Somatics: Yogas of the West


By Larry Sokoloff  |  

As a yoga practitioner, you know from experience that yoga makes you stronger, more flexible, more healthy, and more aware. But you may not know that there are many Western somatic disciplines—practices that retrain your mind and body through movement and touch—that can complement your yoga. Somatic practices can help you develop an even greater awareness of specific parts of your body, find relief from pain, and understand more fully how your body works. Each of these disciplines is different, but all offer a common experience: greater connection with yourself through the integration of body and mind.

Alexander Technique

The oldest of these methods was developed around the turn of the twentieth century by F.M. Alexander, an actor plagued by chronic hoarseness that didn’t respond to medical treatment. After years of observation, Alexander concluded that his problem stemmed from habitual misuse of his body—more specifically, from misalignment of his neck, head, and torso. He went on to develop a teaching method that allows clients to become aware of and release such chronic patterns of tension.

The Alexander Technique re-educates the body with an emphasis on breathing, lengthening and widening the torso, and freeing the neck. “It’s really about refining your kinesthetic sense of how you use yourself in activity,” says Rita Rivera, an Alexander Technique teacher in Santa Cruz, California. Practitioners work with clients stretched out on treatment tables, seated on chairs, and performing simple daily movements. The hands-on work is gentle, and practitioners also offer verbal instruction. The emphasis is not on doing a new and different action, but on allowing the neck to be free, the head to release, the back to broaden, and the spine to lengthen.

The Alexander Technique requires active participation from the client. “It’s not enough for me to just put you in a better position,” says Rivera. “The goal is to awaken a new awareness about your body.” Rivera says she sees similarities between yoga practice and the Alexander Technique, since both involve refinement of body awareness and movement.

Body-Mind Centering

Body-Mind Centering (BMC) was created by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, drawing on her experience as a dancer and occupational therapist and on years of study of many approaches to movement and awareness—including yoga, aikido, dance therapy, Laban movement analysis, and neuromuscular re-education.

Two signature traits of BMC are its emphasis on developmental movement patterns that evolve as part of human maturation and on intensive experiential investigation of all the systems of the human body. Bainbridge Cohen developed her work by diving deep into herself and then mapping her explorations; students of her method engage in similar “experiential anatomy” lessons as they learn to sense their own tissues and those of their clients. Practitioners work with clients both with hands-on techniques and by teaching them to experience their own bodies from the inside out. Also, practitioners can help clients reconnect with the basic developmental movement patterns when any of these have been restricted.


According to Michele Miotto, a yoga teacher and teacher/practitioner of Body-Mind Centering in Santa Cruz, California, BMC teaches that each body system (e.g., the muscles, the skeleton, the fluids, the organs) initiates and supports movement uniquely. To aid her students in gaining greater awareness of their bodies, Miotto offers yoga classes that incorporate BMC principles. In these classes, she explores how the organs provide a sense of volume and internal support for the musculoskeletal system. For example, to help students connect with their large intestines so they can release more deeply and move more naturally, Miotto may use water balloons as props to simulate the movement and quality of their organs.

Continuum

Continuum’s founder, Emilie Conrad, says that its emphasis is on “the body as a process rather than a bounded form.” Conrad believes that the teachings of Continuum can help us to explore all the interconnected levels of existence, from the movement of our smallest cell to what she calls “the dynamic flow of a human being,” to larger groupings such as society, the planet, and beyond. As Bonnie Gintis, an osteopath and Continuum instructor in Soquel, California, says, “Continuum is more a philosophy of life than an exercise technique.”

Since bodies are mostly made up of water, Continuum emphasizes fluidity. The breath is considered the source of all movement. Creating wave motions within the body by using a variety of breaths and sounds is an important component of the discipline. Continuum can help anyone, including yoga practitioners, gain mobility and fluidity. Also, because Continuum can be approached so gently, it can be especially useful in healing from very serious injuries like spinal cord trauma.

Feldenkrais

Moshe Feldenkrais was an Israeli physicist and judo black belt who developed his somatic work to rehabilitate his own crippled knees. After much intensive research and experimentation, Feldenkrais concluded that simply stretching and strengthening muscles wasn’t the best way to transform the body. Instead, the nervous system had to be retrained to send different messages to the muscles.

Over decades, Feldenkrais developed not only a hands-on method for this retraining, but also more than 12,000 “awareness through movement” lessons that can be taught to larger groups. By slowly and gently moving the body in the most efficient ways, these lessons allow the nervous system to learn new and better habits of movement and posture.

“Feldenkrais is much less demanding than yoga,” says Michael Curnett, a Feldenkrais practitioner in Santa Cruz, California. Curnett thinks yoga students sometimes encounter difficulty in yoga poses simply because they don’t understand how to perform one of the needed actions—say, for example, they struggle with Headstand because they can’t get a lift through the spine. Because Feldenkrais lessons break down activities into very small components and don’t require much muscular effort, they can help yogis learn to integrate the spine into movement one vertebra at a time.


Hanna Somatic Education & Somatic Yoga

Hanna Somatic Education practitioners assess a client’s habitual posture, and then retrain the nervous system to provide easier and more efficient posture and movements. If Hanna Somatics sounds similar to Feldenkrais and the Alexander Technique, it should. Its founder, Thomas Hanna, built on the work of those two disciplines. Hanna’s key concept was sensory motor amnesia, “a condition in which the sensory motor neurons of the voluntary cortex have lost some portion of their ability to control all or some of the muscles of the body.” Hanna believed sensory motor amnesia caused “perhaps as many as 50 percent of the cases of chronic pain suffered by human beings.”

Hanna identified several ways to overcome this amnesia. He favored a technique he called “pandiculation.” In pandiculation the client “voluntarily contracts muscles or muscle groups against gravity or against a practitioner and then slowly decreases that contraction,” explains Hanna’s widow, Eleanor Criswell Hanna, who carries on his work in Novato, California. According to Criswell Hanna, stretching muscles simply triggers the stretch reflex that causes them to contract again; by first contracting and then lengthening the muscle, pandiculation retrains the nervous system to recognize the whole range of actions available.

Hanna Somatic Education involves sessions with a certified practitioner in which the patient lies on a table. Criswell Hanna says the average patient requires only three sessions; she stresses that Hanna Somatic Education places “a big emphasis on you becoming your own somatic educator—because it’s your own body.”

Criswell Hanna also teaches Somatic Yoga, which combines Hanna Somatics and yoga. Classes begin with eight somatic exercises which Hanna says “allow a person to take control of the muscles.” As in doing pandiculation with a practitioner, the emphasis is on contracting particular muscles and then letting them go. Each yoga pose is done slowly and is followed by one minute of deep breathing, self-awareness, and integration. Classes end with Pranayama, guided relaxation to create pratyahara (quieting of the senses), and meditation. Somatic Yoga doesn’t focus on providing aerobic or muscularly demanding exercise. “It’s more of a neurological workout,” says Criswell Hanna.

Ortho-Bionomy

This gentle, hands-on method, performed with the client on a massage table, draws heavily on the principles of judo, the Japanese art of self-defense which emphasizes balance and leverage. Ortho-Bionomy was created by British osteopath and judo master Arthur Lincoln Pauls, who combined his interests in Buddhist philosophy, homeopathy, and intuitive bodywork with the more mechanical techniques of osteopath Lawrence Jones.

According to Julie Oak, who practiced and taught for 16 years in San Francisco and Ashland, Oregon, Ortho-Bionomy is based on the premise that in the absence of resistance, the body will move toward balance. “From a physical point of view, the core of the work is putting slack into tense muscles,” says Oak. “The practitioner takes over the work of the body’s chronic patterns of unnecessary tension, and this allows the body to unwind. The analogy is to a knot in a rope. If you pull on the two ends, the knot only gets tighter; if you bring them toward each other, you introduce enough slack to unravel it.”


Kathy Kain, a practitioner and advanced teacher in Berkeley, California, says that, like yoga, Ortho-Bionomy can help a person become aware of structural imbalances “and notice how they’ve adapted to stresses and strains.” The nurturing sessions can also create a deep relaxation that allows the emotional component of chronic tightness to emerge and be released.

Pilates

Pilates (pronounced puh-LAH-tees) is a series of exercises designed to improve overall alignment, strengthen deep abdominal and back muscles, and encourage good posture. It’s designed to create stronger overall bodies, but not bulk. Some exercises are performed on a floor mat, others on a variety of special Pilates machines. Because the movements must be precise, at first instructors work with clients in one-on-one sessions or in small classes, although students can later graduate to practicing alone.

The system was created by Joseph Pilates, a German physical fitness instructor. At the start of World War I, while imprisoned in a British detention camp for German nationals, Pilates taught other inmates. Later, he worked in a hospital where he further developed his work as both a rehabilitative tool and a general fitness regime. After he moved to New York in the 1920s, Pilates became popular with many dancers, who used his work to recuperate from injury and condition themselves, and who later became the second generation of Pilates teachers, adding their own insights.

Pilates work focuses on stabilizing the pelvis and developing strength in the two primary “control centers” of the body: the abdominal and midback muscles. Joseph Pilates practiced yoga before creating his discipline, and yoga’s influences are evident. An exercise called “Upstretch” is similar to Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana); another called “Roll-Over” is similar to Plow (Halasana). Like yoga, Pilates emphasizes acute concentration and coordinates all movement with the breath.

“It’s not necessarily a spiritual approach unless you bring that intention to it,” says Jeanette Cosgrove, a certified Pilates instructor in Mountain View, California. But she also notes that, just as with yoga, someone practicing Pilates must keep their mind fully present, focusing on each movement, for the work to be effective.

Pilates can be especially valuable for yoga students who need to build more strength in the core of the body. Since Pilates is done smoothly and with relaxation, it may not seem like much of a workout at first. Cosgrove says its effects are subtle. Students might not be tired after a session, but later they will discover that their muscles feel deeply worked and released.

Larry Sokoloff is a freelance writer and student of Iyengar Yoga in Santa Clara, California.