"Relax your shoulder and let me have all of the weight", I said. "I am", replied John. I quickly removed my hands that were supporting John's arm and it continued to hang in mid air. "Oh, I see what you mean", said John.
I come across this quite frequently when working with clients, whether it be with the shoulders, legs, hips, back, abdominals or neck. People are often unable to relax specific muscle groups when asked.
This loss of voluntary control is often attributed to old age. However, in a majority of cases, the real culprit is Sensory-Motor Amnesia (SMA). SMA is often also responsible for other ailments attributed to getting older: chronic stiffness, soreness and restricted movement. The good news is that SMA can be reversed and even prevented.
What is Sensory-Motor Amnesia?
Sensory-Motor Amnesia, a term coined by Thomas Hanna, is the nervous system's habituated state of forgetfulness of how certain muscle groups feel, and how to control them (Hanna, 1988).
If you can't feel or sense certain muscle groups, you won't be able to voluntarily move or relax them. The more you can sense and feel into an area, the more refined your ability will be in moving it.
The sensory motor nervous system is a feedback loop - more movement creates more sensation and more sensation allows greater freedom of movement.
Varied movement and exercise, particularly in nature, provides the nervous system with rich sensory input, in other words it gives it more to feel. A sedentary lifestyle, on the other hand, deprives the nervous system of this very important sensory input. It is from this incoming sensory data that the nervous system constructs its internal map or image of your body. How complete the map or image is, depends on the sensory information it receives. When it does not receive this input from certain muscle groups or areas of the body it isn't aware of their existence. They have literally gone outside of your conscious awareness. The result of which is an inability to voluntarily move or relax these muscles.
Voluntary movement originates in the cerebral cortex. However, it is what you are not aware of in your body, what is beneath conscious control, that is being involuntarily controlled by the more primitive regions of the brain (Hanna, 1988).
Stress, injury and surgery are also very common causes of SMA. Stress, through the fight-or-flight response, tenses the body and prepares it for action. This is done involuntarily (or unconsciously) when a threat is perceived. If the stress or trauma is prolonged or significantly impactful the involuntary contraction in our musculature continues, even if the threat has passed. These continuous, relentless muscle contractions lead to a myriad of pain syndromes, fatigue and excessive wear and tear in the joints, and eventually to sensory-motor amnesia.
In the case of injury, the injured area is not able to move through its normal, full range of motion, due to pain. Often the surrounding musculature contracts to protect the area. Unless voluntary control of these muscles is re-established, SMA will result.
How do I regain freedom of movement and voluntary control of my body?
The good news is SMA can be reversed. I have experienced remarkable results for myself and my clients, teaching gentle, yet mindful movements which were developed by Thomas Hanna. They bring awareness back to muscle groups where voluntary control has been lost. These exercises, known as Somatics, have helped many of my clients with chronic pain and restriction to reach new levels of freedom and mobility.
To find out more about how these exercises can help you or to book in your appointment, please ring me on 02 9415 4023.
Hanna, T. (1988). Somatics. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.