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What exactly are somatics classes?

Updated: Feb 10

Somatics classes are really movement awareness classes and evolved from ‘somatics’, a field of study that evolved in the 1960s and 70s. It was first named by Thomas Hanna, a philosopher. The ‘soma’ is considered to be the first-person experience of ourselves i.e. what it physically feels like to be in my body. All medical sciences observe the body from the outside to find answers to what happens inside, whereas somatics seeks the answers to musculoskeletal pain or stress from within. There’s a fair bit of theory around it and I’ll point you to a recent article if you like theories, academics, philosophy and all of that ( Bennet, 2020). Somatics classes are actually movement education classes, where the person is being taught to find their own solutions to problems experienced by their body.

Fascinating, isn’t it, that a philosopher came up with techniques of movement education? He was influenced by the body-based techniques for improving posture and pain that were being used by Moshe Feldenkrais ( an engineer ), founder of Feldenkrais method and F.M.Alexander ( an actor), founder of the Alexander technique. Hanna became interested in why pain was so prevalent in modern society and like any good philosopher he pondered it….. and proposed that it was predominantly due to stress. In his opinion, the musculoskeletal system ( bones, muscles and joints) functioned well or poorly depending on patterns that evolve in respond to stress, injury and trauma.

He described three main responses to stress, injury and trauma:

• the green light response (Landau reflex), involving the muscles at the back of the body and common amongst Type A personalities: think puffed-out chest, arched lower back – like if someone touched you unexpectedly from behind and you wriggled forward away from it. Or, also, like someone with a very confident posture.

· the red light (startle) response ( this one is very common) involving the flexor muscles at the front of the body – this is the foetal position, often seen when someone is wincing in pain or is stressed.

· the trauma response, as a result of injury, which involves side-bending and twisting to one side.

These patterns become ingrained, habitual and unconscious and then influence how a person moves and carries themselves. Now, as a physio, I would also argue that quite a bit of how we move is probably genetically determined too ( for example, my brother has exactly the same ‘gimp’ as my grandfather did) but there is no doubt that stresses and trauma affect how a person moves: Think of how you know someone is feeling good just by the sound of their walk, or how you know someone is upset just by how they hang their shoulders. Let’s not even mention grinding our teeth…..In a nutshell, our emotions and stresses affect how our body moves and feels.

Thomas Hanna postulated that if we have habitual stress/trauma patterns, our body then forgets how to move in a healthy fashion, something he termed ‘sensory motor amnesia’. He proposed that by becoming aware of these unconscious responses, we could then change them and create a more balanced and free way of moving. Somatics movement classes were developed to do this – slow, mindful, small and concentrated movements, targeting different parts of the body. Over time and with frequent practice the body would then adopt a new posture or form that was free of pain or restriction.

What’s even more interesting is that the opposite seems to work: by changing the way the body moves, we can improve mood and reduce stress. Believe it or not, Somatics is now being used and investigated for its healing effects on emotional trauma. Mind boggling, really – maybe we really DO hold all our old traumas in our body and it’s not just hippy dippy thinking…… some serious mental health researchers are already at this conclusion ( future blog on my lengthening list). Perhaps by moving our body out of stressful patterns caused by trauma, we then help to heal the actual trauma (wow!). At the very least we heal its harmful effects on our body. From a physio point of view, a good example of trauma manifesting in the body would be someone who has had breast cancer surgery, is left with scars but fully healed physically. In my experience, lots of these women many years later still ‘hold’ that part of their body differently, as if to protect it or maybe not fully accepting it. This can result in postural pain. Or how about someone who needed crutches for a leg injury a year ago, but is still walking with a limp today despite no pain… The brain often has a hard time catching up when the body has physically healed. So somatics involves movement of the body, but also has a soothing effect on the mind.

Other people who use somatic movement are actors ( remember F.M Alexander was an actor)and dancers i.e. those that use their bodies to express their emotions through their artform. By freeing out their body movement, their expressions become freer…or so I’ve been told by an actor friend of mine!

If you want to know what a somatics movement class is like to experience, read my other blogs on the subject.

Bennet, B (2020) The Somatic work of Thomas Hanna, T’ai Chi and Kinesiology Kinesiology Review, 9, 236-244





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