Inside Hanna Somatic Education

Forty-two years ago, an educator by the name of Thomas Hanna embarked on a course of exploration that led to a major advance in the treatment of people with chronic, non-malignant pain from injuries and aging. This article will give you an inside look at one of the most potent developments in the last one hundred thirty years, or so, of research and development into the origins and elimination of pain in human beings. This development came from a tradition of movement education and sensory development that has come to be known as, “somatic education”.

The key distinction of this tradition is that its methods empower participants to take control of their own physiology, and in so doing, of their physical well-being as they age.

In the late 1960s, during the heyday of the human potential movement, Thomas Hanna held the position of chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

In those days, the complexion of the humanities in academic life was different from what it is, today. Unlike today’s climate, which is bent upon the deconstruction of the primacy of any kind of knowledge, whatsoever, in those days, Dr. Hanna’s philosophical interest was about more than mental propositions and positions; he had an earnest desire to understand the human condition in such a way that it would lead to both human freedom and personal competence — not just freedom from all constraints, but improvement in capabilities, the awakening of practical human functions.

That desire drew him more than once into conflicts that embroiled students and the university administration during a time when young people were experimenting with both ancient and new methods of mind-expansion (remember, this was the 60s), and their professors were often caught in the middle. Dr. Hanna tended to advocate for the students.

Ultimately, his interests led him to California, where he served as the first director of the Saybrook Institute (now known as the Humanistic Psychology Institute — HPI). It was during that time that he heard of and became acquainted with a man whose own interests had led him to develop methods of improving human functioning and sensory awareness through movement education. His name was Moshe Feldenkrais, a Russian genius whose methods of education have since come to be known as Feldenkrais Somatic Integration.

Feldenkrais was a man of many abilities and interests — an electrical engineer, a research scientist in high-energy physics, and a black-belt judoka who had founded the first school of Judo in Europe (France). His methods of improving the functioning of the brain and muscular system had grown out of his studies of and training in the methods of F. Matthias Alexander (The Alexander Technique), the methods of Gerda Alexander (Eutony) and judo.

Hanna found Feldenkrais’ methods and views fascinating and, in addition to including a section on Feldenkrais in Hanna’s book, Explorers of Humankind (1979), he invited Feldenkrais to conduct a training in America, a training course that Hanna organized and directed and in which he participated as a student.

That training began Hanna’s sixteen-year odyssey of exploration as a practitioner of the methods of Functional Integration, as Feldenkrais’ method was then known. His experiences during those years of private practice and his ongoing, absorbing interest in developments in related fields (as founding editor of Somatics: the Magazine Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences), led to the advances in the field of somatic education that led to Hanna Somatic Education, a form of clinical somatic education used to end pain and improve mobility.

Hanna Somatic Education developed from the convergence of ideas and discoveries of many individuals. Its methods rest upon a simple principle brought forward by Feldenkrais, and before him, by F.M. Alexander: that improvements of human functioning rest ultimately upon human attention and intentional application of effective methods of change to oneself, i.e., upon education. Hanna Somatic Education freely applies the principles and methods brought forth by Hanna’s predecessors; however, to those methods, Hanna added something more, something that was his unique contribution to the field and that created a major improvement in the speed and degree of improvement possible with somatic education: a technique now called, “assisted pandiculation” — a strange term with a simple meaning.

The term, pandiculation, comes from the study of animal behavior — ethology. One paper in particular, on pandicular behavior of sheep fetuses in-utero, published by researcher A.F. Frazier, piqued Hanna’s interest and led to his developing a new clinical technique.

The term, pandiculation, refers to something that you have undoubtedly seen cats and dogs do upon arising from rest. It’s something you often do, yourself, before getting out of bed in the morning or upon standing up from a prolonged period of sitting. It’s also something referred to by an expectant mother as her baby “kicking” inside her womb. It’s a sensuous movement of refreshment and preparation for activity.

People commonly call it, “stretching” — but it isn’t stretching, and it especially isn’t stretching in the sense applied by physical therapists and athletic trainers. It’s a strong, pleasurable contraction of muscles in particular patterns, followed by a smooth (not sudden) release and then by movement into activity.

Animals and children pandiculate instinctually to refresh kinesthetic awareness and motor control. It’s what they spontanously feel like doing upon arising from rest. The action, which originates in the motor and motor-association areas of the brain, sends a strong cascade of sensory impulses to the sensory and sensory-association areas of the brain from the sense receptors of movement, a cascade of sensation sufficient to refresh the sensory-motor feedback loop by which we regulate muscular tension and movement. Motor control and sensory awareness improve in seconds of pandiculation.

The Pandicular Response, as a feature of neuroplasticity, depends upon an intact nervous system; lesions of the nervous system impair the application of the pandicular response to the affected region.

The presence of contractures that commonly form during injury and that persist long after healing of injuries as distortions of motor control is a sign that sensory-motor integrity has been blown out/interrupted. Voluntary control of movement has been distorted and diminished, and control has passed to the involuntary, subcortical brain level (e.g., cerebellum). Patterns of movement practiced repeatedly, as in athletics or as part of ones vocation, likewise pass to subcortical control, and are triggered by momentary intentions to move in familiar ways and are executed “on-automatic”, fine-tuned by in-the-moment intentions. Typographical errors are are an example of how automatic execution has overridden voluntary control, as most typographical errors involve the correct spelling of the incorrect word!

It turns out that pandiculation is sufficient not merely to refresh the sensory-motor feedback loop, but to reforge sensory-motor integrity when it has been interrupted/blown out by the pain of injury and reflexive movements have taken over. “Reforge” implies an enduring improvement.

Dr. Hanna devised a way to apply the pandicular response deliberately; more than that, he devised a way to magnify the effects of the pandicular response in a hands-on technique called, “assisted pandiculation”; and he devised protocols that apply assisted pandiculation in a systematic way to address three major reflexes of stress that commonly become habituated in human beings: Landau Reaction, Trauma Reflex, and Startle Reflex.

Habituated Landau reaction commonly appears as back trouble, so-called degenerative disc disease, insomnia and tension headaches.

Habituated Trauma reflex commonly shows up as lasting changes to movement and posture following injury or surgery, as TMJ dysfunction, and as the headaches that follow whiplash injuries.

Habituated Startle reflex commonly shows up as the chest-down, head forward posture and movement of the elderly and those who have been through emotionally traumatic times, and as breathing difficulties.

You can find more detailed discussion of these three reflexes of stress in Dr. Hanna’s book, Somatics: ReAwakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health, and in his definitive article, Clinical Somatic Education: A New Discipline in the Field of Health Care.

That “therapeutic/athletic” stretching is an inadequate approach to correcting alterations of muscular control and restrictions to movement can be seen in the long periods needed in therapy and athletic training needed to produce even modest improvements. Its error is in treating contractures as if they are bio-mechanical conditions, alone, that can be treated by biomechanical means, alone.

Assisted pandiculation, on the other hand, addresses such altered functional patterns in a way that is true to their nature as changes of muscle/movement memory (rather than as a bio-mechanical matter), and so it quickly produces the desired results and those results are durable and easily withstand both activities of daily living and vigorous activity.

Hanna Somatic Education fully acknowledges the bio-mechanical aspect of the human body and uses that view in applying its methods; however, it goes beyond the view of the body as a “marvelous machine”. It recognizes that the “memory” of “muscle memory” resides in the brain, not in the muscles; it recognizes neuroplasticity (memory formation and memory dissolution) as the underlying process of motor development and of the alterations of movement that follow injury; it recognizes that coordination trumps strength, that large muscular recruitment patterns trump the action of any single muscle, that inherent movement patterns trump arbitrary movement patterns; and that the feelings and action of the individual trump anything that can be done to him or her. Thus, Hanna Somatic Education integrates the understandings of kinesiology, neuroplasticity, and learning theory to get results faster, more easily, and more comfortably than by standard therapeutic or training methods, and it supports the processes of therapy and of athletic training.

Its effectiveness is so decisive that it usually brings lasting relief from excessive muscular tonus in any area of the body in less than two minutes. (The length of clinical somatic education sessions comes from the amount of territory that must be covered, when addressing altered patterns of control).

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