Somatics: Definition | Exercises | Evidence

What does that even mean?

If you have some familiarity with alternative wellness practices, you may have heard the term “somatics” without having a clear idea of what it means.

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.

These practices allow you to access more information about the ways you hold on to your experiences in your body. Somatic experts believe this knowledge, combined with natural movement and touch, can help you work toward healing and wellness.

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 people increase bodily awareness through a combination of movement and relaxation.

While somatic practices have become increasingly popular in the Western world over the last 50 years, many of them draw from ancient Eastern philosophy and healing practices, including tai chi and qi gong.

What are somatic exercises?

Somatic exercises involve performing movement for the sake of movement. Throughout the exercise, you focus on your inner experience as you move and expand your internal awareness.

Many types of somatic exercises exist. They include:

  • rolfing
  • Body-Mind Centering
  • Alexander technique
  • Feldenkrais method
  • Laban movement analysis

Other exercises, including some you know and use regularly, can also be considered somatic, such as:

  • dance
  • yoga
  • Pilates
  • aikido

These exercises can help you learn more efficient and effective ways of moving and replace older, less helpful patterns of movement.

Unlike with typical workouts, you’re not trying to do as many exercises as possible. Instead, you’re trying to perform each exercise in such a way that it teaches you something about your body and its movements.

Getting more in touch with your body can also have the added benefit of increasing your emotional awareness. Many people who have trouble expressing difficult emotions find it easier to convey them through movement.

Is it related at all to somatic therapy?

Yep, both stem for the same idea that the mind and body are inherently connected.

Somatic psychotherapy is a mental health treatment approach that addresses the physical effects of trauma, anxiety, and other issues, including:

  • muscle tension
  • digestive problems
  • trouble sleeping
  • chronic pain
  • respiratory problems

A somatic therapist will use more physical approaches to treatment, including relaxation techniques and meditative or breathing exercises, along with traditional talk therapy.

The goal of somatic therapy is to help you notice the physical responses brought up by memories of traumatic experiences.

Does it actually work?

Many somatic practitioners and educators, including Thomas Hanna and Martha Eddy, another research pioneer in the field, have written about the potential wellness benefits of somatic practices.

Scientific evidence supporting specific somatic techniques is still limited, though. This may partially stem from the fact that Western somatic techniques are still fairly new, but there’s no denying that evidence-based research would offer more conclusive support for these techniques.

A few studies have looked at the benefits of somatic practices for certain symptoms.

For increased emotional awareness

Practitioners of somatic therapies support the approach as a way of working through repressed or blocked emotions related to traumatic experiences.

According to 2017 research on Laban movement analysis, increasing awareness of your posture and movements may help you make specific changes in your body language to reduce unwanted emotions and promote a more positive emotional experience.

The first randomized controlled study looking at somatic experiencing, a type of somatic therapy, for post-traumatic stress disorder was published in 2017. While this Source was fairly small, researchers found evidence to suggest that somatic experiencing could help people address negative emotional effects and symptoms of trauma, even when those symptoms had been present for years.

For pain relief

By helping you pay more attention to areas of injury or discomfort in your body, gentle somatic exercises can teach you how to make changes in movement, posture, and body language to reduce pain.

One 2013  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, they also saw improvements in their mood and emotional mindset.

A 2017  Source 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.

This study compared the Feldenkrais method to Back School, a type of patient education, and found them to have similar levels of effectiveness.

For easier movement

Somatic practices also appear to have some benefit for improving balance and coordination while increasing range of movement, especially in older adults.

According to a 2017 of 87 older adults, many participants saw improved mobility after 12 Feldenkrais movement lessons. Plus, research from 2010 suggests that the use of somatics in dance practices can also help improve movement among professional and student dancers.

Ready to try it?

If you want to give somatics a try, you have a few options.

It’s possible to learn somatic exercises on your own, such as through YouTube videos or certified classes, but it’s generally recommended to work with a trained practitioner first, especially if you have an existing injury or some uncertainty about the best exercises for your needs.

Finding a certified practitioner locally may prove challenging, especially if you live in a small city or rural area. What’s more, since somatics encompasses so many approaches, you may have to explore specific techniques to find one that seems ideal for your needs before trying to find a provider who specializes in that approach.

If you’re having a hard time finding activities in your area, consider starting with some of the more popular types of somatics, like yoga or pilates. The instructor will likely have some recommendations on local options for related exercises.

You may also have some success with the following provider directories:

  • Somatic Movement Center Certified Exercise Instructors
  • International Somatic Movement Education and Therapy Association
  • Clinical Somatic Educator Certified Practioner Directory
  • Essential Somatics Practioner Profiles

The above directories only list trained and certified somatics practitioners. They may have varying levels of experience, depending on their specific training program, but they’ll have completed training in some type of somatics education.

If you find somatics practitioner elsewhere, you’ll want to make sure they’re certified to practice the method they teach and are well reviewed.

Somatics can pose some risks when it’s not practiced properly, so it’s highly recommended to work with a practitioner who has specialized training.

If you have any concerns about whether somatic exercises are right for you, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider before attempting any type of somatic movement. They may also be able to refer you to a specific provider.

The bottom line

Although experts haven’t yet found conclusive proof to support the benefits of somatics, some evidence does suggest these approaches may help relieve pain and tension and promote easier movement. Future research may shed more light on these benefits and other possible uses.

That said, it never hurts to get more in tune with your body and emotions, and the gentle movements of somatic techniques make them a fairly low-risk option for people of all ages and mobility levels.

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