This blog is repurposed from the podcast episode Unveiling the Transformative Power of Somatic Practices in Holistic Therapy , Interview with Maira Holzmann
In a world filled with constant chatter and distractions, have you ever wondered how to truly connect with yourself? In today’s blog, we embark on a journey of self discovery through the lens of somatic therapy. Join me as we explore the fascinating realm where mind and body intersect, where unresolved emotions and traumas find their voice and physical sensations.
Somatic therapy isn’t just a therapeutic approach, it’s an art of tapping into the body’s innate ability to heal
What does it mean to be truly embodied?
I asked a lot of people, I was like, what does embodiment mean to you? And the answers were everywhere. Some people were talking about being present with yourself. But for me the definition that I go by in terms of embodiment is the capacity to live in my body and to be able to attune to what’s happening on the inside of my system, meaning less about my thoughts and more about.
What’s happening in terms of my musculature, my physical expression, my physiological things like breathing and heart rate. It’s another way that I might talk about it as being able to deeply listen to the information that my body is giving to me so that I can act and respond more effectively.
That’s another way that I would define embodiment.
And how, how do you help clients? I know a lot of my clients are in their heads and live from the neck up. And that’s the struggle and a lot of them are fearful and understandable with the trauma response that many are hesitant or they have protector parts that are just like, nope, we’re not going there.
Socially we live in a culture that, that thinks that the mind is king. So that’s one contributor to, I think, why people get so disconnected. right? And then if you’ve experienced any kind of trauma and it hasn’t been resolved and that trauma continues to live in your body, then for the most part, consciously or unconsciously, those folks will not want to come into their body because it will feel out of control or it will feel scary.
They don’t know what’s going to happen. The that I often start, because if I ask a client to simply. Notice what’s happening in their body. What they’re going to do is they’re going to tell me all about the pain and the constriction and how they can’t breathe because the orientation often to the body is one of defensiveness.
Meaning they’re looking, it’s, I call it, what’s wrong attention. What’s wrong that I need to fix? I’m not breathing well. I’ve got pain in my foot or I’ve got a headache. And so the way that I really start this work with clients is by introducing them to the idea that pleasant things, good feeling, experiences, and pleasure are all things that are felt within the body.
The homework that I always assign to every new client is, this is what I tell them. I say, at the end of your day, I’m going to invite you to just pick out one positive enough experience. And the reason why I say positive enough or good enough is because sometimes when I ask clients to look for a good feeling experience, they’re looking for unicorns and cupcakes.
And it’s like, well, we don’t have access to that all day, but we do have access to a really pretty sunset or feeling really heard and cared for by another person or even just snuggles with a pet. I’ll have them identify a pleasant enough experience and I’ll have them replay that memory in their head.
And as they’re replaying that lived experience of goodness, I’ll ask them to then send their attention south into the body and notice how their body and their physiology might be starting to change. Are they suddenly breathing a little bit better? Are there brace patterns like shoulders coming up by your ears, relaxing?
Are they able to sit back instead of sort of scrunch forward? This is like literally one of the basic building blocks of how to come into your body, in my experience, how to come into your body in such a way that you can befriend your body and befriend your nervous system so that you can start to do some of that deeper, more courageous work of healing from trauma.
It can be really black and white for many people. Right. Like it’s got to be really, really good or it doesn’t count. And I watch people all the time in conversation in session, literally gloss over the good enough experience that they had in favor of, let me tell you all the things that are going wrong and all the ways that my body hurts and how hard this work is which is all legit.
What is joy spotting?
Practicing finding a good enough experience that’s moving towards the experience of joy, which is something that we’re innately wired to experience, starts to change the way that a person orients to themselves, their body, as well as the rest of the world.
That;s really what I’m doing is encouraging them, like, just find enough joy or enough. If joy is too much, just goodness, right? When you’re, when you saw your friend and they hugged you and they brought you soup because you were sick, that’s potentially a really joyful moment of feeling cared about.
And now the practice is, can we learn to attend to it? Not just notice it with our thoughts, but also feel that lived experience in our
And what role does physical touch play in mental and physical wellness?
Touch is the first sensation that comes online in utero is that little as that little growing baby is getting bathed in all of mom’s amniotic fluid. And then coming out of the womb after the baby’s born, my teacher calls it coo behaviors, like coochie coochie coo. It’s one thing to, for example, to change a diaper and then put the baby back in the crib, but it’s another thing to pick up the baby and say something like, Oh, sweetie, you’re wet.
Okay. Let’s change your diaper. Oh, does that feel better now that you’re dry? And the baby’s kind of gurgling. And all of that is about how you touch that child. So when I’m working with my clients who struggle with the impacts of early trauma, touch is one of the main ways that I support them in learning to feel safe enough in their bodies, have an experience of regulation without having to work for it, and also to experience safe enough touch.
Touch is so taboo in our society. And for the most part, what we hear about is, you know, violent kind of touch or abusive touch, especially with the clients that I work with. And for them to have a lived experience of touch that is safe enough, and that also helps their nervous system regulate.
It really rewires that early patterning where there wasn’t enough safety in the nervous system. And then that client had to grow up with a bunch of, we call it survival physiology or survival patterns in order to just try to keep themselves safe. So in my world touch is everything. It’s what I do with 90 percent of my clients.
I actually don’t take clients that are not. willing to experience co regulating touch because I know how powerful it is both personally as well as professionally.
Does using touch in therapy help clients feel more sensations and connect more with traumas?
Co regulating touch is a passive form of touch. So unlike, cause I’m not a body worker, I’m a trauma therapist trained in therapeutic touch and that distinction is important.
When I’m holding a client’s kidney or a brainstem, and I’ll talk about that here in a minute, I’m not actually trying to manipulate anything. I’m not trying to make the tissue do anything. I’m not moving my hands to physically act upon the system in that way. What I’m doing is, is I’m holding the kidney and the adrenal system and the brainstem, which are two points of contact.
There’s kidneys on each side and then the brainstem that support regulation. And what I’m doing is, is the client is laying down on my massage table fully clothed, they’re fully clothed for the entire session and they’re laying face up and I slide my hand under their back. Typically I start with kidneys and then go to brainstem as the body sort of gets acquainted with this.
And what I’m really doing is I’m inviting the client into a specific form of connection where there’s enough safety and plenty of attunement so that whatever’s happening both that I can feel in my hand and that I’m also observing from the client is going to get attended to in a really kind, loving, and compassionate way.
And the way that I often talk about it with clients new to my practice, I’ll say things like, so your nervous system was built. Your nervous system right now is totally functioning as evidenced by the fact that you’re in my office. You made it here, you filled out all the forms, et cetera. But your nervous system is kind of like a house built like a house of cards.
It’s not super solid and stable. And sthe wind could blow the wrong way and then things are going to start to unravel and this is when you feel dysregulated. And what co regulating touch does in terms of the building metaphor is every time I’m able to hold the kidney or the brainstem and support the system and coming into regulation, it’s like replacing those cards that the house is built on with like steel beams and good concrete and better windows so that over time we’re strengthening the architecture of the nervous system to be able to be more regulated.
I also invite them, of course, to notice themselves. Like what happens differently after our sessions? And then of course, after a significant amount of time, like maybe three or six months, what’s happening differently in your life? What do you have more capacity for?
Cause that’s really what we’re trying to do is widen the window of capacity for clients to be able to live a life worth living.
What have you noticed with clients as far as the benefits?
One of the things I noticed the most is they have an experience of feeling relaxed in their body, often times for maybe the first time in a very specific way.
They now have this lived experience of feeling calmer and more relaxed in their body without having to work so hard for it, without having to go on vacation, without having todo all these breathing exercises or get really tired from doing exercise or yoga. So that’s one of the first things is a state of settledness and calm that is somewhat new to them
what does co regulation mean?
An example that I was giving to you about picking up a baby.
that baby’s crying and I’m picking up that baby and then as soon as I pick up the baby, they stop crying. That baby has just adjusted their behavior to our connection. Co regulation is really where when you’re in a relationship with someone, the little adjustments you make to attend to that relationship.
Part of really healthy co regulation, what it needs is attunement and ability to be really present and tracking what’s happening in between two people.In coregulating touch, technically I’m the one that is supporting regulation, but what’s really happening is that when I’m touching my client or holding their kidneys, they’re also touching me back.
They’re getting, a sense of regulation because I’m already feeling it and they kind of get to like be in that energy field, if you will, and experience a similar kind of thing. Co regulation is just the back and forth in a relationship.
Co regulation part of. how I define co regulation is that the relationship has to be safe enough that we can do this work together. A client has to trust me enough to get on that table that first time and just be willing to try something brand new or something they’ve never heard of before.
What about the ethics liability with touch with a therapist with touch and session?
I really appreciate you bringing this up because that. is, it’s so taboo in the therapeutic and mental health world to touch your clients.
Like even hugging a client, I’ve had colleagues be like, Oh, you do that. Is that okay? And I’m like, well, it’s not like I’m hugging them without their permission. Like everything is consent based. When I got my touch training through somatic experiencing, as well as with Kathy Kane and Steven Terrell, who are the founders of co regulating touch, if you will.
And they write a book called nurturing resilience. One of the statistics that I found really interesting is that what they’ve found through the Zurich Institute, is that when you talk about. touch and what you plan to do and you incorporate consent based exercises, which to me should just be part of all trauma informed care. But when you talk about it with your client, what they see is actually less, lower percentage of people who are likely to sue their client, because that’s what everybody’s worried about.
And part of my practice in working with clients is asking for consent every time, because consent is granted in the moment. It’s not a blanket consent.
And even that one practice of doing these, we do a consent based exercise where basically I’ll tell the client with their permission, I’d like to put my hand somewhere on your It can be on your arm, it can be on your hand or your forearm, and within three to ten seconds, I want you to say stop or no, so that they have the lived experience of saying no to a clinician, saying no to someone who might be considered an authority figure.
This one act of like, let me know when you want me to stop can be a really big deal in rewiring that pattern so that touch can be more available to them. Because it is when it’s when it’s healthy, therapeutic, loving touch. It’s really, it’s deeply healing, like cellularly in the fascia, like in a deep way versus just something that you, like an affirmation that you say in your mind.
One of the things I have learned over my career to track is like, cause I have clients that say yes. And meanwhile, they’re kind of frozen on their body and not breathing. Yes. and their chest is really still. I’m like, I’m going to back up out of here because I know you said yes, I could touch you, but your body’s telling me no.
So I’m just going to remove my hand and I just want you to notice what might happen when I remove my hand. And I watch them, they literally settle back down on their table, their breathing returns. And I’m also saying things like, remember that no means no. And I’m always going to follow that without any judgment or any pressure on my part.
Sometimes I have to keep reaffirming that for clients so that they start to get that lived experience of, Oh, when I say no, Myra’s going to listen to me. Yes. Right. And especially for sexual assault survivors, this is a really big deal. I mean, sometimes we practice, sometimes the whole session is just doing the practice where I’m putting my hand on their hand or their arm and they’re saying no for 30 minutes and just processing what shows up in their body as a result of that.
What are the misconceptions that you’ve heard of as far as somatic therapy?
One of the biggest misconceptions I hear in my practice, particularly with me is people want to know what this is.
They want to categorize it. They say like, is this energy work? And my response is I’m not trained in Reiki and I’m also not trained in energy work. But I am trained to help your nervous system get regulated. So that’s one misconception is that I’m doing energy work. And certainly I think that that’s true, but that’s not the lens with which I was given.
The concern for clients who don’t know about somatic therapy is that if they have to feel anything that’s happening, they’re never going to stop feeling it.
They’re never going to stop feeling the rage or the depression or the despair or the loneliness. One thing I say to every single one of my clients that walks through the door is it took a lot of courage for you to get here, right? Like how long have you been living with these symptoms and these issues and now you’re ready to do some somatic therapy?
What is Somatic Tracking?
Somatic tracking is a fancy word for interoception. And all that it means is an ability to notice what’s happening in your body and speak about it.
o I’ll give you an example. Before I get on any podcast, I get a little activated. My chest gets a little tight up here before I actually talk to the host. You know, once we get going because my head is running like, okay, am I going to sound smart? Am I going to, you know, am I going to do the right thing?
Once I get going, I start to really settle down. What I feel then is my chest opening up and my shoulders dropping away from my ears. But I think that in general, people don’t know how to listen to the language of the body because it’s not the language of the body is not thoughts and cognitions.
It’s imagery, it’s sensations, it’s changes in your physiology, like heart rate. breath rate, brace patterns, all kinds of different things. And once clients learn the language of the body, they can then learn to take that information and do something with it much more effectively.
or shifting that survival pattern in their body.
You mentioned mapping, can you talk more about this?
Part of the nervous system education that we give to our clients is we explain to them what their nervous system is and the nervous system that we is basically so the nervous system is comprised of the brain and the spine and then all of the nerves that extend out from that main physical structure.
When I talk about the nervous system map, what I’m trying to teach my clients is one, do you tend towards fight, flight or freeze? Because if you tend towards fight or flight, then you are in the sympathetic nervous system. So the sympathetic nervous system is the action nervous system. It’s the get up and go.
It’s the fight flight response versus the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of restorative functions in the body and rest and digest. When I have clients that. dissociate or fall into depression, they’re usually in that they’re stuck in their parasympathetic nervous system. You don’t have quite enough energy.
When I’m talking about the map, I’m asking my clients, are you in your sympathetic arousal system right now? Or do you feel kind of shut down, barely breathing, kind of spacey or dissociated? Because that would be your parasympathetic nervous system. And once clients start to understand that when you’re in those, and it’s not either or right, a healthy nervous system actually has a balance of the parasympathetic and the sympathetic working in tandem.
That’s what we call the middle range or the place where a client is really regulated. But when I ask a client to identify where they’re at and I tell them, here’s all the physiological things that you’re going to experience if you’re in an upstate, if you’re at an arousal state, your mind is going to be racing.
You might be clenching your jaw, you might be feeling anxious or aggressive. What I’ve noticed is the shame of the feeling out of control in their body start to dissipate because they’re like, no, this is simply my physiology doing exactly what it’s supposed to do to try and keep me safe. So I’m not a bad person because I’m not angry.
I’m not doing anything wrong because I’m sobbing. This is just the way my body is trying to support. So that’s what I mean by the nervous system map. As are you more sympathetic? Are you on the sympathetic side of things or are you on the parasympathetic side of things? And then sometimes I have clients often with, especially with early trauma where the break, so to speak of the parasympathetic nervous system and the accelerator of the sympathetic nervous system are on at the same time, right?
That’s definitely a form of. trauma where the nervous system can’t quite figure it out. So that’s what I mean by the nervous system map.
MEET Maira Holzmann
Maira Holzmann, LCSW, is a body-based, somatically trained trauma therapist specializing in helping adults heal from childhood trauma. Committed to the vision of ending the consequences of trauma from being passed on to future generations, she understands the importance of including the body as an ally in the healing process. Maira is passionate about a therapeutic touch modality called Coregulating Touch that deeply supports healing the nervous system and healing relational trauma. Maira runs a group psychotherapy practice called Somatic Therapy Partners (STP) whose focus is on healing the nervous system, nurturing resilience, and increasing a client’s healthy connection with their body.