Here on the blog, we’ve previously talked about the importance of integrating somatic practices into our journey towards wellness. Somatic therapy is a form of therapy that focuses on the connection between the mind and body, and can be incredibly helpful for individuals who experience physical symptoms of emotional distress. This blog is the second in a series where we will go over some specific exercises that can be used to release tension or pain and increase awareness of how the body is connected to certain thoughts, behaviors, trauma responses, and beliefs. In the first self release techniques article we talked about the ocular (eyes/face/scalp) and oral (mouth/jaw) segments of the body.
In a somatic orientation, certain segments of the body are directly associated with psychological and emotional patterns collected through our adverse life experiences. You can read our previous "Awakening Our Body," blog to learn more about what that means and how it can impact your moment-to-moment state of being. Know that opening the body is not difficult. But, keeping it that way is – unless you also process the cause of the holding. In somatic therapy, we work to open the body while also understanding what negative thoughts, feelings, behaviors or past experiences may be contributing to patterns of tension, pain or numbness.
In addition to the exercises that will be suggested here, you may consider adding the following to any somatic practice:
Mindful breathing: Find a comfortable seated or lying position, and simply take deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. As you inhale, imagine the breath expanding the chest and filling the lungs. As you exhale, imagine the tension leaving your body. You can add visualization to this by imagining this tension as a color (like grey or black air) leaving your body with your exhales.
Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique involves tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in the body. Start with the feet and work your way up the body, tensing each muscle group for a few seconds before releasing the tension. This can help release tension throughout the body.
Gentle movement: Try gentle stretches, yoga (links mentioned below for yoga classes), or even just shaking out your limbs to release physical tension.
Journaling: Writing can be a helpful way to explore and process emotions that may be contributing to tension. Try to write down your thoughts and feelings without judgment, and to explore any emotions that may be coming up.
Cervical Segment Exercises (Neck and Throat)
A block in the cervical segment can often be heard in the sound of the voice or the quality of the breath. The throat is often viewed as a center of expression, and many people with a history of minimizing their feelings discover tension and discomfort in this area. Take a moment and tune into the muscles of your neck and throat. Notice the sensations that arise. There is likely more sensation than you realized! Repeat this exercise the next time you have an emotion surface. If you notice tension, consider utilizing the following exercises to create space and invite emotions to naturally surface.
Also note that the muscles of the throat are correlated to pelvic blocks. If you are curious about this, please read our blog about why different areas of the body are interconnected. Keep in mind that it is best not to do muscular releases in the front part of the neck, because the throat and neck hold many vital and sensitive structures, including the jugular vein, the carotid artery, the parathyroids, and the carotid sinus that regulates blood pressure. You can, however, use a firm pressure on the back of the neck.
The following exercises are geared towards releasing the cervical segment. They can be done individually or together as a practice. Always spend a few breaths after the exercise noticing what has arisen in your body.
Lion's Breath - a powerful pranayama, or breathing exercise, that can help to release tension and negative emotions in the throat and chest, as well as energize the body and improve mental clarity. Here's how to do it:
Start in a comfortable seated position, either cross-legged on the floor or in a chair with your feet flat on the ground. Place your hands on your knees with your palms facing down.
Take a few deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth, to help you relax and settle into your body.
On your next inhale, draw the breath in deeply through your nose, filling your lungs completely.
As you exhale, open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue as far as it will go. At the same time, exhale forcefully, making a "ha" sound with your breath. Imagine that you are roaring like a lion.
As you exhale, allow your face, jaw, and throat to relax completely. Imagine that you are releasing all tension and negative emotions from your body with each lion's breath.
Repeat the exercise for several rounds, taking a deep inhale through your nose and a forceful exhale through your mouth with each breath. You can also vary the length and intensity of the exhale to suit your own body and needs.
Neck Stretch - Stretching your neck regularly can help to relieve tension and stiffness, improve posture, and prevent injuries. Be sure to stretch both sides of your neck equally and listen to your body to find the most effective and comfortable variations of the stretch for you.
Start by sitting or standing in a comfortable position with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed.
Drop your chin down to your chest, feeling the stretch in the back of your neck.
Hold the position for a few seconds, then slowly roll your head to one side, bringing your ear towards your shoulder. Keep your shoulders relaxed and avoid shrugging them up towards your ears.
Hold the stretch for a few seconds, then roll your head to the other side, bringing your other ear towards your other shoulder.
Hold the stretch for a few seconds on this side as well, then roll your head back down to your chest.
Repeat the sequence several times, moving your head slowly and gently to avoid any pain or discomfort.
You can also add in some gentle neck circles, rotating your head clockwise and then counterclockwise to loosen up the muscles in your neck.
If you feel any pain or discomfort during the stretch, stop immediately and adjust the position of your head or neck to find a more comfortable variation of the stretch.
You can also experiment with different variations of the stretch, such as gently pulling your head forward with your hands or tilting your head back to stretch the front of your neck.
Neck Rock - The neck rock exercise is a simple and effective way to stretch and loosen up the muscles in your neck and improve mobility and flexibility. Remember to breathe deeply and move slowly and smoothly, listening to your body and adjusting the intensity of the stretch as needed to avoid any pain or discomfort.
Begin by sitting in a comfortable position with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed.
Place your hands on either side of your head, with your fingers interlaced and your palms supporting the base of your skull.
Take a deep breath in and as you exhale, gently tuck your chin towards your chest. Keep your shoulders relaxed and avoid shrugging them up towards your ears.
Inhale as you slowly rock your head back, allowing your neck to arch slightly and your gaze to lift up towards the ceiling.
Exhale as you rock your head forward again, returning to the starting position with your chin tucked in towards your chest.
Continue to rock your head back and forth, moving slowly and smoothly and focusing on the sensation of the stretch in your neck.
You can also experiment with adding in some gentle side-to-side movements, tilting your head towards one shoulder and then the other to stretch the muscles on the sides of your neck.
Be sure to keep your hands gently cradling your head throughout the exercise to support your neck and prevent any strain or injury.
Repeat the exercise several times, moving slowly and smoothly and adjusting the intensity of the stretch as needed to find a comfortable and effective variation for you.
Thoracic Segment Exercises (Chest)
The thoracic segment, or chest, is the home of the heart— viewed in many cultures as the doorway to the true self, and the place from which wellbeing, compassion, and love emerge. The thoracic segment extends from the diaphragm to the clavicles. It includes the lungs, heart, and rib cage. The arms and the hands are extensions and are used for reaching out and holding. We can also understand the hands as vessels for giving and taking.
In opening the body, we often focus on the eyes first, but the heart is of equal importance. This opens the way for trust. It is always a good idea for this trust to be firmly established before any opening of the pelvis which we will discuss in a future blog. This softening of the heart allows the other segments to open more easily.
An injured or “broken” heart might engender feelings of longing, pain, and sorrow. When working with these feelings somatically, self-compassion is incredibly important. These emotional states are often draining, and people who hold in their chest tend to lack energy. If you have a practice of utilizing affirmations or positive self-talk, consider utilizing it alongside these exercises.
Remember that this segment of the body includes both the front and back of the chest. Work to maintain an awareness of the whole segment when completing these exercises. Muscle spasms or knots that arise in the back can be released through breathing, movement, and massage.
Sit Up Breath
In a sitting up or laying down breathing position with feet planted on the ground, make a fist with your right hand and cover that fist with your left hand.
Place your covered fist on the upper chest.
Inhale; sit up bringing your chin down.
Exhale; Use hand position to press air out of your chest and bring your head backwards looking up towards the ceiling.
Do this several times following your breath.
Arm Roll (upper chest)
Extend arms out to sides, close the hands, leaving thumbs out (like a thumbs up sign).
Inhale and rotate thumbs as far as you can forward - leaning your chin down.
Exhale and rotate forward as far as you can backwards, opening up the chest and bringing your chin up.
Do this several times with the breath then reverse it.
Reverse breath: Exhale, thumbs rotate back. Inhale, thumbs rotate forward.
Fish Pose (Matsyasana - with props using a ball or block as a support). This pose stretches the chest, neck, and throat, and can be helpful for opening up the respiratory system. The image at the start of this blog is an example of what this pose can look like. Here's how to do it:
Start by sitting on your mat with your knees bent and your feet on the ground.
Place a yoga block or ball behind you, positioned in the middle of your upper back.
Slowly lower yourself down onto the support, lying on your back with your head and neck supported by the block or ball.
Extend your legs out straight, with your feet together and your toes pointing upward.
Rest your arms alongside your body, with your palms facing down.
Take a deep breath in and on the exhale, press down through your elbows to lift your chest up towards the ceiling. Allow your head to gently fall back, opening your throat and chest.
Press your shoulder blades firmly into the ground to lift your chest even higher, creating a gentle arch in your upper back.
Take a few deep breaths in this position, feeling the stretch and opening in your chest and throat.
To come out of the pose, slowly release your chest down to the ground and remove the block or ball from underneath you.
Bend your knees and roll to one side, using your arms to help you sit up.
Remember to listen to your body and adjust the position of the support as needed to find the most comfortable and effective variation of the pose for you. These poses should be done slowly and mindfully, with a focus on breath and relaxation. If you have any health concerns or injuries, it's always best to consult with a healthcare provider before starting a new exercise routine.
Additional yoga poses that focus on opening the throat, neck and chest include…
Cat-Cow Pose (Chakravakasana): This is a great pose for opening up the entire spine and stretching the chest and neck.
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana): This pose strengthens the back muscles and opens the chest and throat.
Supported Shoulder Stand (Salamba Sarvangasana): This pose can be challenging, but it's great for opening up the neck and throat.
The above mentioned poses are typically part of a basic yoga sequence. There are several websites that offer free or subscription based yoga classes. Here are a few popular options:
Yoga with Adriene: Adriene Mishler, a well-known yoga instructor, offers a wide range of free yoga classes on her website. She has a variety of classes for different levels and durations, making it suitable for beginners and experienced practitioners alike.
DoYogaWithMe: This website provides a vast collection of free yoga classes taught by experienced instructors. They offer classes for various levels, styles, and durations, allowing you to choose what suits your needs.
Yoga International: Yoga International offers a selection of free yoga classes that cater to different levels of experience. They cover various styles, including Hatha, Vinyasa, Yin, and more.
YouTube: Some popular channels include Yoga with Adriene, Yoga with Kassandra, and Yoga with Tim.
Gaia: Gaia is a subscription-based platform that provides a vast library of yoga classes, ranging from beginner to advanced levels. It also offers content on various other topics related to personal growth and wellness.
Alo Moves: Alo Moves is a subscription-based platform featuring a diverse selection of yoga classes, including vinyasa, power yoga, yin yoga, and more. They offer classes for all levels and have renowned instructors.
YogaGlo: YogaGlo provides a broad range of yoga classes for different levels and styles. They offer a subscription service that grants access to their extensive library of classes and guided programs.
CorePower Yoga On Demand: CorePower Yoga, a popular yoga studio chain, offers an online platform with a variety of classes that focus on strength, flexibility, and mindfulness. It requires a subscription to access their content.
Glo: Glo is a subscription-based platform that offers yoga, meditation, and Pilates classes. They have a diverse team of expert instructors and provide classes for all levels and goals.
By exploring these techniques and exercises, you can begin to connect with your body and emotions in a deeper and more meaningful way. When completing any new self-release technique, always remember to start softly and maintain attention to the breath. Explore new techniques with a sense of curiosity and mindfulness. Our goal is never to force the body to open, but rather to more deeply observe the holding patterns that are present. In witnessing the tension and pain, we make space for it to transform. Simply by committing to bringing attention to the body through regular practice, we are making space for somatic healing to unfold.
If these exercises are difficult or emotional, it may be useful to work with a somatic therapist that can hold additional space while navigating the healing journey. Exploring the impact of abandonment, inundation, or codependency on the psyche may also support growth.
Author: Lindsay Rosser, LMFT #87065 - Lindsay is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the owner of WellBeings Therapy. She is a Certified EMDR and Integrative Body Psychotherapist who primarily works with adults who experienced complex trauma as a child. For more on Lindsay you can read her bio.
Editor: Mckenna Coffey, Pre-Licensed Therapist - Mckenna is a pre-licensed provider who joined WellBeings during her graduate studies at the University of Southern California. She is an integrative therapist with a trauma-focused, identity affirming, and sex positive practice. For more on Mckenna you can read her bio.
References and Book Recommendations
Rosenberg, J., & Kitaen-Morse, B. (1996). The Intimate Couple: Reaching New Levels of Sexual Excitement through Body Awakening and Relationship Renewal.
Shapiro, L. (2022) The Somatic Therapy Workbook: Stress-Relieving Exercises for Strengthening the Mind-Body Connection and Sparking Emotional and Physical Healing. Release tension, boost your mood, and heal from traumatic experiences with therapist-approved activities in this easy-to-use guide to somatic therapy.
Hanna, T. (1988). Somatics: Reawakening the Mind's Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health. This book explores the concept of somatics and offers various somatic exercises to release chronic muscle tension.
Cooley, B. (2005). The Genius of Flexibility: The Smart Way to Stretch and Strengthen Your Body. Although not exclusively focused on somatics, this book presents innovative techniques for improving flexibility and range of motion through a combination of stretching and movement.