A Research Paper By Joshua Schwarzberg, Mindset Coach, UNITED STATES
Somatic Practice in Coaching
A Brief Introduction:
English Orthodox rabbi, theologian, and author, Jonathan Sacks, emphasized that with “technology, … [we] can instantly communicate across the world, but it still doesn’t help us know what to say” (brainyquotes.com). It is strange to think that for all of the ways human beings have become infinitely more connected, we still grapple with finding the “right” words, solutions, and strategies for our lives. Even when the connection to others is just a few clicks away, we still find ourselves grasping at the world around us. While the rabbi’s words are not holistically incorrect, they beg for a caveat. What if we struggle to find our voice because we have forgotten how to listen to the wisdom inside of us? Could the wisdom from our physical body partner with the wisdom of our mind give us the answers we so desperately need? For those who study and practice somatics, the answer is yes. The somatic practice places the body at the center of our evolutionary intelligence, adaptation, and learning. By exploring the origins of somatics and understanding its relevance in the coaching context, we can accelerate growth and facilitate lasting change for our clients.
What is the Somatic Approach?
In October of 2021, Psychology Today released an article titled, Heart Transplants, Personality Transplants? that detailed the intimate connection that our bodies have to our thoughts, preferences, and personality. By studying the recipients of heart transplants, researchers discovered that heart transplant “recipients experienced profound changes in their lifestyles: changes in food, music, art, sexual, recreational, and career preferences, as well as specific instances of perceptions of names and sensory experiences related to the donors” ( Verny, 1). This study exemplifies that personality is more intimately connected to our cellular makeup than we originally imagined. It reframes the familiar notion that memories and preferences are solely stored in the mind, but they are additionally stored in the body. Throughout history, much of Western therapeutic and coaching practice has been rooted in uncovering the secrets of the mind, but could the physicality of our clients uncover new types of information? A study done at Aalto University in 2014 shows us that the answer is yes. A sample size of nearly 4,000 individuals from 101 different countries with varying ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, and cultural, and sexual orientations were asked to identify the bodily space that thirteen primary emotions occupy on the human body. Researchers, at the Finnish university, found that the same emotions were activated in the same bodily regions in participants across all demographics. As you can already ascertain, the findings from this study show that emotional experience in the body is universal. This is why bidirectional communication between the mind and body, or somatics, is foundational in creating a safe and transformational space for our clients.
Somatic practice is a way for people to tap into their evolutionary intelligence. Soma comes from the Greek word meaning a “living organism in its wholeness”. Another way to approach this concept is to view this practice as a consideration for the entire mind and body. The somatic approach not only prioritizes the cognitive function of the brain and intellect, but it also reminds us that the physical body and heart also store our history, wisdom, and habits. In a world that is always begging to distract us, the somatic approach invites us to become connected to our most basic wisdom- our physical body. Stacy Haines, from the Strozzi Institute, a leader in the study of somatics, explains that to truly understand the practice you need to understand the concept of shape. She goes on to say that “we use this [expression] differently than you might traditionally think about it. When we talk about someone’s shape, we are really talking about what is embodied in someone. We consider someone’s shapes their history and lived experience, their emotions and emotional range, their thinking and beliefs systems, as well as the actions they take and don’t take.” (Haines, 0:18-0:36). In this way, it is easy to understand that individuals hold multiple identities and contexts that are all interconnected. Hard as we may try, it is impossible to detangle these intersections and so we must look at them as a whole. These experiences are stored not only in our minds but in our bodies. This is what leads somatic coach, Anna Coen, to say, “that the body affects the mind as well as the mind affecting the body, it becomes clear that to make real changes you need to become aware of your emotional and physical states” (Coen, 1). When we tap into our physical sensations, we are connecting to entirely new information. Similarly, our habits, thought patterns, and history affect the physical sensations we feel in our bodies. Without a holistic approach to our lived experience, evolution can never truly manifest in a coaching context. Now that we have discovered what the somatic approach is, we will now delve into its relevance in a coaching context.
Why Somatic Coaching?
Whether you specialize in fitness, spirituality, business, or relationship coaching, your clients have both a body and emotions. As such, incorporating a holistic approach in your coaching can have a transformational effect on your conversations because it gives you and your client access to new information. In other words, when you help a client build a connection between their mind and their body you are helping them take control over their lived experience. This coaching tactic is intimately connected to Core Competency Seven: Evoking Awareness and Competency Eight: Facilitating Growth of the International Coaching Federation’s Credentials and Standards. Incorporating somatic practice into a coaching session will help your client gain insight into untapped information, expand their current thinking patterns, and invite the client on how to move forward. Now that we understand what somatic practice is, why should it be effectively incorporated into a coaching session?
For one moment, imagine you are about to give a speech to one-hundred people. How does your body respond? If you are like the vast majority of people who fear public speaking, your chest might tighten up, your breath may become more shallow, and your palms might start sweating. Noelle Cordeaux, a coach who specializes in the relationship we have with ourselves, goes on to say that when moments like this happen “we tend to ignore our bodies’ messages… which isn’t necessarily wise. Our body usually responds first, [and] plugs into what is going on before the brain does” (Cordeaux, 1). The human brain is made up of three distinct parts: the hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. When a stimulus happens in our environment, the hindbrain, or the part of our brain that is responsible for keeping us alive, will send a signal to our forebrain that something is amiss. Cordeaux goes on to say that this [might manifest as] the classic “sinking feeling” in your stomach. That’s your body’s intuition telling you something is wrong, and that you need your brain to get to the root of it and figure out what to do” (Cordeaux 1). Interestingly, however, sometimes our minds jump from threat to problem-solving so quickly that we bypass the natural emotional response. These emotions then get trapped in our bodies and we stuck in an emotional loop instead of experiencing integration. The ultimate lesson here is that although our minds and our body are giving us messages in different ways, they are in fact giving us the same message. When we become comfortable with tapping into the physical messages of our body, we can in turn enhance the experience of the mind.
Mindfulness, Savoring, and Raisins?
Whether you want to start experimenting with somatic practice on yourself or with your clients here is an easy practice that can strengthen psychosomatic awareness, or mind and body connection. This somatic technique is called, savoring. Savoring is the practice of truly experiencing the physical sensations of a moment. For example, if you are about to enjoy a meal you are touching, smelling, and observing the food in front of you. The objective here is to really ground yourself and be present in a moment to activate your parasympathetic response or the part of the nervous system that is responsible for moving an individual out of fight or flight. Eating can often be a mindless activity, but taking the time to slow down and fully focus on your food can be a powerful exercise in mindfulness. A five-minute exercise utilizing this technique requires a raisin. Start by holding the raisin in the palm of your hand or between your finger and thumb. Take the time to really focus on it and gaze at the raisin with care and attention. Imagine that you have just arrived from Mars and have never seen an object like this one. Let your eyes explore every part of it, examining the highlights and the hollows, its folds, and ridges, or any asymmetries or unique features. Close your eyes to enhance the touch sensation. Hold the raisin beneath your nose and take in any smell, aroma, or fragrance that may arise. Now gently place the raisin in your mouth without chewing, focusing on the sensation of having it in your mouth. Explore it with your tongue, and notice any changes in taste and texture. When you are ready, prepare to chew the raisin, noting how and where it needs to be in your mouth for chewing. Then, very consciously, take one or two bites into it and notice what happens in the aftermath, experiencing any waves of taste that emanate from it as you chew. Without swallowing yet, pay attention to the bare sensations of taste and texture in your mouth and how these change over time. When you feel ready to swallow the raisin, see if you can first detect the intention to swallow as it comes up, so that even this is experienced consciously before you actually swallow the raisin. Finally, sense how your body as a whole is feeling after you have completed this exercise.
Mindfulness as Art?
As already discussed, so much of the human experience revolves around disassociating from our natural emotions and physiological response to life’s stressors. The following exercise aims to promote emotional awareness through the use of color visualization. First, select an emotion to focus on whether it be: anger, anxiety, happiness, sadness, surprise, pride, and shame. This might be an emotion that an individual has been struggling with recently or one that is currently being experienced. Next, utilize color visualization as a connection to the chosen emotion. Take note of any physical sensations or feelings that are associated with this emotion in the body. For instance, individuals may notice sensations in their stomachs or changes in their breathing. Additionally, individuals may notice changes in temperature throughout the body. As these sensations and feelings are identified, visualize color in the areas of the body that are activated or energized by the chosen emotion. This intentional step helps build a connection between the mind and body. Furthermore, identify and assign a different color to any areas of the body that are deactivated or low-energy in relation to the chosen emotion. Warm colors, such as reds and oranges, may be used to represent areas of emotional activation, while cool colors, such as blues and purples, may be used to represent areas of emotional deactivation. Through this exercise, individuals may gain insight into the underlying emotional experiences that impact the way they experience life before the mind is fully aware of the emotion that has arisen.
Incorporating Somatics Exercises
As previously discussed, our minds, beliefs, and preferences have an intimate connection to our physical bodies. Additionally, as human beings, we experience more similarities than differences in the way our bodies express and carry emotions. Although our mind and body might communicate messages differently, they are both trying to share the same message. This is why strengthening the bidirectional communication between the mind and body is such important practice for coaches. By incorporating somatics exercises like mindfulness or visualization into our coaching sessions we are creating a space for our clients to build awareness, create new connections, and transform.
Cohen, Anna. “Somatic Coaching.” AC Integration: Leadership for Professionals, AC Integration, 2021
Cordeaux, Noelle. “What Is Somatic Coaching? Let’s Learn Two Techniques.” Lumia, 4 June 2021
Haines, Staci. “New to Strozzi – Strozzi Institute: Embodied Transformation.” Strozzi Institute | Embodied Transformation, 21 Apr. 2022
“Raisin Meditation (Greater Good in Action).” Greater Good in Action
“Strozzi Institute: Somatic Transformation with Stacy Haines.” Performance by Stacy Haines, YouTube, YouTube, 22 Mar. 2021
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