We all respond similarly to injury: we tighten up (involuntarily cringe).

Stress (in life and relationships) and repetitive motions (e.g., in our occupation) have similar effects: we tighten or get tight so often or for so long that our brain -- the master-control organ of our muscular system -- learns to hold muscles tight indefinitely, automatically, habitually, and ultimately, beyond our ability to relax them.

For example, a car mechanic may develop back spasms or neck pain; a haircutter may develop wrist, hand or shoulder pain; a massage therapist may develop low back pain, and and wrist pain, or leg pain; someone with a stressful job or home life may develop headaches -- and of course, joint pain due to overcompression by tight muscles is common among the general population; they call it, "arthritis".

A person going through a life crisis may emerge with new tensions, restricted breathing, and low energy.

We forget how we used to be and get stuck in a strange new condition. The burn of muscle fatigue and stiffness become permanent. Inflammation, chronic fatigue, and joint degeneration commonly occur as long-term side-effects of that tension. Stress-related symptoms such as headaches or sciatica or other symptoms occur, seemingly inexplicably.

Despite these symptoms, including pain, we may have no injury. The injury may have healed, the life crisis may have passed, but we may remain stuck with the residue of injury and/or stress.

Because tight muscles cause pain and stiffness, because your brain controls your muscles, any therapy, to be effective, must address muscular activity at the brain (i.e., memory) level.

Somatic education has some advantages over drugs or therapy applied to soft tissue and joints: much less pain during therapy and faster improvement. For most cases of chronic musculo-skeletal pain, Hanna Somatic Education® is sufficient as a stand-alone rehabilitation method.


On Back Pain Relief

This page is to enable people with back pain to help themselves, whether or not they have already sought professional help. In fact, it may render professional help unnecessary.

Hanna Somatic Education: Socratic, Promethean, Herculean

I realize, now, that the title of this piece might seem like hype. I thought Thomas Hanna's introduction to his methods sounded like hype. What pathos! when the truth sounds unbelievable! when what sounds too good to be true IS true!

Hanna somatic education is a modality used to lastingly eliminate chronic, non-malignant musculo-skeletal pain (such as back pain, sciatica, psoas muscle pain, or bursitis) and stress-related disorders (such as breathing difficulties or headaches).

It uses a natural response similar to yawning rapidly to free tight muscles, restore comfort, and improve movement. "Rapidly" means "over a short series of one-hour clinical session", and "short series" means around five sessions, average. This natural, whole-body response has a name: pandiculation, a funny sounding word that means, basically, "whole-body yawn".

To understand the metaphors, "Socratic, Promethian, and Herculean" in relation to Hanna Somatics, we must understand some things about Socrates, Prometheus, and Hercules.

The Socratic Method and View


Socrates was a teacher and prominent personage of ancient Greece. As a teacher, he guided his students along lines of consideration, asking them leading questions so that his students might arrive at insight, themselves. His viewpoint of knowledge, topsy turvy to that of most contemporary ways of operating, is that we inherently know everything, but have forgotten nearly everything, and the teacher only reminds us of what we have already known but forgotten.

Compare the Socratic view with the following conventional view of knowledge:
We fundamentally know nothing and have to learn everything, and the teacher is the one who tells us what's what. One who really knows what's what ends up in Who's Who, and if you're not in Who's Who, you're nobody.

Kind of opposites, aren't they?

The Socratic method is "from inside, out, prompted by what's coming in from outside." The methods of Hanna Somatic Education produce, to quote Thomas Hanna, "an internalized learning process" by guiding clients through learnings of certain kinds of movements and their sensations.

This is not the same as letting clients dictate the course of a session or do a poor approximation of our instructions or add irrelevant efforts to a movement; it's not the same as our taking whatever they give us as a response to our instructions.

Remember, they are amnesic and don't usually understand their condition correctly.

Socrates led his students to conclusions interactively, according to their responses; we lead our clients to outcomes interactively, according to their responses.
The instruction comes from outside; the learning comes from within.

Now, Promethian

Prometheus was the son of the Titan, lapetos, and the nymph, Klymene.

The name, "Prometheus," means "foresight."

According to myth, it was Prometheus who taught humankind the skills of civilization and gave us fire. (Crane, Gregory R. (ed.) The Perseus Project,, July, 2002).

The gifts of Prometheus were the technologies of civilization and a corresponding awakening of attention of a special kind in order to receive and use these gifts.

Somatics is exactly an awakening of attention of a special kind. It is an awakening of attention on many levels of the human being, bringing self-mastery.

The process teaches, in effect, that there is no relationship between mind "and" body (the "two" being internal and external manifestations of the same thing, and therefore not-two). It awakens us to new sensations, to direct experience of what was subconscious and running the show from beneath.

Somatic education cultivates the ability to focus attention, to act deliberately, to recognize the relationship between effort and its outcome, to be self-correcting, to follow through to completion. It teaches how to direct attention and intention toward the same thing. It gives us access to more of our abilities.

For almost everyone, these learnings generate a significant awakening. You can see how they are all elements of a sound civilization necessary to responsibly use the gifts of Prometheus.

My hope for my working and playing with people in the somatic realm, is that their "pilot light" gets lit (they receive the gift of fire), and they are able to continue somatic awakening largely on their own.

And now, Herculean. 

Hercules (Heracles), son of Hera, wife of Zeus, known primarily for his strength, has been described as the perfect embodiment of pathos, the experience of virtuous struggle against great difficulties that leads to fame and, in Hercules' case, immortality. (Crane, Gregory R(ed.) The Perseus Project,, July, 2002).

Ever try to get someone to do something in a new way? Ever have anyone ask for your advice and then argue with you about it or ignore it?

To do somatic education procedures with people, even to get them to test it for themselves, even when they are interested in doing them, often "gets interesting." It seems, at times, that a Herculean effort is needed to guide people through the process of change, even when they want to change.

Magnify that challenge to an entire culture accustomed to placing responsibility for health and well-being outside oneself, and you see the scope of our work.

To get a culture to change its way of operating from that of dependence upon a DoctorPatient/Parent-Child system (that saves people from the consequences of their own actions -- or doesn't) to that of responsibility for ones own well-being (reducing the need to be saved from consequences) is a Herculean Feat tantamount to cleaning King Augeas' stables by redirecting a river.

The feats of Hercules, of which cleaning King Augeas' stables was one of twelve, required strength and the use of available resources in new ways. They required more than Hercules' solitary strength, but also his acceptance of help and ideas from others, his persistence, and his ingenious development of new ways to overcome seemingly impossible challenges. In the case of King Augeas' stables, Hercules re-directed a river through them to clean them.

What might it be like to direct a river of attention through the Augean Stables of today's mass-mind?

What would it be like to feel the spirits of these historical and ancient figures, Socrates, Prometheus, and Hercules, in Somatic Education?

To try it and find out, identify with each of these figures and identify yourself as a Hanna Somatic Educator.

© 2002 Lawrence Gold

To see clinical somatic education in action,

For First Aid for Back Pain, click here.
For "back pain Q&A", click here.

Spinal Decompression Therapy and Back Pain

The mystique of technology as a fix for everything extends to back pain -- in particular, as spinal decompression therapy, an offering that has gained visibility as among the latest in spine care (along with laser treatment -- this article applies to that approach, too).

The method involves a mechanical device intended to separate vertebrae and thereby to relieve pain.

This approach is a higher-technology variation on a simpler method, inversion therapy, which involves a kind of treatment table that, by anchoring the user's ankles and turning upside down, uses gravity to separate vertebrae.

Both methods are variations on traction, again, using mechanical force to separate vertebrae.

The premise of all three methods, spinal decompression therapy, inversion therapy, and traction, is that vertebrae are too close together and need separation.

That premise is good as far as it goes -- but let's look deeper. Why do vertebrae get too close together?

Understand that vertebrae are linked together not only by discs and ligaments, but by muscles that control spinal alignment. When those muscles tighten, vertebral alignment changes; twists, curvature changes, and compression of neighboring vertebrae result. Muscles pull vertebrae closer together; the discs push the vertebrae apart.

Muscle tightness of this sort is supposed to be intermittent and temporary, as required by the demands of movement and lifting; muscles are supposed to relax (decrease their resting tone) when these demands end. However, when, for reasons related to injury and stress, this tightness becomes habituated (i.e., quasi-permanent), problems (i.e., back pain) result: nerve root compression, bulging discs, facet joint irritation, and muscle fatigue (soreness) and spasm.

This habituation is a muscular behavior (postural reflex pattern) learned by and stored in the brain, the master control center for all muscles. Learning is a matter of memory; when either prolonged nervous tension, repetitive movements, or violent injury occur, the memory of these influences displaces the memory of free movement and habituation results; people forget what free movement feels like and forget how to move freely. They fall into the grip of the memory of tension.

Muscles obey the nervous system, with all but the most primitive reflexes stored in the brain as learned action patterns that control all movement. There is no muscle memory other than what is stored in the brain; muscle memory is brain memory.

Knowing that, consider approaches that mechanically stretch muscles or pull vertebrae apart. What do they do to habituated muscular behavior? to the memory of tension? The answer: they temporarily induce muscular relaxation but do not restore the memory of normal tension and movement, which is acquired "learn-by-doing." We are genetically designed to return to our familiar movement patterns once outside influences end; we return to our memory of how we have learned to move and hold ourselves. Shortly after the end of therapy, our familiar movement behavior and muscular tensions come back because you can't change learned reflex patterns stored in the brain by stretching muscles; you can only retrain those reflex patterns by new learning of movement. If you want a lasting change, that's what you have to do.

So, the typical experience of relief after manipulative therapies lasts hours or days.

For some people, whose habituation is not that deeply entrenched, manipulative methods are sufficient; you know for yourself whether this is true of your experience; now you know why.

Here's a question: How could you relearn free movement?

The answer has two steps:
(1) Unlearn the habituated pattern of muscular tension.
(2) Relearn free movement.

The process involves recovering the ability to feel in control of the involved musculature in movement; it's a learn-by-doing process, not a mental process, only, but a process that involves both mind and body.

Wouldn't you prefer to be free of repetitive therapy? to be free of dependency upon a therapist and the involved expense? to be able to care for your own back? to be free and safe to do any activity you wish?

Those are good reasons to make note of the approach described, here (bookmark this page): getting back control of your own muscular tension.

Free yourself from the grip of the memory of injuries, stress, and repetitive movement, not merely at the mental level, but also at the bodily level.

Visit this page for a more complete explanation of back pain and therapy.


For chronic back pain, please see this page, which also contrasts conventional back pain methods (including spinal decompression devices) with an entirely new, more effective approach.

Web Directory

Therapeutics and Somatics

This entry contrasts standard therapeutics for pain with clinical somatic education, for relief of pain. It explains the origins of pain and how therapeutic approaches work (or don't work).

To begin, I'll state my bias: I am a clinical somatic educator trained in methods of mind-brain-body training that addresses chronic, non-malignant, musculo-skeletal pain (e.g., back pain) and stress-related disorders (breathing difficulty, headaches).

When pain from injuries lingers beyond the expected few weeks of tissue healing, it generally comes from residual muscular tension triggered by the injury. Tight muscles cause muscle pain, joint compression (leading to osteoarthritis) and nerve impingement (e.g., sciatica, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome).

Conventional therapeutics and alternative therapies (e.g., bodywork of all kinds) generally produce temporary and partial relief from moderate-to-severe injuries and may be slow to produce durable improvements.

Clinical somatic education, in the tradition of Thomas Hanna, generally produces rapid, durable, and complete relief from moderate-to-severe injuries. That distinction makes it a better choice, in general, than both conventional and other manipulative therapies.

This article contrasts those methods to an approach that deals with many musculo-skeletal problems, including back pain, more effectively.
Click above for the self-relief program for back pain and for other conditions.

How Chronic Muscular Tension Forms

In the viewpoint of somatic education, muscular activity comes either from voluntary behavior, from habitual (involuntary) learned behavior, or from involuntary reflexes. That means that movement, posture, and muscular tension come conditioning of our nervous system.

It seems obvious that stress and trauma leave impressions in memory and that those impressions might be associated with tension of one sort or another. The piece I'm adding, here, is that the memory of injury, if intense enough, can displace the familiar, healthy awareness of movement, position and self-control. That displacement creates a kind of amnesia of the body; we forget how we were before injury and get trapped in tension.

It's this kind of tension that conventional medicine tries to "cure" by means of manipulative therapeutics (including chiropractic, bodywork and acupuncture), drugs, and surgery.

That this approach works better than the methods this article critiques remains for you, the reader, to see for yourself. I can't convince you, here (any more than I could be convinced before seeing for myself), but can only offer you a line of reasoning and ... at the bottom of this page, a bit of evidence -- a link to a candid, two-minute video clip that shows the first moments of a client after a one-hour session of clinical somatic education.

So, I must appeal to your capacity to reason and to your intelligence and you must seek out the experience, for yourself.

We begin.


First, I'll comment on drugs, then manipulative techniques in general, then surgery, then clinical somatic education.

Two of these three approaches, drugs and manipulation, are best for temporary relief or for relief of new or momentary muscle spasms (cramp), not for long-term or severe problems.

The third, surgery, is a last resort and is appropriate for only the most severe of degenerative conditions beyond the reach of therapy.

You can get a comparison chart of common modalities here.


Drugs can provide temporary relief or for relief of new or momentary muscle spasms (cramp), but can't provide a satisfactory solution for long-term or severe problems. They generally consist of muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatories, and analgesics (pain meds).

Muscle relaxants have the side-effect of inducing stupor, as you have found if you've used them; they're a temporary measure because as soon as one discontinues use, muscular contractions return.

Anti-inflammatories (such as cortisone or "NSAIDS" - non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) reduce pain, swelling and redness, and they have their proper applications (tissue damage). Cortizone, in particular, has a side effect of breaking down collagen (of which all tissues of the body are made). When pain results from muscular contractions (muscle fatigue/soreness) or nerve impingement (generally caused by muscular contractions), anti-inflammatories are the wrong approach because these conditions are not cases of tissue damage. Nonetheless, people confuse pain with inflammation, or assume that if there's pain, there's inflammation or tissue damage, and use anti-inflammatories to combat the wrong problem.

Analgesics tend to be inadequate to relieve back pain or the pain of trapped nerves and, in any case, only hide that something is going on, something that needs correction to avoid more serious spine damage.


Manipulative techniques consist of chiropractic, massage, stretching and strengthening (which includes most yoga and Pilates), most physical therapy, inversion, and other forms of traction such as DRS Spine Decompression.

Most back pain consists of muscular contractions maintained reflexively by the brain, the master control center for muscular activity and movement (except for momentary reflexes like the stretch reflex or Golgi Tendon Organ inhibitory response, which are spinal reflexes). I put the last comment in for people who are more technically versed in these matters; if these terms are unfamiliar to you, don't worry. My point is that manipulative techniques can be only temporarily effective (as you have probably already found) because they don't change muscular function at the level of brain conditioning, which controls tension and movement, and which causes the back muscle spasms.

Nonetheless, people commonly resort to manipulative techniques because it's what they know -- and manipulation is the most common approach, other than muscle relaxant drugs or analgesics, to pain of muscular origin.


Surgery includes laminectomy, discectomy, implantation of Harrington Rods, and surgical spine stabilization (spinal fusion).

Surgery is the resort of the desperate, although surgery has a poor track record for back pain.

There are situations where surgery is necessary and appropriate -- torn or ruptured discs, fractures, spinal stenosis, rare cases of congenital scoliosis. There are situations where surgery is inappropriate -- bulging discs, undiagnosable pain, muscular nerve impingement.

Severity of pain is not the proper criterion for determining which approach to take. The proper criterion is recognition of the underlying cause of the problem and dealing with that.

Working with Brain-Level Control

Most back disorders are conditioning problems - correctable by clinical somatic education.

Clinical somatic education is not about convincing people that 'things are not so bad, and live with it' or 'understanding their condition better' or instructions for maintaining good posture. It's a procedure to eliminate the underlying cause of pain symptoms and to improve function.

In the case of back pain, the underlying cause -- chronic back tension -- causes muscular pain (fatigue), disc compression, nerve root compression, facet joint irritation, and the catch-all term, arthritis -- all through strictly mechanical means.

Degenerative Disc Disease, for example, though called a disease, is no more a disease of the discs than is excessive wear of tires on an overloaded vehicle with wheels out of alignment. Over a long period of time, accelerated wear accumulates. With discs, they call that a disease. There is no such thing as Degenerative Disc "Disease"; it's breakdown caused by bad conditioning.

Clinical Somatic Education

Clinical somatic education is a discipline distinct from osteopathy, physical therapy, chiropractic, massage therapy, and other similar modalities.

It isn't a "brand" of therapy or treatment, but a category or discipline within which various somatic "brands" or approaches exist. Examples of "brands" include Trager Psychophysical Integration, Aston Patterning, Rolfing Movement, Orthobionomy, Somatic Experiencing, The Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Functional Integration, Hanna Somatic Education and others.

The prime approach of somatic education, through whatever method or "school", is to retrain the nervous system to free muscles from an excessively contracted state and to enhance control of movement, function, and physical comfort.

One key difference of clinical somatic education from manipulative practices is the active participation in learning by the client. It's not just strengthening or stretching, but gaining the ability to relax completely, to exercise full strength, and control of every strength level in between. The added freedom and control that a client learns during sessions, and not what a practitioner does to the client, per se, causes the improvements. In clinical somatic education, the instruction comes from outside; the improvement comes from within.

As education, clinical somatic education deals with memory patterns -- the memories of incidents of injury, of stressful situations and of how to move and how to relax. Memory patterns show up as habitual muscular tension and changes of movement (e.g., limping) and posture (e.g., uneven hips or shoulders).

Deeper-acting somatic disciplines, such as Feldenkrais Functional Integration and Hanna somatic education, deal with more deeply ingrained and unconscious habit patterns formed by injuries and stress.

How it Works

Clinical somatic education uses movement and positioning to enable the client, by combining sensation and improving control of movement, to recapture control of out-of-control muscles. As muscles come under voluntary control, they relax and become responsive, again.

The Distinction: Clinical vs. Enriching Somatic Education

Most forms of somatic education are not "clinical" somatic education; they are "enriching" somatic education that gradually improves movement and sensory awareness. They have limited predictability about when a specific outcome, such as pain-free movement, will occur.

The distinction of a clinical approach to somatic education is the speed with which improvements occur and the ability of its practitioners to predict with a high degree of reliability how many sessions will be required to resolve a specific malady, without further need for medication or treatment by a health professional -- "how long before I can have my lifestyle back".

Even "enriching" somatic education (such as Feldenkrais Somatic Integration or Aston Patterning) alleviates pain, given enough time -- even where more conventional therapeutic methods -- manipulation, adjustments, stretching, strengthening, drugs, acupuncture, surgery -- are less successful or fail altogether.

The specific advantage seen in clinical somatic education by referring physicians is that clinical somatic education, while being effective in the relief of muscular pain and spasticity, has the specific virtue of teaching the client an ability to improve control the muscular complaint (i.e., pain) to the point that there is little chance of a future return of the problem.

For a technical comparison between somatic education and chiropractic (as an example of a manipulative approach), you may click here

For a discussion of back pain and clinical somatic education, you may click here. For a discussion of clinical somatic education and recovery from injury, in general, you may click here.

a candid, two minute video of a back pain client's first moments after completing a one-hour session of clinical somatic education
Click above for the self-relief program for back pain and for other conditions.