Somatics

Somatics, as I understand it, is a study of what it is to be a whole human being. In other words, what it is to be an embodied subject. Not a mind floating free of the earthly flesh, nor an unthinking biological machine or slab of meat, but human subject inescapeably situated in the constantly unfolding context of the world. From early on I recognized that working with somatic techniques not only improved my movement abilities but improved everything in my life significantly. I noticed the connection between my physicality and my psychology.

These days I call myself a somatic movement researcher, educator and artist. For a long time I resisted using “somatic” to describe what I do because it sounds complicated. I preferred to call myself a “mover”; but it proved to be too vague. When I began to search for something more specific, I realised that all of what I do falls into the broad category of somatics.

What do we mean by somatics?

Somatics, as I understand it, is a study of what it is to be a whole human being. In other words, what it is to be an embodied subject. Not a mind floating free of the earthly flesh, nor an unthinking biological machine or slab of meat, but human subject inescapeably situated in the constantly unfolding context of the world. From early on I recognized that working with somatic techniques not only improved my movement abilities but improved everything in my life significantly. I noticed the connection between my physicality and my psychology.

These days I call myself a somatic movement researcher, educator and artist. For a long time I resisted using “somatic” to describe what I do because it sounds complicated. I preferred to call myself a “mover”; but it proved to be too vague. When I began to search for something more specific, I realised that all of what I do falls into the broad category of somatics.

Origins of the term

“Soma” is simply a Greek word for the living body. Somatics was a term first introduced by Tomas Hanna when he founded The Somatics Magazine – Journal Of The Bodily Arts And Sciences in 1976. The word Somatics is used to designate the approach to a way of working with the body where the body is experienced from within rather than objectified from without. The implication is that when the body is experienced from within then the body and mind are not separated but experienced as a whole.

The field of somatics is vast and spans many areas of study: health, education, performing arts, psychology and philosophy. Individual disciplines that can be described as somatic in approach, for example, include the Alexander Technique, Rosen Therapy, Rolfing, Feldenkrais Method, Body-Mind Centering, the work of Elsa Gindler, Mabel Todd, Ideokinesis, Authentic Movement, Classical Osteopathy, Eutony, Reichian Therapy as well as many non-western disciplines such as Chi Gung, Aikido, some forms of yoga and meditation for example. What unites these individual disciplines share is a holistic, first-person view of the body and mind.

We in the west have a tendency to experience “mind” as something located in our heads. To redress this imbalance, many of these disciplines offer ways to experience “mind” as a property of the whole self. I believe that we can all benefit from deepening our own somatic experience; when we think with our whole selves we have more information with which to make decisions and to act.

My personal relationship to somatic practices

The first somatic discipline that I discovered, and for that reason the most significant personally, is the Feldenkrais Method. This was in the Autumn of 1991. I found that it helped me to begin to develop the sensitivity and awareness that opened doors to many other somatic practices that I discovered subsequently. It improved my ability to move without pain and gave an added dimension to the work I was doing as a performer at that time. It also got me thinking about how I learn and later, as I began to teach, about how everyone learns.

I studied with a Feldenkrais teacher for 11 years before beginning a professional training programme (2002-2005) to become a teacher of the method myself and had already spent eight years teaching other other movement forms. After entering the training I became increasingly aware of just how much my previous experience of the method was already permeating my whole approach to teaching, no matter what the form. And I was surprised to discover that some of the things that were being presented in the training, but are largely absent from the method as usually presented to the public, were things that I was was very familiar with from other somatic studies that I’d made in relation to dance and had been teaching myself.

Experiential knowledge

There are many forms that I have studied and teachers who I’ve studied with that in one way or another concern themselves explicitly with experiential anatomy and developmental movement. Basically, form and function. While the Feldenkrais Method is explicitly more concerned with function, on the training we also studied a lot of anatomy.

Experiential anatomy takes an embodied approach to anatomy. Through attending to our inner sensations, we develop the ability to perceive in increasing detail our own structure. Developmental movement concerns the ways we coordinate our many parts to work together as a single entity. In both areas, there is something to learn that is both general, in relation to our species, and personal, in relation to ourselves.

In both, practical first-hand knowledge is privileged. My experience is that the more I learn about myself, then the more I learn about others. Ultimately my ability to teach others depends on how much I know about myself. For example, I can only help someone sense their shoulder to the extent that I am able to sense my own. Just like I can only teach someone as much of a language as I can speak it – in my case I could teach you a lot about English, less about French and German, and not much about Finnish.

Form and function

Moshe Feldenkrais himself was reputed to be in conflict with the his contemporary Ida Rolf over whether, in trying to help someone improve how they move through life, it was better to intervene in their form, as Ida Rolf did in her form of physical manipulation called Structural Integration (or sometimes simply Rolfing or in their function as Feldenkrais was interested in doing. Indeed he named his individual sessions Functional Integration as a counter to Rolf.

Rolf argued that people are constricted by their forms and there was no point attempting to change their function if the form was left untouched. Alter the form and the function will follow. Feldenkrais argued to the contrary, that there is little point changing their form if their way of functioning was left untouched. Improve the function and the form will improve of itself.

Having experienced the Feldenkrais Method and Structural Integration, as well as many other somatic practices, I am interested in both. To me, the study of movement is inseparable from the study of our physical structure and how we arrived at those structures and abilities within an evolutionary framework. This then represents one of the major strands of my work. show less…

Contemporary (post-modern) dance

Although my interest in movement began a few years before I discovered post-modern dance (see background) and is much broader then it alone, it is largely in this context that I have been studying and working with movement. Within months of discovering the Feldenkrais Method (1991), I found contact improvisation (1991) through it became interested in the field of post-modern dance (1992) which I have been working with ever since. My study of it has included a number of somatic practices. Some, like Body Mind Centering, are forms which have found a place in post-modern dance training, while others, like contact improvisation and release technique, have evolved from within the field of post-modern dance itself.

Brief History

Over the last 30 years or so in the dance world, contemporary and modern dance have been joined by what has become known as post-modern dance (also know as new dance). It has its direct roots in the work of some contemporary and modern dancers who, in the 1950s and 1960s, began to question the place of the body in those forms. Contemporary and modern dance were typically more concerned with how the body looked from the outside than on exploring the organic movement potential of the human body.

In seeking to broaden their body knowledge, these dancers looked to forms from the East such as Tai Chi, Yoga and Aikido, as well as Western, often therapeutic, bodies of work of those like FM Alexander, Moshe Feldenkrais, and Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, or the pioneering work of Mabel Todd and Elsa Gindler that preceded them back in the 1920s and 1930s.

This influx of ideas led to the creation of post modern dance techniques and practices such as release technique, authentic movement and contact improvisation. Post-modern dance trainings have been developed which include developmental movement and experiential anatomy and there is interest in improvisation both as a performance art form in its own right and as a way to devise material.

Intelligent Bodies

These post-modern-dance practices are all directed towards developing an intelligent body. In respecting the different potentials of different physiques rather than seeking to impose uniformity, these educations therefore tend to be more inclusive. They emphasise self-development, self-awareness, interaction skills, choice making skills, creative process, health and well-being of the dancer.

What the practices of much post-modern dance training share is a somatic approach. I believe that many of the practices that have arisen with post-modern dance now have much to offer beyond the confines of the world of dance.

I have never been particularly comfortable with describing myself as a “dancer”. I prefer to use the term “mover” since movement is what I am really concerned with. I never learned steps. Instead I study improvisation as a performance technique and take a somatic approach to improving movement range and quality both in my own studio research and in my teaching.

Scientific research in general and neuroscience in particular

That said, I love to read about developments in scientific thinking, especially about the body and the environment. Particularly exciting right now is the unfixing of the previously rigid thinking around how the brain interacts with the body and the environment in favour of a more plastic and dynamic organisation. This is one area where I feel the science come more into line with my own experience and it is remarkable how it accords with some of the ideas that Feldenkrais was proposing some 40-60 years earlier.

In working with the information that this kind of research provides me my approach is pragmatic. I am a mover interested in exploring how working with scientific ideas about and images of the body can affect the way I move. I’m not a scientist. And even if some of the texts I read are beyond my full comprehension, then I am happy if they inspire me to try something different in my studio research. To my way of thinking, then this research is just as successful when based on a misunderstanding as it is when based on a correct understanding.

have the feeling I might be forgetting something