Mindfulness is more than closing your eyes and paying attention to your breathing. You can help your students be mindful of anything they do, including their movements. Mindfulness of movement is sometimes referred to as somatics.
Somatic exercises include any kind of practice — including some types of mindfulness — that involves movement and helps you develop awareness of your internal self using the mind-body connection. Although it’s always best for somatic exercises to be done under the guidance of a licensed mental health professional, there are some that you can do safely with your K-12 students to help them strengthen their resilience and build their mindfulness skills.
What Are Somatic Exercises?
When we talk about somatic exercises, we’re describing any type of movement or physical activity that is completed gently and with intention. Often when we move, we move on auto-pilot. For example, we may power walk around the block to get our daily steps in, or do as many reps of an exercise as we can within a minute. Usually, we’re not really thinking about how these movements make us feel.
Somatic exercises invite us to pay attention to our bodies. When engaging in movement through the lens of somatics, you move slowly, paying attention to your body and where you might be holding stress or tension.
It’s important to note that somatic exercises are not the same thing as somatic psychotherapy or a specific type of somatic therapy called Somatic Experiencing. Somatic therapies like these are based on the same idea that our bodies and minds are connected. But these psychotherapies are designed to heal traumatic experiences that are stored in the body, and rely heavily on a therapist being able to create a safe place where trauma can be released. They cannot be used without the guidance of a licensed mental health provider.
Why Teach Students Somatic Exercises?
We need more research in the field of somatics to be able to determine its unique benefits for children and youth.
Dr. Thomas Louis Hanna, the philosopher who coined the term “somatics” and is often credited for introducing the West to this type of movement, theorized that somatics helps people by releasing past experiences stored in the body. He was known for being able to help many people who complained of mysterious aches and pains.
By moving gently and slowly, Dr. Hanna taught, you learn to pay attention to how each and every movement makes your body (and your mind) feel.
Somatic exercises may help your students feel less anxiety, fear, and worry. Kids run around all day long. By teaching your students these somatic exercises, you are teaching them to slow down and be present with each movement they make.
4 Somatic Education Exercises for K-12 Settings
If you’re interested in trying somatic exercises with your students but aren’t sure where to start, here are 4 basic exercises that you can try.
Acting your feelings
One somatic exercise you can do with younger students is to play a game called Act Your Feelings. This game takes elements from both the general field of somatics as well as Somatic Experiencing therapy.
Before class, write down all the feelings that you can think of, one on a separate index card or piece of paper. Explain to your students that you will be drawing cards at random, and reading out loud the name of the emotion. Your students’ task is to use their entire bodies to “act out” whatever emotion is on the card.
For example, if you read out “joyful,” they might jump in the air (for joy), smile widely, or even do a little jig. If some students have trouble interpreting some of the feelings, model it for them.
This game can help kids engage in movement in a way that connects body and mind. It can also help with feelings identification, something that’s been shown to improve resilience and self-awareness.
Interpretive dance party
Many teachers include some sort of dance party or “brain break” in their school days to give their students a break from prolonged concentration.
Next time you invite your students to a dance party, try engaging them in slow, interpretive dance. Have different types of music ready-to-go on a playlist beforehand. As you play each song, ask your students to really pay attention to how the music makes them feel.
Then, if they’re comfortable (never force your students to participate if they feel uncomfortable), ask them to dance or move in a way that, for them, is in alignment with their feelings. Your students may not get as much physical exercise with this type of dance, but it’s a great way to teach them how to connect their minds to their bodies.
Progressive muscle relaxation
This well-known relaxation exercise is actually a great example of somatics; by clenching and releasing each muscle group, you’re moving your muscles - just ever so slightly - to decrease tension in your body and your mind.
Teens and older kids should be able to easily engage in a full progressive muscle relaxation session. Create enough space for your students to lie down on their backs. Starting from their faces and working their way down to their toes, invite them to clench each muscle group one at a time. After several seconds of clenching and holding tension in those muscles, ask them to completely relax that muscle group. Work one muscle group at a time until the whole body is relaxed.
For younger children, you may have to modify the instructions to this exercise to keep them engaged. For each muscle group, think of a fun way to model the movement of clenching and then releasing muscles. For example, for their stomachs, you can ask them to clench their stomach as hard as they can because an elephant is about to step on them. For their hands, you can invite them to pretend they’re trying to squeeze every drop of juice out of an orange.
Kids’ yoga and stretching
Yoga is a classic example of a somatic activity that uses the mind-body connection to promote healing. Yoga has origins in ancient healing practices from Asia, and its original practitioners used it to help them gain insight into themselves. More recently, yoga has been shown to help with stress reduction; it can help children learn to self-regulate their feelings and have better focus.
The best way to practice kids’ yoga with your students is to collaborate with a certified yoga teacher. If not done correctly, some yoga stretches and poses can cause injury; yoga instructors are trained on how to prevent injuries from happening.
Even simple stretches can become somatic exercises when done mindfully. During a stretching session, ask your students not to rush themselves, and to hold each stretch for longer than they might be used to. How does the stretch make their body feel? Where are they holding tension in their body? Yoga and other forms of mindful stretching are great ways to invite students to pay attention to what’s going on in their bodies and minds.
Remember that what makes somatics effective is that they’re done slowly and gently. Any type of movement (even those used in P.E. class, for example) can become a somatic exercise if it’s slowed down and applied with mindfulness.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to incorporate mindfulness into your classroom, get in touch with us today.