What Even is 'Somatic Exercise?' Let me tell you ...
You might already know that in addition to being a Yoga and Mat Pilates Instructor, I’m also something called a ‘Somatic Exercise Coach’ (SEC). But what even is that? I’d like to explain!
I had the absolute privilege of training under Lisa Petersen of Living Yoga (Ireland) when she came to Australia over several consecutive years. I was one of the first of her trainees in Australia, and genuinely stumbled across her course quite accidentally (and serendipitously!) It changed my world. Not only did it change the way I taught, it changed the way I experienced my own body and how I could help myself with the chronic tension and discomfort that my yoga practice wasn’t impacting deeply enough. Somatic Exercise is a system in an of itself and can be practised in ‘isolation’ as a stand-alone modality, or offered in conjunction with other movements systems – like Yoga and Pilates.
The modality itself stems from the work of Thomas Hanna, who was the director of the Novato Institute for Somatic Research and Training in the US. This work has been carried on by many practitioners, some of whom trained at the Novato Institute, and others who trained under others who trained there (what a mouthful!)
The title of Thomas Hanna’s book is perhaps the best introduction I can give here to the modality:
Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health.
Rooted at the base of his theory is the idea of Sensory Motor Amnesia – a “habituated state of forgetfulness … (that) is a memory loss of how certain muscle groups feel and how to control them.” (Hanna, 1988). This ‘memory loss’ occurs at the level of the nervous system which means that we quite literally ‘forget’ how to voluntarily ‘relax’ the habituated muscular contractions that have led us to this state of forgetting.
We get to this state of forgetting in a number of different ways, but at the core of it, it’s a matter of habit. We move and hold ourselves in a certain way over and over again until the nervous system itself recognises these holding patterns as ‘normal.’
The purpose of Somatic Exercise is then to ‘reawaken’ or ‘re-member’ how to move and ‘relax’ beyond these habituated patterns.
Let’s throw an example in, just to check we’re still together on this explanation.
So, let’s take a common experience here.
Who suffers from sore shoulders?
Who often finds their shoulders tucked up around their ears as though they’re a fashionable ear-decoration?
Who finds that this happens quite subconsciously, as though you literally cannot control it?
Yes, I know you know what I’m saying.
Ok, now if we engage in this pattern of holding our shoulders up to our ears for long enough, often enough, our nervous system begins to see this as ‘normal.’
We do it long enough and suddenly this new normal is so normal that our nervous system forgets how to give us a different experience (i.e. our ‘old’ normal.)
Now, try as you might, those poor shoulders are chronically tight and you can’t get any relief. From a Somatic Exercise perspective, what we need to do now is re-train the nervous system to essentially allow a different experience – i.e. one that isn’t so tense. We’re really asking the nervous system to re-set what ‘normal’ looks like.
Ok, so now that we have that example to mull over, let’s talk about the specifics. Like how, exactly, we go about this ‘re-training.’
And here’s how: through movement that you are mentally focused on and curious about.
This bit is really important. You cannot do this without focused attention. So no multi-tasking here.
As you move, you want to be intensely interested in the sensations you notice in your body. As you contract through a certain area of the body, notice what that feels like. It’s not analysis, just noticing, getting curious. Then, as you consciously release the contraction, you’re getting curious about how that feels and seeing if you can find a sense of ‘melt’ and fluidity (the fluidity comes with time, often we find the release very hesitant and ‘staccato’).
These movements are all about ease, moving slowly and with intention, taking a ‘less is more’ approach, and getting curious.
The movements themselves are many and varied, but at the crux of them all lays this simple premise: Pandiculation.
You know those great big yawny stretches cats do when they wake up? That right there is pandiculating. And somatic exercise is essentially voluntary pandiculation. This means contraction beyond the current level of contraction in the muscle (it can be by just a tiny bit – remember it’s a less is more approach), followed by a slow and conscious release, as well as a moment of total ‘melt’ at the end.
Now that we have that little summary all laid out, let’s do some practical sensing and feeling stuff. In the video below, I’m going to take you through a simple somatic exercise practice for the shoulders/upper chest. This is just a small bit of the Somatic Exercise world, but it serves as a wonderful way to feel for yourself the impact these movements can have. Find somewhere comfortable to lay – a yoga mat, carpeted floor or similar - and switch off all your other distractions for a few minutes. Here we go …
So, how did you find it?
Did you notice a difference before and after?
Did you notice one side easier to ‘control’ than the other?
This is super-interesting movement stuff and I hope you enjoyed that little intro.
I infuse all of my classes with Somatic Exercise and we dive a little deeper in my Re-Align & Re-Charge sessions.
This way of moving is deeply restorative and offers a gentle, self-directed way to reduce tension and increase physical comfort and ease.
Now, keep being kind and curious as you move in the world.