Combining Your Clinical Somatics and Yoga Practices

One of the questions that students ask me most often is whether or not they should continue their yoga practice while doing Clinical Somatics exercises, and if so, how to go about combining the two practices.

I love yoga, and I practice it regularly. Everything I’ve learned and changed about my body by doing Clinical Somatics has enhanced my yoga practice tremendously, and I’m all in favor of practicing both.

If you’re not familiar with Clinical Somatics, it’s a method of neuromuscular retraining developed by Thomas Hanna. The slow, gentle exercises release subconsciously held muscle tension and retrain habitual posture and movement patterns. Most people start practicing Clinical Somatics to relieve chronic pain, but the exercises provide endless benefits for yogis and any type of athlete.

There’s no single form of movement that gives us everything we need in terms of muscular control, strength, cardiovascular fitness, coordination, balance, and range of motion. In this post I’ll talk about how Clinical Somatics allows you to get the most out of your yoga practice by increasing your range of motion and muscular control, heightening your sensory-motor awareness, and improving your breath and mental focus.

Pushing your limits safely

I think one reason the question about practicing both Clinical Somatics and yoga comes up so frequently is that stretching is integral to many forms of yoga, and in my teaching of Clinical Somatics I’m constantly saying not to stretch.

So, first I’ll clarify what I mean when I say not to stretch. Static stretching, in which you pull on an inactive muscle, has no lasting effect on the length of the muscle. It can temporarily reduce the activity of your stretch reflex, relaxing the muscle for a short time. But typically within a few hours you’ll feel the muscle start to tighten up again as your stretch reflex regains normal function. Static stretching is usually uncomfortable, and can cause muscle strains if done too quickly or deeply.

So when I say not to stretch, I mean that you should not do static stretches. But there are other ways to “stretch” or lengthen your muscles, and I’ll call these active stretching.

There are various definitions of active stretching. One definition describes it as a muscle lengthening while it’s also contracting. This might sound impossible, but that’s exactly what an eccentric contraction is, and also what a pandiculation is (that’s how we release muscles in Clinical Somatics).

Another definition of active stretching describes it as moving one muscle group to lengthen another. This definition brings reciprocal inhibition into the picture—that’s a nervous system response that automatically releases a muscle group when the opposing muscle group contracts.

During a yoga class, I’m aware of all three types of muscle lengthening. As I move through the poses, I can feel when I’m contracting one group of muscles and releasing the opposing group. When coming out of a pose involves an eccentric contraction, I do it as slowly as possible to mimic a pandiculation. And when the instructor says to do a static stretch—I simply don’t do it!

Occasionally I’ll skip a pose during class, but most often I’ll find a way to do the static stretching pose safely. The simplest way to do this is to stay within a very comfortable range of motion, so that you don’t feel the pulling sensation in your muscles. If you practice Clinical Somatics exercises on a regular basis, you’ll get very sensitive to the sensation of static stretching—that uncomfortable sensation of pulling on a muscle that doesn’t want to lengthen any farther. You’ll instinctively back off as soon as you feel that sensation.

Another way to avoid static stretching is by staying active in every pose, even if it’s a still pose. I think most yoga instructors would agree that even an unmoving pose is actually a movement. You shouldn’t ever stop actively engaging your muscles or stop breathing. You shouldn’t ever feel like you’re “holding” a position. You should be breathing, engaging your muscles, making subtle adjustments, and very gradually and safely moving deeper into the pose if you’re able to.

One student asked me why on one hand I don’t want to overstretch my muscles (as in the practice of Clinical Somatics) and on the other hand I want to stretch my body to new limits (as in the practice of yoga). My answer is this:

Clinical Somatics releases and lengthens muscles in a different way than yoga. It does so through the movement technique of pandiculation, which sends accurate biofeedback to our nervous system about the level of tension in our muscles. Pandiculation reduces the resting level of tension in our muscles being set by our nervous system, and it does so in a way that does not feel like stretching. So even though Clinical Somatics does in fact extend the limits of our movement, it doesn’t do so by straining or forcing anything, so it doesn’t feel like a struggle—instead, it feels very relaxing.

On the flip side, when practicing yoga you may feel that sensation of being at your limit and trying to push further. If you’re doing this in a safe way—by not doing static stretching, by not putting strain on your joints, and by not doing anything that feels “wrong” or harmful to your body—that’s fine. Gradually moving deeper into poses can result in increased muscular control and range of motion. But remember that your body is like a rubber band: it will go much farther if you move slowly. If you pull on it too fast or demand too much of it, it will break. If you’re trying to move deeper into a pose by forcing, straining, or pulling on your muscles, you probably won’t get any lasting benefit, and you may end up creating more tension in your body or injuring yourself.

When practicing yoga, you should move slowly into and through the poses. Take the time to notice what your muscles are doing as you move. Make subtle adjustments to your posture as you move into each pose. Stay engaged, keep breathing, and keep making adjustments while you’re in each pose.

Above all, remember that you must be your own teacher. No one else knows what it feels like to be in your body. Your yoga teacher is your guide, but you shouldn’t follow his or her instruction blindly. Don’t do things that feel wrong in your body. Take your teacher’s instruction as an opportunity to explore how your body feels and how you’re able to move. Yoga should be about your internal experience of the movements, not about what your pose looks like or what the other students are doing. As I’ll describe in the next section, you’ll get more benefit from yoga by focusing on your internal sensations.

Increasing your sensory-motor awareness and muscular control

So as we just discussed, one way that Clinical Somatics improves your yoga practice is by reducing the resting level of tension in your muscles. This allows you to move more deeply into yoga poses. Clinical Somatics also makes you aware of when you’re keeping muscles tight unnecessarily, and allows you to voluntarily “let go” and relax your muscles rather than making you feel like you need to stretch them in order to release them.

Clinical Somatics also improves your yoga practice by increasing sensory-motor awareness. The complete internal focus on how your body is moving—extremely slowly, in silence, and with your eyes closed—gives you a level of sensory-motor awareness that can’t be attained from any other type of movement.

Clinical Somatics exercises give you finely tuned muscular control through the full range of motion of your muscles. The combination of heightened sensory-motor awareness and muscular control allows you to sense when your posture or movement is the slightest bit off, and make subtle but powerful shifts in your posture and muscle tension as you move through each yoga pose.

As we move through yoga poses, our nervous system automatically coordinates the contraction and release of muscles throughout our body. In doing a single pose, we’re strengthening some muscles while actively lengthening others. We’re developing coordination, balance, and muscular control through our full range of motion. The slow, fluid, controlled movements in yoga create a type of strength throughout our body that can’t be achieved by running, lifting weights, or playing team sports. Clinical Somatics allows us to develop this strength, coordination, and control to an even greater degree.

Incorporating diaphragmatic breathing into your movement

In Clinical Somatics we incorporate diaphragmatic breathing as a natural extension of movement. We inhale slowly and deeply as we arch the lower back, letting our belly push forward, because this movement allows more space for our lungs to expand. We exhale as we flatten the lower back and contract the abdomen, because emptying our lungs allows for a more complete contraction of the abdomen. With regular practice, this natural, relaxed way of breathing soon becomes habitual, and shallow breathing (thoracic breathing or clavicular breathing) begins to feel wrong.

Training yourself to breathe in this way—not simply diaphragmatic breathing, but doing it in such a way that it enhances your movement—will immediately improve your yoga practice. You’ll instinctively feel the most natural way to inhale and exhale as you move. You won’t hold your breath during poses in which you stay in a position for several seconds or longer, and this will help you turn unmoving poses into active movements. Overall, you’ll feel more relaxed and grounded throughout your yoga practice.

Improving your mental focus

Mental focus is a fundamental part of both Clinical Somatics and yoga practices. In Clinical Somatics, our mind is completely focused on how we’re moving and the sensations that we’re feeling internally as we move. The exercises are most effectively practiced in silence, with our eyes closed, so that our brain doesn’t have to process visual or auditory information. The movements are so slow that they require 100% of our conscious attention, so mental distraction is eliminated. This complete internal focus heightens sensory-motor awareness, allows for the retraining of the nervous system, and trains the mind to have a single focus. So on top of all the neuromuscular benefits, Clinical Somatics is moving meditation.

Yoga trains mental focus in a slightly different way, at least in my experience of practicing forms of hatha and vinyasa yoga. In a yoga class, our focus is both internal and external. With our eyes open, we’re automatically taking in all of the visual information in the room—the physical space, the instructor, and the other students. At the same time, we must focus on how our body feels internally and how we need to move in order to do each pose.

Maintaining a strong mental focus in yoga can be challenging with all of this input. You may notice that your mind sometimes wanders to the rest of your life—work and family demands, and what you need to get done after class. As your yoga teacher has likely suggested, it’s helpful to pick something in front of you to look at so that you can establish a drishti or focused gaze while you practice. However, what’s helped me most is practicing Clinical Somatics.

Focusing all of my attention on my movement and internal sensations when doing Clinical Somatics exercises has done wonders for my ability to focus during yoga classes. Even with my eyes open, I’m able to give my (nearly) undivided attention to what I’m feeling throughout my body—in fact, it’s difficult not to, since my sensory-motor awareness is so heightened. With this focused attention, I’m able to get even more out of my yoga practice. In a way, it’s an extension of my Clinical Somatics practice. The slow, controlled movements in yoga allow me to pay attention to my alignment and the level of tension in my muscles, and adjust myself so that I can get the most out of each pose.

Combining your Clinical Somatics and yoga practices

So, how do you combine your practice of Clinical Somatics and yoga? You simply need to practice both, and take what you’ve learned in your Clinical Somatics practice and bring it into your yoga practice. Doing this allows you to reinforce the muscular releases and new patterns of posture and movement that you’ve learned by doing Clinical Somatics exercises. It also allows you to get more out of your yoga practice by letting you go deeper into the poses, and improving your breath and mental focus.

I often do a few Clinical Somatics exercises right before yoga class—whichever exercises I feel I need to do that day to loosen up and warm up for class. I typically do my full 20-30 minute Clinical Somatics practice in the evening, after I’ve done most of my physical activity for the day. The exercises release any tension I’ve built up during the day, undo any damaging patterns I might have learned or strengthened, and relax me before bed.

A student asked me if, since there are so many benefits to both Clinical Somatics and yoga, I was inspired to develop a new discipline that combined the two forms of movement. Many yoga instructors are now teaching Clinical Somatics exercises in their classes, though I don’t think they’re actually creating a hybrid movement technique—they’re simply teaching the exercises either at the beginning or end of their classes. I’m all in favor of this as long as the exercises are being taught and practiced correctly.

I personally don’t think that a hybrid method is necessary. Most movement techniques are most powerful, both physically and mentally, when practiced in their purest form. We should take what we learn from every physical practice—somatics, yoga, running, strength training, etc—and bring it into every activity that we do.

When I practice yoga, I do it as “somatically” as possible. This may make more sense if you practice Clinical Somatics exercises on a regular basis; when you do, you’ll likely start to practice yoga somatically without stopping to think intellectually about what that means. You’ll focus completely on your internal sensations without even trying, because your sensory-motor awareness will be so heightened. You’ll instinctively adjust your posture as you move because you’ll be so in tune with your proprioception (how you sense your body in space). You’ll automatically relax muscles that are holding unnecessary tension. And your breath will become a natural part of your movement.

As I said earlier, you must be your own teacher. Clinical Somatics lays the groundwork for becoming the expert in your own body. It shows you where you hold excess tension and teaches you how to release that tension. It allows you to find the imbalances in your posture and movement and change them. And it allows you to get the most out of your yoga practice—and any physical practice you pursue.