I can honestly say that nothing has influenced the way I coach and teach more than the world of somatic education.
Perhaps you've heard of the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, or Hanna Somatics...they're a few branches of this broad scope of study called somatic education. So what is it?
In a nutshell somatic education is an approach to movement training and bodywork rooted in a person's internal experience. It places a premium on working with the entirety of the human being as a vast neuro-musculo-skeletal system, with an understanding that psychosocial factors can influence our movement patterns as well. Now you don't have to drop everything and pivot careers, but an understanding of somatic principles can have a massive impact on your practice, giving you better results, happier clients, and a richer understanding of the human body. Let's take a look at 4 key factors.
The Real Controller Of Strength AND Mobility
We're a complex, living system, and every movement--from a bicep curl to a downward dog--is an ongoing feedback loop between body and brain.
In a vastly simplified model you can imagine that a signal for movement comes from the central nervous system to the soft tissues, which then generate force to move the skeletal system through space (all the while relaying sensory information back to the central nervous system).
Typically we think of strength and mobility as muscular, soft tissue elements, but at the end of the day they come down to coordination and control. If the nervous system gets crappy input from the sensory receptors, it can only send out crappy motor signals.
Somatic education puts a premium on internal sensation (think back to the Weber Fechner principle). We use specific neurosensory processes to enrich the sensory-motor dialogue of the living body. When we do, we find more ease in both familiar and unfamiliar movements. This in turn allows more progression in strength and mobility...after all the nervous system adapts more quickly than the musculoskeletal system.
The Problem Of Pain
If you've worked with humans before, you know that sometimes they hurt. It seems to come with the territory. And when conventional wisdom says "No Pain, No Gain", you know we have a problem.
The tricky thing with pain is that it has such a perceptual component attached to it. Pain itself is nothing more than sensory information, but we make a big deal out of it (for good reason...pain hurts). If we don't understand the difference between sensation and perception, we're victims to a vicious cycle of chronic pain.
Just as you can learn a deadlift, you can learn to be in pain. The plasticity of the nervous system is so great that you can actually potentiate pain pathways even if there's no injury present. When a client presents with pain, this can pose a bit of a challenge to an inexperienced coach or teacher.
Do we push through pain?
Do we refer out?
Do we modify?
Do we just stop moving?
It's hard to know for certain. But we can get a clearer idea of what to do through somatic education. I'll give you an example. I was working with a woman who suffered from chronic pain. She was active--and a teacher herself--but was unable to make consistent progress for fear of pushing herself too far. She had been burned too many times before, and her body had had enough.
We worked through quite a few sensory-motor exercises to help her "normalize" the conversation between brain and body. She learned to differentiate between sensation and perception, and when she did, she realized that she wasn't a victim of pain. Pain was just a sensory signal that happened to carry some perceptual baggage.
After a few weeks of practice she got clear on how to proceed more in line with her body...she found the sweet spot between pushing too hard and being too conservative. And it wouldn't have been possible without her taking an active role in her brain-body dialogue.
The Difference Between Training And Education
I have to borrow a line from James Carse here, author of "Finite and Infinite Games":
To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated...education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition.
Why do we do what we do? If you're here, you know that there's more to your practice than beefy biceps and shredded abs. Movement in any form is a way for us to learn more about ourselves.
But conventional approaches tend more toward training (in Carse's definition) and away from education. They steer us toward some definite end, a stopping point where we meet some arbitrary standard of success. Education on the other hand helps us create our own standards. It helps us learn more about who we are as people. It makes us more of ourselves.
Approaching your clients with this mindset creates a world of possibility. You're no longer constrained to textbooks standards of performance. You're creating an experience that leaves them richer as a person as well. Not a bad deal in my book.
Physical Dysfunction Is The Tip Of The Iceberg
Here's the big elephant in the room: your clients are more than meat and bones. They're a psychophysical organism with very real carryover between emotions and physiology. Consider the stereotypical person who thinks the world is out to get them. They're anxious, and have a hard time standing their ground. No amount of doorway stretching or banded distractions is going to create a lasting change in how this person carries themselves.
On the flip side you might think about the guy who has a massive chip on his shoulder. He swaggers into every room he enters with a perpetually puffed up chest. It looks like he's carrying suitcases everywhere he goes. And foam rolling just isn't going to cut it for his back pain and dysfunctional hips.
Optimal function relies on having access to a wide range of behaviors and movements. And our emotions play a bigger role in our physical body than we often think. We skim over this in conventional training approaches, but it's front and center in the world of somatic education.
At the end of the day the principles of somatic education give us a broader set of tools to work with and a deeper level of work with the person in front of us. We can shortcut past many "permanent" injuries and chronic ailments by getting to the root of the problem. It's not a magic solution, but it's a much more encompassing lens to look through.
I'll admit: I was a pretty bad trainer for years. I lacked confidence in the service I was providing and often felt overwhelmed with the direction to take when someone new walked in the door.
But as I dug into the world of somatic education and studied with some amazing mentors, I found that I was getting better and better results with the folks I worked with. People like:
- Craig, who had spent over $100,000 on back and hip surgeries, only to be told he would never walk comfortably again. Within an hour he found more ease in his gait than he'd experienced in years.
- Or Erika, who overcame her anxiety about maintaining neutral spine and found a renewed zest for her yoga and kettlebell practice.
- And James, who suffered from chronic pain from a botched knee surgery. He was terrified by the prospect of prescription painkillers, but together we got his body back on track so he could compete in his next ProAm golf tournament.
This is such a powerful practice. I only wish I knew this when I was starting out. But you can learn to implement these principles and techniques at any time in your career.
To get started, I recommend reading my free report, "Exercise & Mental Health: Review & Recommendations" to get up-to-speed on what the literature says about some of this work.
You could also sign up for my free neuromuscular warmup by clicking here.
And if you're really serious about your education, click here to learn more about the Deep Coaching Intensive.