Conversations – Susan Koenig

Susan Koenig, Hanna Somatic Education practitioner

Jen: How would you define Hanna Somatics?

Susan: My definition right now “though it changes “is: Hanna Somatic Education teaches you how to release and lengthen contracted muscles using information about the brain and how the brain organizes us through movement patterns. You actually learn how to move in such a way that you release pain, gain flexibility, and allow the brain to organize and coordinate more efficient and comfortable movement in your body.

Jen: What are your clients looking for when they come in to see you?

Susan: Primarily pain issues, movement, safe and gentle exercise. If you can move with ease, you can change your life for the better.

Jen: I am looking at the limitations inherently contained in “labels” whether this is over-identifiyng with an injury or diagnosis or being attached to “my hamstrings are tight.”

Susan: Yes, in our work we must “kiss the boo-boo.”  You must acknowledge the problem that a client is most fixated on. But I do not focus on fixing it. My goal is to help people have overall more efficient, comfortable movement and to learn different movement choices.

Hanna Somatics deals with organizational, fundamental movement patterns. These are developmental patterns that we all have and that we all have available to us within our structure. Some of these things that we all have like “Center of Gravity and Center of Mass (which are usually the same when we are balanced). The spine (our vertical axis) and the Center of Gravity (around the waist at S2) are the two centering points in the body and everything relates back to these two points. How we balance the head on the spine relates to this points and vise versa. For example, if someone comes in with a shoulder problem, say they want to learn to work with it, to relieve it of pain, or to gain more movement, it must be addressed in relation to the spine, the vertical axis, and the Center of Gravity. It has to relate back to the fundamental way in which we are organized “spine and Center of Gravity. The spine “and the nervous system “will always teach the muscles and tissues of the shoulder how to organize so we must always address how the spine is functioning. We must always go back to our intrinsic organizational patterns and centering points.

Jen: So despite the shoulder problem, you look at the spine first?

Susan: Yes. I first look at what the spine is doing. At first glance, what are the dominant trunk and spine patterns? This leads and the shoulder problem follows.

Again, Hanna Somatics works to “re-release” chronically contracted muscles that have become contracted due to habitual tension patterns. To release chronic tension patterns allows people to do life with more ease and freedom. Working within the context of any structural changes/effects that impede movement, it is key to work within someone’s range in order to expand their potential.

Jen: In Hanna Somatic work, there is more table work than there is in a typical Pilates session. So, this is one difference in our work. The table, and you, provide support. I am using more props, the floor, myself, and gravity to help someone feel that same support.

Susan: Yes, the benefit of table work and in working passively with their body is that the practitioner can help the body feel supported so that these chronic tension patterns can release. They learn it passively so that they can do it actively on their own from having learned during the passive experience where the movement was gentle and slow. The brain learns more quickly with gentle and slow. There is less “noise” for the brain to sort through and the learning can be faster. But the goal is for them to do the movement on their own, with more comfort and ease, hopefully, free of pain.

I ask myself this question constantly in a session: “What’s over-laying the body’s own natural bio-intelligence?” What’s interesting to me is it will often happen that what often feels one way when someone is passive, will feel totally different when that person is in gravity. For example, someone’s right spinal muscles may feel relaxed when the person is passive on the table, but when they stand up, those same muscles go into contraction. So, I ask: “What is necessitating them to contract and hold themselves up in gravity that doesn’t have to work when they are relaxed? Why is the body holding?” These questions fascinate me.

Whatever the issue is, I am always relating the whole person and their movements back to the center of the body “the spine and trunk “and back to walking, our most fundamental of movements.

Jen: I am looking at the concept of Core. I am interested in expanding the concept of Core to be about relationships “our relationship to gravity, to ourselves, to others, and to our environment. It is not a muscular concept of Core at all. This is a very different way to talk about Core compared to mainstream Pilates/fitness ideas that associates Core with only muscles residing in the trunk. What is Core to you?

Susan: Core is your body’s relationship to itself. We help balance our Core by releasing chronically contracted muscles in order to have, or regain, better movement patterns based on the body’s own bio-intelligence. We move in order to learn more about ourselves and our bodies. It’s about how we are holding the work that we do, as practitioners, so that we may be an active participant in our own process, and in the overall process of working with others and helping them get more aware of their whole self “how one part effects and relates to the other.

Most people don’t relate exercise to function. They put exercise into a capsule. Instead, I’m interested in how exercise and movement relates to more than just good health so that exercise isn’t this “segmental” thing we “have to do” but rather “how does exercise relate to our whole self? How does it help us to relate to our whole self, our whole lives, and how we move and are in the world? To ask, “What am I really doing?” while I’m exercising might bring a whole lot of awareness to what we’re doing vs. just doing something because “it’s good for me.” This would be a very different mindset.

February 2011

Susan Koenig is a Certified Hanna Somatic Educator, a NCBTMB Approved Provider for Continuing Education, and Nationally Certified Massage Therapist.  She began doing professional massage in 1976 and began teaching and developing curriculum as the Academic Director for National Holistic Institute at it’s inception in 1978.  Her passion for education led her to study many modalities and with many teachers.  She was an active Board of Directors member for the American Massage Therapy Association, California Chapter, for five years; and for three of those years, was the State Education Chair, organizing the educational programs for the yearly conventions.
In 1990 she trained with Dr. Thomas Hanna in Hanna Somatic Education (HSE), author of the book, Somatics–a must read book for bodyworkers / massage therapits, yoga / dance / and fitness practitioners.  HSE involves cortical re-education through gentle sensorimotor movement patterns,  helping the client re-establish voluntary control of their musculoskeletal system.  The goal of this work is to improve and regain function.
Susan has a private practice in Berkeley, CA, and teaches an “almost” weekly Somatic Movement Class at National Holistic Institute, in Emeryville, CA.  She is a licensed instructor of Hanna Somatic Education, and teaches in the Hanna Somatic Professional Training Program for the Novato Institute, Novato, CA.  Susan Koenig has a private practice in Berkeley, CA, and teaches seminars around the country.