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Hanna Somatic Education:
What It's For, What It Is, and How It Works

by Lawrence Gold Credentials | Publications | Personal Page
Certified Hanna Somatic Educator

click for article: Clinical Somatic Education : A New Discipline in the Field of Health Care


Hanna Somatic Education® is a system of clinical techniques and training exercises used to end pain and rehabilitate movement -- distinguished by the speed, magnitude and durability of improvements of functional muscular disorders, including breakthrough pain (BTP). Instead of using stretching or strengthening, it retrains muscle/movement memory and so accomplishes the intended benefits of stretching and strengthening -- plus control, coordination and comfort.

      This "cousin" of biofeedback uses the brain's capacity for learning to normalize muscular tension and movement, where affected by injuries and long-term stress. It gets its results without need for electrical devices, mechanical or drug interventions, by teaching clients to trigger, in themselves, a response similar to yawning. Participants typically get rapid and lasting improvements of movement and physical comfort over the course of one or a few forty-minute sessions.

The Means of Improvement

    Hanna Somatic Education involves an active-"teacher-student", rather than a passive-"doctor-patient" approach to bring about improvements "from within". By learning and doing selected movement patterns relevant to the client's location of pain, postural distortion, or tension, clients gain control of muscles or muscle groups affected by injury. They develop a more accurate bodily awareness and a better coordination. They end muscle spasms, restore comfort and improve movement. Clients commonly experience sense of euphoria (mood lift) and deep relaxation by the end of a session.


Physiologically speaking, the way movements are done in Hanna Somatic Education activates and mutually integrates the sensory and motor areas of the cerebral cortex involved in movement and sensation. Activation of the cerebral cortex in this way causes development of a more complete, better-defined, "higher resolution" body image (with more sensory reference points along the range of motion). With this better-defined body image comes smoother muscular control (precision, speed and grace). The tendency of muscles to contract in cramps or spasm is decreased, moving the neuromuscular system more toward the natural resting state.

Distinguishing Functional Disorders from Injury

    Barring nerve damage, the most common cause of muscular dysfunction is habitual muscular tension. The term "potentiation" applies: a hair-trigger readiness; people get "keyed up", "uptight", "guarded", etc. This increase of the tendency to contract is called "potentiation." With injury or long-term stress, heightened potentiation often becomes chronic (lasting); the involved person just can't relax the tight places and in many cases, doesn't know how tight (s)he is. The sign of such heightened potentiation is muscle spasm, cramps and, at its lower levels, ticklishness. (No one is ticklish when relaxed.)

    Potentiated muscles are tight and may feel fatigued and weak or sore. Tight muscles cause compression of joints (including intervertebral discs), and cause nerve entrapment, tingling, numbness and nerve pain.

    Better mind-body integration is the key to ending habituated potentiation. An explanation that shows the simplicity of it all follows.

Recognizing Sensory-Motor Amnesia

   Thomas Hanna coined a term to refer to this state of potentiation: "sensory-motor amnesia" (SMA). SMA often forms after injury (as persistent guarding-reaction behavior and tension) or after long-term stress (emotional "nervous tension"). The term "amnesia" is used because the person is usually unaware of the event to which they are still tightening up (long after the event of injury is past. They are usually aware only that they hurt or that their movements are restricted -- often, they mistakenl think, by tissue damage or adhesions. Even if they have some recollection of the event of injury, their recollection is superficial, cloaked behind the amnesia. They have never fully recovered from it.

    The stage is set for SMA when the person fails to end their self-guarding behaviors after the injured area has healed or the stressful situation has passed. As the self-guarding reaction persists, it becomes so familiar to the person that they cease to notice it. The associated tensions become automatic. In a state of un-awareness and automatic guarding, they use muscles inappropriate to a movement to help the affected muscles, whose job it ordinarily is to do the movement. This kind of movement behavior sacrifices coordination and grace for a sense of safety of the injured part. The tension adds undue effort to movement -- "one foot on the accelerator, one foot on the brake".

    SMA is, therefore, a residue of injury that causes pain and distorts or restricts movement long after tissue healing has occurred.

    People who have never developed much bodily feeling or coordination are particularly susceptible to SMA, as are people with complicated and resistant personality structures (who hold much nervous tension).

The Experience of Sensory-Motor Amnesia

   The words are "contracted", "painful", "dimmed awareness", "chronic" and "restricted" are relevant.

   The pain associated with sensory-motor amnesia is part of a distorted body image; parts of the body have too much sensation (pain) and parts have too little sensation. Some muscles are too tight and some are feeble. Muscles are strong in some movements and weak in others.

    Clients of Hanna somatic educators typically discover (to their surprise) that their muscles twitch or tighten involuntarily when body parts are moved by someone else (e.g., their somatic educator, during examination); that they move jerkily or lose strength in certain positions; that they involuntarily apply excessive force to some movements and have too little strength in others; they experience a restricted range of motion.

Recovering from Sensory-Motor Amnesia

    The techniques of Hanna Somatic Education have the client in positions and doing movements slowly enough and with enough attention to feel the movements continuously. Constant sensing and control, in combination with the hands-on techniques of the process, bring about relaxation and better control.

   A typical maneuver begins with an act of muscular contraction, mindful of the sensations, regulating the amount of effort so as to remain within ones comfort zone; continues with slow relaxation, still mindful of the sensations; and ends at complete relaxation. The client typically relaxes to a deeper level than when the movement began following slow-motion movements that take anywhere from ten to twenty-five seconds.

    The clinical somatic educator helps to guide the client into position. For example, to involve the muscles of the front of the neck, the client may be guided into position lying on the back. In that position, lifting the head activates the muscles of the front of the neck. Hands-on guidance into position, movements (in this case, an example might be to lift the hips), and coaching such as, "Slowly lift your head and swallow," enable the client to locate and activate the muscles effectively in coordinated patterns. Instructions such as the following, used in alleviating TMJ syndrome (habituated clenching of the jaws) might be used: "Now, slowly lower your head. When your head is down, relax your neck," might end such a maneuver. Position, movement, attention to the sensations of the movement, and pacing of the movement produce the result.

   Different movement functions involve different positions and instructions for movement.

    With practice (usually within minutes), participants in Hanna Somatic Education enjoy a significant, lasting, and cumulative improvement of muscular control, coordination, and movement. They relax, recover their comfort, and move more easily. Moreover, they spontaneously catch themselves tightening up and are able to relax at a moment's notice.

   The typical sensation of recovery from SMA is feeling longer, straighter, more comfortable, more secure, better put together, and more movable(a result of relaxation). Sometimes, people report more "energy moving through the involved areas" -- a sign of greater sensory-awareness.

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of the Novato Institute for Somatic Research and Training