Saturday, September 22, 2012

How to tune into your body

A system of gentle movements that can improve the function of the nervous system is being used to relieve debilitating back pain with much success, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON 

THE PROMISE that you can reduce physical pain and psychological stress by learning a series of movements that you practise daily is appealing in straitened times. For some yoga is the discipline of choice. Others may turn to tai chi. But, a growing number of people are learning what are called somatic movements to ease pain, relieve tension and live fuller lives.

Brian Ingle is an osteopath, yoga teacher and somatic movement educator who teaches somatic movements in one-to-one sessions and group classes. He also trains people in clinical somatics in the United States, Australia and Ireland.

He describes somatics as “sensing from within” and says that the key to these gentle movements is that they improve the function of the nervous system, which in turn lengthens the muscles in various muscle groups, which brings ease to the body. “When you take stress into your life, a holding happens which develops into a sensory motor amnesia,” says Ingle.

The central message of somatic movement education is that by moving various groups of muscles in a slow, conscious way, you can re-develop a sensory awareness which can in addition help to release emotional trauma and reduce physical pain.

“It’s based on the first person experience. Moving out of the idea that somebody has to do something to you and more that you have to do something for yourself,” says Ingle, who describes himself as an educator rather than a therapist, although he also does hands-on clinical work with some clients.

Cork-based artist Orla Clarke has found daily somatic movements beneficial to her as part of her recovery from a car crash eight years ago.

“I had crushed vertebrae and went to osteopathy regularly for about five years. It helped but I was very dependent on it and it became expensive,” she explains.

Clarke tried lots of other approaches from yoga to pilates to dance but found that somatic movement worked best for her.

“At first, I couldn’t even go to a restaurant or sit in the cinema,” she explains. “It was too painful, but once I learned somatic movements and did them every day for about six months, I began to get more flexible again and my back became stronger. Now, I do about 45 minutes a day and feel totally energised afterwards.”

Will Dempsey learned somatic movement to help him deal with a sports injury. “I had inflammation of the pelvic bone following a soccer injury. There is no real treatment for it so I heard about somatic movement education and went to a few classes,” he explains.

“I found the exercises help me to build up strength around the injured area. Now I can swim, walk and cycle but I still can’t run. I do them every day with other core exercises.”

Ingle suggests that one of the problems in society today is that we have been educated into a rational, thinking approach to life that ignores messages from our body.

“We have cut ourselves off from our feelings and sensations,” he says. “We literally don’t know how to move anymore, how to walk, how to sit. We have become talking heads.”

“To use our body wisdom, we have to come into our first person experience of our bodies and, with that, our intuition, self-knowing, self-healing and autonomy will reveal itself.”

Alongside this growing interest in slow, mindful movement, whether through the somatic movement, the Feldenkrais method and other Eastern and Far Eastern meditative movements, is an interest in somatic psychotherapy.

Kate O’Boyle ( is a psychotherapist working in Dublin and Wicklow who incorporates an exploration of body sensations into her approach.

“I bridge the relationship between the psyche (mind) and the soma (body) by looking at how we feel our aliveness in our bodies and how psychological issues show up as symptoms in the body,” she says.

According to Boyle, there is sometimes a risk of only talking about trauma, which can keep people trapped in fear.

“If someone has suffered a trauma, it is already painfully in his or her body,” she says. “So, rather than just talking about the thoughts and feelings, I include the relationship with the [bodily] symptom in a safe context.”

Depending on the client, O’Boyle might encourage the person to track bodily sensations during a session or even find ways of expressing their feelings through movement.

Ingle believes that this integrated approach to psychotherapy is the way forward. “Somatic psychology or somatic psychotherapy is where the psychology movement is going at this time,” he says.

“It’s taking us back to our bodily experience where we can be taught how to make changes for ourselves.”

For more information about somatic movement, see



THE IRISH TIMES Tuesday, May 04, 04
Let's take it slow and easy

Somatics is a new form of slow, gentle exercises which maintains good physical and mental health. Sylvia Thompson reports
A new form of slow, gentle exercises which promotes a relaxed, flexible body and a balanced state of mind is now being taught in Dublin.
Called somatics, it is the brainchild of the late Dr Thomas Hanna, an American philosopher who developed the exercises to give people renewed control of muscles, damaged over time. His wife, Eleanor Criswell Hanna, a yoga teacher, now trains chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists and other health professionals to become somatic educators.

Brian Ingle, a Dublin-born teacher of the easy-to-learn somatic exercises, is so convinced of the value of somatics that he describes it as the medicine of the future. "The beautiful thing about somatics is that you can learn a series of movements which will systematically help release physical and emotional trauma from the body which has been held in various muscle groups," says Ingle.
He defines this physical holding of trauma in the body as sensory motor amnesia. "This occurs when you no longer can use or feel a muscle because it has shortened or tightened over time following the body's reaction to physical or emotional stress," he says. Ingle, who has been working as an osteopath and yoga teacher in India for the past 10 years, is now about to embark on training in somatics at the Hanna Somatic Education Centre, Novato, California, US. Before attending this course, he will lead introductory workshops to somatics in Dublin and plans to return to his native Dublin every summer to teach somatics.
According to Ingle, somatics teaches people to re-develop unused muscles through reawakening the neural pathways between the muscles and the central nervous system. This is done through a systematic series of exercises taught over a course of eight lessons, each focusing on a different muscle group (ie, the muscles in the back, the stomach, the waist, the trunk rotation, the hip joints and legs, the neck and shoulders) and then applying this new body awareness to improve your breathing and walking.
Advocates of somatics believe that by regularly practising the series of exercises (which only takes about 15 minutes to complete), individuals can find relief from chronic muscle tension or pain, reduce work-related physical stress, eliminate pain or other dysfunction resulting from trauma, injury or an accident and avoid or reverse stiffness, pain and many other problems associated with aging.
"Somatics gives people back the responsibility for their own health by allowing them to access their body intelligence and giving them the spiritual benefits of peace and awareness," says Ingle.
Linda Southgate, a yoga teacher and member of Yoga Therapy Ireland, incorporates some somatic exercises into her yoga classes.
"They are useful to get deeply into various muscle groups of the body as they are precise, cat-like movements which you do with the breath. "Really, they are a form of gentle stretches done in a very relaxed way which help in warm-up exercises and body awareness," she explains.

As a practised self-discipline, Southgate believes that somatics - like pilates - tends to focus more on the physical while yoga and t'ai chi place stronger emphasis on the spiritual dimension as well as the physical. That said, she does see how it can be used as a therapy in and of itself.

Cathy Pearson (31) has learned somatics at classes and also had bodywork treatment based on the principles of somatics to help alleviate whiplash from a car accident. "I had physiotherapy, chiropractic and massage but the somatic treatment was the most effective because the approach is about re-educating the brain to let the muscles know that it's okay to relax now," she says. Pearson now practises yoga and incorporates somatic exercises into her yoga practise. "I've got to keep up the exercises so that I can keep my muscles loose but I'd say I'm 95 per cent recovered now," she adds.

Ingle believes somatics will take off in Ireland because "right now, people are interested in feeling good in their bodies". "It's both a treatment approach and a preventative healthcare strategy," he says.

© The Irish Times

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