How the “startle reflex” can stick – and how yoga, massage and mindfulness can help

Have you ever considered what physical movements we naturally do as a reflex response to danger? Subtle, key movements are: drawing the head slightly back; clenching the jaw; raising the shoulders, tightening around the diaphragm; and a slight drawing of knees towards belly – tightening the hip flexor muscles.

This is a reflex which evolved to help us to protect ourselves – but is not so useful when it happens in response to everyday stresses and strains. Over time, this response can begin to reside in our bodies in the form of postural habits. Reading about this, it struck me how similar this is to the posture we tend adopt when sitting at a computer, or driving – further compounding the issue of held tension, as demonstrated above (bad yoga teacher!)

As Peter Blackaby, respected yoga teacher and osteopath, says: “This unconscious tightening is responsible for much of the neck, shoulder, and lower back pain that keeps body-workers so busy these days”1.

What can we do about it?

A major intention in my yoga classes is to help people recognise areas of tension in their bodies, practise letting go, and become more aware of body sensations so that they can explore different patterns of movement. Over time, this can help free up tight areas (such as the hip flexors), and bring more mobility and strength into under-used areas (such as the muscles of the upper back).

Massage can have a powerful effect on soothing the body, facilitating the release of tension and easing pain. The neck, shoulders and lower back are the most common areas to work on requested by my clients – which all makes sense! Last year I learned some fantastic massage and gentle mobilising techniques from teacher Darien Pritchard – specifically to target these three areas.

The mindfulness body scan is a great tool that we can use regularly to be more in touch with what is happening in our bodies. We can feel more clearly how our bodies are responding to stress. As we become more aware of held tension, we naturally tend to develop our ability to let go of it and soften the body.

Contact me to find out more about how yoga, massage and mindfulness can help you, or:

Want to know more about the startle reflex? Here's a great article, including a short video.

Right, I'm off to do some yoga!

1 Intelligent Yoga, 2012, pp.88-89

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