HANNA SOMATIC EDUCATION
A Brief Introduction to
Hanna Somatic Education
Hanna Somatic Education is an innovative neuromuscular reeducation movement therapy designed to lengthen muscles that have become chronically contracted due to prolonged exposure to stress or injury. This powerful body of work was developed by the late Thomas Hanna. Its roots are steeped in the traditions of early pioneers in the field of somatic therapy. Pioneers such as Mathias Alexander, Elsa Gindler and Moeshe Feldenkrais.
Hanna Somatic Education (HSE) engages the individual in sensory-motor learning to gain greater voluntary control of one’s physiological process. It allows the participant to consciously engage the motor cortex part of their brain, which controls voluntary movement. The student is invited to focus on the sensations within her/his body, as various slow and gentle movements are performed. The individual is asked to focus attention on the internal sensations that these movements create. Examples of these sensations are: how is one breathing during the movement, how the weight of the body during movement shifts over the heels, the hips and other parts of the body.
The principle of HSE is to turn conscious attention inward to the proprioceptive background of a movement, you are doing and thus the quality of the movement begins to improve. Greater self-control is gained by means of greater sensory awareness to gain greater motor control. It is through this seemingly simple and subtle process that one unlocks one of the immense talents of the brain, the ability to release chronically contracted muscles, and restore flexibility.
During the course of our lives, our sensory-motor systems continually respond to daily stresses and traumas with specific muscular reflexes. These reflexes, repeatedly triggered, create habitual muscular contractions, which over time, we cannot-voluntarily-relax. These muscular contractions can become so deeply involuntary and unconscious that, eventually, we no longer remember how to move about freely. The result is stiffness, soreness, and a restricted range of movement.
This habituated state of forgetfulness is called sensory-motor amnesia (SMA). It is a memory loss of how certain muscle groups feel and how to control them. And, because this occurs within the central nervous system, we are not aware of it, yet it affects us to our very core. Our image of whom we are, what we can experience, and what we can do is profoundly diminished by sensory-motor amnesia. And it is primarily this event, and its secondary effects, that we falsely think of as “growing older.”
The postural reflexes that cause sensory-motor amnesia are very specific. There are three. One is called the Red Light reflex. The Red Light reflex is a response to distressful events. It makes us stop. It is a protective response to negative events that threaten us, from vague apprehensions to gnawing anxieties, to overt dangers. An example of this response is when we quickly duck when we hear a loud noise. Red Light reflex contracts the anterior flexor muscles curling the body forward. In the act of engaging in a Red Light reflex response, our abdomens, shoulders and neck are startled in apprehension. This response occurs in the brain stem which is one of the most primitive areas of the brain. Many instinctive responses emanate from this portion of the brain. An individual, who has habituated this reflex into his body, tends to have a forward leaning posture.
Another reflex is known as the Green Light reflex. Green Light reflex is a response to the desire to move forward. It readies us for action. It is assertive. Green Light reflex centered in the lower back prepares us for action. When we engage in a Green Light reflex response, we contract the lumbar muscles of the back. This lumbar contraction is accompanied by the synergistic tensing of the muscles of the neck, shoulder, buttocks, and thighs. This produces two simultaneous sensations: going up and going forward. Like the Red Light reflex, this reflex is also adaptational. Throughout our waking hours this reflex is triggered as we propel ourselves through our activities.
As the years pass, the constant triggering of the Green Light reflex can lead to a habituated posture in which the person now naturally stands with an exaggerated arched back, that triggers soreness and pain in the back of their head, neck, shoulders, upper and lower back and buttocks.
The final reflex is called Trauma reflex. This particular reflex is a reaction meant to guard against pain. It is a common protective reflex. When we are stung by a bee or pricked by a hypodermic needle, we flinch--that is the Trauma reflex. If our body is injured, the muscular cringing is meant to hold a tight protective pattern around the point of injury--that too is the Trauma reflex.
The Trauma reflex can occur in any part of the body-top or bottom, front or back, left or right side. They can occur in the front of the body, adding to the contracted crouch of the Red Light reflex, as happens sometimes after heart surgery. It can occur in the back of the body, adding to the tight swayback of the Green Light reflex, as sometimes occurs after spinal surgery. When the injury is not in the center of the body, the cringing contraction of the Trauma reflex will be most obviously be seen on one side of the body, usually affecting the smoothness of walking and the sense of balance.
The Trauma reflex can be triggered by any severe damage to the body. It can be triggered by surgery, by falls or blows to one side of the body, or by any one sided injury such as a sprained ankle. Frequently, a lateral spinal curvature is the end result of an old injury! As with the Red Light reflex and Green Light reflex, the Trauma reflex is adaptational. The medical diagnosis of scoliosis, is frequently and usually begins as an injury occurring on one side of the body, causing the muscles of the pelvis and lumbar spine to contract tighter on one side. Sometimes the righting reflex of our balancing system pulls the head and upper trunk in the opposite direction to counterbalance the lower tilt. Thus one might see either a C or S shaped lateral curvature of the spine the cause is usually the same: trauma to one side of the body, causing reflex muscular contraction.
These three neurological responses form part of the foundation of learning in Hanna Somatic Education (HSE) . In a comprehensive HSE program the individual learns how the Green Light reflex influences the muscles of the back, how the Red Light reflex affects the muscles of the front of the body, and how the Trauma reflex affects the muscles of the lateral waist and the sides of the body. With this new awareness of how the core of the body moves, the individual now can experience how these reflexes can be combined to create movement patterns that allow the spine to gently twist, turn, bend and reach in combinations that require coordination of the pelvis, spine and rib cage.
The student also explores the more distal parts of the body and how they move in relation to a more “conscious” core or center. Gentle movements are taught that engage the feet, knees, and hips, shoulders, arms and hands in an orchestrated whole, emanating from the center of the body. As sensory awareness is deepened even more, the ability to pay attention to movements in different parts of their body will free these parts to move more easily. As if by magic, the eyes, head and neck find new levels of freedom as the individual learns both differentiation and integration as needed for more efficient movement. In that discovery, new levels of physical freedom come forth allowing greater relaxation!
Once greater awareness and control have been achieved in the muscles at the center of the body, in the lower trunk and the upper trunk, it is then possible to learn the art of deeper breathing. To breath deeply is to use the entire body’s core to take in a breath! This particular set of somatic exercises is of major physiological importance because it introduces the participant to the wonderful awareness that more air is taken in with less effort.
In the final stage of this foundational series, the individual is introduced to a series of movements based on all the previous movement sequences that will allow for more efficient walking. To walk effectively, the hips must move in a smooth circular pattern as the arms swing freely in counterbalance.
The performing of traditional body exercises brings a plethora of benefits such as increased strength and better cardiovascular fitness. Somatic exercises make the brain more intelligent in sensing and controlling the muscles thus bringing a profound synergistic effect to any exercise regime one chooses to participate in. Hanna somatics can be a beautiful tool that allows for deeper and greater discovery of pain free movement in all the activities of living a life that is full and rich!