Somatic movement has been influencing my yoga teaching since my most recent yoga teacher training course with Donna Farhi in 2015 and increasingly in the last year while I've been training in Somatics with Lisa Petersen.
A bit about somatics...
In somatics there is no separation made between the body and mind – we simply have a ‘soma’ – described by my teacher, Lisa Petersen, as an “aware, awake, alive, living, breathing, thinking, conscious body-mind”. And described by Thomas Hanna, the originator of somatics, as a “living body in all its wholeness” and the “body experienced from within”. This is also a principle I have come across in practicing Kum Nye, an integrated practice that links Buddhist enquiry with the ‘bodymind’. In Tibetan Buddhism they also make no separation between the body and mind.
Somatics is essentially a form of mindful movement, a practice that encourages self-enquiry in order to develop self-knowledge and facilitate self care and self-healing. Somatics is based on the premise that if certain reflexes, which are responses to the stresses or other stimuli in our life, are repeated often enough, they can cause our muscles to repeatedly tense up and then forget how to relax. ‘Sensory motor amnesia’ (SMA) is the term used to describe anywhere in our structure where the muscles have forgotten how to relax. We can also develop new strategies after an injury that help for a time but then stop being helpful once the injury is healed, but the body develops a new habit from that pattern. Somatic exercises teach the muscles how to relax again and to stay relaxed. During the exercises we track, map and register internal sensations and this attention to sensation allows us to develop a conscious conversation with our nervous system and repattern any unhelpful muscular habits. In somatics we use our brain to change our body, and you learn how to help yourself rather than rely on anybody else. With SMA, we have essentially lost the voluntary control of the muscles concerned, the brain is constantly telling the muscles to contract, and we get stuck in habitual patterns even once the initial stresses no longer exist. Somatic exercices have been developed to help us ‘re-member’ (put ourselves back together again) that these parts of our body’s exist and teach the muscles to learn to relax again, helping us move and function more effectively again.
Somatics uses ‘pandiculation’ to help the muscles learn to relax again. The word pandiculation comes from ‘pandiculare’, meaning to yawn, and pandiculations are rather like whole body yawns. With pandiculation we consciously tighten the muscles shortening them, and then consciously and slowly release the contraction, allowing the muscle to naturally lengthen. The tightening of the muscles is a concentric contraction which is stronger than the current muscle tonus. This is followed by the conscious eccentric contraction when the muscles lengthen – allowing them to become longer than before the pandiculation. After each movement we have a moment of total relaxation, fully ‘letting go’ and melting before starting the next movement. Pandiculation helps change the conversation between our brain and our muscles. Pandiculation allows more lengthening of the muscles than ordinary stretching which can be hindered by the stretch reflex.
Somatic exercises are done slowly and with our full attention given to the sensations arising – noticing which muscles are sliding short (contracting) and which muscles are sliding long (lengthening) in each of the movements. We pay attention to whether the movements feel smooth, whether they can slide, glide and move effortlessly, easily and freely, or whether they feel a bit bumpy, jumpy, sticky or effortful. With somatics we develop our ‘interoreception’ – getting to know what’s going on inside of ourselves. When the movements don’t feel smooth it’s a sign we have some SMA in that area and need to spend plenty of time working there slowly and with full awareness until the muscles are retrained to move more naturally and functionally. It’s a bit like ironing out the creases in some crumpled shirts. The complete ‘moment of melt’ at the end of each release is a time for our bodymind (soma) to full integrate the changes that are being made.
Somatic exercices help us remember what the body has forgotten by bringing what is unconscious to the conscious. Moving slowly with full awareness is a process of self-enquiry, helping us monitor changes and develop self-knowledge, helping us get to know ourselves and how best to help ourselves. Somatic movement education guides people to self-care independently, teaching self-responsibility and reducing the need for therapists.