Somatic Movement Therapies

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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.

Lulu Sweigard and Ideokinesis

Lulu Sweigard, a student and associate of Mabel Elsworth Todd and author of Human Movement Potential, coined the term “ideokinesis” — ideo meaning idea and kinesis meaning movement — to describe Todd’s novel approach of changing body patterns using intelligent mental processes. Her approach is based on the premise that by concentrating on a desired movement, our nervous system, with its remarkable ability to subconsciously organize patterns, would automatically organize the most efficient pathway.

Photo by Mary Ann Foster

Like Todd, Sweigard also emphasized that improving movement patterns requires a correct understanding of how muscles and joints work, and she expanded Todd’s bank of anatomically correct images. Sweigard also delineated the steps in ideokinesis, which begin with a preparatory pause to release muscular tension and accurately visualize the location and direction of the movement you’ll make. For example, if you tend to sit with your shoulders hiked, you’re more likely to carry that hiked posture into standing and walking. By starting with a conscious effort to relax chronic muscular tension before moving, you can quiet inefficient muscular habits and create more space in your body for new motion to emerge.

The Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique was developed by Frederick Matthias Alexander, a professional actor and orator who developed chronic laryngitis early in his career. He learned to inhibit overworking neck muscles by subtly lifting his head before he spoke, which opened his vocal mechanics and gradually cured his laryngitis. Alexander’s personal process became the foundation of his technique.

The Alexander Technique emphasizes the intelligent use of mental processes to improve the life of the body. Because of its effectiveness in improving posture and relieving pain associated with muscular tension, it’s still a popular movement therapy.

Photo by Mary Ann Foster

The Alexander Technique is usually practiced in one-on-one sessions. I had the privilege of participating in an advanced Alexander workshop for instructors, and I still remember the profound effect it had on me. It was a four-day course with Marjorie Barstow, one of the last of the original group of teachers trained by Alexander. Barstow was a master teacher with a magic touch; she lightly lifted the back of my head in a way that triggered a sensation of melting muscular tension from my head all the way through my spine. After three days with Barstow’s guidance, I felt more space, length, and ease in my neck and back than I’d felt in my whole life. The Alexander Technique emphasizes the use of cognitive processes to intervene in physiological patterns and improve the life of the body. The Alexander lift on the head has a magical effect, similar to how picking up marionette strings along the spine pulls out slack. It creates a pleasurable kinesthetic lightness. The knots and chronic pain I’d always felt in my neck disappeared, and stayed away for a long time.

The somatic approach and exercises created by these pioneers work like a body tuneup to align, center, and balance muscles and joints, and to shift poor habits and patterns into healthier, more efficient ones. Once you learn the anatomical basics and add any of the principles from these foundational practices, you can apply them to any activity or daily movement.

Start Your Somatic Practice

Search for online video demonstrations of movement therapy exercises, and look for movement instructors of Pilates, yoga, or dance who are cross-trained in somatic movement therapies and integrate these approaches into their classes. Make sure to choose knowledgeable and experienced instructors that you’re comfortable with and who demonstrate these alignment and efficiency principles in their own body patterns. Ask your prospective practitioner to share their story, or ask them to share what they know about ideokinetics or the Alexander Technique. Allow your body to become your learning laboratory, so you can reap the miraculous effects of somatic therapies!

Changing Posture with Lulu Sweigard’s Imagery

Sit or lie in a comfortable position, with your spine long. One at a time, actively sense these Lulu Sweigard-inspired visualizations, and note any subtle shifts that occur in your alignment.

  • Imagine your spine resting inside a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and visualize the front slice of bread sliding up as the back slice of bread slides down.
  • Imagine the back pockets on your jeans sliding outward, away from one another, and the fabric across the front of your jeans shrinking toward the zipper.
  • Imagine hands gently pulling your head away from your hips in a straight line.
  • Imagine that the soles of your feet are suction cups attached to the floor.

Photo by Adobe Stock/hiro

Much of our daily discomfort is due to holding patterns, or the way our muscle groups overwork in order to maintain a long, dynamically curved spine. As we work, breathing is stressed, and we tire, so that our attention becomes stifled, which leads to a collapse in our ability to both monitor and correct poor posture.

Diagonal Knee Exercise to Tone Oblique Muscles

Photo by Mary Ann Foster

  1. Lie on your back with your spine straight, your knees bent, and your feet flat on the floor. Make sure both legs are parallel, about 3 inches apart.
  2. Lightly contract your lower abdominal muscles by pulling them straight back. Your abdomen should sink back into a hollow shape, like a shallow yet wide bowl.
  3. Contract your oblique muscles by narrowing your waist, imagining them as a muscular girdle wrapping your waist.
  4. Slowly lower your knees to the right side, and control the motion with your oblique muscles. Keep your trunk stable; don’t twist your waist until your hips have reached their end range of motion. Allow your weight to shift to the edges of your feet.
  5. Using your oblique muscles, reverse the motion and press your feet flat on the floor.
  6. Then, lower your knees to the other side.
  7. Repeat several times until you feel your oblique muscles working.

Constructive Rest

Lie on your back with your knees bent to relax your hips and lower back muscles, and fold your arms across your chest to relax midscapular muscles. For 20 to 30 minutes, focus on allowing each vertebra, particularly in your lower back and between your shoulder blades, to sink into the floor with each exhalation, releasing chronic muscular tensions along your spine. With regular practice, constructive rest will train your body to consciously sink into a recuperative state so that every time you return to it, your body remembers the practice and can release a little more deeply than before.

The Seated Pelvic Rock

Photo by Mary Ann Foster

Whenever you find yourself sitting for long periods, especially while traveling, driving, or working at a desk, use the pelvic rock to loosen and level your pelvis and to mobilize your hips. Sit in a chair with both feet flat on the floor, your lower limbs parallel to each other, and your shins perpendicular to the ground. Ideally, your chair should have a flat seat.

  1. In a seated position, place your hands on your hips to locate your pelvic bones. Rock your pelvis back and forth over your sit bones.
  2. As you rock your pelvis, imagine it as a bowl filled with water. When you tip the bowl toward your tailbone, water spills out the back. When you tip the bowl toward your pubic bone, water spills out the front.
  3. Rock back and forth several times, sensing the place in the middle where your water line would be level, where your body centers over your base of support.

Somatic Resources

Learn more about somatic wisdom in Part 1 of this series, “Reconnecting through Somatic Wisdom: An Introduction.”

Mary Ann Foster is a licensed massage therapist, somatic movement educator, and author of two seminal massage texts, Somatic Patterning and Therapeutic Kinesiology. She specializes in kinesiology-based classes for massage therapists and dancers that emphasize postural muscle training, body mechanics, and movement efficiency.

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