Is Iyengar Yoga a Somatic Practice?

The term “somatic” refers to anything related to the body, particularly the embodied experience and awareness of bodily sensations, movements, and feelings. It encompasses the idea that the mind and body are inseparable, which is a fundamental tenet of yoga. The practice of yoga asana (poses), pranayama (directing the flow of the breath and energy), and meditation are all ways to experience the reality of the interconnectedness of body, mind, and soul.

Defining Somatic

The term “somatic” comes from the Greek word “soma,” meaning “living body.” It was popularized by Thomas Hanna, a philosopher and somatic educator, in the 1970’s. Somatic practices focus on understanding the body’s internal sensations, tension patterns, and the ways in which emotions and stress are stored in the body. By becoming more aware of these bodily sensations, individuals can work towards releasing physical and emotional tension, improving movement, and enhancing overall well-being. This is also sometimes referred to as “interoception.” This is a derivation of the term “proprioception,” which refers to our ability to sense our body in space.  Over the past decade, proprioception and interoception have become commonly used terms in the yoga world because these tend to be greatly improved by a regular yoga practice.

In other somatic practices, you are likely to feel things you have never felt before, but with a consistent Iyengar Yoga practice you will feel things you could not feel before.

Key Elements of Somatic Practices

  • Sensory Awareness: Somatic practices encourage practitioners to pay close attention to the sensory experiences within their bodies. This heightened awareness helps identify areas of tension, discomfort, or restricted movement.
  • Slow and Mindful Movements: Somatic practices involve slow, deliberate movements that allow practitioners to sense the subtleties of their bodies and avoid forceful or rushed actions. This mindful approach promotes a deeper connection to the body and reduces the risk of injury.
  • Embodied Inquiry: Somatic practices often involve guided inquiries and explorations of movement patterns. Through this process, practitioners learn to unlock held tensions, develop new movement patterns, and understand the body’s innate intelligence.
  • Breath Integration: Breath awareness is an integral part of somatic practices. The breath acts as a bridge between the mind and body, facilitating relaxation and a deeper connection to one’s physical experience.

Iyengar Yoga as a Somatic Practice

Playing around with Chat GPT, I asked “Is Iyengar yoga a somatic practice?” The response was a decisive “no”, and I shouldn’t have been surprised. Iyengar yoga is often misunderstood, thought to be only about ‘using props to achieve perfect alignment in the poses.’ However, anyone who has ever studied with B.K.S. Iyengar, or a teacher he has trained, or read any of his books, would know that Iyengar Yoga is by definition a somatic practice. In his final book, Light on Life, the first chapter is titled “The Inward Journey” which points to Iyengar’s emphasis on interoception and a process of inquiry that delves much deeper than muscles and bones.  Every alignment cue is designed to develop greater awareness of ‘the body’s internal sensations, tension patterns, and ways in which emotions and stress are stored in the body.’ Every alignment cue, even if directed at a body part, is a stepping stone toward the alignment of mind, body, and spirit.

What is stunning about Iyengar’s method of teaching yoga, which predates the term “somatic,” is that it makes the esoteric concept of body/mind/spirit union, completely real and experiential. For example, when you first hear the cue in tadasana (mountain pose) to move the thighbones back and tailbone forward, the instruction hardly makes sense. Then one day, both actions happen together and you feel a previously unknown and glorious spaciousness in the hips and low back. This experience is the empirical evidence of a strengthened connection between mind and body.  In other somatic practices, you are likely to feel things you have never felt before, but with a consistent Iyengar Yoga practice you will feel things you know you could not feel before.

Benefits of Somatic Practices

  • Stress Reduction: Somatic practices helps release accumulated physical and emotional stress, promoting relaxation and a sense of calm.
  • Increased Flexibility and Mobility: By focusing on internal sensations and releasing tension, somatic practices can lead to increased flexibility and improved range of motion.
  • Body-Mind Connection: Somatic practices foster a stronger connection between the mind and body, enhancing overall self-awareness and self-understanding.
  • Pain Relief: Somatic practices can be beneficial for individuals experiencing chronic pain, as they address muscular imbalances and encourage relaxation.

These are all wonderful benefits and fantastic reasons to incorporate a somatic practice into one’s life. Having a positive relationship with one’s body is priceless. In Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar offers a beautiful image of the role our bodies can play in our lives.

“Yoga offers us techniques to become aware, to expand and penetrate, and to change and evolve in order to become competent in the lives we live and to initiate sensitivity and receptivity toward the life of which we are still only dimly aware. We begin at the level of the physical body, the aspect of ourselves that is most concrete and accessible to all of us. It is here that yogasana and pranayama practice allow us to understand our body with ever greater insight and through the body to understand our mind and reach our soul. To a yogi, the body is a laboratory for life, a field of experimentation and perpetual research.” 

-B.K.S. Iyengar

I remain partial to yoga over other somatic practices because the cultivation of awareness extends beyond body and mind and includes a concept of spirit. The ability to deeply relax is desperately needed in our fast-paced world. However, the ability to access an abiding inner peace is next-level.  Whether or not you associate this abiding peace with something called “soul” or “spirit” is unimportant. What matters is being able to use tools like pranayama and meditation to soothe yourself to the core and uplift your experience of life. This is, to me, the most valuable skill a person could ever develop and yoga is its source.

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