An Intro to Somatics
Somatics is a way of looking at the soma, or the body, through an interconnected experience with the conscious mind. In other words, how we interact with the world around us affects our physical body. The founder of Somatics, Thomas Hanna, gives many examples of his clients and their specific postures and emotional states, but there are three basic stress reflexes that can be easily explained so we can see how we have incorporated these into our own bodies.
The “Green Light Reflex” involves contractions of our extensors: head is erect, shoulders open, back straight. This reflex happens when we are open to receiving the world around us and when we are feeling motivated. When a baby lifts its head and activates its extensors for the first time, the Green Light Reflex has been activated. There is so much to see, new things to experience, stimuli to take in. We still have moments of this as an adult and they can be considered moments of “good” stress. These are moments of action and moving towards rather than closing off and backing away.
As we go on through life, we are given chores and responsibilities, start school and begin to receive homework, take tests and eventually get a job and drive a car. Our shoulders begin to slump and our hip flexors tighten along with our gut. We start to close ourselves off when we experience these stressors and our bodies react the in same way. This is the “Red Light Reflex”. This reflex happens not only to humans, but occurs throughout the animal kingdom. Neurobiologists call it the “startle response” or the “escape response” because it helps animals in avoiding a threat by retreating. For us modern day humans, our threats are not as often fight or flight types of reactions, but our daily worries, anxieties and stressful interactions. Our eyes and foreheads wrinkle, our jaw might clench, the back of our neck becomes tense and our shoulders round forward. When our chest and gut contract, our breathing becomes more shallow and is eventually limited to the chest rather than fully into the abdomen. We are meant to breathe deeply into the lower abdomen and not restrict inhalation to the chest. Each deep breath gives the organs and surrounding viscera a massage and keeps the digestive system healthy. Respiratory, cardiac and digestive system maladies in particular are often secondary effects of the Red Light Reflex.
The first two reflexes are considered adaptive reflexes that act to bring us toward opportunities of the world or to protect us from dangers. The third general reflex is the “Trauma Reflex”. Trauma to the body can be something as small as how we adapt to our daily lives and develop postural patterns, or as the word “trauma” implies, an accident or surgery. It is a protective reaction to guard against pain when we are injured. Unlike the backward opening of the Green Light Reflex or the closed off contraction of the Red Light Reflex, the Trauma Reflex presents itself as a rotation or asymmetrical deviance in the body. An easily visible example of the Trauma Reflex pattern is scoliosis, or a posturally deviant curve of the spine. Perhaps one hip is elevated from years of crossing the legs in the same direction, or from hours of driving a car. The same can be said for a golfer or baseball player swinging a club or bat to the same side year after year which created that rotational pattern through the body. Every body is unique based on how it has been used and what experiences it has undergone in its time in this life.
It is important to understand that in all of these reflexes, it is not simply our musculature that is reacting, but our central nervous system. The body remembers all of the events and traumas it has been though, even if the conscious mind no longer sees use for it. The use of Somatics in bodywork can link the communication with the mind and the body to let go of the past. Even if we feel no more pain, the body still remembers it and holds those patterns. If we teach the body that we can do those movements which once caused us pain can now be done without feeling pain, we can regain full mobility and strength.
The busier we get, the less aware we become of our physical body. We live from the neck up and tend to push through this day and the next and the next. Check in with yourself throughout the day. Chances are you’re probably stressed in one way or the other (there is such a thing as good stress), so treat yourself to a few deep, conscious breaths. Relax your abdomen. Lower your shoulders and unclench your jaw. Remind your physical body that it does not need to carry so much “stressful” weight.