What is Somatics?: Principles and Techniques

In the fall of 1986, Somatics Journal published an article by Don Hanlon Johnson entitled “Principles versus Techniques: Towards the Unity of the Somatics Field”. In it he outlined an argument for the study and development of a theory base that, he postulated, underlay and united all body-centred practices. These principles, Johnson wrote, became the ground out of which arose the various techniques that made each school of practice unique.

Although Thomas Hanna had created the word “somatics” in 1976 to name the approaches to mind/body integration, Johnson’s writing started to differentiate between “somatic” practices and, a study of their underlying theory base. In the years since Johnson’s article, a handful of practitioners have been distilling these principles through a careful study of a variety of somatic practices. By paying close attention to how each modality explained why their approach worked, it has become possible to see a similarity in the language used to describe the essences of the practice that underlie the effectiveness of the techniques. Therefore, out of the study of somatic practices – Somatics – a theory base came into form.

Hanna and others have often mixed the definition of “somatics” and “somatic”. I have found it more helpful to make a clear differentiation between use of the two words: Somatics as the study of the underlying principles and their application in practice, and Somatic as the name for the broad field of body-centred practices that, to some extent or other, utilize somatics principles.

The Somatics, or principles, of somatic practice helps us in a couple of ways:

1. We can develop a foundational descriptive language that can aid communication between different somatic practices, whether they work with the body through touch, movement, breath, energy, or psycho-social processes.

2. We can learn from the ways other modalities use each principle. Each practice has developed strengths in how they understand a part of Somatics theory and expressed it through techniques. The eye of a yoga practitioner can develop a keener understanding for postural and movement integrity. And the skills of “listening touch” used in many light touch modalities can enhance our understanding of how to follow patterns of reorganization in the body.

Two decades after Johnson’s ground-breaking article, we now have a more fully formed understanding of the fundamental Somatics theory that forms the foundation of somatic practice. Three of the most essential principles, tested thoroughly in a variety of education applications, and deeply grounded in the physiology and psychology of our response patterns, are:

1. Awareness brought to sensation produces a reorganization response within the organism.

2. The reorganization response will take the shape of a pattern.

3. The pattern of response will always be an attempt toward balance or homeostasis in both the internal organization of the person and in its relationship to the sensory source.

I use these principles as the foundation of all our investigations in the SomaLab because they form the broadest practical reference for each individual’s application in their practice. Future blogs will describe the interactions between principles and practice in each monthly installment of the SomaLab.

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