The Body as Narrative: a Never Ending Story
I love it when two of my heroes in the Yoga world, whilst coming from different perspective, end up talking about the same thing (in different ways, but they mean the same). Peter Blackaby discusses in this video clip how stories get written into the muscles through our reactivity to drama.
When we react to a life shock for instance, our mental and emotional response it to become startled and anxious and this has a knock on effect in the rest of the body too. Over time, this begins to form patterns in our posture that are repetative. Anxiety tends to stiffen muscles and this contracture is very visible in people’s stances, the way they walk and the way they hold themselves.
Becoming very mentally relaxes, as in our time at the end of our Yoga Class, offers an opportunity to counteract that tightness and soften the musculature response. Many of the Somatic exercises in class in particular are designed to not only bring our awareness to how we may have decreased our range of movement through repetative postural responses to stress but also to release these patterns by retraining the brain to let go of unnecessary holding patterns.
Of course not all relaxing is going to write a helpful story in our bodies. Too much time slouching and slumping brings about a softening, a weakening and a deterioration, especially if we are responding to the expectation of society that we should be slowing down a bit as we age!
The rounding of the body so often present in aging is not an inevitable response caused by the passing of time then, but a response to what we cease to do as we age. According to Thomas Hanna “Those who believe that they should take it easy as they become older are deluded: they are persons who are surrendering their life functions bit by bit. For most people, the act of growing up, maturing and settling down to adult life is an act of decay. It is a deliberate, and usually well calculated act of gradually giving up the functional abilities aquired during the process of growing up”.
Countless government published guidelines show that as a BARE MINIUMUM we need to be doing 30 minutes of heart increasing activity (not dog walking by the way!!!!) for 7 days per week and this becomes more important as we age, not less. One Dance or Yoga class per week simply doesn’t cut it and we carry the story of that in our bodies…
In a Somatic Yoga class, we are retraining our body to overcome a lot of the deeply held on too stories that have become ingrained in our posture as Blackaby describes.
Here is a great explanation of Somatic Movements:
And here is a miraculous example of how Somatic Exercises released a woman’s stiff and restricted shoulder joint so that she could finally do “Head of Cow” (my heart’s desire one day) using the Celtic Cross exercise we have done in class recently:
Here is what the founder of Somatics says about how the exercises improve our mobility and help us to release ourselves from our body’s unhelpful narrative (ie when we are restricted):
Thomas Hanna: Muscular Reflexes to Stress
In his book “Somatics: reawakening the mind’s contol of movement, flexibility and health” Hanna demonstates how the neurological response to stess is to withdraw (like a hedgehog curling up in the headlights of an oncoming car) or to spring into action (the flight or flight response) when we are called upon to sustain activity.
Red Light Reflex: Response to Distress
When we percieve something as a threat, our natural neurological response is to recoil. The reflex is incredibly quick and in a fearful situation the following contractural body reactions follow:
- Jaw (tightens)
- Brows and eyes narrow (maybe shutting of the eyes)
- Trapezius (rounding shoulders and upper back)
- Elbows (bend)
- Hands (turn downward)
- Abs (tighten)
- Trunk pulled forward by tight abs
- Breathing (shallows as chest cavity is constricted)
- Knees (bend)
Over a lifetime of responding to stressors, the body becomes adapted to this neruological response to withdraw from danger, which Hanna calls the Red Light Reflex (red for danger)! According to Hanna, this rounded posture, with accompanying restricted breathing is seen to be permanently established in the older years. He states that instead of blaming this posture on a “fictitious disease called aging” we should look to repeated withdraw response and muscle amnesia (forgetting to spring back correctly into correct alignment) for the cause.
Green Light Reflex: The Constant Call to Action
We live in society of alarms, calendar, notifications and constant calls to action. A social constructionist would say we are constructed by societial rules and discourses to become an adult by gradually taking on more responsibilities so the older we get, the more calls to actions we experience. For instance, a child will respond happily to the call to play but gradually as she ages, the calls to action are less spontaneous, the “have to’s” and “shoulds” are quickly established. Where once she was simply exploring the world and lept forward to reach for objects and interesting experiences, she is now being pushed to go to school, do homework and tidy her room. Our neurological response to this is to stand to attention, chest and bottom stuck out, like a seargent major!
The unconsious reactions in our body to this constant state of alert is to lift up the chest and lean back into the lower spine. It is no wonder that 80% of people experience low back pain (the most common reason for seeking medical help and the most common reason for days of work lost)! This is often wrongly blamed on our maladaption from being quadrapeds to bipeds, as if the spine wasn’t designed for walking! However, according to Hanna, the breakdown is not in the structure, but in the function of the back which we can correct by re-training the neural pathways using our Somatic Yoga practices. The Green Light refex is established from six months of age, when the infant begins to develop the Landau Reaction. Here it is in action:
As you can see, the baby is able to lift her head and swim with her legs when supported with one hand under the Thorax. Before this, the head and feet hang limply. The reflex requires the baby to be to create the arch in the lower spine using her (now developed) strong back muscles.
We are living longer in life however our “Green Light” culture is condeming us to life in discomfort and fatigue these triggers incessantly demand us to contract muscles in a habitual way, causes musculature shortening and strain particularly in the lower back where the spine is bowed forward into an arch. This causes the belly to protrude forward and makes the middle aged person look fatter than they are. Widespread misconseptions have created a culture of tightening the belly to support the spine but this endless tight gut doesn’t fix the problem since it is the spine that is too contracted (because of the constantly triggered Green light reflex) not the abdominals that are too weak. There is nothing wrong with the structure of the back. The problem is in the brain where the reflex is habituated. When this reflex is re-trained through Somatic exercises, the chronic involuntary contraction is released, the protruding belly falls back into the correct position and the pain ceases.
Added to the potential to be constantly caved in or ready for action, there are some circumstances in which the body responds to injury of one side of the body by becoming stuck in an often unconscious habitual side lean as the muscles of the pelvis and spine contract tighter on one side. We often become aware in Yoga Class of the effect of one side of our body responding to the trauma reflex when we notice how it is easy to do an exercise to one side and not the other.