What are somatic workouts? The mind-body practice is an easy way to release stress and tension

Welcome to Start TODAY. Sign up for our Start TODAY newsletter to receive daily inspiration sent to your inbox — and join us on Instagram!

Plenty of us have felt the tight sensation in our neck or shoulders after a stressful day. If these pains are creeping up more often than not or you're someone who notices they hold stress and tension in the body, somatic exercises may be a welcome addition to your routine. The practice focuses on exercises that improve your mental health and relieve physical tension by tapping into the mind-body connection.

What is a somatic workout?

Somatic exercises are movements that tap into your mind-body connection to relieve pent up tension and promote overall physical and mental wellbeing.

The definition of "somatic" is "of, related to, or affecting the body." Somatic exercises involve consciously listening to your body and focusing on the internal sensations and experiences during physical movements.

While the term may be trendy, the concept is far from new. Yoga, tai chi and qigong are all examples of ancient practices which incorporate somatic elements and mind-body movements, Dr. Mary Jurisson, a physiatrist, internist and rheumatologist at the Mayo Clinic, tells TODAY.com.

Somatic exercises for anxiety, stress and pain

“Somatic exercises are used to increase awareness from the inside out ... (and) they can help someone process and move stuck tension, memories and emotions,” Dr. Scott Lyons, psychologist and body-based trauma expert, tells TODAY.com. “Additionally, somatic practices can help someone become more efficient in their movement, thus stronger and relieving pain.”

While the benefits reaped will vary with each person, somatic exercises "can help relieve pain and stress, improve emotional awareness, and other trauma or mental health-related concerns," says Lyons.

Additionally, research shows that somatic practices may help increase self-esteem, focus, boundaries and decision-making, says Lyons.

“Many of these elements have been separately studied and can improve your overall wellbeing,” she adds. Tai chi, for example, has been shown to help support balance and prevent falls in older adults, says Jurisson, and it may reduce depression and anxiety.

However, the benefits of somatic exercises are challenging to research. “There is some evidence (of these benefits), it’s very hard to study because there’s not a blood level or measure of mind-body exercise and connection, for example,” says Jurisson.

What you can measure to understand how the exercises may affect the nervous system are breathing, heart rate variability and blood pressure, says Jurisson. “You do tend to get increased heart rate variability with a lot of these techniques and lower blood pressure,” she adds.

Somatic exercises to try

Somatic exercises can largely vary from grounding techniques to breath work, body scans, yoga or dancing, says Lyons.

"They all have the intention of slowing down and increasing and connecting to the movements, sensations and feelings housed in the body," he adds.

In general, most somatic exercises do not require specific skills, gear or equipment. So you can try these from the comfort of your own home. Here are five simple exercises to try.

Cathartic movement

Cathartic movement is, quite literally, shaking it out.

"We often think that stress is something we need to relax or settle down from, but a part of our primal instincts is shaking or trembling," says Lyons. These can actually allow the body to release an organic movement, just outside of your control.

"Physically shake and release through your arms, shoulders, eyes and head ... as well through your spine, pelvis and more," says Lyons. While moving cathartically, you can also release through audible sounds or sighs.

"Let that energy move through your body, then take a pause to feel what’s (changed) and what you were able to accomplish by allowing your body to shake," says Lyons.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing is another popular somatic exercise which can be done on its own or during other movements, such as walking or yoga, says Jurisson. This technique involves consciously engaging the diaphragm and filling the lungs with air, with awareness of every breath, she adds.

The diaphragm is a large dome-shaped muscle below the lungs which helps us breathe in and out. When a person breathes normally or subconsciously, they do not use their full lung capacity, per the Cleveland Clinic.

Diaphragmatic breathing allows you to use your lungs at full capacity, which can help you relax and lower your breathing and heart rate.

To practice this, place one hand on the chest and the other under the ribcage to feel the diaphragm moving, per the Cleveland Clinic. Inhale through the nose as deeply as possible, then tighten the stomach muscles to breathe out through the mouth. "Pay attention to how it feels and what it is releasing," says Jurisson.

Self-hug

Another somatic exercise involves hugging oneself very tightly then releasing. This is a form of pandiculation, says Lyons, which is an involuntary contraction and release of muscles — think of a big yawning stretch after waking up.

Humans have the natural urge to do this after sleeping, but it can also help to practice this during the day or when we feel stress, the experts note. “Most of the day, we aren’t aware of the level of tension we’re holding,” says Lyons.

Here’s how to try it: Wrap your arms around yourself and hug your body, squeezing yourself tightly, but still breathing, says Lyons. Allow the whole body to contract and build up tension, hold this pose for a few seconds and then release slowly.

Pandiculation helps to “light up” the brain to recognize when there is tension, says Lyons, and the release can help promote whole-body relaxation.

Mindful walking

Walking has been shown time and time again to provide a variety of physical and mental health benefits; from blood sugar control to weight maintenance and boosting our mood.

Walking mindfully, which is similar to walking meditation, involves increasing your awareness and using all of your senses, says Jurisson. This technique can help you become more aware of your inner and outer environment and reduce stress and anxiety, TODAY.com previously reported.

The first step of mindful walking is to go on a walk with no or limited distractions — put your phone away and leave the dog at home if you can.

While walking, pay attention to each steps and how it feels. "While you walk you can practice body scans, which are common to all somatic movements — pay attention to all your body parts (from head to toe) in sequence," says Jurisson. As you scan the body, try to relax and relieve tension in each part of the body — for example, unclenching the jaw, then dropping the shoulders and relaxing the hips.

Another tip? Try walking in the cold. "Cold exposure stimulates your vagus nerve and that's thought to mediate many of the effects of somatic or mind-body practices," says Jurisson.

Super slow strength training

Most somatic exercises involve moving slowly and consciously, the experts note. "Super slow strength training" is where somatic movement and bodybuilding collides, says Jurisson.

It involves resistance exercises, either using one's bodyweight or free weights, and moving very slowly, with an emphasis on muscular control, she adds. "You might take five seconds to do a curl ... so you're activating the biceps to curl and then extending (the arm) but paying attention the whole way," says Jurisson.

In order to try super slow strength training, start with a normal bodyweight exercise — for example a squat or pushup. Instead of focusing on getting the move done quickly pushing, try to perform the move twice as slow (or more!) and maintain control of the muscles and the body.

As with other somatic movements, pay attention to the sensations in your muscles as you go through the bodyweight exercise.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com