Somatic Education Exercises for Aging Exceptionally Well
by Lawrence Gold
Certified Hanna somatic educator
|Popular belief holds that the pains and stiffness of aging are inevitable and to be expected: that aging results from time passing. “You’re just getting older,” your doctor and your family say, and there the conversation usually stops.
The thinking is that your parts are wearing out, and that they’re supposed to. It’s how people think of the human body — as a “marvelous machine.”
Don’t buy it. There’s more to it than the passage of time and the human body is more than a marvelous machine. You are more than a marvelous machine, aren’t you?
While certain aspects of aging are linked to our genetic destiny, other changes have nothing to do with our genetic destiny, but with how injuries and stress leave their marks upon us as changes of movement-memory, of muscular tension, and of posture. Those changes are, in most cases, within our power to to reverse, normalize, and improve to superior levels.
Is there a hidden and larger significance to the observation that active people age better than relatively inactive people? There is. (It goes along with the saying, “Retirement is the waiting room for death.”)
There exists a seemingly innocent condition that underlies much of the pain and stiffness attributed to aging: accumulated muscular tension. Accumulated muscular tension underlies the joint compression and breakdown diagnosed as osteoarthritis.
Accumulated muscular tension often goes unnoticed because it builds so gradually that we get used to it, because we don’t recognize the significance of poor posture, and because medical practitioners are not trained to recognize its larger significance — other than at the sites of pain or grossly restricted movement. Desensitized as we are to our own condition, muscular tension accumulates and so do the consequences: being off balance and prone to falls, feeling tired all the time, depressed mood, and the appearance of chronic ailments. Accumulated muscular tension is a drain, an inconvenience, a degradation of life, and ultimately, a hazard.
By dispelling accumulated muscular tension and preventing tension from accumulating, you can prevent your joints from degenerating, improve your movement and balance, and feel more energetic; you can reclaim much of your flexibility. You can forego the cane, get off the walker, or avoid the wheelchair.
It takes more than massage. It takes self-grooming of a particular kind — the kind that removes the lingering effects of injuries (the limp), purges the stresses of life (the stoop or bad back), and liberates you from the ten thousand shocks flesh is heir to (pain).
This entry talks exactly about that form of self-grooming (it’s not strengthening, stretching, or cardiovascular exercise, not diet — but something rather more direct and immediately effective). Because it’s new, you’ll learn something, here.
THE OBVIOUS SIGN OF APPROACHING DECREPITUDE
Here’s a leading question: How can you tell an “aged” person at a distance? It’s by their posture and movement, isn’t it? Our posture goes into our habitual way of moving.
Much has been attributed to osteoporosis and osteopenia — loss of bone density — as causing changes of posture. While true to some degree, it’s largely a “red herring”; muscular tensions cause much more postural change than does osteoporosis. Muscle tension shapes our posture, limits our flexibility, and affects our comfort. The posture of aging reveals accumulated muscular tensions that you may have carried for years, largely without knowing it.Does this seem all too obvious? Then why don’t most people do something about it? Why do so many people resign themselves to the cane, the walker, the wheelchair?
Maybe, it’s because the usual methods of muscular conditioning and therapy don’t work very well; maybe it’s because people get so tight and stay so tight that their joints break down. Have yours?
SOURCES OF PAIN AND STIFFNESS
When muscles get tight and stay tight, they cease to be elastic; they restrict movement. That sense of restriction is what people confuse with stiff joints and call “stiff muscles”. (Muscles can’t get stiff; they can only tense or relax.)Muscles held tight for more than a few seconds get sore and prone to spasm (cramp) — the proverbial “burn” of exercise that athletic trainers say to go for. It’s muscle fatigue, nothing more glamorous than that. It’s the product of tight muscles, an unhealthy sign, when it persists.
Muscles held tight days, weeks, and years compress the joints they pass across; joint pain, breakdown, inflammation and dissolution follow. The name for cartilage breakdown and inflammation is, arthritis (literally translated from Latin: “inflammation of a joint”). Even if there were a genetic origin to arthritis, it would be in addition to this compression process, which causes joint breakdown all by itself.
The combination of muscle fatigue (soreness) and joint compression create much of the chronic pain and stiffness of aging.
“Sore to the Touch”
Most people are sore to the touch in one place or another — not because they are “old”, but because they are tight, and their muscles, fatigued.The problem exists, however, not in the muscles themselves, but in the brain that controls them. The problem is one of “muscle/movement memory”, which controls movement, tension level, and posture.
The reason why skeletal adjustments, massage and stretching so often provide only temporary relief is that muscle/movement memory runs the show. You may temporarily force muscles to relax with massage or a quick stretch, but of muscle/movement memory is set to a high tension level, we get tense, again, in short order — whether hours or days.
Forming Tension Habits
People go through a lifetime doing either one of two things: tensing or relaxing.Think back to a time in your life when you were in a stressful situation — one that you knew might last a while or that lasted longer than you expected. Notice how you feel when thinking about it. Do you tense or relax, thinking about it? How were you, then?
Did you manage your tension or ignore it? Did you turn your attention to “more important things”? Did you get used to your tension? If so, you probably lost some of your ability to relax (in the muscular sense, as well as the emotional sense). Over your lifetime, did you get more flexible, or more stiff? Sudden onset of stiffness or an episode of pain is how you know it’s muscle/movement memory. Joints don’t change that quickly.
Another way tension habits form is through physical injury. It’s not the injury, but the reaction to it, that triggers tension habits. When we get hurt, we guard the injured part by cringing — pulling out of action. Many injuries make such an impression upon us that we continue the cringe for decades, automatically and without awareness. We may not notice low-level cringing, but as tension accumulates, a low-level cringe often becomes a high-level of contraction that at last surfaces as a mysterious episode of pain — the cause having occurred years ago.
Even physical fitness programs can lead to chronic tension. Many kinds of fitness training emphasize strength and firming (tightening) up. Rarely do they teach a person to relax. More often, they teach a person to stretch and “warm up”, which is not the same as teaching relaxation. So many fitness programs (or at least the way some people do them) cause them to form tension habits.
Thus form tension habits that lead to chronic pain, stiffness, inflammation and joint damage. Even without arthritis, accumulated tension adds drag to movement. The combination of drag and pain drains us and makes us feel tired all the time, “old”.
It’s not age; it’s pain and fatigue. Seem familiar?
So, it’s not so much our years as the tension that accumulates over the years that causes the pain and stiffness of aging and the loss of the agility of youth.
BACK TO EASIER MOVEMENT
The pain and stiffness of aging start out as temporary tensions that become learned habits. Those habits can be unlearned, pain dispelled, comfort restored, stiffness softened, mobility improved.
The odd thing is that our tension often seems to be “happening to us” — rather than something we are doing. Much of it exists below our “threshold of consciousness”. We’re “used to it”; we don’t notice it.
“Somatic education exercises” effectively soften the grip of tension — not merely temporarily, but cumulatively, progressively, durably.
The word, “somatic”, refers to your sense of yourself, as you are to yourself. It means “self-sensing, self-activating and self-relaxing” — the way you sense and control chewing.
Somatic education exercises are an entirely different class of exercises from strengthening exercises or stretching exercises (whether athletic stretches or yoga). They have a quality to them akin to yawning. By instilling healthier patterns of muscle/movement memory, they improve posture, flexibility, and coordination. Tension eases and pains disappear. They make movement without pain possible, again.
Healthy aging is more likely if you eliminate the causes of aging you can control. Age management involves more than drugs for blood pressure, crossword puzzles for your brain, cardiovascular exercise for your heart, weed which you can buy weed online in Canada if you live there, or stretches for your muscles; it involves grooming yourself of the accumulated effects of injuries and stress — not merely psychologically, but physically. A healthy diet, a rich social life, and pursuing our interests are important aspects of successful aging. So are somatic education exercises — without which, you now know the probable consequences.