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The Science of Somatics

Updated: Jul 6, 2019

by Ellie Scott, RMT

The first time I heard of Somatics from a friend/colleague; they told me it was a series of movements that could help people live a pain-free life. I didn’t think much more about it at the time until purchasing Thomas Hanna’s book “Somatics: reawakening the mind’s control of movement, flexibility and health.”

Within a week of practicing I started to feel the tension I had, unknowingly, been holding in my low back and abdominal muscles. My rib cage that was previously pulled down tight on my pelvis now began to have some space where my oblique abdominals had begun to let go, freeing my upper body from my lower body. I did recognize that I had a “short-torso” however I didn’t perceive this as something that I was influencing through sub-concious muscle contraction.

Somatics is truly a life changing practice and to be experienced to truly grasp the concepts that I am going to explain in the “The Science of Somatics”

What is Somatics?

Somatics is a series of slow, gentle and controlled muscle contractions of a specific muscle group.  These muscles targeted are contracted slowly while inhaling and then relaxed while exhaling and this is done with the intent of increasing body awareness v.s. stretching or strengthening. Movements are repeated with the goal being to perceive more of the area with each contraction, as well as to release further unconscious muscle contraction by consciously contracting and relaxing the area. With each repetition the range should be increased slightly as the area becomes more relaxed with less resistance.

The importance of performing the movement with ease cannot be stressed enough. You want to perceive the resistance in the area, and this cannot be done with fast and large movements that are often done at the gym for strengthening purposes. The goal of these movements is to feel the tissue and how it moves, and this can only be perceived through a slow and gentle movement. As you progress in your somatic practice you will go from not fully understanding how to move the area, to not really feeling anything when you do the movement, to feeling the differences between the two sides of the body and finally being able to truly feel the movement not only in the area but how it pulls and affects the surrounding tissue and all the connections to that area.

Body awareness and sensing your internal environment is not a common practice in our society. This is part of the reason that we can remain in a retracted state for so long without realizing how we are holding and carrying ourselves through our days.

Why do Somatics?

Somatics practice will teach you how to move your body with awareness and ease, and reverse the symptoms of sensory-motor amnesia (SMA).  You will re-discover your body, just like we did so long ago as infants.  As babies we enter the world with primitive reflexes, we are stuck in a flexed state from being curled up in our mother’s womb and as we grow, we acquire new neurological and muscular functions. By the time we are teenagers we have acquired a whole repertoire of body movement patterns, then as adulthood approaches, we start to “grow-up”, what does this look like? Typically, we begin to move less, we don’t run, jump or roll around like we did as children and our lives become more sedentary.

When we were young, we are discovering our bodies and what they are capable of; soon after we gain our full potential we cease to use it and start to focus less on ourselves and more on our deadlines and external goals for our lives. This is the onset of SMA, when you have lost your perception of your body, how you are holding yourself positional and the resting levels of tension that are present in your muscles.  A glimpse of SMA that is common for people is: Oh, my goodness! I was hiking my shoulders up and I didn’t even notice. This is just a glimpse of one muscle and there are so many others involved in that type of a holding pattern that we will talk about in the next section.

Reflexes Contributing to Unconscious Muscle Contractions

Life can be stressful; good and bad stressors can provoke different reflexes which cause contractions of either our flexor group along the front of our bodies, causing us to retract into ourselves, or our extensors along the back of our body, which extend us out and propel us forward.  These are primitive reflexes present in all animals with a central nervous system, stemming from our hindbrain, which is part of our brain stem. These areas of the brain are responsible for many involuntary functions such as our breathing, balance, bowel movements, eye-tracking etc. The point is that these are not under conscious control, we cannot stop these reflexes from happening because they are an involuntary response to our environment. What we can do is become aware they are happening through body awareness and learn how to let them go so they do not persist in the body unchecked by us.

The withdrawal response a.k.a. the “red-light” reflex is a response to negative stresses and causes us to retract into ourselves by flexing our abdominals, shoulders hiking, adduction of the legs (knees coming inward), jaw clenching and forehead scrunching. This is also known as the “fight or flight” response and it is where most of our society seems to be living. This response is induced by anxiousness, fear, being startled and worrying- something that is constant in modern society.  Worrying about security, in terms of ourselves, our families, our finances, our homes and the list goes on and on.

Studies have shown this response is activated when test subjects where timed on completing a task, and the muscle tension only subsided once the task was complete. How many of us are constantly thinking about our to-do list and what needs to be done, and wow it feels good to check things off that to-do list, but the problem is that as long as we live there will always be things to be done. The solution is not to isolate ourselves from all stresses, because stress is good it helps us grow.  We must develop coping mechanisms to mitigate our stress and become aware of how our body responds to these types of stresses with the red-light reflex and learn how to let go of these tensions through somatic exercises.  This reflex perpetuated over a long period of time will start to pull the person into rounded posture; it contributes to crow’s feet, wrinkled brows, humps at the base of our neck, forward head posture, flattened rib cages, shortened breath and achy knees. Most of these things have been simply blamed on the aging process, and I’m here to tell you that aging doesn’t mean you have to lose your function or mobility.

There is also a reflex called the “green-light reflex” the “GO” reflex, associated with positive stresses, and these are stresses that you are eagerly moving towards to conquer, it’s our sense of completing our responsibilities. This reflex is stimulated by babies as they begin to learn how to crawl and start to extend their backs and propel themselves forward into the world, slowly coming out of their curled-up positions and begin to use their back muscles.  This reflex is commonly stimulated in our industrial society as we aim to be efficient, meet deadlines and stay busy. This reflex triggers our extensors in our low back to contract and lift us forward. However, when the low back muscles never relax this contributes to very tight and eventually painful low back muscles. Somatic exercises help you recognize these low back muscles and let go of the constant contraction that so commonly happen in our western society.

The Effect of Unconscious Muscle Contraction on Our Bodies

Typically, a combination of red or green light reflexes are happening for an individual to give their overall posture that they move throughout their day with. Combinations of low back muscle contraction and abdominal contraction starts to pull the pelvis and our rib cage together.  What is the content between our pelvis and our ribcage? Our organs; small and large intestine, liver, pancreas, stomach, kidneys etc.  We are inducing pressure on the front and back of our abdominal content, this will increase the pressure of our abdominal cavity, also increasing the pressure that our diaphragm must contact against as it descends with our inhale.  The lymphatic drainage from the organs is further hindered from the increase in pressure within the cavity itself; this is because lymphatic return is a passive fluid movement that relies on our natural body movements and pressure fluctuations to move the fluid. Unlike our blood that has the muscular pumping of the heart to move our blood around our body. Therefore, the fluid fluctuation and massaging of our inner organs is compromised resulting in many different symptoms but mainly increased congestion of the abdominal lymphatics and can contribute to the feeling of bloating.

Another negative side effect of constant muscle contraction is stiffness and rigidity of the contracted tissue. When the tissue does not relax fully it stays in the shortened position and is constantly using energy to do this and producing metabolic waste (lactic acid, carbon dioxide). The restriction of the tissue resulting from the constant muscle contraction reduces the ability of the tissue to drain properly so you get the accumulation of metabolic waste in the tight restricted area which contributes to achy and painful tissue. The constant muscle contraction also requires a lot of energy to maintain, therefore this is a huge source of energy depletion to maintain a contraction that is serving no purpose to you, but is a reflexive contraction happening because of the stress that you are experience. The solution: recognize the state of your emotions and your environment and how you are responding, recognize the state of your muscle contractions and learn to let them go through Somatic exercise.

My Personal Experience and Results

Friends would describe me as a pretty laid-back individual, I wouldn’t have described myself as overall anxious or stressed.  I’ve been offering massage therapy for 3 years now and practice yoga/mindfulness regularly and was surprised to learn I was clenching my abdominals or low back muscles.  Through somatic exercise, I can recognize the situations that bring about contraction, feel the contraction happening and consciously relax the area and let it go.  I’m more aware of my posture and now able to feel my body when it contracts up and I have tools (somatic exercises) to go home at the end of the day and release the contractions I may have taken on throughout the day. I feel like I have more energy at the end of the day and generally feel calmer.

We all know that the mind affects the body, but people seldom think about the body affecting the mind; it is a continuous loop, both affecting each other. Therefore, a contracted body is going to communicate to the mind that things are stressful and increase your feelings of anxiousness. Releasing these contractions helps put both the body and mind at ease.

Somatics is a very large and complex subject but is also very logical; hopefully I captured the essence of Somatics in this short article and at the very least sparked an interest for you to start to become more aware of your mind and body so that you may have more control over your emotional and physical state instead of being a victim to autopilot and reflexive muscle contraction.  You can purchase Thomas Hanna’s book on this subject called “Somatics: reawakening the mind’s control of movement, flexibility and health” by Thomas Hanna” through  Essential Somatics offers great videos demonstrating exercises for many different areas of the body. Check them out – HERE


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