“The human body is not an instrument to be used, but a realm of ones being to be experienced, explored and thereby educated.” - Thomas Hanna
Having engaged in, and benefitted from, traditional yoga practices for many years, it has been exciting for me to discover that mixing ancient yogic knowledge about the body with recent discoveries in neuroscience can create a potent recipe for self healing and psycho-spiritual awakening.
Pioneered by Integrative Therapist James Knight, Gentle Somatic Yoga combines Hanna Somatic Education, the Feldenkrais Method and hatha yoga asana. It involves making small, slow, mindful movements in exercises known as 'flows' to heal persistent, tension-based holding patterns in the body.
Unlike traditional yoga sequences, which can strain the body and overload the brain with information due to their complex and challenging nature, Somatic Yoga Flows favour simplicity and subtlety, breaking movement down into smaller and ever more refined parts and pieces that are easy for the brain to focus on, thus inviting real and lasting neurological change. Practitioners effectively 'educate' themselves to restructure the brain, erasing old, outmoded habits of pain and tension and laying down new, fresh neurological pathways of health.
As one of the key aspects of Gentle Somatic Yoga is interoception, or the practitioner's awareness of the sensations within their own body, it can act as a powerful meditative tool, inviting the physical to become the gateway to the metaphysical, to higher states of consciousness.
Here are some of the main features that set Gentle Somatic Yoga apart from more conventional yoga approaches:
When any creature with a spine makes the transition from rest to activity, it yawns (ie, breathes deeply), tenses and then stretches its whole body in a process known as pandiculation. This combination of tension and then slow release is vital for the brain to connect fully to the body, as it is only through contraction that the brain understands a muscle is present. Having registered an electrical charge from, say, a bicep in action, the brain then knows to switch that charge off and return the bicep to neutral, relaxing it and restoring its ability to function optimally. Passive stretching will not achieve the same result - and can in fact cause harm, as passively stretched muscle sends no information to the brain.
Somatic Yoga Flows systematically work through both individual muscles and whole muscle groups, tensing and releasing with awareness to mimic the natural process of yawning and wake the body up to its full motor potential.
2. Sensory Motor Amnesia
When parts of the body fall into regular disuse as a result of a sedentary lifestyle, for example, or of injury and repetitive stress, muscles are subject to what philosopher and movement therapist Thomas Hanna referred to as Sensory Motor Amnesia. In other words, they forget how to move because the brain no longer receives electrical signals from them.
Somatic Yoga Flows address this not only through pandiculation, but also through touch, conscious awareness and refined micro movement. If a contracted muscle judders or jumps when being slowly released or manipulated, it is a sign that Sensory Motor Amnesia is present. Placing a hand on that muscle, inviting tiny movements back and forth around the jumpy spot, or changing the intensity of the contraction in that area are all ways of getting the brain's attention and reestablishing a coherent mind-body connection.
3. Before and After
The brain learns by registering newness and contrast. If we want to cement an experience in our neurological structure, we need to name why X feels different to Y and to understand how that change came about. So a Gentle Somatic Yoga class, (and indeed, individual exercise flows), will begin and end with a 'check in' to see whether transformations have occurred in our physical, mental/emotional and energetic experience as a result of the practice. When our somas (body-minds) tangibly appreciate that we feel more relaxed and at ease after certain exercises, or that we have gained a greater range of movement because of them, the learning will be integrated more fully.
4. Less is More
Many of the movements we make are done automatically. When the brain learns something new, it lays down a neural pathway for that activity. The more the pathway is used, the easier it is to tread, until, just like we find ourselves driving our familiar commute to work on autopilot wondering at the end of the journey how we got there, movements occur with very little conscious thought. Walking, filling the kettle, going up the stairs, using a knife and fork, kissing our spouse … This list is endless. But what if these automatic movements are no longer serving us? Perhaps we have a sore knee, and to put weight on it hurts, so without much thought we compensate, lean to the other side and create an automatic way of walking that is throwing our whole system out of balance, creating even more pain. To relearn, we have to slow down, hone in and pay attention. We have to go 'off road', so to speak, and author a new neural map, one that serves us better.
With this is mind, Somatic Yoga Flows are performed slowly and with awareness of subtle experience, rather than of extreme expression. Odd combinations of movement and coordination are thrown together to alert the brain to something new, and confusion is welcome, as it is a sign that learning is taking place.
5. Body Scanning
This is both part of the before and after check in and a process in itself. Just as the technique of yoga nidra enlivens the brain through a rotation of consciousness around the body, body scanning starts to make neural connections before movement occurs simply by bringing awareness to how we feel. Most of our daily lives are spent with attention focused outward on some external stimulus. Turning attention inward and acknowledging how we are in any given moment is an effective way to become present.
It has been a joy for me to discover the gifts of Gentle Somatic Yoga. The unique exercise flows have awakened areas of my body I had no idea were asleep, given me greater and more refined movement control and a deeper sense of inner awareness. It has also been my privilege to see GSY clients delivered from significant pain and stiffness in ways that often seem hard to believe. Gentle Somatic Yoga is based on the notion that the human body is a self correcting, self healing mechanism that just needs a little conscious re-education to restore the optimum functioning of its 700 named muscles through a lively relationship of mind to body. The more movement we have, the more choices. The more choices, the greater amount of freedom.
First published in 2018