What You Need to Know About Somatic Yoga
Somatic-based yoga, which emphasizes your internal experience, is having a moment as people turn to more mindful, contemplative practices. Here’s how it can help you feel more emotionally aligned and empowered.
I’m sitting on my couch, listening to Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, a self-described movement artist, researcher, educator, and therapist, who is guiding me through a practice over the phone. She brings my attention to my breath and leads my awareness through my body. I notice my diaphragm expand and contract, my blood course through my veins, and energy inhabit what we sometimes refer to in yoga as nadis, or energy channels. Bainbridge Cohen, who is also the founder of Body-Mind Centering, an experiential movement system for feeling embodied, invites me to sense the space in between all of these things, too—from my head to my tailbone to my feet.
It’s from this awareness that Bainbridge Cohen asks me to place my right hand on my left shoulder, close my eyes, and breathe. But rather than direct the breath from the front of my brain, I’m asked to “open the back of my brain.” In other words: Stop overthinking with my prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher cognitive function, and instead draw more on primal instinct, or intuition. I literally feel more space at the back of my head.
Bainbridge Cohen teaches a somatic-based approach to movement that has started to make its way into yoga classes. (If you’ve heard a teacher say, “Do what feels good for your body,” that’s inspired by somatics.) Somatic yoga is designed to help you become more embodied—or led by how you feel in your body—by relying on slow movements and minimal alignment cues. This approach to a physical practice can soothe and restore an overtaxed nervous system and help you step more fully into action as the world around you heats up—physically, emotionally, and politically.
I try to turn off my mental control switch and simply receive the breath at the top of my lung under my hand. When Bainbridge Cohen asks me to relax my tongue, I feel my jaw release a little. Next, she instructs me to bring my right hand to the middle of my lung, under my left arm. She tells me to feel from my lung to my brain, and from my brain to my lung, and get curious about what’s happening. We do the same exercise with my lower lung, my right hand resting on my lower left ribs. After a few minutes of this, she invites me to reach my left hand out to the side from my lung so that my lung is moving my hand and my hand is moving my lung. (Confused? Try it.)
I start to sense a new awareness of how my organs are connected to my limbs. It makes the movement seem smooth and fully integrated, as if my arm is riding on my every inhalation. It feels as if I’m a figure in a coloring book and someone has filled in my left side with rosy colors, while my right side remains blank, just an outline of an arm and a chest.
What is somatic yoga?
Somatics is a field of study and practice in the overlapping realms of bodywork, movement, and psychotherapy. It asks you to pay attention to and be guided by your internal experience. Soma means “body” in Greek. In somatics, you use mindfulness to bring awareness and understanding to where and how you store tension, trauma, and joy in your body by learning your physical, mental, and emotional comfort zones. This can be the first step toward releasing old memories and patterns, balancing your body and mind, getting in touch with gut feelings and intuition, and ultimately moving toward a felt sense of being empowered and whole.
Somatics as a specific movement system and philosophy was originally codified in the West in the 1970s by educator and researcher Thomas Hanna. He designed the practice to promote physical healing and pain reduction through mind-body connection, movement, and touch. The work of Hanna—as well as that of some of his predecessors, including Moshé Feldenkrais—could be considered Western interpretations of Eastern philosophies and practices, including tai chi and yoga, that work on a subtle energetic level. Rolfing, Feldenkrais, the Alexander Technique, Laban movement analysis, and Body-Mind Centering are all considered somatic methods.
Somatic yoga is an offshoot of these therapies. A somatic yoga practice is more intuitive than a standard yoga class, which often asks you to move mechanically—flex this way, extend that way, stretch, hold, push.
Somatics is about becoming more of an expert in yourself.
Most modern yoga practices don’t emphasize the flow of subtle energy, Bainbridge Cohen says. She sees this as a lost opportunity. “Instead of just stretching your arms out, you can move with the energy flowing through your nadis to find sukha and sthira, or ease and steadiness,” says Bainbridge Cohen, who has applied her work to yoga and inspired and instructed many teachers. The emphasis on ease and steadiness as primary elements in a pose relates back to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.46, which is interpreted as “posture (asana) should be stable (sthira) and comfortable (sukha).”
Bainbridge Cohen contends that the striving and external focus involved in modern-day asana can also lead to injury. Somatics brings yoga back into the realm of healing arts, she says.
A somatic-centered yoga practice can enhance your awareness as you transition from one pose to the next, explains Hanna’s widow, Eleanor Criswell, a former psychology professor, the editor of Somatics Magazine, and the former president of the International Association of Yoga Therapists.
Many fast-paced approaches to yoga don’t create enough space and time for mind and body to connect, says Criswell, who created a system called Somatic Yoga that she shares with yoga teachers and yoga therapists. Emphasizing a perfect pose can prevent you from paying attention to what is happening in your body as you transition into the posture, Criswell says. This can create a disconnect between body and mind and can potentially cause injuries.
Criswell’s classes start with somatic exercises while students lie in Savasana (Corpse Pose). She asks students to contract and release specific muscles or muscle groups with movement, paying attention to the muscles that are contracting rather than the muscles that are lengthening. Then, the students slowly and mindfully come out of the pose.
After about 20 or 30 minutes of somatic exercises, Criswell asks students to visualize moving into a posture. Next, she guides them to take their expression of the pose, which means moving within their comfort zone and not straining. In between poses, students do self-sensing and deep abdominal breathing in Savasana to make space for sensory feedback, such as feeling more tension in their left shoulder or feeling less capacity for deep breathing in their left lung (see A Somatic Yoga Practice ).
Trauma-informed somatic healing
In psychotherapy, somatic work is often used to process trauma that has been stored, or trapped, in the body.
“My definition of trauma is the body-mind’s responses of flight, fight, or freeze to a life-threatening or perceived life-threatening experience that does not fully sequence through the body,” explains Katie Asmus, a certified practitioner of Body-Mind Psychotherapy and a somatic psychotherapist. “This response was originally evoked to protect us, but it didn’t get to move all the way through the nervous system and muscles and became a habituated body-mind state.”
Incorporating somatic techniques into psychotherapy sessions can help you stay with movement impulses in the body until they run their course. The goal: to come to a state of release where you can tolerate feeling OK—which can be harder than it sounds.
Carrying somatics into the world
In Body-Mind Centering, movement originates through the nadis, organs, and the breath, Bainbridge Cohen explains. Open your awareness to the flow of postural tone—the muscular, cellular, vascular, and neural energy your body contains.
The trick to learning how to listen and identify what you need may be to move slowly, says Aki Omori, a somatic movement teacher in London who is certified in Body-Mind Centering. “When you move slowly, you can pay attention to how you initiate movement, and then you can keep that movement on track,” she says. “Somatics is about becoming more of an expert in yourself.”
The goal of a somatic approach to yoga is to create an advanced kinesthetic awareness in which you can feel interoception (the state of your body on the inside) and proprioception (a sense of where your body is in space) and you can find equilibrium between your internal and external experiences, Omori explains. You work within a comfortable range of motion where you feel stability and ease, she says.
The more awareness you gain through somatic-minded yoga, the more control you have over your movement. You start to feel embodied, Criswell adds.
You feel ready for what comes next, whether that’s physically, socially, at work, or at home.
It takes time to develop sensory awareness and a nonjudgmental response to what you notice, but that can be a powerful approach off the mat, too, Omori says. For example, you may notice yourself having a felt reaction to feedback from a friend who thinks you’re not doing the right thing in your relationship. If you pause and tap into mind-body awareness, you may notice heat in your neck and head and a contraction of your shoulders in an effort to protect your heart. The ability to slow down, get curious about your somatic experience, and then respond instead of react can help you recognize feelings of shame, defensiveness, or anger. Instead of lashing out or retreating, you can make space for empathy, both for self and others, and avoid drama.
“You can’t go wrong with curiosity—all experiences are valid,” Omori says. “With this approach, you’re also more fully present, trusting of yourself, and compassionate.”
Somatic-based yoga may also help you to live a less painful life—both physically and emotionally, Criswell says. “You may come in [to a class] with tight, painful shoulders, and leave pain-free. I’ve also seen this practice enhance sleep and ease anxiety and depression. You feel ready for what comes next, whether that’s physically, socially, at work, or at home.”
If your local studio does not offer somatic-centered yoga, you can bring a more mindful approach and a sense of greater awareness to any class, especially those with a slower pace. Start to be curious about how your body feels as it moves into poses. Only move as far into a posture as is comfortable in your body. Let yourself focus on the transitions between poses instead of the most intense expressions of poses. Practice this awareness not only in class, but in all of your daily moments.
When I moved in the manner Bainbridge Cohen guided me, I felt different, more complete. It was like I was accessing the original code for how to truly inhabit my body; that I was tapping into the silence before all the noise and the collective experience of being human. It was both grounding and energizing; simultaneously paradigm-shattering and the most natural and organic way to be.
Tasha Eichenseher is a mindfulness-based transpersonal psychology student and former editor and digital director of Yoga Journal. She is also a science writer who has worked for National Geographic News, Discover, Environmental Science & Technology, and more.