Self-Care via the Somatic Route

“The effective functioning of the senses of knowledge is inoperative without the assistance of the mind; the eye may see, the ear may hear, all the senses may act, but if the mind pays no attention, the man has not heard, seen, felt, touched or tasted”  (Sri Aurobindo, cited in Marti and Sala, 2006).

The theme of this article is self-care; as counsellors and psychotherapists we are trained  to recognise, enhance and fine tune our natural ability to empathize.  The area of self-care management particularly interests me. The healing journey is a two way process, empathy plays an important part of the therapeutic process.  As therapists we consciously choose to listen to and witness trauma every day. The hazards of working with trauma have been clearly identified; however how we protect ourselves and carry out the work seems less tangible. The somatic route offers a solution to this issue.  My own somatic journey has drawn me closer to the subject and provided a possible solution that has increased my health and wellbeing.

Like other pioneers of somatic education, I discovered the gifts of somatic practice; having been through the medical route with no resolution, I embarked on the alternative route to heal a previous back injury.  I found my way to a weekend workshop in Hanna Somatic Education, which claimed to release physical and emotional trauma through a series of slow movements.   I was very sceptical although desperate to find a better way to live my daily life other than in constant pain.  The results were amazing, after the first morning session I noticed a change in my overall stance.  Having practised daily for the last ten years, I have since trained in India and Ireland, as a Somatic Movement Educator.  My daily fifteen minute practice has yielded many benefits, emotionally, physically and psychologically; somatics has changed my outlook on life dramatically and given me freedom both in body and mind.   To experience something somatically is to experience it in your own body. You are the only one living in your body, you are the expert.
“Learning through our own deep and personal experience is a path toward embodying the truth of who we are and developing the genuine confidence that enables us to express that truth in our lives.  As we come home to ourselves we will begin to learn the simple quality of being kind to ourselves, to others, and to the earth.  We contact our own heart and the hearts of others”  (Hartley, 1995, P.304).

What is Somatics?
“Somatics” is derived from the Greek word “soma” meaning “the living body in its wholeness.” Somatics is the experience of the living body.   Our sensory-motor systems continually respond to daily stresses and traumas with specific muscular reflexes – triggering unconscious innate responses such as fight/ flight/ freeze, inherent in all human beings. Somatic Movement targets the startle reflex response (survival response) within the body.  When this occurs our muscular system contracts in response to the perceived danger, threat or loss. By learning to focus on the sensory experience we can minimize the startle response and encourage the nervous system back to normal functioning.

How Somatics works
The brain controls and organizes how muscles contract or relax.  Somatic movement teaches you to regain awareness of your body by self sensing and tracking how muscles move.  This process of sensory motor training is an effective form of neuromuscular movement re-education.  Effectively improving the intelligence of  how the muscles respond, Somatic movement is a mind/body discipline that places a high value on moving slowly and listening within to improve how we move and respond in the external environment.

Somatic movement targets the reptilian part of your brain (the centre for survival instincts) that controls basic physical responses to stress or threat, our fight/flight and freeze reflexes.  The language of the reptilian brain is “sensation”, practising somatics allows you immediate access to this part of the brain.  Because somatics teaches you to move slowly and focus on the sensory experience, we can learn to recognise when we experience stress in our bodies (startle response), where we feel the stress in a particular part of our body and how to give fresh sensory input to the brain to switch off the startle response and return to normal response activating the relaxation response.  In my clinical practice I have found working from this premise and teaching my client's to  recognise the subtle signs of stress that lurk in the body, improves their sense of self awareness, giving them back control and more freedom in their daily life.     

Pioneers of Somatic Educations
Thomas Hanna, Ph.D., a philosopher and somatic educator, founded the field of somatics in 1970. As an academic, researcher and practitioner, he devoted his life to the study and growth of the field of somatics.  He studied functional Integration with Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais. The programme advocated achieving sensory movement within the self, as the primary means to help others (Hanna, 1993). As Director of the humanistic psychology Institute San Francisco, Hanna sponsored and directed Feldenkrais’s first training programme in the U.S.A.  Building on the work of Feldenkrais and influenced by Hans Seyles stress response theory, over the next ten years he developed a unique approach, using biofeedback techniques.  He created: “A method that applies gentle physical manipulation to fine tune the nervous system and eliminate involuntary responses to tension, anxiety and emotional pain” (Hanna, 1993,  P.211).

Hanna designed a series of somatic ‘cat stretch’ movements using pandiculation, as a means to wake up the cortex.  All animals and humans share this response. Pandiculation refers to how animals wake up, if you watch a dog or cat it will pandiculate on waking, this stretching movement extends and contracts particular muscle groups and “prepares the animals for normal sensing and moving, readying its voluntary cortex for efficient functioning”. Similarly, human beings also stretch and lengthen their bodies to fully awaken, “it is an ancient sensory motor pattern of cortical arousal” (Hanna, 1990-91, P. 9).  Somatic movement activates this unconscious system and refines habitual motor patterns with conscious awareness through movement.

Somatic movement awareness methods has its roots in the pioneer work of Elsa Gindler in Europe and her student Charlotte Selver in America, prominent people influenced by their early work include Moshe Feldenkrais, Ida Rolf,  Laura and Fritz Perls, Erich Fromm, Eugene Gendlin and Peter Levine, to name a few.  The scope of this article is too small to include all their somatic experiences.  Although Fritz Perls enjoyed a spectacular improvement of his health, having a bad heart condition that left him barely functional before attending Dr. Ida Rolf.  After this personal experience he began to send his students to Dr. Rolf (The Rolf Method of Structural Integration) to compliment the Gestalt therapy training (Weaver, 2006).

The cost of caring
“The main thing with regard to self-care is that those who are selfless and compassionate
have an achilles heel – they don't pay enough attention to themselves" 
(Figley, 2005, P. 2)

The premise of this article is that mind and body are not separate entities but a whole unified system. Empathy is both a cognitive and emotional response involving mind and body.  Cognitive empathy allows us to “recognise what another person feels”, while Emotional empathy allows us to “acctually feel what the person is feeling” (Ekman, 2003, P.180).  Accessing empathy as a tool can prove dangerous for the therapist’s, while essential for client’s wellbeing (Figley, 2005). The heart of Dr. Charles Figley’s (pioneer of trauma research) Compassion Fatigue Theory is based on empathy and exposure.  He advocates that empathy is both, a major resource tool for therapists working with trauma but also a key factor in the mechanism of transference that can result in compassion fatigue in carers. As far back as 1932, Jung considered that “the attitude of the psychotherapist is infinitely more important than the theories and methods of psychotherapy” (Jung 2005, P.249). Therapist’s use of self is undeniable during the therapeutic encounter.  No matter which therapeutic approach is utilized, empathy holds the key to positive outcomes in therapy (Mearns & Cooper, 2005). The question is how do we as therapist pursue the gifts yielded by empathic attunement, while defending ourselves against negative emotional contagion?

The evidence is mounting supporting the premise that conscious awareness of our feelings, allows maximum impact and provides the opportunity to plan and reflect (Damasio, 2000).  Moreover, when we
“connect the wisdom of the body and the knowing of the mind”, we can achieve a panoramic view of the whole living being and learn to trust our unique individual experiences of life” (Hartley, 1995, P.xx).
 If on the other hand we ignore stress in our lives and inner conflicts, it will find a way to manifest itself. 
“It will find the weakest point – whether through your digestive system, your nerves, your immune system or your sleep pattern. Pushed down it becomes illness, depression, addiction or anxiety; projected outward it becomes hostility, aggression, prejudice or fear” (Shapiro, 2006, P.18).

My personal experience of somatic practice along with my professional training as a psychotherapist, although initially separate disciplines have come together and influenced my therapeutic work and to my surprise are now very much interlinked and interrelated. Somatic movement provides a means whereby we can actively engage our biological, physiological, psychological systems in gentle practice of the cat stretch, enhancing functional movement within the body.  I believe this particular somatic daily practice ticks all the boxes; it promotes a gentle self sensing enquiry into the body in the present moment and can be adopted specifically by therapists as a personal, individual  programme to release unconscious transference acquired in therapeutic engagement, offering the therapist a means to self-regulate from within.

“Our body is the secret place for which we only possess the key of access and where we may return to confirm our experience that we exist as individuals.  The body is our unique and unalienable possession which gives us the power of self recognition in an age when other forms of identification break down” (Melucci, 1996, P.73, cited in Ziguras, 2003, P.171)

Caroline Pedley, MIACP, CSME,
Bsc. (Hons) Couns./Psych.,
Certified Somatic Movement Educator,
Prof. Cert  in CBT, Couples Counselling,
Dip. Supervision.

(First Published in 'Reflections' Summer 2014, PCI College Newsletter)


Aurobindo, S, (1970), Birth Centenary Library, 30 vols.,Ashram, Pondicherry, India, cited in Marti, A. & Sala, J. (2006) Awareness through the Body, a way to enhance concentration, relaxation and self-knowledge in children and adults, Sri aurobindo International Institute of Educational Research, Auroville, India.

Damasio, A. (2000), The Feeling of What Happens, Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness, Vintage, Random House, London.

Ekman, P. (2003), Emotions Revealed, Understanding Faces and Feelings, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, the Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London.
Hanna, T. (1993), The Body of Life, Creating New Pathways for Sensory Awareness and fluid Movement, Healing Arts Press, Vermont
Hanna, T. (1998), SOMATICS, Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health, Da Capo Press, A member of Perseus Books Group, U.S.A.

Hartley, L. (1995), Wisdom of the Body Moving, An Introduction to Body-Mind Centering, North Atlantic Books, California.
Jung, C.G. (1995), Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Fontana Press, London.

Mearns, D. & Cooper, M. (2005), Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy, Sage Publications, London.

Melucci, (1996), cited in Ziguras,  C. (2003), Self-Care: Embodiment, Personal Autonomy, and the Shaping of Health Consciousness.  Routledge, New York.
Shapiro,  D. (2006),  Your Body Speaks Your Mind. Understanding How Your Emotions and Thoughts Affect you Physically, Piatkus Books Ltd., London.

Figley, C. R. (2005), Compassion Fatigue: An Expert Interview, October 17, Medscape Psychiatry Interview.

Hanna, T. (1990), Clinical Somatic Education: A  New Discipline in the Field of Health Care, Somatics: Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences, No. 1, Vol. VIII, Issue 1, Autumn/Winter 1990  available at accessed on 18/3/08

Weaver, J.O. (2006), The Influence of Elsa Gindler – Ancestor Of Sensory Awareness. (Internet article: retrieved 29/05/09:

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