There has been an explosion of interest in “alternative” or “complementary medicine.” Congress established the Office of Alternative Medicine within NIH to foster empirical studies of alternative methods. David Eisenberg’s demographic study of the public’s surprisingly extensive use of alternative practices, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, was widely reported in the press. The Fetzer Institute sponsored the Moyers’ PBS Series with its attendant texts, the journal Advances, and conferences with Noetics on alternative medicine. Noetics and TBS produced “The Heart of Healing.” However, to date there has been a significant and telling omission from the long list of practices receiving attention. That is a field which many of us call “Somatics,”‘ numbering tens of thousands of practitioners serving a vast population in North and South America, Europe, and Australia. The field includes Sensory Awareness, the F. M. Alexander Technique, Gerda Alexander’s Eutony, Rolfing and its offshoots, Moshe Feldenkrais’ Awareness through Movement and Functional Integration, the Lomi School, Continuum, Aston Patterning, Body Mind Centering, Trager Work, Hakomi Work, Rosen Work, BreyerWork, Process Oriented Psychology, the movement work of Mary Whitehouse, the extended family of orgonomic and bio energetic practices based on the work of Wilhelm Reich, and a host of others. Many of the training schools in these methods have endured over half a century, have long established standards of practice, and refined educational programs, and have encouraged modest empirical studies of their work.
In the popular mind, Somatics is “New Age,” born at places like Esalen Institute during the 1960’s and later. The truth is that the field dates back to the Gymnastik movement set in motion by a number of teachers who traveled back and forth between Northern Europe and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States during the mid- and late 19th Century: Francois Delsarte, Genevieve Stebbins, Bess Mensendieck, Leo Kofler, and Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, to name a few.’These people shared a new vision of embodiment that was at odds with the dominant models found in biomedicine, physical education, religion and classical ballet. Rejecting biomedicine’s and religion’s separation of the human spirit from a mechanistically conceived body, they envisioned an intimate unity among movement, body structure, health, intelligence and spiritual consciousness. At a time when physicians were still engaged in the crudest uses of surgery and medication, and psychotherapy was just seeing the light of day, the practitioners of various branches of Gymnastik were already doing sophisticated healing work using expressive movement, sensory awareness, sound, music, and touch. Instead of training dancers and athletes to shape their bodies to fit a classical form, considered normative for all, they encouraged individual expressiveness and a return to a more “natural” body, allowing forms of movement to emerge from within rather than imposing them from images conceived extrinsically. These teachers emphasized respect for lived experience and the wisdom that can be found through “attending to”, rather than “conquering” or “controlling” our life processes.
Unlike physicians and psychologists, these innovators lived within a comparatively silent world of non-verbal practices outside the vociferous atmosphere of university and laboratory. Consequently, there have been few texts to articulate the work and carry forward its memory through the disruptions of the century: only participants in the methods had access to what was being discovered.
The world wars loom large in the shaping of this movement. The first war rent the international and interdisciplinary community, leaving the individual schools intact, but isolated and fragmented. The second war dispersed the pioneers, forcing many to put aside the more visionary aspects of their work to eke out a living as refugees by marketing their work under the more acceptable forms of physical rehabilitation or psychotherapy.
In the 1960’s the hospitality of Esalen Institute and a counter-culture exploring different states of consciousnessprovided the opportunity for a regathering of strands of the widely shared vision that had been lost fifty years earlier. A new cooperative venture began to form. -Some of the old pioneers traveled westward from New York, Tel Aviv, London, and Berlin, gathered large numbers of students, returned to the Eastern seaboard, established new schools, and often eventually brought their work back to Europe where it had been forgotten. By the end of the 1980’s, there were international conferences on Somatics in Paris, Zurich, Naples, Montevideo, Montreal, Strasbourg, San Francisco and New York. There are now at least three international professional organizations using a version of the name “Somatics,” and the Association of Humanistic Psychology has recently formed a Somatics wing of its organization. In California, the “Coalition on Somatic Practices” is a professional group lobbying for state licensing. There are at least a handful of master’s level graduate degree programs in Somatics in the U.S., and one doctoral program (located at Ohio State University).
Many pilot studies and a large body of anecdotal evidence attest to the efficacy of these various methods. Even though the medical establishment often criticizes the therapeutic claims of these various works as unsubstantiated, there have been consistent attempts among the major private institutes to foster research. The Rolf Institute, with which I was intimately involved at its inception 25 years ago, has from the very beginning encouraged investigation of its work by biomedical researchers. With virtually no outside funding, it has managed to complete a number of modest empirical studies. The same is true of the Feldenkrais Guild and the organization of F.M. Alexander teachers which have sponsored several pilot studies over the years 3.
The diversity of our claims indicate how Somatics challenges the boundaries of the established disciplines of psychotherapy, physical therapy and education, medicine, and meditation training, requiring one to stretch one’s mind to grasp the uniqueness of this field instead of mistaking it for something else. For example, widely reported outcomes include successes in addressing:
– chronic physical symptoms: back pain, whiplash injuries, various forms of arthritis, scoliosis, the restrictions of cerebral palsy;
– emotional or psychological complaints: depression, sexual dysfunctions, body image problems, substance addictions, relationship problems;
– improvement in capacities for focused awareness and stillness required for the practice of meditation;
– increase in everyday flexibility and vitality.
Because of those crossovers, Somatics in the popularmind is typically confused with other practices: behavioral medicine, physical therapy, chiropractic, massage, etc.
For example, some think of Somatics as a form of behavioral medicine. But from a Somatics point of view,behavioral medicine retains troubling vestiges of an older dualism by contextualizing its strategies within a vocabulary of:
– “controlling” the wayward disease processes of the
– body? by visualizations, affirmations, biofeedback devices, and changes in attitude which are spoken of under the rubric of
Such an approach is very different from the Somatics context in which one is encouraged to:
– “listen” to the messages of one’s cells, to
– “embrace” one’s breathing patterns, to
– “follow” one’s styles of moving and the insights which emerge
– “within the movement itself.
The various branches of Somatics have always shared an emphasis on the systematic refinement of non-verbal skills, particularly sophisticated methods of touch, breathing, and body-movement instruction. While psychosomatic and behavioral medicine developed out of the marriage between biomedicine and psychoanalysis, from the top down as it were, Somatics developed from the “bottom up,” from a wide range of experimental methods of manipulation, movement, and awareness that evolved outside of universities and clinics, typically in response to critical health problems that were impervious to existing medical and psychological treatments.
In a paradigm event, at the turn of the century in Berlin, Elsa Gindler contracted tuberculosis and was told by her doctors that she would never regain the use of one lobe of her lungs. She spent several months devoting herself each day for hours to learning how to inhabit her breathing, eventually regained full use of the collapsed lobe. In the course of that process, she realized the extent of the healing capacities released by quiet sustained sensing of bodily activities without trying to control them with images, affirmations or programmed strategies. She went on to found a school of work now known in this country through the work of Charlotte Selver as “Sensory Awareness.” Some 20 years earlier in the late 1800’s, F. M. Alexander in Melbourne and Leo Kofler in New York were coincidentally afflicted by chronic laryngitis for which physicians could find no cause nor cure. As they carried on their healing investigations in their vastly separated milieux, they discovered that as they learned to fully inhabit their body movements, posture, and voice, they were healed. And so on, with Moshe Feldenkrais, Ida Rolf, Gerda Alexander, Ilsa Middendorf, and countless others who discovered the healing capacities inherent in the cultivation of contact with bodily experience, unmediated by images, positive thoughts, or video display terminals.
Despite the mottled and sometimes contentious differences in method and style among the thousands of practitioners who are the heirs of those innovators, we share a vision about the nature of reality more akin to older multicultural ideas than to modernist European scientific notions. That vision has to do with the significance we assign to the awareness of natural forms and processes in the life of the human spirit. Bio energeticists, Rolfers, and Feldenkrais practitioners differ about many things. But they all make the common assumption that sensing, feeling, breathing, moving, postural changes, and excitation are crucial factors in the human search for meaning. Whether one is being probed by a Rolfer’s elbow, vibrating under a Reichian’s palm, or trying to concentrate on the sensual effects of the disorienting Feldenkrais movements, he or she is constantly reminded ,that the realities lumped under body or mind are experiential: aching muscles and frayed nerves at one extreme; love and cosmic intuition at the other; with healing taking place in the creative interweaving of these extremes.
In another quarter, Somatics methods are -often confused with physical therapy, chiropractic, and massage. In addition to a more holistic view of the person, there is another unique assumption that distinguishes Somatics methods: that the various regions and parts of the body are systemically related. A bursitis in the shoulder joint or disorders in the lumbar region may be related to torsions in the ankles and knees; chronic back pain may be related to restricted breathing; carpal tunnel syndrome may be related to muscular tensions in the pelvis, etc. In Somatics trainings, no matter what the particular school, practitioners are taught to see these relationships among body parts and layers within any body region, and to develop their interventions accordingly.
Somatics methods differ from other non-conventional therapeutic approaches, such as hypnosis, meditation, and guided imagery, in that Somatics emphasizes bodily awareness, anatomy, sensory and kinesthetic education, and non-verbal language as the foundations for therapeutic insights, emotional clarity, and spiritual growth. Very often, the language of other alternative healing practices reveals a belief that “meaning” or “healing thoughts” come from somewhere other than the depths of flesh, movement and experience. It is easier both for physicians and for the public brought up within the dominant paradigm to accept hypnosis, imaging, relaxation techniques, biofeedback, and exotic or foreign methods because it can appear (mistakenly) that these methods do not require a radical and sometimes uncomfortable shift of viewpoint towards our flesh at hand. Yet it is precisely this radical shift which constitutes the heart of the various Somatics methods. It is the principle contribution which Somatics as a field can add to these other rich and effective techniques. In 1987 I initiated a study group in Somatics consisting of biomedical and psychological researchers and founders of different schools of Somatics. We have met regularly since then with the aims of investigating the common principles that motivate the different schools, and exploring how the field might develop empirical studies of the work. Over the years each of the scientists has been given the opportunity to experience different methods of work, and on the basis of their experiences to engage in dialogue (often passionate!) about how we Somatics teachers might go about articulating our work in a way that would make it accessible to empirical studies. We have now arrived at a design for a long-term study of the efficacy of Somatics therapies for the treatment of chronic low-back pain. We chose to focus on this problem both because of the enormous population afflicted by it, and because it, like cancer and heart disease, is a particularly good example of a problem which resists any treatments organized under a non-holistic paradigm.
No one who has practiced these methods for a long time considers Somatics a panacea. We simply look towards contributing modestly to many current efforts towards a more comprehensive model of health care which would include education, exercise, nutrition, relaxation and visualization techniques, mainstream and alternative hands-on techniques, psychotherapy, and group support. That rich array of other healing methods -both mainstream and complementary-gain more power when the person practicing them has learned to heal his or her radical split from the bodily processes which have been so feared and dishonored in our abusive culture. We are survivors of a world whose major political activity has involved a widespread maiming of human flesh, and an intellectual and spiritual climate that drastically underestimates the wisdom inherent in those very wounds. Somatics, when taken for what it is rather than being digested into some more familiar modality, has much to contribute to healing this impoverished relationship to our most intimate home.
1 The term was originally coined by the late Thomas Hanna, the founder and editor of the journal Somatics. He defines it in this way: “Somatics is the field which studies the soma: namely, the body as perceived from within by first person perception. When a human being is observed from the outside i.e, from a third-person viewpoint-the phenomenon of a human body is perceived. But when this same human being is observed from the first-person viewpoint of his own proprioceptive senses, a categorically different phenomenon is perceived: the human soma. ” Somatics, vol. V, no. 4, p. 4. Some, including the OAM, use the word “body-work,” a terribly misleading term for reasons given in this essay.
2 The task of uncovering the history of Somatics is similar to that confronting feminist historians; we depend on oral history, fragments mentioned by the way in exercise books or in histories of dance, a teacher mentioned in passing. Significant fragments of this forgotten lineage can be found in: Carola H. Speads, Ways to Better Breathing (Great Neck, NY: Felix Morrow,1986), pp. xxi ff.; and Dr. Lilly Ehrenfried, De 1’education ducorps a 1’equilibre de 1’esprit (Paris: Editions Montaigne, 1956), pp. 133-139; and Hillel Schwartz, “Torque: The New Kinaesthetic of the Twentieth Century,” Incorporations, ed. Johnathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (New York: Zone, 1992).
3 The OAM did not fund a single project sponsored by these older schools in its recent list of grants, all of which went to large universities and hospitals.