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Somatics 101: Learn Transformative Somatic Practices

somatic practices

The field of somatics is where this bodymind connection is studied and explored and given the space to be felt and understood. It can be summarized as Susan McConnel says, in the felt shift from “I have a body” to “I AM my body.” The changes that I see in my clients when we bring somatic practices in is nothing short of mind-blowing. 

There is no real, sustainable, lasting healing if we are focused on either the mind or the body as though they are not just connected, but in many ways, one in the same. 

There is an information superhighway from your gut to your mind and back again, and the state of your nervous system directly impacts your thoughts and your feelings, and vice versa.

Not everything is mindset, not everything is physiologic. I see folks getting upset with themselves because they think they aren’t doing healing right. Your mindset leads to a cascade of chemicals, the molecules of emotion as Candace Pert calls it, in your body. Your thoughts create your feelings. Simultaneously your nervous system state dictates the story in your mind – it’s circular and wherever you can get a foothold to intervene for your own wellness is a perfect place to start. 

Your thoughts and mindset can play a role in your experience of symptoms from irritable bowel to chronic pain to depression and anxiety to insomnia. 

This has been well evidenced in the literature, we got stats on that. If you have lyme disease or degenerative disc disease or whatever chronic or acute condition, a broken leg, it’s not just your thoughts creating that pain – that’s reductionist and victim-blaming. So I’m not saying that, never saying that. I’m not that abelist #spiritual person, not ever. I was a clinician and a patient for too long to think that way, it’s not allll your vibration folks. Sometimes it’s genetic or from an accident or a virus. 

Most things in this complex human life are just that – complex. Multifactorial. 

My small intestine bacterial overgrowth did not start or keep going because I had negative thoughts about myself. It started exogenously, from outside myself, because I had a parasite, blastocysistis hominiis, that went undiagnosed and was misdiagnosed for years. This impacted my gut microbiome leading to a cascade of symptoms. AND my codependent, people-pleasing, perfectionist mindset kept me revved up in sympathetic activation. I was jacked up on adrenaline, worry, future tripping and ruminating which slowed the migrating motor complex in my small intestine. This kept the bacteria I got from food poisoning from being flushed out of my system and so they proliferated and grew and boom – SIBO. 

It wasn’t just the bugs and it wasn’t just the mindset, it was the interplay. 

Whatever is going on for you physically and mentally may be due to just such an interplay of factors as well, and the more you can explore and understand your body’s intelligence, the more information you’ll have as you sort out what the what is.

Thomas Hanna was an early leader in somatic studies, and coined the term “Somatics” from the Greek root soma which means “body.” 

Since the Enlightenment there has been a very white cis-dude driven view of human experience which, to quote Susan McConnel “regards the mind and the soul as holy and exalted and the body as a subservient mortal carcass,” and the study of embodiment and somatics seeks to shift that paradigm in so many ways.

As human mammals, we are so much more than just our brains, our minds, our thoughts. We are creatures living in bodies, we are thinking animals, feeling or emotional animals, biological, interrelational and spiritual animals. We are all of these things, all at once, complex and simple, with simple needs that we create complex ways to get met. 

By getting in touch with and coming to understand our human bodies through the lived experience of being ourselves, we learn a way to work with and love ourselves as integrated, embodied, whole humans. Not just a mind with thoughts, a biological system that can be changed with a pill, but as whole creatures, creatures whose communication is about 70% non-verbal. Words are vital, language is soooo important, and what our bodies communicate is just as important if you want to hear your whole self speaking. 

Somatic practices are about bringing your awareness and consciousness to your experience in your body. 

Not just the story in your head about it, but what your body has to tell you.  What’s stored within you that needs a voice.  The word “emotion” comes from the latin emovare — which means to move.  Our emotions are tried to movement by their definition. Through somatic practices we give movement to our emotions, so they can move through and out of us or can find a safe home within us. 

We can stop fighting against our moods and emotions and can learn to move with them.

By bringing your awareness and attention to those feelings that live in your body, you can give those feelings the attention they need.  For example, how many times have you said “Oh my neck hurts, I’m just really stressed.”  Somatic provide us a way to ask our bodies what they need to move that tension through and out, so get in touch with your body’s innate wisdom and honor it, can take a break or a rest, can process the stress instead of just taking an alleve to make it go away, though duh, take whatever you want to, you’re an adult, no need for extra suffering here 😉

Through somatic practices we learn to live in our whole bodies.

Noses to toesess, not just the neck up, which I hear my clients say alllll the time. “I live in my brain, I don’t feel connected to my body.” That statement often resonates for so many of us living with codependent thinking. We are so externally focused and dedicated to the project of managing the world and everyone and everything in it to try to feel safe in our own lives, that we lose track of our connection with our bodies, our feelings, with the felt lived experience of being alive.

Somatics teaches us how to reconnect. 

How to come home to our bodies, to learn from and with our bodies, to be in conversation with our bodies. To know what occurs in our human form when we have certain thoughts or worries. To hear the subtle sounds our bodies make before they get to yelling at us with painful symptoms like the digestive and chronic pain symptoms I lived with for most of my life. To not just know in our minds what nervous system state we are in, but to feel it in our bodies. To understand what is stored in our bodies so we can get into right relationship with ourselves on this deeper level.

One of the powerful parts of somatic work is that it gives us insight into understanding the daily practices that make up our lives.

The ways we move and hold our bodies, our tension-patterns and postures. The way we communicate our internal landscape to ourselves and the world. Practices that have become a part of our psycho-biology over years of repetition. The way a thought becomes a belief in our minds once you think it often enough.  

One of the most helpful questions I’ve learned to ask from a somatic framework is “what are you practicing?” meaning – what are your bodily habits and do those habits serve you? 

Are they aligned with your values for your life? We ask these questions because, like our engrained habitual thoughts, our somatic processes and practices can be so unintentional, so beneath the radar that we don’t even realize what we’re doing, how we relate to ourselves and the world through our bodies. 

Some of these habits are what is known as procedural memory, which is a part of implicit memory. It helps us to: hold chopsticks, drive a car, swim, put your hair in a bun without even thinking about it via repetition. Though we can learn something instantaneously and unconsciously without repetition when adrenaline is high, like that dogs are dangerous and are to be avoided. 

Repetition trains our neural networks in our brain to automatically respond, to do the motor skill or cognitive task at hand. 

These learnings can come from necessity, from a survival or safety need like to move away from loud noises or to shrink ourselves down around someone who tends to have oversized reactions or anger. They also come from our socialization and culture, such as to hide our tampons or slump our shoulders inward if we have large breasts and were taught to be ashamed of our bodies, or to hold our bodies in uncomfortable positions to not bother anyone else or have them move so you can have comfort too. 

Many of our automatic reactions come from stress responses to emotional or physical hurt or loss, rejection or abandonment, not feeling seen or understood. We can find meaning in the way we hold our bodies. 

Our somatic or embodied practices or ways of showing up in our bodies are both individual expressions and are collective, societal and social in origin.

Many folks have disabilities or chronic illness that impact the way they hold their body, the ways their body moves, their posture, their gestures or impacts the way their body looks, and meaning doesn’t always belong there. This too is important to keep in mind and most importantly, to honor before we go pathologizing or making everything into a thing.

What somatic practices provide is a way to learn what we are practicing in our bodies, and the effect it has on our lives.

What the feelings or emotions are that correspond with our habitual ways of moving and relating to self and the world. 

When we spend a lifetime walking on eggshells, we become emotionally armored against the world. We walk around expecting things to go wrong, to get criticized or judged, fearing intimacy on that most important heart-to-heart level, doing what we can to avoid things like failure or vulnerability, armouring our hearts. 

That armouring, that tensing, like a boxer preparing for a strike in the ring gets patterned into our bodies too. We walk around tight and tense, jumping at the smallest sound, worried about making a wrong move and carrying that worry in tight neck and shoulder muscles, or have chronic digestive issues. 

The chronic outward focus of codependent, perfectionist and people-pleasing things can lead many of us, myself included, to lose touch with our own bodies and to become disconnected. 

When you are busy worrying about everybody else, it can be hard to be in tune with your own body, so we lose touch with the subtleties. We aren’t clued in when the pain or discomfort or tension is a 1/10, and only pay it mind when it gets unbearable, when our bodies scream to get our attention. 

Or if the world feels unsafe historically or actually, we can get so internally focused that the slightest ouch leads to a tidal wave of thoughts and feelings as we start to feel detached from our senses of control of and in our bodies. 

I can remember being disconnected from the sensations in my body like they weren’t even me.  It’s a disembodiment on this profound level that keeps these painful cycles going and going. I leaned on my smarts as my primary emotional resource – after all I could probably logic it out, right my nerds? 

I learned to think my way through moments that really called for feeling. 

When I was in feeling, I wasn’t present to the experience of that feeling in my body, just the thought of the feeling. Through somatics we can get in touch with our intuition.  My brain will have one answer but when I ask my body I get a different answer with different resonance and different energetics to it.

Somatic practices have given me the tools to be present throughout my day.

Not just while I’m doing yoga or consciously working to be embodied and present in my body but rather, to be able to tap into my inner bodily intelligence moment to moment. To be present in my feet, to feel the sun on my face, to be in conversation with my digestion. To not just react to my body but to be in conversation with me, to inhabit myself, to not just have the thought “I feel overwhelmed” but to ask my body where that overwhelm lives. To be able to interact with that sensation and to help it shift on the level of my physical embodied form, not just my mind, and to gain so much perspective on myself as a whole human. Not just my swirling mind.

Somatic practices provide a way to integrate mind, body and spirit, to reconnect with the earth, with the elements, with all of creation and gives us a landing place for change and transformation. 

As I work with the places within me that are armoured against emotion, I am able to soften them safely, without activating my nervous system into fight/flight or freeze. I walk through the world more appropriately armoured – guard up on the subway, guard down in conversation with those I love. 

By getting in touch with the memory in my muscles and fascia, with the intelligence of my tissues, I experience myself as me, and not just a baggabones. With each practice, each set of movements I learn how to explore and be curious about the tension patterns in my body, the posture that leads to emotions and is born from emotions, and I can relate to myself on ever deeper levels. 

These somatic practices can be a slow build up towards exploring our practices, a layering in of understanding, and can also be so simple. 

One of my favorites is this, and I do this one often to help me reconnect with my body from the neck down, and you can do this standing, lying down, in your wheelchair. I do this out loud because that serves me, but do you.

  • I start with my arms outstretched, again, modify to your capacities, and I start with one of my arms and I pat that arm with the other hand.
  • I say out loud: this is my arm, this is my arm – I’m doing it right now, this is my arm, and then I switch hands: pat my right arm with my left hand: this is my arm, this is my arm; then i’ll do my chest, belly, lower back or wherever you can reach, pelvis, hips, thighs, klegs, feet, neck, head. 

I feel my body calming as I connect with myself. 

This is a beautiful, simple, quick way to come home to yourself, to anchor yourself in yourself. It’s a way to set an energetic boundary – this is MY body, no one else’s. I decide where I go, what I eat, what I do, no one else does. I am sovereign, in the feminist way, in this human form. This is my arm. This is my leg. 

Another simple one is to box breathing, which calms the autonomic nervous system. You notice tension patterns in your body as you do it. \

This doesn’t have to be about ‘going into your body’ because as we’ve talked about that doesn’t feel safe for everyone. If it feels safe and accessible to do so, go on in to your body – the point is that this is helpful either way.

Box breathing is: 

  • Imagining your breath as a box with 4 sides – breath in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4, hold for 4 – a little four sided box.
  • I do this if I’m feeling some anxiety, stress, worry, overwhelm. 
  • If I’m working on a new thought in my thought work and my body says “nope – don’t believe it.” 
  • I do it when I’m calm and centered, same with This is my arm. 
  • I do it before I’m tensed up to get my body into the habit of it, to make it less weird and more habitual. 
  • I do it when I want to regulate my ANS. Then I will do it again, and will bring my awareness to any tension or holding in my body. Not to change it or judge it, just to notice – I’m having tension here while thinking this thought, thinking this thought creates more tension here – to notice the intersection of body and mind, because body and mind are one.

Through this work my clients and I are able to re-integrate the parts of ourselves that we lost access to when life happened. When we experience stress, distress or trauma, and locked some tenderness away. 

As we get present with our bodies we learn where our edges and limits are. 

What movements and postures and situations in life push our nervous systems past their capacity, known as the window of tolerance. As Jane Clapp calls it, “the window of bodily dignity,” which means the amount of sensory input a body, nervous system and psyche can manage and can stay in ventral vagal with, before there is activation into sympathetic, fight or flight, or dorsal shut down, immobilization or freeze, occurs. 

Somatic practices help us to be present in ways that make buffering, or attempting to push our feelings away with unconsciously driven distraction, less and less attractive.

I don’t want to check out as much now that I’m checked in in this new bodily way. 

The more checked in and present I am, the more choice I have in any given moment. As I gain more confidence that I will, in fact, have my own back, physically as well as metaphorically, I experience myself as less reactive. I’m more responsive and more intentional. 

This somatic awareness has reconnected me to my intuition.

Connecting with my gut-level knowing gives me the opportunity to chose to follow my own inner knowing and guidance instead of those old codependent cassette tapes. Those tapes tell me to people-please, to beat myself up, to push myself past my limits to attempt to reach some kind of “perfection” so I can prove to myself and the world that I am worthy of love and care. 

My body knows, and my body tells me, that I already am, I am already soooo so so very worthy. I don’t need to do anything to prove it, to myself or anyone else. There is nothing to fix or change about myself to be lovable, and so much to be curious about.

Thank you for taking the time to read Feminist Wellness. I’m excited to be here and to help you take back your health!

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