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Somatics: Yogas of the West

These practices can complement and strengthen your yoga, giving you new tools to integrate mind and body.

By Larry Sokoloff

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 educatoróbecause 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 pPranayama, 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."

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