When we talk about fitness, our mind conjures up images of exertion and sweating. But there is more to “fitness” than just cardiorespiratory conditioning or muscular exertion. Fitness also involves mental wellness—that is, our response to stress.
We all experience some degree of stress. You may have noticed that certain muscle groups in the neck, lower back or wrists and hands become tense, often resulting in headaches, back pain, and stiffness in our wrists and hands.
Why do we respond to stress with muscle tightness? This is our nervous systems’ response to perceived danger—in other words, part of our “fight or flight” response. In ancient times the danger might have been a tiger and the tightening of muscles prepared us for running or battle. Today our muscles tighten with the perceived stress of “running late”, or paying bills, or working on a project with a deadline. Other consequences of this mental stress include suppression of your immune system, making you more susceptible to viruses such as colds and COVID and long-term stress can result in elevated blood pressure, inability to sleep, depression, fatigue and over-eating.
Somatic stretching and meditative breathing focus on creating a mind-body connection and are tools that can help you reduce the physical manifestations of your stress.
What is somatic stretching? The word “somatic” comes from the Greek word soma, meaning body. Somatic stretching is body movement done with conscious mental awareness and with a goal of reducing muscle tension. These movements can be obvious or subtle. A simple example of a somatic stretch is demonstrated when a cat wakes up and stretches by arching its back or stretching a paw outward as far as it can go. The entire goal of the stretch is to release tension in the joints and muscles. Somatic stretching requires you pay attention first to how your muscles feel and then contract and release the muscles to help them feel lengthened and less tense.
Breathing is essential for life. But surprisingly, we usually pay little attention to this action. We only tend to notice it if we feel “short of breath”. Dr. Herbert Bension first noticed that the action of paying attention and controlling our breathing invokes a “relaxation response” in our nervous system.
The technique of meditative breathing is described as deep breathing or diaphragmatic (“belly”) breathing. It is done while lying quietly on ones’ back with hands softly draped across your abdomen to feel your belly rise and fall with each breath. You begin by first paying attention to your breath, and then progress to control its cadence. In breathing meditation, your focus remains only on your breath.
Other forms of meditation include shifting your focus to various senses or body parts to either experience them more deeply or relax the body area more fully. One might picture the back becoming so soft and pliable it melts into the supporting ground below at the suggestion of the meditation facilitator. The facilitator brings your awareness back to the present and encourages you to set an intention for the rest of your day as the session ends.
Now that you’ve learned about these two techniques, come put them into practice! Join Judy’s new Small Group Training program, “Focused Fitness,” where she emphasizes exercises that create a mind-body connection. For more information, visit our Small Group Training page.
Judy Kalinyak, MD, PhD is a Certified Personal Trainer at the PJCC. She specializes in strength training, mobility & stretching, and fitness for those with chronic medical conditions. To learn more about working with Judy, or any of our Personal Trainers, contact Vicki McGrath, our Wellness Director, for more information.