Are Words Necessary?
What role do words play in the practice of structural integration (SI)? Are our hands, gestures, and embodiment enough? Must we speak? Must we encourage our clients to speak? For many it might feel like the sweetest practice to have minimal conversation. Some people probably choose a bodywork profession as a refuge from a language-based world, in the same way, for example, that athletes and artists might choose their professions. This is not necessarily a problem. Different practitioners do different styles of practice. Clients also have varied preferences.
Practitioners of either style – many words, or few words – are apt to express opinions about the opposite style. For example, we sometimes hear that “talking to clients about perception means subjecting clients to the practitioner’s belief system.” Conversely, we hear criticisms that less verbal or expressive practitioners “don’t explain sufficiently” – meaning explain the goals of the session or, say, Dr. Rolf’s philosophy. And we could consider the question, “Does asking clients questions, or teaching clients to name their experience, take them into their heads” (and therefore away from their bodily experience)? This question is central to any discussion of language skills and is addressed in this article. What does “take [people] into their heads” mean and what can we do about it? As for belief systems, and if we subject clients to them, that is an important topic, albeit for another day.
Clearly, there are different ideas about what it means to use words/language in SI practice. This article proposes, however, that there exists an inherent relationship between SI and the mechanisms of language, in the same way that mechanisms of perception and motor learning bear an inherent relation to mechanisms of fascial adaptation. That said, the study of language usage (i.e., the study of how words impact structure) is complex. The complexity of the topic can encourage us to avoid it.
If and when one is sparked to find interest in how language skill relates to our field, other questions naturally follow:
These questions most probably confronted Rolf, as Murray and Sultan have pointed out. (Murray 2010). The answers, nonetheless, remain something Rolf left for us to figure out. It’s time to do that.
The Context for Language Study in the SI Domain
Language and Shape
Language shapes experience. In our work of helping shift the way people stand and move, many forces hold a client in his motor habits. One central force is the way we describe our experience to ourselves and to others. Our descriptions of experience, in turn, hinge on how our world has been described to us. Our family, our culture, and our education have all built filters to what we see and feel, and these filters tend to perpetuate what we see and feel. Language is woven into our perceptive and meaning-making structures. We tend toward what Gibson (1966) calls invariant perception – we tend to see what we are used to seeing. Our words, and language-based images, are ingredients in invariant perception.
As each of us wakes up in the morning, our world re-assembles. The descriptive thoughts about who I am, what I am going to face, my history and my future remind me of my identity and, in part, shape the strategy I use to roll onto my feet and meet the day. My strategies, in turn, shape my movement and my body.
But language goes deeper than just a mechanism that perpetuates identity. Words are a symbolic separation from each moment of actuality. This article suggests that the ‘language piece’ works invisibly – reliably modifying and even thwarting the hard work we do with our knuckles, elbows, and earnest guidance. This article also proposes, however, that the same force that thwarts can also potentiate the integrative process. Rather than diluting the fascial and perceptual work, language skill can deepen it. Integration is a fruit from the seed of inquiry.
Language and Inquiry
Inquiry is, implicitly and explicitly, an activity that invites something new to occur in the body/mind. Inquiry is different from technique in that technique aims to reproduce a known outcome, a previously worked out set of skills or steps. Inquiry provokes the mind to discover something that is whole and unknown up to this point. Inquiry is holistic. Technique, no matter how refined, is deterministic.
Language has the power to initiate inquiry and, also, the power to inhibit it. We initiate inquiry when we ask a question openly, with no preconceptions about its answer. Inquiry means being open to find out something unknown. To sustain inquiry means an orientation to elements of experience that are unknown, not abstracted by descriptors that derive from prior experience. The nature of language, normally, is to act as a filter on experience – in predictable ways for each individual. A predictable and unseen filter prevents inquiry and maintains a wall against change. This is a structural consideration.
Loosening the mind’s grip on body shape and movement expression by any structural factor – physical, coordinative, perceptual/ proprioceptive, etc. – is the art of coaxing forth new responses to life’s events. It is about evoking plasticity in patterns that, left alone, tend to persist. Language usage is an opportunity to evoke plasticity. What is normally fixed can loosen when our representation of experience is brought to a lower order of abstraction – words that are less abstracted from primary experience. How we represent reality tends toward memories of what we have experienced in the past and labeled and judged as good or bad. When the labels and judgments about past experience are interrupted, the movement patterns associated with past experience have less power to repeat.
Images – We Are Ruled by the ‘Should’
We loosen the grip ‘held’ in someone’s shoulder girdle just by using words and gestures that evoke the meaning that a shoulder can hang off the trunk, like the appendage it is, with no need to be pulled back. Why is this simple suggestion potent? It’s potent because so many people have been instructed, by parents or other authority figures, to “pull your shoulders back.” This is a simple example. There are many examples, however, in which a person’s body image and posture derive from well-meaning but misguided directives. Similarly, we hear that someone’s back got ‘fixed’ or ‘aligned’ by a practitioner. The image of a back being fixed or aligned implies that body parts are something like the front end of a car and that someone has the power to fix them or straighten them and, in fact, did so. Surgeons can claim to do this to body parts – sort of. Do we imagine that manual therapists do this as well?
Images are powerful, and they last. Images are built into the way we speak – in half truths, and worse. People have been told their feet are “flat” or their backs have “too much lordosis.” These days, people are told they need to have “more core.” These assessments are made with no awareness of the iatrogenic (i.e., making the client worse) consequences. Labels lodge in people’s minds and work their mischief, spawning new patterns of effort and fixation. These are gross examples but, sadly, not uncommon.
Words work at more subtle levels too. How this happens leads us to the topic of general semantics.
Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics
Alfred Korzybski‘s book Science and Sanity (1933) offers the proposal that humankind’s woes are based on the way in which word use distorts experience, and that word use alone can lead to tragic distortions in our relationships with each other. Our difficulties come primarily because of our belief in the way we describe our identity and our experience to ourselves and others. Our descriptions of life are afflicted with an abstraction process in which descriptors, conclusions, and judgments keep us separated from the living dimensions of life, keep us separate and polarized from each other because of naïve faith in an inaccurate descriptive process. Also, the descriptors we use are imprecise and often not grounded in fact.
Korzybski called his work general semantics (GS). Rolf was one of the many innovative thinkers who found his work and embraced it. She attended seminars with Korzybski in the early 1950s and later spoke about his work to her SI classes in the 1960s and 1970s (Murray 2010). SI is, in part, a response to the body/mind confusion that occurs as descriptive processes blur natural body architecture, wisdom, and function.
Ben Hauck (2008), a writer, actor, and student of GS, defines the GS field as the “study of reactions to language” (including emotional and physiological reactions to language). It’s an intentionally broad definition, but a definition that is also specific and unique. Korzybski went so far to claim that our reactions to language cause disturbances in the colloidal behavior of the body (Murray 2010). This statement and others from Science and Sanity (Korzybski 1933) indicate that he saw language reactivity, in the cognitive or psychological sense, as inseparable from physiology. When we react to language, our colloids react and influence physical structure. It is not hard to imagine Rolf finding these notions not only credible but unusually resonant with her view – the view that fascial health, posture, and the way we think are interwoven.
We see a touch of this viewpoint in the work of people like Marshall Rosenberg (2003) – Nonviolent Communication – and Peter Levine (2010) – Somatic Experiencing®. However, GS pursues a more detailed examination of the language dilemma, per se. The emphasis on how language use affects physical structure is particular to the thinking of Korzybski.
Bois’s Map of Language Abstraction
Figure 1 maps out the dilemma as Bois (1996, 100) sees it. The diagram shows, at the bottom, a representation of the totality of What Is Going On (WIGO) in the universe. Each step up on the chart builds representation: representations of that tiny piece of WIGO that a person can be aware of. Each step up on the chart is a step toward greater abstraction, a movement away from actuality and toward more layers of interpretation, and interpretation of interpretation, and so on. The least abstracted descriptors are at the bottom: sensation words that, to some extent, convey an essence of primary experience. Skills for speaking out of primary experience, using words but not losing contact with the ongoing sensory experience – these skills are as central to deepening the SI process, as they appear to be to GS.
A new version of the structural differential.
1. WIGO—the cosmic event, shown as made of a limitless number of
“infinites” of lower order.
2. First-order experience includes limited nimber of “infinities” of a lower
3. The abstracting process shown as a filtering through the sieve of
4. Circularity not expressed by returning arrow, but implied in ST filtering.
Figure 1: A diagram of the process of abstracting (Bois 1996, 100). WIGO means “what
is going on” – the totality of events occurring in this moment. First-order experience
is the least abstracted experience a person can have. Each step ‘up’ in the diagram
represents an additional level of abstraction and each “ST” means a semantic
transactor, which is the term for what shifts the description in a semantic hierarchy
When we gain skill at sensing, speaking, and being aware of both, we revive flow in the sensorimotor capacity of the body/mind. This often occurs for the first time when someone is listened to by a practitioner in a field of empathic resonance (Frank 2011). Resonant listening helps a person arrive at moments of awareness coupled with sensory expression. The thinking brain expresses words while, at the same time, listening and attending to the activity of the movement brain. This is a conversation of an unusual nature. It can be described as a conversation between what Paillard (2005) calls the sensorimotor brain and the representational brain. The integration of sensorimotor and representational is, in fact, a way to define the basis of SI.
Teaching the Art of Sensory Expression
Enrolling a client in the art of speaking from the sensory experience, using words that are the least abstracted, is a considerable challenge – but mostly limited by the practitioner’s experience doing it himself. To those who have taken the time to learn to navigate word abstraction, un-self-consciously and naturally, the task of teaching it becomes natural as well. One technique that helps one’s own capacity is to build a list of sensory words and to practice tracking one’s own experience and finding the words that match what one feels in one’s body. “The map is not the territory,” but some maps more closely reflect the territory than others.
Sensory Language: Necessary But Not Sufficient
Sensory language and the capacity to engage in it, while necessary, are not, alone, sufficient for integration. Sensory
language expression can become limited or fixated and, in so doing, can become yet another inhibition to integrative work. People can ‘wallow’ in sensation, as an internal sanctuary held separate from the ‘outer world’. Limitations to this strategy arise when a real-life challenge requires competent response: does one have to stop and find one’s internal sensation to meet the situation? The impulse may be to retreat ‘inside’ to try to arouse one’s internal resource, rather than evoke resource within the context itself. Sensory awareness (interoception) must be joined with spatial awareness (exteroception) and put into activity in order to serve real-world demands in order to embody agency (Frank 2012).
The Weave of Sensation with Thoughts About Sensation
Optimum is a capacity to engage language at a minimally abstracted level, shift to higher levels of abstraction, and then shift back again to lower abstraction, back and forth. It is the easy flow, the adaptive capacity to change levels of abstraction, that weaves one’s body experience into the meaning-making that is a natural part of being human. The sensorimotor brain and the representational brain need to have a conversation. Put more simply: body discovery needs to integrate with meaning-making discovery. The flow back and forth is essential to integration. The work includes a shift from words that convey what we call emotion or affect (anger, joy, fear, irritation, etc.), which are somewhat abstracted, ‘down’ to sensation, and then back ‘up’ to affect and then ‘up’ further to interpretation, and so on. Whether someone reports affect, interpretation, conclusion, or any thought about what they are experiencing, the abstracted report can be grounded, brought down to a lower level of abstraction – in sensation or gesture or a combination of both. Now the body gets a voice. The art of sensory language work presupposes a practitioner’s capacity to feel comfortable using it and evoking it, with patience, and free of any hint of pressure toward the client to perform.
Sensory Language Has the Power to Unglue Fixation
What sorts of words tend to unglue fixation? Sensory descriptions: sliding, pulsing, expanding, contracting, cooling, warming, etc. These sorts of words often end in “ing” because they are what are called, in English, present participles’ – movement presently taking place. Movement that continues as words are spoken is itself a shift in awareness, a more refined awareness in which description doesn’t have to interrupt flow but, rather, deepens it and anchors it. Fixation often releases with the exploration and expression of sensation, with no ‘doing’ other than supportive active listening on the part of the practitioner. Why? Because descriptors hold us fixated at a subconsious or unconscious level. We are fixated oftentimes simply because of beliefs based on memory. Fixation lets go when primary experience finds voice. Fixation gets replaced by flow – the flow of perceived movement.
Sensory Language Evokes Empathy
Sensory language evokes empathy. If I tell you I am feeling unhappy, that permits you to imagine something about what I feel, and maybe have some empathy. If, however, I tell you I feel squeezing in my abdomen, that there is thickening sinking in my lungs, that inside my head there is prickling, your body will probably connect better to what I am saying. The body knows how to turn sensation words into a physical experience we call empathy. When one wants to increase empathy, body-sensation words offer access more easily than emotional generalizations. Why? Because the language of sensation is a language of the body, in the same way that gesture is a language of the body. If we combine sensory language with gesture, and if we mirror back gesture – as we mirror back some of the words of a client, slowly, empathically – the client is joined and supported. With the added support, the body can do what it needs to do, to release, to move, to breathe.
Empathic communication is not only useful for professional life, certainly. Sensory words support empathy for any conversation in which there is challenge to finding common ground. As empathy is evoked, polarities of attitude can more easily soften. Rosenberg’s (2003) work, mentioned previously, is all about working through intractable polarity via skillful word use – but he doesn’t appear to include the body-based language ingredient. The addition of sensory words makes Rosenberg’s work vastly more effective.
Sensory Language Anchors What We Do with Our Hands
When we evoke movement in the connective tissue, with our touch, or evoke movement in the perceptual process through guidance, the body responds: it organizes the practitioner’s provocation into something that can be felt by the client as ‘something perceived’. The lowest order of experience is sensation. When that sensation is described, in words that are birthed tentatively, which emerge from body-based speech and gesture, impact deepens. Sometimes it’s as though a person is groping for words that might accurately do justice to the novelty of the experience; the groping means the brain/ body is organizing/sorting. The ‘new thing’ starts to find a place in the brain, a place in the brain gets ‘worked’. The new thing has had conscious observation and permission to express itself as sensation. Organization and somatic expression deepens the result, to a degree that is often deeply satisfying.
What Would That Look Like?
How might this process look in a session? Let’s say you touch fascia somewhere in the body and, at first, the client is not sure what she is feeling, but there is watchful, cautious curiosity. The touch lasts for some number of seconds, but in the client’s mind, time might be standing still. Your touch withdraws. You are quiet. You, the practitioner, notice yourself, whatever is there to feel, inside that part of your body, or anything that is available in your felt sense. You wait. You watch the client and notice if you imagine that the client is sensing . . . that there may be some openness in the client to primary experience.
At some point you ask, “What are you noticing?” You have visited this territory with the person before so it’s not so strange anymore. The client softly reaches and ‘palpates’ the air with her fingers as if feeling the experience through touch, and then says, “I don’t know . . . it’s kind of like a pulsing, and a spreading.” Clients may report a shape, a color, a temperature, or a texture. These are all words at lower levels of abstraction. The client may just utter a sound or make a gesture. You, the practitioner, stay present to the room, to the space, the weight of your body, your sensations, and you reflect back a bit of what you hear/feel from the client’s report. You speak slowly, and from your own sensory landscape. Your tone conveys an implied question: “Am I hearing this correctly?”
You watch to see if your pace, your word choice, your tone, and your posture are supportive to the client feeling OK with the process. You ask yourself, “Does she feel safe enough and supported enough to explore what is new in this moment?” The client’s body/mind is integrating, and what integrates now goes on integrating, consciously and non-consciously. The work anchors as it unfolds. The client’s system digests and sorts what is going to be useful for life, now.
Sensory expression might be followed by the invitation, “How is it for you to notice that?” This is a step upward in the abstraction hierarchy. A feeling about sensation is a step away from the thing itself. The client might say something as simple as, “It feels good. I like it.” Or the client might say, “I’m not sure about this” or “It’s weird” or “I don’t know.” This latter response can be followed by further invitation to notice something that has previously been reported to be a resource, or to simply explore the sensations that underlie the “weird” or the “I don’t know.” As a structural integrator it’s not one’s place – unless trained and credentialed in another, appropriate discipline – to encourage explorations into distress, especially if there is a trauma history. (It’s wise to find out during the intake process if someone has a known trauma history, and whether that person has a professional to work with in a way that is helpful.)
Sensory expression, by the client, combined with quiet observation, is not a ‘heady’ process. Rather it is a body-education process, one in which the client learns at many levels. Included is a deepening of sensory mapping in the brain. Naming isn’t necessarily interrupting. Rather, in the described context, naming performs a necessary function to anchor, by linking what is felt directly in the body with related brain structures. As the saying goes, “what fires together, wires together.” In order for firing to take place, we need to build a minimal threshold of sustained attention to the phenomenon – to what is evoked by the SI process itself.
When and How Do Structural Integrators Learn How to Do This?
As of this writing, structural integrators are typically not trained to work with language in the ways described. It would be most effective to do language education, iteratively, at each stage of SI training. It takes time for skills to be observed, understood, practiced, and integrated in a way that isn’t artificial and awkward. New students at first, understandably, will overdo it. There may be too many requests for what a client is experiencing. It can easily become too much, as one example. It is helpful for students to see demonstrations by a variety of teachers to appreciate stylistic differences. This is true for all aspects of a training of course, but it is especially true for skills that don’t look like what the student expected in a SI course.
Some practitioners will take trainings from other schools – course work in Hakomi Method, Susan Harper’s Body of Relating trainings, or Levine’s Somatic Experiencing – which involve other adjunct skills. Students who take these kinds of trainings usually have an advantage in SI classes that involve movement – the part of our work that emphasizes client discovery and integration. Rolf Movement Integration training now offers courses that include development of language for somatic integration.
Embodiment of Language Skills
As for embodiment, the difference is not subtle. Someone who has spent time learning to track his sensations, name them, work the steps toward meaning and interpretation, and then back to sensory expression – such practitioners show a distinctly higher level of skill in embodiment, the ability to map the body and space around them, and a capacity to see embodiment and missed places in students and clients. Sensory tracking (following the trail of sensory movement in the body) and embodiment complement each other.
Embodiment shows up in the capacity to notice and shift pre-movement. People who learn to track sensation know how to pause and attend. This skill gets better over time. Changes in pre-movement are learned faster and easier with people who have practiced feeling/speaking the nuances of body experience that accompany those changes. People can see pre-movement more easily when they have worked with sensory expression and tracking. Sensory expression and tracking do not have to be purposed for psychological therapy. The work is about skill-building – body education and improving self-knowledge.
A further benefit from hearing clients report primary experience is that it helps us find out what our work is doing: things like 1) have we done enough?; 2) where are we in the arc of a session?; 3) what seems helpful for this person? One advantage to hearing many clients name sensory experience is that we hear new variations. We get the chance to ‘grow in’ more embodiment – a broader range of somatic experience – because we get to feel what we hear. Our territory gets mapped more thoroughly.
Scope of Practice
When is work with sensory expression, language, and levels of abstraction an appropriate adjunct to SI and when does it wander into the domain of psychotherapy? What is the distinction between the psychobiological2 and the psychotherapeutic? The answer to these questions becomes clearer with experience, but what about new practitioners? How do we make it clear so people who are starting out have distinctions to follow? Where, in theory, is the line?
One part of the answer to these questions gets clarified through training in language skills – a reason to embed language training early in the education of a new practitioner. Good, early on, to aim clients toward sensation and quiet moments of observation, versus discussion of feelings, for example.
Embodying the capacity to name what one is sensing and to navigate how one feels about that experience is in some ways an overlapping domain with body-oriented psychotherapy. What keeps a session in the domain of SI is that the practitioner limits her assessments to posture, skills of perception, coordination, and application of these skills to life events. It’s about skill-building. The practitioner doesn’t offer assessments or advice about the psychological condition of the client. The client isn’t steered toward affect, or encouraged in psychological intention or behavior. The practitioner continues to invite the client to make his own assessment about what he discovers in the session, and to reflect on what he likes the feel of, and whether it feels helpful, useful, or not. The client is invited to reflect on whether a discovery is helpful and to track how the new discovery can be drawn from when needed. This is self-referential learning. This is consistent with Rolf’s assertion that gravity is the therapist and that her work is educational, not a category of therapy.
What does it mean that gravity is the therapist? SI comes back, over and over, to the primacy, the authority, of orientation to gravity. Orientation to where, to weight and to space, offers a basis for security and stability that is deeper and more reliable than psychological security (Frank 2010). Orientation is distinct to the SI domain. It is singularly what allows a practitioner to step out of the role/authority of therapist, because she points the client toward gravity orientation as the source for health.
The Scope of This Discussion
A discussion of language and SI could touch on other important issues such as how we talk to clients about what we see in their posture; how we describe our work; how we listen to clients; how we steer clients to closure; as well as grounding notions of ‘flat feet’, ‘lordosis’, ‘alignment’, or ‘core’ – to name a few. There are many opportunities for practitioners to learn and practice how to speak and listen skillfully. This article is limited primarily to a discussion about coaxing forth awareness/integration of primary experience. Society generally, and structural integrators specifically, have yet to broadly appreciate the power of language to shape body and behavior. It can feel foreign. But, anyone who has tried to have a ‘difficult conversation’ has some inkling of how quickly relational dynamics can open up or close down based mostly on word choice and tonality. Anyone who has spoken words out of bodily experience, and felt the body shift as it hears itself aptly voiced, knows the potency of expression.
The future of SI training has a mandate from its founder, Ida Rolf, to look seriously into the matter of how language affects structure. It’s not an easy task to add another feature (and consequent expense) to a school’s education package. Nonetheless, structural integrators who gain confidence in evoking sensory expression and helping clients use it to integrate find particular rewards in practice and reflect positively on their brand of training.
Bois, J.S. 1996. The Art of Awareness, 4th Ed. Sherman Oaks, California: Continuum Press/Philosphere Pub. Available from www.generalsemantics.org/store/.
Frank, K. 2010 Jun. “Body Security: The Movement Brain Asks, ‘Where Am I?’” Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute® 38(1):7-8.
Frank, K. 2011 Jun. “Rolf Movement® Faculty Perspectives: Orientation and Empathic Resonance Considered As Psychobiological Elements in Structural Integration.” Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute® 39(1):2-5.
Frank, K. 2012 Dec. “Rolf Movement® Faculty Perspectives: Differentiating Categories of Embodiment: An Educational Rationale for Rolf Movement® within Rolfing® Structural Integration.” Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute® 40(2):3-6.
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