If you tend to hold a lot of tension in your neck, lower back, or wrists (hello, desk workers), somatic stretching might be the practice you’re looking for.
But before delving into what somatic stretching is, it’s helpful to understand where the term “somatics” comes from and the wider field of somatic movement. The term “somatic” comes from the Greek word soma, meaning “body”; the dictionary definition is simply: "of, relating to, or affecting the body." Thomas Hanna is widely credited with coining the term “somatics,” as it relates to movement, in his 1985 book, Bodies in Revolt: A Primer on Somatic Thinking.
“Somatic movement is awareness or presence during movement, and being connected in your body,” explains Rachelle Tsachor, associate professor of theater movement at the University of Illinois in Chicago, who researches somatic movement. “It’s an awareness and sensitivity to what’s going on in the moment, in the movement,” says Tsachor, who is also an International Somatic Movement Education and Therapy Association (ISMETA)–registered somatic movement therapist.
Somatic practices have also been defined in research as the movement-based approaches to awareness of the internal body (interoception), the external environment (exteroception), and movement in space (proprioception).
With somatic movement you’re focusing on the internal experience and feeling of the movement instead of what it looks like from the outside, explains Sarah Warren, a clinical somatic educator certified by the Somatic Systems Institute and the owner of the Somatic Movement Center, who is based in Somerville, Massachusetts. And, Warren says, it’s about using that internal experience to guide the movement, instead of pushing your body to move in a certain way.
Definition of Somatic Stretching — and How It’s Different From Other Stretching
Stretching, conventionally, means moving or holding various parts of the body in ways that extend the muscles, according to the American Council on Exercise. The goal is to increase flexibility and range of motion. Think about the quad stretch that your cycling instructor might guide you through after a ride — standing upright, you grab the top of one foot, bend that same knee, and pull your foot up toward your glutes, stretching the quadricep muscle on that side.
Somatic stretching refers to the release of muscular tension through gentle movement and an awareness of how your muscles feel in various positions and movements. It’s based on natural, unintentional movements, such as the stretching that takes place innately when you stand up after sitting for long stretches of time or making circles with your feet after you take off a pair of tight-fitting or more constricting shoes. (More on how it works below.)
Because of this, many somatic movement practitioners prefer to not use the term “stretching” at all. Somatic flexibility work doesn’t actually refer to the stretching or pulling of the muscles, says Sadie Nardini, a Yoga Alliance–registered yoga teacher and the founder of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga, who is based in Santa Barbara, California. It’s the action of releasing the tensing up that our muscles invariably do. “What muscles need is a deep release of the tension they’re being told to hang onto by the brain, all day and night long,” Nardini says.
“We intentionally don't use the word ‘stretching’ because static stretching activates the stretch reflex,” Warren adds.
The “stretch reflex” refers to when muscles actively contract (the opposite of stretching) when they’re elongated past a point that is comfortable, according to an article published in January 2017 in the journal Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology. It helps protect the body from injury by overstretching.
How Somatic Stretching Works
Somatic stretching is based on pandiculation, which an article published in 2011 in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies defined as the involuntary, instinctive stretching of soft tissues, particularly during transitions between cyclic biological behaviors. In layman’s terms, it’s the unconscious contracting and releasing of the muscles that happens during everyday movements; one example of this is the way we gently stretch upon waking.
“The pandicular response is hard-wired into our nervous system, and it's the way that our nervous system naturally releases built-up tension in our muscles,” Warren says. “When you see babies and animals arch their backs and stretch, they're pandiculating.”
Somatic stretching aims to mimic this same release of built-up tension in our muscles.
And, there’s plenty of tension to release. “Over the years, our nervous system learns to keep certain muscles tight and move in certain ways as a result of stress, trauma, athletic training, injuries, and repetitive daily activities,” Warren says. Although this is meant as a protective mechanism — our muscles tighten so that we don’t stretch them too far and injure them — it can eventually lead to suboptimal movement patterns and chronic pain, tightness, and soreness.
Somatic stretching requires you to tune into how your muscles feel in any given movement or moment. The key to somatic stretching is learning to feel the sensation of tension in our muscles and other tissues that we’ve been conditioned to ignore (which can also be referred to as interoception), says Meredith Sands Keator, director of training at Somatic Stretch, who is based in Ojai, California. That requires a lot of stillness — sometimes, she has people who come to class and simply lay on the floor the entire time.
“Somatic stretching is based on letting the brain slow and calm down enough that you can learn the feeling of sensation,” Keator says. “It’s such a sensory experience.”
You don’t pull on anything or force any big movements — it can be as simple as letting your head hang and noticing how that feels for various muscles in your neck. Once you’re able to tune into how your muscles feel, you’re able to actively contract and release them, which helps release tension and increase mobility.
“It feels like a melting of long-standing tension, like after the best morning wake-up stretch in bed,” Nardini says.
Consider taking a somatic stretching course to learn more about how this technique works.
Potential Health Benefits of Somatic Stretching
While somatic movement has been increasingly studied and defined in academic literature (particularly in its potential to help with chronic pain), there’s scant research that’s looked at the specific benefits of practicing somatic stretching.
Warren says in her personal experience people who do it regularly find, however, that it can improve posture, flexibility, range of motion, and balance. And there is indeed research that shows that flexibility and mobility are both important components of fitness that help reduce risk of injury (particular for athletes) and promote healthy aging. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in its Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, for example, recommends flexibility exercises or activities be part of a regular exercise routine.
There could be a mental health benefit, as well. “We hold psychological tension in our bodies as well as muscle tension,” Warren explains. Learning to release it may help people feel less stressed overall.
Are There Risks With Somatic Stretching?
As long as you’re practicing somatic stretching the way it’s meant to be practiced —?by tuning into how different parts of your body are feeling in each movement and position, and never pushing yourself past the point of what’s comfortable —?somatic stretching shouldn’t pose a risk to you or your health.
“The only risk is if you’re not listening to yourself,” Keator says, of her experience teaching and practicing somatic stretching. If you’re demanding too much of yourself in a way that becomes frustrating to you, you’re likely not going to be able to accomplish the benefits of somatic stretching (releasing stress and muscular tension), and you could risk worsening your mood.
Do, however, check with your doctor if you have a medical condition, illness, or injury that may interfere with the practice.
5 Simple Somatic Stretches for Beginners
If you’re curious about somatic stretching, here are five beginner-friendly exercises to try. Warren recommends doing each for about five minutes and repeating them daily, so that you’re able to build awareness of how your muscles feel and potentially reap the cumulative benefits of releasing tension.
1. Standing Awareness
Prior to doing any other somatic stretches, Warren recommends starting in a standing position and bringing awareness to various muscles in your body. Stand up straight with your feet rooted into the floor and notice how your feet are gripping the floor, she says. Try to contract and release those muscles. Take deep breaths and notice how your abdominal muscles expand and contract, bringing awareness to how this feels. Finally, scan your body from top to bottom, noticing how your different muscles feel, and especially any areas of tension.
2. Hang Your Head
Stand up straight, with your feet rooted into the floor, Kreator says. Slowly hang your head, letting it fall as far down as it will comfortably go. As you do, notice how the muscles in your neck are feeling. Also notice how that neck movement has affected nearby muscles, joints, and tissues, like those in your shoulders and upper back. Identify an area that feels tense (for example, the back of your neck), and really explore (think about) how that tension feels. Notice how it feels to settle into the stretch. Try to release some of that tension that you feel.
3. The Arch and Flatten
If you experience back pain, Warren recommends the arch and flatten, which allows you to release and then regain control of the muscles in your lower back and abdominals. It’s a slow movement done lying on the floor. Position feet flat on the floor hip-distance apart with knees bent. Take a deep breath, noticing how the muscles in your lower back and abdominals move as you do. Gently arch your back, bringing your belly upwards and pressing your glute muscles and feet into the floor. Stay here for as long as feels comfortable. Then, slowly lower your back and flatten it against the floor. Repeat the movement very slowly, scanning the muscles in your torso for any tension and trying to release it. Watch Warren’s full video to see how to do the movement.
4. Iliopsoas Exercise
The iliopsoas is the muscle group that attaches your spine to your legs, and many of us hold lots of tension in it. This progression helps bring awareness to these muscles and the muscles surrounding them, so you’re better able to release that tension, Warren says. Lay on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your right hand behind your head. Gently lift your head as you simultaneously lift your right leg, keeping it bent, about 6 inches off the floor. (This should look a bit like you’re doing a crunch with just one side of your body.) Scan the muscles in your lower back, hips, and legs for tension, and notice how they feel. Gently lower your leg and head. Do the same thing, this time straightening your leg slightly as you lift. Repeat these motions slowly and gently several times, then do the same on the other side. Watch Warren’s full video to see how to do the movement.
5. Carpal Tunnel Exercise
If you spend large portions of the day typing on a computer or other device, this exercise may help release tension that may be building in your waist, shoulder, chest, hands, and wrists, Warren says. To do this exercise, lay on your left side with your legs bent at a 90 degree angle out in front of you and your head resting on your left arm (it can be bent or straight). Place your right hand on the ground, resting your upper arm on your body with your elbow bent at roughly a 90-degree angle. Move your right arm up and around your head, so that your right hand is near your left ear and your elbow points straight up. Gently guide your head up to the ceiling with your hand, so that the right side of your waist contracts. (This is like a side crunch.) Notice those muscles contracting. When you’re ready, release and move your head back down as slowly as you can. Repeat this once. With your right elbow facing to the ceiling, gently roll onto your back with your right arm behind your head. Bring your left arm out to the side. Crunch your right arm, right shoulder, and head upwards and towards the left side of your body. Release and lower your head and shoulder as slowly as possible. Repeat all of that on the other side. Watch Warren’s video to see how to do this movement.
Other Related Somatic Exercises to Try
Overall, somatic approaches and practices, like somatic stretching, are generally considered safe, yet they are part of an evolving field of study and more research is needed to understand best practices. If you are interested to more formally start trying somatic stretching, it’s best to discuss with your primary care doctor or physical therapist, as with any new exercise or movement practices — especially if you have any health or medical challenges, or injuries.
One final thing to keep in mind is that somatic stretching isn’t just about doing certain stretches on a routine basis. “It’s not just about the time stretching, it’s about repatterning your movements all day long,” Tsachor says. It’s about building that body and muscle awareness into your day-to-day routines, and listening to your body, so that you can do the type of movement that feels good and that your body needs when you need it.
Once you’ve cultivated awareness of the various feelings and sensations in your body, you can apply that to your everyday movements.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Somatic. Merriam-Webster.
- Meehan E, Carter B. Moving With Pain: What Principles From Somatic Practices Can Offer to People Living With Chronic Pain. Frontiers in Psychology. January 25, 2021.
- Eddy M. A Brief History of Somatic Practices and Dance: Historical Development of the Field of Somatic Education and Its Relationship to Dance [PDF]. Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices. 2009.
- Edwards M. Types of Stretching. American Council on Exercise. November 19, 2012.
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: 2nd Edition. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. 2018.
- Bhattacharyya KB. The Stretch Reflex and the Contributions of C David Marsden. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology. January–March 2017.
- The Arch & Flatten. Somatic Movement Center.
- Iliopsoas Exercises. Somatic Movement Center.
- Exercises for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Somatic Movement Center.