Clinical Somatic Education – A New Discipline in the Field of Health Care


Written by Thomas Hanna, PhD


The summer of 1990 saw the opening of the first class in Hanna Somatic Education. It is the flowering of a series of developments that have led to a discipline that is as consistently effective as any branch of medical science.


SOMATIC EDUCATION is the use of sensory-motor learning to gain greater voluntary control of ones physiological process. It is "somatic" in the sense that the learning occurs within the individual as an internalized process.

In its purity, somatic education is self-initiated and self-controlled. However, somatic education has emerged during the twentieth century as a procedure whereby this internalized learning process is initiated by a teacher who stimulates and guides the learner through a sensory-motor process of physiological change.

Prior to the advent of this teacher-learner form of somatic education, the same self-transformatory events have been a commonplace of human history. "Miraculous" cures and healings have always occurred. Extraordinary transformations of the body -- supernormal strength, radical changes in physical skills, stigmata appearing on the body -- are the common lore of martial, athletic, and religious history.

Before the twentieth century the closest approximation to teacher-learner somatic education was the work of shamans and Asian healers who helped initiate the sensory-motor learning process by means of symbolic manipulations and movements that evoked powerful physiological transformation in their "patients", healing them in extraordinary ways. Because the mechanisms of such healings are hidden within the internal process of individuals, they have always had the aura of mysteries -- a mythology of good and bad spirits or good and bad energies accounted for this hidden process. It is this same hiddenness that causes the work of twentieth-century somatic educators to appear to be "miraculous" in the same mysterious way that the prescientific world viewed shamanistic work.

The results of self-learning should not be understood as "miraculous," but as somatic.    
It is our task to achieve an understanding of the somatic realm in general -- and of somatic education in particular -- so that the mystery and the mythology will be dispelled. In this way, somatic education can become a discipline available to all humans. The salutary results of self-teaching, self-learning, self-healing, and self-regulation should not be understood as "miraculous," but as somatic: they are genetically-given capacities intrinsic to all human beings.


F. Matthias Alexander, father of the Alexander Technique, was the first person to take somatic education out of the realm of shamanistic mystery and establish it as a verifiable, pragmatic technique.

Alexander, during the years from 1904 to 1955, elaborated this internal self-teaching technique by means of discoveries he had made within himself in the course of a sustained effort to change his own posture. He had excessive habituation of the startle reflex -- a posture condition causing lordosis of the neck vertebrae, depression of the chest wall, and a too-forward carriage of the head. This distortion of the windpipe also distorted the projection of his voice.

Alexander attempted, at first, to change this habitual cervical curvature by main force, that is, by trying to force the neck to be straight; but, of course, the habituated muscles sprang back into their usual place.

By focusing proprioceptively on the "means-whereby", Alexander changed his posture.
He then despaired of the "goal" of attempting to straighten his neck and, instead, concentrated his proprioceptive attention on the "means-whereby" his neck, shoulders, chest, and head moved together. Rather than focusing on the "end" of a straight neck, Alexander focused his attention on the "means" by which he was unconsciously using his neck, shoulders, chest, and head while doing any movement whatsoever. What he termed the "means-whereby" was an analytical procedure of breaking down the total movement of the body into its several component parts and of sensing those parts without any concern for the goal of neck straightening.

By "inhibiting" the "end" and focusing proprioceptively on the "means whereby," Alexander gradually, but surely, taught himself to control the muscles of the upper trunk, achieving an admirably tall neck and erect posture. He changed his posture -- something no one believed possible -- and he did so in a systematic, straight-forward manner.

This was the beginning of somatic education in the twentieth century. John Dewey, the philosopher, recognized and extolled Alexander's achievement as a major event. Dewey's personal experience of changing and mastering his own posture under Alexander's tutelage taught him that not all problems are solved by intellect, for some are solved by direct experience of oneself -- a somatic insight.

Specifically, what Dewey learned and extolled in the Alexander Technique was how it solved a physiological problem by experimentally interrupting a habitual pattern and then sensing its several components in order to enrich ones awareness of what one is unconsciously doing. What was habitually unconscious was made conscious by means of new sensory information. This allowed new motor control to occur. Dewey saw Alexander as the pioneer of a radically new venture in physiological self-education -- a procedure which achieved a better integration of the reflexive and voluntary elements in ones response patterns.

Quite independently of Alexander's work, another approach to somatic education was made by a teacher of physical education in Berlin -- Elsa Gindler. Gindler conducted classes in Gymnastik, where she invited her students to focus upon the sensations within their bodies as they went through various movements. Students were asked to focus their attention not on the movements themselves, but on the internal feelings of these movements; for example: How is one breathing during the movements? How does the weight of the body during movement shift over the heels, the hips, and so forth?

Gindler was making her students focus on the "means-whereby" rather than the "end" of external movement. The result was that "miraculous" changes began to occur in the bodies of those who trained with Gindler. Again, the principle was the same: Turn conscious attention inward to the proprioceptive background of an objective movement, and the quality of the objective movement begins to improve. Greater self-control is gained by means of greater sensory awareness.

From the 1930's onward, Gindler's students spread from Berlin throughout Europe and the United States in the work of such notables as Charlotte Selver, Carola Speads, and Ilse Mittendorf. These early pioneers of somatic education taught others how to gain greater voluntary control of their physiological process by sensory-motor learning. Extraordinary changes occurred -- "miraculous" transformations exciting the interest of increasing number of people in the same way as John Dewey was excited.

This excitement was attenuated, however, by the singular inexplicability of these physical transformations. It appeared -- both to the scientific world as well as to the popular world -- to be a case of "mind over matter". Thus, the excitement was a spark that could not catch fire: mind-body dualism prevented the public from understanding the event. The fact that bodies were changed was an intriguing phenomenon; however, except for a small number of fascinated devotees, it was a curiosity that did not garner general interest.

Somatic education remained on the frontier of the health care field, but it could not enter; it was not yet clinically precise. There was no general theory as to its nature; there was no clear diagnostic procedure; there was no predictable consistency in its results.

Another presence was added to this burgeoning field by another Alexander: Gerda Alexander. She had no relation, intellectually or familially, to F. Matthias. Working from her center in Copenhagen, she expanded the field of sensory-motor learning with new emphasis: she taught her students to become masters of proprioception -- sensory awareness became almost an end in itself. The end was self-knowledge, and this sensory knowledge resulted not only in grace, coordination, and good carriage, but also in a calm, measured life of the spirit. This was similar to the effects of the other Alexander's methods.

Gerda Alexander's system of Eutony involved long and intense explorations of the minutiae of the sensory realm. As ones self-sensing became more precise, the usual somatic effects took place: there was always enhanced motor control of the body, and oftentimes there were "extraordinary healings" and bodily transformations.

Alexander's long, intense sessions of sensory exploration had an effect not only on her own students but also on an Israeli admirer of her work, Moshe Feldenkrais. Feldenkrais, already trained in the techniques of F. Matthias Alexander when he was living in London, devised his famous Awareness Through Movement exercises by following Gerda Alexander's format of intense sensory exploration while lying quietly on a floor.

Moshe Feldenkrais, who was both an electrical engineer and research scientist in high-energy physics, was Europe's first black belt Judoka. He not only introduced judo to France during the 1930s, he even brought Kano, judo's great master, to Paris. In the wake of his activities, Le Club du Jujitsu centers gradually sprang up throughout France.

Feldenkrais was another pioneer somatic educator. He brought the tradition one step farther toward becoming a clinical modality by dealing directly with neuromuscular pathologies. From his point of view, however, the technique of Functional Integration (which he invented) was not clinical; it was purely educational. He was teaching others to "know what they were doing": that is to say, he was teaching sensory-motor awareness and control.

Throughout his career, Feldenkrais explicitly denied that his techniques were designed to be corrective of pathologies. He was resolute in holding a purely positive, educational viewpoint: he was teaching greater self-awareness so that a person could be increasingly freed from unconscious restraints of the brain. The result of his lessons in self-awareness sounds almost identical to the way in which Dewey described his Alexander lessons. In a statement published in the directory of the Feldenkrais Guild, Feldenkrais says that "after the lessons, upon receiving again the habitual stimuli, one is surprised to discover a changed response to them."

Feldenkrais estimated that he had created over a thousand Awareness Through Movement exercises. These movement patterns, which could be performed by oneself, were a combination of F. Matthias Alexander's practice of focusing on the "means-whereby" of ones movements and Gerda Alexander's practice of intense sensory scrutiny while lying quietly on the floor. It was a combination that was greatly effective in creating enhanced voluntary control -- a far more sophisticated version of the work of the two Alexanders -- and it not only improved posture but movement in general.

It was, however, Feldenkrais' method of hands-on somatic education -- termed Functional Integration --that constituted his own major advance in this field. He accepted F. Matthias Alexander's insight that control of the head leads to control of the entire body. He equally accepted Alexander's insight that the fundamental cause of postural distortion was the startle reflex. From a clinical standpoint, the startle reflex was his prime diagnostic tool.

Functional Integration was distinguished by two procedures: (1) like F. Matthias Alexander, Feldenkrais used his hands to provide sensory information (the "means-whereby") to make the learner aware of unconscious movement patterns in his body; (2) from his knowledge of judo he applied the principle of going with another person's resistance and never going against it. This second procedure was a brilliant and fortuitous discovery of how habitual or spastic muscular contractions can be encouraged to relax.

The art of judo was almost instinctual to Feldenkrais; so much so that if he encountered muscular resistance when pulling a limb in a certain direction, he instantly went in the opposite direction: rather than trying to force the muscle to stretch, he brought the origin and insertion of the muscle together. The result was surprising: the muscle began partially to relax. This proceduure, which I have termed Kinetic Mirroring, constitutes the unique efficacy of Functional Integration. As Feldenkrais describes it, "If you do the work of a muscle, it ceases to do its own work"; that is, it relaxes.

Kinetic Mirroring was Feldenkrais' prime method of starting the process of muscular relaxation. After Kinetic Mirroring, he could use various "means-whereby" techniques to show the person the new movements that become possible with the now-relaxed muscles and joints.

Initially, Feldenkrais' use of Kinetic Mirroring was so identified with judo that his early book, The Higher Judo, sounds not like judo but Functional Integration. Later, as he became more conversant with neurophysiology, he realized that he was using a sensory-motor feedback technique that was genuinely cybernetical: if the motor neurons have a set program of muscle contraction (painfully high tonus) and if the sensory feedback from the muscle cells informs the neurons that the programmed ratio of muscle origin to muscle insertion has been exceeded, then the motor neurons shut down their firings, causing the muscle to begin relaxing.

The cybernetical principle behind this induction of relaxation is the same as that of a thermostat: if the furnace is programmed to maintain the temperature at seventy-two degrees, and the feedback from the ambient air reaches seventy-three degrees, the furnace shuts off.

In the hands of a competent practitioner, Kinetic Mirroring plus the sensory information of "means-whereby" manipulation was more effective than any previous system of musculoskeletal therapy. The affected muscles relaxed in ways that were considered "impossible" by other therapies. Functional Integration was not, however, therapy; it was education.

In summary, then, Feldenkrais elaborated a procedure that was the first approximation of clinical somatic education. He stepped boldly into a room whose size appeared enormous in its promise, and he established the validity of Kinetic Mirroring as well as richly confirming Alexander's use of the hands in teaching the learner the "means-whereby" his movements are controlled.

Feldenkrais created the fragments of a system which he could never bring together conceptually. His best effort was his early book, Body and Mature Behavior, which attempted to found an analysis of human movement on a description of gravitation's effects on muscular reflex actions. He later attempted to expand the theory in the ill-fated book, The Potent Self, which he decided was not publishable. Unfortunately, it was eventually published by his followers, but it only added theoretical confusion to his ideas.

Kinetic Mirroring was Feldenkrais' prime method.

n diagnosing muscular problems, Feldenkrais echoed Alexander's discovery of the startle reflex, but got no farther. Muscular contraction in the anterior of the body and its consequences of shallow breathing and feelings of anxiety were, for Feldenkrais, the constants of neuromuscular pathology. The fact that the majority of adult humans suffer from chronic muscular contraction of the posterior muscles of the back and neck remained a mystery: he had no way of accounting for it. Nor did he have a way of accounting for the genesis of scoliosis, which is of equal significance in pathologies of human posture. This is ironical, inasmuch as Feldenkrais had a grand passion for the topic of neural reflexes. He put all his eggs in one basket, the startle reflex, having been encouraged to do so by his presumption that this reflex was beneath all neurosis and that teaching the neurotic to relax his abdominal muscles and breather deeply was superior to psychoanalysis. This Reichian viewpoint, elaborated in Body and Mature Behavior, was also eventually abandoned.

Because of this theoretical confusion, Feldenkrais' practice of Functional Integration was far superior to his teaching of it. At an intuitive level, Feldenkrais was a master, but it was difficult for him to explain why. Accordingly, he was threatened by direct questions from his students, usually responding with angry tirades against the questioner.

It is a pity that Feldenkrais inaugurated a tradition of training that presented demonstrations, showed techniques, and taught hands-on practice, but left it to the student to figure the matter out. It was not intentional; he simply could not verbalize what he intuitively knew so well. Thus, an aura of mystical confusion swirled around his training, as if he were a Zen master waiting for his students to become enlightened.

This mystical confusion continues in the Feldenkrais Guild to the detriment of a teaching that had all the possibilities of becoming a truly clinical discipline of enormous value. Consequently, the work of his students has more nearly approximated the level of practitioners of the Alexander Technique; that is, they help movement to improve, but few practitioners are able significantly to alter serious neuromuscular pathologies, nor do they usually claim to be capable of this.

Feldenkrais echoed Alexander's discovery of the startle reflex, but got no farther.
Even so, Feldenkrais opened a door to the possibility of a system of clinical somatic education. What was lacking was (1) a comprehensive diagnostic theory for understanding the origin of the typical neuromuscular postural distortions; (2) a general somatic theory of sensory-motor process; and (3) a method of somatic education that not only gave the learner the sensory feedback of Kinetic Mirroring and "means-whereby" instruction, but also went the full route of engaging the learner's motor actions so as to use the full capacity of the sensory-motor feedback loop.


1. Diagnostic Theory

It is my understanding that perhaps as many as fifty percent of the cases of chronic pain suffered by human beings are caused by sensory-motor amnesia (SMA). This is a condition in which the sensory-motor neurons of the voluntary cortex have lost some portion of their ability to control all or some of the muscles of the body. [1]

Sensory motor amnesia occurs neither as an organic lesion of the brain nor of the musculoskeletal system; it occurs as a functional deficit whereby the ability to contract a muscle group has been surrendered to subcortical reflexes. These reflexes will chronically contract muscles at a programmed rate -- ten percent, thirty percent, sixty percent, or whatever --and the voluntary cortex is powerless to relax these muscles below that programmed rate. It has lost and forgotten the ability to do so.

Muscles held chronically in partial contraction will predictably (1) become sore or painful; (2) become weak with constant exertion; (3) cause clumsiness because of their inability to coordinate synergetically with overall bodily movements; (4) cause a constant energy drain of the body; and (5) create postural distortions and poor weight distribution that will cause secondary pain typically mistaken for arthritis, bursitis, herniated disks, and so on.

Perhaps as many as fifty percent of the cases of chronic pain are caused by sensory-motor amnesia (SMA).

These symptoms of SMA are commonly misdiagnosed by traditional health care practitioners, for they attempt to treat them by intervening mechanically or chemically in the local musculoskeletal areas affected. Such local intervention has no lasting effect upon the symptoms, inasmuch as it treats a functional problem of the brain as if it were a structural problem of the peripheral body. The result is a chronic pathology that cannot be successfully treated by traditional health care: the condition seems medically incurable, leaving no option but the use of analgesic drugs that only mask the symptoms.

Medical researchers are all too aware of this lack of success in the diagnosis and treatment of what they term "regional muscular illness." Rheumatologist Norton M. Hadler frankly expresses his professional embarrassment that "the primitive nature of our understanding of the pathophysiology of such regional musculoskeletal illnesses as backache, neck pain, or shoulder pain is a reproach to clinical investigation." [2]

Hadler sees this difficulty compounded by the fact that sufferers of regional muscular illness constitute the dominant health complainants: "In multiple studies, such individuals represent a major portion of the patients seen by family physicians, primary care internists, industrial physicians, rheumatologists, orthopedists, osteopaths, and chiropractors." [3]

The condition of SMA, so little understood and affecting such a large portion of the population, can be remedied by only one means: a reeducation of the voluntary sensory-motor cortex. The cortex must be reminded sensorially of what it has forgotten so that, once again, it has full motor control of the muscular areas affected. When it does so, the symptoms mentioned above disappear, and the chronic, medically incurable situation is alleviated.

SMA can only be overcome by education, not be treatment. An internal process must occur whereby new sensory information is introduced into the sensory-motor feedback loop, allowing the motor neurons of the voluntary cortex once again to control the musculature fully and to achieve voluntary relaxation.

SMA occurs by three pathological processes: (1) the trauma reflex, (2) the startle reflex, and (3) the Landau response.

This is the general nature of SMA pathology. Specifically, SMA occurs by three pathological processes: (1) the trauma reflex, (2) the startle reflex, and (3) the Landau response4. Minor causes of SMA are atrophy caused by disuse (as with bedridden or wheelchair-bound persons) and habitual misuse of the muscular system (as with "dentist's hump," caused by working stooped forward).

The trauma reflex occurs as a protective muscular response to severe injury. It is the reflex of pain avoidance. Cringing, for example, is the overt manifestation of this reflex. When blows occur to one side of the rib cage, the muscles traumatized will go into chronic contraction. After hernia surgery, for example, the abdominal muscles on the herniated side will usually be in constant contraction. If the left leg is broken or the left knee is in long-term pain, the person will avoid the left leg and become noticeably pulled to the right side in scoliosis. These are examples of SMA caused by the trauma reflex.

The startle reflex occurs as a stress response to threatening or worrisome situations -- whether actual or imagined. If the threatening situation triggering the startle reflex occurs often enough and strongly enough, the muscular contractions of the reflex become chronically potentiated, resulting in the contractions of permanently raised shoulders, depressed chest, taut thigh adductors and, in severe cases, chronically contracted elbows and knees.

An indirect effect of a chronic startle reflex pattern is shallow breathing, which affects functions of the heart and the central nervous system -- the latter creating chronic dominance of the sympathetic nervous state. These are examples of SMA caused by the startle reflex, a subcortical brain mechanism not directly controllable by the volitional pathways of the cortex.

The Laudau response is an arousal response that contracts the posterior muscles, erecting the back in preparation for movement forward. The muscles affected are the central extensors of the spine, the rhomboids, gluteus medius/piriformis, and hamstrings. This response occurs in situations where action is demanded of the person, for example, a knock on the door, the ring of the telephone, a response to a request, and so forth; all unfortunately, are occurrences typical of daily life in urban-industrial societies. The constant repetition of these situations and the Landau response makes these muscular contractions chronic.

The world of business is a world where as much as eighty percent of those over the age of forty have pain and stiffness from spines that are chronically contracted from the pelvis to the neck. These are examples of SMA caused by the Landau response, a subcortical reflex which, once habituated, is beyond the control of the voluntary cortex. It becomes chronic.

It is important to note that the effects of these three chronic reflex patterns are universally mistaken for "the inevitable effects of old age." aging, however, is not a pathology, nor does longevity have any relation to these symptoms, except in the sense that the longer we live, the more the traumas and stress we have experienced. "Old Age" is a cryptopathology which further invalidates the ability of the medical practitioner to diagnose SMA.

2. General Somatic Theory

There are two distinct ways of perceiving and acting upon physiological processes: first, one can perceive a body and act upon a body; second, one can perceive a soma and act upon a soma. The first instance is athird-person standpoint that sees an objective body "there", separate from the observer -- a body upon which the observer can act, for example, a doctor "treating" the patient. The second instance is a first-personstandpoint that sees a subjective soma "here": namely, oneself. The soma learns to change itself.

A soma, then is a body perceived from within.

The word soma describes the rich and constantly flowing array of sensings and actions that are occurring within the experience of each of us. The somatic viewpoint offers insights and possibilities that are categorically not possible from the bodily viewpoint that is the established perspective of physiological science and medical practice.

What each human experiences is himself -- an acting, sensing being. Experience (this is a cognate of the more traditional terms "consciousness" and "awareness") is a sensory-motor event, in which sensing cannot be separated from moving and moving cannot be separated from sensing -- they are the warp and woof of personal reality. This inseparability means that what we do not sense, we cannot move; what we cannot move, we cannot sense.

Our experience is comprised of two layers: the phylogenetic and the ontogenetic. What is given to us phylogenetically are the myriad sensory-motor programs that have evolved through the mammalian, vertebrate lineage back to the earliest life forms. These programs, reflexive and autonomic in nature, are the ancient biological ocean upon which experience floats. I have termed this biological unterlage the Archesoma[5]. It embodies the "unconscious" processes upon which somatic life depends. Its functions are "involuntary".

The ontogenetic layer is composed of the myriad sensory-motor programs that have been learned since birth. They are elaborated during childhood growth out of the ocean of reflexes beneath them. The ontogenetic layer of experience is, then, the result of learned adaptations. It constitutes that part of our experience which we call "conscious" and that part of our actions which we call "voluntary".

Our conscious, voluntary experience arises out of -- and totally depends upon -- our unconscious, involuntary layer of experience. At birth, we are little more than involuntary reflexes and autonomic processes. Only gradually do we learn our way into the realm of conscious, voluntary control. If, however, something occurs to evoke strong involuntary, autonomic reflexes, we can find our sensory-motor realm taken over by unconscious control against which we can do nothing directly; we can only, once again, learn our way out of this loss of volition.

Neurologically, this distinction between phylogenetic and ontogenetic layers is the distinction between subcortical, lower brain structures and cortical, upper brain structures. When sensory-motor amnesia occurs, we can say with certainty that subcortical reflexes have robbed the cortex of its learned controls.

Somatic education is the only pathway we can take in order to overcome SMA and gain greater voluntary control of our physiological processes.

This, briefly, is the theoretical context upon which clinical somatic education rests. The larger outlines of somatic philosophy have been discussed elsewhere [6].

3. Sensory-motor Education

Sensory-motor amnesia is overcome by a sensory-motor process reminding the voluntary cortex of what it has ceased sensing and doing. This can be done in several ways, two of which have already been discussed: (1) by helping the person become sensorily aware of his unconscious, involuntary movement patterns (the "means-whereby"); and (2) by Kinetic Mirroring, which begins a process of relaxation of involuntarily contracted muscles.

A third method of overcoming SMA -- and one that is far more effective than the other two -- is the Pandicular Response.

Pandiculation is the name given to an action pattern that occurs generally throughout the vertebrate kingdom. It is a sensory-motor action used by animals to arouse the voluntary cortex by making a strong voluntary muscle contraction in order to feed back an equally strong sensory stimulation to the motor neurons. It is a way of "waking up" the sensory-motor cortex.

Pandiculation is a way of "waking up" the sensory-motor cortex. When you see a dog or cat wake up, it will pandiculate; namely, it will strongly contract the large extensor muscles of the back that are essential for running. Then it may pandiculate in reverse, by contracting the anterior muscles into a flexed posture. Pandiculation prepares the animal for normal sensing and moving, readying its voluntary cortex for efficient functioning.

Birds pandiculate by lifting one wing in a backward direction while also extending the homolateral leg backward. A.F. Frasier, who is the acknowledged authority on this phenomenon, has verified that pandiculation occurs even in the foetal stage. Through fluoroscopic study of lamb foetuses, he has observed this event of cortical programming occur as an occasional extension of the limbs of the foetus 7.

Pandiculation occurs in human beings. Pregnant women report not only "kicking" of their foetus but also slow extension which distends their bellies. The fact that pandiculation occurs generally in vertebrate and mammalian animals, both prenatally and postnatally, indicates the phylogenetic depth of this ancient action pattern.

Upon awakening, human beings also pandiculate: they extend their backs, legs, arms, and jaws in a typical stretch. Young humans stretch their limbs in much the same way as other mammals. In every case, it is directly linked with awakening -- it is an ancient sensory-motor pattern of cortical arousal.

The Pandicular Response is the prime sensory-motor method used by practitioners of Hanna Somatic Education. Rather than the practitioner focusing on providing sensory feedback by his own manipulations, the learner is invited to make a strong voluntary contraction of the amnesic muscles, thus creating his own strong sensory feedback and providing a simultaneous sensory reinforcement to the motor neurons while they are continuing their voluntary contractive activity.

The Pandicular Response is the prime sensory-motor method of Hanna Somatic Education® .
The effects of the Pandicular Response are startling. Muscle groups that may have been in continual contraction for forty years or more will not only release but, with minor reinforcement, will also stay in this relaxed state. The sensory-motor change is both immediate and comfortable. The fact that long-term chronic muscular contractions can disappear so quickly is, neurologically, not surprising. If the change is made at the heart of sensory-motor experience, the peripheral musculature has no option but to lower its contractile rate. Muscles are the servants of the brain and have no will of their own.

Looked at closely, we can see how the Pandicular Response operates. If, for example, the afflicted client has lost forty percent of his cortical voluntary control to subcortical reflexes, he still retains sixty percent of his voluntary control; however, he is unable to relax the muscles below the level of forty percent. But the use of the Pandicular Response opens a main avenue for regaining voluntary cortical control: the client cannot relax the muscles below forty percent, but he can voluntarily contract them above that ratio -- say, seventy percent. This voluntary contraction, if both strong and prolonged, creates exactly the sensory feedback the cortex is lacking. If this strong contraction is released very slowly, the sensory arousal of the motor neurons is such that, when the muscles are released to the point of their original contractile rate, they continue to release below that rate --to thirty percent, then twenty percent, then ten percent, until the ideal state of zero involuntary stimuli in the muscle is reached.

Learning to teach the client to perform pandiculation in this exact manner is neither obvious nor easy, but, once learned, the practitioner has added a major component to the edifice of clinical somatic education: authentic achievement of voluntary sensory-motor control. Greater cortical control is the attainment of greater freedom and autonomy -- the apparent species goal of a race that is endowed with a cerebral cortex of enormous learning capacity.

An authentic clinical somatic educator can predict with accuracy the overcoming of a specific malady.

In summary, clinical somatic education requires a comprehensive understanding of how pathological functions can occur, a general theory of human sensory-motor functioning, and a powerful set of methods of reversing this pathology with predictable efficacy. When all three conditions are fulfilled, we have a new modality in the field of health care: one whose practitioners know what they are doing, know what needs to be corrected, and know how to correct it.

An authentic clinical somatic educator is one who so clearly sees what is the case that he can predict with accuracy the overcoming of a specific malady. The clarity and predictive certainty of Hanna Somatic Education are the qualities needed in a clinical modality in order to stand the test of scientific scrutiny and verification. It is what is necessary if we are to have a clinical modality that will solve widespread problems of human suffering that are clearly not being taken care of through medical and other therapeutic means. It is what is necessary if we are to begin constructing a positive science of human health and autonomy.


  1. For a discussion of sensory-motor amnesia, vide Thomas Hanna, Somatics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc., 1989), pp 37-92.
  2. Nortin M. Hadler (ed.), Clinical Concepts in Regional Musculoskeletal Illness. (Orlando, Florida: Grune & Stratton, Inc., 1987), p. xv.
  3. ibid., p. xvi.
  4. For a discussion of these reflexes, vide Hanna, Somatics, op. cit., Part Two.
  5. Vide Thomas Hanna, The Body of Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1980), pp. 193ff.
  6. Vide "What is Somatics?" in Somatics Vol. V., No. 4, and Vol. VI, Nos. 1, 2, 3.
  7. A.F. Frasier, "The Phenomenon of Pandiculation in the Kinetic Behaviour of the Sheep Fetus," Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 24 (1989), pp. 169-182.

This article first appeared in SOMATICS, Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences, Volume VIII, No. 1, Autumn/Winter 1990-91

Copyright ©1990 Thomas Hanna

Definition: SOMA: The body experienced from within.
Hanna Somatic Education® is a registered trademark of The Novato Institute for Somatic Research and Training


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Understanding Sensory-Motor Amnesia (SMA)

But what happens when an athlete is injured, sometimes repeatedly? What develops is a learned pattern of physical compensation and reflexive muscular tightening, often even after the initial rehabilitation is over. For example, a traumatic sport injury such as ACL surgery would result post-operatively in a need to re-learn the mechanics of balanced walking. It is difficult to accomplish at first without pain, because the initial injury and subsequent surgery triggers reflexive, protective tightening of muscles; the brain has to re-learn this series of movements.  

How is it that the brain forgets how to enable the athlete to walk freely and without pain? Where did the muscle memory for coordinated walking go?  The answer lies in the sensory motor system of the brain, not the muscles. What causes an injured player to often have to regain simple coordinated patterns, despite their years of disciplined training can be answered by understanding sensory motor amnesia (SMA).  

Sensory Motor Amnesia, as defined by Thomas Hanna, PhD, refers to a condition in which muscles become habitually tight in response to injuries (e.g., soft-tissue injuries), physical shocks (e.g., falls or blows), repetitive use (e.g., overtraining) or on-going stress. Those afflicted with SMA lose their ability to release and relax muscles and move freely.

SMA occurs in reflexive, full body patterns of contractions that alter voluntary coordination, balance, tighten joints and cause muscular pain.In SMA, the feedback loop between the brain and muscles goes into what can be described as“cruise control” or "auto-pilot," and makes it difficult to control these muscles freely. Typically all the muscles along that specific kinetic chain tighten in compensation. 

For example, imagine a baseball pitcher who has repeatedly pulled a hamstring. No longer can he simply wind up and pitch the ball, allowing his leg to counter balance and support as he pitches because he still has residual hamstring tension that has become habituated on a neurological level. Not only that, but the muscles of the torso have tightened slightly in a compensatory pattern as well. He can still pitch - perhaps recruiting other muscles to make up for those that have become “amnesic” and just won’t coordinate. However, his pitch is thrown off because the muscles that are usually part of the movement memory of pitching no longer work as effectively as they once did. His entire form is compromised. This is SMA in play on the pitcher’s mound.

To overcome SMA, brain-level muscle memory of the needed movement has to be re-established so that good form is regained. To regain good form we must re-train the brain. In learning to overcome SMA, the athlete becomes more self-sensing, balance improves, and the athlete regains better coordination and control of his own actions. In addition, recovery time from injuries and training is shortened.

Reversing SMA is the goal of Hanna Somatics. Through the use of a movement action technique called “pandiculation,” (so far unique to Hanna Somatic Education) clients are taught to recover control of muscles from subcorticalneuromuscular reflexes triggered by injury. Through active tightening followed by a gradual lengthening release of affected muscles along the entire kinetic. The “pandicular response,” which is neurologically similar to yawning, interrupts habitual contractions of affected muscles and re-establishes full body control at the neurological level. Because Somatics is an active technique, using movement to reverse SMA and affect brain level control of muscles, it yields often dramatically effective, immediate and long-lasting results in comparison to other types of therapies.

For the professional athlete, a severe case of SMA could spell the end of a career, or the beginning of a series of recurring injuries to the same area of the body – or the beginning of a course of somatic training that improves his performance to new, higher levels.

The techniques of Hanna Somatics can keep players in the game while also giving them day-to-day strategies to continue performing at an optimum level despite the accidents, injuries and the stresses of rigorous athletic training.


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How to Do Somatic Exercises


Somatic Exercises are the most important part of a clinical Somatics lesson. These simple movement patterns help reinforce the often dramatic changes people are able to make in their muscles and movement during the session. They literally reawaken the nervous system and the brain’s awareness of what it feels like to be in one’s body and how to control muscles and movement. In addition, they enhance immune function, improve breathing, mental focus, reduce muscle tension and stress and improve proprioception and sensory motor function. In order to get these results, it is essential to A) do the self-care homework (Somatic Exercises) and B) do it with awareness and intention.

One of my students, Ales Ernst from Slovenia, had a client who wasn’t enjoying a particular Somatic Exercise. She was rushing through the exercise as if she were at the gym: fast, at maximum strength and without fully relaxing. His advice made all the difference in her experience and awareness:

Imagine that someone is watching you do this movement and they don’t know what you were doing. You would want them to be thinking, “Wow, I think I want to do that as well. It looks really pleasant and enjoyable.” It’s like watching a young child play; you may not know what game they’re playing or what’s going on in their head; you just know they’re having fun. It shows in their body and movement. If you approach your Somatic Exercises in this manner you cannot hurt yourself or over-exert yourself. See if you can make the movement as pleasant as possible.You’ll only learn more about yourself, and the more you learn about yourself the better your life can be.

He gets right to the heart of how to do Somatic Exercises. We understandwhy a Somatic Exercise routine will help us stay flexible and ready for action, but it is the way in which we do our Somatic Movements (ourintention) that makes all the difference. Do we do them because we want to or because we “have to?” Most of us spend a lot of time doing what is expected of us and very little time doing what we want to do.

Stress research has proven that when people feel forced to do something their stress response is heightened. Glucocorticoids (stress hormones) flood the body. When people do something they enjoy (what they want to do) their stress response is low. The more pleasurable something is, the more we want to do it. The more we do it, the better we feel.

Your Somatic Movement practice is a gesture of kindness you make towards yourself. It’s a time to slow down, be mindful, explore, play and, in a sense, return to yourself. Engage with your Somatics practice - whether you do Somatics on the floor or explore fun movements while seated or standing - with an eye towards making it as pleasant as possible.

You just might find yourself doing more of what you want to do in your life instead of only doing what you think you “should” be doing. Ultimately, the choice, as well as the process is yours.


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Got Pain? Maybe It's Sensory Motor Amnesia


In February 2008, Forbes magazine published an article about the massive increase in costs of back pain treatment (costs rose 65% between 1997-2005). And yet, over an eight-year period the 23,000 people included in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study reported no improvement and some reported worsening effects.

Many different treatments are used to address back pain: surgery, spinal injections, and painkillers among them. The spending on painkillers alone rose 423% during the time this particular study was conducted. One would think the advances in technology, painkillers and varying operations would help to lower the occurrence (and re-occurrence) of back pain. Obviously, there is something missing in the traditional Western approach. They are treating the symptoms, not the source of the symptoms.

Hanna Somatic Education (HSE) (also known as Clinical Somatic Education), is neuromuscular movement re-education that teaches people to regain voluntary control of muscles that have become involuntarily and chronically contracted due to adaptation to accidents, injuries, surgeries, major illnesses or on-going/repetitive emotional or physical stress. That state of chronically tight muscles that won't let go is what Thomas Hanna referred to as SENSORY MOTOR AMNESIA. Sensory Motor Amnesia alters the way one not only moves, but how one experiences him/herself from within.

Hanna Somatic Educators teach people with chronic muscular pain (back, neck, shoulder, hip) to reverse the cycle of pain by reversing the little known condition of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). By improving the connection between the brain and the muscles people learn to regain sensation and motor control of muscles and movement. Clients rapidly reverse their cycle of pain for the long term. There is nothing mystifying about it – it’s all in the brain.

Those chronically tight muscles affect physical structure and alter posture and movement.

Examples of Sensory Motor Amnesia include:

  • chronic back pain
  • sciatica
  • leg length discrepancy
  • hip pain
  • altered gait
  • plantarfasciitis
  • piriformis syndrome
  • neck/shoulder pain
  • scoliosis

Those suffering from SMA lose their ability to release and relax muscles and move freely. This occurs on the level of the nervous system.  Just as the brain can teach us to ride a bike, throw a ball or eat with a spoon, it also teaches us to adapt to stress by altering our posture, gait, or movement. 

SMA occurs in reflexive, full body patterns of contractions that alter voluntary coordination, proprioception, and balance as they tighten joints and cause muscular pain. In SMA, the feedback loop between the brain and muscles goes into what can be described as"cruise control" or "auto-pilot," and makes it difficult to control these muscles freely.

Releasing muscle pain is an educational process. Because SMA is a learned, functional problem, it can thankfully be “unlearned.” Many cases of muscular pain – sciatica, scoliosis, frozen shoulder, uneven leg length or plantarfascitis – are viewed by most doctors as a structural problem. Somatic Educators view these conditions as functional problems, fixable through improvement of the sensory motor system. SMA cannot be reversed by through passive modalities such as massage, Rolfing, stretching or chiropractic. 

This is because the control center (your brain) taught your muscles to remain contracted, therefore the brain must be involved in retraining the muscle to release and relax again. It will not learn it through passive modalities. Granted, passive therapies have their benefits (increased blood flow, release of waste products from the body), but their benefit is short-lived. Improving sensory motor awareness and function lasts a lifetime.

Hanna Somatic Education teaches a technique used in no other form of Somatic Education: pandiculation. Instead of stretching in order to relax tight muscles, clients learn to re-set muscle length and improve motor function through the use of pandiculation (active lengthening from a contraction of a muscle group, similar to a yawn). This technique stimulates the brain and nervous system to release chronic muscle spasms so that the brain can take back voluntary control of otherwise involuntarily contracted muscles.

Emphasis is put on Somatic Exercises: a series of very gentle, easy self-care exercises that improve movement, balance, coordination, and flexibility. Through daily repetition these exercises create improved self-awareness, and self-monitoring, which increase one’s ability to be self-correcting in postural habits and overall movement.

Reversing Sensory Motor Amnesia addresses chronic muscle pain at its root cause – the brain – and the way in which the brain senses and controls movement. The implications for improving one’s overall health cannot be underestimated. Improved muscle function and body awareness translates into improved physiological health and the ability to be stress resilient and maintain physical independence and mobility as one ages.

In 2010, physiotherapists at the Sahlgrenska Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden found that individuals that experienced pain consquently limited their movement, which resulted in less body awareness and did nothing to alleviate their pain. When patients with back pain were taught “sensory motor learning” rather than “exercise therapy,” they had more confidence in their bodily awareness and no longer felt dependent on doctors to treat their back pain.

The findings at the Sahlgrenska Institute support the use of Somatic Education: movement re-education that relaxes tight, painful muscles as an evidence-based modality for treatment of back pain. Swedish physiotherapist Christina Schön-Ohlsson states that, "…inefficient movement patterns gradually become habituated even though the original injury or strain is no longer present." Somatic Education directly addresses this issue.


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A Brief History of Somatic Education


Written by Christopher Lowndes, CHSE

The Definition of "Soma"

Soma = the body as experienced from within. You can see your body, you can see other peopleʼs bodies, but you can only ever experience your own soma.

When we perform an action again and again the body will place it into the subconscious; what was once voluntary now become involuntary (not with our awareness). Therefore our posture could feel normal but we could be in pain or even performing an activity inefficiently. This forming of habits is not necessarily a negative process it is how we learn; becoming good at tasks without having to consciously think about every little movement. But good habits are learned just as easily as bad habits.

Somatic education in all its forms seeks to improve use of our structures. It does not seek to teach specific activities but enable us to perform any activity economically, efficiently and with good body use. This can be applied to anything from walking to driving or even a sporting activity. As children we use our bodies well, but as we gain years we can force actions/movements and coupled with a decreasing variety of movements our bodies start to habituate and become distorted as we sit for prolonged periods whether at a desk or car seat. Children do these activities but they fidget and try to move, adults seem to become institutionalised and “de-fidgeted” much to our bodyʼs detriment.

Somatic education is an educational process not a therapy. Unlike a therapy, you are actively participating whether undertaking movements or by being aware of the movements being applied to your body. Although somatic education has existed for as long as we have had awareness; from the work of shaman and their dances to the soft martial arts of the east, e.g Tai- Chi which, through slow deliberate movements, can improve motor functioning.

We will look at the somatic educators who developed their methods in the 20th century.

The Alexander Technique

F.M Alexander 1869 – 1955

Frederick Matthias Alexander developed his method after losing his voice whilst acting. With no help on offer from the medical profession he embarked on a journey of self-awareness. Aided by mirrors he noted that, whilst reciting, his head neck relationship changed and obstructed the functioning of his vocal organs. Through this awareness his problem was no more. Alexander taught his method to others mainly through 1:1 hands on work.

Sensory Awareness

Elsa Gindler (1885 - 1961)

A physical education teacher in Germany whom, whilst in her 20ʼs, contracted tuberculosis. Since she could not afford the treatment of the day (which involved residing at a sanatorium for the clean air cure) she undertook breathing exercises. Through the exercises and awareness of her breathing she allowed the affected lung to recuperate. Sensory Awareness aims to allow a clear awareness to be gained of movements and the sensations in the body. A teacher guides the students verbally through movements and the students analyse the sensations. Philosopher Alan Watts, upon witnessing Gindlerʼs work being practised by a colleague Charlotte Selver proclaimed, it to be “Living Zen”.

Feldenkrais Method

Moshe Feldenkrais (1904 – 1984)

Moshe Feldenkrais was a scientist and martial artist, upon injuring a knee consulted surgeons who gave him a very poor prognosis. He decided against the operation and started studying human movement/development, the work of F.M Alexander, Elsa Gindler, martial arts and also yoga. Through this he restored function to his injured knee. Two facets of this method are the hands on work and that of group classes, which guide students through a series of movements.

“Only when you know what you are doing can you do what you want” – Moshe Feldenkrais

Hanna Somatic Education

Thomas Hanna 1928 – 1990

Thomas Hanna was a philosophy professor and author with a fascination in human potential. He directed one of the first trainings for Feldenkrais practitioners and subsequently became a practitioner himself. Hanna eventually added to the work of Feldenkrais (who himself had incorporated facets of Alexander and Gindlers work) and gained insight from the work of Hans Seyle who recognised the effect of stress on the body. The body adapts to stress in both positive and negative ways, we learn and get stronger through stressing the brain and the muscles. The flip side is that the body can (through what Seyle called the General Adaptive Syndrome) be affected by “negative actions” whether it is posture or continual emotional stress. Practitioners trained in the tradition of Thomas Hanna look at the body for three main stress reflexes:

  1.  Red Light (Startle)
  2. Green Light (Landau) 
  3. Trauma

Any of these reflexes can be temporary adaptations, but they can form as habits and, long after the stimuli/injury has passed, the muscular contractions can remain. This lack of awareness is due to the muscular adaptation becoming subconscious; Thomas Hanna called this Sensory Motor Amnesia, which is defined as:

A memory loss of how certain muscle groups feel and how to control them...
— Thomas Hanna

If a muscle group is contracted and you are unaware, it may never relax. This may result in soreness, pain and weakness due to exhaustion. This branch of Somatic education is taught through 1:1 lessons, including hands on, and verbal guided movements, group classes are also offered.


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Somatics for Runners


Running is one of the most convenient and natural activities for those who want to move vigorously. It is a completely natural movement that was once essential for survival. Now, we live in a world where people run for pleasure or exercise. But for some people running is a painful and laborious activity.

As with any sport – especially one that can be taken to an extreme – runners suffer from myriad injuries and Sensory Motor Amnesia. The most common* running injuries are runner’s knee, achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, shinsplints, iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS), and hamstring and hip pain. These common injuries are nothing more than a bad case of Sensory Motor Amnesia.

Running when injured elevates the risk of further injury

Many runners continue to run, even when nursing an old injury. Many runners think they can just "run it out" and thereby fix or “work through” the problem. Unfortunately this perspective causes more harm than good.

  • Compensation results in inefficient movement and increased muscle tension. When you are injured, your muscles reflexively contract and adapt; they learn to move differently in order to prevent further pain and compensate until the initial injury is healed. Because these muscles - the trunk rotators and waist muscles - are involuntarily contracted, the brain recruits other muscles to help with movement.
  • Long-term compensation develops into sensory motor amnesia (SMA). SMA means that the muscles you would normally use to run are no longer efficient, able to be recruited when needed. This affects your performance and comfort while running.
  • Running while compensating for an injury does not change "fix" the injury or relax the muscles. It only creates more compensation and deepens your pattern of SMA. In short, you are strengthening your pain.
  • In order to end the vicious cycle of SMA and regain efficient movement, you must restore muscle function throughpandiculation and conscious re-patterning of muscles. Only then can you regain your original running form and help to prevent further injury.

Runners often suffer from one-sided injuries

Injury is not the only contributing factor to SMA. A majority of runners in cities and suburbs run on uneven asphalt roads that are graded to allow for water runoff. Running on this type of surface makes it impossible to run equally on the legs and hips. Runners are forced to run with a slight tilt in the hips, with more weight on one leg. This causes the waist muscles on the higher side of the graded road to contract tighter than the other side. It's slight, but if experienced on a daily basis, it contributes to iliotibial band syndrome, psoas pain, and knee pain. This can also occur with track runners.

Sensory Motor Amnesia affects your entire body and your gait

When you are injured or develop SMA in one part of your body due to a habitual running pattern, your SMA affects your entire body. Try this: stand up and walk around. Now imagine you have just stepped on something sharp. You’re limping around with an uneven gait and perhaps you have hiked your hip and tightened your waist on the injured side. Now try running. It’s not easy, nor is it comfortable. Yet those who have suffered an injury do this in some small way every time they run.

SMA, whether it is an injury, surgery, or one-sided movement pattern, creates an imbalance and affects all aspects of your movement: your coordination, your breathing, your gait, and your joint mobility. Excessive muscle tension in the center of your body creates muscle tension in the periphery (legs, knees, shoulders, neck, feet), excess pressure on joints as well as the potential for further injury and continued discomfort.

Runners often have limited hip movement

Limited hip and pelvis movement due to SMA increases the likelihood of developing iliotibial band syndrome, back pain, hip joint pain and hamstring strains. The pelvis is supposed to move gently - up, down, forward and back - to aid the swinging action of the legs while running (or walking). When the center of the body is tense and the hip joints don't move, the action of walking or running will come solely from the hip joints, which tremendous strain on the joints and can create overuse injuries of the hips and hamstrings.. You will run with your hip joints instead of allowing the movement, free and fluid, to come from the whole body.

You can eliminate your SMA by learning Somatic Exercises on your own or with the help of a skilled Somatic Educator. Once you have done this, there are several different "somatic" methods of running that can improve your gait and make your running more efficient. Two of these methods are Pose Method® and ChiRunning®.

Orthotics and "supportive" running shoes reduce the foot's ability to move

The feet are one of the most important sensory organs of the body. When we encase our feet in thick, stiff, or heavily padded shoes our feet can no longer sense the ground, hindering our proprioception and our balance. Our sensory awareness and motor control of the muscles of the foot and lower leg which help us stabilize ourselves will lose their ability to move, often tightening over the years and becoming painful and stiff. Runners tend to "heel strike" when wearing thicker running shoes because their feet cannot sense the ground. This is jarring all the way up the spine and is inefficient for forward motion.

Orthotics, often thought to fix foot problems, actually interfere in the foot’s ability to absorb impact properly and adjust to changes in terrain (as in trail running). Thankfully there is a trend toward more minimalistic running shoes, which encourages – and allows – both the foot and lower leg muscles to become stronger as they move naturally, adjusting to every step.

Five Somatic Exercises for an easy "warm up" before your run:

  1. Back Lift – for control of the back muscles (from Pain Relief Through Movement)
  2. Cross Lateral Arch and Curl – for control of the abdominal muscles
  3. Side Bend – for long, relaxed waist muscles and smooth hip movement
  4. Steeple Twist – for gentle twisting of the shoulders, spine and hips
  5. Walking Exercises – for proper mechanics of walking and gentle pelvic rotation

Three Somatic Exercises for a relaxing "cool down" after you run:

  1. Reach to the Top Shelf – for full body lengthening (from Pain Relief Through Movement)
  2. Hamstring Pandiculations – for relaxed and coordinated hamstrings (from Pain-Free Athletes)
  3. Standing Calf Release – for improved control of lower legs and feet (from Pain-Free Athletes)

* According to February 2011 Runner’s Word article “The Big 7 Body Breakdowns”

Start Moving Pain-Free Today with These Instructional Hanna Somatics DVD's:

Pain-Free Athletes DVD
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Pain-Free Leg and Hip Joints DVD
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Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders DVD
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The Three Somatic Reflexes


The Green Light Reflex

The Green Light Reflex is the reflex involved in forward movement. All of the large muscles of the back contract to move you forward in walking, running and standing. The back muscles can learn to stay overly-contracted, pulling the back into an exaggerated arch. You can think of this reflex as an arching reflex, like a soldier at attention. When running for the train, sitting at the computer for many hours, picking up a child, or standing all day long, these "green light" muscles are working to help you "get the job done." If this reflexive response to stress becomes habituated, conditions such as herniated disks, neck pain, shoulder pain, and sciatica can develop.

The Red Light Reflex

The Red Light Reflex, more commonly known as the Startle Response, involves the muscles on the front of the body, which tighten to pull you forward. This "slumping reflex" presents itself with rounded shoulders, depressed chest and the head jutting forward. It is a protective reflex found in all vertebrate animals and is a response to fear, anxiety, prolonged distress or negativity. A loud noise, unexpected sound or emotional trauma (or long hours hunched over the computer) can cause the muscles of the front of the body to contract suddenly as the body pulls inward in a slumping posture. An habituated Red Light Reflex can lead to chronic neck pain, jaw pain (as with TMJ), a “widow’s hump," hip pain, mid-back pain and shallow breathing. The inability to breathe deeply deprives your brain, blood and muscles of the oxygen they need to function properly. This in turn can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, sleep problems and exacerbate allergies.

The Trauma Reflex

The Trauma Reflex occurs involuntarily in response to accidents and injuries and the need to avoid further pain as one compensates due to an injury. This reflex involves the muscles of the trunk rotators, which, when contracted, hike the hip on one side and twist the spine slightly. Examples of this would be the repetitive task of holding a young child on one’s hip, a sudden fall of any kind, limping on one side in response to, for example, a twisted ankle on the other side, falling on one’s tailbone in a fall or suffering from appendicitis. This reflex presents with side bending and rotations in the pelvis/trunk/shoulder/head. This postural compensation may be slight, or very noticeable, but its effects can be devastating. In many cases scoliosis is an example of an habituatedtrauma reflex, creating a curve and tilting in the spine and trunk.

Unfortunately, due to Sensory Motor Amnesia, some people stay stuck in the extremes of these postural reflexes out of habit, unable to sense the postural imbalances in their bodies.  Many medical professional see these problems as structural in nature, when in fact they are functional. Improved function of the muscles improves the structure (posture). In practice, Hanna Somatic Education resolves these problems through a process of cultivating awareness of the “amnesic” muscles first, then retraining the brain to retrain the muscles to release and relax back to a new length. This process results in improved balance, coordination and overall functioning of the musculoskeletal system. Ultimately one becomes more self-aware, self-monitoring, self-regulating and self-healing.


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The Simple Solution to Sciatica


Sciatica is a condition defined as "pain that radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve – which branches from your lower back through your hips and buttocks and down each leg.”

Sciatic pain is traditionally alleviated through painkillers, prescription muscle relaxants, physical therapy exercises that provide “conditioning” to reduce sciatic pain, and other medical intervention. One common medical procedure involves deadening the sciatic nerve. While all of these approaches may relieve some pain, they are not effective for the long term. This is because the pain is being addressed, while the root cause is not.

Hanna Somatic Education views sciatica as the result of a full-body contraction pattern, caused by Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), that can be reversed through sensory motor learning – with long-term results.

Who Does Sciatica Affect?

Some commonly affected groups include hairdressers, mothers with young children, pregnant women, people who frequently lift heavy objects, and athletes that predominantly utilize one side of their body (such as golfers), but it can affect anyone who has had to compensate for an accident or injury.

What Causes Sciatica?

Sciatica is a classic case of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) – chronically tight muscles that have learned to stay contracted in response to stress. In most cases, sciatica is not a medical problem; it is a functional problem of the muscular system. Even pregnant women with sciatica can develop it due to SMA and a response to the natural changes during pregnancy. (Somatic Exercises are an effective daily maintenance program to deal with the daily stresses of pregnancy and reduce the risk of developing sciatica and other muscle tension-related issues.)

The movement patterns of a person suffering from sciatica are important to address because they are at the root of the problem. Sciatica, like many common muscle pain conditions, results from repetitive movement patterns and, in many cases, compensation to an accident or injury. Many people who experience sciatica have similar one-sided movement habits that contribute to their pain:

  • Standing for hours at a time
  • Distortion of the spine through repetitive one-sided movements
  • Compensation for injuries in the hip, knee, lower leg or ankle

These daily movement habits may be inherent to one's occupation (computer work, heavy lifting, childcare), or simply a response to the stressors of daily life. Regaining control of muscles that have learned to stay tight due to repetitive stress can spell the difference between surgery and saving your sciatic nerve.

In addition to movement habits, most cases of sciatic pain arise from an habituated Trauma Reflex. This reflex occurs due to the need to avoid pain from accidents, injuries, or surgeries. The large muscles of the waist, which attach the ribs to the pelvis, and the large trunk rotators, which allow us to twist, become tighter on one side than the other. This results in an imbalance in the center of the body. The paravertebral muscles of the back and the gluteal muscles on the “trauma” side become overly contracted; these muscles attach to and put pressure on the spine which then squeezes the sciatic nerve.

Once you become aware of what you are doing to cause the muscles to become contracted, you can take the first step towards improving your movement and eliminating your pain. Reversing sciatic pain is a process of education of both the brain and muscles.

How Can Hanna Somatic Education Help?

The only way a muscle contracts is if the brain tells  the muscle to do so. If the message to contract is constant, then the muscle is put on “autopilot” and contracts constantly, even when at rest. Hanna Somatics begins to undo this pattern of constant contraction at the control center: the brain.

Somatic Exercises use pandiculation to teach the brain to reset muscle length and function through movement and improved body awareness. This disrupts the constant message to contract; it also teaches improved sensory motor awareness through experience of how your body responds to stress.

Think about what movements or postural habits you have that teach your muscles to tighten in an unbalanced way. In doing so you can begin to improve your sensory motor control over your muscles while reversing your pain. If you have sciatica, take a moment to notice how you move. Is one hip higher than the other? Do your back muscles feel overly tight? Do you walk with an uneven gait? Do you sit with uneven weight on your hips, leaning on one side more than the other?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, Hanna Somatic Education can teach you to rid yourself of sciatic pain for the long term, and take back control of your body – without surgery.

Visit the Essential Somatics® store to buy Martha Peterson’s book, Move Without Pain, or Pain-Free Series DVDs to learn how to improve movement and body awareness as you eliminate pain.

Recommended Somatic Exercises for sciatica: Arch & Flatten, Arch & Curl, the Side Bend, the Washrag.


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