Ideas of fitness and meaningful movement often focus on building strength, working hard, and raising your heart rate. There is, however, a whole realm of powerful wellness movement practices that involve slowing down, quieting your effort, and discovering ease in your movement.
Broadly speaking, these are referred to as somatic practices or somatics. And to the outside observer, these movements may not appear to be doing much for your fitness, in the way we generally think about “getting fit.” But, as they say, looks can be deceiving.
What Does Somatic Mean and How Do Somatic Practices Improve Wellness and Fitness?
Before we get into some of the specific practices that fall into this category, let’s first clarify what somatic means and how you can benefit from somatics.
Strictly speaking, somatic simply means something relating to the body. When we talk about somatic movement practices, what we’re most focused on is the internal feelings of a movement or series of movements. Put another way, it’s about paying close attention to how we move and what efforts we’re using when we move.
Somatic practices presuppose a connection between the mind and body: that our emotions and thoughts impact us physically and vice versa. Therefore, they are also recognized as a way for us to get in better touch with ourselves and gain greater awareness of our own mind and body connections. Or as a Yoga Journal article on the subject states, somatics offer a “greater connection with yourself through the integration of body and mind.”
Somatic practices have been shown to be effective therapies to help treat health issues like stress, anxiety, addiction, chronic pain, and depression.
These practices have the added benefits of reestablishing more efficient, less effortful movement patterns, as well as better breathing practices. For those of us looking to improve in athletic pursuits, these benefits often translate to better performances. If you learn to breath more effectively and move more efficiently and fluidly, it will improve speed and agility.
Also, being in better touch with your body can help reduce injuries caused by previous poor movement habits or lack of agility.
A couple of widely available practices that fall under the somatics umbrella are yoga and pilates. Both are excellent. There are, however, other practices that simplify and slow things down even more, making way for potentially deeper understanding, healing, and connection.
The Feldenkrais method, named for its founder Moshé Feldenkrais, uses small movements, often done on the floor, to help retrain and reestablish movement patterns. The aim is to complete prescribed movement patterns–during a group or one-on-one session led by a trained Feldenkrais practitioner–with as little effort, stretching, or strain possible, even if that means barely doing the movement at all. Sometimes just thinking the movement is the correct choice.
Feldenkrais is concerned with the deep neurological connections, your subconscious habitual body movement patterns, as opposed to building strength or flexibility. While Feldenkrais lessons may at times appear like little more than rolling around on the floor, they can have a profound impact on how you move and undo ingrained unhealthy movement patterns.
Qigong, the term, is a combination of the two words “‘qi,’ which means ‘subtle breath’ or ‘vital energy,’ and ‘gong,’ which translates to ‘skill cultivated through steady practice,” says a recent Everyday Wellness article on the subject.
This is an ancient practice that comes out of China and typically integrates slow, fluid movements, calm focus, and breathwork. For many, there is a spiritual component to this work.
The practice of qigong can vary widely, similar to the practice of yoga. Some types of qigong focus more on meditation, with guided imagery, while others focus more on movement and can veer into the realm of martial arts.
Depending on the focus, qigong can be used to develop skill and fitness, promote healing, reduce stress, or contribute to deepening your spiritual connection. The common thread is a holistic practice that benefits your personal growth and well being. The a type of qigong you choose is based on the outcomes you're looking for.
Tai Chi is also from China and came out of the practice of qigong. As such, it has similar properties to qigong, such as a spiritual component. Regardless of if that is or is not your intent or interest, there are strong overall health benefits as well.
Often referred to as a moving meditation, Tai Chi involves going through a series of simple, gentle movements and postures, focusing on breathing; fluid, often slow motions; and relaxed but steady concentration.
Tai Chi has many wellness benefits including (but certainly not limited to) reducing stress and anxiety, improving balance and overall body awareness, and increasing range of motion and flexibility.
Developed by F.M. Alexander, the Alexander technique is done one-on-one with a trained practitioner. It is based on the principle that how we use our body has a direct impact on how we perform activities, and much of the way we use our bodies is subconscious and habitual. At the heart of Alexander technique is a focus on posture, with particular interest in the neck.
An Alexander technique session involves hands-on guidance in conjunction with your active participation. The practitioner takes you through simple, easy movements, helping you learn how to move more easily. Similar to Feldenkrais, this practice is pointedly focused on helping to “reeducate” your body to release old, harmful movement patterns.
The Slow Down
At the foundation of all of these practices is slowing down enough to really become aware of how you're moving your body. By extension, it can help you also recognize where you're clenching or tensing yourself when you don’t need to.
Our movement patterns shift and alter over time based on past experiences, both physical and emotional. When we slow down, breath completely, and focus with curiosity, we can begin to unravel some of the extraneous movement habits that no longer serve us. In turn, we can work toward redeveloping movement patterns and fluidity that we may have thought were no longer available to us.
In other great news, there are virtually no negative side effects from exploring somatics. Try a technique that intrigues you. You may be surprised by how these practices that swap out hard effort for calm attentiveness can have a profound impact on myriad aspects of your wellness.