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Somatic Stretching May Be the Gentle Workout You’ve Been Waiting for—What to Know

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What to Know About Somatic ExercisesCatherine Falls Commercial - Getty Images

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The hustle of fitness culture conditions us to believe that we must break a sweat in order to check “work out” off the to-do list. Somatic exercise challenges that idea—instead, prioritizing slow, intentional, mindful movement that doesn’t push physical or mental boundaries, but listens and responds to an inner awareness of limits. Although more studies are warranted, some research shows that it’s effective in improving pain and even strength. And, best of all, you’re very unlikely to get injured in the process.

Meet the Expert: Heidi Schauster, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., C.E.D.S.-S., S.E.P., owner of Nourishing Words Nutrition Therapy and Somatic Experiencing

Keep reading to learn more about somatic exercise, including some stretches you can try at home.

What are somatic exercises?

“Somatic exercises or movements involve focusing on your inner experience as you move, expanding internal awareness,” explains Heidi Schauster, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., C.E.D.S.-S., S.E.P., owner of Nourishing Words Nutrition Therapy and Somatic Experiencing. “These exercises typically involve performing movement for the sake of movement, following what feels supportive in the individual’s body, versus following the lead of an instructor and using the mind to imitate the instructor's movement.”

Thomas Hanna, Ph.D., is credited as the founder of the field of somatics, per the Somatic Systems Institute, which he defines as the study of soma—or the human body from a first-person perspective. In other words, soma, at its core, is self-awareness. And practicing somatic exercises prioritizes movement led by what feels good, what feels relaxing, what feels right. Think: slow, intentional, freestyle stretching, without forcing or pushing it too far to the point of experiencing pain.

Somatic exercise benefits

“Somatic exercises are designed to strengthen the mind-body connection, which benefits overall health and wellbeing,” says Schauster. “It’s also possible that those who regularly practice somatic movements will improve their posture, range of motion, balance, and flexibility.” In fact, a 2020 review studied somatic exercise as a potential tool for relief in those with chronic pain and concluded that its tactics are promising. More research needs to be done on the matter.

Somatic stretches and exercises to try

Technically, any physical exercise can become somatic if it is completed with intention and done very gently, explains Schauster. Yoga, qigong, tai chi, and meditation are ancient somatic practices that involve both body and mind, she adds. “They are somatic because they require focus on how the body and movements feel. Choosing to move your body in any way that feels good to you, focusing on the inflow and outflow of the breath, noticing how it feels to tense and relax parts of the body, and grounding by feeling the connection of the body to the ground and/or chair are some examples of somatic exercises,” she says.

The Somatic Systems Institute lists the below exercises as daily somatic essential movements. It’s recommended to spend five to 15 minutes doing them per day.

Arch & Flatten: Lying on your back with knees bent, arch and flatten your lower back, inhaling while going up, and exhaling while going down. Repeat five to 10 times (or less) as slowly and consciously as possible.

Arch & Curl: Lying on your back with knees bent and both hands interlaced behind your head, lift your head while exhaling and flattening your back. Lower your head while inhaling and arching your back. Repeat five to 10 times or less as slowly and consciously as possible.

Side Curl: Lying on your left side, rest your head on your left arm, bend your knees so that your legs are 90 degrees to your torso, and bend 90 degrees at the knees. Reach your right arm over the top of your head, placing your hand near your left ear. As you inhale, slowly lift your right foot towards the ceiling, keeping your knees together. At the same time, use your right arm to help lift your head. Think about rolling the pelvis under the armpit (though this won’t actually happen!), focusing attention on the muscles of the waist and ribcage. As you exhale, slowly lower the foot and head down. Repeat three to five times (or less, doing no more than are comfortable and easy to do), turn over, and repeat on the opposite side.

Washcloth: Lying on your back with knees bent, roll your arms in opposite directions on the floor, alternately dropping your knees each time to the side of the arm rolling down the floor. Turn your head in the direction opposite your knees to make a full spinal twist. Move slowly and lazily, to enjoy the easy lengthening. Repeat three to 20 times or less, as slowly and consciously as possible.

Seated Twists: Sitting with your right hand on your left shoulder and with both knees bent and facing left, rotate your trunk to the left three times (or less). Holding your trunk motionless at a full left turn, turn your head to the right and back three times (or less). Turn both your head and your trunk in alternate directions three times (or less) for the full spinal twist. Still holding your trunk to the left, lift your face to the ceiling while dropping your eyes to the floor and vice versa three times (or less). Do the same for the other side of your body. Do this as slowly and consciously as possible.

How often to do somatic exercises

Since these movements are so gentle, they can be performed daily. In fact, the Somatic Systems Institute recommends spending five to 15 minutes doing the above moves, per day. Ultimately, listening to your body is at the root of the practice.

Somatic exercise risks

“Because most somatic exercises and practices are gentle and the mover is attuned to sensations in the body, there is generally less risk involved than with traditional physical activity,” says Schauster. “It’s easier to listen to signals of ‘that’s enough’ or ‘time to rest’ from the body. That said, tuning in to the body can be challenging, emotionally, for some, particularly those who have had a history of trauma. This is why a trusted somatics practitioner may be helpful in guiding body-oriented work.”

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