Sensing yourself from within
How Somatics can enhance your yoga practice and your life. By Liz Underwood
Somatics refers to an area within bodywork and movement studies which emphasises internal physical perception and experience.
There are many genres of somatic movement, from Feldenkrais to the Alexander technique. Here, I will make reference to the work of Thomas Hanna, who named his work ‘Hanna Somatic Education’ and which has unique principles and techniques which sets it apart from certain others.
My own path to Somatics was in response to continuous chronic back tension and, as a yoga teacher, I was always curious as to why some students found even the most gentle and modified postures a challenge. Once I came across Hanna’s work I understood why.
Let’s start with it’s meaning. Somatics, from the Greek word Soma means ‘to sense oneself from within’ and so sensing and feeling your way through the movements is key to this practice.
The practice begins with a Soma scan, (think of coming into Savasana but without adjusting yourself or correcting your alignment) this allows you to sense yourself as you are in that moment, feeling your reality, how your brain is holding your muscles which informs your posture. It allows you to really tune in to what, how and where you feel tension and any imbalances in your body. You are sensing yourself from the inside out.
"Essentially, Somatics engages your brain to address your patterns and pain."
The Soma scan also begins to hone your awareness and sensory skills, and together with the subtle, natural movements you start to become aware as to what you can and cannot sense or move. This is known as Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).
Here’s the science bit. SMA is where the higher cortex has effectively gone ‘offline’ and the lower sub-cortex is in control of your muscles and movement, numbing your sensory and movement skills and adding tension to your muscles, leading to pain and dysfunction.
So, unless you address the underlying SMA it will always be there, even after stretching (stretching only goes to spinal cord level, therefore not making changes at the cortex), and strengthening only deepens the SMA. Learning about the reflex patterns was the game changer for me.
Hanna recognised that we habituate reflexes in response to stress. This relates to physical stress as well as mental and emotional stress. These instinctive reflexes tighten our muscles and for many of us, it’s so insidious we don’t even know it is happening until we have tension, pain or dysfunction.
The reflex patterns are:
Green Light (triggered by the flight, fight responses, continued stress. Any movements such as lifting or taking arms overhead, which create tension in the muscles along the back of the body, resulting in the limbs rotating out).
Red Light (triggered by the freeze response, anxiety, fear, worry. Any movements such as head leaning forwards or down to look at screens, creating tension in the muscles of the front resulting in the limbs rotating in).
Avoidance (also referred to as the Trauma Reflex, triggered to avoid danger, where the body twists or shifts to avoid something such as side-on collision. Or to avoid pain and weight bearing on hip, knee or foot pain, resulting in the waist muscles tightening, pulling the shoulder down and hitching the hip up “shortening the leg”).
In essence, we are sensory beings and all our life experiences filter through our nervous system and into our muscles, either immediately or over time. This creates these reflex patterns, where unknowingly we become stuck in them, again this is SMA.
Because the reflexes are full body patterns of contraction, Somatics addresses the full pattern of the reflex, starting at the centre first, (the muscles that attach the pelvis to the ribs) from here all movements of the limbs and head are affected.
HOW DOES SOMATICS ADDRESS SMA?
Essentially, Somatics engages your brain to address your patterns and pain. This is with a unique technique called ‘pandiculation’. It consists of three elements: consciously contracting into the muscular pattern; a slow release which lengthens the muscles; and pausing to relax and integrate.
Relating this back to yoga, let’s say you have a rounded upper back, this approach though would be ‘heart opening’ postures to release the front. Together with movements that strengthen the upper back this though would not address the SMA.
In Somatics we relate this posture to a red light reflex pattern: the lower cortex is keeping the muscles of the chest and abdominals tight, tethering any attempt at extension.
WHAT IS THE SOMATICS APPROACH?
We follow our nervous system’s response, rather than go against it (which can also be less triggering for those with trauma-related issues). We consciously go deeper into the pattern. So for the student who has the rounded upper back, we would exaggerate that pattern by consciously contracting the chest and abdominals first, recreating it more so, this brings these muscles back under the control of the sensory motor cortex and creating an effortless Tadasana.
If you have chronic pain or struggle in some yoga postures, it might be time to add Somatics into your life
Liz Underwood is a certified clinical Somatic educator, therapeutic yoga teacher and yoga therapist. She offers online classes, workshops and retreats and a step-by-step Somatics beginner’s video series. Visit: intelligent-movement.co.uk