Somatic Exercises

These really work. And they are terrifically relaxing.

How exercising your body can help reset your brain
Shoba Narayan

December 31, 2014 Updated: December 31, 2014 04:49 PM
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What do you do when you stand in a queue at the airport, while waiting in line to get off the plane, waiting for your luggage or waiting for transport?

Many of us check email, answer texts and appear busy. But once you’ve done all that and the bags still haven’t come, what do you do? I sometimes use that time to “reset” my brain.

In the 1970s, a movement therapist named Thomas Hanna came up with a concept called “somatic exercises”. It goes like this: every time you get hurt, your body compensates. Let’s say that you banged your left shoulder on a door and it hurts. So, your body uses the muscles on the right shoulder to carry a bag or to push open a door, because the left shoulder is hurting.

The problem is that even after the left shoulder has healed, your brain continues to tell your body to depend on the right shoulder. The brain, like me, is looking for maximum benefit with minimum effort. The way that it does this is by making many instructions automatic: the right shoulder lifts the weight because the left side hurts.

The problem is that the brain forgets to reverse the instruction once the shoulder heals. You sprain your left leg; you hobble on your right leg. The sprain heals, but the brain still hasn’t told your right leg to stop bearing the load. Pretty soon, your body is tilted to one side because the right side is bearing the brunt of all your activities.

This, Hanna argued, is the beginning of chronic irregularities within the body which result in pain as you age.

How do you reset the brain? How do you make sure that it reverses certain commands that are unnecessary? According to Hanna, you do this through somatic exercises.

The literature on somatic exercises talks about the subcortical brain commanding the body to make certain movements automatic. The trick to preventing chronic pain is to override this automatic subcortical instruction. Movement therapists compare it to “clearing out the cache” of your brain so that your body is returned to its original state.

Hanna believed that several things were required for somatic exercises to work. The first is to prepare for the movement – which means that you pause, take a breath and perform the next movement with intent. The second is to do the movement very slowly. The third is to do it without effort or pain. You don’t push yourself; you don’t stretch more than you need to. It has to be effortless. The fourth is to breathe while doing this. The fifth is to reverse the movement and return the body to its original position.

It doesn’t matter what movement you do. If you follow the five steps, that is good enough.

Let us think of a simple movement. You are moving your head from left to right. In a normal stretch, you look to the left and push yourself. That is not a somatic stretch. The point is not to push yourself but to pay attention to the movement. Make it easy on your body, but force the brain to focus on the action.

I am doing a simple somatic exercise as I write these words. I am lifting my shoulders. That’s it. No effort; just a lift. But I’m paying attention to my body. As I lift my shoulders gently, I can feel a little constraint, a little pain in my right shoulder blade. Where did it come from? I don’t know. Perhaps it is an old injury. I’m just acknowledging the pain to allow my brain to reset.

Somatic exercises don’t take too much time and they don’t need too much effort. In fact, they should be effortless. The point is to do them often and intuitively, with attention. And the best part is that somatic exercises feel really good.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir