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Benefits of Somatic Exercise

The mind -body connection is a powerful thing.

Somatic exercise harnesses that link to promote mental and physical well-being. Unlike traditional exercise routines that often focus solely on building strength or cardiovascular endurance, somatic practices cultivate a deeper awareness of the body’s movements and sensations.

Samantha Lalama
Samantha Lalama

“Somatic exercises are a form of movement therapy that focuses on re-educating the nervous system to release chronic muscle tension and improve overall body awareness,” said Samantha Lalama, MS, NCC, Trauma-Informed RYT-200. Lalama is the manager of integrative and somatic services at the Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh.

A few examples of somatic exercise include but are not limited to, breathwork, meditation and pandiculation, which involves a conscious contraction of a muscle followed by a slow, controlled release. “Pandiculation is often used in somatic movement to release chronic muscle contractions and improve flexibility and mobility,” said Lalama. “Somatic exercises include yoga, walking and dancing.”

Another form of somatic exercise popular in the Pittsburgh region is tai chi. Chronic pain sufferers and older exercisers interested in gentle—yet effective—movements may find both benefits in this ancient martial art. Often referred to as meditation in motion, tai chi combines slow, smooth movements and postures with mindfulness.

Mike Solito, owner of Rothrocks Kung Fu & Tai Chi Academy in Wexford, pointed to a 2024 research study published in the journal JAMA Network Open that found the practice is better than more vigorous aerobic exercises for lowering blood pressure. Other studies have shown that tai chi helps boost memory.

“It’s all about trying to coordinate that mind and body to work together,” said Solito. Benefits include increased flexibility and strength and less chance of injury. “A lot of the strength benefits include strengthening the muscles around the lungs when you learn how to take deep breaths, hold them, and exhale slowly.”

Frank Toher, 75, of Wexford, has taken tai chi at Rothrocks since 2022. He said he’s noticed a difference in his health. “Usually, my balance is better. I feel better, too, with fewer aches and pains.” Toher said he’s also noticed an increase in his flexibility.

Mastering the deep breathing that is part of tai chi is challenging, Toher admitted. “I like to hold my breath through exercise,” he said, laughing. “I’m still working on that part.”

Lalama said somatic exercises are known to contribute to improving flexibility and mobility. “Moving within range of one’s physical and emotional comfort helps to rewire muscle memory through creating new muscular habits,” she said. “The outcomes include improved flexibility and mobility, as well as better coordination, balance, and posture.”

People who struggle with chronic pain may find lasting relief through somatic exercises. That’s because they focus on areas that are holding pain or tension to gain a better awareness of signals sent from the body, which leads to feeling more equipped to manage symptoms, said Lalama. “Through interoception (awareness of the internal body), exteroception (external environment) and proprioception (movement in space), individuals living with chronic pain gain a more thorough understanding of the body’s signals, personal experiences with chronic pain, as well as the exploration of fear and pleasure movement,” she said.

Somatic exercises aren’t just for the body. They can improve mental well-being also by promoting self and emotional regulation, stress relief, and increased mood. By moving slowly and paying attention to internal sensations, individuals can become more aware of habitual movement patterns and areas of tension or restriction, Lalama said. “This increased awareness allows for the release of muscle tension and the promotion of relaxation and ease of movement. Gaining better awareness of one’s body through somatic exercises is a great way to manage symptoms of stress, trauma, and other manifestations of toxic stress.”

All somatic exercises target mental well-being, she said, bringing relief from anxiety and stress when done with the intent to focus on those goals. “Somatic exercises aim to awaken and balance the parasympathetic nervous system, which activates feelings of relaxation and calmness.”

People sometimes associate somatic exercises with mindfulness techniques because they both focus on self-awareness. Lalama said mindfulness is best described as a state of being aware of something. Somatic is defined as of or relating to the body. “Somatic exercises can be used as a tool to enhance mindfulness. This increased awareness allows for the release of muscle tension and the promotion of relaxation and ease of movement.”

Practicing mindfulness is a great way to explore somatic exercise, Lalama said. Somatic exercises for beginners can include natural breath awareness, which focuses on observing one’s own natural breathing patterns to get acquainted with the body. “Other techniques such as grounding exercises can also be a good place to start. Grounding exercises can assist in bringing awareness to the present moment. Pandiculation is another good beginner option, which involves a conscious contraction of a muscle followed by a slow, controlled release.”

Before diving in, Lalama said she recommends developing an awareness of any physical or emotional limitations. Journaling, a meditative body scan, and generally being aware of bodily sensations and emotions are ways to achieve this understanding.

She also recommends working with a trauma-informed instructor or mental health professional if using somatic exercises to improve overall health and well-being.


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