A SomaYoga Practice to Awaken Your Core

July 17, 2017    BY Elizabeth Sullivan

Created by Ann Maxwell and Molly McManus, directors of Yoga North’s International SomaYoga Institute, SomaYoga blends Thomas Hanna’s somatic muscle re-education with classic asana and therapeutic yoga (with a focus on functional movement and freedom of expression).

The idea is that when we are more fully present in our body, freedom arises in mind, body, and spirit. (In ancient Greece the unity of the three was referred to as a soma.)

SomaYoga + Core

In the SomaYoga core practice below, consider your core as not just your abdomen, but as a canister composed of the entire trunk. It includes the spine, shoulders, hips, pelvic floor, and respiratory diaphragm. When you work with the core in its entirety, you can effect changes in all of these areas.

By gaining more control in your “core canister,” you will feel freer and more coordinated overall. This can help you to remain mobile and active as you age. More responsive muscles help to create a supple strength that radiates positively throughout the rest of your body. Strong, well-educated muscles are able to contract, lengthen, and move with freedom.

Becoming clear and competent in this SomaYoga practice will help you on and off your mat to work to alleviate pain, and become more fluid and coordinated.

As you do this practice, breathe naturally, allowing your abdomen and rib cage to move. Breathing naturally activates the primary breathing muscle (the diaphragm), putting the nervous system at ease and allowing the body to rest, digest, and heal.

Keep the breath smooth, steady, even, and quiet. You do not need to wed breath and movement: Just allow the breath to become your best friend, flowing alongside your practice.

This SomaYoga sequence is a moving meditation: It is not meant to be done robotically with high repetitions. As you practice, consciously follow the feeling of contracting, then releasing and lengthening.

In his book Somatics: Reawakening the Mind's Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health, Hanna explains that when we move in this way, “It offers specific procedures for making changes in the sensory-motor areas of the brain in order to maintain internal control of the muscles system. Because you are exercising your brain as well as your body, it is important to practice each movement pattern with your maximum conscious attention.”

This will move you from sensory motor amnesia (with the brain and muscles not communicating well) into sensory motor awareness (with the brain and muscles operating in their brilliance), which can positively influence both your yoga and your life.

This SomaYoga sequence is a moving meditation: It is not meant to be done robotically with high repetitions. As you practice, consciously follow the feeling of contracting, then releasing and lengthening.

SomaYoga Core Sequence

Invite your mind to take a seat in the whole of your body as you begin the practice. Shift your focus from the outside world to within your entire body.

Lie on the ground comfortably, with knees bent and the soles of your feet on the ground, hip-width apart.

Take a moment to practice doing nothing but noticing yourself lying on your mat. Are you able to completely surrender your weight to the earth?

Watch your breath. What is the quality of your breath? Where are you breathing?

Now set the intention to establish diaphragmatic breathing—softening your belly so that it’s free to rise and fall as you breathe—and invite prana (life force) to move throughout your whole body.

Place your hands on your lower abdomen. Place them on different areas of your torso (as shown in the photos below) and notice what you feel in those areas. As your hands move, notice whether your breath becomes more fluid, subtle, and even throughout your being.

Continue this diaphragmatic breathing throughout your practice. If you notice that you’re holding your breath or straining at any time, it’s a signal to slow down your movements.

Practice each of the following exercises with awareness and curiosity, three times slowly on each side. Be mindful not to go beyond your pain-free range of motion.

Arch (Extension) to Release and Flatten (Flexion) to Release
Become aware of your spine and how it is resting on the floor. Notice whether your pelvis is in a neutral position (with a slight space between the lower back and the floor), or if the lower back is overly arched or flattened into the floor.

To assist your awareness, you can place one hand on your upper chest and one hand on your lower abdomen. Now begin to explore the extension and flexion muscles of the trunk. Tilt the top of your pelvis forward, purposefully arching your lower back. As you do this, notice how your lower back begins to contract and your tailbone moves toward the earth.

Arch

Then bring the pelvis to a neutral position, allowing for just a slight space between the lower back and the ground. Take a pause to become aware of what has shifted.

Neutral

Now consciously tilt the top of your pelvis back, pressing your lower back into the earth. Notice how your lower back muscles lengthen as the spine comes into flexion, your tailbone reaches up, and your abdominal muscles naturally respond by contracting. Then return to neutral once more. Repeat two more times.

Flatten

Diagonal Arch and Curl
Place your left hand on your left hip and your right hand on your right shoulder. Draw your left hip and right shoulder gently toward the earth. Notice the diagonal backline contraction and the front body lengthening. Allow your hip and shoulder to return to neutral.

Then do the opposite: contract the front body, as if you are drawing your left hip to your right shoulder, noticing how the diagonal backline lengthens as it moves into the flexion. While doing this, keep your head on the floor.

This movement pattern is important, as it mimics our walking pattern, which requires this diagonal communication through our trunk from shoulder to spine to opposite hip.

SomaYoga Diagonal Arch and Curl

Repeat this diagonal arch and curl two more times before pausing to sense and feel this left hip and right shoulder connection through your trunk.

Then change sides, and repeat the exercise with your right hip and left shoulder.

See if you can maintain a clear awareness of the diagonal moving from your navel center out to your hip and shoulder, then back toward your navel center. (Note: If it feels good, as you move into the diagonal arch or contraction of your back body, add a cervical twist in the final repetition by gently turning your head away from the shoulder that is curling.)

Diagonal Arch and Curl with Gentle Cervical-Spine Twist

Supine Hip Hike
Returning to effortless rest pose, take a moment to scan your body and notice if your pelvis and spine connection has shifted, or changed from your initial check-in at the beginning of practice. Has your breath changed?

Now, place your hands on the sides of your rib cage and bring your awareness back to the movement of your breath. Draw your left hip toward your left armpit (keeping it on the ground), noticing that your side body contracts into a C curve as your hip hikes. Feel this contraction, and then slowly release the contraction, allowing your side body to lengthen as your pelvis returns to neutral.

Repeat two more times on the left side, and then pause to notice any change on that side before moving to the right side.

Supine Hip Hike, Contracting and Releasing the Side Body

Flower and Bud
From a neutral pelvic position with your arms resting alongside the body (palms up), move into a back extension by tipping the top of your pelvis forward to arch your back. This time, instead of just moving your pelvis, involve your upper back as well, drawing your shoulder blades toward each other and expanding across your chest. Allow your knees to move out to the sides just a few inches. Become aware of the external rotation in your hips and how the muscles along your spine contract as your front body blossoms like a flower.

Flower (Larger Arch)

Release from the arch, returning to your neutral resting position.

Move into the curl: Contract your abdominal muscles from pubic bone to sternum, allowing your back to round and your shoulder blades to move away from each other. Allow your knees to drop in toward each other, as your hips internally rotate. As your arms also internally rotate, your palms will turn to face down, and then away from you (as shown in the photo below). Your front body becomes a closed bud.

Bud (Larger Curl)

Then slowly and consciously release completely from the arch, surrendering to gravity as you return to your neutral starting position. Repeat the flower and the bud two more times.

Classic Asana Integration Options
Before you roll onto your abdomen for the back lift, take a moment to stabilize and strengthen by doing a few foot presses into the earth. Connect to the big toe pad, the little toe pad, and the heel, sensing the energy moving up the legs, into the pelvis, shoulders, and top of the head.

After a few stabilizing foot presses, take a moment to explore bridge pose, sensing and feeling the stabilizing strength that asana brings as you lift your pelvis and lower spine off the earth.

Back Lift
Roll onto your abdomen, and rest your forehead on the backs of your stacked hands in crocodile pose. Re-establish your diaphragmatic breathing.

Crocodile with Diaphragmatic Breathing

Bring your left arm down alongside your body (palm facing down is generally most comfortable), and turn your head to look at your right elbow. Begin lifting your right elbow off the ground, as if it is the control attached to a puppet’s strings and you are the puppet.

Pay attention to the way your right shoulder blade glides in toward the spine as you lift your elbow. Then slowly lower your elbow and notice how it moves away from the spine. On your second lift of the elbow and hand, allow your head to follow and look over (behind) the right shoulder. Feel how this contracts into your upper spine and invites the opposite (left) hip and leg to engage.

Repeat one more time, on the third time allowing your left leg to lift as your elbow, hand, and head lift, always remaining centered through your navel.

Feel how this full diagonal back contraction activates your core all the way out through the hip, knee, and ankle of the lifted leg. Slowly lower your upper and lower body, release the contraction, and return to crocodile.

Check in with your breath and the awareness of the aftereffects of the diagonal backlift, before repeating on the other side. Note any differences in your body. This backlift also informs our walking patterns, bringing greater function and coordinated strength to our movement.

Back Lift

Classic Asana Integration Options 
You can choose to remain in crocodile and rest for a few breaths, or you can practice cobra pose to stabilize your newfound mobility in the upper spine. Cobra contracts the upper back as you rise up, and lengthens and releases the upper back as you return to crocodile.

Or from crocodile, you can come into tabletop position and explore cat and cow, feeling the full flexion and extension of the spine.

Savasana
Finally, come into resting pose. Move into a state of mind where there is both ease and awareness. Where you are both at rest and awake.

Observe how your body feels as it surrenders into the earth, and compare that to how it felt at the start of your practice. What has shifted? What is the temperature of your body, the state of your mind, the quality of your breath? What has this practice done for you?

Give this your full attention, and then let go. Notice how your mind is resting in your body, and how prana fills the mind that is seated in your body. Does your core feel different? Can you sense how your energy radiates out from and returns to your navel center?

This practice is designed to bring you closer to a state of steady and stable ease—the sthira sukham asanam Patanjali describes in Yoga Sutra 2.46.

After completing the SomaYoga core sequence, you’ll move into your day feeling a supple, relaxed strength, more functional movement, and greater ease and joy in your entire being. Now that’s good news!

Elizabeth Sullivan
500 RYT Yoga North International SomaYoga Institute, Ayurveda Yoga Specialist, C(DONA), SomaYoga Therapy Teacher, and SourcePoint Therapy Practitioner, MA, MFA

Elizabeth has written for Outside Magazine, Saint Paul Almanac, Minnesota Yoga + Life, Yoga International, and other publications. Her study, teaching, and practice of Yoga, Ayurveda, and SourcePoint Therapy informs her writing, as well as, raising her four boys 11 and under with her husband and their puppy in Saint Paul, MN. Raising... Read more>>

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