news… SMA can be avoided, and it can be reversed. You can escape it by making use of two abilities that are unique to the human sensory motor system: to unlearn what has been learned, and to remember what has been forgotten.”

Today, I want to follow up about my progress with addressing my own sensory motor amnesia, specifically regarding scoliosis.

Somatics for Scoliosis

For people with scoliosis, just lying down can be a radical act, as the flat, hard surface of the floor completely and uncompromisingly pushes up against our curves, humps, and twists. In my opinion, it is very important for each person to find a way to lie down comfortably, and to learn to ‘settle’ there, as it can help us to unwind our patterns and find a sense of symmetry.

For some people, going all the way to the floor is challenging, so using a higher surface, such as a firm bed or massage table, can bring the same benefits.

To begin my somatics practice, I take two yoga mats and lie them down side by side to create a wider mat, along with a small pillow for my head, and my two new favourite scoliosis ‘pads’ to put under my concavities. I lie down on my back with my knees bent. It is an important detail to keep the knees bent - to make sure the lower back feels alright. When I am ready, I slowly ease my legs out long, while I find the perfect placement of the pillow and pads. For the times when my lower back feels too strained, I either just keep my knees bent, or I put a bolster or pillow under the knees for support when my legs are stretched out.

I take several deep breaths and let my weight drop.

As I focus on my breath, I let myself yawn and relax, and allow my whole body sink into the floor. Teachers use all kinds of images for this: I like the one where I imagine my body as a sack of heavy, wet sand… conjuring up the added bonus image of a sunny, hot beach.

Often, after several minutes of this - and it is important to give this some time - I can feel my thoracic ‘hump’ relax enough so that I can remove my head pillow. In fact, over the years, I have been amazed at how much my (apparently) stiff and hard rib hump can actually shift and change. Even with a fusion, there is a lot of movement possible in the soft tissues. A LOT.

I let time pass, and I breathe. I am almost embarrassed to admit this, but sometimes - especially on difficult days - this is my whole practice!  Sometimes, just lying there and breathing into a straighter, more symmetrical, and relaxed position is all I need to do to feel decompression and pain relief. Sometimes, it makes me feel completely rejuvenated… and other times, I fall asleep. Sometimes, this is all I can manage. Sometimes, less is more.

I have decided that whatever happens, it’s all good. Giving yourself time and attention is the first step in developing your own practice. And when you are ready, you go further.

Most times, I continue on with the deliciously simple, yet profound series of Somatics exercises that seek to reconnect the whole ‘soma’... body, mind, and soul… to reset the natural body mechanics that can easily be lost or confused through injury, trauma, and other life challenges - both physical and emotional.

Based on what I have experienced so far, the exercises are absolutely fascinating in the way they point out my fused and scoliotic imbalances:

  • How each side of my body follows different movement patterns.

  • How one side feels full and the other empty.

  • How one side feels coordinated and the other side completely unconnected.

  • How some movements flow freely as they should, yet others feel jagged.

  • AND how, by repeating these simple patterns regularly, I am becoming aware of myself reversing my own sensory motor amnesia!!

Sample Exercise

Here is an example of one of the exercises:

  1. After settling flat on the floor, I stretch out my four limbs into a big ‘X’ shape.

  2. Even though I was completely relaxed seconds earlier, I find shifting into this position immediately causes me to shorten my breath and hold tension in my body. I notice that my right shoulder is much tighter than my left (due to the twist and curve in my right thoracic area), and my hips are so uneven that one touches the floor more than the other. So much going on! And all I did was change my lying position slightly.

  3. After slowing my breath and settling into the new position, I lengthen my right arm gently and slowly away from the middle of my body - as if someone is pulling on it to stretch it out an inch or two - and then I release it, and settle. Then I do the same with my left arm. Then one leg, and the other. Gently, slowly.

Sounds easy, right?

Not really!!

Simple but profound challenges

Often, while doing it, I notice that my jaw tenses, or my neck gets tight, or my breath stops, or my toes curl, or some other unnecessary tension tries to take hold.

It makes me realize how I am overcompensating for some movements by trying to engage muscles that are not even necessary. In other movements, there is a missing connection, or an uncoordinated spot. It becomes blatantly obvious that my body is extremely asymmetrical; that one arm moves completely differently than the other; that one leg responds and the other doesn’t.

The first time I did this, it made me understand that although my musculature has found strength and balance through exercises like Yoga and Pilates for Scoliosis, my own sensory motor amnesia has never been addressed.  

Through repetition and observation, I have learned that the trick to mastering the Somatics approach is not about ‘trying hard’ per se. It is about learning to completely trust its simplicity. By breathing and sensing into each movement carefully, and settling in between movements, Somatics gradually re-teaches us how to best connect the required muscles for functional movement, ensuring the development of optimum mind-body communication.

I am convinced that Somatics is a fantastic addition to every physical practice, especially for people with scoliosis. It definitely improves awareness and connection, which can then be applied to all bodywork approaches and day-to-day movements.

Can Somatics Correct Scoliosis?

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Somatics could actually ‘correct’ a scoliosis?

In his book, Thomas Hanna writes:  

“When there is scoliosis, it means trauma has occurred. Orthopedic physicians frequently ignore trauma as a factor in a child’s scoliosis, sometimes propounding the outlandish theory that the causes are genetic, that one side of the body grows faster than the other!”

WHOA, that is a bold statement!

He continues:

“In the tiniest fraction of cases this might, indeed, occur, but usually genetic deformities occur along with other signs of deformity - something rarely the case with scoliosis. The genesis (of scoliosis) is usually always the following: An injury occurs on one side of the body, causing the muscles of the pelvis and lumbar spine to contract tighter on one side, but the righting reflex of our balancing system automatically pulls the head and upper trunk in the opposite direction to counterbalance the lower tilt. Whether the curve is simple or S-shaped, the cause is usually the same: trauma to one side of the body, causing reflex muscular contraction.”

I am not sure how I feel about this, but it sure makes me curious. Based on what I understand about scoliosis, his hypothesis is likely to be true for ‘functional’ scoliosis, as it is well documented that functional scoliosis can be corrected through retraining muscles.

But what about the more complex condition of ‘structural’ scoliosis? Almost all children are affected by childhood falls, and other traumas, yet most do not develop an imbalanced curved and twisted spine!

Thoughts by other researchers and specialists

When I spoke to genetic researcher and biological scientist, Kristen Fay Gorman (audio interview here), about developments in understanding the cause of scoliosis, she felt strongly that it is a polygenic condition, meaning there is more than one genetic component (blog post summary of our conversation here). Acclaimed surgeon, Dr. Stephen Tredwell, remarked on the same thing in my interview with him.

Interestingly, the ScoliSMART system, a scoliosis-focused program available in the USA, promotes their system with words that echo Hanna’s thoughts.

ScoliSMART describes their approach as a non-invasive way to train the brain how to learn to hold the spine in a straighter position by re-coordinating muscle firing, addressing neurotransmitter function, and retraining postural control. Their Scoliosis Activity Suit (SAS), a flexible type of brace which is used to affect these changes, appears to gets rave reviews from those who use it. That is great, but unfortunately, it is not a widely available or accessible program at this time.

I love the idea that somewhere, somehow, all of these different people’s research will lead to a cure! Or at the very least, it would be wonderful if there was a standardized and accessible exercise program for everyone to keep their bodies balanced from an early age, healing all the traumas as they come. It certainly wouldn’t hurt.

In the meantime, while I await that day, I will continue to lay down my double yoga mats to continue my exploration of Somatics, applying my new awareness to everything I do.

And speaking of healing from trauma, as I have mentioned in previous posts, there are two other approaches that I am finding help in different ways: Energy Medicine and Trauma-Tension Release Exercises. I will write more about both in my upcoming blog posts.

In my next blog, I share a very personal experience I had while attending a retreat myself, recently.

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