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Somatic Exercises Can Help With Menopause Anxiety, Sleep Issues & More – SheKnows

I’d heard that somatic exercise can be helpful for “this time of life” but honestly, I didn’t even know what “somatic” meant. Natalie Kuhn, co-CEO and founding teacher at The Class, filled me in.

In my 20s and 30s I did regular cardio exercise along with yoga, admittedly doing yoga more for flexibility and stretching than for the meditative part. My practice, such as it was, shifted through my 40s and now in my 50s I am one of those people who counts walking as exercise. (My primary-care doctor disagrees, saying my long walks are “movement” unless I get my heart rate up). Anyway, as I ride out menopausal symptoms that can last for ten years such as hot flashes and night sweats, I’m looking for new exercises that will help.

I’d heard about somatic exercise from a friend but wasn’t clear what it is, or if it’s something that I’d want to do. A quick search showed that somatic therapy combines mind and body, which sounded promising and yoga-like. But for a real explanation I turned to Natalie Kuhn, co-CEO and founding teacher at The Class which offers somatic exercise via an online studio open to everyone plus in-person classes in New York City and Los Angeles.

“Let’s start with the word itself,” Kuhn said. “It comes from the Greek word “soma” which means body, or more poetically, body in wholeness. When people use the term ‘somatic practices’ they are referring to a variety of methods that bring awareness to your body.”

What is somatic exercise?

Somatic exercise involves a focus and awareness of both body and mind. Whenever someone starts talking about being more present in their thoughts and feelings, my Midwestern self, ironically, starts to check out. There’s only so much woo-woo talk that I can take. But Kuhn reassured me that somatic exercise is something I’ve probably already done.

“You probably already engage in somatic practices without realizing it,” Kuhn told me. “Have you ever wiggled your toes in your shoes and become aware of the feeling of your socks? Or rubbed your hands together and noticed the heat that it generates? Have you ever laid in bed just before getting up in the morning and noticed the aliveness or dullness in your body? All of these are moments of somatic awareness. It isn’t as wild and far out as you might think.”

At The Class, Kuhn said, “We use a variety of movements, some that resemble traditional fitness, some that borrow from ancient somatic practices like Qi Gong, to tap into the mind-body connection,” she said. The sessions are music-driven, kind of like a Spin class might be, and mat-based, kind of like a Yoga class might be. 

What happens in a somatic exercise class

So what does somatic exercise look like in a class? Here’s an example: “A teacher at The Class may guide you to tapping your heels on the beat of the music. Not too crazy, right? That moment isn’t that big of a deal and isn’t awkward at all, but it has a big effect,” Kuhn said. “The heels striking the floor send sensation through your joints and that helps your mind locate your body.”

That makes me laugh, but I get what she means. Menopausal brain fog is real, made more noticeable by how busy we are in our perimenopause and menopause years: Work, child-rearing and caring for older relatives all collide. Kuhn said, “Most of the time, we’re so stuck in our heads, in our recurring or troubling thoughts, that we forget about that thing underneath our neck, called the body. Returning to the body brings us back into our full sense of being a human. And little micro exercises that we call somatic practices can help us get there without too much effort or strain.”

You might hear about somatic exercise to release trauma — but that’s a tangential benefits

My friend who first told me about somatic exercise was using EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) with her therapist. But that form of somatic practice is different from The Class, Kuhn said. EMDR is a therapeutic approach done with a trained professional rather than a somatic exercise led by a teacher to heighten body awareness.

That said, somatic exercise can also be used for emotional healing, but it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as it might sound. “We often hear about somatic practices tied with trauma processing and that sometimes creates a barrier for some people who find that scary or intimidating,” Kuhn said. “Yes, it’s super helpful as a processing tool for trauma and it’s also helpful for just being able to manage the day-to-day in a better way.”

She further explained: “Somatics is about returning the busy mind back to the rest of you. These practices are just as useful to help you slough off a challenging meeting or to enhance positive emotions like joy.”

I liked the sound of that, as someone who sometimes feels so burdened by daily details that it’s hard to stop and appreciate milestone moments and simple joys. Kuhn stressed that somatic exercise can help make you more present for yourself, your loved ones, and the greater world around you. 

How somatic exercise can help during perimenopause and menopause

The Class Digital Studio recently launched a set of mindful movement classes called The Menopause Series led by Aimee Cox. Kuhn’s reasoning behind it totally resonates with me.

“As women go through menopause, their body might stop responding to the exercises they are used to doing. There are many reasons for this but the most common is muscle loss. This series helps women exercise in a slightly different way to create new stimuli to get their muscles strong again and includes short bursts of cardio and time for rest and repair to calm down the nervous system. We encourage students to take what works for them and leave what doesn’t in an effort to find what fits them best at this time in their lives.”

The exercises also target specific perimenopause and menopause symptoms. “Symptoms can be distressing because the sensations are foreign, the body is changing, hormones are all in a state of flux,” Kuhn said. “Each class within this series addresses a particular symptom and curates the movement to support that particular healing.” An example: Using gentle stretching for deep relaxation for a good night’s sleep. “It was important that we use a wide variety of somatic practices to address a wide variety of experiences,” Kuhn said.

I tried The Menopause Series somatic exercises with The Class

First a bit about The Class: You can try it free for 30 days, then pay either $40 a month for access to everything on the Digital Studio (it is vast and constantly updated), or $110 for three months, or $400 for a full year. You can stream classes from your phone or laptop or TV. A single in-studio Classes is $35 in New York and $30 in Los Angeles, with discounted packages available if you’ll go more often. 

I logged into The Class and searched for “Menopause Series” and watched the 7-minute intro video before choosing a 57-minute class targeted to my hot flashes. It turned out to similar to flow-style yoga, and I was glad I had enough familiarity with yoga poses to know what the teacher was calling out — lots of downward dog, some triangles and some planks, child’s pose and seated twists. It had been so long since I had done yoga that I was clunky and sweaty but could do everything except for the half-moon. I just didn’t have the balance or the high blocks for that one! It’s also worth noting that I could perform the moves without a yoga mat, just a beach towel and some pillows did the trick.

It was interesting to me to learn that getting back to regular yoga practice might help my hot flashes, so it got me to recommit to the idea. I also really loved how Aimee began and ended with some positive words about the menopause journey — it being a gift and a chance to drop some baggage and move joyfully. I ended the hour to find a bunch of texts from my college kid so I don’t know that I dropped my baggage completely but it was, indeed, a nice treat to take that time for myself before returning to mom-mode.

“Somatic practice at The Class can honestly feel more like a rock concert than it does therapy, but you still get the therapeutic effects,” Kuhn said. For the record, my Cooling class did not have rock music but it was upbeat. But I definitely agree with Kuhn on this final point: She said, “For a world that is constantly asking us to change, these practices make it easy and inviting to feel more like you, as you are right now.”

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