As part of my 3-year clinical training I had to write a philosophy paper about Somatics. Thomas Hanna was a philosopher in addition to a Hanna Somatics Educator. This is my paper. So while people ask "what is somatics?" maybe an understanding of what it is not will help people better understand what it is.
If I can impart one key message about Essential Somatics it is this: Somatics is not a thing.
Things can be gadgets or gurus. Things can be revered as special ways, maybe even mysterious ways to do something to achieve something. We seek these things for our problems, from losing weight to being better business owners to getting rid of pain. The point is these things are outside of ourselves.
Somatics is not a thing.
Think back to when we were kids. We didn't know anything. Everything was new and exciting. We had a gazillion questions about everything. We touched things. We stuck things in our mouths. We tired to convey to others what we were feeling. We were aware of things that adults take for granted and go unnoticed.
We were using our brains and senses to figure things out.
Let me say that again.
We were using our brains and senses to figure things out.
Fast forward to adulthood. If you are involved in adult education, the experts tell you, relate what you teach to something the (adult) student already knows.
Which explains my dilemma.
Since Somatics is not a thing, it can be challenging at first for many adults to “get” it. We are adults after all, and have well entrenched beliefs and think we know pretty much everything. That’s not meant as an insult. But if we were to discover something that goes against our current beliefs we might not want to learn/believe/experience something new. That rigidity can be our enemy. Kids don’t think this way. They don’t have any preconceived notions, yet.
When people ask me what I do, to keep it short and sweet, I often just reply, "I teach people how to use their brains to get rid of their pains."
Which usually breaks the ice--I mean everyone can relate to pain, right? So they want to know what exactly it is that I do.
So I explain what Somatics is and how it works, then they ask questions like:
"Is it like massage?"
"So its like pilates, right?"
Not even close.
“Welllll....there could be some distant philosophical similarities."
Yoga is a perfect example of something that has become a thing. I don't claim to be a yoga expert, but what I like to call "western yoga" pays just a teensy tiny homage to “real yoga”. Western yoga is now sold as a physical exercise program. Some yoga schools have trademarked poses, sell special gear, heat yoga spaces to 100+ degrees 24/7 and play bass rock at the threshold of pain. In reality the yoga poses practiced in gyms across the US are just a fraction of the original physical, mental, and spiritual practice of yoga that originated in ancient India. Just one example of a thing, but I digress.
When I chat with clients and total strangers about Somatics they tell me all kinds of things they do for pain.
“I have the best massage therapist! I've been going to him for years. He can fix me right up. Well, it feels amazing for a while, but then the pain comes back…."
“I was in an auto accident and now my left leg is shorter than my right, so my doctor told me to wear orthotics. I don’t really like them, but I need to wear them.”
There is some sort of all-knowing, ubiquitous “they” that doles out advice that becomes part of our beliefs, because we’ve heard these “tips” so many times.
“They say we should walk with our backs like this.”
“I’ve heard I should do this with my shoulders.”
“I’m trying to get my pelvis to do X."
“ These shoes will make me run like this.”
“I try to engage my abs to X percent.”
“My pain is because I have arthritis/compression/stenosis/etc.”
You’ve probably got your own. I know I sure did!
After a Somatics for Wellbeing class at Portland Community College, a man came up to me and said, "This class has been amazing. I’ve been going to a chiropractor for over 30 years and never felt like this! Who do you suggest I go see to continue this?" I looked at him, and said, "Uh, me? Since Somatics has been so great, how about you come in for a hands-on session with me, a Somatics Educator?" He looked at me like I didn't understand and replied, "No, I mean, can you recommend a good massage therapist. Or maybe I should go to an acupuncturist." I didn't press it, but he really back pedaled from pursuing Somatics.
It dawned on me, he thought he needed a thing to fix his pain. It didn’t make me mad. It made me sad. Sad that he had less faith in himself than some thing.
I can relate though. After I was hit by a car while riding my bike I did pilates. A figured a “tight core” would help me, which is what we hear all the time, right? Now I know a tight core is the complete opposite of freedom of movement, which my body was lacking. I got acupuncture, which I really did enjoy, but the pains I had never went/stayed away. The chiropractor I saw was worthless but I wanted to believe what everyone said, that it would help. Physical therapy made my pain worse. I explored a bunch of other things, but nothing lasted. I will say cranio sacral work and osteopathic treatments were helpful, but slow going.
Then I found a book on Somatics called Move Without Pain by Martha Peterson. It nearly jumped off the shelf as I was volunteering at my library. The first time I explored the movements I got instant/lasting relief in my left hip and that was 4+ years ago. I was sold. I signed up to learn how to teach the movements in that book, and became a Certified Somatics Exercise Coach.
I taught the movements to clients and they absolutely loved them! They felt things in their bodies that they hadn’t felt in a very long time, or maybe even ever. Cool.
Then I started reading Thomas Hanna’s books, Somatics: Reawakening The Mind's Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health; Bodies in Revolt;The Body of Life, and articles in Somatics Magazine.
Thomas Hanna (1928-1990), who developed Hanna Somatics, was a philosopher who’s shining philosophy was how humans can become and remain physically and intellectually free. The driving force of his work as a Somatic Educator and philosopher was to help people realize the potential we all have, and with that potential we can take responsibility for our own bodies, lives and minds.
Humans, unlike other animals, have neo-cortexes—the thinking, executive functioning part of the brain— that make us human and give us free will. It’s when you understand that, that everything changes. And you realize Somatics is not a thing.
So if somatics is not a thing, what exactly is it, you ask?
You are not a thing either. You are a soma. Your body is what you see in the mirror and what others see when they look at you. Soma is greek for living body, which Hanna further defined as the body experienced from within and where we experience mind/body integration. So what you feel from within you is you. No one else can have that experience and that should just send chills down your spine if you think about it. You and your brain have a world in and of itself. No one can be you. No one can feel what you feel. And surprise! There is no mind-body “connection.” The brain and body are one, wrapped up in the soma, the being, that is you, at this moment in time.
Remember when I said when we were young we were using our brains to figure things out. Think about that. When you were a brand new baby you didn't know jack squat about how to do anything. While a baby horse can walk in 3 minutes after birth, a baby human can take anywhere from 6 to 17 months to walk.
Consider this: no thing taught us how to do all the movements we learned to do, that lead to walking, that lead to running, skipping, hopping and so on. We didn’t need any thing to make it happen. No gadgets or contraptions. Just our brains and nervous systems. We learned how to be and move all on our own. Our brains and nervous systems helped us balance our giant heads over our bodies. Our brains and nervous systems helped us go from lying face down to being able to lift our heads to face forward and our legs up in the air behind us. And as Thomas Hanna said, we were pretty stoked when we did that for the very first time. (I’m paraphrasing, of course.) That arching of the back is called the Landau Reflex and it's what leads human babies to get up and move forward into the world. It's a key stage of development. But again, no thing made that happen. We did it because we wanted to move forward! It was just us and our brains and nervous systems, evolution, and hopefully adequate caregivers encouraging us along the way. If we weren't motivated and using our senses, and had given up way back then, we'd still be in our cribs having someone changing our diapers. Ironically what we want to avoid as we get older. :-)
So what does that have to do with Somatics? Ah ha! This is where people start thinking Somatics a thing. Nope, Somatics is re-education. A re-education in you, and you are not a thing. With all the sensory stimulation we were absorbing as young babies and toddlers we literally taught ourselves to move well and freely. We were little masters of our destinies, and just imagine if we had continued on this trajectory of self awareness. But alas, just as we were about to take on the world, our training became externally driven. We were told: Sit down. Face forward. Stop moving about! What we had learned on our own was being taken away. Our brains started to prune away our freedom of movement and to some extent, unadulterated joy.
Now, as adults we are looking for something to recapture that freedom. But many of us don’t think it is possible. We have pain, both physically and mentally. We may even think it’s our age and inevitable. We have been told that there are others outside of ourselves that know us better than we know ourselves. We go looking for these things to remedy us, when we can actually remedy ourselves. We have our brains and nervous systems still, after all. We are still somas. All the fabulous movement we could do at a young age was self taught. Now is the time to stop chasing things and look within. That is where our knowledge and power lies. Not outside of ourselves.
Body workers do just that; they work on bodies. Somatic educators are just here to help you reclaim what is rightfully yours, but forgotten.
You once knew how to move with ease and you can do it again.
Yes. You. Can.
Somatics is just re-education to relearn our natural/god-given ability to do what we did on our own as children and babies. We learned by moving and we pandiculated. All animals pandiculate. That stretching thing your dog does every day is actually a pandiculation. It helps the muscles of the body relax to their natural resting length. We did the exact same thing all the time as babies and toddlers. You may still do it if you allow yourself to take a big yawn, reach your arms over your head and contract your muscles then let them gently go. No stretching. No strengthening. A pandiculation is just a neurophysiological reset to let go of excess tension in the body. If you can relax out of your patterns of tension and stress, you will move with freedom and contentment. No outside things make that happen. You do it.
I can help you have a better sense of yourself, and then you take it from there. Humans have been led astray from who they truly are. But with pandiculations, you will find that as you re-learn to move with ease, your life will become easier. Things will no longer have their draw.
In all honesty, I think this is a key reason Somatics is not better known. Humans are the only species on the planet that pay to live. And if we take away all the extraneous BS and things that don’t really matter, how will the “powers that be” (advertising, mega-corporations, political parties, religion, school) control us if we are free? We can be content with just being ourselves.
You were born to be free. To paniculate and sense yourself. Somatics is just a way for you to rediscover your innate ability to self regulate, self correct, and self sooth. It helps you let go of tension that holds you back from being your true self. I believe if we have a better sense of ourselves we can better relate to the world and those around us. Less tension within means less conflict outside. And wouldn’t that be a nice thing?