SOMATICS: Learning how to alleviate patterns of pain and trauma
“... to unlearn what has been learned, and to remember what has been forgotten.”
Thomas Hanna, (1928-1990), Ph.D , Founder and Director of the Novato Institute for Somatic Research
This is Part 20 of a serial blog originally titled 'Martha Carter's Healing Journey'. In Part 19, I explore various types and degrees of pain and the intertwined nature of physical and emotional pain, ultimately suggesting a wide range of options to explore for solutions. In Part 18, I talk about how everything in the body is connected, even seemingly unrelated aches, pains and traumas collected over a lifetime, and share my journey to a far away island for unexpected healing. Missed the earlier posts? Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16 and Part 17.
The pain and the brain
In my last blog about pain, I addressed how, for most people with scoliosis, pain is a constant companion. And although it may seem obvious that a compressed spine that curves and twists the body into a crooked position will cause some discomfort, it is not quite that simple.
In fact, it is well documented that a person's response to pain is heavily influenced by many individual traits, as well as the particular psychological, emotional and social factors affecting their life. A person's experience of pain is shaped by both the emotional and cognitive processing that accompanies a physical injury or sensation. This explains why different people experience pain in such different ways.
Another way to say it is that pain can be in your brain as much as in your body!
Addressing trauma and pain in people with scoliosis
How does this relate to pain from scoliosis? In every possible way!
To understand this, I am reminded of three important realizations that I have recently uncovered:
1. Almost everyone with scoliosis experiences both physical and emotional trauma to varying degrees.
Remember, twists, curves, and spinal compression from scoliosis almost always cause some muscular pain and discomfort - and it can be felt as neurological and emotional pain as well.
Emotional angst, especially in teenagers, is often experienced as heightened anxiety, depression, insecurity, self-consciousness, and shame around the feeling or look of their scoliotic spine.
2. For those who undergo medical interventions such as traction or bracing, especially as teenagers, they are more likely to experience more severe symptoms of physical and emotional trauma than those who don’t go through those procedures.
Being a teenager is hard enough, but being obliged to wear a brace is torture. Not only is it stiff and ugly, but by the time it is finally ready to wear, the patient (and their parents) have usually gone through an exhausting number of humiliating half-naked doctor appointments, xray sessions, and awkward brace fittings that are traumatizing all by themselves.
These events can also be stressful for the parents or siblings, which in turn puts even more pressure on the young patient, who may feel guilty for causing disruption in the family.
3. Having spinal fusion surgery can be very traumatic on many levels - before, during, and after the surgery. And for those who experience complications from the surgery (broken rods, degenerated discs, flatback syndrome infections), the emotional and physical pain and trauma is often even more complicated.
Following the above logic, it seems pretty obvious that surgery can add increased layers of trauma, both physically and emotionally. The pre-surgical treatments are often as gruelling as those mentioned above in #2: the surgery itself is long and harrowing; the recovery is shocking for many as they experience new limitations in their body; and in some cases, the surgery fails over time, which causes other problems.
Oh and the fourth realization - is that almost NOBODY is taught how to handle any of it!
In other words, most people with scoliosis would benefit from learning techniques to alleviate both physical and emotional trauma, which would very likely help to manage pain.
So how to do this?
For the past few months, I have been exploring a system called SOMATICS, which was recommended as one approach that can be helpful to reduce pain, and increase mobility and wellness in general.
What is Somatics?
After years of studying with acclaimed body work pioneer, Moshe Feldenkrais, who developed the Feldenkrais Method exercise system, a man by the name of Thomas Hanna developed and evolved his own approach that he called Somatic Education or simply, Somatics.
Gentle Somatics exercises help to address the myth of aging, and demonstrate how, in many cases, physical degeneration can be avoided. According to Hanna’s years of clinical research, he believes that as we grow older, our bodies - and our lives - should continue to improve, right up until the very end.
What he discovered is that in order to alleviate issues, what we need to do is address what he calls ‘sensory-motor amnesia”.
In his book, Somatics: Reawakening The Mind's Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health, he explains it like this:
“The fact is that during the course of our lives, our sensory motor systems continually respond to daily stresses and traumas with specific muscular reflexes.These reflexes, repeatedly triggered, create habitual muscular contractions that we cannot - voluntarily - relax. We no longer remember how to move about freely. The result is stiffness, soreness, and a restricted range of movement.
The habituated state of forgetfulness is called SENSORY MOTOR AMNESIA (SMA). It is a memory loss of how certain muscle groups feel, and how to control them. And because this occurs in the central nervous system, we are not aware of it, yet it affects us to our very core.
This is my good news...SMA can be avoided, and it can be reversed. You can escape it by making use of two abilities that are unique to the human sensory motor system: to unlearn what has been learned, and to remember what has been forgotten.”
Trying Somatics Class - October 2018
After battling downtown after-school traffic and construction zones, I arrive at the studio for my first somatics class feeling slightly rushed and breathless. The small studio accommodates eight bodies, and there are already six people lying on their backs, stretched out on yoga mats humming beautiful harmonies together with the teacher.
I choose an empty spot in the corner, lie down and ‘will’ myself to relax. The mood is soft and quiet. The teacher dims the lights, and a few candles flicker around the space. Before I know it, my body feels heavier, my breathing slows down, and I start to yawn. The teacher encourages yawning as a way to find deep relaxation, and she makes her yawns extra loud to ensure an infectious ripple of sighs moves throughout the room.
Following her words, I move my body through a series of simple exercises of extra-slow and controlled contraction and release, coordinating every gesture to the rhythm of the breath. The exercises remain easy to follow, but through slow repetition, they reveal layers of complexity, teaching me to focus on the quality of my physical coordination.
It feels good.
As the class continues, I find myself questioning everything. Am I doing it right? Does the movement start from my shoulder or my hip? Is it inhale or exhale? What about my spinal fusion? Will this still work if I have a fusion? What am I doing anyway? How is this helping anything?
Of course, my ‘monkey mind’ wants to take over.
“Just do it,” the teacher replies. “You will understand it by doing it.”
As the class progresses, I feel the connections deepen. My body becomes more and more relaxed, but somehow I remain wide awake. My yawning eventually stops and I enter a kind of trance, both feeling and seeing profound connections inside my body.
Over the course of several weeks, I increasingly enjoy the exercises as they become more familiar. I start to integrate them into my daily practice, craving the unique ease and comfort that the somatics provide; similar yet different from restorative yoga positions.
I like how we stay lying on the floor the whole time.
I like how the movements are simple, yet require focus and concentration.
I like how focused effort is required, but there is no strain or pain.
After every class, I feel open, free, relaxed, relieved.
Somatics for Scoliosis
I have barely begun learning about Somatics, but from what I have experienced so far, I totally understand its potential benefits. Over the course of the class series, my body and mind started to feel more grounded, and my chronic sacroiliac joint pain has disappeared. That in itself is big for me!
Somatics does not specifically address structural scoliosis, but the fact that it relieves chronically contracted muscles and helps to regain muscular control is definitely beneficial. There is no question in my mind that this technique can relieve muscular tension caused by scoliotic compression. And by rebalancing and reinforcing muscle control, it may even keep scoliotic curves from getting worse.
In fact, Thomas Hanna was convinced that Somatics could help with just about every body issue. He proposed that if it could be introduced to children as part of their essential physical education, it could likely reverse all kinds of major public health problems in the future - including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mental illness!
Based on his years of clinical experience, he wasn’t afraid of making huge claims. He writes:
Somatic Education can change how we live our lives, how we believe that our minds and bodies interrelate, how powerful we think we are in controlling our lives, and how responsible we should be in taking care of our total being. In fact as this relates to our conception of what human beings are and can be, they have broad philosophical implications for understanding the nature of our existence!
I am looking forward to learning more about this profound work - for my own healing journey, in addition to sharing it through my own workshops and classes.
Just as Thomas Hanna evolved his ideas from those of Moshe Feldenkrais, Somatics students have branched out and adapted the Somatics approach in different ways, so some practices may now be referred to by different names, and provide some variation to the exercises.
For anyone interested in learning more, or finding a class or training, here are some links:
http://www.elizabethclaireburr.ca/ (my teacher on Vancouver Island)
There are also several articles and videos online for personal perusal.
In my next blog, I will share more information around my research into additional therapeutic approaches to address pain and trauma.