The History of Somatics
Somatic education, as it came to be known, began with the work of Frederick Matthias Alexander at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century. Alexander was an actor and reciter who struggled with vocal problems during performances. Alexander was not satisfied with doctors’ diagnoses, so he set about to figure out the cause of his hoarseness.
Since he became hoarse only during performances, Alexander decided that it must be something he was doing subconsciously while performing that was causing him to lose his voice. He spent hours in front of a mirror observing himself speaking in order to get a third-person perspective. Alexander noticed that as soon as he started reciting he would habitually pull his head back, compressing his larynx and causing him to gasp audibly as he breathed.
After months of experimenting, Alexander found that he was able to prevent himself to some degree from pulling his head back while reciting. As he gradually changed his deeply learned patterns, he began to regain full use of his voice, and his tendency to become hoarse decreased. Doctors examined him and confirmed that the condition of his throat and vocal chords had improved considerably. Alexander’s hypothesis was confirmed: the way he was using his body had directly affected the way he was functioning.
This discovery inspired Alexander to continue personally exploring the ways in which how he used his body affected his physical functioning. As he became well-known as a successful performer, many actors sought him out for vocal coaching. Local doctors heard about his success in working with functional disorders and began referring patients to him.
Alexander soon had a busy practice, with the majority of his students coming to him for treatment of medical conditions rather than vocal coaching. Demand for his work grew, and after years of people asking him to teach his methods, he launched a three-year teacher training course in 1931.
Alexander, known to his students as F.M., passed away in 1955 at the age of 86. His work continues to be taught in professional training programs that are held both in London and internationally, and there are more than 2,500 registered teachers of the Alexander Technique practicing worldwide. The method of education that Alexander developed inspired and contributed to the work of many other pioneers in the field of somatic education.
Born in 1904 in Russia, Moshe Feldenkrais became the next major figure in the burgeoning field of somatic education. Like Alexander, Feldenkrais was inspired to explore how subconscious muscular habits led to problems with physical functioning as a result of his personal health issues. He had suffered injuries to both of his knees, but did not want to get surgery to repair his damaged cruciate ligaments.
Feldenkrais approached his knee injuries as an engineering problem, experimenting with moving and using his body in ways that would not put undue force on his knees. He began to give lectures and teach movement classes in his experimental methods, and soon he began studying the work of F.M. Alexander and other somatic educators such as Elsa Gindler and Gerda Alexander. In 1949, Feldenkrais published his first book on his own method of sensory-motor education, titled Body and Mature Behavior.
Feldenkrais observed in his students how learned muscular patterns led to dysfunction and physical degeneration. He observed that when people attempted to correct learned muscular habits such as standing with rounded posture, they usually ended up hiding their faulty habits with new habits instead of going through a process of unlearning the faulty habits.
Feldenkrais set out to create a system which would allow people to directly address and correct dysfunctional movement patterns. He opened a studio where he taught group movement classes in the method he called Awareness Through Movement®. Later in life, he estimated that he had created over a thousand exploratory self-care exercises. The movements combined Gerda Alexander’s proprioceptive explorations of sensory awareness with F.M. Alexander’s approach of focusing on the process of one’s movements.
Feldenkrais’s refined method was highly effective in improving posture and voluntary motor control. And while he was adamant that he developed his techniques solely for the purpose of sensory-motor education and not to resolve any specific pathologies, his students experienced healing from many functional disorders.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Feldenkrais traveled around Europe and to the United States to present his work. He began a teacher training program in 1969, and continued to teach until his death in 1981. Feldenkrais left a legacy which is carried on by nearly 3,000 Feldenkrais practitioners all over the world.
One of Feldenkrais’s students was a man named Thomas Hanna. Hanna was born in Texas in 1928, and in school he studied divinity and the philosophy of religion—despite being a self-proclaimed athiest. After spending years traveling the world teaching, writing, pursuing research, and doing social work, Hanna took a position as Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Florida.
While in Florida, Hanna studied neurology at the University of Florida Medical School. His study of neuroscience taught him that every psychological process occurs along with changes in the systems of the body. It became clear to him that issues of the psyche cannot be fully addressed without working with the functioning of the physical body, and vice versa. He began to refer to the interconnected living process as a “soma,” a term which in ancient Greece was used to describe “the living body in its wholeness.”
While studying neurology in Florida, Hanna wrote the book Bodies in Revolt: A Primer in Somatic Thinking, a survey of somatic philosophy which he published in 1970. After reading this book, an acquaintance told him about the work of Moshe Feldenkrais. Intrigued, Hanna read Feldenkrais’s book Body and Mature Behavior, and attended his month-long workshop in Berkeley, California in 1973.
What Hanna witnessed at this workshop changed the course of his life. During the workshop, Feldenkrais demonstrated his hands-on techniques with a man who had suffered from cerebral palsy since the age of three. Within just half an hour, Feldenkrais helped this man begin to unlearn years of habitual muscular patterns which in the eyes of a medical practitioner would have been considered permanent.
At the time, Hanna was the Director of the Humanistic Psychology Institute (now the Saybrook Institute) in San Francisco, and he was able to bring Feldenkrais to the school as a Distinguished Visiting Professor for three years. From 1975 to 1978, Feldenkrais led his professional training program in the United States for the first time.
Feldenkrais’s methods gave Hanna the means by which to work with people who suffered from functional disorders and chronic pain conditions. Hanna coined the term somatic education to describe methods of education which worked with both the mind and body to improve health and functioning. Hanna used his understanding of how the nervous system controls the muscles to develop advanced movement techniques and an entire system of movement education that was highly effective in retraining the nervous system.
Hanna’s study of neurophysiology taught him that the changes we experience in our bodies as we age, instead of being the result of inevitable structural breakdown, are for the most part a result of learning and adaptation. Supported by the latest research which showed that cortical learning occurs throughout our lifetime, Hanna taught his clients that what they had learned could be unlearned. He showed them how to regain sensation and motor control, and they experienced what seemed to be miraculous recoveries from back pain, disc degeneration, sciatica, scoliosis, stooped posture, arthritis, frozen shoulder, and a host of other functional disorders.
In 1990, after years of people begging him to teach his methods, Hanna began his first professional training program in Clinical Somatic Education with thirty-eight students. Tragically, after teaching the first semester of the three-semester program, Hanna was killed in a car accident. His students worked with the clients who were on his long waiting list, and went on to create training programs for future students.
Hanna wrote a number of books on somatic education and theory, including the classic Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health. Hundreds of people attended the movement workshops he held in hotel conference centers, and people traveled across the country to do hands-on lessons with him. Hanna created a method of education which helped thousands of people get out of pain and gave them the tools with which they could take care of themselves and be truly self-reliant.
Check out the other five posts in this series:
Part One: What is Clinical Somatic Education?
Part Three: How is Clinical Somatic Education different from other methods?
Part Four: Is Clinical Somatic Education right for me?
Part Five: What to expect in Clinical Somatic Education lessons and classes
Part Six: The Clinical Somatic Education learning process