The Magic of Somatic Breathwork

Somatic breathwork is not just about inhaling and exhaling. It’s a transformative journey where conscious breathing becomes the key to unlocking emotional, mental and physical well-being.

We all breathe. Along with digestion, the heart rate and a handful of other bodily functions, respiration is part of our autonomic nervous system—the branch that regulates involuntary processes.

What sets breathing apart, however, is that we can exercise conscious control over it, a skill few of us take the time to develop although the benefits can be significant.

Research suggests that how we inhale and exhale can have a noticeable impact on our physical, mental and emotional state. It turns out that breathing might just be our superpower, and somatic breathwork in particular can play a powerful role in helping us cultivate holistic well-being.

What Is Somatic?

The Greek word soma refers to the body and evolved to mean “the body in its wholeness.” When we talk about somatic breathwork, we are talking about a type of intentional breathing practice that encourages acknowledgment of the soma.

In other words, somatic breathwork brings conscious awareness to the sensations in our body as we breathe. This, in turn, enhances our interoception. Interoception could in some ways be considered our sixth sense since it helps us understand and feel what’s going on inside our bodies. 

Nowadays, it is not uncommon to feel completely disconnected from our interoception, or somatic wisdom. We have been so conditioned to prioritize what our minds are telling us about our experiences while pretty much ignoring what our bodies are telling us. But when you stop to consider this, it becomes clear pretty quickly that we have it backward.

The wisdom that accumulates in our bodies as we go through life is untainted by the stories we, or others, make up about ourselves and each other. Our bodies know us, and how we’re truly doing, better than our minds ever could. There is a reason why the saying” the mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master” exists. 

Stress & the Soma

The mind is easily short-circuited when our sympathetic nervous system is activated and our fight, flight or freeze response takes over. In those moments, our limbic system—evolutionarily the oldest part of the brain, sometimes called the monkey or lizard mind—is in control and we lose the ability to evaluate the situation we are in with any sort of consciousness.

We find ourselves in survival mode. In this state of being, the brain’s primary purpose is to make sure we live to see another day. So all physiological functions that do not directly contribute to this are, essentially, shut down.

This entire process, which happens in a matter of milliseconds, is perfectly normal and exactly how our sympathetic nervous system evolved to ensure our survival. What has become normal but shouldn’t be, however, is how we process—or, more accurately, don’t process—the mental and physical trauma of a high-stress event once the “danger” has passed.

For starters, the brain has a hard time telling the difference between an actual threat to our survival—say, almost getting hit by a car—and a perceived threat. In the fast-paced, productivity-mad hustle culture that we live in, our brains are being bombarded by perceived threats constantly.

Breaking the Stress Cycle

Even how we talk to ourselves reflects this. We’re quick to throw out words related to the worst-case scenario in a given situation. It’s no wonder that most of us live in a persistent state of low-grade stress and/or anxiety with our bodies continuously in hyper-vigilance mode.

Because our sympathetic nervous systems are activated and we don’t know how to prioritize the need for a moment of recovery after high-stress events, we end up storing a lot of the trauma from those events in the body, which is incredibly damaging to our overall well-being long-term.

And because we have become disconnected from our interoception, we have lost access to our somatic wisdom and often can’t tell that we’ve accumulated all that trauma until our bodies are, in essence, shouting it at us. Inflammation, illness, insomnia and burnout are all symptoms of this cycle of stress with no end in sight.

Using Somatic Breathwork for Holistic Well-Being

The good news is that learning to use your breath effectively can help end this cycle. The breath is a deceptively simple tool that can have a powerful, life-changing impact, and fairly quickly at that. That’s why I like to think of it as our superpower.

When we engage in somatic breathwork, we breathe intentionally—slow and deep, by lengthening the exhale as much as possible and breathing fully into the belly. As we do this, we make a point of noticing how our body is responding to stimuli, be it physical, mental or emotional.

In this way, we can bring conscious awareness to the places in our body where we are storing any pent-up emotions, trauma or tension. Common places where we tend to store all of these include our neck and shoulders, our hips and abdomen and the chest. Not surprising, right?

This kind of slow, intentional, conscious breathing sends signals to our brain, letting it know that there is no threat present and that it is safe to deactivate the sympathetic nervous system so that we may go into a parasympathetic response of rest, digest and recover.

When we are calm and relaxed in this parasympathetic state for a while, the mind gets quiet enough for us to become aware of the feelings and emotions we might be holding onto that are causing stress and tension in our bodies and lives. Awareness is always the first step in the healing process. Somatic breathwork is a formidable tool for fostering awareness.

Well-Being & Breath

Awareness helps us access our embodied insight. When we become aware of what’s going on inside our bodies, we empower ourselves with self-knowledge and understanding, so that we may prioritize our well-being.

Full, conscious, somatic breathing—the kind of intentional breathing that expands your ribcage in every direction, that you feel filling up your whole being with oxygen, that gives you space to slow down and notice the nuances of your body in the moment—that kind of breathing brings us to a coveted place of relaxation and ease while also feeling present and alert.

It helps us achieve a balanced state of mind from which we can approach further healing with compassion, clarity and acceptance. It supports us in making choices that benefit our overall well-being because we know ourselves better and can therefore discern what our needs are. 

We all know that well-being is a journey and not a destination. Multiple factors contribute to it, and no one practice is going to get us there. But by starting a consistent somatic breathwork practice that creates a deep connection with your body and all the wisdom (about you!) that it holds, you can set yourself on the path towards transformational healing and holistic well-being for life.

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