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Back to the basics

What does it mean to have an embodied experience? We often take our bodies for granted unless we’re training for an athletic competition, trying to lose weight, or feeling pain or discomfort. Even then our awareness may be short-term, skewed, or acute.

What if, instead we cultivated an internal perception of ourselves that recognized habitual patterns and gave us more choices for living in our bodies. In my experience yoga invites this self-awareness in the laboratory of your own body. I’m also exploring the subtle practice of somatic movement in my practice and teaching .

Based on Moshe Feldenkrais’s method of “bodily re-education”, in 1988 Thomas Hanna coined the word somatics (and a book by the same name) developing a system of movement re-education that seeks to fundamentally improve flexibility and well being as we age. Somatics comes from the Greek word “soma” defined as “living body”.

The prescribed movements are small and subtle based on key concepts:

  • Muscles perform one action: contract or shorten. The brain or central nervous system sends an electrochemical signal to the muscles to act. When the signal stops, muscles should release or lengthen.

  • Muscle tone refers to the muscle’s capacity to contract or release. It is the low level contraction at rest. High tonus can mean the muscles are burning energy for contraction without releasing, which leads to sore muscles (accumulation of lactic acid).

  • Stress--whether illness, injury, repetitive movement, emotional state – causes muscles to tighten and over time reduces your ability to relax. Your muscles get stuck in contraction.

  • The brain experiences “sensory motor amnesia”, literally forgetting what sensation in the muscles feels like and, likewise, the ability to relax the muscles.

  • No one – not a doctor, physical therapist, yoga teacher – knows your body better than you.

Teaching the brain to train the muscles to relax requires something different from stretching or forcing the muscles to lengthen. Instead, somatic movement is the conscious contraction of muscles beyond their current tightness followed by gradual, active lengthening, followed by complete relaxation. It’s a mindful process.

Here’s an Arch and Flatten sequence from Hanna’s book, Somatics, that seeks to restore control of the back muscles to the brain by actively contracting followed by relaxing fully.

  • Lie on your back with knees bent and feet close to the buttocks, hip width apart. Arms are comfortably at your sides.

  • Breathe deeply several times into the lower lungs feeling the belly rise and fall. Keep this awareness of the breath moving from front to back body as you move.

  • On inhale, allow the lower back to arch away from the mat turning the tailbone down. Pelvis is tilted toward thighs. Front body is long and spacious.

  • On exhale, release the lower back flattening to the mat tailbone returning to neutral.

  • Repeat 10 – 15 times sensing the movement in the abdominal muscles and the back muscles lengthening and shortening. Notice the breath as it flows with the movement.

  • Stay present with the letting go.

Many resources are available to learn more about somatic movement. Two that come to mind are the book, Move without Pain by Martha Peterson, and educational opportunities with Amy Matthews, .

As Thomas Hanna puts it so beautifully in his book Somatics, the “basic somatic task during our lifetime is to gain greater and greater control over ourselves, learning to flow with the stress and trauma of life, like a cork floating on top of the waves.”


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