New Paradigm Healing: Somatic Education

by Lawrence Gold Personal Page

Former Associate Instructor for The Novato Institute for Somatic Research and Training
Certified Hanna Somatic Educator

Certified Practitioner, Dr. Ida P. Rolf Method of Structural Integration


What in the world is a paradigm?

    A paradigm is a set of criteria that we use to define what’s important and to determine how to do things.  A paradigm is a viewpoint and a set of rules.

    We all use paradigms -- for example, about food:  we all have ideas of what we like and don’t like, which foods are good for us and which are not.  For some people, calories are important, for others, nutritional balance, and for others, life-force.  Those differences define different “food paradigms”.  Rules for eating are called "diet".

    The healing professions are also built upon paradigms:  germ theory, structural alignment, energy flow, etc.  Rules for healing are called "treatment".

    Now, a new healing paradigm is emerging:  somatic education. Somatic education improves natural control of our own body. “Somatic” refers to the awareness of the body “from within”; “education” has to do with awakening abilities.  Somatic education produces results particularly effectively with the residual effects of injuries (chronic pain and stiffness) and with stress-related disorders (such as headaches or asthma).  The rule for somatic education is called "learning and self-correction".

    The following words from Thomas Hanna, a prime researcher and innovator in the field of somatics, summarize the viewpoint of somatic education -- an approach to deliberate self-healing on "the other side of the paradigm shift" in healing.

Photo There are two distinct ways of perceiving and acting upon physiological processes: first, one can perceive a body and act upon a body; second, one can perceive a soma and act upon a soma. The first instance is a third-person standpoint that sees an objective body there, separate from the observer -- a body upon which the observer can act -- for example, a doctor treating the patient. The second instance is a first-person standpoint that sees a subjective soma here: namely, oneself -- ones own soma, upon whose process one can personally work, oneself. A soma, then, is a body perceived from within.

Somatic Education is the improvement of bodily awareness to gain greater voluntary control of ones bodily processes. It is somatic in the sense that learning occurs within the individual as an internalized process. (Thomas Hanna)


    Health care has changed over the centuries, yet one aspect of healing has remained the same:  the body heals itself, whatever other treatment may have been given.

    In other words, there are some things that no one can do for us; we must do them ourselves.

    The shift from medicine-as-intervention to self-healing is a paradigm shift -- and with paradigm shifts come new rules.

    Two healing paradigms immediately preceded the emergence of the somatic paradigm:  those of modern medicine (drugs and surgery, and only primitively, exercise and diet) and of bodywork (manipulation, exercise and diet, but not drugs and surgery!).

“Medicine conquers disease and repairs the body.”

    The operating paradigm of modern medicine is that the human body is a “marvelous machine” that occasionally malfunctions and needs fixing. This is its basic viewpoint.  The rules of manipulative intervention used in the various branches of modern medicine, which include drugs, surgery, and most physical therapy practices, emerged from this view.  So also did those of osteopathy, chiropractic, massage, reflexology, trigger-point techniques, and the use of herbs.

    Here, mind and the body are considered separately, as if they are two things that we experience at different times.  Their relationship is considered somehow mysterious and arcane.  But how could it be more obvious? Every voluntary movement we make is a bodily action governed by a mental intention, speech is a physical expression of a feeling mind, and emotional states correlate with muscular tension, movement and bodily chemistry (hormonal changes).  Direct self-observation of body and mind reveals that to feel one is to feel the other; both mind and body are sensations. Sophisticated Certified Hanna Somatic Educators of modern medicine recognize and work intelligently with that interrelation.

    In modern medicine, the individual's responsibility for healing may be summarized, “take your medicine, do as your therapist says, watch your diet, and exercise.”

     There is an ongoing problem with modern medicine, however:  patient “compliance”.  People don’t do what their doctors tell them to do.  This problem leads one to become philosophical.  Is it that people place too much responsonsibility upon their doctors and take too little upon themselves (the “fix me” mentality)?  Or is it that the methods of modern medicine are so often unpleasant (drug side-effects, painful and invasive procedures, and austere dietary prescriptions) that nobody likes them?  Or both? Might it be that people must deny or suppress their feelings to tolerate the methods of modern medicine, an unnatural act for any living creature?

    Whatever the reasons, for emergency situations (which often result from patients’ lifestyle choices), modern medicine is often the best and necessary first approach. Its success with chronic conditions, and particularly chronic pain, is less spectacular, for reasons that are explained below.

“Body affects mind.”

    The operating viewpoint of various schools of bodywork, such as Rolfing®, Cranio-sacral Therapy, The Trager Approach®, and others, is that body and mind are, in reality, “body-mind”, a functional unity.  Certain Asian health practices (including acupuncture) use the relation of mind and body as a diagnostic reference in determining treatment.  Even so, where actual application of the method is concerned, it is essentially manipulative; the individual is, for the most part “on the receiving end” -- “done to”, manipulated by an outside agent -- though some approaches include pleasurable health practices as part of their recommended regimen.

    Still, even in these approaches, patient compliance is a problem -- possibly because people have been so indoctrinated by their previous medical experiences that they bring their indoctrination (the “fix me” mentality) to their bodywork practitioner.  In fact, the notion of “compliance” is a problem; compliance implies obedience, rather than self-generated assumption of responsibility.  Part of the task of Certified Hanna Somatic Educators of these methods is educating their clients as to their responsibility for their own success.

    This leads us to the emerging paradigm. 

“I am as I decide to be.”

    The primary observation of somatic education is that people tend to accumulate the effects of injuries and stress.  How we recover from the insults and injuries of life largely determines our health, both in the short term and in the long term.  The rule governing this viewpoint is, “release reactions that are no longer necessary and cultivate optimal patterns of functioning.”

     With somatic education, the individual learns to correct bodily malfunctions through an internalized learning process.  For certain conditions, such as chronic pain following injury, this approach is the only way that works in the long run.  When a person has accumulated injuries and nervous tension from long-term stress over a lifetime, they may become so tense that their muscles hurt from sheer muscle fatigue. Spasms may occur.  Joints get compressed by those muscle pulls. Nerves get pinched. Breathing and physiological functions get impaired.  Posture gets distorted.  People suffer “body aches”.  They “age”.  However, there is nothing wrong with their muscles; they are working as they should.  They are only obeying the nervous system.  The problems that result can be reversed only by releasing the accumulated effects of injuries and stress.

     Beyond pain-relief, somatic education can have far-reaching effects on overall health.  Major bodily systems affecting health and healing are affected by a system over which we have virtually unlimited potential for voluntary control:  our muscular system, e.g.:

     I, personally, have seen (or had reported to me) immediate improvements in bowel function, circulation, breathing, vitality, and, in one case, restoration of a woman's menses (on the treatment table - somewhat embarrassing for her).

     Through movement maneuvers that teach better coordination and the feeling of better coordination, muscular functioning is freed, strengthened, and balanced; the change is deeply ingrained in the individual’s nervous system, so that a lasting shift occurs in how he or she moves and functions.

    Somatic education involves a kind of awakening. What gets awakened is the capacity to feel and control ourselves in a natural way.

    Participants in somatic education use voluntary movement to create sensation; they change actively, rather than receive changes passively; at first guided by a teacher, they then proceed guided by their own awareness of themselves and the effects of their actions.  The effects are indeed far-reaching.

    Feldenkrais Awareness through Movement exercises, Rolfing® Movement, biofeedback, Aston Patterning® Neurokinetics, Continuum Movement®, Hanna Somatic Education®, and schools of yoga that go beyond stretching and relaxation consciously awaken the self-determining, self-correcting link between self-awareness and self-control.

   If there is a problem with somatic education as a healing paradigm, it is that it is new. Many people tend to wait until they are "in extremis" before coming to a somatic educator, having exhausted other treatment methods, including, regrettably, unsuccessful and sometimes maiming surgery. Often, somatic education can make surgery for musculo-skeletal conditions unnecessary, with excellent results. Until it is better known, the effectiveness and applicability of somatic education may tend to be underestimated.


    Each healing paradigm has its area of superiority.  The superiority of somatic education is its ability to alleviate conditions that arise from the individual’s habitual way of functioning, something that only the individual can correct --  often attributed to aging, injury, mysterious causes, or even to genetics.  Somatic education operates from a new paradigm  that makes it possible to control certain conditions that persist despite medical or manipulative treatment.

A more complete discussion of Hanna Somatic Education can be found in Clinical Somatic Education -- A New Discipline in the Field of Health Care, by Thomas Hanna, Ph.D. 

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Case Studies, Theory, Exercises
Transformational Exercises
Care, Cure, and Self-Sufficiency Somatics: ReAwakening the Mind's Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health
by Thomas Hanna
The Magic of Somatics
by Lawrence Gold, C.H.S.E.


The Cat Stretch Exercises
Somatic Exercises for Neuromuscular Stress


The Guidebook of Somatic Transformational Exercises
by Lawrence Gold, C.H.S.E.
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