As the physical practice of yoga continues to evolve, traditional asana practices are being shaped and informed by somatic movement principles and therapeutic approaches in the form of somatic yoga.
In this article we’ll take a look at;
- what the term “somatics” means in the context of yoga
- how a somatic approach to yoga differs from traditional practices
- what to expect in a somatic inspired yoga class
What is somatic yoga?
Soma = Body (Greek origin)
The Evening Standard says that “Somatics is an umbrella term for lots of different practices that deal with the felt sense”
Yoga is ultimately goal-driven (flexibility, strengthening, purification, liberation) whereas the self-inquiry led somatics prioritizes the immediate experience of ourselves and how we respond based on our internal perception.
Early 20th Century origins of somatic approaches
Some of the first applications of somatic approaches to movement can be found in the early 20th Century and have influenced modalities ranging from yoga to dance. Initially considered an alternative approach to medicine some early pioneers focused on injury recovery, moving well, and the development of physical awareness.
Spanning disciplines from dance to rehabilitation some of the innovators of somatic practices include;
- Frederick Matthias Alexander – The Alexander Technique
- Moshe Feldenkrais – The Feldenkrais Method
- Mabel Elsworth Todd – Ideokinesis
- Gerda Alexander – Eutony
- Ida Rolf – Structural Integration is also known as Rolfing
- Milton Trager – The Trager Approach
- Irmgard Bartenieff – Bartenieff Fundamentals
Thomas Hanna who coined the term somatics in 1977 was a student of Feldenkrais and the author of “Somatics: reawakening the mind’s control of movement, flexibility, and health” says that soma means ‘living body’ or “the body as perceived from within by first-person perception.”
A therapeutic approach
The somatic approach differed from how science had previously looked at the body. The first-person experience or felt sense contrasted the scientific and structural approach to the body which often analyzed and diagnosed based on external rather than internal perception.
Pain is a big part of the motivation behind somatic therapy. Somatics gives the person a voice in how they feel as well as the power to help themselves rather than hoping to “be fixed” by someone or something else.
Pain and tissue damage don’t always correlate and while modern medicine is excellent at dealing with physical trauma and acute injury, somatic approaches can help people to move beyond pain when the injury is no longer there. This can be empowering and help diminish fear around movement.
The intention of somatic informed practice is ‘ to heighten our sensory and movement awareness to facilitate our self-organization, self-healing and self-knowing.’ – Martha Eddy
Historically this approach has been used as a therapeutic tool for retraining the brain and nervous system. Through subtle movements, somatics helps people move better, change unhelpful habits, heal and develop interoceptive as well as proprioceptive awareness.
A medicalized approach to yoga as a therapeutic practice isn’t new so it makes sense that approaches such as Hanna’s have been incorporated into the yoga world to help people feel better and move more efficiently in their bodies.
Key principles of the somatic approach
“Somatic Exercises Are Gentle Movement Patterns That Shift Your Central Nervous System To Create New Muscular Habits. These Exercises Are Performed Consciously To Focus On The Internal Experience Of The Movement, Rather Than The External Appearance, Or Result Of The Movement.” – Trina Altman
It could be argued that yoga is one of the oldest somatic practices. Along with disciplines such as Qigong, Tai chi, and Aikido, yoga has continued to put the body at the forefront of inquiry-based practices. Even Patanjali puts asana, or practices of the body, early on in his eight-limbed system found in The Yoga Sutra.
Compared to other forms of exercise or movement, somatics prioritizes:
- learning instead of achieving
- responding rather than performing
- process-driven approaches
- removing judgment
The attention to moving with skill, control, and awareness rather than goal-orientated practices differentiates it from other exercise modalities.
Interoception is a key term in somatic approaches and many forms of yoga.
Bo Forbes describes interoception as a navigation or internal referencing system for how we perceive ourselves from the inside. She says it is “Our ability to receive, appraise and respond to signal from the body.”
Our Interoceptive capacity is a big part of taking care of ourselves and learning to self-regulate. It helps us understand and interpret signals such as hunger, thirst, and needing the loo. You’ll also find it in our ability to feel our heart rate, breath, and skin responses.
How does this relate to movement?
Sit up straight. Pull your shoulders back. Don’t fidget.
But often slumping, slouching and fidgeting are the body’s natural responses to avoiding discomfort. Many of us have a diminished or confused sense of body signals e.g., sitting at a desk and not noticing signals to move which results in things like our neck or back hurting or eating when we’re bored not hungry.
Somatic approaches to yoga help us to interpret how we feel in the moment and respond accordingly. Noticing ourselves within movement (yoga poses) as well as in stillness (meditation) can be a helpful tool in taking care of ourselves.
“Tuning out of the body’s signals has been linked to eating disorders, alcoholism, anxiety, and depression.” – Jenkinson PM, et al., 2018.
Different approaches to movement
In some yoga styles, the aim is to achieve a pose. In somatics, the focus is the experience, skill, and ease of the movement and transitions. It’s worth taking a look at the two different approaches.
|Somatic Approach||Non-Somatic Approach|
|Process-driven with no right or wrong||Movement is often demonstrated so it can be copied|
|Non-aesthetic language||Often goal-orientated/based on aesthetics|
|Taught through first-person experience rather than demonstration||Alignment focused|
|Often taught through questioning/choices making it inquiry-based||Touch is used as a tool for correction|
|Touch is used as a tool of communication||Judgemental approach|
|Agency is prioritized and rest encouraged||Acquisition-based|
|Awareness of both the moving and still parts of ourselves||Obedience/hierarchy in learning|
|Opportunities to observe the cause and effect of movements||Can be competitive|
|Rhythmic movements rather than isometric holds|
|Focus on internal experience|
Non-somatic approaches can be fear-inducing and overstimulating. A good example would be dance which is predominantly for the external perception (the audience) whereas somatic approaches invite the physical and personal experience of the dancer into the dance.
Styles of yoga such as ashtanga, vinyasa flow, power yoga, and rocket yoga tend to excite the nervous system. Even stretching can be stimulating for the nervous system. Somatic influenced yoga practices incorporate elements of mindfulness, prioritize soothing the nervous system and movements that don’t overstimulate.
Jules Mitchell defines somatic approaches as:
- Moving from within
- Internal perception
How do you know if your yoga practice is informed by somatics?
Most somatic yoga approaches are influenced by Feldenkrais, Tomas Hanna, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (Mind, Body, Centering), and Alexander Technique. But how do these differ from traditional yoga styles and other movement modalities?
“Somatics is a way to understand the larger movements and poses that are practiced later in (a yoga) class because they create new brain connections without a preconceived notion of aesthetics.” – Trina Altman
The fundamental elements of somatics that can be easily incorporated into yoga practices are to develop interoceptive awareness, promote time for rest/integration, encourage self-agency, and use movements that interrupt unhelpful habits and patterns.
In a somatic inspired yoga class you might hear cues such as;
- Does one side of your body feel more in contact with the ground?
- How small can you make the movement and still feel it?
- How can you make the movement more efficient/enjoyable?
Yoga is generally considered different from many movement forms and exercise systems because it challenges us to reflect on how we feel, act, and respond within our lives. This makes it a mind and body practice and somatic approaches reinforce this.
Peter Blackaby in his book “Intelligent Yoga” says that “This approach to yoga also encompasses a more serious attempt to integrate us as human beings, firstly with ourselves, the body/mind; then without fellow humans; and finally with the greater world outside.”
What to expect in a somatic yoga class
Somatic practices often use the floor to give feedback to our experience and the ground-based nature helps to reduce tension and keep the practice accessible. You can expect to explore holding patterns, habits, and tensions as well as maintain an easeful sense of breathing.
Subtle movements, exploration of movement options, and reducing stretch may also feature in a class. These practices often seem restorative or “relaxing” but don’t be fooled as they require a significant amount of concentration and awareness of ourselves while moving and resting. Think of it as a mind practice as much as a body practice.
“The mind, in somatic practices, is perceived as existing throughout the body. By paying attention to the body, one is paying attention to the mind.” – Suzanne Laheusan
Who is somatic yoga for?
The self-reflective nature of this practice means that it’s accessible for those with injury, trauma, restricted movement, and beginners. It’s about promoting safety, learning to move within comfortable ranges, and feeling good in your body right now.
This approach is good for just about anyone because ultimately its principles are rooted in healing and moving well.