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Somatics: Yogas of the West

These practices can complement and strengthen your yoga, giving you new tools to integrate mind and body.

By Larry Sokoloff

As a yoga practitioner, you know from experience that yoga makes you stronger, more flexible, more healthy, and more aware. But you may not know that there are many Western somatic disciplines—practices that retrain your mind and body through movement and touch—that can complement your yoga. Somatic practices can help you develop an even greater awareness of specific parts of your body, find relief from pain, and understand more fully how your body works. Each of these disciplines is different, but all offer a common experience: greater connection with yourself through the integration of body and mind.

Alexander Technique

The oldest of these methods was developed around the turn of the twentieth century by F.M. Alexander, an actor plagued by chronic hoarseness that didn't respond to medical treatment. After years of observation, Alexander concluded that his problem stemmed from habitual misuse of his body—more specifically, from misalignment of his neck, head, and torso. He went on to develop a teaching method that allows clients to become aware of and release such chronic patterns of tension.

The Alexander Technique re-educates the body with an emphasis on breathing, lengthening and widening the torso, and freeing the neck. "It's really about refining your kinesthetic sense of how you use yourself in activity," says Rita Rivera, an Alexander Technique teacher in Santa Cruz, California. Practitioners work with clients stretched out on treatment tables, seated on chairs, and performing simple daily movements. The hands-on work is gentle, and practitioners also offer verbal instruction. The emphasis is not on doing a new and different action, but on allowing the neck to be free, the head to release, the back to broaden, and the spine to lengthen.

The Alexander Technique requires active participation from the client. "It's not enough for me to just put you in a better position," says Rivera. "The goal is to awaken a new awareness about your body." Rivera says she sees similarities between yoga practice and the Alexander Technique, since both involve refinement of body awareness and movement.

Body-Mind Centering

Body-Mind Centering (BMC) was created by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, drawing on her experience as a dancer and occupational therapist and on years of study of many approaches to movement and awareness—including yoga, aikido, dance therapy, Laban movement analysis, and neuromuscular re-education.

Two signature traits of BMC are its emphasis on developmental movement patterns that evolve as part of human maturation and on intensive experiential investigation of all the systems of the human body. Bainbridge Cohen developed her work by diving deep into herself and then mapping her explorations; students of her method engage in similar "experiential anatomy" lessons as they learn to sense their own tissues and those of their clients. Practitioners work with clients both with hands-on techniques and by teaching them to experience their own bodies from the inside out. Also, practitioners can help clients reconnect with the basic developmental movement patterns when any of these have been restricted.

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