You may not have heard of Clinical Somatics before. While the field is relatively new, it improves on existing neuromuscular practices to provide huge therapeutic benefits you can implement yourself – based on sound science. Learn how to use your brain to eliminate your pain!
Somatics in a nutshell
- Clinical Somatic Education retrains your brain-to-muscle connection so you can move efficiently and without pain
- Somatics was created by Thomas Hanna, PhD, one of the pioneers of somatic education
- Somatics teaches you how to be self-sensing and self-correcting, so you don’t have to run to the chiropractor every time you have back pain; through gentle movements and conscious awareness, you can change your “muscle memory.”
- Somatics reverses the effects of sensory motor amnesia (SMA), or chronically contracted muscles, through pandiculation – a neurophysiological process to reset muscle length
- Somatics does not involve stretching or strengthening because stretching and strengthening does not release chronic muscle contraction (both can do quite the opposite)
What is Clinical Somatic Education?
Clinical Somatic Education (CSE) or simply “Clinical Somatics” teaches you how to release chronically contracted muscles. Muscles will stay tense and contracted and your brain forgets how to release that tension.
Through Clinical Somatic Exercises, you can retrain your nervous system to communicate more effectively with your muscles, relieving pain and improving movement for the long term. Somatic exercises are gentle and mindful – there is no stretching or strengthening involved when you practice Clinical Somatics, just conscious awareness and focused attention.
Who developed Clinical Somatic Education?
Clinical Somatic Education was developed by Thomas Hanna, PhD. Hanna was a philosopher and became fascinated by the question “How can we be more free?” This question led him to somatic education and learning to be free in the body. After studying under Moshe Feldenkrais, Hanna studied at the University of Miami Medical School to further his understanding of neurophysiology.
Hanna developed Hanna Somatics, building upon Feldenkrais’s technique of “awareness through movement.” Hanna researched the muscular ways humans respond to stress and noticed a trend of stress reflexes in the body.
He observed how these stress reflexes habituate at the level of the central nervous system and then lead to many common pain conditions and even injuries in people. In fact, these reflexes occur in any animal with a spine and nervous system, so it is important to recognize when one of them is being triggered in you!
From Hanna’s research, he discovered the three reflexes our bodies can get stuck in due to ongoing stress and injury:
- Startle response or “red light” reflex – involuntary contraction in the abdomen, chest, and adductor muscles. The red light reflex creates chronic tightness in shoulders and abdomen; results in neck / back pain, kyphosis, shallow breathing, posterior pelvic tilt, depression, anxiety, fear, to name a few.
- Landau or “green light” reflex – involuntary contraction in the back, glutes. The green light reflex can result in back pain (particularly lower back pain), sciatica, hamstring pain, piriformis syndrome, and other conditions.
- Flexor reflex or “trauma” reflex – reflexive, protective response to injury. The trauma reflex shows up as twisting and rotation of the torso resulting in uneven shoulder or hip height **the trauma reflex shows up most often after an injury, when your body has compensated for muscles on one side by overusing the muscles on the other side. If you always carry your purse on the same shoulder, or hike up your child on the same hip, you can also habituate the trauma reflex.
How can Clinical Somatic Education benefit me?
Clinical Somatic Education can benefit you by retraining your brain to communicate more effectively with your muscles. Most musculoskeletal pain is caused by how you move your body daily. Your brain can actually forget how to sense and control your muscles.
In Somatics, this is called Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).
Sensory motor amnesia causes pain and tension in your body and occurs when your brain isn’t sending signals to your muscles to release their tensile load. SMA habituates and becomes “normal” to your brain due to the ongoing stresses of daily life, injuries, and even surgeries.
Because SMA becomes habituated (think “muscle memory”), often you do not notice the contraction of unnecessary muscles until you begin practicing Clinical Somatic Exercises.
Pandiculation lets your brain reset natural muscle length through first consciously contracting a muscle, then slowly and smoothly releasing that muscle, followed by complete rest and relaxation at the bottom of the movement.
By activating the sensory-motor feedback loop, your brain begins to sense specific muscles in the body.
Only when your brain notices and senses the contraction of a muscle can you learn to release it.
How is Clinical Somatic Education different from other forms of movement therapy?
Clinical Somatics is an active learning process requiring your full attention and conscious awareness. Clinical Somatics works with full body patterns; you are a system. Your tight hip or shoulder is influenced by other areas of tightness in your body, but most importantly, by how you move and hold stress.
By learning to pandiculate and let go of stress, or involuntary muscle contraction, you are actually reeducating how your nervous system communicates with your muscles to move.
This exploration of movement is very similar to how you began learning to move as a child; just think, an infant learns how to move and gains control of his or her body through sensing and then moving based on the sensory-motor feedback in the brain.
Approach Somatic Movements with a feeling of curiosity and exploration. Only through reeducating your muscle memory will you be able to heal your chronic muscle pain, and then you can say goodbye to the chiropractor or massage therapist.
Clinical Somatic Education gets to the roots of most chronic muscle pain: YOUR BRAIN!
Why isn’t stretching or strengthening involved in Somatics?
Stretching or strengthening is not involved in Somatics because stretching and strengthening muscles will not help your muscles release tension and regain full, natural range of motion.
Thomas Hanna said repeatedly that your tight, painful muscles are muscles over which you do not have voluntary control. Otherwise, they wouldn’t feel chronically tight.
If you have tight shoulders, lifting weights and bench pressing will NOT make your shoulders less tight; those movements might, in fact, make your muscles more tight because you are increasing the level of chronic muscle contraction without ever releasing the tension in the muscle.
Your brain controls the resting length of your muscle.
The best way to engage the brain in restoring resting muscle length (shorter muscles are chronically contracted, leading to a feeling of “tightness” or “stiffness”) is through Somatic Movements. Through activating the sensory-motor feedback loop your brain can sense the muscle, and then let go of contraction.
Many people with back pain think they need to tighten the front of their body – they think they need a stronger core. Actually the opposite is true, if your back is hurting, chances are both your front and back muscles are chronically contracted and tight, leading to stiffness and muscle pain in your back and neck. You may be putting yourself in a pain girdle.
What you need to do is release the contraction in the front and back of your body and then you will have a fuller range of motion and greater flexibility.
After all, if you wanted to get a knot out of a piece of string, would you pull the string tighter?
When you stretch a tight muscle, this is what you are doing. You are pulling the “knot” tighter and then wondering why your muscle tension does not disappear.
The most logical and effective approach would gently begin to undo the knot, which is exactly what Clinical Somatic Education does for your muscles. Through gently moving in a focused way (pandiculation), your brain can notice the “knot” or chronic muscle contraction and then reset the natural resting length of that muscle.