6 Ways Somatic Movement Can Benefit Your Mind and Body
And how to know if it may be right for you.
By Emily Laurence•
Sometimes, moving your body is about accomplishing a specific goal. For example, you might know exactly how many miles you want to run or how much you want to improve your squat form. Other times, moving your body serves as a way to access your emotions and support your mental health, as is the case with somatic movement.
Scientific studies have shown that stress, trauma, anxiety, and depression have physical symptoms in addition to emotional and mental symptoms. Somatic movement is moving with full-body awareness, focusing more on how you’re feeling rather than meeting a specific fitness goal. It’s a way to connect your emotions to how you’re feeling physically. When done regularly, somatic movement can benefit both the body and mind in profound ways.
What Is Somatic Movement?
“Somatic movement helps people get in tune with their body, release built-up emotions, let go of trauma, and manage mental health,” says Peloton instructor Kristin McGee. “Somatic movement is done consciously and focuses on the internal experience rather than the outcome,” she says. “Exercise is physical activity that is done to improve your strength, fitness, endurance, mobility or overall health. I often think of somatic movement as movement for the sake of movement and internal connection as opposed to movement for an end goal or result—even if it also does improve mental well-being.”
Somatic movement therapist Sue Choi says she likes to describe somatic movement as a way to move the body that isn’t performance-driven. She explains that it’s a way to recognize how you’re feeling physically and mentally as opposed to trying to accomplish something, such as improving speed or endurance.
Kristin says that exercises rooted in somatic movement can take many forms including breathwork, yoga, and dance. “Any mind-body movement with an emphasis on turning inward [is a form of somatic movement],” she says.
What Are the Benefits of Somatic Movement?
Both Kristin and Choi say that any form of movement can be considered somatic if a focus on the mind-body connection is applied to the practice. While research on somatic movement, in general, is lacking, there have been some studies looking at specific somatic movement techniques that have been developed over the years. More research is still needed to understand if the benefits apply more broadly to any type of somatic movement.
The physical and mental benefits of somatic movement are listed below and based on both scientific studies focusing on specific somatic techniques as well as broader somatic studies.
1. Somatic Movement May Help with Chronic Pain
Scientific research shows that somatic movement can help many people who are experiencing chronic pain. For example, in one study, people with chronic pain who regularly engaged in somatic movement for one year experienced an 86 percent reduction in the days they experienced pain compared with people with chronic pain who didn’t do any somatic movement.
2. It Can Increase Flexibility and Mobility
A major reason why somatic movement can help with chronic pain is because it helps with flexibility, balance, and mobility—particularly somatic stretches, yoga, and tai chi, which are all forms of somatic movement. Choi explains that unlike dynamic stretches often done before a workout (like butt kicks or walking lunges), somatic stretching involves holding a stretch, which helps with both flexibility and mobility. Yoga and tai chi both have been found to help with balance, increasing flexibility, and increasing mobility.
3. Somatic Movement Can Lessen Feelings of Anxiety and Provide a Mood Boost
Choi emphasizes that at its core, somatic movement is about identifying how emotions make you feel physically. For example, if you start feeling anxious, it can be beneficial to do a somatic breathing exercise and pinpoint where you are feeling this in your body. Do your shoulders feel tense? Is your stomach in knots? Do you have a headache? Scientific studies show that this type of breathwork and meditation can help lessen feelings of anxiety and boost the mood.
4. It Can Help You Feel More Relaxed
“Many people express feeling relaxed or calm [after engaging in somatic movement],” Choi says. To this point, studies show that yoga, one form of somatic movement, leads to relaxation by helping you slow the breath and lower heart rate, which can take the body out of fight-or-flight mode. Breathwork, which is often integrated into somatic exercises, has also been shown to slow heart rate and lead to feelings of relaxation.
5. It Can Be Part of Trauma Healing
Scientific research points to some preliminary evidence of somatic exercises helping people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However it’s important to note that this study looked at one particular type of somatic method, Somatic Experiencing®. More scientific studies need to be done to confirm this connection and somatic movement should not be used in place of other forms of PTSD treatment therapy.
Somatic therapy techniques, including somatic movement and exercise, do not have the same level of research as traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for trauma disorders. Given this, it’s important to know that somatic therapy or movement should not be done in place of CBT or other therapies suggested by a doctor or health care professional.
6. It Can Help You Become More In Touch with Your Emotions
Though science has made it clear that emotions impact physical health, Choi explains that not everyone is aware of their own mind-body connection. Can you relate? Maybe your days are spent moving from one task to the next, trying to accomplish everything on your to-do list and any downtime is spent watching TV or scrolling social media as a way to mentally escape. If so, you may notice your emotions catching you off guard at surprising times, like when you’re lying in bed trying to sleep or in line at the store. Or you may be experiencing chronic, physical pain without even considering that it may be connected to your emotions. Choi explains that somatic movement is about identifying feelings in the body through mind-body exercises.
Types of Somatic Movement
There are many different types of somatic movement. Whichever form of somatic movement you choose, Choi says the key is tuning inward while you do it. “Somatic exercises are feeling-based,” Choi says. “To do that, you have to pull back from the compulsion to ‘do something’ and shift your focus to how you are feeling physically and mentally.” Different types of somatic movement can include stretching, breathwork, and mind-body exercises, with more details on each below.
Choi explains that somatic stretching is static; it’s different than dynamic stretching you may do before a workout. “With somatic stretching, you are breathing into the stretch and looking for a state of elongation,” Choi says. At the same time, she says the focus should be on how the stretch is making your body feel and how it may change the way you feel emotionally.
Mind-Body Exercises Such as Yoga, Martial Arts, Tai Chi, Dance, and Pilates
“All yoga is a form of somatic movement,” Choi says, explaining that this is because the mind-body connection is integral to what yoga is. Other forms of exercise that focus on moving the body intentionally can also be a form of somatic movement. This includes martial arts, tai chi, Pilates, and dance.
Choi says that grounding exercises and meditation are forms of somatic breathwork. By taking slow and controlled breaths, it becomes easier to identify where any pain or tension may be being held in the body. It also provides the opportunity for self-reflection and how you are feeling emotionally. Breathwork helps calm the central nervous system, which can lessen anxiety and lead to feeling more relaxed.
Examples of Somatic Movement
Choi explains that engaging in somatic movement doesn’t have to always mean taking an hour-long yoga class (although it can!). There are also somatic movement exercises you can do for just a few minutes at any point during your day. Below are a few to try.
Body Scan Meditation
Find a place where you can sit comfortably and undisturbed for 10 minutes for the body scan meditation. With your eyes closed, mentally scan down your body, slowly bringing awareness to different body parts as you work your way down. As you take slow, controlled breaths, notice any places of tension. If you notice any places of tension, breathe deeply while concentrating on this area of the body for a few breaths before moving on. When you’re done, slowly open your eyes.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise
Sit or lie down; whatever is most comfortable for you. Place one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen. Inhale through your nose for four seconds and feel your stomach expand as you do so. Hold your breath for two seconds before releasing your breath for six seconds through your mouth. Repeat for between five and 15 minutes. As you breathe, mentally take note of how you are feeling physically and mentally. Notice if you feel yourself becoming more relaxed as the breathing exercise progresses.
Many people hold tension in their lower back, chest, hamstrings, and shoulders. If you can relate, Child’s Pose is a somatic stretch you can benefit from.
1. Kneel and sit on your knees.
2. Lean forward and rest your forehead on the floor. You can stretch your arms out in front of you or keep them at your sides; whatever is the most comfortable.
3. While in the stretch, notice any places of tension, breathing deeply as you do so. When you feel ready, slowly come out of the pose and notice any changes in how you feel.
Seated Spinal Twist
This somatic stretch helps improve posture and relieves tension from the shoulders and neck.
1. Sit on the edge of your chair with your feet firmly on the floor.
2. Place your left hand on the seat of your chair behind your body and your right hand on your right thigh.
3. Inhale and notice your spine lengthening as you breathe in.
4. As you exhale, gently twist your body to the left. Hold this position for three to five breaths, making a conscious effort to notice how this stretch is making you feel.
5. Switch sides and repeat.
How To Know If Somatic Movement Is Right For You
“I think everyone can benefit from somatic exercise, especially in a time when we tend to be very outward focused,” Kristin says. “Slowing down and listening to the body and releasing pent up emotions that can get trapped in our musculature can help everyone. I often say our issues are in our tissues. Somatic movement encourages us to let go of patterns or thoughts that we may not even realize we are holding on to until we listen in and move through it.”
Choi agrees that anyone can benefit from somatic movement, but it does require patience since the movements are typically slow and gentle. Whether you want to try a short somatic breathing exercise or a full hour-long yoga class, engaging in somatic movement can bring more awareness to your emotions and how they may be impacting your body. Give it a shot and you’ll likely notice a difference in how you feel both physically and mentally. You’re sure to see firsthand that the mind-body connection is real!
This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.