Introduction to Somatics: Podcast Transcript

Understanding Somatics 

It was a cool morning on July 30, 1990, when 38 students gathered expectantly at the Dominican College campus in San Rafael, California waiting for Thomas Hanna’s arrival.  He would be introducing the second module in the inaugural training of Hanna Somatic Education.  Hanna had built a reputation as a leading thinker in the developing field of body centered practices.  He had drawn upon his skills as an academic to create the Somatics Journal, publishing articles on mind-body integration, theory, practice and research.  

Now, after years of developing his work and seeing thousands of clients, Hanna began his own training program through his Novato Institute. The first five weeks of training laid the foundation of his work.   Now he would begin refining the fundamentals of his work over the rest of the three year training program.   He never arrived.

This is an introduction to Somatic Practice, my exploration of the Western body awareness movement, a phenomena that from its roots in 19th century Europe, emerged in the 20th century into a flowering of breath, movement, touch and psychological explorations into the nature of embodied experience.  

Hanna’s tragic death in a highway accident brought a sudden end to a remarkable life journey as a practitioner, educator and academic that had many unexpected turns.  Born in 1928, Hanna began his  career in academics with a bachelors degree at the University of Texas, going on to a theology degree from the University of Chicago where he explored his interest in existential and phenomenological philosophy.   In 1958, after receiving his doctorate, Hanna travelled extensively, researching and writing in Virginia, Paris, Brussels and Germany.  By 1965, he had landed a position at the University of Florida as Chair of the Philosophy Department where he staying until 1970.  It was the time of America’s cultural revolution and Hanna immersed himself in it as the prof who was teaching yoga to hundreds of students in the university quadrangle while ROTC recruits drilled on the grass nearby.

But by 1969, Hanna was ready for a sabbatical, getting permission to study neurology at the university’s medical school.  It gave him time to think more about the connection between direct experiencing and the body resulting in the publication of Bodies in Revolt in which, drawing upon the work of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, he explored new possibilities in Husserl’s concept of a “Soma.” “‘Soma,'” Hanna wrote,”does not mean ‘body’: it means ‘Me, the bodily being'”; “somas are you and I, always wanting life and wanting it more abundantly.” 

Soon after, Hanna left traditional academia, moving to the West Coast and becoming Director of the Humanistic Psychology Institute in 1973…and discovering Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.  Here he would find a new community, one that has been described as “non-academic artisans actually doing existentialism and phenomenology in the flesh.”

Started in the early 60’s, Esalen had quickly become a garden for the flowering counterculture and embodiment movements, attracting thinkers, practitioners and seekers, and providing a place for a cross-pollination of ideas and practices.  Don Hanlon Johnson, a Jesuit seminarian, arrived at Esalen in 1967. “The Esalen brochure”, he writes, “said that people there were discussing the relationships between Eastern and Western mysticism and transformation of the body.  Michael Murphy, its founder, was interested in the relationship between body therapies and transformations of consciousness.”  Shortly after his Esalen experiences, Johnson left the Jesuits, becoming one of the leaders and thinkers of the somatic field. 

In 1961, Michael Murphy had convinced his grandmother to lease him land the family owned in Big Sur that had a run down hotel and a hot pool locally famous for its healing properties. Murphy and his friend Dick Price took on the sprawling hotel and began to transform the property,  as they wrote in the Esalen brochure,  into a “forum to bring together a wide variety of approaches to enhancement of the human potential . . . including experiential sessions involving encounter groups, sensory awakening, gestalt awareness training, related disciplines.” It was an audacious dream that would become a centre of the counterculture movement. 

By 1962 they were ready to open the doors.  Don Hanlon Johnson tells us that, “Alan Watts, Abraham Maslow and Aldous Huxley gave lectures in that first year.  Over the years, Esalen Institute has hosted leaders such as Carl Rogers, Virginia Satir, BF Skinner, William Schutz and Stanislav Grof.”  Fritz Perls would establish a residency over a number of years, influencing Esalen’s Gestalt oriented training that Dick Price would continue until his death in 1985.

Early in 1965, Charlotte Selver, teaching a German body awareness tradition with its roots in the 1800’s, began the first of her many sensing workshops at Esalen.  

Pam Portugal Walatka remembers, “[She] taught us Sensory Awareness, the art of paying attention to the information coming from our senses. She would have us sit on the floor and notice how it felt to be touching the floor, held to it by gravity. What exactly were the sensations coming from the parts of the body being squished? The process seemed trivial and boring at first, but it changed my life—actually saved it.”

The infusion of body awareness became an important part of Esalen’s identity.  Deane Juhan, who became part of the “bodywork” team at Esalen in the early 70’s tells us that a rich array of practitioners who fit under the “bodywork” umbrella had been attracted to Esalen.  The deep tissue work of Ida Rolf’s Structural Integration, the verbal directives of Selver, Feldenkrais and F.M. Alexander, the movement work of Emilie Conrad. Juhan describes how the effect of the eclectic touch, breath and movement practices offered at Esalen often had dramatic results, affecting, he said, “painful and long-standing physical conditions, quell[ing] anxieties, foster[ing] more productive attitudes,” and deeply affecting their interactions with themselves and others.

However, from this rich array of practices, a babel of voices emerged, competing to be heard.  Johnson describes it as “a bewildering variety of somatic methods, the adherents of one frequently criticizing the values of the others.”

Having just left the strictures of Jesuit canon,  Johnson says, 

“The fragmentation I saw among these cranky people was redolent of the theological disputes of the late Middle Ages, almost surreal in specificity about body parts. Ida Rolf dismissed F. M. Alexander as having the third lumbar and third cervical vertebrae move back too far from an imaginary vertical plumb line through the body; Moshe Feldenkrais argued that there was no point working on body structure, which could only be changed through changing function, and made fun of Rolfers and Aston Patterners as people who were devoid of imagination about all the possible ways one might move. Rolf and Aston countered that functional changes were trivial and evanescent. Stanley Keleman argued that Rolfers and Alexander teachers were like crazed arborists crashing into forests to straighten out the redwood trees. Charlotte Selver disdained them all as vulgar and insensitive louts. Most of them argued that psychotherapy was made irrelevant by their practices, since all emotional problems would be resolved by improving the flow of cerebrospinous fluid, aligning the body with gravity, or introducing more flexibility into the joints. Ida Rolf often said, “There ain’t no psychology; just biology.” The claims of each bordered on the megalomania bred of isolation. Not only did they reject the methods of their peers, they also disdained older practices from other cultures such as hatha yoga and tai chi which they considered anachronistic. It was a collection of body churches, each arguing dogmatic superiority.”

Healing this rift has not been an easy fix. A decade later I would write in a Massage Magazine article, “Believing themselves to be like Aphrodite, born without connection to mother or father, many therapies present themselves as too unique to have an historical context; rather, they see themselves as spontaneous formations of their creator’s genius. 

In his new California life, Hanna was becoming thoroughly absorbed with the burgeoning bodywork field. He helped arrange the first American training of Israeli movement innovator, Moshe Feldenkrais.  

He melded those influences with his own ideas, developing a clinical practice in Novato California, and naming it the Novato Institute for Somatic Research and Training.  Moved by the call of his former life in academia,  he had founded Somatics: Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences in 1976. It would become the first public forum for practitioners in the many individual schools to finally meet in common dialogue.

Somatics Magazine became a platform for Hanna’s exploration of  “the living body in its wholeness.” Amidst its contributions from philosophers and poets were articles and interviews with pioneers of somatic practices, or with those who had trained with them.  The magazine became an archive forming the foundation of what academics might recognize as a “literature review” of the practices that had shaped the field.  He encouraged scholarly reflection about what unifying principles or themes might be discovered amongst such a wildly diverse tribe of practices. His first article for the magazine, “The Field of Somatics”, described how a soma might interact with its universe.  

In search of scholarly input, Hanna invited thinkers – the most notable of them happened to be PhDs who, like him,  had gone native in their whole hearted embrasure of the somatic field – to provide critical evaluation.  

In 1986, Don Hanlon Johnson contributed, Principles versus Techniques: Towards the Unity of the Somatics Field.  In it,  he proposed a remedy to the Somatics community’s history of fragmentation – discovering the underlying theory base, the principles that informed the techniques.  “Here is how I now see the situation:, he said: “the more I have learned about the Somatics pioneers–Gindler, F. M. Alexander, Reich, Rolf, Feldenkrais, Schultz, Jacobson, etc.–the more I have been struck by this paradox:  on the one hand, there are radical similarities among the ways these people actually worked, and the discoveries they made about human nature, constituting a field of theory and practice unified enough to justify Hanna’s naming it “Somatics”;  on the other hand, there are a bewildering variety of somatic methods, the adherents of one frequently criticizing the values of the others.” He would go on to describe some of the possible principles that they shared.  In her Somatics article “Matching”, phenomenologist Elizabeth Behnke explored aspects of touch centered interaction that were common across somatic practices, giving practical examples of how this way of engaging was a fundamental principle shared by many modalities as she guided the reader through a touch experiment where the hand feeling the cheek might also feel the cheek touching the hand.  

Over the next six years Hanna would further refine his ideas, culminating in his 1968 series of articles entitled, “What is Somatics?” “Somatics”, Hanna wrote,  “is the field that studies the soma: namely, the body as perceived from within by first-person perception.” This was a further refinement of statements Hanna had developed.  But then he goes further to say that while a soma distinguishes itself from a body by being self aware, it is simultaneously “engaged in the process of self-regulation.” He would describe how self awareness is intimately linked to a continual interaction with its environment – “we cannot sense without acting,” he said, “and we cannot act without sensing.”  

Continuing to draw upon his early influences from the work of phenomenologists such as Husserl and Heidegger, Hanna supported his beginning statement by describing embodied experience as primary ‘first person’, or immersed “in the immediate flow of experience, e.g., a worker at his lathe, a typist at her keyboard, a runner on his run, a listener to music, a child playing, et al. Because first–person experience is the primitive, unconditioned mode of experience, it is easiest.”

In contrast, when we objectify our world, for example seeing it through the lense of the scientific method, we were moving, Hanna said, to a  ‘third person’ perspective.  The world is separate from us, we objectify it and act on it as ‘other’.

The middle ground between these two perspectives was the interactive field where, like Behnke’s experiment with hand and cheek, we both act on the ‘other’ and experience it acting on us.  It also allows us to reflect on our own experience.  “The learning of these two stances of second–person experience”, Hanna wrote, “has immediate and profound applications in other modes of somatic experience. First of all, it makes possible somatic self–awareness. Self–awareness is the action of addressing one’s own first–person experience as if it were another person.”

At the same time as he was developing the foundations of somatics principles, Hanna was also using biological insights to help understand his hands-on clinical work.  Within the same ‘What is Somatics’ article series, Hanna introduces a term he coined – ‘Sensory-Motor Amnesia’ – to describe how filtering sensory input, such as when we do an action by habit, diminishes the information available to inform our movements.  The less we are aware of sensations in this moment, the more we have to draw upon memory of past experiences to form the movement, the biological underpinnings of habituated response.  In contrast, when we re-educate our sensory system, using touch and movement to introduce more sophisticated information, we awaken the nervous system from its state of amnesia so that it can reclaim a fuller range of response to the needs of the moment.  

The implications of these two lines of exploration can be revolutionary.  Let’s say you push away sensory information from your body – we do it all the time. Inevitably, because you get less information from that part of the body, there will be an increased level of objectification of those parts of the body, reducing the amount of  first person, or ’soma’ experience.  We start acting on the body rather than living in it.  That painful shoulder is something we wish we could just replace; we encourage practitioners to dig into the offending part in an attempt to ‘fix’ it.  On the other hand, Hanna is suggesting, as increased sensory information enlivens response, the sense of self moves deeper into ‘soma’  or first person experience.  

Using Hanna’s idea we now have an underlying principle of practice.  When a person is in a dysfunctional state – the person coming to a practitioner’s door hoping to be fixed – they will be experiencing both diminished sensory-motor communication, and their somatic self as separate or third person.  In contrast, a hallmark of any effective somatic practice is that the person will begin to feel more ‘in the immediate flow of experience’, Hanna’s description of the first person state. In search of structural alignment, Alexander Technique practitioners may hardly touch a client, primarily using words.  A Rolfer will press deeply to realign the fascia.  Yet, despite their very different paths, the person experiencing successful work will tell you they feel more connected to the immediate flow of experience.  They will feel more in themselves and more able to respond to the moment as a soma. 

A remarkable aspect of these practices is how often they deepen our understanding of embodied self identity through their focus on the biological science of Hanna’s “soma “experience.  While Hanna described the fundamental neural disconnect that underlay his “sensory-motor amnesia” to support his view of habitual dysfunction, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen mapped embryological development, the structure of bone and blood, and Emilie Conrad explored the relationship between breath, neural patterning and cellular pulse.  Biological science became an essential part of the unfolding somatics experiment. 

In my experience, the biology of the body provides a map that allows us to enter the internal landscape, and guides our engagement through sensation and movement.   I have found in my workshops on Experiential Anatomy that it can be remarkably grounding to know the shape of the bone that one feels under the skin, to understand its inner structure. 

In ‘Job’s Body’, Deane Juhan adds his voice to Hanna’s, writing, “There can be no movement, neither free nor limited, without muscular activity; there can be no muscular activity without neural stimulation; and the specific quality of every muscular action – its timing, duration, style, effectiveness – is a summation of all the activities of both the central and peripheral nervous systems at that moment.” 

“Movement,” he’s writes, “is the unifying bond between the mind and the body, and sensations are the substance of that bond.” 

But Juhan goes further telling us that the exploration of direct experiencing brings with it a self reckoning. There is a kind of “hair in the soup” embedded in the need to be healed – our tendency to replace the habits of our initial disfunction with posture or movement that ‘correct” 

Juhan says, “We have therefore a strong tendency to bend all our capacities toward establishing and guarding certainties, and once we have tasted it we have a compulsion to invest all of our observations, theories, and beliefs with this feeling, so that they will become potent against our anxiety as well as satisfying to our intellectual curiosity.”

Paradoxically, as we let go of our dysfunctional patterns of movement and posture through a somatic modality, we still have a tendency to attach ourselves to the surety of the new, more ‘correct’ form.  Early in his somatics work, Don Johnson raised a red flag on this tendency, spending much of his career questioning our impulse to value form over the more uncertain process of constant formation. From his early article for Somatics Magazine entitled ‘Somatic Platonism’ to his later book, Body, Spirit and Democracy,  Johnson has been questioning the ‘double bind’ built into so many somatic methodologies, guiding the participant to deepened sensory and movement connection with the body…but only through prescribed forms.  The correct alignment of  the Rolf line, the allowable “natural” movement of the many streams of Gymnastik that Elsa Gindler departed so remarkably from, the soft belly of the Reichian therapist all encourage the client to engage but only through their paradigm’s lense of an idealized body.  

The maps of each paradigm help chart the territory but at their best, they can only help guide us through the unfolding of our personal story as we journey through our somatic landscape, he argues.  Our tensions from the conflict between our habitual response and the response this moment is asking from us, cannot be fully resolved by the form of a movement, posture or breath.  They are only the frame, inviting us to soak in the sensations of Hanna’s second person experience, to allow the sensations of our experience in this moment to inform and move us to what this moment asks of us.  

There are veins of this dedication to the process of becoming found throughout the field.  The formative story of Elsa Gindler’s sensing work is that she stopped her class doing the “beautiful movements” of the Harmoniche Gymnastik she had learned from Hede Kalmeyer, leading her students into a an exploration of how their individual movement wanted to arise from each interaction.  FM Alexander cautioned against ‘end gaining’ in he is work, guiding his pupils to movement that explored the ‘means whereby’, the moment where the movement that wanted to happen was being interrupted by habit.  These moments, Don Johnson says, are where “divinity unfolds, along the way, not simply at the sacred shrine towards which one is traveling.”  

This approach is remarkably democratic and inclusive.  In my experience, while my workshops may focus on the interests of somatic practitioners, the teaching of the work starts with each individual’s experience.  In this environment there are no experts.  An 80 year old with an accounting background has as much to contribute to each workshop as a health care practitioner with a degree in somatic psychology.  We are all learning to interact as embodied beings, a process of inner and outer engagement that never ends.    

I first met Don Hanlon Johnson in 1997 after stumbling upon his book, Bone, Breath and Gesture.  Since the beginning of my massage practice in 1983, I had been on the trail of the hidden language of body centred practices, experimenting with small groups of fellow practitioners. I invented a variety of workshops and classes as excuses to focus on as wide a range of breath, touch and movement modalities as possible so I could glean the principles that guided their techniques, and discover how these principles might help me understand the commonalities within their seemingly disparate approaches. Ironically, from my relative isolation in the Canadian north, I had no idea that there was a deep pursuit of the same outcomes just south of the border. 

The year I met Don, I was starting a two year project I called Somatics Studies.  The plan was that I would organize a series of weekend workshops that would meet once a month.  In each workshop we would focus on a modality, try to distill from it the underlying ‘how it worked’ that infused the techniques with potency.  The student homework was to go home and explore how these practice principles might affect one’s personal and professional life.  The first year focus was to be breath, touch and movement practices.  The second year we would journey through contributions from somatic psychology. All I needed was a text book.

Bone, Breath and Gesture was the perfect resource for the first year of the program, providing chapters from leaders in the field, with introductions by Don.  In his introductions he gave historical context, but even more, a sense of the place of each work in the unfolding story of our community.  I immediately reached out to him. 

“ This is the heart of my work during the last twenty years”, he told me. “Gathering the stories behind all these weird, brilliant, interesting, and highly effective works and innovators.”  In search of the “clues emerging from firsthand experiences of various regions of our bodies,”  

Don Johnson would spend years sponsoring study seminars that brought leaders in somatic practices together with scientists.  In an affirmation of Hanna’s ideas,  Johnson would later write that representatives of the various fields “share a common aim to elicit a primal kind of healing knowledge that lies often dormant in firsthand experience…”   Grounding the recovery of breath, movement, psychological and spiritual health was a deepened sense of re-inhabiting the tissues of ones being. 

Johnson’s work in this area has been a remarkable contribution to the field.  As Michael Murphy says, “Philosopher Don Johnson, who more than anyone else has stimulated understanding of the field’s basic principles, has distinguished somatic education from osteopathy, chiropractic, and standard medical practices that aim primarily or exclusively for symptom relief.”

Hanna’s Somatic Education program survived his premature death that day in July.  The training continues to this day.  But it is his contribution to the awakening of the somatic community to itself, its story and its shared values that will be his most lasting legacy.  Because of him, and those who gathered to his banner, we are learning to value each other’s contribution to healing the disconnect between our identity, our bodies and the world.