What is Somatic Psychotherapy?

Feb 10, 2022

"What is Somatic Psychotherapy?"

That question comes up a lot.

As a somatic psychotherapist, some people seem befuddled by this strange, odd practice of tuning in to your inner sensations.

Why in the world would anybody choose to do that?

I think there are several ways to answer the question, "What is Somatic Psychotherapy?"

From the outside.
From the inside.
And from how somatic psychotherapy came to find me.


From the outside.

Here's a good enough characterization of somatic psychology, from an external perspective.

Somatic Psychotherapy is a kind of psychotherapy that emphasizes the body as a source for insight into the psyche. Instead of focusing on the specific meanings of our stories, or what words we say, it focuses on our internal "felt sense" of our bodies as a guide to the process of healing.

From the perspective of somatic psychotherapy, sensations within the body can, with enough care and attention, guide us into to the completion of interrupted behavioral cycles, and allow the nervous system to recalibrate and return to homeostatic regulation. 

It can be incredibly beneficial for people who are stuck and is frequently a preferred methodology for people who are struggling with anxiety or depression or who are working to recover from trauma.

There are many different branches of somatic psychotherapy – ranging from Hakomi to Gestalt to Somatic Experiencing to Sensorimotor Psychotherapy to Developmental Somatic Psychotherapy to Somatic Internal Family Systems to Organic Intelligence to the Neuroaffective Relational Model – the list goes on.

Many names and flavors for the same essential thing.


From the inside.

"What is somatic psychotherapy?" The answer to this question can equally be found through this.

Read the following poem. Slowly. Line by line. Word by word.

Allow the poem to ripple in and through you.

Your body's wisdom

Your body has untold wisdom buried within.
Wisdom that wants to come forward.
Inklings that long to be known.

The instructions are simple.
Though sometimes the path is difficult.

Slow down.
Be still.
Listen.
Trust.
Support.
Allow.
Breathe.

Pause for a moment, and let your attention turn inward.

How does your body feel on the inside?

How does your body move and flow with respect to others and within the world?

Might there be messages locked inside, perhaps, that are untapped and unspoken?

Slow down.
Be still.
Listen.
Trust.
Support.
Allow.
Breathe.

"What is somatic psychotherapy?"

Right there.
Slowly.
Listen.

Yes.
That.

Yes.

The answer is --

Yes --

this.

As you attend to the ripple of the poem as it enters into you and washes through, this will be an answer to the question, "What is somatic psychotherapy?" This will be your body speaking, in its primary, most primitive language, it's answer to you.


How somatics came to find me.

The Esalen Institute. Big Sur, California. Maslow meeting room.

My first encounter with somatic psychotherapy takes place at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.  I am fresh out of grad school and trying, the best I can, to turn my life right-side up again. 

John Soper – one of the elder statesman of Gestalt practice – just sits with me, guiding me through one of the classic practices of the work:  sensate awareness. 

"Slow down and tune into your breath."

It seems like such an odd thing to do.

"Listen to your body. Just track the sensations that are happening."

I don't understand what this might have to do with helping me feel better.

What on earth does this have to do with anything?

I notice a lump in my throat.

That's a bit odd. Okay. Well, so what. There is a lump in my throat.

John Soper just sits with me, letting me feel the lump in my throat for a bit. He has a quiet still presence. He doesn't say anything, but somehow it seems like he is right there, somehow with me. We sit in silence for a moment.

"If that lump in your throat had a a voice, what might it say?" he asks.

I try to take in the question that John had just asked me. It ripples inside me like a pebble dropped into a still pond. I start to listen to the feeling, that odd, perplexing feeling in my throat a bit more… a little more closely.

The feeling of the lump in my throat intensifies a bit. It's quite odd. Like a thick pit – deeply felt when I swallow.

The feeling wells up a bit. I remember his question about what-my-lump-in-my-throat-might-want-to-say. I start to feel angry. I don't want to answer his question.

Why should I answer this question?

No one wants to hear what I have to say.

And all of a sudden, I am crying. Weeping. For reasons that I don't understand.


After that moment with John Soper, I did not know what to make of what it just happened.

But perhaps, I might have thought something like this.

This is my way out.
This is my way through.
This is my way home. 

This was my introduction to somatics.