What is Somatic Stretch®?
To have a sense of wellbeing and energy, we need to be free from our tensions, our stiffness, our aches and pains, our inflexibility, fatigue and all other physical conditions that diminish the quality of life, so that living in our earthly bodies is a more comfortable and pleasurable experience. This is the purpose of Somatic Stretch®.
How does Somatic Stretch® achieve its results?
An important first step in Somatic Stretch® is learning to release tension. For a variety of reasons, tensions in the body build up and become lodged in the musculature, resulting in stiffness and bad posture and contributing ultimately to poor health. Weight that should properly be supported by the bone structure falls instead onto muscles, tendons, and ligaments, fatiguing and straining them. Nerves can be pinched and blood flow diminished, lessening the supply of vital nutrients to the body. Through gentle stretching and isolated strengthening exercises, Somatic Stretch® gives the body the time it needs, and the opportunity, to release tensions and undo wrongful patterns of use; muscles begin to lengthen and joints to loosen, while underlying support muscles gradually strengthen. At the same time, an awareness of the inner body develops, making bodily movements more consciously controlled. Posture can then be corrected and the bone structure brought into proper alignment, removing strain from soft tissue and freeing blood flow throughout the body. For anyone wishing to embark on this life-enhancing process, it should be understood that it is no “quick fix.” Rather, it is life-long and never-ending, demanding commitment and perseverance, the ultimate rewards commensurate with the time and effort involved.
With many different methods of stretching, what is different about Somatic Stretch®?
Whenever we stretch, a protective mechanism called the stretch reflex simultaneously causes the stretching muscles to contract in order to prevent injury. While this is a good thing, it prevents the muscles from relaxing fully, which is necessary for stretching in the safest and most effective way. The method of stretching in Somatic Stretch® enables the necessary full relaxation by canceling out the stretch reflex. Muscles can then stretch safely and more deeply, thereby releasing tension that is otherwise beyond reach in the deeper layers, or trapped in the tight fibers of fascia and constantly contracted soft tissue. With the release of tension, flexibility increases, allowing for independent movement and re-alignment of body parts for increased mobility and improved posture. In addition, a ‘Stretchcloth’ unique to Somatic Stretch®, is used to intensify the effect of both stretching and strengthening and to heighten muscular awareness. Aside from the physical benefits mentioned above, releasing tension increases serotonin levels in the brain, which, as we know, produces a “feel good” effect on the psyche.
How is the stretch reflex reduced? (Great two-minute video below)
To reduce the stretch reflex, Somatic Stretch® exercises are not goal oriented. They’re not about “touching your toes” or getting into extreme positions. Instead, the focus is on drawing the mind inward and becoming aware of the sensation that each exercise produces. This is done by learning to relax the whole body when stretching and, with strengthening exercises, by focusing energy only into the muscles that are being strengthened and leaving the rest of the body as relaxed, or uninvolved, as possible.
What does ‘working for sensation’ mean?
Unless we have a pain of some kind, we’re not normally aware of the inside of our bodies. With Somatic Stretch®, however, we can identify, or “locate,” the muscles that are affected through the sensations that each exercise produces; stretching produces one kind of sensation, contracting muscles produces a different kind. These sensations bring muscles into our conscious awareness as though a spotlight is shining on them, and this is what we put our attention on, rather than on the outward appearance, or position, of an exercise. In keeping with the meaning of “somatics,” which is, “relating to the inner body,” as we develop this inner “connection” with our muscular system, we’re able to bring our bodies to a more ideal physical condition. In so doing, we can then use our bodies with greater pleasure, skill and safety in all that we do. Most importantly, through conscious awareness, we can begin to recognize the sensation that registers to our senses as relaxation. This is the sensation that tells us we’re letting go of tension, which, when left unchecked for lack of awareness, builds up throughout our bodies. It’s seen most noticeably in shoulders that are “lifted.” Relaxation is also the most important sensation to recognize and nurture in that it is the very foundation of wellbeing.
How does Somatic Stretch® develop sensation, or body awareness?
A distinguishing feature of Somatic Stretch® is the use of bi- and multi-directional pressures for both stretching and strengthening exercises. These pressures increase the intensity, depth, or “reach” of stretches and stimulate parts of the body not accessed by superficial or movement-type exercise, thus “waking up” the body and bringing into consciousness the deeper layers of muscle that often lie dormant. This registers with most people as an entirely new bodily experience, to which they often react with an amazed, “I just discovered a muscle I never knew I had!”
Does Somatic Stretch® strengthen muscles?
Strengthening exercises in Somatic Stretch® are not intended to build muscle mass. Rather than targeting the larger, motor muscles, they focus on the more internal muscles that hold the parts of the body in alignment and that support body weight against the constant pull of gravity. This tones and firms muscles for inherent body strength while maintaining postural integrity to prevent muscle fatigue. In addition to floor and standing exercises, the Stretchcloth is used to help target specific muscles in strengthening exercises, while surgical tubing is used to build muscular stamina.
How does Somatic Stretch® improve posture?
The method of aligning posture in Somatic Stretch® is different from methods that use the image of pulling oneself up with an imaginary string attached to the chest or the top of the head. The Somatic Stretch® view is that this image produces an unnatural tension in the body and inhibits breathing. Somatic Stretch® corrects posture by, first, straightening the pelvis so that, like the walls of the ground floor of buildings, a true vertical is established for all the “walls” or parts of the body, above. In this way, each part is properly supported by the parts below.
Why is posture important?
With proper alignment and support, body weight is placed directly on the bone structure, taking strain off muscles, tendons and ligaments, so we have fewer aches and pains and fewer injuries. As well, blood and nerve supply flow freely to all parts of our bodies and feed our cells with the nutrients we need to stay healthy. All of this registers on our bodily senses as “wellbeing,” which reflects on our self image and enhances our self esteem.
What is the Somatic Stretch® view on breathing?
As with yoga, Somatic Stretch® employs abdominal breathing, but only when the body is relaxing, as in some exercises, or when resting or sleeping. When the body is active or in any upright position, including sitting, Somatic Stretch® uses “rib cage,” or thoracic, breathing. This is because the abdominal muscles must be used to hold the pelvis straight and they can’t, therefore, be relaxed. Thoracic breathing is not “chest” breathing, which lifts the chest and arches the back. Instead, it expands the ribcage outward to both sides and to the back, rather like an expandable wire basket, creating space inside the rib cage for the lungs to fully inflate. It also activates the rib cage muscles, which helps to support upper body weight, removing downward pressure on muscles and joints below. Somatic Stretch® views the combination of a straight pelvis and a rib cage that is supported and properly aligned with the pelvis as the essential components of proper posture.
Overall effects of Somatic Stretch®
Somatic Stretch® exercises work the internal areas of the body not normally reached in more active types of exercise. They increase flexibility and joint mobility, correct muscular imbalances, improve muscle tone, build resilience in tendons and ligaments and stimulate the circulatory, nervous and lymphatic systems. At the same time, they reduce the possibility of injury and relieve many discomfiting ailments such as indefinable aches and pains, backache, neck and shoulder tension, stiffness, fatigue, insomnia, and general malaise. Often described as “an internal massage,” the exercises become gratifyingly pleasant after initial muscular resistance is overcome. While meditation per se is not part of the classes, the effect of working with an internal focus is meditative throughout. Class participants commonly experience the effects of the exercises as an “awakening” of the body and an enlivening of the mind and spirit.
How can I find out more?
- Visit our Store page to view our videos, books and programs
- Sign up for a free Stretch with Lilian and join our newsletter for discounts and information
- Learn more about our International Training Program
- Contact Lilian for a private session by Skype or in person to discuss your specific needs
- Visit Meredith Sands Keator’s website, Lilian’s daughter and co-director of the Training Program