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An Introduction to Somatic Stretching

8 min.

Somatic therapy, which includes therapeutic body movement and stretching, is steadily increasing in popularity. Learn more about somatic stretching, as well as its development, application, and benefits here.

By: Ethan Cohen BSN, RN

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

August 9, 2023


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Table of Contents

Take a moment to bring awareness to your body.  Notice any areas of discomfort — a tight jaw, knotted back, or tense shoulders, perhaps. If you’ve felt these sensations due to worry or unease before, you probably understand the connection between our emotions and our bodies. This understanding forms the basis of somatics. Somatic stretching, a type of somatic therapy, involves mindful movement to explore your inner experience.

People with a history of trauma or chronic stress often face uncomfortable physical sensations, like pain and unease, tied to negative emotions. Somatic stretching aims to ease such discomfort through gentle, deliberate movements. This article provides an overview of somatic stretching, delving into its origin, use, and therapeutic benefits.

What is somatic stretching?

As mentioned, trauma and chronic stress can have lasting negative effects both mentally and physically. Somatic therapy, a treatment modality that has gained popularity over the last several years, attempts to address emotions through various mind-body exercises—including somatic stretching. 

In an article for Harvard Medical School, Amanda Baker, director of the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorder and a clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, explains that somatic therapy is “a treatment focusing on the body and how emotions appear within the body.”

“Somatic therapies posit that our bodies hold and express experiences and emotions, and traumatic events or unresolved emotional issues can become ‘trapped’ inside,” she writes. 

How then do we “untrap” these experiences and emotions from our bodies? Advocates of somatic therapies, such as somatic stretching, believe that exploring the mind-body connection through natural movement and touch can release stress and tension and improve quality of life. 

Somatic stretching involves intentional body movements during which you focus your attention on your inner experience. Many of the ways that our body reacts to stress are involuntary. These reactions often arise from our fight-flight-freeze response. We tense up, favor certain muscles, stand in a particular position, and often move our bodies throughout the day without much awareness. Somatic stretching draws attention to the body and the mind and explores the relationship between the two. 

For example, earlier if you noticed that your back felt knotted, asking yourself what kind of emotions you are feeling that is leading you to tense up is a way to explore your mind-body connection. Through somatic practices such as somatic stretching, the hope is that we can evaluate and re-educate our mind and body to better manage the stressors of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. 

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A brief history of somatics

Somatics was founded in the 1970s by philosopher and educator Thomas Hanna, Ph.D. He believed that many of the ailments, both mental and physical, that individuals experience throughout their lifetime could be attributed to a disconnect between their body and mind. Dr. Hanna believed that by focusing on body movement, education, and mindfulness, a person can reinvigorate their mind-body pathway and improve their mental and physical health.

It is important to recognize that Dr. Hanna’s work owes a great deal to ancient methods of mindfulness meditation and other non-Western mind-body practices. Hanna’s development of Clinical Somatic Education helped introduce the concept of the mind-body connection to a Western audience. Today, countless programs teach Hanna’s methods, and his work has gone on to influence a variety of other methods and practices that aim to address and alleviate the issues that arise when stress and trauma interfere with the connection between our body and our mind.  

What are some examples of somatic exercises?

There are various forms of somatic stretching and exercise. Here are some popular somatic exercises:

  • Body-Mind Centering: utilizes movement, touch, voice, and mindfulness to re-pattern and reeducate a person’s relationship with their body and emotions. 
  • Alexander Technique: a school of somatic movement and stretching that helps bring awareness to the impact of stress and trauma on the body., Through various mindfulness and body exercises, this school of practice aims to improve both mental and physical health, including improving bodily tension, poor posture, and unstable movement. 
  • Feldenkrais Method: uses movement and awareness of body sensations to stimulate the brain. This process aims to create new neural pathways that can improve flexibility, cognition, and overall well-being. 
  • Laban Movement Analysis: a method and language that is used to better understand physical movement. Widely used by athletes, dancers, mental health practitioners, and physical therapists, this school of somatic therapy attempts to help a person better understand their physical movements and the relationship between their body and the space it inhabits. This method teaches how movement and posture directly affect emotion and cognition. 

Other forms of exercise closely related to somatic movement and stretching include yoga, dance, pilates, aikido, qigong, and tai chi. All of these exercises engage both the mind and body and require an inward focus. 

What makes somatic stretching unique?

When you engage in conventional stretching, before physical activity, the goal is to extend the targeted muscle group as far as possible. Your focus is set on the external experience.

In somatic stretching, by contrast, the attention is directed toward the internal experience. It does not involve pushing your body to move a certain way or extending yourself to the point of discomfort or unease. Instead, somatic stretching is about gently releasing the tension that is present in our body through mild and slow movements. 

As mentioned earlier, sometimes we are not even aware of where exactly we are holding our stress. This lack of awareness of the tension in our body is known within the field of somatics as sensory motor amnesia. Chronic stress or past traumatic experiences can cause the body to unconsciously tense up, and over time this tension can cause pain and discomfort. It is as if our body is stuck in overdrive without us even being conscious of it. In this way, the body is holding onto or is constantly remembering stress and trauma. 

A young woman stretches outside. She recently learned what somatic stretching is and is putting it into practice.

How does somatic stretching release tension?

Bringing awareness to the body to find where your stress is causing discomfort is the first step of releasing tension through somatic stretching. This can be done by intentionally and slowly scanning the body from head to toe to find areas of distress and tightness. 

There are various forms of somatic stretching and exercise. Many of these forms are based on the contracting and releasing of muscles—a type of movement known as pandiculation within the field of somatics. These movements often happen instinctively but are therapeutically applied in somatic stretching. A common example of this type of movement is the big stretch that you take after waking up in the morning, where you move your arms and legs outward, tense and squeeze the body, and then release. 

Engaging in this instinctive bodily movement is meant to help release stress from the body. Keep in mind that this is just one example of the many movements and exercises used in somatic stretching. 

Using awareness to find and focus on areas of the body that are in sensory motor amnesia and then engaging in intuitive movement and stretching to reduce stress is core to somatic mind-body practices. Through these practices, the aim is to reawaken and release those areas of the body that are holding on to stress, trauma, and discomfort. 

Who should try somatic stretching?

While traditional talk therapy tends to engage the mind and not the body, somatic practices see the body as the starting point of treating the mind. In this way, somatic therapies offer a unique avenue of mental health treatment that people can use in tandem with traditional talk therapy. Somatic practices, including somatic stretching, may also benefit people who feel that they’ve reached the limit of the benefit of talk therapy.  

Somatic stretching can help individuals that experience a wide variety of conditions, including:

Somatic stretching and other somatic therapies can be helpful for any person that is interested in gaining a deeper understanding of how their mind and body are intrinsically connected. The world today can feel like an overwhelming place, and as mentioned previously, many of us are holding on to stress and pain in our bodies without even realizing it. Working with a person trained in somatic therapies can offer an additional paradigm for addressing your mental health and overall well-being. 

Benefits of somatic stretching

Scientific evidence for the effectiveness of somatic practices still needs to be discovered. Western somatic techniques are fairly new and are not as popular as other forms of mental health therapy or exercise. For this reason, there is not enough data to make conclusive claims about the benefits of somatic stretching. 

That being said, there are endless personal accounts—and some preliminary research— that somatic stretching and other somatic therapies can help increase emotional awareness and resilience, decrease pain and fatigue, and increase mobility

How Charlie Health can help 

If you or someone you love suffers from the effects of trauma and stress and want to learn how to better manage, Charlie Health is here to help. 

Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers mental health support for people who need more than once-weekly therapy. Our trained mental health professionals are familiar with a wide variety of therapeutic modalities and techniques that can help you on your journey toward better mental and physical health, including somatics. Somatic therapy is a new and exciting form of therapy that is becoming more popular for the treatment of chronic stress, anxiety, and trauma-based disorders. 

At Charlie Health, every client is matched with a therapist who fits their specific needs and a group of peers from similar backgrounds with similar struggles. Additionally, every client is given a personally tailored treatment plan to best serve them—which may include somatic techniques, including somatic stretching.

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