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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Somatics and the professional athlete


Somatics is an excellent adjunct to any training regimen because it supports and enhances a trainer’s work by fundamentally improving an athlete’s own internal awareness and control of his body. The outcome can be an athlete with a range of motion and coordination level he never had or knew he could have.

Muscle Memory: Movement Memory

In athletics, muscle memory is considered the foundation of consistent high performance. The term, “movement memory” (sometimes called "muscle memory"), refers to learned physical movements -- everything from walking to elite athletic performance; the essence of movement memory is the brain's ability to learn what a movement feels like and to coordinate muscles to execute it at will and with enough precision to meet the demand of the moment.

Movement Memory and Athletics

Movement memory enables us to touch-type, play a guitar, ski or ride a bicycle, even if we haven't practiced that movement for a long time. This kind of movement memory also enables an athlete to return to play, pitching, making birdies and eagles, or kicking field goals, even if sidelined with an injury for more than six months. When athletes say they are "automatic" or "in the zone", they are exactly right. The brain is simply coordinating the most efficient physical movements possible without the athlete even having to think about it.

Movement Memory and Injuries

Athletes learn muscle (or movement) memory through years of practice. It’s the key component in an athlete's initial and continued success on the field of play. The ability to hit a 90 mile-an-hour fastball, a drop shot from the baseline, a 40-foot putt, an intricate gymnastics routine, a long field goal, or a bending free kick are all examples of movement memory in action. The ability to consistently and reliably repeat these movements despite a host of variables (temperature, wind conditions, mental or physical fatigue) separates the elite athlete from the weekend warrior.

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 Clinical 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 Clinical 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. Apparently there is something missing in the traditional Western approach. They are treating the symptoms, not the source of the symptoms. They are treating the end product (pain) without asking why the pain is there in the first place and what may have caused it to develop. The field of Somatic Education has a different approach - one that confers long term pain relief as it teaches clients to understand the connection between their brain and how it organizes their body.

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 release is what Thomas Hanna referred to as SENSORY MOTOR AMNESIA. Sensory Motor Amnesia changes the way one moves and how s/he experiences him/herself from within.

Clinical Somatic Educators guide people with chronic muscular pain (back, neck, shoulder, hip) to reverse the cycle of pain by restoring optimum sensation and control of both muscles and movement. As one learns to sense muscles that were formally merely painful of tense, and then skillfully move them with voluntary control, often beyond their former limited range of movement, they rapidly reverse their cycle of pain for the long term. There is nothing mystifying about it – it’s all in the brain. 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. 

Sensory Motor Amnesia is a functional problem of the sensory motor system and it affects physical structure and alters posture and movement. It develops when we become stuck in our responses to stress and life. All humans respond to life by evoking three predictable full body reflex patterns: we contract the back to move us forward, tighten inward through the front of our body in protection or fear, or contract the sides of the body to avoid danger or pain. These reflexes are useful and necessary; we just don’t want to get stuck in them and lose the ability to find our sense of balance and freedom. Yet when we do - whether it be in response to injuries, trauma, the rigors of sports training, or psychological stress - our brain loses the ability to fully and voluntarily control our muscles and movement. 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, both in the contraction and the relaxation phase. This is where pain can take root: joints can become impinged, arthritis can develop, and our structure/posture can change. This loss of control and physical freedom can change who we are and what we feel we’re capable of. The good news is that we can learn, through re-educating our nervous system, to restore our ability to self-sense, self-correct, and self-actualize and move the way we used to.

Examples of Sensory Motor Amnesia include:

  • chronic back pain

  • sciatica

  • leg length discrepancy

  • hip pain

  • altered gait

  • plantarfasciitis

  • piriformis syndrome


  • neck/shoulder pain

  • scoliosis

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, reversible 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.

Clinical 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 Movements: 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." Clinical 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”

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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, Clinical 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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Walking Tall the Easy Way


Movement is life and the way in which one moves can have an enormous impact on one's overall health. In the western world many of us have forgotten how to move well; we sit at computers, in cars, we watch TV slumped into a couch and we walk about 70% less than our ancestors did, according to anthropologists. 

I've visited India three times, and each time I was there I observed movement that many of us in the western world have let go by the wayside:  I saw old women squatting to wait for the bus or to cook the family meal. I saw kids playing and running with abandon. I noticed people walking miles just to get to work.

I marveled at one group of people in particular -  the women who perform some of the most grueling work imaginable: the construction workers. Wearing their saris, they would put a rolled up towel on their head, upon which would sit a large metal tray. Then the other workers would load bricks, stones and gravel into the tray. They would hold the tray with both hands, and walk to the next location - the hips swinging gently, the center of the body long and upright and their bare feet taking measured steps. Then they would tip their tray, unload it and wait for it to be filled again. At right is one of those female construction workers.

I saw no rounded shoulders and hunched backs. In Hanna Somatic Education, we call that the “red light reflex.” In much of Western medical thought it’s the “posture of senility” or “old age.” This hunching posture contributes directly to shallow breathing, back pain, neck and shoulder pain and compressed, painful joints.

These women and their movement gave me some insight into a possible reason why rounded shoulders and stooped posture were difficult to find in India: in carrying and balancing their load, the belly and waist muscles were long and extended.The ribs were open and up. In addition, thetheir hips swayed gently as they took small steps or climbed stairs.

Fluid and easy makes walking easier

It’s impossible to carry a load on one’s head if one is stooped, if the hips are tight and don’t sway and if one takes large, fast steps (think running for the train!). Like an earthquake-proof building gently sways during a tremor, our bodies are supposed to move freely, "giving" slightly slightly as we walk or run.  This allows for coordinated, efficient and effortless movement. If we walk rigidly, however, with weight pounding from one foot to the other, we stress our hip, knees and feet, and walking is both inefficient and heavy.  Moving with a rigid torso and tight abdominals, while thought to prevent back pain, can actually contribute to back pain!

Try this at home:

Lie down on the floor and relax for about a minute. Breathe deeply and sense the weightedness of your body on the floor. Then stand up and take a walk around the room. Walk your normal walk, but pay attention to what it feels like to walk:

  • how are your feet hitting the floor?
  • are your arms swinging gently?
  • are you looking down or up?
  • are you "galumphing" from side to side?
  • are your shoulders moving forward and back, or from side to side with each step?
  • are your hips swinging?
  • are your shoulders hunched or straight?

Now stop and put something light on your head, like a pillow, as in the photo on the right. Hold it gently on both sides with your elbows out and up.Notice what your ribs have to do in order to allow your hands to reach up to the pillow. Breath into your ribs and let them expand with the breath. Notice how the abdominal muscles lengthen, yet contract to support the spine and the center of your body. Walk slowly, letting your hips sway and rotate gently. Imagine that your pillow is a load that must not fall off your head. Breathe deeply as you walk.

Make sure you’re walking barefoot; this allows for more awareness of the feet as you reach for the floor with each step. Thick sneakers or shoes actually get in the way of smooth walking.

Remember: if you were carrying a heavy load and you overarched your back, your load would tip backward. Slump forward and the load falls forward. Tilt to the side (collapsing into your waist - the "trauma reflex"), and your load slips to one side. Challenge yourself to let go of the pillow and notice what you have to do in the center of the body to stay tall and balance your pillow.

Now take the pillow off of your head, bring your arms to neutral, and continue walking.

See if it’s easier to walk with your torso upright, your hips swaying and your spine stacked on top of your hips. How centered does your posture feel now? Are you more on top of your hips as you walk? Are your legs swinging? Are your feet reaching for the next step instead of your heel striking down to take your weight?

This movement exploration is like the old fashioned exercise of putting a book on your head in order to achieve good posture! Do this for several minutes, then lie down and sense your body on the floor once again. Breathe deeply. Notice any differences. Take this awareness into your day and see how it affects your movement.

This exercise alone can help you to align your posture without straining.


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How to Relieve Chronic Hip Pain


As a former professional dancer, I have suffered several injuries that cause me to adapt my movement to compensate for my injuries. Over time I developed two labral tears in my right hip - the result of unequal weight bearing over the course of many years. What happened to me is a common occurrence.

A labrum is the cartilage that surround the ball and socket joint in either the shoulder or the hip. It provides stability. Labral tears are more common than many of us realize and, as my orthopedist admitted to me, there's not a lot of science about what to do about them. There is also a hesitancy about surgery when it comes to labral tears. Many professional athletes undergo labral tear surgery in order to get them back in the game, while other "normal" people are advised to "wait and see." Sometimes labral tear surgery isn't the magic pill many of us would like, while for some this kind of surgery, combined with post operative Clinical Somatic Education and functional strengthening can be a winning combination.

What is at the root of hip pain - especially when it's predominantly in one hip and isn't the result of a genetic abnormality?

Let's look at what happens when you have an injury...

Accidents and injuries, like spraining an ankle, slipping on ice, or a sudden fall, can cause muscles to involuntarily contract to avoid pain and protect from further injury. This is called the trauma reflex. The photo on the right shows a typical trauma reflex posture: the waist muscles on the left side of her body are tighter than the right, causing the left hip to be slightly higher up than the right. There is a slight tilt of her body to ther right. The client in this photo broke her left ankle and had to compensate for months using the right side of her body to protect the left side.

When you compensate to nurse an injury, this compensatory pattern causes tight, painful muscles and joints and inefficient movement.

Here are some basics that most people know, but forget to apply in looking at hip joint pain:

Chronically and habitually tight muscles around joints can cause a lack of joint mobility. Over time, too much compression on joints can cause serious structural damage - like labral tears or worn out hip sockets. Even sitting too much at a computer or in a car can cause habituated muscle tension that simply won't go away.

From my clinical (and unfortunate personal) experience, I have found this to be a cause of many cases of chronic hip pain.

And here's the missing link: those habitually contracted muscles that won't relax and are compressing the hip joint are most likely in a state of SENSORY MOTOR AMNESIA. This means that the muscles have learned to stay chronically contracted (in order to compensate to your accident, or injury) and the brain (the control center of the muscles) has simply forgotten how to relax them. What is needed is a reeducating of the brain to muscle connection - which is what we teach in Clinical Somatic Education:

Teach the brain to RELAX the underlying full body pattern of tight, compensating muscles, and the muscles around the hip joint will relax, muscle balance and strength will be restored, and your pain will "magically" disappear.


Many medical professionals advocate strengthening to reverse hip pain. This doesn't make sense, and here's why:

If you have a muscular pattern of compensation that you're not aware of (which Clinical Somatic Education refers to as Sensory Motor Amnesia), as with my client in the photo above, and you strengthen the muscles of that compensatory pattern, you're merely making that dysfunctional action pattern even stronger. You will literally "strengthen your pain." If muscles are contracted and causing pain, they need to be relaxed and released, symmetry has to be restored, and then strength training to maintain that muscular balance will be beneficial.

So what about labral tears and what to do about hip injury? Here's the first step in figuring it out: stand facing a full length mirror. Close your eyes and sense how you're standing. Do what comes naturally. Now open your eyes and notice:

  1. Are you standing with your weight centered over both feet, or are you tilting slightly to one side?
  2. Are your shoulders level, or is one shoulder slightly lower than the other?
  3. Put your hands at your waist, on top of your hip bones and see whether or not one hip is sitting higher up than the other (look back at the client photo in this post).
  4. Now feel the waist muscles on both sides. Is one side of your waist tighter than the other? If so, is it the same side as your sore hip?

If you are "out of kilter," then the core muscles that attach into your hips are working harder on one side than the other. This can cause hip pain. The good news is that it can be reversed through patient sensory motor re-training of the muscles that have learned to stay tight and "frozen."

Here’s a recap:

  1. Labral tears are generally the result of athletic injury or wear and tear over the years due to accidents. Labral tears cause instability in the hip.
  2. Instability in a joint causes the muscles attaching into the joint and supporting the joint, to contract to try and create stability.
  3. The “Trauma Reflex” is a stress reflex that occurs due to a sudden accident or injury, or the need toavoid further pain. This causes your brain to change the way in which you would normally move.
  4. The muscles involved in this “Trauma Reflex” pattern must be trained to relax first before beginning any course of strengthening or exercise. Otherwise you will more deeply entrench a pattern of muscular dysfunction.

Some people are under the impression that hip pain can be reversed through repetitive exercises designed to strengthen the joint. One online forum author recommended yoga stretches and repetitive Jane Fonda-esque exercises, all under the article entitled, “Hip Exercises Will Hurt.” If you have a hip injury that hasn’t been addressed and muscular dysfunction that causes you to put more pressure on one side of your pelvis and hip joint, these hip exercises will hurt your chances of ever feeling really good again.

I’d like to offer a few easy movements you can do at home to begin to relax hip muscles that, when habitually contracted, contribute to chronic pain. Then I’d like to caution you against certain commonly prescribed exercises that do nothing positive for hip pain – they just make matters worse.

Instead of stretching the muscles as you go through these movements, you will re-set their length and relax their tonus by pandiculating – contracting the muscle first, then slowly lengthening it to a full relaxation (as if you were imitating a cat or dog getting up from rest). Pandiculation is the key to re-setting muscle length and restoring sensory awareness and motor control without forceful or painful stretching.

Arch and flatten: Click here for a video showing this movement. This movement relaxes the back muscles. Tight back muscles contribute to tight hip joints.

Arch and curl: Click here for an explanation/tutorial on how to do these two movements. Arch and curl helps to relax the abdominal muscles, while the washrag allows for easier full body twisting. It relaxes the back, waist, belly and hips.

Side Bend: This movement directly addresses the “Trauma Reflex” muscles of trunk rotation that, when habitually contracted, are probably the biggest contributor to hip pain. This movement will teach you to relax, release and lengthen the waist muscles so that both sides of your waist are the same length and have the same ability to bend from side to side. Click here for a video showing this Somatic Exercise.

Finish this series of hip movements with the Washrag: Click here for a video showing how to do this Somatic Exercise.

Remember to do all these movements SLOWLY, GENTLY and WITH AWARENESS.

When hip joints are tight, it’s because the muscles that attach into the joints are tight. This restricts the movement of the hip joint and can compress the joint. These muscles need to be retrained, slowly and intelligently (not forcefully, as if working out at the gym) so they move more efficiently and effortlessly. Once the muscles of the waist, back and abdominals are back under the brain's conscious control and can contract, lengthen and relax voluntarily, then a routine of functional strengthening is both beneficial and necessary.

Take a moment after doing these movements to notice the sensations of your body. Lie quietly. This allows your brain time to absorb the feedback of the movement in order to integrate it into the sensory motor system. This new sensory awareness will result in improved motor skill and flexibility.

To begin to relieve and eliminate chronic hip pain, learn the movements shown above in these two instructional DVD's:

Pain-Free Leg and Hip Joints DVD
Add To Cart
Pain Relief Through Movement DVD
Add To Cart

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Thomas Hanna, Ph.D.


Written by Carrie Day, CCSE

Thomas Hanna (1928-1990) was a philosopher who, through years of research, developed Clinical Somatic Education, also known as Hanna Somatic Education. Hanna spent his life searching for ways for human beings to become free- physically and intellectually. He wanted to encourage others to realize the power they have to take responsibility for their own lives.

After receiving a PhD in philosophy and divinity from the University of Chicago in 1958, Hanna began a successful teaching career at several colleges. He began his teaching career at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, and was a guest teacher at the University of North Carolina and Duke University. He also had opportunities to teach, conduct research, and write in Paris, Brussels, and Mainz (Germany). In 1965, Hanna became Chairman of the Philosophy Department at the University of Florida. While there, he studied neurology at the Medical School. His experience in studying divinity, philosophy, and neurosciences led him to the idea that all life experiences lead to physical patterns in the body. It was in 1969 that Hanna lived in Guadalajara, supported by a grant from the American Council of Learned Studies. He wrote "Bodies in Revolt" in which he redefined the Greek word "soma" to relate to modern times. "'Soma,'" he wrote (pp. 35, 36-37),"does not mean 'body': it means 'Me, the bodily being'"; "somas are you and I, always wanting life and wanting it more abundantly."

In 1973, Hanna moved to San Francisco, where he became the Director of the graduate school at Humanistic Psychology Institute. There, he discovered Functional Integration, which was developed by Moshe Feldenkrais. Hanna founded and directed the first Feldenkrais training program in the United States in 1975.

Also in 1975, Hanna founded the Novato Institute of Somatic Research. He coined the term "somatics" in 1976 in hopes that it would define the field of movement awareness (including Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais, in addition to CSE). At Novato, with the experience he gained from Feldenkrais in movement education, Hanna saw hundreds, if not thousands of people with "mysterious" pain symptoms who had seen many doctors without relief. Hanna was able to relieve and eliminate pain quickly by addressing what he named sensory motor amnesia, and replace it with sensory motor awareness. Throughout the 1980s, Hanna continued his research in Somatic education, calling himself a "philosopher who works with his hands" and helping many people overcome what was thought by the medical community to be hopeless cases.

In 1990, after years of research and seeing clients from all over the world, Hanna began his own training program at the Novato Institute. Tragically, though, he was only able to complete the first of a three year certification program. Thomas Hanna died in the summer of 1990 in a car accident. About half of the students in his training program decided to continue his work, becoming trainers themselves. Although it has been a slow process, Hanna's work does live on helping and encouraging others to be free and live with joyous awareness

In addition to countless articles, essays, and other publications, books authored by Thomas Hanna include:

  • The Thought and Art of Albert Camus (1958)
  • The Lyrical Existentialists (1963)
  • Bodies in Revolt: A Primer in Somatic Thinking (1970)
  • The End of Tyranny: An Essay on the Possibility of America (1970)
  • The Body of Life (1980)
  • Somatics: Reawakening the Mind's Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health (1988)

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All Pain, No Gain – Repetitive Stress and Muscular Pain


Who doesn’t remember the mantra “no pain, no gain?” It was popular during the aerobics boom of the 70’s and 80’s and is still alive and well today. Unfortunately for younger athletes, adhering to such a belief could mean a lifetime of muscular pain. In Hanna Somatic Education, our mantra is “less pain, more gain.” When one learns to move slowly and with awareness and control then the ability to move swiftly is more easily accomplished. Once this is mastered, the need to train, train and train some more can fall by the wayside. You can do exactly what you need to do to master your sport and also take the time to rest, recuperate and recharge. Lance Armstrong is well known for never over-training. He saves the “big stuff” for competition and we all know what the results of that strategy have been.

I recently read a review about the book Playing Hard, Feeling Pain - Are Youth Sports Joyless, Over-competitive and Injury-plagued? by Dan Ackman. He writes about today's overly competitive environment of youth sports, the result of which is a shockingly high rate of repetitive use injury for children as young as 10 years old. Apparently Olympian Michael Phelps' sister Whitney, a national champion at the age of 14, had to "retire" from swimming due to a debilitating back problem. This story is especially troubling, not only because the hopes of a young athlete were dashed, but also because of the ensuing chronic pain that occurred due to over-training. An increasingly common procedure being done on teenage athletes is ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) surgery. This occurs mainly with basketball and soccer players. Because these athletes are still growing, ACL reconstruction holds its own risks; damage to growth plates can occur and create growth disturbances. Even Little League pitchers are sustaining overuse injuries due to the increasingly competitive nature of the sport.

Repetitive use injuries can happen at any age.  More and more clients tell me that they hurt themselves in a fitness class while attempting to do something that they thought they “should” be able to do. They figured that the only way to learn to be strong was to do something over and over and over again – even if it caused pain for days afterwards. Somatic Education, especially when learned at a young age, teaches increased awareness of muscles, movement and coordination. This knowledge can be applied to any sport or activity no matter the age. The first step to avoiding repetitive use injuries, whether sports related or due to the stress of sitting at a computer for eight hours a day, is to become aware of the repetitive movement or stress one is engaged in. When we repeat an action again and again – whether it is pitching a baseball or sitting slumped over our computer answering emails – our muscles learn to tighten in a specific pattern. The body adapts itself to that movement or posture, however uncomfortable, so that the next time you engage in that activity your body is ready!  If ignored, these patterns of muscular tension can become automatic and habituated. Over time they will produce the desired result (a good, fast pitch or the ability to sit still for hours), but the consequence just might be painful, tight, "unable to relax no matter what you do" muscles.

Repetitive use injuries can result in “Sensory Motor Amnesia,” a state of chronically contracted muscles that are no longer under the brain’s conscious control. The end result is diminished control over muscles and movements. Because the brain controls the muscles, however, patterns of muscular contraction are learned. This can produce a Derek Jeter or a Nadia Comenici. It can also produce chronic neck, back, or shoulder pain. One is good, the other not so good. The upside to this is that learned patterns of tightness can also be un-learned in order to prevent serious injury and increase recovery time in cases of accidents or injuries. Hanna Somatic Education teaches not only somatic awareness of muscles in movement, but also how to reverse a state of chronically tight muscles.

In my private practice and group classes more and more young people are coming to me with chronic muscular pain. This is a disturbing trend. Some have suffered the kinds of injuries Ackman cites in his book. The majority of them, however, are experiencing pain related to the loss of sensory motor control of their muscles: chronic back, neck, shoulder, knee pain, an inability to breath deeply and scoliosis (which can be the result of traumatic injury at a young age). In other words, even children in today's stressful world are losing awareness of their movement and muscles. Heavy backpacks, too much slumping over computers, too little activity, too little sleep, and emotional stress are all factors.

Noreen Owens, Certified Hanna Somatic Educator, has written a book called Where Comfort Hides, about children and Somatic Education. Her goal is to introduce Somatic Education into the school system in New Hampshire in order to reach children and their parents before they create habits of muscular tension that can lead to health problems, and challenges with focus and concentration. She writes, "Because maintaining control of our muscles is the key to finding comfort in the body, it is important to every one of us to learn how to release, and prevent the accumulation of muscular tension. The place to begin is with children. If children learn to harness their body's self-sensing, self-regulating and self-sensing nature, they will be less likely to develop stress related and shallow breathing related conditions and diseases as they become adults."

If you have suffered a repetitive use injury, you might want to consider a few classes or sessions of Somatic Education in order to restore your muscular system to optimum health. For those parents whose children are complaining of headaches, stomachaches, backaches or sports related injuries, you may want to consider having your child participate in a group Somatics classes. If you are a coach, you may want to consider having a Hanna Somatic Educator teach your team a series of Somatic Exercises that can be done to relax, lengthen and restore tight muscles in order for your athletes to move with an agility they never knew they had.


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Pandiculation – the Safe Alternative to Stretching


Ever since we can remember we've been told to stretch. Stretch if your muscles feel tight, stretch before and after your workout, stretch if your back hurts. Most of us were taught what's termed "static stretching." You hold the stretch and pull, with the intent of releasing the tight muscle(s). Recent scientific evidence tells us that static stretching has been proven to be ineffective in the prevention of sports injuries.

How can this be?

To understand this a bit better, let's begin with some basics about muscle function:

The brain and central nervous system controls your muscles and movement. Muscles have no control of their own; they only respond to electrical signals from the brain and nervous system to contract and move. The brain can teach you and your muscles to ride a bicycle, walk, dance or play a sport. The brain can also teach you and your muscles to stay tight and involuntarily contracted due to emotional trauma, accidents, injuries, repetitive tasks, or on-going psychological stress. Accumulated muscle tension makes it impossible for muscles to contract efficiently and fully, and to relax completely. This is called Sensory Motor Amnesia:  the loss of voluntary control of a muscle group and its synergists. 

If you sit at a computer all day long, your muscles can learn to stay contracted in your "computer sitting posture," ready to hold that same position again the next day. In other words, our muscles habituate to whatever it is we do repeatedly.  Muscle length can become set, by the brain, at a slightly shorter length depending upon the repetitive movement, stress or holding pattern we've become habituated to.  If a muscle is tight, it is being held tightly by the brain and sensory motor system.

The general intention of static stretching is to pull a muscle into a specific length or state of relaxation.  We all know the feeling of pulling a muscle farther than is comfortable. Some of us even stay in the stretch for a while, breathe and hope for the best. The reason this doesn't work - and that it can, in fact, result in over-stretching injuries such as herniated disks, muscle trauma, and muscle dysfunction - is because the brain, the command center of the muscles, is not engaged in the action.  There is no sensing necessarily in static stretching - no feedback loop to the sensory motor cortex. In order to change what the muscles are doing the brain must be fully and consciously engaged in the process.

What do I do instead of stretching

There’s a simple movement that we’ve all been doing since the beginning of time. It is nature's "re-set" button - a way of restoring full muscle function and length to a muscle. It is far more effective and safer than stretching. It is called PANDICULATION. It is like a "software update" for your brain: it "re-boots" the brain's sensation and control of the muscles every time you do it.

If you want to untie a knot, you must look at the cord carefully then gently undo the tangle. Yanking on the cord will only make the knot tighter.
— Thomas Hanna

If you have ever watched a cat or dog as it gets up from rest you know that it arches its back, then drops its belly and curves downward lengthening its legs, back, and belly in a full body "yawn." Animals aren't stretching. They're pandiculating. After it does this simple maneuver, it jumps off the couch and goes running off to play. Do you remember when you used to do that? You'd wake up, gently tighten your arms and legs inward, feel a yawn coming on, and then reach your arms above your head, then reach one leg down and then the other. You would first contract your muscles, then slowly lengthen them, then completely relax. 

There are three elements to a pandiculation:

  1. A voluntary contraction into the tension of your muscles (it doesn't have to be vigorous!)...
  2. Followed by a slow, controlled lengthening....
  3. And a complete relaxation. This gives your brain time to integrate the new feedback you just gave it.

This action, much like a pleasant yawn, re-sets both muscle length and function at the brain level; it "reminds" our muscles that they don't have to stay stuck in a contracted state.  Pandiculation "turns on a light" in the sensory motor system and improves proprioception, which helps you sense your own body more accurately. When you contract a muscle tighter than its present contraction rate, the brain (the command center of the muscles) receives strong sensory feedback, which allows it to “refresh” its sensation of the muscles. By slowly lengthening from that initial contraction, the brain can then lengthen the muscle past the point of its former, tighter length and into a new, fuller range. The result is a more relaxed muscle and renewed voluntary muscle control and coordination.

Because muscles only learn through movement (remember: riding a bicycle, dancing...), new information must be sent to the sensory motor cortex if the muscles are ever going to learn to release their accumulated tension and be able to move freely and intelligently. Static stretching is passive rather than active and it can evoke a protective reflex in the muscles that actually contracts back against the stretch. This reflex, aptly named the "stretch reflex," is meant to protect your muscle from trauma. It is the fastest reflex in the body and has no feedback loop to the brain. When you pandiculate, however, the action is voluntary and information goes straight to your brain: you contract the muscle, then slowly lengthen it and completely let go. This requires focus and awareness.

When you think about it, animals pandiculate; they don't stretch! And animals don't sprain their ankles, nor have chronic back pain. The fact that animals pandiculate approximately 40 times a day means that they have full, voluntary control of their muscular system at all times. Doesn't it make sense that we should do the same? 

So next time you want to stretch, try first contracting the muscle that's tight and then slowly lengthening it. Then completely relax. Note the difference not only in sensation and control of the muscle, but also in your range of motion and sense of ease in your body. You may even feel more "connected," less tense.

Clinical Somatic Education uses the reflex of pandiculation to teach people to re-set muscle length and function as well as the inability to sense and control themselves from within. Somatic Movements, which are gentle, easy,  movement patterns that incorporate pandiculation, retrain your brain and muscles to "remember" how to move more easily and effortlessly. Remembering how to gently twist, bend, extend, and flex will go a long way toward retaining flexibility, control, balance and coordination for as long as you live.  Done every day, these easy and gentle movements can make a world of difference in your body...while reversing your muscle pain!


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Effortless Sitting


Do you have chronic lower back pain? Neck and shoulder pain? Do you sit all day at your job? It could just be that the way in which you "sit up straight" is a bigger contributing factor to your discomfort than you realize.

I worked with a woman who'd had chronic neck and back pain for 10 years. In our first private Somatics session I taught her to release and relax the tight muscles of the back. She felt much better. Then I asked her to do a simple awareness exercise to further increase her awareness of her back muscles: She sat profile in a chair in front of a full length mirror. I asked her to "sit up straight." "Just pretend you're at work," I said. Then I had her close her eyes and gently arch, then slowly round her back, letting her pelvis and tailbone go along with the movement. I asked her to slowly "sit up straight," with her weight sitting on top of her "sitbones" - the bones at the bottom of the pelvis. When she was sitting with her back relaxed and tall, I asked her how she felt. The answer wasn't surprising: She felt "slumped."

She had become so habituated to sitting with her back contracted, slightly forward of her pelvis, that sitting without the back contracted actually felt odd and unfamiliar! When she realized that all these years at work she'd been sitting arched and contracted, with her weight pitched forward, rather than on top of her spine, she was shocked. Did that have something to do with her neck and back pain? She decided that it was a big factor. I sent her home with instructions to do this "mirror exercise" at work whenever she felt her back get tight. She reported back to me that this simple exercise had a profound impact on her ability to reverse the pain she'd suffered with for so many years.

Sitting Variations

Here are the two variations of "straight" that I see most often:

Variation 1

Variation 1

Variation 1

This isn't really straight. The back is arched and the weight is pitched forward. We call this the "green light reflex." It's a reflex that tightens the back in response to the need to get things done. It pulls the spine into a bow rather than allowing the spine to be vertical and relaxed. The back muscles contract from the tailbone all the way to the base of the neck. It's very common in those who work on computers all day long.

Variation 2

Variation 2

Variation 2

This is the exact opposite of the "green light" posture. It's also not straight; the belly is tight, the weight in back of the pelvis and the neck juts forward. This can create a tight, painful neck.

Sitting Extremes

Sitting Extremes

Sitting Extremes

Arched forward or rounded down, either extreme can make sitting uncomfortable and laborious. Whichever way you sit, however, will become "the norm."

Sitting Exercise

Try this exercise at home and see if you can retrain your brain so you can sit tall and effortlessly:

Close your eyes and sit up to your normal sense of straight. Look in the mirror. Are you arched? Rounded? Notice how you feel, but don't try to change it. Now close your eyes. Inhale and arch, then exhale and round gently. Repeat 2-3 times. Let your pelvis move. Let your head go back as you arch back. Let your head drop down as you round forward.

Slowly come up to what your brain tells you is "straight." Sense your weight. Is it on top of your sitbones? In front? In back. Do some self adjustment. Rock side to side on your sitbones. Feel your hip flexors at the groin line. Are they relaxed?

When you feel relaxed and balanced, open your eyes. See if your internal sensations agree with what you see in the mirror. If you're still arched or rounded, close your eyes and do it again. The goal is to get your internal sense of your back muscles to agree with your visual sense. This exercise can permanently change the way in which you sit. You'll be able to sit effortlessly without fatigue.


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The Science of Somatics


The Neurological Foundations of Hanna Somatic Education
By Martha Peterson, CHSE and Carrie Day, CCSE

Hanna Somatic Education [HSE], also known as Clinical Somatic Education (CSE) is a form of neuromuscular (brain-body) movement re-education, which directly addresses the relationship between the nervous system and voluntary control of muscles and movement.  

It is a holistic approach in which the practitioner leads the client in discovering her current movement limitations and habits through improvement in the functioning of the sensory motor system. This results in a reversal of patterns of muscular contraction, pain and poor posture. HSE seeks to rid the body of Sensory Motor Amnesia [SMA]; this phenomenon is the loss of conscious control of a muscle group, which occurs at the brain level through habituation from adaptation to a trauma or a stress reflex.

Knowledge of the nervous system and brain physiology is imperative to fully understand the effectiveness of Hanna (Clinical) Somatic Education. As we learn and grow throughout our lives, we develop habits, physically and emotionally. And as we learn motor skills, our brains develop habits that enable us to process more information and to learn new skills. By addressing the nervous system we are able to make permanent changes in these muscular patterns.


Unlike the five senses, which allow us to perceive the world outside ourselves, proprioception is the sense of oneself from within, and especially awareness of our position in space. More specifically, it is the sense that provides the feedback to and from our muscles and the central nervous system. Proprioception involves the efferent nerves going to (motor neurons) and coming afferent nerves from (sensory neurons) muscle fibers to regulate tone and tension. The first step in successfully relieving pain is to bring awareness, noticeable by the absence of proprioception, to recognize sensory motor amnesia (SMA). SMA occurs when the sensory neurons and the motor neurons no longer communicate properly with the brain, causing a break in the feedback loop in neural pathways. Communication among the sensory and motor neurons is an essential relationship for the brain to constantly adjust to movement and environmental changes. SMA can occur due to a sudden traumatic event or accident, from surgery, or from a habitually held physical pattern caused by repetitive movement or stress. These patterns may cause spasms, tight muscle pain, tension, and loss of muscle control. Once recognized, these muscles appear to “jump” or “skip”, or possibly have no movement at all during certain movements, further identifying the areas of SMA.


Thomas Hanna codified three specific stress reflexes common to all humans. Hanna Somatic Educators look for SMA within these three full body patterns to begin the process of improving proprioception, and sensory motor control of muscles and reversing muscle pain. They are:

  • Red Light Reflex: also called the Startle Response, 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 inward and downward with rounded shoulders, depressed chest and the head thrust forward. 
  • Green Light Reflex:  also known as the Landau Response, is the opposite of the Red Light Reflex; where the Red Light Reflex is a reflex of withdrawal, the Green Light Reflex is a one of action. This reflex is first seen in infants at the age of five or six months and then it is triggered hundreds of times a day by those living in industrialized societies. It is a contraction of the lower back muscles in addition to synergistic contractions of the neck, shoulder, buttocks and hips. It is an adaptive response to the need to get things done and assert oneself.
  • Trauma Reflex: this reflex occurs reflexively and in most cases instantaneously in response to accidents and injuries and the need to avoid further pain or compensate due to an injury. This reflex presents with side bending and rotations in the pelvis/trunk/shoulder/head.  Postural compensation may be slight, or very noticeable, but its effects can be devastating. In many cases scoliosis is an example of an habituated trauma reflex, which creates a curve and tilting in the spine and trunk. Sudden movements of any of these patterns can cause our brains to get “stuck” in them. Habitual trauma (emotional, work stress, being scared...) can also cause the body to develop SMA in one or a combination of these reflexes.  


A clinical hands-on lesson is highly effective and methodical. It incorporates several techniques in specific sequence in order to evoke long-term change at the level of the central nervous system. These techniques include: kinetic mirroring, means-whereby, pandiculation, quick release and lock-in.  A further discussion of these techniques follows:

Means whereby, a technique created by F.M. Alexander, introduces basic awareness of movement. It is a passive technique, which aids us in assessing the range of motion of a specific set of muscles and where there might be muscular dysfunction.  The practitioner gently and slowly moves the targeted muscles through their range of motion in order to locate areas of SMA. SMA will show up as jerky, shaky or tight muscles that cannot relax.  This technique, a form of biofeedback, allows the client to begin noticing movement, or lack thereof, in their own muscles.

Kinetic mirroring, borrowed from Moshe Feldenkrais, is based upon the relationship between alpha and gamma motor neurons within the muscle and nervous system. The practitioner places the student's muscle in a shortened, contracted position, bringing the origin and insertion of the muscles closer together. The idea is that in this relaxed yet passively shortened state, the muscle will reset its neural relationships, the brain will allow it to relax, and the resting tonus rate will be reset. This technique is effective in order to release especially tight muscles that cannot be moved by means-whereby. However, because this is a passive technique, it is less likely that permanent changes can be expected. As we will see, the student must be actively involved in this muscle to brain resetting for longer lasting improvement in muscle tone.

Pandiculation is arguably the most essential tool available to the Clinical Somatic Educator. This technique actively resets not only muscle tonus rate, but also the muscle length. Webster's Medical Dictionary defines pandiculation as the “act of yawning or stretching.”  A pandiculation is a conscious, voluntary contraction of a muscle, followed by a slow, deliberate lengthening of that muscle and a complete relaxation. Cats and dogs pandiculate when they wake up and “stretch” their fronts legs forward, pulling their hindquarters back. They actively contract, then lengthen their body, which is very different from a passive stretch, in which muscles are pulled passively into a desired lengthened state. As the teacher, we apply an equal amount of pressure to the client’s contraction and ask them to slowly lengthen their muscle. To do this slow, deliberate movement the client must be engaged fully in their cortex, focused solely on control of the movement itself.  If the client loses control of the muscle, even temporarily, the reticular activating system [RAS] highlights this loss of control.  It becomes clear to the client that this movement, however basic, is outside his/her voluntary control. The RAS also compares movement before a pandiculation and after. It is also responsible for helping a client improve his/her ability to self-monitor and self-correct on a daily basis.


Our nervous system consists of many sensors and communication pathways, both to and from the brain and every part of our body. In addition to nerve bundles going to our skin (dermatomes), our muscles contain nerve bundles as well, called myotomes. In a normal muscle contraction, the brain sends signals via the alpha and gamma motor neurons (MNs) equally. Alpha cells innervate (activate to contract) extrafusal muscles fibers (external), gamma cells innervate intrafusal muscles cells (internal). Intrafusal muscle fibers contain spindle cells, which send signals back to the brain via sensory neurons communicating how long or short the muscle becomes. When working correctly, the alpha and gamma MNs have equal signals in length and velocity. When the alpha and gamma cells fire at the same rate, the spindle cell maintains its "rest" state. This is called “alpha/gamma co-activation”. If alpha and gamma motor neurons fire at different rates, the length of the spindle cells reset causing a change in muscle tone. This imbalance may be the cause of sensory motor amnesia, and can result in muscle spasms and/or difficulty in contraction.

In a pandiculation, we consciously contract the muscle and then lengthen from that full contraction. When the muscle is fully contracted, both the alpha and gamma MNs fire at the same rate, resetting at “0”, so to speak. The pandiculation continues when the contracted muscle is slowly lengthened away from the contraction. By going slowly, the muscle is able to continue to fire its alpha and gamma MNs at the same time. We bring conscious and voluntary control back to that muscle. A new “tone” is set for the muscle, and the alpha/gamma co-activation is reset.

Quick Release is used after a pandiculation of a certain muscle or muscle group. The client moves through the new range of motion [ROM] quickly in order to integrate the present speed and range of the formerly tight muscle at the level of the CNS. Once the client has learned to control his/her muscles using the cortex of the brain (which occurs during pandiculation), learning must be incorporated within the cerebellum; the entire range of motion of the specific muscle group needs to be integratedquickly and without hesitation. The cerebellum is responsible for processing information received from the cerebral motor cortex and integrating it into smooth movement, balance and coordination. It also functions at an involuntary, unconscious level, and is responsible for sensory motor amnesia. Quick release can be a challenge for some clients, as fear is an inhibiting factor for those who have been injured. Having them repeat the “quick release” several times will help to reset their timing, range and coordination.

Lock-In is done after Quick Release, as the student actively contracts in the opposite direction taking the antagonist into a full contraction to allow the focus muscle to completely let go and release. This step helps to maintain muscle tone and is also known as reciprocal inhibition.
This process of assisted pandiculation and lock-in allows the nervous system to reset and quite effectively corrects habituated patterns in the body, whether they have been held for days or years. The mechanism by which they have become learned and subsequently corrected is the same no matter the length of time that has passed.


Although private clinical sessions and assisted pandiculations are profoundly effective in quickly correcting unhealthy movement patterns, the most essential component of one's Somatic Education is the series of self-care movements clients learn either in class or during a clinical session. Improved sensory motor functioning can only be successful for the long term through patient, persistent repetition and practice. Because myelin is increased for enhanced neuronal conductivity, students will find that these self-care movements readily increase their flexibility, balance and overall coordination. Just as “bad” movement habits are learned and embedded in the cortex of the brain, so are “good” habits. 

Fifteen to twenty minutes of Somatic Exploration per day increases self-awareness, self-monitoring and the ability to self-correct. All of the gentle, functional movements – mainly addressing the larger muscles of the trunk – seek to improve overall control of the basic movements of walking, running, bending, reaching, extending, flexing and side-bending.

As Hanna Somatic Educators we may never go into minute detail about the workings of the brain with our clients.  We may never discuss neurophysiology with a referring physician. However, it is in understanding how the brain works that will allows us to guide our students to physical freedom deliberately, intentionally and intelligently.  Each of us contains within our brains, muscles, and bodies life experience that is completely unique to each of us. The experiences that we hold within us contribute to our present states of healthy and unhealthy patterns. A continually growing knowledge of neurophysiology greatly aids in that constant growth of ourselves and our relationship in helping others.


  • Biel, Andrew Trail Guide to the Body, Boulder, CO: Books of Discovery, 2005. pp.103-105.
  • Brooks, Vernon The Neural Basis of Motor Control, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986. pp. 5-16, 44-52
  • Crossman, A.R. and Neary, D. Neuroanatomy, Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Health, 2007. pp. 67-85.
  • Garoutte, Bill Survey of Functional Neuroanatomy, Greenbrae, CA: Jones Medical Publications, 1983.     pp. 1-7, 54-67, 69-75.
  • Hanna, Thomas Somatics, Awakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health, Cambridge, MA: Perseus Book, 1988

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