What Is a Somatic Workout? Here’s What To Know About One of Last Year’s Most Googled Fitness Trends
Physical exercise is typically focused on….well, the physical. Your form, your strength, and how many reps you can do before you feel like dying are usually the name of the game with workouts. But with somatic workouts, what you feel (emotionally and physically) while you move in the main feature.
“A somatic practice is going to be one where the intention is to focus on the body, but not necessarily just the external part of the body or the execution of it, but the experience and inner workings of the body,” says Jaycee Gossett, a founding teacher and vice president of training and development at The Class. The Class—beloved by celebrities and everyday wellness fans alike—is a type of somatic workout that uses music, movement, and breath “to create sensation in the body and observe our thoughts,” according to the company’s website.
Despite—or perhaps because of—this difference from other types of exercise, somatic workouts were a subject of curiosity for many this past year. “Somatic workout” was a top trending fitness term on Google in 2023, meaning that search interest for it spiked significantly compared to the prior year. (“Somatic workout” was second only to “wall Pilates” and “Tom Platz leg workout,” according to Men’s Journal.) In the U.S., searches for somatic workout began to tick up in August, and continued to make a steep ascent to an all-time high in December.
Somatic fitness practitioners are enthusiastic about this rising interest—with some caveats. “I love that the term somatic is being used more and that more people are learning about the concept of somatic movement,” says Sarah Warren, the owner of Somatic Movement Center and author of The Pain Relief Secret. On the other hand, Warren cautions that somatic has become a “buzzword” in health and wellness. “Since the term is becoming more widely used, prospective students will need to be more savvy about what they’re actually learning. There are many types of somatic movement education and therapy, and it’s easy to get confused about what method you’re actually learning.”
“It’s exciting to me to know that that is what is being searched,” says Gossett. “For me it’s like, yeah, people are getting excited about their bodies, but the inner workings of their bodies, not just necessarily the number on the scale or how it looks in the mirror.” She thinks the rise in interest makes sense as people look for more ways to heal and connect with their mental health in the wake of the pandemic.
However, without a prescribed set of moves to follow, how does one actually do a somatic workout? Here’s what you need to know.
What is a somatic workout?
“Somatic” means of or relating to the body, say both Gossett and Warren. (The word has roots in Ancient Greek.) So with that etymology, a somatic workout means a workout focused on perceiving or focusing on the body.
“A somatic movement is a movement that’s practiced consciously with the intention of focusing on the internal experience of the movement rather than the external appearance or the end result of the movement,” Warren wrote on her website. “Technically any movement can be somatic if you focus your attention on what you’re feeling in your body as you move.” (Think of it as the fitness version of “listen to your body.”)
There are lots of different ways to practice somatic exercises. “Shaking” exercises that release stress and trauma, for example, are an example of what somatic workouts could look like. Yoga and breathwork can also be somatic exercises, depending on how they are approached and practiced.
Our modern understanding of somatic exercises was reportedly shaped by Thomas Hanna, PhD, a philosopher and educator, who wrote a book called Bodies in Revolt: A Primer in Somatic Thinking in the late 1960s. The idea of somatic movement is to slow down exercise to focus on how certain moves or actions make you feel, with the goal of releasing repressed or difficult emotions that you might be physically embodying.
Warren says relieving pain, releasing tension, improving posture and movement, and “releas[ing] emotions and trauma that are being held in their body” are potential benefits of a somatic workout (though the former pain-related categories require attaining some somatic movement education). She also points to a 2022 study that found that Hanna Somatic Education exercises (HSE, a specific type of somatic exercise) helped relieve chronic low back and neck pain.
Gossett says getting both a physical workout and doing spiritual or mental work during a somatic movement session like The Class is possible. The overall benefit, as she sees it, is deepening our awareness of and holistic care for ourselves.
How do you do a somatic workout?
The cornerstone of a somatic workout is not the moves themselves but being tapped into how they make you feel physically and emotionally. It sounds simple, but learning to pay attention to your body is something that doesn’t necessarily come easily or naturally, says Gossett.
“We’re learning information about our body signals, which we all have, we just may not have had the language or the practice of how to pay attention to them or notice them,” Gossett says. She says she learned to tune in over the years as she became more aware of the way dance helped her relieve stress. But there are some techniques you can follow.
Warren says people shouldn’t focus on what they look like during the movement, or the “end result” of that movement (squatting to a certain depth, for example). Instead, she says that closing your eyes and moving very slowly can help you tune into the sensations of what you feel. She also says approaching somatic movement with an “exploratory” mindset—understanding that on different days you will feel differently—can help you remove feelings of self judgment.
Gossett says having a practitioner and a space that lets you explore and tune into that language of your body can also help you connect. “What we’re doing at The Class is that the teachers are guiding you via very specific cues into your body, safely via the breath, to notice how you are feeling, where you are feeling it, asking questions that provoke curiosity, but the student’s hand is on the dial of where they want to go, how much they want to do,” Gossett says. “Then there’s opportunity in The Class via the breath and the sound release and shaking, and some of the self-regulation tools that we do hands-on body to help people learn how to process that.”
The bottom line: This unique exercise modality might be just the ticket to reset your movement routine in 2024 (and beyond).“The more we understand [the body], the more we know about ourselves, the closer we are to ourselves, and then the more we can help ourselves, support ourselves,” Gossett says. “There’s an awareness of working out is good for you, so if you can take that thing that is going to be good for our hearts and our brains and our bones as we age and all the things, and then combine it with more emotional intelligence and energy awareness together, you’re getting so much more.”