Basis in Neuroscience
Hanna Somatic Education® (HSE®) is based entirely on the principles of conventional neuroscience. HSE® can be thought of as a modality of first recourse for neuromuscular pains and stiffness. In addition to improving neuromuscular performance, i.e. muscular differentiation and range of movement, and improving proprioceptive function, i.e. balance and coordination, HSE® has shown itself clinically effective in relieving both chronic and acute pain.
Hanna Somatic Education® works with the client’s whole postural pattern. In his 1989 book, “Somatics,” Thomas Hanna wrote about reflexive postural tendencies, which he classified as the Red Light reflex, understood to cause a forward-bent posture; the Green Light reflex, which causes an arched-back posture; the Trauma reflex, observed as postural asymmetry characterized by lateral flexion and/or rotation; and the senile posture, in which many muscle groups are co-contracted. These postures are created when an imbalance in muscle contraction patterns causes hyper-tonus (tightness) in the muscles. Practitioners trained as Hanna Somatic educators teach clients to use their brains to reset the resting tonus of muscles. The result is less pain and greater ease and comfort.
Hanna Somatic Education® employs three primary protocols that have been designed to address the four typical maladaptive postures described above. In addition, specialized extremity work may be combined with the basic protocols on a case-by-case basis. Within each of these protocols practitioners utilize three techniques to help clients develop more voluntary control of their muscles. These techniques include; means-whereby, which is an adaptation of F. M. Alexander’s Alexander Technique; kinetic mirroring, which is Thomas Hanna’s term for bringing the origin and insertion of muscles closer together, as popularized by Moshe Feldenkrais; and pandiculation, a wholly unique technique developed by Hanna himself. The pandicular technique is modeled after the naturally occurring reflexive contraction of the whole body (or its parts), which is then followed by a slow release of the contraction, as seen in all healthy animals. Hanna Somatic Education uses two kinds of voluntary pandiculation; either self-initiated or assisted by the practitioner, to help re-set resting muscle tonus.
As per the basic principles of neuroscience, when a client voluntarily contracts and releases a compromised muscle there is a corresponding demand placed on the voluntary motor cortex for precise cortical control of that action. The voluntary contraction first causes a volley of electrochemical impulses leading from the motor cortex. These impulses excite the firing of the motor units in the appropriate spinal cord segment. When the client then attempts to relax the muscle a volley of impulses from the motor cortex excite the interneurons which inhibits the firing of the motor units. Inhibition of the motor units (including motor neurons and all the muscle fibers on which they synapses), allows the muscle to gradually relax. The result is restoration of fuller control to voluntary muscles groups.
A simple experiment can illustrate: slowly bend your elbow with your palm facing toward your shoulder, and then slowly allow your arm to straighten. During these movements your corticospinal tract contracts your biceps muscle, and then decreases the output to the muscle, allowing it to relax and the arm to straighten. By applying these same basic principles to areas suffering from hypertonus, trained HSE® practitioners can help clients recover voluntary control of compromised muscle groups.
Chronically contracted muscles often feel tight. Muscles that are tight suffer from inadequate circulation. Even though tight muscles get sufficient blood supply to stay alive, they are lacking in optimal fluids, nutrients, and oxygen. As a result, they are unable to excrete the by-products of muscle function, such as lactic acid. Chronically contracted muscles may also impinge on nerves, place undue stress on their joint attachments, cause local inflammation, and contribute to pain. With so many of their motor units “stuck” in chronic engagement, tight muscles may also seem weak and unable to access their full potential strength.
Fortunately, the various HSE® techniques can provide relief from these many stressors. Means-whereby movements simply provide sensory input (information) to the brain about a muscle’s status. The effect of kinetic mirroring is more complex, working at the level of the spinal cord to inform the brain’s sensory cortex when a muscle has been shortened. Kinetic mirroring shortens a targeted muscle by bringing its origin and insertion ends closer together. This exerts a gentle pull on the muscle’s tendons and causes a message to be sent to the spinal cord to decrease the motor unit firing rate. The Golgi tendon organs (within the tendons) cause an inhibition of the motor unit firing, allowing the muscle to relax.
During voluntary pandiculations, clients are asked to deliberately contract a muscle or muscle group through a specialized concentric (not isometric) movement. The muscle action is designed to work against gravity or against a resistance provided by the practitioner. The resistance increases the muscle’s load, after which it is allowed to slowly and gradually lengthen as it returns to a neutral position. This phase represents an eccentric (lengthening) contraction and allows a new resting muscle tonus to be established. The slow nature of the movement recruits the corticospinal tract originating in the motor cortex as the only part of the motor system that can decrease the firing of the motor units. Information about the new resting tonus is conducted along the sensory pathways up to the brain’s sensory cortex. Neuronal connections between the sensory cortex and the motor cortex complete the sensory-motor loop.
An important additional component of the HSE® learning process occurs when the Hanna Somatic Educator® explains the relevant neuroscience principles (how HSE® works) in language the client can easily understand. This invites yet another level of cortical participation by the client. Additionally, Somatic Exercises typically recommended by the practitioner for daily practice help the client maintain and reinforce the desired changes (due to long-term synaptic potentiation) in his or her somatic development.