Why Somatic Studies

From its inception, my practice has been guided by the question, “what makes somatic practice work?”  It has turned into the guiding star on my long and winding road, leading me through the emerging landscape of this field, and helping me hear its voice.  Like a mantra, it has also guided me into the depths of my work, helping me understand myself as an embodied being.   

Just a few years after I started my practice, I discovered Deane Juhan asking the same question in his watershed book, Job’s Body.  

“By what possible mechanisms, then,” he asked, “could something so simple as soothing touch alleviate painful and long-standing physical conditions, quell anxieties, foster more productive attitudes? And if simple touching indeed provided some sort of key, then why were some practitioners so much better at achieving these kinds of results than were others?”

Up till then, the science of physical therapy was the primary source for answering that question, and it wasn’t much of a help.  Anatomy, physiology and kinetic sciences told us that the body was a physical structure that could be corrected by through physical interventions.  But, as Juhan points out, these approaches “reflect almost exclusively the mechanical aspects of bodywork and of our own systems responses – the laws governing hydraulics, the elasticity and tensile strength of tissues, and so on.” 

The key to understanding the interaction between mind and body was in sensation, and its relationship to movement, Juhan wrote.  “Movement is the unifying bond between the mind and the body and sensations are the substance of that bond” 

Job’s Body revolutionized our understanding of embodied experience.  Juhan took our traditional approach to anatomy and physiology, and reversed the paradigm.  Somatic practices had been used to leaving the living parts of somatic experience outside the doorway when entering  the world of science. With brilliant creativity, Juhan showed how science could actually help us deepen our understanding of the rich communion that occurs in the borderland between body and mind.  

Job’s Body gave me language from science that has served me, both in my practice, and in my work as an educator.  Yet, despite its genius, the insights of Job’s Body have not spread through the world of somatic practice as fully as they deserve.  Juhan once told me that my use of Job’s Body as the text for an anatomy and physiology course was the only instance of this happening that he knew of.  

Around the same time, I stumbled across the work of Thomas Hanna and the Somatics Journal.  Hanna, a philosophy professor and Department Chair at the University of Miami, left academia and followed his interest in embodied experience to its emerging epicenter in the Bay area of San Francisco.

By 1977, Hanna had started the Somatics Journal to gather articles about mind-body integration-theory, practice and research. The Journal became a watering hole for philosophers, phenomenologists, academics, and thinkers about embodied experience.  Out of these literary conversations, a theory base began that would form the underlying principles that governed body centred practice.  Hanna called this developing field of study, “somatics.”

Hanna and the thinkers he attracted created an oasis of reflection during a time when the field of somatic practice was an exotic flowering of techniques, each claiming to be unique, and uniquely qualified to heal.  As Don Hanlon Johnson described it, “A major cause of fragmentation within the Somatics community [was] putting emphasis on the techniques peculiar to a specific method, rather than on the underlying principles which generated the method.” 

Don Hanlon Johnson, a self described “recovering philosopher”, is a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and founder of its Somatics Graduate program.  In the Somatics Journal article, Principles versus Techniques he describes how he and his colleagues have spent over 50 years studying “how the somatics pioneers actually developed their work–the puzzles that intrigued them, what they actually did in their work, and how they lived.”  In contrast, he writes, “techniques are what they did in particular instances, and what they say they did in their attempts to communicate simply with their students and the public.” (my italics)  In other words, Somatics is interested in the ways we engage with ourselves and the world, through our body.  

When first proposing Somatics as the study of the lived experience of the body, Hanna pointed out that “first person” experience was common to the outcome of health and wholeness whatever healing techniques were used. Awareness of sensation from each moment’s experience was essential to moving from a disconnected “third person” experience of oneself to feeling more fully inhabited.  To further explore these ideas, Hanlon Johnson created yearly retreats at Esalen Institute in Big Sur where leaders of a number of somatic practices gathered with academics, described in his book, Groundworks.   

Inquiry into the underlying principles of somatic practice also revealed their rich historical development.  In Bone, Breath and Gesture, Hanlon Johnson has shown how Western exploration of principles such as the role of sensing in authentic expression can be traced at least as far back as the work of Elsa Gindler early in 20th century Germany.  We can now trace the influence of these ideas across Europe and into North America, influencing somatic practices as diverse as Zen practice and Gestalt psychotherapy.  We are not separate ideas, we are an interconnected community.  

Over the last 30 years, I have been helping to clarify Somatics principles, primarily in their application to massage therapy.  It is has become clear that, when viewed through the somatics lens, anatomy, physiology, and the techniques of our practice become changed.  Intuitive understandings that have guided our practice are affirmed and given clear, descriptive voice. We learn to see tension, trauma and chronic dysfunction as signs of disconnection in the community of our organism.  And we learn to join with the impulse to wholeness and integration that continually wells up from the deepest parts of each individual’s being.     

Together, the science of the body as described by Juhan, and the science of the mind proposed by Hanna have the potential to radically change the nature of the work we do.  These changes happen in two fundamental ways: 

Touch and movement become a field for conversation between persons.  

    • We begin to free ourselves from the influence of a mechanistic paradigm – that of working on a body.  Instead, we learn to work with sensation and help support our movement from habituated reactivity, to intelligent response to the possibilities of each moment. 
    • We learn how our own ungroundedness has been limiting our client’s response.  
    • Like a yogi who teaches, our clinical practice becomes our journey of self discovery.  

    It becomes possible to choose appropriate techniques from a wide range of paradigms.  Experienced practitioners understand the importance of gathering a wide range of skills.  

      • A Rolfer can become more effective at working with fascia if the fluid-fascia techniques of craniosacral work are integrated into practice. 
      • An understanding of the principles that underly each paradigm helps create a seamless integration of very different looking techniques.  
      • Through an understanding of the principles of somatic functioning, we learn to listen to the voice of each fluid and tissue, supporting its journey to greater functionality.  

      This fall, I am offering a unique opportunity to explore these questions in your practice.   
      The Somatic Studies Program will be a series of 10 one day workshops, divided into two sections. It will be offered through Qi Integrated Health in Vancouver.  Dates can be found here.  You can register by contacting Qi at 1-604-742-8383.

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