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Somatic Embodiment Practices & The Science Behind Somatics

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

In our fast-paced and hectic lives, finding time to connect with our bodies and minds can be challenging. Somatic practices offer a pathway to reconnect with our inner selves, promoting self-awareness, relaxation, and overall well-being. Ultimately we use the body to rebuild a relationship to our authentic self, outside of external validations and opinions that have been placed upon us. We become more real, more true, more fulfilled. Through somatics, we can embark on a journey of self-discovery and rejuvenation.

Woman standing in a yoga studio with a white cardigan and green leggings catching a blue meditation cushion.

Understanding Somatic Practices

Somatic practices are holistic body based approaches that focus on developing a deeper connection between the mind and body. Derived from the Greek word "soma," meaning "the living body," somatic practices emphasize the awareness of bodily sensations, movement, and breath to enhance self-perception and consciousness.

These practices draw inspiration from various disciplines, including yoga, tai chi, meditation, and mindfulness. They share a common goal: fostering a heightened sense of embodiment and inner awareness. By redirecting our focus inwards and away from external distractions, somatic practices allow us to tap into our innate wisdom, leading to improved physical, emotional, and mental health.

Through our society, we’ve evolved to become mind focused. Our society has progressed because we think, we dream, we plan. We rarely experience, embody, or stay present. This is where we see symptoms of the fight, flee, freeze, fawn response (our sympathetic autonomic nervous system engagement). We’ve needed to lead with the mind to be successful in our production oriented society, but are we living well? I’d argue that because the wisdom of the body has been thrown to the side, we aren’t balanced. We aren’t able to appropriately regulate our nervous system.

Dr Gabor Maté was recently asked the question (to paraphrase)Are we well? and his response was to showcase that we’ve never seen so many instances of anxiety, depression, paralyzation (inability to choose) or suicide, to name just a few examples.

We have the ability to support ourselves from these body based practices that will help support our journey back to homeostasis. This isn’t to say that all things are good and well, but our ability to assess a situation and have an appropriate reaction to the situation is the end goal. To not have road rage, to not let spilled coffee throw off our entire day, to not hold a goal in such high regard that we attach our identity to it. To live in the here and now, which we haven’t been able to access in a long time, is the most important task at hand.

Benefits of Somatic Practices

Somatic practices have their roots in scientific theories that highlight their influence on our nervous system, the complex network responsible for controlling our body's functions. The Polyvagal Theory, pioneered by Dr. Stephen Porges, reveals how somatic practices activate the vagus nerve, a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system. Through deep breathing, body scanning, and gentle movements, somatic practices trigger the "rest and digest" response, reducing stress and enhancing emotional regulation.The vagus nerve has two major branches: the ventral vagal and dorsal vagal pathways.

The ventral vagal pathway is associated with the "rest and digest" response. When activated, it promotes feelings of safety, relaxation, and social engagement. Somatic practices, such as deep breathing and gentle movements, stimulate the ventral vagal pathway, leading to increased parasympathetic activity. This results in reduced heart rate, lower blood pressure, and enhanced digestion – all indicative of a state of relaxation and well-being.

On the other hand, the dorsal vagal pathway is related to the "freeze" response, associated with feelings of disconnection, immobilization, and shutdown. Somatic practices help prevent the dominance of the dorsal vagal pathway by promoting a sense of safety and connection through mindfulness and embodiment.

Another remarkable aspect is neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to form new neural connections. Engaging in somatic practices, like meditation and yoga, stimulates neuroplasticity, allowing us to rewire our brain's responses to stressors, leading to increased resilience and a balanced nervous system. The nervous system is incredibly adaptive. Studies have shown that regular meditation practices increase gray matter density in brain regions associated with memory, learning, and emotional regulation. Additionally, meditation has been linked to increased prefrontal cortex activity, which is involved in decision-making and executive functions. These changes suggest that somatic practices can improve our ability to manage stress, regulate emotions, and make better choices in challenging situations.

This means that through consistent practice, we can rewire our brain's responses to stressors, leading to increased resilience and a more balanced nervous system.

Cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone, plays a crucial role in the body's stress response. Chronic stress can lead to dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls the body's stress response. When we experience stress, the HPA axis triggers the release of stress hormones, including cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.

Somatic practices, particularly mindful activities like yoga and meditation, have been found to regulate the HPA axis and reduce cortisol levels. Regular engagement in these practices can lead to decreased production of stress hormones, resulting in reduced stress and anxiety levels. Moreover, the reduced cortisol levels may have additional benefits, such as improved immune function and better sleep quality.

The gut-brain axis is a bidirectional communication system between the gut and the brain. Emerging research indicates that the gut microbiota, the trillions of microbes residing in our digestive system, play a significant role in modulating mood and emotional well-being.Somatic practices that activate the vagus nerve, such as deep breathing, have been shown to influence the gut microbiota composition positively. As a result, this can lead to increased production of neurotransmitters like serotonin in the gut. Serotonin is often referred to as the "happy hormone" as it plays a vital role in regulating mood and promoting a sense of well-being. Therefore, the gut-brain axis acts as a key biological mechanism linking somatic practices to emotional regulation and mental health.

Research has shown that somatic practices can influence brainwave activity, leading to changes in cognitive states. For instance, meditation and mindfulness practices have been linked to increased alpha and theta brainwave activity, which are associated with a relaxed and focused state of mind. These changes in brainwave patterns positively impact the nervous system, promoting a sense of calm and improved cognitive functioning.

Somatic Practices to Incorporate at Home or In Studio

A body scan meditation is a simple yet powerful practice that promotes relaxation and body awareness. Find a quiet and comfortable space where you can lie down or sit comfortably. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to centre yourself.

  • Start by bringing your attention to your toes. Notice any sensations or tension in this area. As you breathe in, imagine sending your breath to your toes, and as you exhale, release any tension or discomfort.

  • Move your attention slowly up your body, scanning each body part, from your feet to your head. Notice any areas of tightness or ease. Breathe into these areas, allowing them to soften and relax.

  • If your mind starts to wander, gently bring your focus back to the body part you were scanning. Spend a few minutes on each body part before moving on to the next. Complete the body scan by focusing on your entire body as a whole, experiencing the sense of connection and relaxation.

Breathwork is a fundamental somatic practice that calms the nervous system and promotes relaxation. One effective technique is diaphragmatic breathing, also known as deep belly breathing.

  • Find a comfortable seated position or lie down on your back. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Inhale deeply through your nose, feeling your abdomen expand like a balloon. Exhale slowly through your mouth, feeling your abdomen contract. Focus on the rhythm of your breath, allowing it to flow smoothly and deeply.

Engaging in this breathwork for a few minutes each day can significantly reduce stress and promote a sense of calm and centeredness. Mindful walking is a somatic practice that brings your attention to the present moment and the sensations of walking. Choose a quiet space, indoors or outdoors, where you can walk without distractions.

  • As you walk, pay attention to each step, feeling the sensation of your feet making contact with the ground. Notice the shifting weight from one foot to the other. Be aware of your breath as you walk, synchronizing it with your steps.

  • If your mind starts to wander, gently bring your focus back to the sensation of walking.

Practice mindful walking for at least 5-10 minutes, enjoying the sense of grounding and presence it brings.Our group classes approach yoga through a somatic lens. Somatic yoga is a gentle and mindful form of yoga that emphasizes body awareness and breath. Unlike traditional yoga, somatic yoga focuses on how movements feel rather than how they look. Leading from the body, you’re always supported in your autonomy.

  • As you move through each pose, pay attention to the sensations in your body and the flow of your breath.

Somatic yoga helps release tension, improve flexibility, and foster a deeper connection with your body and breath.

Engaging in creative activities that involve your body can be incredibly therapeutic and grounding. Dancing, painting, drawing, or journaling can serve as outlets for self-expression and emotional release. Allow yourself to move freely, express emotions through art, or write without judgment. These body-based creative practices tap into your inner wisdom and offer a sense of empowerment and liberation.

Group of people taking the Practice class, standing on mats facing an instructor and a mirror with their arms in the air.

Next Steps For Your Somatic Journey

Incorporating at-home somatic practices into your daily routine offers a scientifically-backed pathway to nurturing a deeper mind-body connection, reducing stress, and enhancing overall well-being. The science-backed understanding of how somatic practices impact the nervous system, from activating the vagus nerve to promoting neuroplasticity and regulating stress hormones, reveals their profound biological support to our bodies.

Through the practices above, you can embark on a journey of self-discovery and rejuvenation. These practices encourage you to be fully present, listen to your body, and nurture self-awareness, fostering relaxation and resilience in the face of life's challenges.

Start with just a few minutes each day, gradually increasing the time as you feel more comfortable. Embrace the power of somatic practices and unlock a deeper sense of harmony, peace, and vitality within the comfort of your home.

Explore somatic practices further and deepen your journey. We invite you to book a group class or a private session with us at The Practice. Our expert practitioners are dedicated to guiding you through personalized somatic experiences, tailored to your specific needs and goals.

Take the next step in your well-being journey and join us at The Practice. Book now to discover the profound impact of somatic practices on your mind, body, and soul. Empower yourself with tools to manage stress, improve emotional well-being, and embrace a more vibrant and balanced life.