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Home > Features > Balance > Somatics



Somatics is a method of "physical re-education" developed by Thomas Hanna. It's based on the work of Moishe Feldenkrais. The main idea is that many of our common chronic aches and pains result from an accidental loss of conscious control over our muscles.

Here is how it happens:

Whenever we experience stress, in addition to the myriad emotional and biochemical changes that occur, our muscles become mobilized into one (or more) of four distinct "hard-wired" reflex patterns. These patterns, which involve the coordinated contraction of muscles all over our body, allow us to mount a rapid, effective physical response to an emergency. According to this model, there are four basic responses (similar to the fight/flight responses of the popular model of stress). Thus we have a simple set of tools that can be applied alone, sequentially, or in combination to a wide variety of emergency situations.

This process is unconsciously controlled; it has to be in order to proceed quickly enough. Normally, once out of the stressful situation, the body relaxes, and the stress reflexes are deactivated. Control of the muscles passes back to the conscious mind. However, sometimes the stress reflex is not completely deactivated; the muscles affected remain under unconscious control, waiting patiently for a signal which never comes.

After a while in this "frozen" state, the contracted muscles become exhausted. On the other hand, the opposing,extended muscles become weak from lack of exercise (contraction). This produces all sorts of problems- The contracted muscles become awash in pain-inducing waste products and their blood supply becomes compromised, causing irritation of nerve endings. At the same time, the extended muscles become weak, allowing the body to become crooked, creating more pain, and so on. The net result: pain and stiffness that perpetuates itself in a downward spiral.

The cure is surprisingly simple: Consciously move the affected muscles in a pattern that duplicates the activation and deactivation of the specific reflexes that have become "stuck". This is done by means of a few unique, but simple, non-strenuous exercises. If you have tried the stretching/strengthening exercises typically prescribed for back trouble, you will find it hard to believe that movements as easy as these could work, but they do, and quickly. If you're having severe back trouble, Hanna's book is the place to start. However, if you just want to relieve a tense back, keep a "pulled muscle" from turning into a chronic problem, or just keep your back functioning smoothly, here's a daily "tune-up" I've evolved, from one described in Hannaís book. It incorporates some Feldenkrais elements, and adds a stretching component. The way I do it, it takes only a few minutes (sometimes as little as a minute). I do it a couple of times/day, and more if I'm doing a lot of desk work.

My "tune-up" is really a series of patterned stretches, but not like the type of stretch a runner or dancer would do. It's more like the type of stretch you do spontaneously after a good night's sleep. As you go through the tune-up, position your arms and logs as suggested, then move them just as if you were "stretching" on awakening.

To do it, first find a firm, padded surface, like a yoga mat or a rug. Lie on your back with your knees bent: /\__o

Interlock your fingers and place them like a pillow, behind your head. At this point, you'll probably feel an urge to stretch. Go ahead!

Now, it's time to coordinate your breathing: As you lay there, allow your breathing to become deeper. As you breathe in, gently arch your back and relax your stomach muscles. Your belly should expand. As you breath out, press your lower back gently against the floor, while you push the air out with your stomach muscles. Repeat several times.

Now separate your hands, but leave them close to your head, the backs of your hands resting on the floor with elbows bent. Continue breathing as above, but allow your body to stretch as you did at the beginning. Repeat for several more breaths.

Now extend your hands and arms out sideways, so they are at right angles to your body, the backs of your hands still resting on the floor. Your fingers will naturally curl into a loose fist. Stretch and breathe a couple of times. Let's call this the resting position. This position, with your palms up, is called supination. If you were to rotate your wrists 180 degrees so that your palms face down, it would be pronation. If you were to rotate them only 90 degrees, so that your thumbs face up and your palms face toward your feet, that would be a neutral position. Similarily, when you lie on your stomach, itís called a prone position and when you lie on your back, you are supine.

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To begin the stretch, rotate both wrists so that both thumb knuckles are pointing up (neutral). Then, as you exhale, rotate your spine, allowing your bent knees to fall gently to the left. They may touch the floor or not, depending on how tight your back is. At the same time, rotate your left arm clockwise (pronation), so the palm of your hand is facing the floor, or even farther to the point that your thumb knuckle is touching the floor (super pronation). Also at the same time, rotate your right arm in the opposite direction (supination) If itís comfortable, you can continue this movement until the thumb knuckle rests on the floor (super supination). As you do this, rotate your head to the right. You will feel totally "twisted". Don't force anything, just allow your body to move as far as feels comfortable. Now, as you inhale, untwist to the resting position, with your wrists briefly in a neutral position.

On the next exhale, reverse the twist i.e., knees right, head left, right arm- palm down, left arm palm up or as far as thumb knuckle facing floor. In other words, each time you twist, your head will look to one side at a supinated hand and your knees will drop to the other side. Each time you twist, you will be looking at a hand that has rotated from neutral in the resting position to palm up (supinated) or even little finger up and thumb-knuckle facing the floor (super supinated), while on the other side, your knees will be on or close to the floor and the hand will be pronated or super pronated. Repeat both twists six or seven times. It sounds complicated, but once you've done it a couple of times, it's easy.

Note: After a few of these, especially if your back is loosening up, as you come back to the resting position you may feel an urge to stretch. Go ahead, but gently, as long as it feels good.

Rest for a few breaths. At this point you can stop, rest some more, or stretch out your legs, do a few stretches with legs extended, and then quit.

Happy Tune-up!

-Alan Wagener







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