When you picture meditation, you likely imagine sitting quietly on a cushion with your legs crossed and your eyes closed. Perhaps there’s some deep breathing involved, or maybe meditation chants or mantras playing softly in the background. No matter the scene, you’re probably picturing being very, very still.
Stillness is the quintessential vibe of meditation, as least the kind of meditation most of us have encountered in the U.S. But meditation doesn’t necessarily have to be a completely static practice—as proven by shaking meditation.
A shaking meditation is exactly as its name suggests—an active meditation practice that involves physically shaking your entire body. Although it may feel (and look) a bit strange compared to meditation practices with which American wellness seekers are more familiar, the potential benefits of shaking meditations make it worthy of adding to your mindfulness tool kit.
What is a shaking meditation?
Shaking meditation is another name for trauma release exercise (TRE), says Jenelle Kim, DACM, L.Ac, author of Myung Sung: The Korean Art of Living Meditation. TRE is a series of exercises created by trauma and stress intervention expert David Berceli, PhD, which aim to help with “releasing deep muscular patterns of stress, tension, and trauma.” These exercises typically include particular stretches and movements that mimic or induce shaking.
However, Dr. Kim notes that incorporating shaking into meditation has been done for centuries across different cultures and is not exclusive to TRE. For example, it’s a part of Qigong, a moving meditation from China similar to Tai Chi, she says. Leslie Saglio, a trauma-informed master coach, adds that shaking as a healing practice has a history in many African, Australian, Polynesian, and Asian cultures.
So why shaking? “Shaking is a primal impulse to a stressful situation,” Saglio says, which is why animals often do it after a life-threatening encounter (like being chased by a predator). Experts think that this helps animals like dogs release the energy of the stressful or traumatic event so they can move on.
Humans also often shake when they’re very stressed or emotional—like hands trembling when you’re nervous, or shaking with anger during an argument. But Saglio says we humans have learned to repress our emotions, making it harder for us to recalibrate after stressful events. “From a young age, we’re told to stop crying, stop our tantrums, and shut up,” she says. “We’re the only species that walks around bottling it all up.” A shaking meditation, to that end, may help us shake out all those bottled-up feelings.
The potential benefits of shaking meditation
Dr. Kim says one of the primary benefits of this meditation style is that it helps us feel more calm and relaxed by releasing physical tension from our muscles and soothing our nervous system.
The act of shaking, she adds, often brings up old, stored emotions, which provides an opportunity to process them and release the energy from our bodies. “Our daily lives are filled with lots of stress, noise, and other sensory inputs which keep our nervous systems active and on alert for danger,” Dr. Kim says. “Shaking meditation can activate our parasympathetic nervous system and signal our bodies to fully relax.”
In addition to helping us feel calmer, shaking meditations also help relieve short-term and long-term stress. “Teaching our bodies to overcome and turn [on] the shaking sensation teaches our minds a new way to calm our nervous system and makes it easier for us to stay resilient against future mental or physical stressors,” Dr. Kim explains.
All that said, it’s worth noting that research on the benefits of TRE and other types of shaking meditations is limited, but show promise. For example, a case study on a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) found that trauma releasing exercises helped improve physical and emotional well-being and reduced stress. A small 2021 pilot study in Korea of 25 grad students also found that TRE helped reduce anxiety. More research needs to be done to more clearly understand how and why it works—and what we do know is largely anecdotal—but if it helps you, it certainly can’t hurt.
How to do a shaking meditation
TRE specifically is recommended for people with PTSD as a supplemental way to relieve tension, trauma, and stored emotions in the body, Dr. Kim says. As such, she recommends people interested in TRE itself who have PTSD watch videos online and work with a certified practitioner (in addition to seeking other support and treatment).
That said, Dr. Kim notes that other forms of shaking meditations you can do on your own also offer similar benefits of helping release tension, reduce stress, regulate the nervous system, and improve overall well-being and emotional state.
To do so, Dr. Kim instructs standing with your feet apart, and knees slightly bent in a comfortable position. Then, start shaking your body gently, starting with your legs and spreading your movement to the arms, chest, and back.
“Allow the feelings of shaking to become a tremor that takes over and feel the vibrations internally,” Dr. Kim says. Saglio adds that there is no wrong way to shake, so don’t overthink it. And if you need some motivation, she suggests playing music in the background (cue Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” or Florence and the Machine’s “Shake It Out.”).
As for how long to shake, Saglio recommends five to 15 minutes a few times a week to reap the benefits. Like any other type of meditation, you can do it anytime, but Saglio says it’s particularly helpful if you’re feeling stressed and find it challenging to switch off while sitting still. Or, it can also be a great precursor to a stillness meditation.
Once you’ve got all the shakes out, Dr. Kim recommends bringing the meditation to a close with some light stretching and deep breathing.