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A Brief Overview & History of Somatics

There has been a popularization of the word "somatic" these days, but not many people know where the word really originated. Below, you'll find a brief history of the term "somatic", as well as information about Clinical Somatic Education and where it comes from.

Where did Clinical Somatic Education come from?

Clinical Somatic Education is derived directly from the work of Dr. Thomas Hanna. Tom taught the first and only class in the technique he developed in 1990. The first third of the class ended literally days before Tom passed away in a car accident. Somatic Systems Institute's curriculum was developed primarily by two members of that class.

Tom was a professor of philosophy, a theologian, a writer, and a revolutionary thinker. His work in all of these areas hinged around the concept of freedom. Throughout his travels, he noticed that people in industrialized nations had significantly more postural distortion than other countries. There was more restriction of movement and more complaints of chronic pain or limited range of motion. How interesting that the citizens of these industrialized nations, generally considered the freest in the world, were literally prisoners in their own bodies! How could one truly be free if one's activities were constantly dictated by a body beyond voluntary control?

Tom found it even more astounding that when pressed, people actually believed that as they aged, their bodies would become naturally more stiff and less capable over time. He believed that this loss of function was simply a myth of aging that reached back to the Riddle of the Sphinx, one that most of us take as truth, and one that was all too quick to become a reality for those who accepted it. He set out to disprove that myth and to lead human beings into a different way of aging, one marked by less pain and more mobility.

After research in Medical school classes on the neurophysiology of development and control, Tom went on to develop what would become Clinical Somatic Education. This technique blends slow, conscious movement on the part of the client with specific feedback and guidance from the practitioner to create lasting, rapid improvement. The effectiveness of this technique is demonstrated by the number of clients who succeed in reaching their own goals of health without constant sessions with a Clinical Somatic Educator. Most clients need less than ten sessions before they have attained a higher level of functioning than ever before.

What does Somatic mean, anyway?

The term somatic has been used a lot lately. There are lots of disciplines out there that have adapted the word to mean something that works with the mind and the body, and they're partly correct. In fact, somatic is derived from the word soma, which Dr. Hanna introduced to describe the whole and indivisible nature of the human being. This means that it's not so much working with the mind and the body as it is an implicit understanding that each person is the mind and the body, together--a holistic and global understanding of the biological, cultural, emotional, psychological, spiritual, energetic, and evolutionary functioning of the human organism. As he discusses in his groundbreaking book Bodies in Revolt: A Primer in Somatic Thinking , which he published in 1969, working with a body implies passively manipulating a thing with no awareness or sense of itself. The word soma allows that the person sitting in front of you (and you yourself) have the ability to feel, sense, and control their interaction with the environment.

The term somatic, then, refers to any process which treats an individual as an active participant in an activity, treatment, or other process. The truest definition of somatic avoids the pitfall of separating a soma into parts — the body, mind, spirit, chi, energy, and other terms are all taken into account in all interactions with clients, students, anyone else who walks, phones, or surfs in.

So why is that so different from other disciplines?

By thinking about the client as a soma, rather than a person with a body, mind, and spirit, we include them in the process of healing at every step, as well as recognizing the client as someone capable of infinite growth and learning — not of the mind or body, but the whole being. Sessions, movements, and even our training program are designed to impart as much information as possible, while allowing for each person to have their own process and experience. We understand that no soma is identical to another; each will struggle with different ideas and concepts, each will find different ideas simple or even obvious.

How does Clinical Somatic Education work?

Everything that your body does is controlled by the brain. That means that as you read this, the movement of your eyes, your hand on the mouse, and the way you are sitting are all being monitored by nerves sending constant messages to your brain and back to your eyes, hands, and the rest of your body.

Every time you move, your brain sends a message to certain muscles to tighten and others to lengthen, allowing you to click a different link, adjust your position in the chair, or brush away a stray piece of lint that's on your hand.

Most of the messages your brain sends, at least to your muscles, are voluntary — you decide when you want to get up and make a sandwich, or when it's time to move on to another section of the site. But if you do something over and over, (for example, if you sit a certain way every day at work, or were in a cast for six weeks when you broke your leg ice skating, or if you just have a tendency to brace your shoulders against the pressures of emotional stress) your brain will stop thinking about that position — you'll just always sit that way, or you'll always be a little bit more careful on that leg. This is called habituation.

Habituation makes us really efficient. Since we don't have to always figure out how to sit, walk, move a mouse, or make a sandwich, we can go on to build houses, learn about the stars, or paint the Sistine Chapel. While we're doing all that amazing stuff, our brain is still sending the message to contract the muscles to hold us in the chair in that familiar way. But what about when we're trying to play with our kids or do some yoga? That message is still being sent, so that muscle remains tight. That's why getting into that yoga position can seem impossible, or why picking up your two year old causes that familiar spasm in your lower back — you're pulling on a muscle that has become chronically contracted.

Why can't we just relax that muscle? Because through habituation, we've forgotten about it--we've moved on to other things. We can't even feel that it's tight anymore! We just know that it hurts when we move in certain ways. Eventually, we stop moving at all, and then the Myth of Aging becomes truth.

So how do you get a muscle that you've all but forgotten about to relax? How do you voluntarily move something you can't feel? You can massage those muscles, stretch them, have a chiropractor crack you back into alignment and feel great for a few days, but your brain is still sending that message to contract, contract, contract! This phenomena, which we call Sensory-Motor Amnesia (SMA), is the inability to voluntarily relax and contract muscles that are usually under voluntary control. When we have SMA, we can't feel, and therefore can't control, our muscles, which leads to chronic tension. This chronic tension means that every time we move, we're pulling on a knot that's already tight. That's when that lower back ache kicks in, or the shoulder starts to lock up, or those really terrible headaches bring us over to the medicine cabinet yet again. Somehow, you need to stop that message from being sent, which means taking back voluntary control of your muscle.

By using Clinical Somatic Education (CSE), you will learn how to find the muscles you are keeping tight, and, in the words of Dr. Hanna, "If you can sense it, you can feel it. And if you can feel it, you can change it." CSE uses the muscles as a gateway into the Central Nervous System — the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Either with a practitioner's feedback, or by moving slowly to increase your own awareness and control, CSE lets you take back control of your body and your life.