(Otherwise known as Hanna Somatics, created by Thomas Hanna, Ph.D.)
by Mary Ann Gray Voorhies, Clinical Somatic Educator
Clinical Somatic Education, according to Thomas Hanna in his article of the same name, is as follows. These are his words:
The flowering of a series of developments that have led to a discipline that is as consistently effective as any branch of medical science … This type of somatic education is the use of sensory-motor learning to gain greater voluntary control of one’s own physiological process. It is somatic, meaning that the learning occurs within the individual as an internalized process. Prior to the advent of this teacher/learner form of somatic education, the same self-transformatory events have been commonplace in human history.
“Miraculous” cures and healings and radical changes in physical skills and health are the common lore of martial arts and religious history. Because the mechanisms of such healings performed by shamans across the globe were hidden within the internal process of individuals, they have always (heretofore) had the aura of mystery — the mythology of “good” and “bad” spirits or “good” or “bad” energies. It is this same hiddenness that causes the work of 20th century somatic educators to be “miraculous” in the same mysterious way that the pre-scientific world viewed shamanic work. In a series of articles it will be my task to reveal to the reader an understanding of the somatic world in general — and of somatic education in particular, so that the mystery and mythology can be dispelled.
In this way, somatic education can take its place as a discipline available to all humans. These bodily transformations can be both self-initiated or initiated by a somatic practitioner and should not be understood as miraculous, but as SOMATIC. The internal mechanism this self-teaching, self- learning, and self- regulating abilities are genetically given capacities intrinsic to all human beings. The discovery of somatic healing is tantamount saying that we have landed on a new “continent” in the field of health care. It is realized by those who practice this new discipline that the underlying cause of 50% of all ailments that adversely affect the human race can easily be eradicated by the ongoing practice of this discipline. The presumption for centuries was that to grow older was to become crippled. How could it be any other way? But there is another way. Twentieth century science is slowly groping forward toward a better understanding of the body’s deterioration and what causes it. Hans Selye recognized that physiological diseases could arise from psychological causes such as stress. This is a somatic viewpoint, namely that everything that we experience in our lives is a bodily experience. Moshe Feldenkrais put this viewpoint into action with his method of bodily reeducation called Functional Integration.
Hanna’s work is based on the works and discoveries of these two great men, among others. It is solidly based on a cutting edge understanding of how the neuromuscular system works and thorough understanding of neuroplasticity. I will explain in more detail exactly how this works in future articles. We have arrived at an understanding of how to counteract the aging process. We have at this time in history come to the understanding that the bodily aches and pains, bodily decrepitude, and ill health presumed under the “myth of aging” are not inevitable. What we normally have called the aging process is by and large both avoidable and reversible with the advent of this new work. What most people are told about their aches and pains and functional diseases is that “you just have to live with it.”
Through the understanding of somatic education, what we once thought was impossible is possible. A human can live through old age in a pain-free, relatively disease-free body. Hanna taught the fundamental procedures of clinical somatic education to a group of physicians, osteopaths, chiropractors, and physical therapists from Australia. This distinguished group of medical professionals said these principles were indeed the missing link in health care. One of the physicians attending his class was a renowned cardiologist. In an article he wrote that “clinical somatic education has as much potential for understanding the mind/body relationship as Einstein’s theory of relativity had for physics.”
How does somatics work? (a brief description)
During the course of our lives, our sensory-motor systems continually respond to daily stresses and traumas with specific muscular reflexes. These specific reflexes will be discussed in detail in future articles. These reflexes, repeatedly triggered, create HABITUAL MUSCULAR CONTRACTIONS, which we cannot — voluntarily — relax. These muscular contractions have become so deeply involuntary and unconscious that eventually we no longer remember how to move about freely.
The result is stiffness, soreness, and a restricted range of motion. This habituated state of “forgetfulness” is called SENSORY-MOTOR AMNESIA. It is the sensory-motor cortex’s memory loss of how certain muscle groups feel and how to control them. Because this occurs within the central nervous system, we are not aware of it. Yet it affects us to our very core. It is primarily this event (habitually contracted muscles) and its secondary effects that we falsely think of as “growing older.” But, sensory-motor amnesia has nothing whatsoever to do with age. It can and does occur any time — from childhood onward.
Children who grow up in disturbed family situations or in other fearful environments such as war show the symptoms of sensory-motor amnesia: sunken chest, permanently raised shoulders, hyper curved necks. Also, traumatic accidents or serious surgery in young people can cause the same chronic muscular contractions, which in older adults are falsely attributed to aging — for example, scoliotic tilting of the trunk, a slight limp, the use of a cane, or chronic pain that is unable to be diagnosed is the norm. People with these with these conditions are told that they simply must learn to live with it. However, because sensory-motor amnesia is a learned adaptive response occurring in the brain, it can be unlearned.
THIS IS GOOD NEWS! Sensory-motor amnesia and all the suffering that comes with it can be both avoided and it can even be reversed. Hanna also says “the application of this kind of education could cause, within the span of one generation, a reversal of the major public health problems. These claims are far reaching, but no more so than the false notions of the ill effects of aging that have lasted for millennia. Practicing the discipline of clinical somatic education and its simple, slow movement exercises can change “how we live our lives, how we believe that our minds and bodies interrelate, how powerful we think we are in controlling our lives, and how responsible we should be in taking care of our own total being,” says Hanna.
He goes on to say “I am arguing that sensory-motor amnesia describes a category of health problems that has not been recognized until now. This category probably accounts for over half of all human ailments. sensory-motor amnesia is a pathology that is neither medical nor surgical and it cannot be diagnosed or treated within these traditions. It is a somatic pathology, requiring not treatment, but education. Somatics provides us with a way to live under the stressful demands of an urban-industrial environment and still remain healthy, physically and mentally. It helps us to understand the tendency of life in general and especially technological societies in particular — to wear down our wellbeing. There is no need to give into this blindly, as the unavoidable effects of aging, rather, we can meet it with open eyes and overcome it.“
F. Matthias Alexander, father of the Alexander Technique, was the first person to take somatic education out of the realm of shamanistic mystery and establish it as a verifiable pragmatic technique. Alexander, during the years of 1904-1955, elaborated this internal teaching technique of discoveries he had made within himself in the course of a sustained effort to change his own posture.
Alexander attempted at first or change the protrusion of his head and neck (this habitual cervical curvature) by main force. That is, by trying to force the neck to be straight. But of course the habitual muscles sprang back into their usual place. He then despaired of the goal of attempting to straighten the neck and instead concentrated his proprioceptive attention on the means whereby his head, shoulders, head and neck move together. Alexander gradually but surely taught himself to control the muscles of the upper trunk achieving an admirably tall neck and erect posture. He changed his posture — something no one believed possible — and he did so in a systematic, straightforward manner.
There were many precursors to somatic education such as Elsa Gindler, Charlotte Selver, Corolla Speads, and Ilsa Mittendorf. Through the work of these great people the same “miraculous” transformation exciting the interest of an increasing number of people. It appeared, both to the scientific world and to the popular world, to be a case of mind over matter. Thus, the excitement was a spark that could not catch fire.
Mind/body dualism prevented the public from understanding the event. The fact that bodies were changed was an intriguing phenomenon; however, except for a small number of fascinated devotees, it was a curiosity that did not garner general interest. Somatic education remained on the frontier of the health care field for many years but could not enter because it was not yet clinically precise. There was no general theory, no clear diagnostic procedure, and no predictable consistency in its results.
Moshe Feldenkrais brought the tradition one step further to becoming a clinical modality, by dealing directly with neuromuscular pathologies. But, from his point of view, however, the technique of functional integration which he invented was not clinical but purely educational. He was teaching others to be aware of what they were doing. Feldenkrais created the fragments of a system which he could never bring together conceptually. The fact that the majority of adults humans suffer from chronic muscular contractions of the posterior muscles of the back and neck remained a mystery. Even so, Feldenkrais opened a door to a possibility of a system of clinical somatic education.
DIAGNOSTIC THEORY OF CLINICAL SOMATIC EDUCATION
Sensory-motor amnesia occurs neither as an organic lesion of the brain nor of the musculoskeletal system; it occurs as a functional deficit whereby the ability to contract a muscle group, which is usually controlled by the sensory-motor cortex, has been surrendered to subcortical reflexes. These reflexes will chronically contract muscles at a programmed rate — and the voluntary cortex is powerless to relax these muscles below that programmed rate. The cortex has lost and forgotten the ability to do so. Muscles like these which are held in partial contractions, will predictably:
- Become sore of painful.
- Become weak with constant exertion
- Cause clumsiness because of their inability to coordinate synergistically with overall bodily movements.
- Cause a constant energy drain of the body.
- Create postural distortions and poor weight distributions that will cause secondary pain, typically mistaken for a myriad of complaints such as arthritis, bursitis, herniated discs, and so on.
These symptoms of sensory-motor amnesia are commonly misdiagnosed by traditional healthcare practitioners as they attempt to treat them by intervening mechanically (surgery) or chemically in the local musculoskeletal areas affected. Such local intervention has no lasting effect upon the symptoms, inasmuch as it treats a FUNCTIONAL PROBLEM of the brain as it were a STRUCTURAL PROBLEM of the peripheral body. The result is a chronic pathology that cannot be successfully treated by traditional health care. The condition seems medically incurable leaving no option but the use of analgesic drugs that merely mask the symptoms. Medical researchers are all too aware of lack of success in the diagnosis and treatment of what they term “regional muscular illness”.
Sensory-motor amnesia is overcome by a sensory-motor learning process reminding the voluntary cortex of what it has ceased sensing and doing. The mechanism by which this works will be described in future articles. Let’s just suffice to say that clinical somatic education is based on self-sensing, self-moving, self-regulating, self-healing, internal mechanisms that are brought about through specifically designed slow movement exercises that reprogram the neuromuscular system and restore the lost muscle groups to the voluntary cortex. The results include the following:
- Pain relief
- Re-alignment of posture
- Renewed balance
- Enhanced range of motion
- Healing of some diseased states
- More youthful appearance
- Enhanced athletic performance
- Injury prevention
- Ability to avoid surgery
- Renewed sense of wellbeing
- Enhanced ability to live life to the fullest
In the process of practicing this type of somatic education, certain parts of the body that have been “lost” (atrophies) can be restored to full functionality. Aging, then, is this atrophied state which produces rigidity and lack of differentiated movement mobility, degeneration, decrepitude, and many disease states. This new paradigm can change this all. But muscular reaction to stress can be overcome. It is possible through the practice of somatics to feel young no matter what one’s age. Practically speaking, this means to enjoy a muscular tonus that is very low in contraction and energy expenditure and very high in comfort and control.
The basic somatic path during our lifetime is to learn greater and greater control over ourselves. One effect of the myth of aging is that it induces us to despise old age and its aches and pains, but to despise getting old is to betray a pitiful ignorance of the nature of life. Says Hanna:
Youth is not a state to be preserved, but a state to be transcended. Youth has strength but not skill. Youth has speed but not efficiency. Youth is quick but not deliberate, and deliberation is the only way to make decisions. Measured judgment in the end is the only guarantor of intelligent behavior. Youth has the beauty of genetic endowment but not the beauty of real achievement. Youth has the glow of promise, but it does not have the radiance of accomplishment. Youth is a time of seeding and cultivation but not a time of fruiting and harvest. Youth is a state of ignorance and innocence but it is not a state of knowledge and wisdom. Youth is a state of emptiness awaiting fullness. A state of awaiting actualization. A state of beginning awaiting transcendence.
Unless we understand that life is a process of growth and progress, we will never know the first principles of living. The human species possessed with a brain whose genius is unlimited learning and adaptation is a species that is genetically designed to age by growing. Not to expect to grow is to misunderstand what it means to be human. Not to do so is to fail in the task of living a truly God given life. To expect the opposite is, in true affect, to sin against life and its biological promise. During this epochal upward shift in population, it is not the more hard technologies we need, it is the new soft technologies, such as those we have discussed. The soft technologies are the somatic technologies that teach us internal control of our own physiological and psychological lives.
I envision a totally practical possibility of an emerging elderly population with the skills, efficiency, deliberation, judicious use of energy, measured judgment and real abilities of achievement and accomplishment to be the most significant portion of the population. And it is my contention that with the means of avoiding the age old plague of sensory-motor amnesia and with a positive expectation that creates pride in age, this event has every likelihood of coming about. The enormous capacity of the human brain almost guarantees that such a shift in the quality of mature human life can occur. Once humans master the personal adaptive skills of controlling the internal processes of their own somas.
In brief, if we are intelligently aware of our bodies and use positive countermeasures such as somatic exercises to improve our bodily self-regulation, the presumed inevitable effects of again will, by and large, not occur. We must make our way through this great time of change, expecting that it will be good and intending that it will be good. We must make our future the way that we want it to be. That is what human intelligence and freedom are for. If it is true that within the deepest reaches of the human heart we all live according to myths, we may find that on the ashes of the old myth a new paradigm of aging is arising that life is a continuous process of growth and expansion.
Increasing amounts of sensory-motor amnesia usually occur in later years. There is no question about that. However, it occurs in later years not because of the accumulation of the mysterious factor of age, but because of the accumulation of the un-mysterious factors of stressful living and traumatic accidents. Naturally, the longer one lives the more chances one has for these events to occur and accumulate. It is my hope that the increased understanding of sensory-motor amnesia and how to counteract it will result in a larger and larger group of people who will maintain their wellbeing well into old age. Muscular reactions to stress can be overcome! It is possible to feel genuinely young no matter what one’s age. The basic somatic task during our lifetime is to gain greater and greater control over ourselves. Learning to flow with the stresses and trauma of life like a carp floating on top of waves is the goal.
What does somatic mean?
There are two ways in which a human being can be viewed: from the outside in or from the inside out. Look at from the outside like a physiologist or traditional physician, human beings are very different from the beings they appear to be when they view themselves from the inside out. When one looks at another human being, one sees a “body” with a certain size and shape. But when the human being looks at himself or herself from inside, he or she is aware of feelings and movements and intentions, a quite different being. To view a body from the outside is a third person view. But when the human views himself or herself from the inside, it is a first person view, which means being aware of I, myself. What physiologists see from their externalized third person view is always a “body” (object). What the individual sees from the internalized first person view is always a “soma.”
Soma is a Greek word that, from Hesiod onward, has meant ”living body.” This living, self-sensing, internalized perception of oneself is radically different from the externalized perception of what we call a body. Any viewpoint of the human being that fails to include both the first person somatic view and the third person, physiological view, is deceptive. To view a human only as a third person externalized body is to see only a physical puppet or dummy (object) that can be changed by the external methods of chemical and surgical engineering. This is, prima facie, a false view of the human being. It is one sided and incomplete.
The reason that physiology and traditional medicine has failed to perceive the myths behind aging is that they have failed to recognize the fundamental fact that all human beings are self-aware, self-sensing, and self-moving. They can be self- responsible somas. This somatic viewpoint recognizes not only that human beings are bodily beings who can become victims and physical and organic forces, but also that they are equally somatic beings WHO CAN CHANGE THEMSELVES. Humans can learn to perceive their internal functions and can be taught to improve their control of their own somatic functions. This is the underlying theme: that the somatic viewpoint must be added to the objective bodily viewpoint if we are to understand exactly what happens to human beings as they age. By adding the somatic viewpoint to our human sciences, we not only become capable of overcoming major health problems, mistakenly attributed to aging, but we are capable of overcoming many of the health problems that plague all of humankind.
In saying this, there is absolutely no implication that physiological science is invalid. On the contrary, its contributions to understanding the objective functions of human beings are monumental. What I am saying is that this contribution is, even so, incomplete and insufficient, and that is clearly seen in the perennial incompleteness of medical diagnosis and the insufficiencies of medical treatments in the areas I am discussing.
The somatic complements and completes the scientific view of the human being, making it possible to have an authentic science that recognizes the whole human: the self-aware, self-responsible side as well as the externally viewable bodily side. Together, these two viewpoints make possible an authentic human science. By completing the viewpoint of human beings that has, for so long, suffered from incompleteness, we will have set foot on a new continent of human advancement.
I, the writer, know from personal experience the power of this work. I have been in dire straits on more than one occasion in the past ten years. I owe my life to somatics, and it is my purpose to tell as many people as possible about its amazing healing power. There have been several occasions where only somatics could help me relieve pain, improve my posture, and remain youthful. Somatics has saved my life many times. That is why I am writing to you the reader that what we first thought was impossible is possible. I am in the process of overcoming succumbing life as an invalid, and I am conquering through my own self mastery and self healing to rise above painful circumstances. As Hanna has said, I am “overcoming some of the darkest distresses and I am becoming that triumphant carp floating on the top of the waves.”
Much of the material in this article was taken from the book Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, and Health by Thomas Hanna, Ph.D.