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Pandiculation: Simple Movements Can Reduce Muscle Tension

Have you ever wondered why dogs always stretch after waking? Or why you often stretch your arms overhead and yawn upon waking up?  The answer has a name you may have never heard before: pandiculation.

Pandiculation is the way in which our bodies prepare for movement by establishing the connection between our motor and sensory nervous systems.  All animals with a spine pandiculate to self-regulate and humans are no exception.

Watch a dog wake up for a nap.  What’s their next move?  They stretch their bodies while sticking their tongue out (or roll over and keep napping if they are lazy).  They engage the musculature along their back body, flex their paws, and contract their jaws.  A typical dog pandiculates well over 20 times in a day to keep muscles relaxed and primed for movement.  (In yoga we have even have upward facing dog and downward facing dog postures mimicking this movement, albeit usually with our tongues in our mouths.)

But why is this often unconscious movement important to us as human beings?

It can help us to reduce tension in our muscles and restore voluntary control over muscles that have become sedentary while sleeping or staying in one position for a long time.  When we pandiculate we stimulate a specific part of the brain that controls our planning and execution of movement.  After the movement is completed our brains release chemicals that naturally reset muscle tension levels.  This is akin to rebooting the movement system of our bodies (muscles contracting and relaxing through the alpha-gamma feedback loop.)

What if we were to extend the use of pandiculation to create relaxation and reduce muscle tension beyond just when we wake up?  This idea is being explored by many somatic movement specialists.  Voluntarily contracting a muscle or group of muscles and bringing your awareness to the contraction can reset habitual contraction and tension patterns.  This can potentially release chronic tension in the body by changing the relationship between our muscular and nervous systems.

We adapt to the demands of life on our body by compensating in certain ways and those patterns influence our posture and levels of tension. Rounding your back to sit at a computer all day can cause chronic tension in your upper back where the muscles have to apply the brakes to prevent your body weight from pitching forward.  Conscious pandiculation can provide new input into our movement system, helping us to release from our habitual patterns that cause misalignment and release tension along the way.  This can potentially alleviate stiffness in the body and teach us to move in ways that prevent tension and pain from recurring.

Our bodies are imprinted with incredible wisdom. Conscious movement, even small subtle movements, can create large shifts in our experience with our bodies.  We can learn to update our movement systems through mindful movement rather than running ‘old software’ that might not be compatible with the ever-adapting demands we place on our bodies.

Voluntary pandiculation is quite simple to induce: 1). Choose a muscle you would like to target. Let’s choose the rhomboid muscles in between the shoulder blades for example. 2). Contract that muscle slowly. Slowly retract your shoulder blades to draw them together, broadening across your chest. 3). Slowly reverse the motion and lengthen the targeted muscle. Slowly bring your shoulder blades back to neutral position and then protract your shoulders, shortening the space across your chest. 4). Relax and allow for feedback to your brain. This allows your brain to receive feedback of what it feels like for you rhomboids to be contracted, stretched, and relaxed.

The next time you wake up and stretch your arms over head try to become mindful of all the muscles you feel contracting. Let the experience bring you into your body.  Even when you were in your mother’s womb you were pandiculating, moving around and priming your body for movement.  Now that you have years of habits formed and know how to move in incredible ways you are still pandiculating, although maybe not as much as you naturally should.  Practicing different somatic movements with awareness can help bring you back to a natural state of less muscular tension and more freedom in your body.  Who knew such small, everyday movements can be such powerful tools!

*There are many different somatic movement exercises that target different areas of the body and establishing more natural movement patterns. Search for a somatic movement specialist in your area or find some videos online and give them a try!  You can see in the video below how coming into a twist in a somatic way is different from a traditional yoga twist.

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