Written by Alta Clark 

Alta Clark is pursuer of many paths, her current one being the start of a degree as an R.N., where she hopes to take her knowledge and apply it to her world climbing, skiing, dancing, and traveling. She has traditionally filled the role of mentor and educator, and is inspired by working with young people and women. Her life goals include being able to incorporate medicine with exercise physiology and psychology to help people understand that there are infinite approaches to serving their bodies and spirit.

Exploring Somatics

Throughout my life the most natural way I have found to cultivate joy is through movement practices. For me that looks like dancing, long distance running, and vinyasa, but exploring the Soma is not limited to these conventional practices. The most important component is listening to intuition and moving in a certain way that feels good for me in the moment. When I try to fit inside of a box of what I think my creative movement is supposed to look like, I lose connection with my body. 

Having been a dancer my entire life, the deciding factor in attending the University of Montana was the opportunity to be involved in a rigorous dance program. I eventually decided to major in Political Science and Philosophy, but in one of my modern dance classes I encountered a concept that made me want to drop everything in pursuit of a new field: Somatics, the exploration of the mind-body relationship. Thomas Hanna explains it very well saying:

“Somatics is the field which studies the soma: namely, the body as perceived from within by first-person perception. When a human being is observed from the outside — i.e., from a third-person viewpoint-the phenomenon of a human body is perceived. But, when this same human being is observed from the first-person viewpoint of his own proprioceptive senses, a categorically different phenomenon is perceived: the human soma.” –Thomas Hanna 

Healing practices involving somatics are becoming more popular, but I first encountered this practice outside of the clinical setting. Anyone who’s dedicated much of their time to movement practices or athletics understands the value of harmony between the mind and the body and the relief (and often elation) that comes when this harmony is achieved. I’m 24 now, and I spent 18 years of my life as a dancer, which meant that much of my daily existence involved somatics – but I didn’t know it had a label, let alone what the word “somatics” meant. Now even generic websites like Healthline.com recommend the discipline because of its growing popularity with alternative wellness practices. In response to the question, “What does somatics even mean?” they reply,

“Somatics describes any practice that uses the mind-body connection to help you survey your internal self and listen to signals your body sends about areas of pain, discomfort, or imbalance. These practices allow you to access more information about the ways you hold on to your experiences in your body. Somatic experts believe this knowledge, combined with natural movement and touch, can help you work toward healing and wellness.” (Healthline.com)

So from these two definitions we now have an idea of what somatics means, but what does a practice look like? According to the Healthline.com definition, it involves “natural movement.” So what qualifies as “natural movement”? What movement constitutes “unnatural”?

Anxiousness: Dissonance Between Mind and Body

I retired from dancing years ago, but the discipline of Somatics resurfaced recently when I decided to establish a regiment of yoga and meditation. I really struggle with meditation. I am an anxious person and experience a very busy mind, so being able to drop right into a seated meditation rarely ever works for me. I usually use guided meditations through a program called YogaGlo, and in one of my practices the instructor said something that really got my wheels turning. He said that anxiousness often results from a dissonance between the mind and the body. If the mind is moving quickly (like mine often does) and we are forcing the body to sit, and be still, it is unnatural and only increases this dissonance. Instead, he advocates for a slow moving vinyasa practice that emphasizes a harmony between movement, breath, and focus in order to feel relief from anxiety. This felt like a truly novel concept at the time, but since that practice, I have realized how much that principle has resonated with so much of my life and is a reflection of when I’ve felt disturbed or at peace. 

Natural Movement & Gaga

My connection with somatics was once again concretized when I encountered the Netflix show “Move.” It’s a new documentary series that explores different disciplines of dance, and they had an episode on the Gaga Movement. I had heard the word Gaga thrown around in the studio before, and you might think, huh “ga ga” like the noise a baby makes? Exactly. The motivation of the Gaga movement is to return people to their premier state of moving in and exploring the world. The emphasis is on movement that forms to the body and feels physically good, as an alternative to more classical disciplines like ballet where the body is encouraged to change to fit a certain form which can sometimes cause injuries.  

Gaga is a movement language and pedagogy developed by Batsheva Dance Company director and teacher Ohad Naharin. Gaga students improvise their movements based on somatic experience and imagery described by the teacher, which provides a framework that promotes unconventional movement. Another part of Naharin’s work that I found intriguing was his classes he offers for the elderly, and physically afflicted. By returning people to these natural and often joyful movement patterns, Naharin enables those who could not traditionally dance to feel empowered and at home in their bodies. As an aspiring practitioner this is something that I hope to use with my future patients.

Cultivating a Conversation

The fact that we were gifted minds and moving bodies means we all have the capacity to explore somatics. I think that one of the most beautiful aspects of it is that your practice can look like anything you want it to. The only thing that must remain constant is the union of mind and body, and not holding judgment on what happens once the connection is established.  If you felt like you needed a guide to help kickstart your mind-body connection, I would suggest seeking out a movement practitioner, or participating in workshops like those offered by Ohad Naharin. If you prefer to instead carve your own way, what I like to do is going for a run or going to my mat and instead of imagining that time as being strictly “run time” or “yoga time,” I use prompts like these: 

  • What movement is my inhale initiating? 
  • What movement is my exhale initiating?
  • What is the relationship between my knee and my elbow? My belly button and my chin? 
  • If someone were to see me right now, what story would my shoulders be telling?
  • How can I elongate my movements and transitions so that I can squeeze the juice out of every last second of my practice and not actually spend any time staying still? As soon as one motion has ended, a new one begins. 

I’m sure these cues won’t work for everyone, but they’re some of the tools that I use to reaffirm my mind-body connection and enjoy the most benefit from my somatic experiences. I also find that they bring joy and an element of curiosity to what can sometimes become mundane practices. 

In my experience, practicing mindful movement has been my core instrument for grounding and refreshing my mind, body, and creative spirit. Somatics embodies recognition of the unity between mind and body, and continues to inform my exploration of wellness. 

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Learn more about these ideas in our article: Mind-Body Medicine