You Are Not a Mind and a Body

I often use the following diagram to help explain the concept of the ‘Soma’. I have found it to be a useful way to elaborate on this idea. In his book Somatics, Thomas Hanna defined ‘Soma’ as ‘the body experienced from within’. That is, your first-person internalised experience of yourself.

So let’s say the circle above represents your physical body and all its associated physical sensations. Hunger, thirst, hot, cold, pleasure, pain, tension, fatigue, and so on. These sensations are constantly changing. So we include arrows on the circle to reflect this ever changing flow of sensations

Now we add a second circle to represent your mind or mental faculties. All your thought processes essentially. We add an arrow to this circle to indicate that thoughts and mental activity are also always in flux, changing, flowing.

And we add a third overlapping circle. This overlapping circle represents your emotional world, your moods and feelings. Again these are transient, fleeting ever changing, so we add the arrow.

Traditionally in western culture we tend to look at these facets of ourselves as somewhat separate from each other. Mental health as distinct from physical health etc. But the reality is…

…you exist right in the middle where all these elements converge and overlap. That is the point from where we live out our first-person experience of ourselves. The ‘Soma’;And what is it that we experience? The constant flow of ever changing physical sensations, mental activity, thoughts and emotions. All three aspects of our experience are overlapping and concurrent, and they all have direct influence over each other. The following would be a closer visual representation of what we experience…

The divisions between our physical, mental and emotional experience becoming far more indistinct.

Our thoughts influence our emotions and in turn our physical body – mind racing, feeling anxious and tense.
Our emotions influence our physical body and in turn our thoughts – one can be physically sick with worry/fear/apprehension.
Our physical body influences our emotions and in turn our thoughts.- angry and frustrated by chronic muscular pain.

Because they can all influence each other we can use one to make a change to another. Like using exercise to improve mental health, or breathing exercises to calm our emotions and quiet our mind.

But it is not so much that these elements influence each other, rather that they are different elements of the same thing as illustrated by the diagram. Looked at it in this way we begin to realise that there is no such thing as a mental state that is distinct from a physical or emotional state. There are really only unified states of being that encompass all facets of our experience; mental, emotional and physical. ‘Somatic’ states if you will.

To ‘experience your body from within’ is to experience all these facets of yourself, simultaneously, in real time, like we all do, all day every day.

So what is the relevance of all this?

Of the three elements, mental, emotional, and physical, the easiest one to manipulate is actually the physical, because we have, or can very quickly develop, direct control our our muscular system. This is where a Somatic movement practice comes in. By learning how to regulate your own muscle tension and increase your awareness of your physical body, you are also learning how to regulate an increase your awareness of your thoughts and emotions. Because as we have discovered, they are all just different elements of your ‘Soma’, your direct first-person experience of your own process. When regulating the ‘physical’, what you are actually doing is regulating your physical, mental and emotional, your unified state of being.

When you can release the muscular tension that accumulates in the physical body, you are also releasing the associated thoughts and emotional states that are bound up in the physical state. Because it’s all the one process. You are not a mind and a body, you are a constantly moving, changing, evolving, growing, self-aware process. You are a body, experienced from within. You are a ‘Soma’.

If any of these ideas resonate with you and you think you’d like to learn more about Somatics, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to get in touch. You can contact me here and you can find my online Somatic movement classes and 1-1 options here.

Thanks for reading!

learnsomatics.ie

Can Stress Management be Simple?

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Stress. It’s unavoidable. No matter your circumstances you are going to experience, and have to manage, some degree of stress in your life. But what is stress?

“Stress has many faces, and creeps into our lives from many directions. No matter what causes it, stress puts the body and the mind on edge. It floods the body with stress hormones. The heart pounds. Muscles tense. Breathing quickens. The stomach churns.
The body’s response to stress was honed in our prehistory. Collectively called the “fight-or-flight” response, it has helped humans survive threats like animal attacks, fires, floods, and conflict with other humans. Today, obvious dangers like those aren’t the main things that trigger the stress response. Any situation you perceive as threatening, or which requires you to adjust to a change, can set it off. And that can spell trouble.
Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. It can dampen the immune system, increasing susceptibility to colds and other common infections. It can contribute to asthma, digestive disorders, cancer, and other health problems. New research even supports the notion that high levels of stress somehow speed up the aging process.
Though stress is inevitable, you can help control your body’s response to it. Exercise, meditation, invoking the relaxation response, and mindfulness are great stress busters.”
https://www.health.harvard.edu/topics/stressSource

From the above, the point we’re most interested in is this: “Muscles tense.” What they are saying is that stress causes involuntary muscular tension. That’s a problem. This muscle tension happens subconsciously. We are not really aware of it. This muscle tension, as well as making us feel stressed, can lead to chronic muscle pain and stiffness.

When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress… https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body

This also leads to automatic activation of the SYMPATHETIC nervous system (‘fight or flight’ response). The physiological effects of activation of the SYMPATHETIC nervous system (SNS) include:

  • ACCELERATED Heart Beat (anxiety anyone?)
  • HIGH Blood Pressure (uh oh)
  • INHIBITED digestion (hello belly ache)
  • RELAXED Bladder up (I never used to make night time trips to the bathroom?)
  • CONTRACTED Rectum (why am I constipated?)
  • Secretion of STRESS HORMONES from the adrenal glands (I can’t shake this bad mood)
  • SUPPRESSION of the immune system (why am I always sick?)
  • REDUCED growth (suppression of growth hormones) (that little cut still hasn’t healed)
  • SLEEP PROBLEMS (so tired all the time)
  • MEMORY DYSFUNCTION (sorry, I totally forgot about your birthday)

Doesn’t sound like much fun does it?

Do any of these sound familiar to you? If so, you may be suffering from some degree of chronic stress and the chronic SNS activation that goes along with that. SNS mode is not necessarily a negative state, as indicated above it is necessary to respond to a threat/situation appropriately. The problem is when we find ourselves in a state of chronic SNS activation. As humans, we are well-equipped to deal with short periods of SNS activation, then ideally, when the perceived threat has ended, we would return to PARASYMPATHETIC Nervous System (PNS) activation. PNS is, or should be, our default mode (also known as ‘Rest, Digest and Repair’ mode).

PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system activation has the opposite effects to the Sympathetic Nervous System:

  • SLOWER heart beat (feeling calm…)
  • LOWER blood pressure (…and relaxed…)
  • STIMULATION of digestion (…and well nourished)
  • NORMALISED bladder function (no more getting up in the night)
  • RELAXATION of rectum (regular as clockwork)
  • INHIBITS secretion of STRESS HORMONES from the adrenal glands (happy mood, happy days)
  • STIMULATION of the immune system (I can’t remember the last time I was sick)
  • NORMALISED growth hormone responses (that cut has healed right up)
  • DEEPER more restful sleep (Zzzzz..)
  • NORMALISATION of memory functions (I planned a surpise for your birthday)

That all sounds much more conducive to feelings of relaxation right?

But how do we switch back to PNS mode, or ‘invoke the relaxation response’ when we are chronically stressed?

Well, if you could somehow release the involuntary muscular tension caused by stress you could deliberately switch back to PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system mode. Somatic Movements provide us with a simple and straight forward way to do just that. They use a technique called pandiculation to reduce muscular tension (and reduce pain and improve movement, bonus!). Pandiculation works by re-establishing your voluntary control over your muscles and in the process, relaxing them. This leads to de-activation of the SYMPATHETIC nervous system (fight, flight or freeze mode) and activates the PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system (rest, digest and repair mode).

This makes Somatic Movements a simple and effective stress management tool. By learning how to monitor, regulate and control your own muscle tension you are learning how to monitor, regulate and control how you respond to stress. With practice you can become more resilient to the myriad effects of stress. You can literally learn how to relax, and activate your Parasympathetic Nervous System, any time, on demand. Becoming an expert at relaxing. Sceptical? Take less than 3 minutes and try a pandiculation right now by listening to the audio below;

The pandiculation technique utilised in the audio above can be applied to all the muscle groups in the body for total body relaxation. By deliberately releasing the muscle tension triggered by stress you can return to a state of relaxation and calm. When you are relaxed you can sleep better, when you sleep better you will feel more refreshed, when you are more refreshed, you can think more clearly, when you think more clearly you can make better decisions, when you make better decisions… well, who knows what good things might happen!

If you’re interested in learning how to use Somatics to release muscle tension and manage stress check out my Online Class offerings and 1-1 options here.

When stress is unavoidable, simple, effective stress management techniques become essential. So why not Learn Somatics? You’ve nothing to lose… except all that tension.

If you found this post helpful, please share it with anyone you think may benefit. Thanks!

learnsomatics.ie

More thoughts on Posture

Posture is the upright organisation of the body in gravity. It is how we hold ourselves when we are not actively thinking about it. Therefore posture is a subconscious process. Hence why telling someone to ‘Stand up straight!’ is an exercise in futility.

Working in the realm of Hanna Somatic Education, we look for signs of the Three Reflexes in clients’ posture. Green Light Reflex (Spinal Extension), Red Light Reflex (Spinal Flexion) and Trauma Reflex (Lateral Spinal Flexion/Extension, Spinal Rotation). These Reflexes are brain events, that is to say they are automatic motor responses originating in the brain, effecting skeletal musculature, instructing that musculature to contract/tighten into an observable pattern.

Posture indicates what the Nervous System is doing at the involuntary/subconscious level. When we assess posture we are assessing subconscious brain activity. Posture is a finger pointing to the moon (or brain in this case!).

“It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory” Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon

For example, consider a very stooped posture, with rounded shoulders and head forward, flat lower back and pelvis tucked under. This would be indicative of Red Light Reflex (Spinal flexion). I do not think the person has ‘bad’ posture or that they need to strengthen their muscles of extension. I merely note that their nervous system at the subconscious level, is drawing them into the pattern of flexion. If this is the most prominent pattern of contraction of their posture or process, it gives me a starting point from which to work.

Once we begin to see posture not as a result of biomechanical structure but as a result of continuous subconscious brain output, we can change our approach. The focus shifts upstream to the brain, not down stream to the muscles and/or bones. Now the goal will be to change subconscious nervous system output. New problem, new solution.

So how do we change this continuous subconscious brain output? The answer is surprisingly simple. The client must voluntarily go into the subconscious pattern of contraction. Make the involuntary, voluntary. Make the unconscious, conscious.

By choosing to contract into the pattern of tension on purpose the client regains cortical control of all the musculature involved.  Patterns of muscular contraction are primary, as this is how the brain reflexes are expressed. Groups of muscles, contracting into general, observable and consistent full body patterns. These voluntary muscular contractions, into the full body pattern, send new sensory information all the way to the sensorimotor cortex, the learning part of the brain. Once the client has cortical control of the musculature involved in the pattern, they can sense it, ‘feel’ it contracting, they now have three options available to them;

1. Increase the level of contraction in the musculature, going further into the pattern
2. Maintain the level of contraction in the musculature, holding the pattern
3. Reduce the level of contraction in the musculature, relaxing out of the pattern

In this instance, the best choice is to select option 3, to reduce the level of contraction and relax back to rest. This act of voluntary contraction, followed by slow voluntary relaxation and then a moment of complete rest,  is called a pandiculation. You can find a detailed description of pandiculation here.

By pandiculating several times, the client can quickly learn to become proficient at contracting AND relaxing these muscles that unconsciously have drawn them into a full body pattern of contraction (flexion in this example). This act of pandiculating changes nervous system output at the brain level, reducing motor output to the muscles involved in the pattern. When the nervous system activity changes, the muscles involved in the pattern relax and the posture follows along.

The goal is not to change the posture, the goal is to change the habitual/unconscious motor output of the nervous system. The posture shifts or changes as a result of reducing unnecessary nervous system motor output. Postural changes are a by product of practicing Somatics rather than a goal.

You can now learn Somatics with me from the comfort of your own home. Check out my online learning options here.

www.learnsomatics.ie