How we move and express ourselves in the world is in the hands of our somatic nervous system. It's part of the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which is basically everything outside of the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system).
The somatic nervous system is responsible for voluntary muscle movements of the body (movements we're conscious of), as well as involuntary muscle responses known as reflexes.
There is constant communication through nerve impulses from the CNS out to the PNS—ultimately reaching the skeletal muscles, fascia (connective tissue), skin and sensory organs—and back again.
However, muscle activation can become switched off or inefficient due to postural habits—you may have forgotten how to relax the muscles in your neck, lower back or shoulders, for example, or how to activate areas of support like the abdominal muscles and glutes (buttock muscles).
Loss of awareness in one part of the body can also create imbalance in another, such as leaning to one side or feeling stronger on one side than another.
Thomas Hanna, founder of the field of somatics, coined the term "sensory motor amnesia" (SMA) to describe these habitual patterns of inefficient muscle activation that you can't sense or control. Somatics is a form of movement therapy that focuses on re-educating the nervous system from this amnesia.
Much of SMA is a product of modern living. A mixture of sedentary behaviors, chronic psychosocial stress and societal traumas such as isolation all play a role, as do any activities and behaviors that take us away from what our bodies were originally designed to do.
But learning to notice these habits and how to counter them can help to alleviate SMA. (See the box, right, for some common SMA-causing habits and simple fixes.)
Somatic movement to unravel SMA
With SMA, you may notice pain or discomfort in some areas of the body, while other parts are not on your sensory radar. A common example is to have SMA in the pelvis but feel pain in the lower back.
Parts of the body that aren't shouting in pain can be easily ignored or forgotten. This is where somatics steps in—it aims to wake up areas where there may be weakness, inefficiency, loss of response, poor coordination and eventually pain.
As Thomas Hanna put it, "Somatic exercises are a direct way to reprogram the sensory-motor system and reverse this process."
Somatics encompasses movement practices that emphasize internal physical perception and experience. They work by helping retrain neural pathways out to the somatic nervous sytem that have lost their communication routes.
Somatics is a safe, easy, enjoyable and accessible alternative to medication and surgery. Other benefits include increased flexibility, coordination, balance and proprioception; reduced inflammation, energy and pain through improved fascial health; a feeling of being more physically able, expressive and free; greater awareness of where you tend to hold tension and when you need to address that; and less likelihood of clumsiness, falling and injury.
These benefits mean it can help with a variety of conditions, such as neck, shoulder and back pain; sciatica; repetitive strain injuries; headaches; frozen shoulder syndrome; accident traumas and whiplash; temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction and jaw pain; and breathing issues.
The movements shown on the following pages are some simple somatic practices you can try on your own to help awaken body memory and soothe the nervous system.
Lie on the ground in Constructive Rest Position (CRP) with your head supported to connect into your breathing.
Try not to 'do' or 'fix' here, but rather simply notice your body as it is, without adjustment.
Notice the difference between your left and right, top and bottom and where your body meets the ground. Notice the very real physical movement of your breath in your body, even placing your hands on your belly to feel it there.
Come back to this position between movements to let them integrate and assimilate through body tissues. CRP is a reset for our natural spinal curves and a place to cultivate awareness of unconscious, habitual instincts.
After 10-15 minutes observing your breath, move your jaw and face, wriggle your shoulders and take your arms out to the side at shoulder height. Exhale and roll your head to one side, without pushing or forcing. Inhale and roll it back to center, then exhale and roll it to the left.
As you turn your head to one side, reach the opposite arm out from the center to make space in that shoulder. Inhale back to center and move from side to side.
Move your knees a little side to side to loosen your lower back. Lift the arms above the shoulders to wriggle there and loosen with the weight of the arms.
Take your feet out as wide as the mat. With the next inhalation, let your legs drop to the side as your chest opens.
Exhale the legs back to center and inhale to the other side. As you feel your spine loosen up from the base, turn your head to the opposite side to the legs as you twist.
Settle into the twist on each side for a minute or so to feel the movement of your spine.
Come back to the center, then on the exhalation, turn your head to look at your right hand as you rotate your arm the 'awkward' way, i.e., with the thumb moving down toward the ground.
Inhale back to center, letting your arm rotate back to neutral with both palms facing upward. Repeat that on the left, then alternate side to side, also turning the other arm the 'easy' way, i.e., with the thumb rotating to the ceiling to bring the palm downward.
As you move from side to side, feel a 'wringing out' sensation through the shoulders and upper chest, even letting the legs drop away from the side you are looking to, for an extra twist.
Rest with your arms hugged around your chest.
With your arms out to the sides, on an inhalation, let one knee drop out to the side, rolling onto the outside edge of that leg, then easily exhale it back.
Move to the other leg, so the motion alternates side to side with the breath. Keep the foot on the ground rooted and let that side of the pelvis lift to turn the belly in the direction of the knee out to the side.
As you inhale and open the chest, you can lift the chest, squeezing between the shoulder blades to awaken that area.
You can stay and explore holding and pulsing into the body with the breath from the active foot on the ground.
Come back to CRP and cross your right leg over the left.
Inhale your legs to the left and exhale back to center.
Follow this pendulum-type motion, with the right shoulder and arm heavy on the ground.
After about 10 repetitions of the motion, start to reach out the right arm more on the diagonal and turn to look at the right hand; the back may arch and the shoulder may lift off the ground. Then come to the other side.
With arms back above the shoulders, let the right knee drop out to the side, while lifting the left arm and shoulder up to the ceiling and turning the head to the right.
Move back through the central position and to the other side, then alternate from side to side.
Feel free to explore whatever movement feels good along the way.
Lying on your side with your head on your lower arm and knees bent, take the top arm up and over the side of the head to reach to the bottom ear.
On an inhalation, lift the head with this hand to lengthen (not simply compress) the lower side of the neck.
After about 10 breaths, add in lifting the top foot with knees staying together, so you feel length in the whole bottom side of the body.
Rest on your front before moving to the other side.
On your front, bring your elbows under your shoulders or further forward if your lower back pinches. Inhale here and then exhale to draw up one knee—inner leg on the floor—to look at that knee and open through the front of the opposite hip and side body.
Inhale back to the center and then exhale to the other side, alternating with the breath and coming back to the position up on the elbows.
Roll onto your back to return to CRP and gently lengthen out your legs to rest fully and integrate for at least 5 minutes.
Taking your legs and arms out into a star shape, settle to feel that broader space. Then on an inhalation, reach just the right leg out from the center and let it retract back on the exhalation.
Do the same with the right arm, then the left arm, then the left leg, coming back to the beginning position.
Repeat this sequence several times and then reverse the pattern of rotation.
Then reach out the right arm and left leg together as one long line through your 'diagonal.' Exhale to neutral and then reach out the left arm and right leg. Alternate, noticing the focus needed to constantly switch across the midline like this.
Finish by extending out the whole body and exhaling to fully release—as many times as you need.