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What is Somatic Movement?

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Let’s start with what “somatic” means. The term somatic means “of or relating to the living body,” and it’s used in medical terminology; for example, somatic cell, somatic nervous system, somatic disorder, and somatic pain.

The word soma means “the body as perceived from within.”

The words soma and somatic have become buzzwords in the health and wellness industry. You might have heard of somatic yoga, somatic experiencing, somatic psychology, somatic therapy, or somatic education.

Since the definitions of soma and somatic are fairly generic, they can be used to describe a variety of forms of movement and healing modalities. Pretty much any type of movement or therapy that involves paying attention to your internal physical sensations and experiences can correctly be described as somatic.

A somatic movement is a movement that’s practiced consciously with the intention of focusing on the internal experience of the movement rather than the external appearance or the end result of the movement.

So, technically any movement can be somatic if you focus your attention on what you’re feeling in your body as you move. Forget about what you look like while you’re moving, and don’t think about the end result of your movement, like lifting your leg to a certain height. That doesn’t matter. If you just focus your attention completely on what you’re feeling in your body as you’re moving, then the movement is somatic.

It’s very helpful to close your eyes when you’re practicing any type of somatic movement. Closing your eyes takes away all the visual information that your brain would have to automatically process if your eyes were open. When your eyes are closed, you can focus completely on your internal sensations.

Another defining quality of somatic movement is that it’s exploratory. Even if you’re practicing somatic movement with the intention of releasing muscle tension, relieving pain, improving your posture, or letting go of stress, you still need to be focused on exploring the internal experience of the movement rather than on whatever the end result is that you’re after. Whenever you close your eyes and begin your somatic movement practice, let it be a completely new experience. Explore and notice what you’re feeling in your body at that moment. What you feel in your body today will be different than yesterday and different than tomorrow.

Focusing on the internal experience and process of your movement rather than the end result can be a challenge for a lot of people at first. We’re accustomed to having prescriptions, like doing certain movements a certain number of times so that we can achieve a certain goal. But that doesn’t allow us to discover the patterns of tension that are deeply learned in our nervous system, and it doesn’t allow us to develop new, healthy patterns of movement. Practicing somatic movement is very different than doing situps or pushups; it’s not about the quantity or intensity, it’s about the quality of exploration and conscious attention.

Another defining aspect of somatic movement is that it’s typically practiced very slowly. The human nervous system, which controls our muscle tension, posture, and movement, must learn new things very slowly. This applies to how we learn all new things.

Imagine trying to learn a new language. First you start by learning one word at a time. You have to practice every day, and repeat words over and over so that you remember them. Gradually you start stringing those words into short sentences. Eventually, if you keep practicing, you’ll be able to have a conversation with someone in this new language.

Learning a new way of using your body is exactly the same. You have to start by moving very slowly. When you do movements quickly, you’re not learning anything new—you’re just reinforcing existing patterns that are deeply learned in your nervous system. So, you have to practice this new way of moving every day so that the new neural pathways you’re forging can get reinforced. Over time, you’ll be able to gradually speed up and perform movements more quickly while still maintaining correct form and muscular control.

So, we’ve answered the original question of what is somatic movement. Now I’ll discuss somatic movement education. This is usually referred to just as somatic education. This term was coined by Thomas Hanna, who was a student of Moshe Feldenkrais. The Feldenkrais Method is probably the most well-known method of somatic education. Other methods of somatic education are the Alexander Technique and Clinical Somatic Education (which was developed by Thomas Hanna, and is also known as Hanna Somatic Education).

Thomas Hanna used the term somatic education to describe methods of sensorimotor education that use somatic movement to improve motor control and sensation and change learned muscular patterns. A simpler way to say this, and some people will argue that this is oversimplified, is that somatic education allows you to retrain your muscle memory, or your learned motor patterns.

The benefit of retraining your muscle memory is that you can release your chronic muscle tension, relieve your chronic pain, improve your posture and movement, and recover from many common musculoskeletal conditions.

Different methods of somatic education teach somatic movements in different ways to address patterns of tension, pain, and postural misalignment. They may use both hands-on movements, which are guided by a certified educator, and self-care movements, which are practiced by the student on their own at home.

One of the tenets of all forms of somatic education is that students should be responsible for their own health and learning. The role of a somatic educator is to empower students to take care of themselves by teaching them the tools they need to release their tension, relieve their pain and continue to improve their posture, movement, and somatic functioning throughout their lives.

So, finally I’ll describe Clinical Somatic Education. This is the type of somatic education that I teach. It was developed by Thomas Hanna during the 1970’s and 80’s. Hanna developed a movement technique called pandiculation that is unique to Clinical Somatics, and pandiculation is what makes Clinical Somatics so effective at retraining muscle memory and relieving chronic pain.

Pandiculation releases chronic muscle tension. When we spend hours stretching, or getting massages, or massaging ourselves with rollers and tennis balls, what we really should be doing is pandiculating our muscles, because pandiculation has lasting effect. It reduces the baseline level of tension in our muscles being set by our nervous system. So when you pandiculate your muscles on a regular basis, not only can you stop doing all those other things like stretching and massaging, but you can actually make progress. Your muscles will become looser and more relaxed over time, your musculoskeletal pain will go away, and your posture and movement will continue to improve. You can learn more about pandiculation in this article: What is Pandiculation?