Reconnecting through Somatic Wisdom: An Introduction

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Regular exercise can improve your quality of life.
 Photo by Getty Images/shapecharge

The field of mind-body therapies is large and complex, filled with many wonderful and effective options for healing and personal growth. Since the early 1980s, various techniques and approaches have developed. The staggering array of options — yoga, tai chi, Rolfing, the Feldenkrais Method, etc. — may leave you overwhelmed when choosing the best path to healing. The goal of this feature, and its companion articles in the next several issues, is to introduce fundamental mind-body therapies, provide an overview of these modalities and their efficacy for various health conditions, and discuss how to make wise decisions when choosing a practitioner and rationing your health care budget.

Mary Ann Foster has been a massage therapist, educator, and writer in this field since 1981. She specializes in anatomically-based posture and movement efficiency lessons, using a synergy of somatic patterning and therapeutic kinesiology. In 2004, she self-published Somatic Patterning, which gathers various theories, concepts, and principles about practices that address human movement and the combined neurological, physiological, psychological, and emotional components that inform bodily patterning, awareness, and change. This is the first of multiple articles about the wisdom of the body. Throughout this series, we hope you discover a practice to help you feel healthy and whole. — Jean Denney

Over the years, I’ve worked with clients recovering from injuries or dealing with chronic musculoskeletal pain. Though these are both physical health issues, it takes a strong and focused inner connection with the body to heal these problems. Since the early 1980s, mind-body therapies have paved the way to help patients fully understand and overcome the roots of their physical obstacles.

Defining the Terms

“Somatic” has a biological definition, although it’s used here in a different context. The term “somatic” comes from the Greek root soma, which means “the living body in its wholeness.” Here, I use the terms “mind-body” and “somatics” interchangeably.

Somatics unifies the mind-body concept into a single word. The late philosopher and Feldenkrais teacher Thomas Hanna coined the term “somatics” in 1970 to describe an emerging field of mind-body therapies that employ directive touch and movement explorations as primary tools to improve posture and cultivate ease of movement. Hanna felt that most people have little body awareness and lack the ability to sense subtle movements within their bodies. He described this condition as “sensorimotor amnesia.” If left unattended, sensorimotor amnesia results in muscular imbalances, which become habituated responses that cause additional stress, pain, or injury. For most people, discomfort signals acute awareness, which then makes them pay attention to how their bodies are — or aren’t — moving.

The more a client trusts their practitioner, the deeper they can sense their body, which begins the patterning process.
Photo by Getty Images/Satyrenko

Another common term used in this field is “patterning.” Patterning is such a natural process that it goes largely unnoticed. Physical patterns are the postures and gestures individuals habitually form in order to complete various physical tasks — getting in and out of the car, or working at a computer, for example. People pattern themselves to avoid injuries, utilizing careful positioning before activities such as heavy lifting or sports performance. Patterning is always occurring, knowingly and unknowingly, because all activities pattern the body, whether or not they’re consciously intended to do so (the body’s wise and will pattern itself without your explicit permission). For example, a triathlete consciously trains his/her body to excel at endurance, speed, and agility, while a couch potato unconsciously trains his/her body to excel at detachment, immobility, and decline.

Patterning is also a therapeutic skill widely used in movement therapies. In the patterning process, the movement teacher helps the client become more aware of faulty muscle patterns, helps the client relax overworked areas, and teaches the client easier movement pathways. The practitioner also provides both verbal and tactile cues to give feedback about how the client’s muscles are working, and to guide the movement along a smoother, more efficient pathway. The goal of patterning is to reduce mechanical stress on the muscles and joints by improving muscular firing patterns during simple movements that we use often, such as turning the head while sitting.

Mind-Body Therapies in Integrative Medicine

Since I entered this field in 1980, there’s been a huge increase in demand for mind-body therapies. Each year, millions of Americans use some form of mind-body therapy, considered a complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) by the National Institute of Health (NIH). In 1998, the U.S. Congress responded to the billions of out-of-pocket dollars spent on CAM therapies by mandating the creation of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the NIH. This new department acts as the lead agency for researching CAM approaches, which includes a broad array of mind-body modalities, such as massage, meditation, yoga, and acupuncture.

A somatic movement practitioner uses a gentle touch to encourage her client to lightly lift and lengthen her neck while feeling the back of her head rise against the wall. This helps fix her forward head posture. 
Photo by Mary Ann Foster

Mind-body therapies are so widely used in modern medical care that they’re now considered complementary and integrative, rather than alternative, because they address all aspects of health. For example, from 2012 to 2017, the popularity of yoga in the United States rose from 9.5 percent to 14.2 percent. In 2014, Congress changed the name from NCCAM to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) to reflect this growing market.

Making the Right Choice

As health care becomes more specialized, patients need to visit a different doctor for each part of their body. As a result, it’s easy to view the body as a collection of disconnected parts, rather than a unified system. When choosing a mind-body therapy, the focus shifts from the parts to the whole; from treatment to prevention and well-being; and from turning yourself over to the doctor’s expertise to taking charge of your health and being your own health care advocate.

Regardless of the therapy and modality you choose, success depends on finding the right practitioner and teacher. Ultimately, you want a practitioner who works with you rather than on you, who empowers you to participate in the process, and who provides you with plenty of tools to help yourself. Many mind-body practitioners cross-train in several modalities, so a carefully chosen practitioner will have a lot to offer. Look for somebody who is credentialed, client-centered, experienced, and has a good reputation. If possible, read reviews to learn what results to expect, and have a conversation over the phone to be sure your personalities are compatible.

 To get a better idea of this process, meet Henrietta, a fictitious middle-aged woman looking for relief from chronic muscular pain, stiffness, and fatigue, as well as mild depression, low self-esteem, and a collapsed “zig-zag” posture. Henrietta knows she needs to work on many things, but she may not realize that the path to healing she chooses may be limited by how she perceives her problems. As you read about Henrietta’s search, keep in mind that each modality she explores has a somatic and/or a patterning component. Somatic tools will help Henrietta with body awareness, relaxation skills, and tension release, while patterning tools will help her improve muscular balance and ease of movement.

Somatic Movement Therapies

Henrietta begins her search with a Feldenkrais Method class, because she heard it gives people pain relief and helps them move better. In a Feldenkrais movement lesson called Awareness through Movement, she lies on the floor and practices a series of slow and easy exercises, such as pelvic tilts or spinal rotations, using minimal effort. By carefully observing herself as she moves, she can sense where in her body she uses extraneous effort. This awareness alone helps her release muscular tension. Henrietta completes her first lesson feeling lighter, looser, and more in touch with her body.

Photo by Mary Ann Foster

In a private Feldenkrais session, the practitioner has Henrietta lie on a massage table and passively moves her with a slow, relaxing quality. Again, the slow movement helps Henrietta feel where she is holding chronic tension so she can release muscular holding in these areas and become more self-aware and relaxed when on her own. The Feldenkrais Method is one of many somatic movement therapies. Others include Laban Movement Analysis, Alexander Technique, Body Mind Centering, Rolfing, Aston Kinetics, and many more (these modalities will be the focus of the next article in this series).

Structural Approaches

Henrietta might choose a structural approach and sign-up for Rolfing Structural Integration sessions to get relief from chronic pain due to poor posture. Rolfing is a 10-step recipe with deep tissue bodywork to realign and balance the body’s dynamic alignment with gravity. In this method, developed by yoga practitioner, biochemist, and physiologist Ida P. Rolf, the practitioner applies deep, slow pressure to the client’s body to systematically unlock tension-holding patterns in muscles, with the goal of restoring vertical alignment and reorganizing what Rolf called “random and chaotic muscle patterns” that, left untreated over time, eventually cause chronic conditions.

Many people compare Rolfing to peeling an onion: the practitioner releases restrictions in the outer layers of muscle sheathing (fascia) first, and then works toward the core, progressively loosening and stretching muscles and other soft tissue throughout the entire body. A Rolfing practitioner might be certified in Rolf Movement Integration and provide exercises for Henrietta to practice at home so that she can maintain the changes on her own.

Cognitive Therapy

Suppose Henrietta hears a critical inner voice telling her she’ll never amount to anything, a message that deflates her self-esteem and in turn underlies her postural collapse. Many people internalize the negative messages they learned about themselves as children, then, as adults, unconsciously replay these messages in their minds. Eventually, the negative inner voices become core beliefs that perpetuate psychological distress and trigger muscular defenses, which in turn leads to any number of other stress-related physical problems, such as chronic pain or depression. To break out of this dysfunctional thinking pattern, Henrietta searches for a cognitive therapist.

Cognitive therapy was developed by American psychiatrist Aaron Beck, who, after researching the thoughts of depressed patients, concluded that depression was caused by recurring negative thoughts that run through the mind like a personal mantra. Because of the intrinsic connection between brain and body, thoughts guide movement patterns as much as movement patterns guide thoughts. Today, cognitive therapists use cognitive restructuring techniques developed by Beck to teach clients how to replace negative self-talk with positive messages. During their session, a body-centered cognitive therapist would also ask Henrietta to notice what happens in her body as she substitutes a maladaptive thought with a healthy one. By making this connection between thoughts and bodily sensations and movements, Henrietta reconnects her body and mind, which may improve not only her confidence, but also her posture, helping her stand taller and straighter.

Meditation and Progressive Relaxation

If Henrietta feels that her body problems stem from stress caused by an outside source, such as work or family pressures, she might decide to learn relaxation skills. Meditation can help calm both the body and mind while improving sitting postures. There are many documented health benefits from regular meditation, including better body awareness and breathing, an ability to quiet mental chatter and manage stress more effectively, and reduced chronic pain from muscular guarding, which is a protective and automatic response in the muscles to shield an area in pain.

Stretching backwards over a physioball counters the effects of common postural habits, such as rounded shoulders and slouching.
Photo by Mary Ann Foster

Another technique that would help Henrietta is progressive relaxation. Psychiatrist Edmund Jacobson created this stress management technique after noticing that seriously ill, bedridden patients were developing chronic muscular bracing from lying in bed worrying about their recovery prospects. To treat these patients, Jacobson had them sequentially contract and relax each muscle group in the body, one at a time, with the goal of relaxing the entire body. The beauty of progressive relaxation, like meditation, is that a person can use it to release unconscious muscular tensions anywhere at any time — while traveling, before falling asleep at night, or even during a short break at work.

NCCIH Mind and Body Practices

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been researching complementary and integrative modalities since 1998. Complementary and integrative medicines encompass five categories:

  • Biological practices, such as dietary supplements and special diets.
  • Energy medicine, involving the use of energy fields believed to surround and infuse the human body.
  • Bodywork practices, involving manipulation or movement of the body.
  • Mind-body medicine, using techniques designed to enhance the mind’s ability to affect bodily functions and symptoms.
  • Whole medical systems, including systems derived from other cultural paradigms, such as the ancient systems of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicine.

Several mind-body practices ranked by NCCIH as among the top complementary health approaches include deep breathing, meditation, chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation, massage, yoga, progressive relaxation, and guided imagery. For more information, visit NCCIH.

Beginning the Healing Journey

Henrietta’s journey illustrates how the body is like an apartment building with many floors and rooms, each representing a different part of ourselves. Main entrances open into body, mind, and emotion hallways, all filled with doors to many rooms; the lights are on in some and off in others. Ultimately, the more rooms Henrietta enters and the more lights she turns on, the more nuggets of mind-body wisdom she uncovers and integrates into her state of being. There are many paths of mind-body healing, and we’ve just begun to explore the possibilities.

The next two articles will discuss the founders of the field and the practitioners they educated who furthered ideas into new modalities available today. These discussions will inform your choice of somatic practice and practitioner to enhance well being.

Mary Ann Foster is a licensed massage therapist, somatic movement educator, and author of two seminal massage texts: Somatic Patterning (EMS Press, 2004) and Therapeutic Kinesiology (Pearson, 2013). 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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