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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Hanna Somatic Education
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.”
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.”
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.
Excerpts from Yoga Journal Article, Somatics: Yogas of the West, By Larry Sokolof