Welcome to Somatics: A trauma-sensitive approach to movementFeb 16, 2023
It was a winter evening in London, the close of a day’s practice with Tias Little at one of his Intensives. As the rest of the 50 or so yogis gathered belongings and filtered, I found myself unable to leave the studio. Tias is a long-time teacher and author of yoga books including “Yoga for the Subtle body” and his teaching integrates somatic movement with asana & meditation.
We had been practicing gentle, somatic movements with Tias, and something, somehow had shifted. I felt wobbly, that sort of discombobulated feeling like when you've received some bad news. But this was nervous system stuff - something at the centre of my experience. Something that demanded I pause and take note. There was nothing specific, no memory, no rage, but a sort of indistinct, mellow unsettling. Something lurking & making itself quietly known.
I was not alone, another woman looked similarly disorientated, and we quietly acknowledged our shared condition while drinking tea and being gentle with ourselves & each other.
What is it about the practice that reaches so deep?
Perhaps it’s that there’s nowhere to go, nothing to achieve. Unlike yoga asana there is no specific shape or form the body is asked to make. Rather we tend to rock rhythmically in time with the breath, in and out, in and out. Or explore freely, feeling, sensing. So that with the freedom of movement, we feel the body & the nervous system are able to shift, perhaps lulled into ease, or in my case the possibility of ease through the unsettling.
The practice tallies so closely with trauma-sensitive yoga principles - the choice to move or rest, the focus on interception (feeling inwardly) and the present moment experience. So it is not surprising that the practice can also put us in touch with our inner world in such a profound way.
It may be the rhythm we feel is a dropping into a state of being before we were best with pains or trauma. It feels as if the pulse of life makes itself more clearly felt. Somatics invites us into an intimate relationship with our “developmental self” because somatic movement follows developmental patterns - how we moved as babies and toddlers. We trace the reflexes of the organism through its developmental processes, the “nowhere to go” of the baby, with pushing, reaching and rolling-exploring.
This mimics the evolutionary processes of the planet’s creatures. The side-to-side spinal movement of the fishes, reaching of limbs of amphibians, organizing spine and limbs of the more complex organisms.
So what exactly is somatics?
Somatics describes any practice that uses the mind-body connection to help you survey your internal self and listen to signals your body sends about areas of pain, discomfort, or imbalance. It tends to be slow and sometimes tiny movements, so the hitherto unconscious becomes conscious.
These practices give you more information about how you hold on to experiences in your body.
The practices are designed to be explored for the sake of movement and awareness. Our ability to move connects us to the force that moves us- and moves through us. Much like the prana of the yogis. We connect with awareness to the patterns we hold physically and feel them shift as the nervous system resets. The tightness of the neck or hip might dissipate through attentiveness and the chance to rebalance in some fundamental way.
Where did the Idea come from?
Thomas Hanna, an educator in the field, coined the term in 1970 to describe a number of techniques that share one important similarity: they help bridge body and mind through body awareness.
Somatic practices have become increasingly popular in the Western world over the last 50 years, but also draw from ancient Eastern philosophy and healing practices, including tai chi and qi gong.
What are somatic exercises?
Somatic exercises involve exploring movement and stillness. There are different traditions, which belong in the family of somatics:
Body-Mind Centring - developed by Bonnie Bainbridge Coen
Alexander technique - actors and singers often practice this
Feldenkrais method - developed by Moshe Feldenkrais
Hanna Somatics - Tomas Hanna a student of Feldekrais developed the work further.
Laban movement analysis - relating more to dance.
Through the movement with awareness we become able to re-set some of our movement tendencies- like reaching back to reset the nervous system. This can help us learn more efficient and effective ways of moving. Getting more in touch with the body can also have the added benefit of increasing our emotional awareness.
Does it work & how does it relate to Yoga?
More research is needed but studies so far look promising with evidence that the practices can reduce back pain, improve balance and coordination & increase range of movement, especially in older adults.
Many of the movements already look very familiar to us yogis & can slot perfectly into class, particularly as a “mellow movement” phase of class; perhaps to reset and rest or as a warming or closing sequence.
These types of movement are quite accessible, somatics opens up the potential to teach older or less mobile people who often do not attend yoga classes.
The practices also suit those with a developed practice who are sensitised to inter-conception (feeling sensations). So they suit mixed “level” classes and a trauma-sensitive class environment.
Restorative Yoga and Somatics
The movement of somatics with the stillness of restorative poses is a winning combination. The gentle rocking & developmental movements of somatics- think cat cow but perhaps from supine with extra explorations side to side. Brings to life the deep calm of restorative poses.
Often stillness can feel so challenging when we have been rushing in life. Somatics helps us find our way towards rest.
My preference now is to combine these 2 traditions within my own restorative practice, especially when it feels hard to switch from a busy day into stillness.
My Somatics & Restorative Course
I am happy to share this approach in my new course for 2023, in my Restorative & Somatics Intensive.
I am sharing this with a combination of real-time study and practice (in-person or online) plus pre-recorded content so that you can continue to explore and deepen your experience from home.
You will receive:
home practice classes of somatics & restorative yoga
classes sequences ready to use with restorative with somatics
hatha sequences integrated with restorative & or somatics
Talks on the nervous system
I’ve created a simple video of some Somatic practice on my Instagram if you want to see more.
Get in touch if you have any questions. I hope to share this passion with you soon, thanks for reading!
References & Research
One study of 87 older adults (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28840179/) showed many participants saw improved mobility after 12 Feldenkrais movement lessons.
One 2013 study Trusted Source of five participants found evidence to suggest that Rosen Method bodywork could help reduce pain and fatigue in people living with chronic back pain. This somatic technique helps promote increased bodily and emotional awareness through the use of words and touch. After 16 weekly sessions, participants not only experienced decreased physical symptoms, but they also saw improvements in their mood and emotional mindset.
A 2017 study looking at 53 older adults found evidence to suggest that the Feldenkrais method, an approach that helps people expand movement and increase bodily self-awareness, is a beneficial treatment for chronic back pain.
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