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Hanna Somatics: Reawakening Your Mind's Control of Movement

Hanna Somatics, also known as Hanna Somatic Education, is a type of neuromuscular movement re-education. Developed by Thomas Hanna, Ph.D. (1928-1990), this somatic practice aims to address the root cause of most chronic muscular pain: the way the brain senses and organizes your muscles and movement.

Forgetting How To Move

Book cover of Somatics by Thomas Hanna

Just as your brain can forget information you don't use, it can also forget  physical movements you don't use. This loss of memory of physical movement is what Thomas Hanna called sensory-motor amnesia, and he considered it a malfunction of the central nervous system (CNS).

Information about what's happening in your body flows into the CNS (the brain and spinal cord) from sensory nerves, and the CNS then sends out information on motor nerves to tell your body what to do. This sensory-motor feedback loop responds with specific muscular reflexes to daily stresses and traumas. 

When the same reflexes happen repeatedly, muscles become habitually and unconsciously tense until your body eventually no longer remembers how to move fully or how to relax voluntarily. Because your whole body compensates for a problem in any specific location, this sensory-motor amnesia causes your entire body to become stiff and sore and limited range of motion develops. But you can reverse sensory-motor amnesia.

Aging and Sensory-Motor Amnesia

Hanna adamantly believed that many of the physical problems attributed to age are in reality functional problems of disuse. Use it or lose it. Or in Hanna’s words:

"If our muscles are not regularly used in challenging and skilled activities, they become weaker and less responsive. If our brain cells are not systematically involved in a wide variety of voluntary activities, they deteriorate...Those who believe that they should take it easy as they become older are deluded; they are persons who are surrendering their life functions bit by bit." 

- Somatics: Reawakening The Mind's Control of Movement, Flexibility, And Health

Stress and Bodily Reflexes

Stress is how your body responds to the demands placed on it. Hanna observed that the neuromuscular system has two basic responses to stress: the Red Light reflex and the Green Light reflex.

The Red Light reflex is a withdrawal or startle response that is the neuromuscular adaptation to sustained negative stress. This reflex is a primitive survival reflex that lies deep outside your conscious control. When you feel frightened or threatened, your body draws inward in a protective response: you narrow your eyes, contract your jaw, raise your shoulders and push your head forward, bend your elbows, tighten your abdominal muscles causing you to lean forward, tighten your crotch, bend your knees, and lift your toes.

In contrast to the Red Light reflex, where the muscles in the front of the body contract, during the the Green Light reflex the muscles in the back contract. The Green Light reflex is the action response.

These two reflexes are total somatic responses that contract muscles head to toe in either negative withdrawal or positive action. Many repetitions of either response can cause a gradual buildup of chronically opposing muscle contractions. The muscles of one response begin to interfere with the muscles of the other response, which leads to stiff and limited movement, chronic pain and fatigue, shallow breathing, negative self-image, and chronic high blood pressure.

How To Use Hanna Somatics

To receive the benefits of Hanna Somatic Education you can see a Hanna Somatic Educator who will work hands-on with you one-on-one or you can do somatic exercises, either in a class setting or on your own.

The Association for Hanna Somatic Education maintains a database of certified practitioners.

Hanna somatics exercises are designed to change your muscular system by changing your central nervous system. You can find many somatic exercises in Hanna’s book. I credit the exercises in this book with being a major factor (along with massage and other bodywork) in helping me get rid of 20+ years off-and-on chronic lower back pain.

Other online resources for Hanna Somatics include Somatics on the Web and Gravity Werks with Eduardo Barrera, Certified Hanna Somatic Educator.

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