Somatics: The New Alignment Tool in Yoga

By: Allison Wilmes


Have you noticed the word somatics popping up in yoga workshops lately? “Somatics” was coined in the 1970s by Thomas Hanna, a philosopher, educator, and neurophysiologist. Somatics describes the discipline of muscular reeducation that enables people to develop an internal awareness and control of their muscles. It is based on the belief that everything we experience in our lives is experienced in our body; it is an internal first-person experience. Yogis such as Tias Little, who incorporate anatomical and alignment-based styles into their teaching, are embracing this integration of traditional yoga postures with a scientific understanding of how the brain affects the body. There is even a new field of yoga called soma yoga, which combines somatics with yoga. you have ever caught your reflection in a mirror and been surprised to find that you are leaning to one side or that your head is tilted, you are experiencing how your body and proprioception—your sense of your body in space—adapt to habitual ways of moving and using your body. You feel perfectly straight, but the mirror says otherwise. As your body becomes accustomed to the way you ask it to support itself, your proprioception adjusts so that you continue to feel straight. This unconscious way of holding or moving your body can lead to inefficient, and even painful, movement patterns.

Hanna referred to these unconscious habitual patterns as sensory motor amnesia. Our bodies are bombarded with continuous large and small stresses throughout our day and life. We react to these stresses in certain reflexive ways that become ingrained in a part of our brain called the sub-cortex. This is where old information goes to live and where we access it. Unfortunately, information in this part of our brain cannot be changed. This means that the tension we’ve programmed into our muscles through these unconscious adjustments to stress remains fixed. No matter how much you “stretch” your tight hamstrings, they will always return to their former length because of this pre-set tension.

Hanna realized that if we can reprogram the brain, we can retrain our muscles to a new tension set point. Because sensory motor amnesia is a learned, adaptive response of the brain and nervous system, it can be unlearned. The set tension of the muscles can be changed. The key to such change is in the fact that new information from the body goes to the cortex and not the sub-cortex. This new information can be processed differently. The movement becomes new when we focus completely on isolating a muscle, contracting it to get the attention of the brain, and then very slowly releasing that contraction. This slows the process down so that it becomes voluntary, controlled, and conscious. In this way, somatics can release the tension and pain of habitual muscle holding and realign and balance the body to new, graceful, and easier movement.

Allison Wilmes Assists a Student in Soma Yoga

In soma yoga, reeducating the muscles by engaging the brain can have a dramatic effect on the classical poses. This technique can dramatically increase flexibility because you are able to discover your own patterns of habitual compensation and holding in poses. Releasing those stuck areas allows you to move more deeply and mindfully into the poses. It is also a tool for building strength. A muscle that is chronically tightened due to tension has more muscle fibers than one that is not chronically tightened, which could be used to support postures. So, releasing your pre-set muscle tension improves both flexibility and strength.

I admit that when I began training in soma yoga, I was not convinced that it would be anything more than a useful warm-up and cool-down technique. I was surprised that as I worked with these small, very mindful movements, I released chronic tension in my back, doubled my flexibility, and am now working to properly align my knees without twisting and straining them. This new awareness and control of my body is exciting and has reinvigorated my entire practice and teaching.

Much of somatics, however, is used as therapy. According to Deane Juhan, author and accomplished bodywork instructor, “…the complications for circulation and neural transmission which follow in the wake of chronic muscular contraction present some of the gravest potential dangers for the health of the nervous system, and of the body as a whole.” Somatic movement with therapeutic poses and pranayama (breathing techniques) effectively and efficiently releases chronic pain and tension. During private somatic sessions, the instructor can give you an objective, third-person understanding of the harmful or inefficient patterns they see, and assist with the movements to help you integrate new patterns more quickly. Somatics is particularly good at reducing the symptoms of fibromyalgia, sciatica, lower back pain, shoulder rounding and strain, and many of the aches and pains commonly attributed to “old age.” In fact, somatics is a safe, easy, and gentle way to find relief from a wide variety of diseases and injuries.

Currently, the term somatics is being used in two opposing ways, and they can be very confusing. One way, as Hanna taught somatics, is mind-based: the mind must stay totally focused on small, isolated movements of the muscles. The second way has been adopted by psychologists and others who use body movements to get “out of their heads” and develop a body-based sense of intuition. It is called body-based because the focus is entirely on what is felt in the body.

Classes and workshops that focus on body-based somatics help students learn to incorporate a greater somatic vocabulary, as they ask how a movement or emotion feels in the body and where it is felt. This form of somatics uses imagery and imagination to sense energy moving in the body. It is based on the idea that psychotherapy is more successful when clients have a strong sense of body awareness and the ability to leverage that awareness. In other words, body sensation is meaningful, and your job is to interpret that meaning. Body-based somatic “languaging” has become more common in yoga classes as teachers encourage you to notice what you feel in your body. This form of somatics tries to develop the inner listening and trust that are needed to feel integrated, whereas mind-based somatics develops integration by connecting the mind with particular physical movements of the body.

The cutting edge science of mind-based somatics is just now making its way into the yoga mainstream. So release your body from its habitual patterns and discover true inner alignment. Try a mind-based somatic practice designed to eliminate pain, facilitate better body mechanics, and integrate the mind with the body.


This article by Allison Wilmes was recently published in Yoga Chicago Magazine.


 Benefits of Soma Yoga Therapy: