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Somatic Movement Therapies

Discover the origins of current mind-body therapies, and how their roots continue to inform the ever-evolving field of wellness.

| January/February 2020

Photo by Mary Ann Foster

Look at any random group of people sitting in an airport, restaurant, or office setting, and you’ll be able to see how widespread the body pattern of chronic flexion is in the modern age. Few people hold themselves upright with optimal posture; that is, with the head, ribcage, and pelvis aligned vertically one over another, which takes minimal muscular effort to maintain. In contrast, bent and flexed postures force our muscles to work much harder to shore up any collapsing parts of our structure.

The farther the spine strays from the central axis, the greater the mechanical stresses on the muscles and joints. Think of your spine as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which will stay up as long as it just leans — but not too far. If it bends, this ancient structure will eventually break and fall. Similarly, the human spine suffers when it’s bent, and becomes more susceptible to the ills of aging, which increase substantially with an off-centered stance. A major difference in the human system compared with the Leaning Tower of Pisa is that we have complex biomechanical parts (more than 500 muscles and hundreds of movable joints), intricately connected body systems, and a complex nervous system with a mysterious brain that science is just beginning to unlock. The average person, though, has a very limited understanding of their own anatomy, and takes for granted how movable parts fit together and move in synchrony. Most of us don’t know what needs to be adjusted or how to move to gain greater balance.

The somatic movement pioneers covered here filled a huge gap in body knowledge, leaving a legacy of practical, anatomy-based lessons and exercises to improve posture and movement. They emphasized the importance of learning to inhibit habitual postural corrections, and of practicing relaxation skills to balance cycles of action and rest. And they all cultivated movement patterns marked by the qualities of balance, ease, and economy of effort.

Psychophysical Movement Education and the Thinking Body

Mabel Elsworth Todd was a physical education teacher during the late 1920s and early 1930s, who introduced individualized learning and movement efficiency principles into physical education. In her groundbreaking book The Thinking Body, Todd meticulously outlines the anatomical and biomechanical principles underlying efficient body movement, and covers topics such as joint mechanics and bipedal gait; balanced forces in standing and walking; basic reflexes underlying postural support and breathing; and proprioceptive skills — a developed awareness of where the body is in space.

Todd stressed the importance of balancing busy lives with active rest periods. She determined that rest is “the crying need of our age,” and integrated rest periods into physical education. Many now know this as the constructive rest position, which is widely used in dance education and theatre training to improve performance. Constructive rest is best practiced midday or before bed at night to improve sleep.

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