Somatic Education: An approach to repetitive strain injuries


Reprinted from The RSI Network - Issues 27 & 28 - Apr & May'98

Paul Linden, Ph.D
April - May 1998

I'm a specialist in somatic education—mind/body awareness training—and I view RSIs as stemming at least partly from ignorance of how the body works. I educate people about how their bodies work, how to feel what they're doing with their bodies as they work on computers, and how computer workstations can be set up to support rather than interfere with the body's natural, effective functioning.

Of course each different professional approach to RSI causes and solutions has important and valid contributions to make, but from my point of view body awareness training is the foundation for computer safety. Such training teaches people to:

• notice and feel their bodies as they engage in various tasks

• experience and understand principles of relaxation, balance, and movement efficiency

• discover the most economical and strain-free ways of accomplishing tasks and setting up workstations

I prefer an educational, preventive approach to RSIs, though the same information and consciousness about the body and workstations are important to people undergoing treatment to cure RSIs. People who already have RSI conditions need to know how to reduce strain on their bodies and give them a chance to heal.

My Teaching

I draw on nearly 30 years of body/movement training and practice. I'm an instructor of the Feldenkrais Method of movement training, a fourth-degree black belt in Aikido—a nonviolent Japanese martial art and self-awareness discipline—and a first-degree black belt in Karate. I've developed my own approach to somatic work, which I call Being In Movement training. BIM is the foundation for my work with computer users. (For an overview of the field of somatic education, including a chapter on BIM, see Discovering the Body's Wisdom, by Mirka Knaster, Bantam Books, New York, 1966.)

In my teaching, I focus on the body not only as an objective physical process governed by rules of biology, physics, structure, and function, but also as a subjective process of lived consciousness governed by rules of awareness, feeling, and energy. I help people learn how to experience and examine the body as the tangible aspect of the whole self. My work spans a broad range, including movement efficiency with athletes and musicians, stress management, and conflict resolution with business people. The core of all the work is the creation of a mind/body state of relaxed alertness, compassionate power, and balance. That state of being is the foundation for effective action in any area of life.

 An Example of Body Awareness Training

Effective body use is not something we can take for granted or assume people have. Through miseducation and misuse, people have learned to move in ways that are awkward, strain-filled, and damaging yet seem normal and right. People need to be taught how to use their bodies well, or they will hurt themselves.

The best way to convey the nature of body awareness training is to do some. I'll briefly describe a basic exercise that will let you experience the process of this training and how it applies to RSI prevention.

Sit on a flat-bottomed chair, far enough forward that your back isn't against the back rest. Slump down. Let your back get round and your chest cave in. How comfortable is that? Notice how the compression of your rib cage constricts your breathing. Even if you sit this way on a wonderful chair, you'll still be uncomfortable.

Staying slumped, raise your arms in front of you and move them around, as if conducting an orchestra. Notice how the constriction of your chest and shoulders interferes with free movement of your arms. If you type with this strain in your arms, you'll be uncomfortable, and eventually you may incur some physical damage.

Straighten up from the slump. How did you do that? Most people believe that straightening up from a slump is accomplished by throwing the shoulders back, straightening the back, and elevating the chest. Try that, and notice that it creates tension in the muscles of the back. Actually, sitting up is done by rolling the pelvis into position below the spinal column, thereby bringing the spinal column to a position of easy balance on the pelvis. You can feel this for yourself in the following movements.

Slump again, and notice that when you slump, your pelvis rolls backward; the stack of vertebrae has no foundation on which to rest, and it curves and falls down. (The pelvis can be thought of as a bowl that contains the guts, and "backward" is the direction in which the bowl would rotate to spill out the guts behind the body.) Notice also that when you slump, your pubic symphysis—the bone in the front of your pelvis just above your genitals—points upward.

Now, simply roll your pubic symphysis forward so that it points down toward the floor. Notice that when you do this, you bring the spinal column into an upright position and move up to an erect sitting position. Rather than using (and straining) the muscles along the back to sit up, this pelvic movement calls into play deep core muscles (the iliacus and the psoas muscles), which are much stronger and more efficient for maintaining erect sitting. (Some people initially find this rolling movement unfamiliar or difficult to achieve. For greater detail on how to do this movement, you could look at my book, Compute in Comfort.)

Once the spinal column is balanced on top of the pelvis this way, it takes very little muscular effort to hold it there, and the posture is stable and strong. In this well-supported position, you can let go of unneeded tension and effort. You can relax your muscles and sit and work comfortably. By contrast, sitting up "straight" by tensing your back will create discomfort and strain.

Sit in the new way and move your arms around. Most people experience that when their pelvis and spinal column are balanced, their shoulder girdle and arms move with more efficiency and ease. In practical terms, this results in considerably less arm and neck strain in keyboarding.

Here's a simple hint for significantly improving comfort at the computer: Once you've learned how to balance your torso atop your pelvis, you can reduce your muscular effort even further. Sit on a chair with a flat seat pan, roll up a bath towel, and wedge it in under your tail bone. Keeping your two sitbones (ischial tuberosities) resting on the chair, put the towel roll under your tail bone. The towel will act as a wedge to keep your pelvis rolled forward into the proper position, and you'll feel support all the way up your back.

Pelvic support rather than lumbar support is the real key to comfortable sitting. The body is designed to be an elegantly self-supporting mechanism. Just as infants sit with lovely, upright posture and no back support, so should computer users.

Safety Training for Computer Users

Simply having good equipment is not enough. Without understanding and being able to achieve proper relaxation, alertness, balance, and ease, people will still misuse their bodies on whatever equipment they have, however good it may be. People have to learn to use their bodies appropriately to make best use of their workstation equipment. If we understand principles of proper body use, most equipment will be adequate or can be easily arranged to be adequate. For example, inexpensive chairs and tables will work well if we use pillows and footrests to help fit the equipment to our bodies. But we must be able to feel what our bodies need in order to determine what adjustments to make to our equipment.

Three primary elements need to be examined in safety training for computer users: body awareness, movement breaks, and workstation setup and use.

The first and most basic element of computer safety is body awareness. We must be able to feel and understand the functioning of each body component, from our legs to our eyes, so we can detect strain and nip it in the bud. The alternative is to wait until physical injuries occur to realize that strain must have been present for quite a while.

The second element is proper movement breaks. Even the best work position on the best equipment should not be maintained for too long. Our bodies are designed for movement, not for static work. Computer users need to learn to take rest and movement breaks in order to prevent fatigue and strain, and there are three kinds of movement breaks to consider: (1) Most important is a brief, five-second movement break at the keyboard every 10 minutes. That will be enough to maintain relaxation and prevent stiffness. (2) An additional five- to 10-minute movement break away from the computer each hour is also very important. Time away from the computer for work that would involve moving around would also be helpful. (3) A 20-minute stretching session at home once a day to prepare the body for computer work would be helpful, but is not absolutely necessary.

The third element is equipment choice, workstation setup, and task analysis. Computer users need to be able to feel what equipment will be comfortable and effective during long hours at the computer, and how different ways of positioning the equipment affect their bodies. They have to understand how to position the keyboard, mouse, monitor, graphics pad, external drives, books, and so on. They also have to understand the physical differences between the various tasks involved in computer use -- from graphic design or text entry to programming or computer games —and be able to set up and use their workstations accordingly.

I cover all this material in my book and workshops. If you have questions about these, feel free to contact me. And don't give up hope! It really is possible to learn how to use your body and your computer in comfort.

About the Author:
Paul Linden, Ph.D., Columbus Center for Movement Studies, 221 Piedmont Road, Columbus, OH 43214. Phone & Fax: (614)262-3355. E-mail: paullinden@aol.com.

Paul is a specialist in body and movement awareness education and the developer of Being In Movement training. He has a PhD in physical education and is an instructor of the Feldenkrais Method. In addition, he holds a fourth-degree black belt in Aikido and a first-degree black belt in Karate. Paul focuses on the interplay between self-exploration and effective action, and he conducts workshops throughout the country on the application of body and movement awareness education to such topics as stress management, conflict resolution, performance enhancement, ergonomics, and work safety. He is the inventor of SpineLiner Bicycle Handlebars (patent #5,024,119), and the author of Compute in Comfort: Body Awareness Training: a Day-to-day Guide to Pain-free Computing. (The book was published by Prentice Hall and is now out of print. The author is looking for another publisher, so contact him for current information about its availability.)

For more information on Being In Movement training, see the following articles by Paul Linden. For a clear, comprehensive overview of the field of somatic education, including a chapter on Being In Movement, see Discovering the Body's Wisdom, by Mirka Knaster (New York: Bantam Books, 1966).

"Being In Movement: Intention as a Somatic Meditation," Autumn 1988.

"Developing Power and Sensitivity through Movement Awareness Training," American Music Teacher, October 1992.

"Body Awareness, Critical Thinking and Self-Scrutiny, Inquiry ," Parts I and II, November 1993 and February 1994.

"Somatic Literacy: Bringing Somatic Education Into Physical Education," Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, September 1994.

"Reducing Orthopaedic Hazards of the Computer Work Environment," Orthopedic Nursing, January, 1995.

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