Originally published on iEvolve on February 1, 2012.
By Mary Ann Gray Voorhies
Somatics, in the tradition of Thomas Hanna, is a powerful new discipline in the field of health care. Somatics (also called Clinical Somatic Education) gives us the technology and the tools that enable us to learn to control our own physiology. Now, arguably for the first time in history, we have the POWER to change our own bodies in relatively rapid ways — ways that can dramatically improve our health and well being. Now, thanks to Thomas Hanna, we have at our disposal simple ways to become victorious over the negative effects of accumulated stress or trauma on the human body.
Through the use of this “new” discovery and the employment of simple movement techniques, we can harness innate powers of self-sensing, self-regulating and self-healing. Through the discovery and the utilization of these innate powers we have “set foot on a new continent as far as health care is concerned” as Hanna said. This discovery is a giant leap for humankind — a paradigm which its proponents say significantly advances our embodied understanding as well as our ability to transform our own bodies through leading edge somatic technologies. It is evident to practitioners that the practice of somatics enables us to create fast, direct, long-lasting changes in our movements, range of motion, postural alignment, coordination, pain relief, youthful appearance, and body efficiency.
The practice of this type of somatics (which reprograms the neuromuscular system through simple movements) can place in one’s hand the wonderful key that that can powerfully and easily change the brain/body wholistically and systemically from within. The practice of this slow, gentle non-invasive movement technique relatively quickly brings the body back into balance and alignment and can naturally and effectively clear up (and prevent) up to 80 percent of all functional bodily complaints, pain and diseases.
According to Thomas Hanna, through the proper use of human consciousness (by directing our intention and attention inward) and by performing specific easy slow movements, we can easily overcome physiological limitations in heretofore unheard of ways. According to Hanna, our bodies are not THINGS or objects to be manipulated from the outside. We are somas whose minds and bodies are one. In fact, CONSCIOUSNESS is a powerful and causative force that can reshape our whole system. Somatics is based on a thorough understanding of neurophysiology and how we can harness innate powers of self-balancing, self-healing and self -ejuvenation.
In his book “Somatics,” Hanna quotes a physician who attended one of his classes, saying, “This is the missing link in health care. What I have learned (from Hanna) has as much potential for understanding the mind-body relationship as Einstein’s theory of relativity had for physics.”
How Does Somatics Work?
Many diseases have as their root cause a “disconnect” between the sensory motor cortex and the muscles or muscle groups. To put it simply, the practice of somatics restores that connection. The disconnection (which occurs because of accumulated stress or accident, i.e. physical trauma) results in chronic muscular holding patterns that can wreak havoc on one’s health and comfort. When the muscles or muscle groups become chronically contracted — what we call sensory motor amnesia — the posture is pulled out of balance, often causing pain or discomfort and can contribute to many complaints and diseases. The chronically shortened and contracted muscles can impinge on and pull on nerves, bones, organs and joints and other bodily structures causing a myriad of common and painful complaints. Among these are bursitis, some types of arthritis, bulging discs, scoliosis, knee problems, back pain, hip problems, bent over posture, fibromyalgia, avoiding surgery, impotence, some forms of high blood pressure, and much more.
Sensory motor amnesia can also be a cause of breathing problems and the root cause of many of the major health problems (such as heart disease). Sensory motor amnesia is also widely mistaken for old age. Clearly aging is a healthy process of the body which the body can gracefully experience with enormous beauty and dignity. Yet so much of what we feel is inevitable and label as “old age” is really not that all. Much of the decrepitude of old age is what Hanna refers to as myth. In fact it is the result of sensory motor amnesia and can be fully overcome through somatic learning and practice.
Through the practice of somatics, the signs and symptoms —so much of the creakiness, decrepitude, poor posture, aches, pains and discomforts of aging can now be prevented, alleviated or even at times, reversed! All of this is possible because the brain controls the body. And, we can learn to reprogram our brains! Aspects of Hanna’s leading edge work has since been confirmed by multiple studies in the nature of neuroplasticity, and ongoing research continues to contribute to the scholarship around somatics and holistic health to this day.
Sensory Motor Amnesia
A more detailed scientific explanation of sensory motor amnesia is that it is a loss or distortion of freedom of movement, of control of muscular tension, and of the body-sense. It’s a maladaptation that occurs in the brain — in the person’s internal self-sense, and in their capacity for activity. Here’s how it happens:
Commonly, with long-term stress or injury, the memory of stress or bodily trauma displaces the memory of healthy movement and feeling. Memory takes place according to contemporary neuroscience, primarily in the sensory motor cortex which is right behind the frontal lobe of the brain and it is the part of the brain that controls all movement and motor actives. The person forgets what free and balanced movement feels like and how to move freely. (That’s the “amnesia” part.) Involuntary muscular tension and, often, pain sets in. The person starts limiting their life to avoid pain. So, the effects are both physiological and psychological (right and left sides of the AQAL matrix of Integral Theory).
The practice of clinical somatic education frees a person from the grip of memories of stress and/or trauma and develops healthy memory patterns in the brain of sensation and movement that, in turn, restores healthy movement, a healthier self-sense, and healthier physiological homeostasis among all systems of the body, with corresponding psychological effects. Since the brain controls the muscles the brain transmits these new memories into the muscular system and this in turn produces healthier movement patterns.
Hanna found that through the skillful employment of the pandicular response (an innate action pattern), one could easily, effectively, rapidly and powerfully:
- Dispel the “controlling charge” of memories of stress and trauma,
- Develop healthy patterns of function,
- Cause large, durable improvements in one’s health and self-awareness.
As a mind-body learning process, the practice of somatics develops new neural pathways in the brain (which is why it is called education). And, since the mind and body are the “inner” and “outer” sides of the same thing (“soma”), not only is the “body” affected, but the whole human being (inner and outer) is affected in very positive ways — in energy level, self-awareness and capacity for participation in life. In fact, as part of an integral life practice, somatics can assist powerfully in spiritual transformation.
Hanna says that “the human species, possessed with a brain whose genius is unlimited learning and adaptation, is a species that is genetically designed to age by GROWING. (Not by declining.) Not to expect to grow (physically and psychologically) is to misunderstand what it means to be human. Not to do so is to fail in the God-given task of living a fully human life.”
This marvelous discovery — that we can somatically learn our way back to restored vigor, health and wholeness in a relatively easy and rapid fashion (through somatic learning) is tantamount to saying that we are now is in possession of an amazing powerful evolutionary technology and knowing, which teaches us how to easily care for ourselves in marvelous, effective and wonderful ways. Somatics gives us valuable tools and practices that have the power to literally transform our bodies, and shift inexorably the experience of aging, in ways that were never before thought possible before in the history of humankind. We now have the know-how and the God-given ability to become autonomous, self-determining, self-balancing and self-healing which, in turn, can lead to human freedom — and optimal health and well being. No longer do we have to be helpless victims of negative circumstances and many physically painful situations.
In his book Somatics, Hanna says, “Somatic exercises can change how we live our lives, how we believe that our bodies and minds interrelate, how powerful we think we are in controlling our lives and how responsible we should be in taking care of our total beings” … “This new discipline in health care realizes that sensory motor amnesia describes a category of health problems that has not been recognized until now. Sensory motor amnesia (which can wreak havoc on one’s health and comfort) is a somatic pathology that requires not treatment but somatic movement education.” He goes on to say that ”we must break the bonds that limit us, so that the growth and evolution of the human species may continue toward that greater destiny which now, with increasing impatience awaits us.”
Thomas Hanna’s Vision
As put forth in many of his books, writings and teachings, Thomas Hanna was concerned not only with Clinical Somatic Education (the education of the sensory motor system) but he also had a larger concern about the somatic education of the entire human being. He was very concerned with the more philosophical and psychological aspects of somatic education. He was also concerned with alleviating psychological and emotional suffering (in the thinking mind). As a trained academic philosopher himself, he focused his study on the figures that he referred to as somatic psychologists and somatic philosophers. These included the likes of William James, Kierkegaard, and key teachers of Eastern philosophies. In this sense somatic meant for Hanna embodied experiencing from within. For Hanna the somatic experiencing which lies at the core of his system was already to be found in nascent forms in the teaching of many of the great traditions. For Hanna there was not split at all between body, mind and heart all of which came together to form the wholeness of the human soma. Hanna had a deep and thorough understanding of how spiritual teachings and practices can be somatically life giving and transformative. For Hanna it is empirically clear that consciousness can be directed also to change attitudes, interpretations, negative beliefs and values and by doing so can actually change brain chemistry and reshape the system.
In Body of Life, Hanna says, “What the neurophysiological research of the last several decades tells us is that the kinds of thoughts we think determines the quality and effectiveness of our lives. It has been found the thoughts are sensory motor events and thinking can tense and activate muscles (causing contractions that can negatively affect our health).” He goes on to say that when we repeatedly think thoughts and memories of hurt, despair, anger, revenge or fear, we are physically injuring ourselves — we are engaging in self destruction. You can be sure that the weight of neurological evidence is massively on the side of those who advise us to think positive thoughts rather than negative ones when at all possible. Hanna said that what he was teaching was NOT just a manipulative technique (not just “body work” — heaven forbid), but a wholistic science of total transformation that would include all aspects of our beings and that “mind” and “body” are “one.” He called this learning process Somatology — the wholistic science of human experience and behavior.
We must “shine a light,” not only on our unconscious maladaptive memory patterns in the sensory motor parts of our brains (which keep us stuck, suffering and unfree) — but we must also “shine a light” on our unconscious maladaptive psychological and behavioral memory “habit” patterns, as well.
According to Hanna this is done by unlearning the maladaptive patterns that keep us stuck and enslaved to our own conditioning, like puppets on a string. We must enact more empowering patterns, which will liberate us to relate in a more loving and whole way to ourselves and others. To be liberated from these patterns of “suffering” in our total beings —both physiological AND psychological — is to be truly free. To be free in both of these ways is what Hanna called “The Fair State.”
Who Was Thomas Hanna?
Thomas Hanna — born 1928, died 1990 — was a philosopher who through years of study, research and practice, developed Clinical Somatic Education, also known as Hanna Somatic Education. Hanna spent his life searching for ways for human beings to become free — intellectually, psychologically and physically.
After receiving a Ph.D. in philosophy and Divinity from the University of Chicago in 1958, Hanna began a successful teaching career at several colleges. He also had the fortune 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 neurophysiology at the medical school. His experiences in studying divinity, philosophy and the neurosciences led him to the idea that all life experiences lead to certain physical “patterns” in the body. He coined the word somatics (with an s). To him, soma did not mean only body (like the old Greek meaning) but soma means the entirety of who you and I are, wholistically. He contended that we as somas are always wanting life and wanting life more abundantly. He believed that we can, through certain somatic practices, both “bodily” and “psychologically,” we can achieve what he called the “Fair State,” — optimal mental and physical health. In other words, human beings have the capacity to FREE themselves from suffering on all levels, wholistically … body, mind, spirit.
In 1973, Hanna moved to San Francisco, where he became the director of the graduate school at the 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.
From the previous experience, education, research and background, plus the experience he gained from his studies with Feldenkrais, Hanna developed his own very powerful way of dealing with mysterious symptoms with his clients who had seen many doctors without relief. Hanna was able to relieve and eliminate the pain and suffering quickly with his new technique. During the 1980s Hanna continued his work and research calling himself “a philosopher who works with his hands.” During that time Hanna helped many people overcome what were thought by the medical community to be hopeless cases.
In 1990, Hanna began his own training program. Tragically, though, he was only able to complete the first summer of a three-summer training period. Thankfully for us, he was able to transmit the core of his teachings and practices. Thomas Hanna died in the summer of 1990 in a car accident.
Thomas Hanna’s Vision and Dream
Thomas Hanna was engaged not only with helping individuals, but he was passionately concerned with the collective well being of the human race in a larger cultural and societal context. He was interested in educating people in how we as a society could learn to understand how to prevent suffering from happening in the first place. In his book Body of Life he wrote that “all somatic distortion (and suffering) reflect problems that are simultaneously problems in the person`s lifestyle. A somatic understanding of ourselves allows us to understand, to a larger degree, what is happening to us and why our THOUGHTS , our culture and our individual ways of living affect us in emotional and physiological ways. By understanding ourselves and the fuller aspects of our functioning, we are empowered to help ourselves. We can learn healthier ways to process our experience. Our total beings can be transformed by our daily experience and what we focus our consciousness on. We know now that our sensory-motor systems are just as capable of positive life-giving transformations as of negative ones. Quite apart from society and culture, we can redeem ourselves and take control of our own sensory-motor growth just as easily as we can abandon ourselves and lose control. We simply need to know how. It is a question of somatic LEARNING — learning those patterns that are more efficient and unlearning patterns that are painful and inefficient.”
Above all else, Thomas Hanna was concerned with the evolution of the human race as a whole. And, he envisioned that a somatic understanding would lead us there. He also had a traditional yet evolutionary spiritual understanding of who we are as humans. He believed that we have a destiny to fulfill. In his book The End of Tyranny, he wrote, “As humans move toward the possession of themselves and our brotherhood, there is only one thing that stays our hand and holds us back — the uncanny inward voice that tells us that is really not possible — that the control of one’s destiny is naive, unrealistic and foolishly utopian. It is the taunting pessimistic voice that says — you will fail — you will fail.” He goes on to say that we CAN transform the world by transforming ourselves into “free humans” (though inner experiential somatic education — body, mind, spirit.)
In the conclusion of The End of Tyranny, Thomas Hanna anticipates the potential emergence of a World Spirituality rooted in love. He writes:
“Our religious traditions are correct, mankind does stand in need of forgiveness, and we need to forgive one another. The prophetic injunction to love one another always seemed to be a promised destiny and a forceful necessity. We must LOVE or DIE! Learning to love other human beings and achieving the happiness of creating positive community bonds with others is a crucial need of us all. Only human LOVE and the realization that we are all ‘one’ can save us from ourselves (our ego driven madness) and heal our social fragmentation. We can create conditions that can create superior human beings.”
So, in my opinion, Thomas Hanna would be delighted and thrilled that his work has become a part of World Spirituality because his mission is our mission, as well — nothing less than the positive evolution of consciousness of the human race. In his book Bodies in Revolt, written in the seventies, Hanna talks about the Evolution Revolution. It the energy of this evolution revolution which drew me to support and participate in the Center for World Spirituality.