Somatic Pathway Hub
By Kevin O’Connor
Somatic practices are techniques and therapies that promote a connection between the observational mind and the felt sensations of the body. The etymology of the term “somatic” is derived from the Greek word soma, meaning the living body.” Thus, somatics is an umbrella term for any experiential bodily practice that encourages inner attentiveness as well as awareness of how outside forces and events shape internal experiences of one’s body. Various practitioners use the term differently, yet most overlap in a handful of shared values:
- The body is perceived as a source of human intelligence.
- One can learn and heal by attending to bodily experience.
- Bodily experiences are subjective and should be honored and respected.
Somatic techniques vary and may include movement, sound, visualization, touch, and/or physical manipulation. The use of imagery and metaphor, which can contribute to shifts in sensorimotor patterns, is also common among somatic therapies. Whatever techniques are used, the somatic process involves “sensing in” to the moment-by-moment experience of the physical body so that ultimately the sensory information gathered there can be processed and integrated.
One key principle of somatics is that it is necessary to slow down and take time to observe and attend to the body’s felt sense at any given moment. In slowing down, we quiet our thinking minds and attune to the details of the sensations within us. People use somatic practices to work with pain, create new behavioral patterns, and support improved vitality and wellbeing. Through somatic techniques, we come to better understand our habits and motivations and navigate our lives’ opportunities and complexities with greater clarity and presence. One hypothesis regarding how somatic practices work is that new neural pathways are formed as novel sensory-motor patterns are explored. In other words, through embodied exploration, we gain access to new ways of perceiving and interacting with ourselves and with the people and circumstances in our lives.
Somatics and Emotions
Emotions are often considered in relation to our thoughts and, in some theories, seen as existing within the brain. Indeed, different structures within our brain, such as the insular cortex and the amygdala, play significant roles in interpreting and processing emotions. Most of us, however, first become aware of our emotions when they arise as bodily sensations. For example, we feel a knot form in our stomach when we become angry, a tightness across the chest when we are anxious, or a warm flush if we feel embarrassed. When experiencing our emotions, the associated bodily sensations arise in response to various stimuli, after which the intellect recognizes and assigns meaning to the sensation(s). Emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, excitement, gratitude, and joy each have a felt sense in the body. As the emotions change, bodily sensations and behaviors change with them.
When one is said to have somatized an emotion, such as fear or stress, one is experiencing a physical sensation that can be associated with an emotion within the body. The physical symptoms of emotional distress are called somatic symptoms and can contribute to chronic pain, digestive concerns, muscle tension, sleep problems, and respiratory issues, to name a few. We all somatize our emotions. This is not necessarily a problem because our emotions and the accompanying sensations tend to come and go. However, when negative emotions such as fear or stress become chronic and lingering or recurring sensations are perceived as disruptive or disturbing, they can interfere with our quality of life. This is where somatic therapy can be helpful.
Therapies and Treatments
A primary tenet of somatic therapy is a shift of attention away from a “top-down” verbal analysis of a situation or experience and towards a “bottom-up” approach. A client or student is guided to temporarily let go of the intellectual story of a given experience and shift attention to bodily sensations and how the individual is feeling physically. For example, when addressing fear, a therapist or guide might ask the client, “where do you feel fear in your body now, and what does it feel like inside of you?” The goal is not to help the client or student find words that describe the feeling but rather to guide them to become aware of how fear is presenting in the body at any given moment.
One benefit of this approach is that it moves the client’s focus away from cognitive processing, which is the mind’s way of making sense of an experience and is always based on memory and historical context, and towards what is actually happening in the moment. This process can empower the client to gain observational distance from the perceived cause of distress. It is also theorized that developing somatic sensing skills supports one’s capacity for self-regulation. In addition to gaining observational distance, this “bottom-up” approach provides agency to the client to both observe and integrate the uncomfortable emotion itself. In a state of self-regulation, the body-mind is freed up to metabolize the root cause as well as the present symptom(s) of the distress.
To this end, tools such as Somatic Movement Sensing (SMS) help one develop an awareness of how bodily sensations rise and fall within us in relation to our lived experience. This form of somatic therapy invites the client to notice minute movements of muscles, variations in skin temperature, changes to heart rate or breathing patterns, and internal sensations such as tingling, looseness or tightness of muscles or joints, and resistance to, or ease of, various movements. Overall psychological attitudes or intentions having to do with movement may also be observed as the client gathers information about internal states, self-understanding, self-reflection, and the ability to self-regulate improve.
Other techniques, such as somatic experiencing (SE), offer a framework for assessing an individual’s nervous system default. Our bodies are designed to move fluidly between the social, playful “rest and digest” state of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the more dynamic and distressful states of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is associated with the “fight, flight, or freeze response.” In the presence of strong emotions caused by trauma or chronic stress, the body can become “stuck” in a state of overactive SNS activation. SE techniques provide tools that help one identify and resolve these fixated physiological states.
Other somatic practices examine habits, unconscious reactions to situations, embodied survival strategies, and, in some cases, forms we hold collectively. Regardless of the method, all somatic practices aim to help us deconstruct the embodied patterns that are no longer serving us and assist in creating new habits that support both individual and collective wellbeing.
Ultimately, our bodies serve as the interface between ourselves and the world around us. The quality of our self-awareness, including the information that comes into the brain from the body via the central and autonomic nervous systems, directly influences the quality of communication between ourselves and others. Research on somatic communication, which informs the fields of phenomenology, experimental psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, contemplative and religious studies, exercise science, psychotherapy, self-help, education, and more, validates the importance of the subtle and not so subtle ways in which we express ourselves through both conscious and unconscious body language as a foundational component of communication.
The mindfulness cultivated by somatic practices shines a light on the multitude of ways in which our bodies impact and are impacted in shared spaces where reciprocal, interpersonal communication is occurring. Increasing awareness of the ways in which we communicate with our bodies, and the ways in which the body language of others affects our perception, can be revelatory. In addition, developing skill sets in this area can unearth our biases, including the places we are unaware of and yet carry in our own soma, and help us manifest healthy boundaries in our relationships and become more tolerant of the subjective experience of others.
Oppression is a form of trauma that lives in the body. Our bodily selves are impacted by and constituted through inequitable social relations. Our bodies exist as a primary locus of multiple and intersecting social identities. What we experience in life both shapes, and is shaped by, these social identities. Research in somatic psychotherapy has found that those who experience oppression over long periods often have similar symptoms to people who suffer from acute traumatic events. Common bodily symptoms of trauma include alienation from the body and bodily sensations, constriction of movement, and bodily tension associated with hypervigilance. Understanding that symptoms of oppression, like symptoms from other forms of trauma, reside in the body provides an opportunity to address the distress through somatic modalities. A successful somatic practice or therapy can improve symptoms and provide a sense of empowerment and self-knowledge to someone who is unlearning oppression. As more practitioners take an interest in the bodily trauma of different kinds of oppression, new techniques are emerging that directly address the physical legacies left behind by this particular and troubling type of trauma.
Sample Practice A: Somatic Body Scan
Starting with your feet and working up towards your head––ask each part of your body the following questions and notice what kinds of thoughts or ideas emerge:
“What do I feel?”
“What do I need?”
“What can I do?”
As you move up the body, fill each region or body part with affectionate awareness. Be curious. Inquire of each body part with the attention of a good friend. Connect with courage, and welcome any response, no matter how radical it may seem to you. As you can, you may notice that fascia, bones, muscles, and organs are distinguishable, with different emotional tones, holding patterns, and sensory responses to the questions you are asking.
Sample Practice B: Tending to the Emotions
Find a comfortable position in which to sit or lie down. Take a moment to become as calm and as relaxed as you can. Consider taking a few deep, full breaths (with each breath, feel the inhalation filling you with calmness and peacefulness and the exhalation releasing tension). Settle and focus on relaxing your body more and more with each out-breath. Next, identify a challenging emotion that you are experiencing now or that you experience often. Invite your physical body to allow the emotion to become present so that you may come into dialogue with it. Let the emotion be present and build inside you, but not so much that it starts to overwhelm you. Notice how the emotion feels in your body. Where do you feel it? What does it feel like? Next, invite your physical body to enter into a dialogue with you about the emotion.
Ask the following key questions:
- What is the message contained within the felt sense of this emotion? What is my body trying to tell me?
- What does my body (my emotional body, this emotion) need right now?
Stay curious. Be open to whatever words, images, or thoughts come to you. If your mind wanders, that’s okay. When you notice that the mind has wandered, come back to the sensations and simply ask these questions of your body and the sensations you associate with the emotion(s) again.
History of Somatic Practices and Therapies
Somatics developed out of experiential investigations into the body’s transformative capabilities and natural healing potential. There is no one history of somatics. However, the first western somatic traditions arose synchronously in disparate locations as part of a larger nineteenth-century health and fitness movement that emerged from Europe known as physical culture. This movement was inspired by Ancient Greek philosophies. European physical culture regarded the balanced cultivation of body, mind, and spirit as essential for maximizing human potential. The movement swept through Europe, America, and Australia, as well as the colonization routes of the East India Company, where it developed a presence in the Asian subcontinent.
Contemporary Western somatic work has ties to Eastern mind-body traditions within India, China, and Japan (Eddy, 2002, p. 47) and has been influenced by Eastern philosophies. Western somatic systems often appropriated Eastern somatic practices without naming their origin. This history is part of the exploration, study, and cultivation of somatic techniques that have emerged as a distinctly Western educational tradition and have been growing as a creative science for roughly 200 years. Western disciplines tend to prioritize the therapeutic, educational, creative, and physically expressive aspects of somatics and differ from Eastern traditions in that they draw from the creative arts or bodily sciences as an integrated part of the underlying philosophy.
The term “somatics,” as used in Western-European writings, was coined in 1976 by neurological practitioner Thomas Hanna. Hanna developed a new conceptualization for the old term soma. In his book Bodies in Revolt, published in 1970, he presents soma as “organic wisdom capable of self-regulation.” As an element of the condition of the experience of human consciousness, the soma is the body when experienced through movement, in contrast to the body as something to be observed, analyzed, and measured using objective parameters. In his work, Hanna revealed a common feature among the methods of the somatic pioneers, which included Gerda and FM Alexander, Feldenkrais, Gindler, Laban, Mensendieck, Middendorf, Mézières, Rolf, Todd, and Trager (and their protégés Bartenieff, Rosen, Selver, Speads, and Sweigard). Each person and their newly formed discipline stressed the importance of taking time to breathe, feel, and “listen to the body,” often by beginning with conscious relaxation in a reclined position on the floor or on a table. From this gravity-reduced state, each person was guided to pay attention to bodily sensations emerging from within and move slowly and gently in order to gain a deeper awareness of what Hanna called “the self that moves.”
It is important to note that because of its recent Western evolution, current language and imagery common to somatic practices draw on a Western anatomical understanding of the body and are derived from a Western context. These understandings are culturally specific and not universal. Although we are exploring somatics through lenses typically developed by white-Eurocentric bodies, many of these practices have been influenced by non-Western dualistic and non-dualistic philosophies. Non-Western traditions have their own language and imagery for teaching body-mind-spirit relations that are still evolving today. Although the somatic field is continuously changing as practitioners develop unique methods, it’s important to keep in mind that all somatic methods are born within specific cultural contexts and are received by an individual with origins in a specific cultural framework.
Somatics and Mindfulness
A growing body of literature demonstrates that mindful practice of movement can yield improvements in cognitive and attentional skills in healthy adults and similarly improve functioning in “anomalous” development, as with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Moreover, trauma can distract us from our ability to be in the present moment. The threat response in our nervous system gets stuck in “on” mode, so we find ourselves automatically preoccupied with the past or else projecting the past into the future. Somatic mindfulness practices can allow those who practice them to step back from what their nervous system is telling them. In stepping back, you can observe from a distance, and this perspective allows you to source the safety needed to feel more deeply. Thus, you can consciously decide what you want to do instead of automatically falling into long-standing patterns and the behavior they dictate.
- Somatics is a field of study, practice, and embodiment (making the unconscious conscious) that aims to integrate Body-Mind and Spirit (including the emotional body). There are many disciplines that bring us into this inquiry. Each discipline is culturally specific and emerges at a particular place and time. From each method, a particular kind of Body-Mind-Spirit relational body emerges.
- Somatics is the practice of paying attention to or tracking sensations, signals, and other information sources that come from inside or outside the body, impacting the body/mind and making choices about what to do with this awareness. Each practice within the field of somatics offers different ways of enacting what paying attention and tracking sensations is and where the boundary between inside and outside of the body is located.
There are four Fields/Approaches to working with Somatics: Psychology, Movement Repatterning, Bodywork, Social Somatics. Some of these fields contain both repatterning and bodywork.
Somatic modalities and systems: Alexander Technique, Aston-Patterning®, Authentic Movement, Bartenieff Fundamentals, Body-Mind Centering®, Continuum, Eutony, Feldenkrais Method®, Hanna Somatic Education®, Ideokinesis, Integrated Movement, Kinetic Awareness, Pilates, ROM Dance, Sensory Awareness, Skinner Releasing Technique, Soma Neuromuscular Integration, Rosen Method, Tragerwork®, Topf Technique
Movement repatterning: Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, Laban/ Bartenieff Movement Studies, Axis Syllabus, Body-Mind Centering, Tragger, Release Technique, Ideokinesis, Continuum Movement, Kinetic Awareness, Rosen
Psychology: Hakomi Method, Rosen Method, Process Work (Arnold Mindell), Somatic Experiencing, Generative Somatics, Somatic Experiencing, Eco-psychology, Somatic Therapy
Bodywork: Rosen, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, Laban Bartenieff Movement Studies, Tragger
Social Somatics: Generative Somatics, Socially Conscious Body, Process Work (Arnold Mindell), Theater of the Oppressed
Where can Somatics be applied?
You can apply Somatics to anything as long as it includes the human body. In fact, it is a part of everything we do, but it is the consciousness and awareness with which we do it that makes it Somatic.