More reflections on somatic practice, pain and resting
Following on from Glenna Batson’s post on Constructive Rest, I am going to look at the dynamics of rest in embodied practice. In particular, I look at the interplay between doing and not doing in somatic practice, in pain and trauma contexts. My reflections are situated in my practice as a yoga, dance and somatic teacher.
In my practice, I am continually negotiating between practicing for changes that bring about a greater sense of ease and clarity, and trusting the body to find that clarity through its own wisdom. Embodiment practices can guide this process by offering soft and subtle interventions of patterning that trigger organisations of the body-mind towards health and well-being.
The sensitivity of the practitioner and the teacher can also explore what tools to use, how much information to share, and when to stop and rest. Batson (2020) points out that many somatic practices include ‘a resting phase of varied duration commonly interspersed between various points of active movement’. The resting phase allows self-regulation and integration of what has been experienced.
The resting phase might commonly be included as a savasana at the end of a yoga practice, or a rest might be taken after the exploration of a particular body pattern, which is common in Feldenkrais. In pranayama, one of my teachers, Petri Räisänen makes space for resting between each form, as well as resting at the end of a session. These little rests, or moments of ‘not doing’ in between ‘doing’, are restorative and integrative, and allow the body and mind to recuperate and settle.
It is helpful to think of embodiment practices as interventions providing guidance that supports the organism’s self-regulation towards health. This can be a different mode of thinking from dance and physical training, where there is often emphasis on developing, extending, or at the minimum, maintaining a physical capacity through practice sessions.
When a practice is not focused on external goals but on health and well-being, extended rest with a complete break from physical exercise beyond a few days can be beneficial to healing. I have observed in my own practice that extended rest (10 days or more) reveals:
1. The importance of resting to let things release, loosen the tissues and connections, let some patterns soften, trust the body to heal without intervention.
2. The feeling of coming back to familiar patterns after a break often leads to a different comprehension of the organisation and experience of the body.
3. Decoupling therapeutic exercise from the area of the body that they were prescribed to help thus giving a chance to reflect on the on-going need for its continued practice, or making changes.
4. That rest from practice gives the chance for the body and mind to self-organise. Its not a rest where nothing is happening; its giving space for the body and mind to express and speak without intervention.
Rest in the context of pain and trauma
From a yogic perspective, pain and trauma in the body are not just in the physical layer. As a yoga practitioner, I think of the person in many layers, known in yoga as the koshas; the physical layer, the energetic layer, the mind layer, the knowledge layer, the bliss layer. While movement and patterning exercises might be approached through the physical layer, the affects of exercises can trigger changes in all the layers, some perceptible and some perhaps not. Practice offers the person a great deal of information and time for integration is important.
Additionally, with trauma and injury, it can be hard to know whether or not to rest or to move. Sometimes movement brings energy to the affected area and helps to mobilise what might have become stuck. At other times, however, pain is immobilising and it is not possible to move in a conventional sense. From a yoga perspective, physical and emotional pain can both be experienced physically because the layers are intermeshed. Many injuries carry with them some form of emotional pain; and emotional pain can also lead to immobilisation of particular parts of the body, or the whole body, as a trauma response (Levine, 2008).
An intentional approach to rest can be helpful as Gail Parker points out in her book Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race Based Trauma. She says ‘because it is practiced in stillness, Restorative Yoga teaches you how to immobilize without fear’ (2020, p. 72). Decoupling stillness from fear and trauma can enable the body and mind to re-organise and find deeper states of rest. Additionally, inviting stillness to an area that is immobilised can enable a deeper sensitivity of sensation to arise, and perhaps, if not shift the physical layer, make shifts in the mind and energy layer.
Rest between resting
It is also useful to cultivate a positive attitude towards rest and stillness. Parker further elaborates that ‘just because you are doing nothing doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Your body is recalibrating, repairing, and rejuvenating’ (2020, p. 74). I also include a resting phase between exercises in my own teaching, and when I teach restorative yoga, I include a rest between forms – a rest between the resting! In restorative yoga, even though each form is in stillness, the body is still organised distinctly in terms of energy and systemic flows.
Inversions, for example, re-orient the flow of fluids in the body. Resting in a chosen form afterwards, I have observed, allows for deeper recuperation and integration. Different qualities of resting can be observed. Learning to rest, giving space to the body-mind systems to find their own way, is to trust in the ability of an organism to self-regulate, heal itself and trust in nature itself.
Batson, G. (2020) Somatics at the Nexus of the Pandemic and Pain: Part II – Constructive Rest [accessed 5 September 2020]
Levine, P. (2008) Healing Trauma, Boulder: Sounds True Books
Parker, G. (2020) Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race Based Trauma, USA: Singing Dragon Press
Tamara Ashely is a dancer, performance artist, yoga and somatic practitioner, teacher and researcher interested in exploring the moving body-mind for the development of creativity, freedom, self-expression and healing. She is senior lecturer in dance and director of the MA Dance Performance and Choreography programme at the University of Bedfordshire.
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