How to Even out the Imbalances in Your Body
I get questions every day from students wanting to know exactly which exercises to do and for how long in order to relieve their particular pain or postural issue. While I know we all love a prescription—myself included—because it gives us confidence that we’re doing the right thing, the best prescription when it comes to releasing your habitual muscular patterns is to explore. The person best able to figure out how to change your patterns is you, because only you know what it feels like to be in your body.
I know this is not the concrete answer you want to hear. So, in this post I’ll give you some advice to guide you; these approaches are the ways in which Clinical Somatics practitioners work with clients. Since most muscle and joint pain and postural issues are caused by some sort of imbalance, I’m going to focus on how to even out the imbalances in your muscular patterns.
Why you should balance out your muscle tension
Imagine that the piles of sand in the photo above represent the amount of muscle tension in the right and left sides of your body. If you practice Clinical Somatics exercises equally with both sides of your body, you’ll be reducing your overall muscle tension, and both of those piles will gradually get smaller. But the imbalance will still be there, and you may continue to experience your pain or issue because you’re still being pulled out of alignment.
You can use the same analogy for the front and back sides of your body. Imagine that there is more muscle tension in the muscles on the front of your body than the back; you’ll be pulled forward into rounded posture or forward head posture.
This concept can be applied to specific areas of the body too. For example, the hip rotators: If you have more muscle tension in your external rotators than your internal rotators, then you might stand with your toes pointing outward, you might feel tightness and soreness in your gluteal muscles, and you’ll be at increased risk for hip, knee, and ankle issues.
My point is that you should become aware of these imbalances in your muscle tension, wherever they are in your body, and tailor your daily practice to even out these imbalances. You might already be very aware of these imbalances based on what you feel in your body. You might sometimes need a mirror to give you an objective view. Or, you might gradually become aware of these imbalances as you practice the exercises each day. (Most likely, all three!)
HOW PANDICULATION WORKS: Go deeper into your pattern and then release slowly out of it
Pandiculation—our nervous system’s innate response to the buildup of muscle tension, and the movement technique that makes Clinical Somatics exercises so effective—works by contracting tight muscles more than they are already contracted, and then releasing extremely slowly and consciously out of that contraction. This conscious contraction and release sends accurate biofeedback to the nervous system about the level of tension in the muscle, and reduces the baseline level of tension.
So if you’re wondering which exercises will help you the most, first ask yourself: What is my pattern? You may be aware of several, or many; just pick one right now.
Next: Which exercises bring me deeper into that pattern, contracting the tight muscles even more? As you learn each exercise, notice what muscle groups contract and release in the movement.
Here are some common examples:
A tight, arched lower back. Which exercises contract the lower back muscles even more, and then slowly release them? The Arch & Flatten, Back Lift, Arch & Curl and its variations, Lower Back Release, Standing Hamstring Release, Seated Hamstring Release, Head & Knee Lifts.
Rounded posture or forward head posture. Which exercises contract and release the muscles that are pulling you forward (your abdominals)? The Arch & Flatten, Arch & Curl and its variations, Head Lifts, Diagonal Curl.
Functional leg length discrepancy. Which exercises hike your higher hip up even higher? The Side Curl, Hip Slides, Big X, Proprioceptive Exercise 2, Hip Directions.
A scoliotic curve. Which exercises bring you deeper into that curve, and then slowly release out of it? The Side Curl, Hip Slides, Big X, Proprioceptive Exercises 2, 3, & 4, Hip Directions.
Other ways you can figure out which exercises to focus on are:
- Look at the top of each exercise page in the online courses; the first paragraph lists the conditions for which that exercise is typically most helpful.
- Check my blog—I’ve written posts on a number of conditions that will help guide you.
- Base it on how you feel. As you learn each exercise, feel internally which ones are most helpful in releasing your tension or pain. This is THE best way to determine which exercises to do most often!
I get it—so how do I use the exercises to even out my imbalances?
One way to even out your imbalances is to spend more time and do more repetitions working with your tighter side or tighter areas of your body. Working more with your tighter areas will gradually even out the imbalance in muscle tension—imagine that bigger pile of sand getting smaller so that eventually they’re the same size.
For example, if muscles on the right side of your waist are tight, hiking up your right hip, then you should do the Side Curl more with your right side (curling up to the right side, contracting the tight muscles and then slowly releasing them). Some days, try doing the Side Curl only with your right side.
Don’t get caught up in the exact number of repetitions you’re doing or the end goal of releasing your tension; this will make you rush through the exercises and you will not get the benefit of the exercises. These movements are about quality, not quantity. You will get more benefit from doing one repetition extremely slowly and consciously than doing several repetitions more quickly. The nervous system learns more effectively the more slowly and consciously you move. So when thinking about practicing the exercises more with one side, remember that “more” includes more focus and more slowly.
Another way to even out your imbalances is to learn from your more coordinated side. Do the exercise first with your “good” side, noticing how it feels and how you engage your muscles. Then do the exercise with your not-so-good side, and try to mimic that sensation and muscular control. You can learn endless things about your body by going back and forth like this.
As you release tight areas of your body, your proprioception will gradually adjust. But this adjustment doesn’t happen immediately—so, when you stand up after your practice, sometimes you may feel unbalanced or that your posture is incorrect. Your proprioception is your internal sense of your posture, created by information sent from proprioceptors (sensory receptors) in your muscles and joints. The central nervous system integrates information from your proprioceptive, visual, and vestibular systems to give you a sense of where your body is in space.
Your proprioception has adapted to the muscular imbalances in your body, and as you release them, it will take time for your new posture to feel right. Don’t let this bother you—it’s just part of the process of changing your habitual patterns. Comparing how you feel internally to what you look like in a mirror (the proprioceptive exercises in Level Two and the Scoliosis course) will help you to retrain your proprioception.
Peeling the onion
If you’re still not sure where to start, don’t worry. If you practice the exercises every day, and stay very aware of what you’re feeling in your body as you do them, your internal awareness will improve quickly. You’ll become aware of certain areas of your body where you feel tight—start by focusing on those areas. After a few days, you might feel that those areas are becoming looser and more relaxed, and you might become aware of other areas of your body that need attention. Take a few days (or more or less, depending on how you feel) to focus on those areas.
This process can continue indefinitely; that’s why I compare it to peeling an onion. You’ll release an area of your body or pattern of tension, and then become aware of the next, and the next. So, one sequence of exercises will not address your needs forever; you’ll need to let your daily practice evolve as you unravel your patterns of tension.
Pandiculate patterns, and don’t get caught up with specific muscles
This concept is easier to understand if you’ve been practicing the exercises for a while and become more aware of your full-body patterns of tension. One tight muscle is never the sole cause of a pain or problem. You might be feeling tightness or pain in just one muscle or one small area of your body, but I promise, there is always a larger pattern of tension present.
I’ll give you a personal example that I encountered while going through the long process of releasing my very tight psoas. At one point I reached a plateau. My right psoas was still snapping sometimes, and my right hip was still hiked up a little higher than the other. Doing my same old routine wasn’t changing anything. I took a step back and examined the anatomy of the psoas, the actions it does, and what happens when the psoas snaps (internal snapping hip syndrome), and thought “Duh!”
My external hip rotators and my lower back muscles on my right side were tighter than my left; I had known this for years, but hadn’t fully addressed the imbalance because it didn’t bother me at all. Well, my tendency to externally rotate my right hip was keeping all the hip rotators tight, and my tight lower back was contributing to the hip-hiking. The psoas does both external hip rotation and hip-hiking (lateral pelvic tilt), among other things. But many other muscles are involved in these actions as well. All my efforts to release my psoas weren’t accomplishing much because other tight muscles were keeping me stuck in the patterns of external hip rotation and hip-hiking. Once I started focusing on releasing all of my tight external rotators and lower back muscles, I felt and saw immediate results—and felt quite silly for not figuring it out sooner. But, this is the process of peeling the onion; you can’t figure everything out all at once.
Another aspect of full-body muscular patterns you may notice as you get further along in your practice is that releasing one part of your pattern triggers you to release all of it. For example, I tend to contract my left side obliques and pull the left side of my rib cage downward. This pattern of tension extends all the way up to my left eye, believe it or not. I tend to contract the muscles around my left eye more than my right. After some years of practice, I realized that consciously releasing the muscles around my left eye triggered me to automatically release my left side obliques, and vice versa. In the depths of my brain, the pattern of contracting and pulling the left side of my body downward and inward is all connected.
What if I hit a plateau in my practice?
If your daily practice of Clinical Somatics exercises isn’t feeling as effective as it used to, or if you’re stuck and can’t figure something out, try these three things:
1. Do different exercises. Practice and explore exercises that you learned in the courses and then forgot about, or ones that you thought weren’t helpful for you. You might be amazed at what you feel and learn from the exercises that you don’t do very often. They might become part of your regular practice, or they might make you aware of somewhere in your body that you’re holding tension.
2. Do the same exercises but more slowly! I cannot stress enough how important it is to release extremely slowly out of each contraction. Stay engaged and release as slowly as you can up until the very end of the movement. If you’ve stopped feeling benefit from an exercise, do it more slowly.
3. Notice what you’re doing in your daily life that could be keeping you stuck in patterns. Is it how you use your body when you’re exercising? Is it how you sit at your desk or on the couch, or the position you sleep in? If you practice the exercises for 30 minutes a day, you’re spending the other 23 and a half hours reinforcing habitual patterns. Integrating what you’ve learned from your Clinical Somatics practice into your daily life is critical if you want to make lasting changes.
Don’t rush it!
When you first start learning Clinical Somatics exercises, it’s easy to feel goal-oriented about the process. When will you get out of pain, or when will your posture become perfectly straight? Every person’s muscular patterns are unique, so there is no way to predict how long it will take. What matters most is that you’re heading in the right direction. Once you slow down and focus on the exploratory learning process rather than the end goal, releasing long-held, complex patterns of muscle tension is actually a lot of fun!
Don’t try to rush the process or force something to change—it doesn’t work. You have to relax, stay aware, and allow change to happen. Explore the exercises each day as if it’s the first time you’ve done them; this allows you to learn something new every time you practice.
The Pain Relief Secret: How to Retrain Your Nervous System, Heal Your Body, and Overcome Chronic Pain by Sarah Warren, CSE
Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health by Thomas Hanna