Somatics, from soma, a Greek word for living body, is a movement therapy that employs mind-body training to manage muscular pain and spasticity, improve balance and posture, and increase ease of motion. It presents an alternative to treatment by osteopathy , physical therapy, chiropractics, and/or massage therapy .
Somatic therapy was developed by Thomas Hanna in 1976. Hanna was a follower of Moshe Feldenkrais , a twentieth-century physicist whose self-named method is based on the philosophy that all movement, thought, speech, and feelings are a reflection of one's self-image. The Feldenkrais method is practiced in group sessions called Awareness Through Movement and in individual sessions called Functional Integration. Hanna, a former philosophy professor by training, became a Functional Integrationist. He also subscribed to the teachings of Hans Selye, a medical researcher who taught that physiological diseases have their origins in psychological causes, especially the presence of stress .
In creating what he called Hanna Somatic Education, Hanna hypothesized that the body's sensory-motor system responds to the stresses and traumas of daily life with specific muscular reflexes that become involuntary and habitual contractions. These contractions cause stiffness and soreness. Eventually, the individual suffers from sensory-motor amnesia (SMA), a loss of meaning of how muscles feel and how to control them.
Practitioners believe that by re-educating the muscular system, somatic therapy can cure or relieve a variety of complaints including but not limited to adhesive capsulitis, arthritis, back pain, balance problems, dislocation of joints, displaced patella, dizziness , foot pain, frequent urination, hamstring pulls, headaches, joint pain, obesity , sacroiliac pain, sciatica, scoliosis , shoulder tightness and pain, spinal stenosis, temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ), thoracic outlet syndrome, uneven leg length, and whiplash injuries. Somatic education is also taught to combat the decreased ease of motion associated with aging .
Hanna named three reflexes that lead to SMA. The red light reflex (startle response) is a withdrawal response in the abdominal muscles in which the body curves in on itself in response to distress. The green light reflex (Landau arousal response) involves the back muscles and the action response in which the body is constantly thrusting forward in response to daily responsibilities. The trauma reflex occurs when the body suffers an injury.
Hanna theorized that because these reflexes are learned, they can be unlearned. To that end, he developed a series of exercises. During somatic education sessions, the individual is taught to release the chronic tension-holding patterns.
Somatic exercises are slow-motion movements performed in prone or sitting positions. During the various movements, the individual is instructed to be aware of the way his or her muscles feel at each step. Deep breathing techniques are also used at various stages.
The goal of the therapy is to teach the individual the ability to control muscle problems. Relief should occur within two to eight sessions. The effects are cumulative, increasing as flexibility and ease of movement improve. As the body gives up restricted physical patterns, it also tends to release rigid psychological habits.
After the education sessions, the individual is encouraged to continue the exercises on his or her own. Sessions can range from as little as 15 minutes per day to as long as three to four hours.
Sessions can cost between $50 and $175 each, depending on the practitioner's level of experience. Insurance coverage varies with the carrier but is more likely if a physician prescribes somatic therapy.
Gradual movement and awareness of the body are emphasized throughout Hanna Somatic Education.
- Always move slowly, gently, and without forcing the movement.
- Always focus your attention on the internal sensations of the movement.
The exercises should be performed in a comfortable and quiet setting. Clothing should be loose and allow for easy movement. A floor mat or other comfortable surface is recommended.
Before embarking on any type of therapy to relieve pain, the patient should consult a physician. Severe pain in any part of the body could indicate serious disease or injury.
There are no known adverse side effects to somatic therapy.
Research & general acceptance
The bulk of the research into the effects of somatic therapy has been conducted within the discipline itself. Not surprisingly, these studies show positive results across the board. Somatic education is a slow-growing field; there are currently less than 100 certified practitioners worldwide.
However, the scientific medical profession has conducted studies on the effects of various types of exercise on chronic musculoskeletal pain. Although results are inconclusive, findings show that pain is minimized somewhat during the period in which the exercise is undertaken. In addition, preliminary research points to a possible link between muscles, memory, and emotion.
- TMJ syndrome
- —Tightness and pain in the jaw and neck muscles
Training & certification
The Novato Institute for Somatic Research and Training, which Hanna founded in 1976 conducts a three-year training program that covers studies in anatomy, functional and structural kinesiology, physical evaluation, neurophysiology, and practical methods. Applicants must pass three annual examination in order to be certified. Admittance to the program is usually limited to individuals with training in related fields, particularly physicians, chiropractors, physical therapists, and certified massage therapists.
Credit, Larry P., Sharon G. Hartunian, and Margaret J. Nowak. The Feldenkrais Method in Your Guide to Complementary Medicine. Garden City, New Jersey: Avery Publishing Group, 1998.
Hanna, Thomas. Somatics. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1988.