You may have heard phrases like, “Name it and you can tame it,” and, “Feel it and you can heal it,” when working with the body in mindfulness-based approaches to emotional resilience-building. I want to add another: “Move it and you can soothe it.” Let me explain.
Our body is constantly feeling sensations – large ones and small ones – many of which we don’t even notice. A lot of sensation is uncomfortable but we tend to ignore many of the messages from our body because, well, we have to get on with the job of tending to our daily lives. It makes sense to be able to resist many of our subtle sensations. But when we have the chance, it’s a beautiful act of self-compassion to tend to even the tiniest of somatic experiences – like a love note to our body to let it know we’re here for it and we care about it. We can tend to our body as a way to befriend it.
Our body sensations are intimately linked to our thoughts and emotions. In an interview with Staci K. Haines from the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership, Dr Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, explained that, “Emotions are a physical sensation in the body and thoughts are the mental interpretation of that physical sensation.” We feel emotion as sensation in our body before we experience the thought related to that emotion. Our body informs the brain in our head and then our brain decides if the emotion is positive or negative and what to do about it. Seeing as our body’s somatic experiences are actually what incites thoughts, it behooves us to tend to the origin of our thoughts when taking care of ourselves because, well, we can’t always trust our thoughts 😉 Enter: Somatic Call and Response.
The somatic call is that sensation in the body – a muscle twinge, a poking sensation in the belly, a tightness or tenseness. The somatic response is allowing our body to move in a way that feels responsive to that body sensation. We rely on the body to be both the provider of information (somatic call) and then the source of wisdom about what to do about that information (somatic response). Our thinking mind does not get involved at all: we don’t need to try to remember a particular practice to apply to a particular ache or pain or sensation. We allow our body to simply move in a way that attends to the sensation.
For example, if I feel tightness in the back of my neck, an emergent somatic response might be to tuck my chin in and allow my head to move on its axis in a way that simply responds to that sensation of tightness. I’m not actively having a thought like, “I should stretch the back of my neck,” I’m simply allowing my body to move in a way that is responsive and emergent. Similarly, if I feel tightness in my jaw, I allow my face muscles to move in a way that acknowledges this tightness rather than thinking, “If I open my mouth wide that will stretch my jaw,” or, “I probably feel tension because I haven’t been mindful enough,” or whatever thought we may introduce to the equation. Some responses might be stretches, some might be placing a hand lovingly on a part of your body, some might be getting in touch with the grounding that comes with putting palms down on the ground to tune into the heaviness and comfort of the earth. What’s most important is that we’re not entertaining thoughts at all. We’re allowing our body to be emergently responsive.
Below is a sequence for Somatic Call and Response practice. Make sure you have plenty of time set aside for this practice (at least 30 minutes). Also, be aware that we store all sorts of memories in our body, so when we stumble upon something distressing, we need to go slow. If you feel yourself overwhelmed at any time in this practice, use some kind of anchoring practice like focusing on your breath, the soles of your feet on the ground, or sounds. If you are still feeling overwhelmed, practice simple self-compassion practices from your daily life.
- Make yourself comfortable in whatever way you like – sitting, laying down, standing up. It’s a good idea to make yourself as comfortable as possible, to support your body as you start your practice.
- Scan your body from your head to your toes, stopping where you notice some tension, tightness, muscle ache, sense of emptiness, sense of constriction. This is the somatic call, subtle as it might be.
- Bring loving awareness to this place in your body and offer an open invitation for your body to decide if it wants to move in response to the somatic call. Bring patience to this process – your body may not have any movement; you might feel a swirling of potential movement before there is a movement; the movement might seem awkward or even frightening. Let your body know that you respect whatever it needs to do in this moment.
- If you start to feel overwhelmed with the sensations in your body, respectfully release your awareness of this part of your body, and let it know that you’ll come back to it later if needed.
- Allow your somatic response to express itself for as long as it needs to – this is not a timed experience – the body does not run by the clock. Your somatic response will cease when it is time to cease. If you do run out of time, you may need to finish the practice gently and let your body know that you’ll come back to it later.
- Finally, rest in your awareness of your experience and thank your body for tending to itself. It has released some pent-up energy, brought mobility to a place that was suffering from immobility, it has done what it needed to do.
As with all self-compassion practice we’re practicing “not be feel better but because we feel stress,” and so our somatic response is simply a loving acknowledgement of the somatic call. However, when I practice this, I find that whatever somatic call of tension or stress I’m responding to will often be relieved when I allow my body to move and soothe.
It’s also important to bring patience to the process as there can seem to be a never ending sequence of physical discomforts in our body. In doing this practice, I’ve sometimes had to make a decision to finish the practice at some point, even though there is still tension I haven’t tended to, and promise my body that I’ll come back to it again later.
While Somatic Call and Response is a beautiful practice to offer yourself from the Somatic Self-Compassion curriculum, regular maintenance of the physical bodymind regardless of whether or not we are feeling tension is a very skillful way to tend to our wellbeing every day. I cannot underemphasize the value of regular movement as a way to tend to our emotional life. Somatic Call and Response is like the massage you have after a long day of being in airports and planes; regular movement is like doing yoga on the plane (ah, can you imagine it?!).
It’s never too late to tend to our bodies whether it be as maintenance or as a response to stress. You’re worth it; your body is sacred; your practice is important 😉