Letting Go of Stress in Our Bodies by Retraining the Brain

Via | Dr. Sid Jordan

 

“Knowledge is only a rumor until it is in the muscles.”

– A quote from the Asaro Indians of Papua New Guinea

 

It’s a new year.  Even with the Holidays behind us, our bodies are adjusting to heightened stress levels. This time of year they are often at an all time high. Stress accumulates in our bodies in the form of chronic muscle contractions often out of the range of our awareness until we experience chronic soreness and pain.  Thomas Hanna in his classic book, Somatics, points out that these chronic muscle contractions in our bodies result in “sensory and motor amnesia (SMA)”.  SMA is a function of becoming unconscious of spinal reflexes maintaining muscle contractions and misaligned postures in our effort to adjust to injuries and chronic physical and emotional stresses.  Most of these chronic contractions and postures are functional and not structural thereby lending themselves to being resolved.  Resolution is attained by retraining the frontal cortex of the brain to become aware of sensory feedback in releasing muscle contractions.   

The methods of retraining the brain involve somatic exercises and yoga postures that can help individuals release the contractions with gentle exercises that involve isolating and focusing awareness on the specific sets of contracted muscles as they are gently extended, rather than over-stretched, and then released.  First the somatic educator or yoga therapist would assess your body’s posture, alignment and walking; palpating muscles to confirm contractions.  There are classical postures in the Hanna Somatic Education (HSE) assessment system defined as different reflexes controlled by SMA.  The first described is the “red light’ reflex that typically involve shoulders pulled forward, rounded forward upper back (turtling) and chin protruding forward, often associated with the “startle reflex”.   The next common posture is the “green light” reflex characterized by a bowed or curved back, associated with being constantly called into action and often resulting in low back pain.   The third reflex is the “trauma reflex” that is seen as a shortening of one side of the body in a protective reaction to an injury that may involve shifting of weight to the opposite side thereby setting up contralateral muscle contractions.

Once an assessment is conducted the recipient of somatic exercises begins with “cat stretches” that involve working with the entire body since tension generalizes throughout the body and resolution requires beginning with releasing tension in the core region or middle of the body.   In keeping with the Asaro saying that, “Knowledge is only a rumor until it is in the muscles.” the somatic exercises provide a method of putting the “conscious knowledge in the muscles” by slowing down and making maximum use of awareness of sensory feedback from each set of muscles. This shifts the control of contractions of muscles from chronic unconscious reflexes of SMA to the conscious release of contractions by the frontal lobes of our brain.

At the Prama Wellness Center we value “practice” over “passive knowledge” as implied in the Asaro saying. Therefore here are three Hanna somatic exercises and four yoga exercises that you can practice in twenty minutes at home and begin to win control back over chronic muscle tensions  (SMA) in your body:  These exercises are to be practiced slowly and from the point of view of internal observation of the “I” not as third person “the body” i.e.  “I sense the muscles of my lower back extending and letting go.”  Avoid over stretching and work within the comfortable limits of your body.

Hanna Somatic Cat Stretches (Check it out on Youtube as well):

  1. Lie on your back, bend your knees with feet flat on the floor, inhale and arch your back, exhale and lower your back.  Repeat five times.
  2. Lie on your back with both hands interlaced behind your head, bend your knees with feet flat on the floor, lift your head, using the muscles of your stomach and upper chest and not pulling your head up with the hands and bring the elbows forward to parallel with one another, while exhaling and flattening your back.  Lower your head while inhaling and arching your back.  Repeat five times.
  3. Lie on your stomach, bend your right arm, and put your left cheek on the back of your right hand.  Inhale and lift your head, hand, and right elbow simultaneously extending and lifting your left leg.  Exhale as you slowly lower to the floor.  Repeat twice on each side.

Yoga Asanas that complement the above Hanna somatic exercises (Google postures for further clarification):

  1. Bellows– Lying on your back with legs outstretched, exhaling slowly raise your right knee to your chest grasping with your hands over the knee and release slowly to outstretched; repeat with the left knee and then both knees for a round of all three moves four times.
  2. Cobra– lying on your stomach bring your head up and elbows directly under your shoulders supporting you in the “sphinx” position.   This is preparatory to the cobra.  To preform the cobra bring yourself flat on your stomach with elbows drawn in to your sides, hand beside your head and gently raise your head an shoulders comfortably up a few inches, facing forward, not overstretching and not pushing with the hands but pulling up with your back muscles gently.  Less is more, as we remain conscious of the gentle extension and not excessing stretching.
  3. Now come back into the child posture with buttocks on your heels leaning forward on your knees with knees slightly spread, toes extended backwards, hands and arms extended forward.
  4. End with savasana (corpse pose) and a body scan to enhance awareness of our muscles your have engaged and released.

These exercises are particularly suited for reducing the general tension in the core and upper regions of our body.  These approaches to stress reduction in the “bodymind” are part of our holistic detox programs at the Prama Wellness Center that emphasize proper nutrition, exercise, social support and contemplative practices of prayer and meditation.  Specific instructions are given as a part of our educational approach that empowers participants to be managers of their own health. 

Functional muscle contractions produced by chronic posturing related to working over computers, emotional stress and injuries can be resolved with somatic exercises and yoga therapy.   Somatics and therapeutic yoga are gentle approaches that avoid re-traumatizing in favor of re-educating the brain to release trauma and tension in the present as “knowledge become embodied”.

About The Author

As a clinical psychologist, Dr. Sid Jordan taught psychotherapy and directed mental health, alcohol and drug services while in the Department of Psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. from 1969-1993.  He began his practices of yoga and meditation in 1971 pursuing the integration of yoga and psychology in his teaching and clinical practices.  In 1997 he trained as a yoga and meditation teacher in India applying the tantric yoga teachings of Shrii Shrii Anandamurti the preceptor of Ananda Marga.

Currently, he is CEO and Director of the Neohumanist College of Asheville. At the Prama Wellness Center, he offers yoga therapy and stress management to individuals and groups.   He continues to offer his 40 years of experience and teaching of yoga psychology, philosophy, and practices to audiences worldwide.

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