This approach to releasing chronically tight muscles is based on the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, and was developed by Tom Hanna, a brilliant body worker and teacher in California.
It’s based on the fact that there is a “feedback loop” between your muscles and your brain. Healthy relaxation of a muscle depends on the integrity of communication throughout this loop.
The muscle and its tendons are loaded with nerve sensors that tell the brain what the muscle is doing. The brain has a “sensory” part, which “feels,” and a “motor” part, which “drives” (controls) the muscle.
The motor part of the brain depends on input from the sensory part in order to know how to control the muscle. This is all part of our conscious control of our muscles.
A good flow of information in the loop means there will be appropriate tension in the muscle. In other words, the muscle will be relaxed when it has nothing to do, and contract when it needs to do some work.
Now, here comes the “But . . . ” If something has happened to impair communication in this feedback loop, the motor part of the brain throws up its hands and says, “Oi vey, how can I tell the muscle what to do if I don’t have enough information?”
When the motor part reaches the “Oi vey!” point, the control of the muscle is turned over to a subconscious part in the brain stem. The brain stem, which is the home of our primitive survival reflexes, doesn’t give a rip what the muscle is doing – it just steps in and sets the tension at a particular level.
The result is a set level of tension in the muscle, regardless of what is going on in its environment. In other words, the muscle can no longer completely relax, and the conscious mind is clueless about what happened. Bummer!
So, what does all this intrigue mean to you? Besides making you feel stiff and tight, it also reduces blood and lymph flow in the muscle. This is because the blood and lymph vessels get squeezed by the tight muscle. That leads to an oxygen deficit and a buildup of toxic waste products in the tissue, causing pain, poor function, and greater likelihood of injury.
Do you see how the dominoes are falling here? The end result is a tight, cranky muscle, which can throw a temper tantrum at the slightest provocation. This is often what happens when you bend over to pick up your socks, or turn your head quickly and, whammo – it feels like the spring went “sprong!”
How It Works
Somatic Technique uses breath and awareness as we gently contract and relax the muscle group. The simplest version goes like this:
- Put the muscle you want to relax in a gently stretched position
- With your awareness in the muscle, gently tighten it as you inhale slowly, then hold it for a second
- Feel the muscle letting go as you relax it during your exhalation
- Repeat this basic process about five times, or until the muscle is no longer lengthening
A more advanced version brings the muscle through it’s entire range of motion as you go through the process. Click to see Dr. Dane doing a video demonstration of this technique.
There other things that contribute to muscle tension, which require different therapies for best results. This will be addressed in a future article.
For a great technique for dealing with scar tissue adhesions in muscles, see Active Release Technique.