Sensory Awareness and Feline Play

Pages: 22-25
Year: 2015
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 43 – Nº 3

Volume: 43

A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.

Groucho Marx

Stinky the Cat

As I was stretching on my hardwood floor, I felt whiskers tickle my face. They belonged to my cat, Stinky. I laughed and moved him over to get back to the work of opening up my pelvis through movement. More than simply stretching, I was trying to deepen my understanding of Sensory Awareness and to remain in the moment to investigate what helps me become more aware of what was actually happening in the now. It took me a moment, but I came to realize that the ‘now’ I was exploring included a furry being, so resisting the urge to accomplish or complete an agenda (stretching), I decided to see what this detour might bring to me.

I closed my eyes and lay supine with my palms up. Stinky returned, curling the top of his softball-sized head into my open palm that was supported by the floor. I followed my next impulse to put my face into his satin, warm-from-the-sun, earthy-smelling side. He trilled, acknowledging and encouraging my playfulness. He flopped onto his side in almost a somersault, batting at my hand with his front paws. I relished the feeling of his fur, the pads of his feet brushing my arm. His fur was as soft as down. The pads of his feet were ever so rough, like how elephant skin feels. I came up onto all fours feeling the hardness of the wood, slightly gritty from earth coming in on shoes. Stinky rubbed his body against my arms and legs, walking around and under me with his proprietary saunter. The weight of him leaning on me and his body heat combined with the inner vibration from his purr. Where he touched me, I could feel my skin tingle and warm with the contact. His tail followed last in its own swirling dance that slithered around my arm and then up my neck or down my body.

Although I was initially exposed to the practice of Sensory Awareness in graduate school and actor training, much of my deepening  with  it  occurred  through my experiences with Stinky. I love this memory of interacting with my cat and letting him take the lead in our communication. We would often have loving and playful collaborations that would heighten my sensory awareness, my realization of “the capacity to experience fresh for oneself” (Brooks 1986, viii).

Stinky (Photo by Heather Corwin.)

Sensory Awareness

Sensory Awareness (SA) is a discipline or practice that cultivates the capacity to remain present, to have patience with what is occurring, and to invite all of oneself to take in and name a multitude of sensations. It was pioneered by Elsa Gendler, and later Charlotte Selver. Selver’s protégé, Judyth O. Weaver, PhD, was my teacher at the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute, where I earned my PhD in Somatic Psychology.1

Defining SAcan be confusing, as it is more a process or way of being than a result. We are not merely focusing on our senses to give us information in and of the moment; we are also seeking the quiet places of who we are inside, best found by determining how the outside impacts our inside. Weaver (2015) explains, “Sensory Awareness is the practice of coming more in touch with oneself.”    It “is a phenomenon of experience, not a characteristic of perception” (Hurlburt 2011). SA can be of great value to bodyworkers and movement specialists personally, and it also can give us vital tools to share with our clients.

So how does SA viscerally impact us? Let’s use the activity of sitting in a chair as an example. The act of sitting would not be SA; rather, it is a skill that you have refined regarding your place in space (perception/ proprioception) and an interaction with an object to complete a task. If, instead, you take the time to use the back of your leg to feel the pressure of the chair seat and notice the temperature of the seat with your leg, then allow gravity to deepen the pressure of your leg, noticing how your relationship to the chair changes as you do so, then you are working with SA. This process demands slowing life down to observe the layers of information and to witness the portions  of every moment. For bodyworkers, this distinction can be incredibly helpful to refine and deepen experience, personally and with others. In addition, this type of work can allow a pace to be set by the client rather than by us, which may be more effective in producing a richer experience, integration, articulation within moments (including when experiencing shifts), and a myriad of other benefits.

Learning and Teaching SA

Animals are always in the moment, which is why humans tend to find them engaging. Humans operate within a socially mandated realm where manners and behaviors – taught as necessary tools to interact successfully in society – are not always in sync with personal impulses. Animals understand and operate within  a hierarchy not dependent on social conditioning. As providers of food for our pets, humans are usually alpha or the leader within a household. If a human is meeting the needs of the cat, the cat will not retaliate. In the case of Stinky, we really enjoyed each other. This mutual affection inspired daily cuddles and play sessions complete with  a chase! Since play was a normal part of our daily interaction, his engagement with me while I lay on the ground made perfect sense: that position invited him to play.

To let your cat deepen your SA, you might make a space that creates encouragement. If you’re able, you might get a newspaper and open it in front of you. Any large piece of paper will do. Notice what the paper’s texture  feels  like  between  your fingers.

Close your eyes and move your fingers and notice if you hear any motion of the paper. What does that evoke in you? This alone may be enough of a playground for your cat to join your exploration. Place the paper next to your face. What do you find? Does the paper have a temperature against your skin? Does your cat want to bat the paper from the other side? If you cat surprises you, how does your cat do that? What sensations are you taking in as your cat is close to you?

If your cat does not seem to operate with as much contact as Stinky preferred, or the newspaper idea does not work, you might find yourself in one of these interactions: your cat’s whiskers brushing up against your face . . . your cat walking on your back and sitting on you . . . your cat sitting by your head purring just to be near you. See if your interactions make you more aware of your surroundings. Do you feel the temperature of the room? The temperature of the floor? Does your skin reach out to feel your  cat? What does that translate  to in sensation? You might also take the opportunity to observe your cat and move like s/he does. How does moving like that make you more aware of your body and how your body makes contact with the floor, chair, or carpet?

In a human didactic setting, SA can be taught in a variety of ways. Weaver employed many exercises to formulate, increase, and refine her students’ abilities with SA, many of which were reminiscent of lessons introduced to me through actor training during my undergraduate and graduate studies. For instance, in an exercise of walking in trios, we were to act as one, keeping tempo and feet placement the same, without a leader. This may sound easy, but actually paying enough attention to continually align impulses with two other people is quite a challenge. Another exercise took the form of us walking around the room to find a person who seemed to be in sync with you, your tempo and rhythm. This allowed for a natural progression of discovery rather than forcing something to happen by choosing partners as an intellectual or social choice, as often happens. I found it interesting that Weaver started from more tangible outside work (walking with partners) and then reduced the focus to the more quiet and refined work of inner life, which is what we will look at next.

My favorite example of working with Weaver  with  my  inner  life  took place on a day that was bright, but temperate outside (typical weather for Santa Barbara, California). That day, I could feel sensations tugging at me that signified the beginning of a migraine. My eyes were getting sensitive to light, my head felt pressed in, and the base of my skull felt tight. My impulse was to back off and leave for the day. Instead, because the class moved outside, I decided I would try one more exercise. We were surrounded with beauty, working in a vibrant green garden with a tinkling fountain and damp, cool ground. The garden was surrounded by a building with stone walkways, arches, and columns; sound bounced inwards in this setting, creating an atmosphere of safety and tranquility. The class was separated into two groups, and in my group we all were to be blindfolded. Our partners from the other group chose us and were to lead us to areas of the garden that might interest us. Ironically, because I didn’t know who the person was leading me, I didn’t have any trust issues. The purpose of the exploration was for the blindfolded partners to go at our own pace and explore what we wanted to explore, being taken care of by others who would keep us safe.

I discovered that I like to move at a glacial pace. So much was around me that I did not feel much need to move or explore, because I was being recruited by the world to feel and experience sensations. A fuzzy leaf became extraordinary – how it felt in my fingers, how it surprised me by its texture, how I liked simply holding it. I did not have any pressure from outside to move at any pace, so I remained mostly still or barely moving.

After about an hour of this type of work, being shielded and protected by seeing guardians, we  came back together as   a group. I discovered that I no longer suffered any signs of a migraine coming on – my first experience ever of heading off a migraine without medication. Suddenly I had a way to help myself avert the agony of these debilitating headaches – being in the moment, doing what I wanted to do. (Though, sadly, I won’t always have the luxury of a protector.) I began to understand how Weaver (2015) framed this work: “[It] is not didactic; it is [a] practice.”

I took this exercise to Northern Illinois University, where I currently teach movement for actor training to undergraduate and graduate students. A colleague invited me to teach the new freshmen some trust-building exercises during their first semester. Many were fresh from high school, with no experience in movement training. The students did not know each other and had no  sense  of camaraderie or feeling of “we’re in this together.” I led a short version of the exercise of leading someone whose eyes were closed to see what sort of trust they could build. The sighted leaders in the first group chose to run their partners into walls, chairs, doors, everything. Suggestions were offered to individuals in an attempt to protect the ‘blind’, but little changed. Teaching this exercise, I hadn’t expected to encounter fear! The students with closed eyes were afraid to be led even before the exercise began. However, when they switched roles and the ‘led’ were the leaders, the room became peaceful and a place of caring. Specifically, the leaders used a methodical pace that was slow and easy to follow. Firm but supportive connections were made so that the followers felt secure in their leaders. The people who had been run into objects had learned from their experience to care for someone in their charge who could not see. Here was the trust exercise I had been expecting – the learning came in a different way, but was still based in SA.

It was evident how outer life impacted inner life: the fear of being run into a chair or walked into a stationary object can make students hold back. What’s more, when a person is trusting another to be one’s eyes, experiencing the quick and sharp surprise of a chair cutting into one’s calf can either inspire the modeling of careful oversight when positions are traded, or malicious intent. Here, care-taking prevailed as a direct result of the follower noticing his or her experience and wanting to specifically create an experience for his or her partner that left room for safety within the space and exercise. Plus, the students slowed down enough to notice more in each moment. This evolution suggests the powerful need to allow a space for simply noticing what is happening and what is wanted in any given moment, which will foster SA.

Nature, Animals, and SA

My own experience of being blindfolded in nature during an SA exercise showed how compelling the natural world can be. Much of Selver’s SAwork is done outdoors, letting the landscape do the awareness work for the student. A fuzzy leaf can avert a migraine . . . the sound of a fountain within an enclosed garden can capture one’s complete attention. Nature has a way of demanding interaction. We don’t have to work to get a response from nature, because stimuli are constant and through a variety of sources, e.g., wind, water, birds, sunlight, shade, insects, temperature. As Brooks (1986, 137), Selver’s husband and partner, asserts of SA, “We are powerfully aided by the vivid presence of nature.”  SA builds consciousness and awareness. Consciousness is noticing and experiencing the world around us. Building upon that, “awareness is consciousness together with a realization of what is happening within it or of what is going on within ourselves while we are conscious” (Feldenkrais 1972, 50). So, I can look around a room and see all the things in it; this is being conscious. Awareness goes beyond consciousness by being specific about what is in the room and how those items affect me. An example of the ‘add-on’ that awareness brings could be that when I feel into the room again, I utilize awareness and specifically observe the cool air at the back of my hands, the warmth of the chair supporting my thighs, buttocks, and back, and hear the buzz of the computer and the mumble of voices in the next room. I note that these things make me feel at home, engaging my inner life.

We could postulate that animals are embedded in the realm of nature in a way most humans no longer are. They want what they want and live solely in the moment, with acute consciousness and awareness. Animals take in information (consciousness), have a reaction (awareness), and act upon their next impulse. Our human lives have this potential, but also involve many levels of abstraction that animals don’t engage in (as humorously shown in the Groucho Marx quote that opens this article). Though finding meaning within activities is important to humans and society as a whole, having this as a constant focus can create anxiety, and that anxiety can become debilitating. SA has more to do with deepening a person’s experience within moments than with assigning meaning to a task. Picking up a cell phone becomes an investigation of weight and texture rather than a commentary on cell phones and our relationship to technology.

In Rolfing® Structural Integration, or any variety of movement training, we help the client cultivate awareness. The focus  is often on impulses and the initiation of movements, and awareness focused in our sessions has the potential to change behavior. SA remains  at  the  foundation of most movement training in that the goal of the work occurs inside the person seeking the training – that is, the growth of his or her inner life engagement. When nurturing awareness, the senses must all be engaged: with behavior, interactions, and consequences of these interactions, and responses to architecture/structure including walls, objects, and space (Bogart & Landau 2005; Williamson 2002). Another way of thinking about growing awareness is that it involves a person examining habitual responses and ways of being in order to be free of them, allowing choice in how we interact in the world.

Weaver (2003) writes, “Through practical sensing experiences with our everyday activities, we relearn to accept ourselves and others, and begin to understand the importance of this kind of attention.” We begin to settle more into what is. In SA we focus on noticing rather than judging. This type of work supports simply being without judgment, a necessary skill in our work with clients. Practicing SA releases our ideas around what should be and brings us into the depth of what is.

Our animal companions, closer to nature and to the moment, are extraordinary teachers within this realm of work. When  I was playing with my cat, I was initially more preoccupied with my agenda (subconscious) than having fun with him (what I really wanted to do). So much is programmed  into  the  subconscious  that I was not aware of  the  choice until my cat made me aware by not giving up his desire to play. Then I recognized that he could help me to be in the moment and  be with him. When I began to play with him, he expressed his delight through his behavior – pressing his head into my hand, chirping, hugging me around my arm or leg. I could then deepen my connection with him by pressing my face to his furry belly, one of my favorite things to do. All of these connections seemed to take much longer because I was focusing on SA at the time. The sense of duration was important, showing that my awareness weighted this  interaction  as  deep  and important a lasting and impactful The connection implied hours of play because each moment had several layers, even though the clock revealed that only thirty minutes had passed. We danced together in this impromptu SA exploration and ended up on the floor, sidelying, him at my belly.


When we consciously inhibit, we create a space in which choice can operate.

Glen Park

A New Teacher

SA can be a tool to deepen the bond between us and the animals we encounter in our lives. Stinky was an ideal partner for me when exploring SA because he loved to feel into the experience of touching, being touched, and physical connection. Our love of being near each other resonated in us when in each other’s proximity. SAgave me a priceless gift: a rich way for my cat and I to connect as beings simply enjoying each other. About six months after our first SA encounter, Stinky died at the ripe old age of eighteen. The gifts of love he left me are immeasurable, and I still miss him. The depth that SA brought to our interactions was profound.

Learning how to interact with Loki. (Photo by Heather Corwin.)

We now have a new cat, who is almost a year old. Loki is named after the Norse god of mischief, and she lives up to her name. Now freshly out of her kitten stage, Loki is very specific about how she prefers to interact. Loki is not the lover of long strokes to her fur that her predecessor Stinky was, but she’s a snuggler. My SA lessons with Loki take the form of her body resting on me with her purr fully engaged. If she is in the mood, I can scratch her chin and face. If she’s not, I get a nip to remind me of her boundaries. What I am able to focus on with Loki includes the space between us  and  the  ways  we  can  make physical

contact. She enjoys running away, inspiring a chase, or wrestling with my arm safely in a thick sweatshirt. In some ways our ‘work’ together balances between perception and awareness. I have found that if I only concentrate on SA with Loki by reveling in how soft she is and my sheer enjoyment of touching her, I have a rude awakening from pleasure to surprise with the sharpness of her teeth, because she is not enjoying the interaction like I am. Loki demands that I remain aware and conscious of her desire for space when physically interacting.

Stinky and I lived together and grew up together for eighteen long and delightful years. We knew each other. I am still getting to know Loki, so we do not have our own understandings and language yet, which Stinky and I built over a lifetime. As this richness develops with Loki, it too will expand me as a person. With SA, I know Loki and I will find our version of fuzzy love through time, listening, and patience. After all, a practice takes a lifetime.

  1. Santa Barbara Graduate Institute was purchased by The Chicago School of Professional Psychology during the middle of my studies.

Bogart A. and T. Landau 2005. The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

Brooks, C.V.W. 1986. Sensory Awareness: Rediscovery of Experiencing through the Workshops of Charlotte Selver. Great Neck, New York: Felix Morrow.

Feldenkrais, M. 1972. Awareness through Movement. New York: HarperCollins.

H u r l b u r t , R . T. 2 0 1 1 . “ Sn s o r y Awareness: Why People (Including Scientists) Are Blind to It.” Psychology Today  we b l o g ,  O c t o br  3 1 ,  2 0 1 1 .

Available at www.psychologytoday.com/ blog/pristine-inner-experience/201110/ sensory-awareness-why-people-including- scientists-are-blind-it (retrieved 9/26/2015).

Park, G. 1996. The Art of Changing: A New Approach to the Alexander Technique. Bath, England: Ashgrove Press.

Weaver, J.O. 2015. Fromhttp://judythweaver. com/my-work/ (retrieved 9/2/2015).

Weaver, J.O. 2003. “More Background About Sensory Awareness.” Available at http://judythweaver.com/writings/more- background-about-sensory-awareness/ (retrieved 9/2/2015).

Williamson, L. 2002. “The Williamson Physical Technique: The Physical Process of Acting.” In Movement for Actors, N. Potter, ed. New York, NY: Allworth Press.


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