Somatic Yoga: what is it and how can it help you?

By Cara Waudby Tolley | May 2, 2022

Annabel Lee discovers that somatic yoga is less about looking perfect on the outside and more about feeling good.

Yoga is an ancient practice, and the pandemic gave many people the opportunity to try it for the first time. As interest continues to grow, more people are trying different types of yoga, in search of the right style for them. Yoga has a rich and diverse history. There isn’t one set narrative, founder or style of yoga, but generally it is understood that the practice originated in India around 5,000 years ago, with the aim of bringing harmony to body and mind. As time went on, it developed in many parts of the world, and various lineages and schools of yoga emerged.

The modern style of yoga that many of us now practise, started in the early 20th century, as yoga became popular in America and Europe. It focuses on the poses or asanas, developed to help prepare the body to sit and meditate.

While yoga originally focused on body, mind and spirit, in the west it has become more of a physical exercise. In fact, there are eight limbs of yoga, and the physical asanas we often call yoga are just one part. Equally important in traditional yoga is breathwork, mediation, ethical and spiritual practices, concentration and sense withdrawal.

Yoga is powerful, providing many benefits including better physical and mental health. However, much of modern yoga’s focus has shifted to outward appearance and pose perfecting. “Yoga today can focus too much on the external perception,” says somatic yoga teacher Francesca Melluzzi. This can distract from the true purpose and lead to injury and pain.

Yoga from the inside

Somatic yoga is a newer form that is growing in popularity thanks to its mindful approach. It differs from other yoga forms because it is focused on how movements feel to you from inside, rather than how they look to anyone else. “The focus is on sensing your way in and out of poses rather than pushing yourself,” says Francesca. “This can help you develop a more self-compassionate relationship towards yourself and your body.”

Somatic yoga combines somatics, a movement practice concerned with how things feel from within, with yoga. Somatics was developed by Thomas Hanna in the 1970s. It helps retrain the brain to allow muscles to relax fully and go back to their natural state, undoing habitual learned movement patterns that can lead to pain.

Nahid de Belgeonne, founder of The Human Method, who teaches somatic yoga says, “Yoga as we know it has become about following a teacher’s instructions regardless of how it feels for you. Somatic movement encourages you to explore what you feel and use that to inform your movement. There is a big difference between trusting your own senses and forcing yourself into a particular shape.”

Somatic yoga is growing in popularity with more teachers offering classes, and students craving the practice. “People might start with faster paced styles of yoga, but come to see it’s not really fulfilling what they need,” says Nahid. “Somatic yoga appeals to those who want to nurture themselves, really inhabit their own bodies and practise true self-care from the inside out.”

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What’s somatic yoga like?

Somatic yoga is taught in individual and group classes. Much of the instruction is verbal, so classes work well online and in person. You practise on a yoga mat and don’t need any other special equipment. Although there may be yoga poses you recognise in a somatic yoga class, there is less of a focus on making them look a particular way and instead a chance to go within and explore your body in a different way.

Movements are often small, generally slower and frequently done with the eyes closed. Classes might include guided breathwork, meditation, body scans, periods of relaxation, a focus on releasing tension and guided, but not prescriptive, movement. Nahid explains, “It’s guidance without an outcome, which can feel strange to start with.

Lots of us are so used to action that it can be challenging to accept smaller, slower movements and allow your body, mind and nervous system to truly rest.

Francesca says, “It’s a bit like an upgraded yoga practice – you could stretch and that might feel good at the time, but with somatics, we’re involving the brain too, so you get long term benefits. Often classes will incorporate the somatic practice of ‘pandiculation’ rather than stretching – where poses are held with tension and then slowly and consciously released, which helps the brain remember how to relax and release muscles fully.”

The benefits of somatic yoga

“Because it focuses on how you feel and cultivating self-awareness, somatic yoga is less likely to cause injuries than other styles of yoga,” explains Francesca. “It allows you to get more in tune with your own body and can help you manage pain. It is also a very mindful practice and can be a bit like moving meditation, so is really useful for people that struggle with seated meditation.”

Not much scientific research exists about somatic yoga, but it’s said to have benefits including helping stress and anxiety, improving pain and injury, and supporting digestion, hormone and sleep issues.

Nahid says, “Somatic yoga gives your body a wider scope of experience, so you have a variety of movement options available, which can totally change how your body feels. The body and brain are linked so that has a big impact on your mental and emotional state too – you might feel more relaxed mentally, or that you have a broader range of options. In a sense, by varying our movements and giving our bodies more choice, we are giving ourselves the chance to open up to more in all areas of life.”

How to try it:

Many yoga teachers now include somatic practices at in-person and online classes. You can search locally or ask at studios if they run any somatic specific classes. Look for teachers who are affiliated with, or who have trained with, The Feldenkrais Guild, Thomas Hanna Somatics, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen or Martha Peterson.

About the author

Annabel Lee is a freelance writer from Oxfordshire. A former yoga teacher, she is passionate about wellness that really works.