Hanna Somatics has changed the way I move in the world. I'm not only more aware of my physical habits, I notice my reflexive thought patterns and emotional reactions more clearly as well. I like to tell my students that a somatic practice is what yoga is supposed to feel like; it gives rise to a sense of self and embodiment that is more accessible for everyone. When you think of it as an exploration rather than something that is meant to be accomplished or gotten through, you emerge with a renewed sense of self and connection to your body as a whole, and the more you practice, the more embodied you become.
Your brain is the driver of your body, and every physical act you consciously undertake is governed by neuronal connections at a cortical level (as opposed to autonomic or purely reflexive actions, which usually occur at a deeper level within the brain or along the brain stem or spinal column). Because our lives demand such a complex level of cortical function, most of what we do exists outside of our full awareness. Have you ever been driving and gone the wrong direction simply because it was what you were used to ? That's a habit. Do you revert to your childhood state when you're with your parents or your siblings? That's a conditioned response, a habit. Your brain is used to its familiar pathways and will revert to them unless you make a conscious effort to change them.
With physical movement, so much of what we've embedded in our brain is below our consciousness. We may know that we have tight shoulders or sore backs but have no idea what to do about them other than stretching (which either will contract antagonistic muscles or trigger a stretch reflex, causing the muscles to contract even further) or going to see someone else, like a massage therapist or chiropractor, to treat your problem. But through a somatic, first person approach, you can learn to feel what coming into a contracted state feels like. And once you know what it feels like to contract, you can start to undo the contraction through a release.
Because a somatic practice is a truly physical, first-person experience of you being you, describing it in words is a pale substitute for the experience of a one-on-one session or a group class. I've compiled a list of FAQs below, but really...why not try it yourself? If you don't live nearby, look at the online resources I've compiled for your at-home practice.
What is “somatics?”
“Soma” means body in ancient Greek. The somatic nervous system in the body controls all of our voluntary movements, whether we’re aware of those movements or not. Quite often, we’ve become so habituated to our movement patterns that even though they originally started from a place of consciousness, they’ve evolved into something below our mindful awareness. Somatics, a term coined by Thomas Hanna (the man who developed this modality), helps restore awareness to our movement patterns and empowers us to change them if they no longer serve us. In a somatics practice, the student makes small and simple movements, guided by the teacher’s voice and gentle touch, and uses his or her own awareness to foster change in these habitual and involuntary patterns.
What does “somatic” mean?
A “somatic” experience is one that can only be experienced in the first person. While a doctor or a physical therapist or a yoga teacher can observe a body from a third person perspective, only the soul inside of the body knows the experience of being in that body. Our brains bear the imprint of every movement we’ve made, every emotion we’ve felt, every memory we’ve encoded. Every soma incorporates its history in its unique way, processing sensory inputs and expressing motor outputs to move itself through the world.
How is it different from chiropractic work/physical therapy/PNF/myofascial release/[insert treatment of choice]?
It’s the difference between having someone else fix you and being able to fix yourself. Chiropractors and therapists are third person treatments. While they can adjust the body and work with what presents itself in their offices, they most often cannot address the cause of the symptoms where they occur—the sensory motor cortex. Somatics offers a way to change the neural pathways that effect the movement patterns causing pain, tightness, or weakness. And because you're changing yourself at the control center of your movement--your brain--the change is permanent as long as you continue to self-monitor and correct.
This sounds a lot like Feldenkrais/Alexander Technique. Is it?
Yes! Thomas Hanna was a student and friend of Moshe Feldenkrais, and he developed his work by using components of each of these practices. Alexander Technique is based upon learning why certain patterns cause the body to respond in certain ways (“means whereby”). Feldenkrais uses the principle of moving into a contracted muscle to sense the process of release (“pandiculation”) instead of actively trying to stretch the muscle.
I already do yoga/Pilates/Crossfit/distance running/[insert physical exercise of choice]. Why should I do this too?
Somatics is cross-training for life. No matter what physical activity you’ve chosen, chances are that you’ve developed a lot of habits around that activity that may prevent you from performing at your optimal level. You may learn that conscious decisions you’ve made in the past about how you should move are making you less mobile, less comfortable, or weaker. Assessing your patterns, starting at the center and moving out to the periphery, will help you be a better athlete as well as a happier and more mobile human being.
I’m injured. Is this safe?
Yes. No matter what type of injury you have, you can practice somatics. Somatics is unique because although there’s a physical component to it, it’s really brain exercise. You’re practicing making the neural connections and feeling how the body responds. This work, known as “motor planning,” is a part of a somatic session, both one-on-one and group, and it can be used even if you’re unable to walk or get up and down off the floor.
More importantly, somatic movement can help you protect your healthy movement patterns while you’re recovering from your injuries. When the body is injured, it compensates by recruiting muscles and establishing awkward patterns to work around the injury. Oftentimes, the patterns become fixed so even when the injury is healed, the body keeps moving as though it’s injured. A somatic movement practice can keep the brain’s picture of the soma intact during the healing process so you can pick up where you left off once you’re recovered.
I’m tight/weak/have terrible balance. Can I do this?
Of course. The work is completely experiential. In a somatic session, all you need to do is contract and release muscles; the degree to which you move is up to you. Most of the work is done in a lying down position; there is minimal sitting, standing and walking, none of which is mandatory.
As an aside, the definitions “tight,” “weak,” and “bad balance” are all subjective and comparative. If you take a somatic approach and see yourself where you are, as a being who has made accommodations for life’s stressors and is capable of change, you can give yourself space to become stronger, more supple, and stable.
Will I get a good stretch from this work?
It depends. In our practice, we think of “stretch” as a four letter word. Instead of stretching (which is essentially creating an eccentric contraction that lengthens an antagonistic muscle group without releasing the underlying concentric contraction in the agonist muscle group--sorry about the technical language, folks), you'll learn how to pandiculate. A pandiculation is a voluntary contraction of a muscle group, a slow release, and then a little bit of time to integrate the change. It looks and feels like what you do when you yawn. And it gives the brain information about what it feels like to actually release tight muscles instead of simply pulling them in the opposite direction.
So no, you won't get a good stretch from this work. But you'll gain all of the benefits of what we call stretching--more function and length in your muscles--without pulling or pushing or risking injury. And to sweeten the deal, you'll feel great and engaged and relaxed both while you're pandiculating and afterward.
What’s a one-on-one session like?
First, we’ll assess your posture. Each clinical session focuses on one specific stress reflex pattern that is present in your posture. The dominant reflex pattern is usually the first one addressed. Because each session focuses on one reflex, additional sessions may be advised.
The movement begins after the assessment. You lie on a low table and are guided through a series of gentle, easy movements and assisted pandiculations that are designed to restore sensation and control of muscles at the brain level and change your patterns of muscular tension. With hands on help and measured resistance from the teacher, you will begin to retrain your brain to let go of chronic contraction in the muscles and reset their length and function. The process improves your awareness and facilitates your ability to monitor, correct, and adjust your posture, movement, and responses to stress on your own. After all, you are the only one who knows what being you feels like.
The first session can be up to ninety minutes long because of the intake process. At the end of the session, the student will receive exercise to do to maintain his or her new knowledge. Subsequent sessions last between sixty to seventy-five minutes.
How much does a one-on-one session cost?
The first session is $150 and can take up to ninety minutes and even longer. Subsequent sessions are $100. New students can buy 3 sessions for $300, which I highly encourage; not only do you save a little money, you'll be more committed to doing your homework between sessions and you'll see better results. While some people can "fix" themselves after a session or two, most of us have stubborn habits and reflexes that require four to six sessions before they start to resolve themselves.
What’s a group class like?
Group classes are held in a comfortable space that’s quiet and distraction-free. You’ll lie on the floor on a mat or a blanket to learn the exercises. The teacher will offer verbal instructions for the movements, which consist of pandiculations (voluntary contractions and slow releases, with plenty of time for integration) and other small, slow voluntary patterns that are meant to reverse engineer our old patterns. Students are encouraged to keep their eyes closed to facilitate the internal, first person learning experience. Classes are relaxing and enjoyable.
Group classes are a good way to check out somatic movement in a cost-effective way. They also provide one-on-one students an opportunity to practice their movements and continue to learn about their somas and patterns.
Do you take referrals?
I love referrals! I'm currently developing a referral program; if you're interested in sharing this work with others, email me for information so you can start saving money on your own somatic education.
This sounds amazing, but I'm a full-time yoga teacher and I'm broke. Any suggestions?
Yoga teachers are some of the best people I know and don't get paid anything close to what they're worth. Show me something indicating that you are a yoga teacher--a pay stub, a class schedule, a business card--and your one-on-one sessions are half-price. It's the least I can do to thank you for everything you do for everyone else.