Somatic Therapy: Understanding the Wholeness of the Body

by | Sep 13, 2019 | Physical Therapy, Somatics

Every single one of us performs a role. In society, we all contribute something of value. Some teach future generations. Some lead. Others provide nourishment, joy, healing, or encouragement. What each of us provides to society makes everyone stronger.

Yet each person within a society can grow weary. Lack of rest, overexertion, too much repetition—these things can lead to burnout. When we experience burnout, we need someone else to fill in for us while we recover. That person, however, may not be as efficient as we are in our chosen role. The truth is that had we recognized the common indicators of dysfunction before we burned out, we wouldn’t need to recover in the first place.

The same is true of how the different parts of our body form a cohesive, functional whole, and when one part wears down or gets injured, somatic education and therapy can help the healing process.

Overuse and Deterioration

Just as the person within society fulfills a certain role, each of our muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, fascia, joints, nerves, and organs perform a specific function within the body. When all of the parts are available to be in alignment during movement, the body is efficient. But when even one part or area doesn’t operate as it should, because of poor movement habits creating wear and tear, injury or whatever the cause, the whole thing can be thrown out of whack. Somatic therapy can help bring the non-functioning part back into alignment with the whole.

The greater the number of smaller systems that make up the large one, the greater is of the likelihood of recovery and survival. …what I understand by maturity, is the capacity of the individual to break up total situations of previous experience into parts, to reform them into a pattern most suitable to the present circumstance.  – Moshe Feldenkrais

Let’s take the spine as an example. If you spend too much time sitting in a posture that does not utilize the spine’s full shape, the discs in your spine can become dysfunctional. These discs, which are meant to support, cushion and enhance mobility, can develop a wear pattern, similar to the rubber on car tires that are out of alignment.  Over time and with repetitive poor alignment and limited movement, the disc, like the car tire, thins in some places and bulges or even ruptures in another. Many times, we rarely have indicators that dysfunction is present until it is too late.  We can learn how to inspect our car tires and apply the same learning to how we “inspect” our sitting.  To know and then change your personal “wear pattern” of the spine and their partnered discs, you must first begin to notice how you are sitting on your “sit-bones” or ischial tuberosities.

Here is a simple awareness exercise: From where you are sitting right now, notice the pressure difference between the right and left sit-bones.  Which side feels heavier or would more likely leave a bigger or deeper imprint into your chair, right or left? Of that side, are you sitting more forward or more back on that sit-bone? Some people have difficulty feeling their bony sit-bones and may have the sensation that the buttock or “hip” on that side feels bigger or heavier. 

Now try this 60-second sit-bone movement exercise: Let your spine be supported by the back of the chair, elbows resting on the chair-arms, hands resting in your lap, thighs parallel and knees hip-distance apart, and feet flat on the floor. Pressing down into the chair-arm with the right elbow, lift or lighten the right sit-bone away from the chair seat. Stop pressing and the right sit-bone returns to the chair seat. Repeat several times, each time feeling how the pressing down of the forearm helps lift or lighten the load on the right sit-bone. Try not to hold the breath or tighten the jaw muscles. Allow your middle back to move and glide toward the left. Next time the right sit-bone is lifted or light, begin to slide the sit-bone a little forward toward the front of the chair and then return the sit-bone by dragging it toward the back of the chair seat.  Repeat this forward and backward movement pattern of the lifted/lightened right sit-bone several times. Notice how you push a little more with your right elbow as you drag/draw your right sit-bone toward the back of the chair seat.  Let the movement go.  Rest. Notice the pressure difference between the right and left sit-bones. Compare this pressure to the pressure you noticed before the movement experience. Is it the same or different? Repeat the movement exercise on the left side and compare your pre- and post-sit-bone pressure now that you have completed the movement experience. Is it the same or different?

When one part of the body loses functionality, other parts have to make up for it. Because your spine does not function as it used to, you may have to put pressure on one side over the other when sitting or walking. But what happens when the hip and knee on the side you now favor wears down? You eventually lose even more functionality. All of this stems from the fact that you sat in a way that creates dysfunction within the spinal discs, because you didn’t know that choosing how you sit could directly influence and facilitate your health instead of disease.

Like the metaphor of the car tire above, your spine (and possibly your hip and knee) has to accommodate or compensate.  Because we are a cohesive whole, the new pattern that is adopted creates more dysfunction at other levels and in other parts of the body.

Somatic Therapy Can Restore Wholeness

The whole body always attempts to function as a unit. When held and used in misalignment and disproportion, imbalance begets imbalance reducing functionality.  Because the nervous system is ever responsive, you can still recover by taking certain steps. Rather than allowing your functional body parts to compensate for your dysfunctional ones, it’s best if you work to restore as much availability in the injured or worn-down parts of the whole. Doing so will put things back in order. Somatic therapy, bringing awareness to movement, can help.

“The aim [of the Feldenkrais Method] is a person that is organized to move with minimum effort and maximum efficiency, not through muscular strength, but through increased consciousness of how movement works.” – Moshe Feldenkrais