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Tai Chi and Hanna Somatic Education by John Loupos

                  "Split the Opponent"                           "Distrub the River and Ocean"

   Tai Chi and Hanna Somatics hail from very different cultures, different times, and entirely different circumstances. Nevertheless, the two disciplines are extraordinarily well suited as companion practices.

     Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art that I have practiced and taught since 1974. When I undertook my studies in Hanna Somatics some thirty years later in 2003 it became evident to me on the very first day of my training that Somatics and Tai Chi share many important features. Over my years as a Hanna Somatic Educator I have come to truly appreciate the mutually reinforcing roles between these two practices. Both Somatics and Tai Chi are mind/body disciplines that place a high value on moving slowly and listening within to increase bodily control and compliance. Both disciplines also advocate for sensitive touch when engaging with others, and for intrapersonal awareness and knowledge as a path to personal freedom. Tai Chi and Hanna Somatics, both, are living philosophies that can be cultivated, experienced and expressed with and through the body.

     As a teacher and ever-student of Tai Chi and other martial arts I can speak to the special value that Somatics holds for those who practice at all the various forms of martial arts. It is perhaps less common knowledge that the reverse may be true – that Tai Chi can be of particular value to H.S.E. practitioners as well as to those who practice at Somatics for their own personal benefit.

 >> Let me begin to present my case with some review of Somatics’ more salient features. When undertaking to experience Somatics, whether as a clinical recipient or during individual movement pattern practice, three features in particular stand out. First, Somatics generally calls for a horizontal posture. Clients typically lie down for clinical sessions, and also for most movement patterns. A lying down posture minimizes the role of gravity as a reinforcer of maladaptive patterns. Simply by eliminating the usual influence of gravity on our normally upright frames we already have a differentiated variable. Your brain is conditioned to expect that lying down will involve sleep or rest. But, as regards Somatics, lying down instead sets the stage for active and deliberate movement. Our minds and bodies are, thus, more amenable to the brain/body changes we seek in the absence of gravity’s influence on our usually upright postures. 

     A second feature is that Somatic movements always start small. Sometimes the movements remain small, but even the larger movements that we often work up to invariably evolve from smaller movements. It is our attention to smaller, even nuanced, movement (as well as to the smaller components of larger movements) that commands the attention of the cortical brain as a means by which we can override maladaptive sub-cortical patterns and their expression as sensorimotor amnesia. An ongoing practice of Somatics facilitates a rewiring (known in neuro-speak as long-term synaptic potentiation, or LTP) of compromised neural circuitry to restore elective muscular performance to cortical purview.

     A third feature is that slow deliberate movement establishes a preferred alternate model to the usual reliance on (inadvertent) momentum-based movement that characterizes most people’s lives. Momentum-based movement is mindless movement, whereas practice at mindful movement confers a higher level of elective control over bodily performance. It is in developing our skills for profoundly mindful movement that Somatics invites us to explore outside the boundaries of the physical body, blending over into the psycho/spiritual/philosophical realms. This manner of practice can confer new and special meaning to our somatic endeavors, and to our very being. These features all constitute a powerful argument in favor of Somatics.

     In Tai Chi, we have many of the same salient features that characterize Somatics, though Tai Chi generally entails a more expansive movement. Tai Chi is an activity that is both upright and which actively utilizes big and whole body movements. While Tai Chi does not share in common the horizontal features of Somatics, it does share in other respects, including an emphasis on small movements serving as a basis for large movements, and a preference for mindful versus momentum-based movement, as well as exploration beyond the merely physical realm. Tai Chi also incorporates the age-old concept of cultivating and balancing qi energy, which while not an explicit goal in Somatics, may be an inadvertent benefit. Additionally, Tai Chi places great emphasis on what I refer to as the inner structure of the body, meaning the conscious alignment of bones, tendons and ligaments for a mechanical advantage during postures and movement. This last consideration can be particularly helpful to Somatics professionals in minimizing duress on their bodies during clinical sessions so as to avoid fatigue and optimize efficiency during assisted pandiculations, kinetic mirroring, and means whereby.

     Tai Chi can serve also as an effective complement in reinforcing many of the benefits conferred by Somatics. For example, it is presumptive in the field of Somatics that benefits gained during practice will automatically carry over to an active standing posture. I’ve observed that this is not always the case, even when clients are fully compliant with home practice assignments. Clients sometimes relapse when their experience of (horizontal) Somatics is insufficient to maintain their gains once they return to an active vertical lifestyle. This can especially be the case when clients’ normal activities are implicated as the triggering stressor. For example, clients who are highly athletic may be overanxious to resume the very activities that caused their presenting complaint. Conversely, clients who tend to be under-active, i.e. the elderly, or couch potatoes, may be similarly predisposed to a contraindicated lifestyle. Somatics, by itself, may prove inadequate to counter the effects of normal living at these extremes, whether they be upright and overly active or recumbent and overly sedate. Practice at Tai Chi as part of a multimodal approach can prove a mediating influence for either extreme, allowing the Somatics component to work to greater effect.

     By virtue of putting us back in a normal bipedal relationship with gravity while encouraging mindful attention to detailed body organization Tai Chi invites us to interocept (sense our bodies) while simultaneously being more engaged with the world around. Tai Chi practice can remind Somatics enthusiasts (how) to apply their interoceptive skills during normal upright movement, so that the benefits of Somatics need not be limited to a horizontal format, or even contingent on dedicated Somatics practice time.

     In my own experience, Tai Chi paved the way early on to an embodied sense of Somatics. Meanwhile, moving somatically felt to me a natural extension of Tai Chi. Tai Chi can offer all of us a model for how to move somatically in our day-to-day affairs and can help us get more out of Somatics practice so we can always move with somatic awareness.

     Penultimately, Tai Chi can reinforce good posture and remind us of the value of breathing freely and deliberately. Last, but not least, Tai Chi, like Somatics, makes for an exciting learning experience and is quite enjoyable to practice. For all these reasons I regard Tai Chi and Somatics as “sister disciplines,” each an effective auxiliary resource to the other.

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An earlier version of this article appeared previously in the SomaTimes. (SomaTimes - Spring 2014 Issue) 

Except as noted, this is an original article by John Loupos, M.S., H.S.E