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.