Are you looking for a somatic movement practice? This is what you need to know.

What is somatic movement?

Mar 31, 2024

Are you looking for a somatic movement practice? This is what you need to know.

 By Peter Appel. Photos Narelle Carter-Quinlan

The word somatic is used today generously. First of all, many established practices are considered somatic. For example, the Alexander technique, Feldenkrais method, Laban movement analysis, Hanna Somatics, and Body-Mind Centering are all regarded as somatic movement practices.

In addition, many Eastern movement forms like yoga, aikido, Tai chi, and Chi Kung (Qigong) are often referred to as somatic, even though they originated thousands of years before the concept was even invented.

Well, nothing new there, we often project new ideas back in time!

However, there’s now an abundance of new practices that are labeled somatic. Among them, you can find somatic yoga, somatic pilates, somatic dance, and somatic walking.

So what are we actually thinking of when we’re talking about somatic movement practices? And how can you choose what’s right for you in this abundance of offerings?

How can you find the right somatic movement practice for you?


The word somatic

Let’s start with the word somatic itself! It sounds quite ancient but it's not even 50 years old. It was coined in 1976 by Thomas Hanna, an American author, philosopher, theologian, and the founder of Hanna Somatics, 

The word is derived from the Greek words sŨmatikós, “of the body”, or soma, “body”. However, Thomas Hanna was not the first to adopt the word. The word psychosomatic is reportedly used in medicine as early as 1784.

But Thomas Hanna wanted to extend the meaning of somatics and break through the age-old separation between the body and the mind. For him, somatics was a concept that holds it all together and encompasses everything human.

In Hanna’s own words:

“Somatics is the study of the self from the perspective of one's lived experience, encompassing the dimensions of body, psyche, and spirit.”

So if you want to use a word that includes everything that is you, or everything that is someone else, it could be the word soma. And somatics is the study of the soma.

Soma includes everything that is you. And somatics is the study of the soma. 


The meaning is changing

Now, we know that things tend to change and this is also true about the word somatics. Recently, it seems to be moving from a holistic concept toward an inner experience.

Satu Palokangas is a Finnish somatic educator with wide experience in different forms of somatics. This is how she defines somatics: 

“Somatics is an innately improvisational, playful inquiry into the body and its inner and outer relationships. It is a practice of tracking signals and sensations, becoming aware of how my perceptions are tuned with the environment – and how I process and respond to these suggestions.”

But Sarah Warrena Certified Clinical Somatic Educator and Registered Somatic Movement Educator at Somatic Movement Center in the US, emphasizes the inner experience even more:

“A somatic movement is a movement that’s practiced consciously with the intention of focusing on the internal experience of the movement rather than the external appearance or the end result of the movement.”

And so does Crystal Raypole at Healthline:

“Somatics uses the mind-body connection to help you survey your internal self and listen to signals from your body on pain, discomfort, or imbalance.” 

So when somatics is growing in popularity, it seems like the meaning is gradually moving closer to another word: Interoception, or the ability to sense yourself from within.


What can it be used for?

So what are the benefits of a somatic movement practice? In my experience, somatics can provide you with a myriad of rewards from increased well-being to a better sex life. But let’s keep it simple and go from the practical to the philosophical.

There’s an adage that says Listen to the body when it’s whispering, so you don’t need to hear when it’s screaming. But honestly, most of us wait to take action until the body is in pain.

Although not a popular one, pain is an efficient teacher. When the body is in discomfort, we’re often open to change. Here, a somatic movement practice can help us look into our daily habits:

How do I move, how do I sit? Do I repeat the same movements for long periods? How often do I take breaks?

And further: What happens if I make small adjustments? Can it reduce tightness, pressure, or wear and tear? Can a different way of moving or sitting alleviate my pain?

“Somatics is the art of listening to the body when it is whispering.”

So from a practical point of view, we could say that a somatic movement practice can teach us how to listen to the body when it is whispering. In somatic language, the body’s whispers are called sensations, tiny signals that the body constantly sends to the brain. In daily life, we mostly overrule them, but in somatics, we learn to notice them and understand their messages.

In somatic language, the body’s whispers are called sensations. 


The wonders of active relaxation

So why do we not generally listen to our bodies? It might have to do with our survival instincts.

“Our brains have developed a bias to be perceiving and aware of the external world,” says Sarah Garfinkel, a professor of cognitive neuroscience and interoception at University College London in the UK.

From a somatic perspective, this means that we’re habitually more aware of our surroundings than our bodies. However, with a somatic movement practice, we can retrain our brains to include more of the internal world. Ultimately, we’re looking for a balance between the outer and the inner.

This also affects the way we perceive ourselves and our bodies. Usually, we think of the body as a static object. This is my body. This is how I look. And so on. But when we take a closer look, we can see that the body is constantly changing. It is always new.

So with a somatic approach, you can learn to follow what’s going on in your body. When you’re stressed and tension grows, you can notice it, and consciously let go. In other words, when the muscles in your shoulders (or some other part of your body) are tightening, you can ask them to soften again.

This is often called active relaxation. When you become more skillful, you can do it on the go. In the best case, you can stay relaxed even in challenging situations. Active relaxation is not only a valuable tool in your everyday life, it can also have a positive effect on your health.

“Lasting, long-term benefits include lowered heart rate, reduced stress levels, and a decreased risk for developing stress-related health problems later on in our life,” says Dr. Lindsay Bira, a licensed clinical health psychologist.

With active relaxation, you can learn to let go and relax in a challenging situation.


Do you want more or less pleasure?

The pace of modern life has decreased our ability to feel. An old somatic saying claims that tension covers sensations. In practice, this means that stress numbs and reduces the felt sense of our bodies. This is confirmed by recent studies on the importance of touch, a growing scientific field.

“We need to have touch on a very regular basis,” says Rochelle Ackerley, a touch researcher at the University of Aix-Marseille, interviewed in the German documentary Die Macht der sanften Berührung (The power of touch) from 2020. “Otherwise, we tend to lose these signals and it takes action to reinforce them again.”

So the negative news is that we easily lose touch. But the positive is that with training we can regain it. Furthermore, the importance of affective touch seems to grow with age.

“As we get older, we see less well, we hear less well”, says Rochelle Ackerley. “However, touch seems to have two layers. Discriminative touch, the touch we use when we reach out for something, seems to decrease with age. Yet, what we find is that when people get older, they appreciate touch more and they actually find touch more pleasurable.”

The ability to receive and give touch – or to receive and give pleasure – is fundamental for intimacy and a satisfying sex life. So also in this area, somatic movement practices can be beneficial.

With training, we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch life in a refreshed way. 


Coming back to your senses

Another negative consequence of modern life is that we’re using our senses less than before. In many situations, they have been replaced with modern tech. A simple example is best before dates that now often replace smelling and tasting before we cook or eat our food.

Many somatic movement practices consciously activate our senses. With training, we can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste life in a refreshed way. The coffee smells stronger. Poo probably too! And the birds and the roses, never before did they sing and look as beautiful as now!

Awakened senses affect our bodies. The rhythmic coordination of breathing, muscles, bones, and tendons in the moving body is a joy to feel and follow. Do you dread physical exercises? When you immerse yourself in somatic movements, it might become something you cannot live without!

When we feel more connected with our bodies, we might also feel more connected with other people, animals, and the Earth. As an example, one of my students enjoys somatic Movingness before she goes to her horses. It calms her down after work and the horses react positively to her peace of body and peace of mind.


Empowering the student

A special feature in many somatic movement practices is a high degree of trust in the student.

Contrary to many other systems, somatics is not about a hierarchical relationship between a master and a student. Gerda Alexander, an early somatic pioneer and the founder of Eutony, once aptly said that it’s about developing every person’s own expression without programming him/her.

“It is not that I am a great master who gives you help. Rather, I can introduce you to my work for your own self-discovery.”

This pedagogic approach can be truly empowering. It’s not about learning through imitation, our most common learning method, but about learning through exploration. Right or wrong doesn’t matter. It’s about about being curious and creative. And finding your own way of moving and being.

This of course also changes the teacher’s role. Instead of giving instructions from a lectern, it’s about holding space, creating opportunities, and offering open suggestions to the student.

Somatics can bring us closer to nature.


Is somatic movement for everyone?

Somatic movements are generally gentle and suitable for almost every soma. But there are a couple of exceptions.

Unfortunately, the body is not a safe place for all of us. In somatics, we’re touching areas where trauma might reside in the body. So if you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), connecting with your body can be an overwhelming experience. It can even re-traumatize you.

If that’s your situation, I recommend that you first work with an experienced trauma therapist until you feel safe in your body. In fact, there is even a somatic program for trauma therapy called Somatic Experiencing, which has shown encouraging results. Crucial for somatic work is that you develop an ability to be with your inner experiences, also strong ones. So when the time is right, a somatic movement practice can be beneficial on your healing journey.

The other exception is more practical. In our culture, we’re focusing on productivity and getting things done. Some of us voluntarily choose a stressful life, others have no choice. Somatics is very much about slowing down, especially in the beginning. Why? Because when we slow down we feel more. We notice more. And we open up for new insights.

In Eastern philosophy, this is often called doing by non-doing. Allowing things to happen, almost by themselves. Obviously, nothing happens if we don’t do anything. But when we try to push too hard, we often stop the flow. So the somatic way is about finding an optimal compromise between being and doing. 

So an important question for you might be if you can make room for a somatic practice in your life.


What makes a practice somatic?

Talking about somatic practices can easily get a bit wordy. But at its core, somatics is practical and down to Earth.

So what makes a practice somatic?  

The key point is that somatics is more about how than what. At the end of the day, it doesn’t actually matter which practice you choose as long as it allows you to expand your mindfulness. It doesn’t matter either if your practice is “simple” or “advanced“. In somatics, it’s about beginner’s mind – your ability to be open and curious.

So whenever you practice, the first step is always the most important. And the next one! And the next! So please, pay attention to what you do. Feel, and sense yourself in the movement and see where it leads you. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than so.

Gradually, when your attention becomes more refined, you’ll probably notice more. There are so many layers to the body – and our awareness. This keeps the journey exciting. There’s always something new to explore and enjoy.

After some time, the feeling quality of your body and its movements probably becomes stronger. This means that you’re relaxing and moving into your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as our “rest and digest” system. Gradually, your brain is switching to another brain circuit. The so-called predictive mind – you know, the brain’s tendency to constantly try to figure out what comes next – recedes and your meditative experience grows. Instead of projecting your ideas of the world onto the world, you open up to receive and experience. Sometimes it’s just about relaxation. Other times, it might feel like you’re dropping even deeper into your body. You’re no longer observing it. You are your body. And you are seeing the world through your body.

 Sometimes, you can see the world through your body.


Please, take it personally!

As you’ve noticed, somatics is not a straight line from A to B. There are as many paths and destinations as letters in the alphabet. And mostly, you’re creating them yourself! So somatics is indeed a personal journey, where you give yourself the freedom to explore your soma, your body and mind, and how they work together.

I think that is what makes it so fascinating. It’s not about going to the gym to build muscle. It’s not about reading philosophy to build brain power. It’s both the body and mind simultaneously.

However, when choosing a somatic movement practice, I think it’s important to consider what you need right now. Do you have a specific challenge like, for example, pain in your lower back? Well, then you probably need a practical somatic – or medical – application. Do you want to move better? Do you want to improve your body image? Do you want to give new life to a middle-aged body? Or do you want more physical, emotional, and mental freedom? 

You don‘t have to think that one is better than the other. In somatics, the right choice is to accept your situation and try to figure out what you need now in this situation. 

It’s also good to test different somatic approaches. How do they resonate with you? Be curious! Ask your teachers how they relate to somatics, and what it means for them. 

And there’s another thing – possibly the most important – find a teacher you like! Someone you sync with. Someone you feel empowers you and supports you on your journey.

Now, you might ask how Movingness compares to other somatic movement methods. In short, you can find everything I’ve described in Movingness. As a method, it’s both simple and practical. But if body philosophy is your passion, you’ll find that too.

Furthermore, Movingness adds new insights from research on fascia, affective touch, and the Vagal nerves. Actually, I think it’s almost impossible to understand somatics without this new knowledge. Movingness also includes human evolution – both physical and cognitive – into the program. This opens new perspectives about ourselves as a species and our relationship to other living beings.

My last piece of advice is to look at somatic movement as art or music. And yourself as the artist or musician! You don’t become an accomplished painter or musician if you practice for 15 minutes three times a week. Not after an 8-week course, either. You’re hardly getting started! Art, music, and somatics are life skills that you gradually learn. So it’s about finding a practice you can fall in love with and return to day after day.

In the somatic world, your body is your canvas or instrument. Learn how to play it, and enjoy the music!

Peter Appel

PS. You’re welcome to add your own somatic experiences! Maybe they’re different than mine?  


The stunning images are created by Narelle Carter-Quinlan, an image maker, storyteller, and transformer; a dance maker, yoga therapist, and anatomist. She is the founder of the Saltwater Songlines Project. Her work, an embodied ecology of Place, views our bodies as part of the living land. Her image-making and site-specific dance is always a collaboration with the Ancestors. An Australian, her name means Woman of the Sea in Indigenous language. 


A deep somatic experience!

MovingnessĀ isĀ a newĀ movement method forĀ deep somatic experiences. Curious howĀ it works? Please, try this short sequence and feel for yourself!

Yes, Iā€™m curious!