History Hanna Somatic Education®, or Somatics as it’s commonly called, is a revolutionary system for releasing muscular tension.
While relatively new in Canada, Somatics has been gaining recognition in the healthcare community worldwide because of the seemingly miraculous results practitioners are often able to achieve with chronic disorders that are unresponsive to medical or traditional therapies.
An Integrative Process
Somatics offers a new way of looking at the human body as a whole, integrative process, a way in which most medical doctors, limited by a medical system that allows them only to focus on the small picture, cannot.
Somatics recognizes that most musculoskeletal disorders are not caused by structural problems – that is to say, any defect in the musculoskeletal system – but, rather, functional problems – how the entire system is operating.
Techniques for releasing muscular tension abound, but most of them are external in nature. They involve having something done to us such as a massage or a soak in a hot tub. What makes Somatics revolutionary is that it teaches people through sensory-motor learning how to sense and release chronically contracted muscles on their own.
Sensory Motor Amnesia
Thomas Hanna, PhD, developed the system over 25 years ago after years of study with many other somatic pioneers including Moshe Feldenkrais. Hanna was emphatic that our bodies should improve as we age, and that many of the conditions we attribute to aging such as arthritis, back pain, stiffness, stooped posture, etc., are not the result of any degeneration in the body’s structure (as we are so often told by physicians), but are instead the result of a process he termed “Sensory Motor Amnesia.”
You may not have heard of it, but Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) and its effects may account for up to 50% of all human health complaints, making it the plague of the 21st century. Sensory Motor Amnesia is exactly what it sounds like – the memory loss within the Central Nervous System of how certain muscle groups feel and how to control them. Generally, we think of muscular control as being the ability to contract a muscle. But true muscular control also includes the ability to relax a muscle, and it is this ability that we lose through SMA.
SMA is insidious and cumulative, occurring typically through a process of adaptation. As humans living in a technological society, we respond daily to a variety of stressors, all of which make our muscles tighten. Every event, from the ring of a phone to driving a car or using a computer, demands a series of muscular contractions and postures from us.
When the event that caused us to react is over however, we tend to forget to voluntarily relax our muscles and return to a balanced or “neutral” posture. And that’s where problems begin. Add time and repetition to the mix, and the poor postures and constant muscular contractions become habitual, ingrained and unnoticed. Over time, our brain adapts and thinks it’s normal to hold our muscles tight. The result is stiffness, pain, poor posture and diminished movement – the very conditions we often misinterpret as the effects of age.
Why is it that you can often tell an off-duty police officer by their gait and the way they hold their arms out from the sides of their bodies as they walk? Because their bodies have adapted to the posture they have while at work, and that posture now feels as normal to them as yours does to you right now.
Role of Posture in Good Health
Now that we’ve brought your attention to your posture, how are you sitting while you read this? Are you slouching? Or is your back arched tightly? Do you even know? Most of us pay very little attention to our posture or what it means. Yet our posture is a reflection of how our muscles are holding our skeletons.
It is important to remember that our muscles move our bones, not the other way around. So if you normally stand stooped with your head forward, or if you tilt to one side with one shoulder lower than the other, it is because your muscles are holding you in that position.
Our spine, with its numerous vertebrae stacked on top of each other, is actually very flexible; this means it will curve or move in virtually any direction that our muscles pull it. Barring any structural defect or impediment (such as severe osteoporosis) that prevents proper posture, the majority of us exhibit postures we have learned. Unfortunately, these postures tend to work against good health rather than promote it.
For an example, let’s look at our heads. The human head weighs, on average, 12 -15 lbs. It is designed to sit on the vertical axis or top of the spine. For every inch you hold your head outside the vertical axis in any direction, you add an extra 12 – 15 lbs of weight on the muscles running from your neck down. Think of it like making your neck muscles hold a 12lb sack of flour all day, every day. Because that’s exactly what they’re doing.
Hold your head two inches outside of the vertical axis and you can double that weight. If you or someone you know suffers from chronic headaches, take a good look at their posture and you may see one of the reasons why.
Typically, the vast majority of humans suffer from chronically sore or painful muscles from their late twenties or early thirties onward. This is the age where, under normal circumstances, we have accumulated enough muscular tension that we begin to feel it. It may begin as a little stiffness in the morning that goes away, and increase year by year until by the time we are in our forties, fifties, sixties, or later, we may feel it all the time. Chronic muscular tension is what makes people feel old, not age.
Chronic Muscular Tension
All muscles have tonus – a natural elasticity or ability to stretch and contract in response to stimuli. In the resting state, tonus is zero. So, if we have complete control of a muscle, we can achieve a muscle tonicity of zero – complete relaxation. But if we lose our voluntary control of a muscle its resting tonicity can increase to 10, 20, or even 40 percent. We may think our muscles are relaxed when not in use, but in reality our muscles may remain contracted, even during sleep.
When muscles contract, glycogen is turned into lactic acid. The more acid there is, the more a muscle’s sensory cells become irritated. A constant 10 percent buildup will create enough activity to make the muscle feel tired. A constant 40 percent buildup will create so much hot acidity around the pain receptor cells that the bloodstream cannot flush it away and the muscle will constantly feel painful. 1
Learn To Let Go
A chronically contracted muscle is like a motor that never turns off; it works and consumes energy all the time. But the good news is you can learn to shut it off and enjoy a body that is low in muscular contraction and energy expenditure and high in comfort.
Through a series of safe, gentle exercises that reawaken the brain’s control over voluntary movement, you can significantly reduce the level of tension in your muscles and change inefficient movement and postural patterns at their source: the sensory-motor cortex.
Somatic exercises can be learned on your own or with the help of a certified practitioner. Practitioners can also perform hands-on work with clients to accelerate positive changes. Don’t expect to be able to fall asleep during a session though; sensory motor reawakening is an educational process done by an active person, from the inside out. Nobody can do it for you.
But once you learn to sense and release your own chronically contracted muscles, you can enjoy a level of energy, comfort and freedom of movement that you may not have experienced for decades. A supple, pain free body is our birthright- so why not take advantage of it? So get out there and enjoy the garden this spring. Its a perfect way to get gentle exercise and let go at the same time.
To learn more, visit > Hanna Somatic Education®