It started as a dull ache in my left hip when I was pregnant which I thought was an annoying but inevitable part of pregnancy. But when my pain started getting worse after having my daughter, I knew I needed to work out what was happening and how to feel better.
My pain has been a constant companion for the last three years. I have tried everything; physiotherapy, personal training, acupuncture, massage, yoga, Pilates, stretching, a referral to the orthopaedic consultant who diagnosed multifunctional pain (meaning no one cause). It’s frequently on my mind, becoming an unhelpful cycle; the pain makes me stressed, and feeling stressed makes the pain worse.
I’m not alone. The British Pain Society estimate that 43% of people experience chronic pain, and many like me struggle to manage it. Pain is hugely personal. We can’t fully express how pain feels to anyone else, and no one can really understand our pain. It’s difficult to navigate; what’s an acceptable amount? When should you seek help? Is it all in our heads?
So, when I met somatic movement coach Francesca Melluzzi and learned more about somatics I was intrigued. Somatics is a movement practice that focuses on the internal body to undo the root causes of pain. “Somatics is about neuroplasticity – it uses slow, conscious, voluntary movements, and feedback from your muscles to re-educate the brain,” she explained. Unlike stretching which gives temporary relief, somatics is a way of helping body and brain together, long term. Could this be a way to help me feel better in my body and my mind?
What is somatics?
Somatics is a broad term which comes from the word soma, meaning inside the body. Somatic practices are focused on how the body is perceived from within, so it’s about how you feel not how it looks or feels to anyone else.
The term somatics was introduced by American philosopher and neuroscientist Thomas Hanna in the 1970s, and it’s now used to describe various movement practices. “There are lots of different modalities – like somatic experiencing or somatic therapy – the experience and results will be different, but they are connected by a focus on what’s happening inside the body,” says Francesca.
Hanna was a student of Moshé Feldenkrais and Frederick Matthias Alexander, each the founders of their own movement practices; The Feldenkrais Method and The Alexander Technique. Hanna built on these, developing his own system - Hanna Somatic Education. “A key element is sensory motor amnesia, where muscles have forgotten how to switch off,” Francesca, who specialises in Hanna Somatics explains. “Hanna’s method uses something called pandiculation – where muscles are contracted with tension and then released slowly to relax muscles and help the brain relearn what this feels like.”
Nahid de Belgeonne, founder of The Human Method, draws on somatics to help people move and feel better. “Somatics reboots your brain to body connection”, she told me. “It’s a way of training the brain to help the body. If you always carry your bag on one side, your body and brain will learn to become lopsided. You have formed a movement pattern that keeps the shoulder up. The brain forgets and doesn’t tell the muscles to release from the long-held contraction even when you put the bag down. Our habits become default and by the time chronic pain shows up, the brain needs to relearn how to release and allow the body to go back to its resting state. With somatics, we are undoing these habits. The body is very involved, but without a doubt, it all starts in the brain.”
Somatics offers mental and physical benefits including improving muscular pain, fibromyalgia and arthritis, supporting issues like digestion, hormones and sleep, and helping anxiety, stress and depression. “It helps how the external body feels but because somatics relates to the internal body it also helps regulate your emotions and balances your nervous system. It’s complementary and truly holistic because you are working on mind and body together,” says Nahid.
Critically with somatics, the power is placed in the hands of the person doing the exercises, not the teacher. Francesca says, “I trained as a holistic therapist and people would feel some immediate relief but they would keep coming back because they weren’t really getting better. We happily pay someone else to fix us - somatics offers us a way to fix ourselves.” Nahid agrees; “people look for answers outside themselves, but somatics is a powerful way for people to come into their own autonomy.”
Many somatic teachers come from a yoga background, but there are key differences. “Somatics is an exploration, not an exercise,” says Nahid, so the focus is on what’s happening inside rather than making the posture look a particular way. While in a yoga class you might be guided through a series of poses with guides and adjustments to help you correct the physical expression, in somatics you are invited to go within, notice how it feels and sense your way in and out of movement.
The two practices are completely distinct though; somatic yoga mixes the two. It focuses on embodiment and self-awareness, adding relaxation to poses, offering movement options, body scans or breathwork that releases tension. “It’s a bit like an upgraded yoga practice - you could stretch and that might feel good at the time but with somatics, we’re involving the brain so you get long term benefits,” says Francesca.
There has been a rise in demand for somatics over the last 18 months, but why? “A lot of people are exhausted,” says Nahid. “They have been working really hard, focusing on all these external things – career, kids, doing it all, and they’ve realised there is more to life. People have been woken up to finding alternatives to fix their chronic pain or stress in a way that really brings the body and mind into harmony.”
“Yoga is always evolving, and people have now become much more aware of the mind body connection”, says Francesca. “Somatic educator Martha Peterson has been critical in driving forward the work of Thomas Hanna, and with more teachers now offering somatics, more people can benefit from it.”
Trying it out
After learning all this, I couldn’t wait to try. I visited Francesca in Oxford to try Hanna Somatics myself. After talking about my history and pain, Francesca suggested that carrying my children meant I was hitching up my hip on one side. This had become my default and my muscles had forgotten how to relax. The pain wasn’t a result of a lack of strength or injury, but rather exhausted muscles that are constantly on. That would explain the real lethargy that accompanies my pain too. Things were making sense.
Francesca reviewed my posture to see if I was falling into one of three reflexes that Hanna identified. The green light reflex is where we are constantly switched on, ready for action. “Many people think this is good posture but it’s an exaggerated version that puts stress on the body,” she told me. In the red light reflex our shoulders come forward and the back is curved to protect ourselves. “Think of your posture when you look at your phone or slump over your computer,” says Francesca. Lastly, the trauma reflex is how the body responds to accident or injury on one side, resulting in tight muscles on the other side.
None of the reflexes is a natural place for the body and lots of people have forgotten how to really relax. This sounds true for me - I flit between standing to attention, hunched at my desk and carrying my children on one hip, but what is my real, natural posture? It is exhausting trying to remember and get back there. I was looking forward to finding out.
Francesca teaches me a series of exercises focusing on key areas in my body. The movements are often small, for example arching and curling my pelvis, and include pandiculations - a moment of tension, like holding a yawn, then a slow release. Any jerks or jumps are signs of sensory motor amnesia. Here, I go back and move through it again, slower and with more awareness, a bit like a massaging a knot.
It feels good. It’s a different sensation to stretching – especially if you are used to delicious pain of stretching a tight muscle. You must remember not to passively stretch but to actively hold and then release consciously. Although the movements are small and generally done lying down, you have to concentrate - it’s hard to slack in a somatic session.
I leave with a 15 minute programme of exercises to do daily which is easy to work into everyday life. Somatics offers you a chance to really slow down and be in your body. It’s like a daily meditation practice that you will actually do. I’m sleeping better, feel more at home in my body and have a new tool to help me feel in control of my pain that I can use anytime, without needing to book a massage or chiropractor appointment.
Everything seems to add up with somatics - my experience with pain was reflected back to me in a way that made me feel less alone. I’ve released that my pain is connected with my brain, but that doesn’t make me hysterical. Our bodies don’t exist in isolation from our minds so to feel better we have to treat the whole thing, not just the bit that hurts. Somatics is an empowering way to manage pain and calm your mind that invites you to look inside to feel better.
Do it yourself
Francesca recommends these somatic exercises to try at home, either when you wake up or just before going to bed. Do all of these lying on a hard surface and move as slowly as possible.
Body Scan – this is an opportunity to go within and notice for yourself how your body feels
Lie on your back with your arms and legs extended. Sense your low back and notice if it is arched off the floor. Notice which side, left or right feels heavier and closer to the floor. Do the same with your feet, neck and shoulders.
Washrag – a great movement to ease into your body, really useful if you have any back pain
Lie on your back and bend your knees with your feet on the floor. Extend your arms out to the side in a T shape. Rotate your right arm so the palm faces up towards your head and your left arm so the palm faces down towards your feet. Look towards your right arm. Drop your legs to the left. Hold this movement with tension and then slowly release your arms, head and legs back to neutral. Rest here and then reverse the movement to the other side. Continue to roll from left to right imagining you are wringing out a washrag.
Arch and flatten – allows you to gently reset the muscles in the back of the body to find a neutral and relaxed posture
Lie on your back with your knees bent, breathe into your belly. Roll your tailbone toward the floor and allow your low back to arch off the ground. Tuck your chin into your chest as you do this. Hold here with tension and then slowly release. Then roll your tailbone away from the floor to flatten your low back into the floor. Tilt your head back extending the neck. Hold here with tension and then slowly release. Pause and repeat moving through both movements.
Find out more
Book - Move without Pain, Martha Peterson
Home practice videos and online classes - www.francescamelluzzi.com