originally published in Somatics, Vol VI (Autumn/Winter 1986,7), pp 4-8.



In l979 I sent Thomas Hanna a draft of an article in which I argued that the use of visual ideal images of the body, specific "character types", and preconceived plans for manipulation based on such concepts, encouraged dependency and self-doubt in clients of somatic therapy, and hampered the creativity of somatic practitioners. He asked me to add to the article a response to this question: if one abandons the organizing principle of external ideals, character types, and manipulative recipes, how might one organize one's work and teach others? I appended to the article, which was published here in Autumn, l980, under the title "Somatic Platonism", the sketch of a plan for educating somatic therapists grounded in a study of the law-abiding processes that are inherent in our bodies: genetic, neurophysiological, anatomical, physical, psychological, social, and spiritual. During the past seven years I have been implementing and filling out that vague outline under the pressures of developing a graduate school program in somatics, and participating in various training institutes.

Here is how I now see the situation: 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: (l) 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"; (2) on the other hand, there are a bewildering variety of somatic methods, the adherents of one frequently criticizing the values of the others.

A major cause of fragmentation within the Somatics community is putting emphasis on the techniques peculiar to a specific method, rather than on the underlying principles which generated the method. Principles are found in examining how the somatics pioneers actually developed their work--the puzzles that intrigued them, what they actually did in their work, and how they lived; techniques are what they did in particular instances, and what they say they did in their attempts to communicate simply with their students and the public.

I am going to outline some of what I consider to be the principles underlying the Somatics field. I call them "principles" in the original sense of the term, which means "beginnings", the sources of discovery. They are principles in the sense that their pursuit and refinement have generated the various particular methods. Arising in questions rather than in particular answers, they are sources of discovery; once triggered, they enable the inspired person continually to invent creative strategies for working with others.


Teachers as seemingly diverse as the late Ida Rolf and the contemporary Emilie Conrad, place a radical emphasis on refining one's abilities to perceive both one's inner environment and the subtleties of the outer world. Both in their own lives of discovery and in their teaching, the somatic pioneers without exception developed methods for counteracting ancient social pressures urging us to denigrate the value of our sensuous experiences. They learned to pay careful attention to themselves -- think of Alexander alone with his mirrors noticing what he did to cause laryngitis as he prepared to go on the stage, or Gindler spending months focussing her awareness on one lobe of her lungs. They also learned to pay careful attention to other people, noticing shifts of breath and posture, relief of symptoms, changes in range of movement in response to their touching people, manipulating muscles and limbs, and giving movement directives.

Because of this emphasis on the development of sensitivity, Tinbergen in his well-known Nobel address situated the work of Alexander (and by implication, the whole field of Somatics) within the area of natural science. Like Darwin, Margaret Mead, and Jane Goodall, the somatic pioneers devoted their lives to careful observations of human behavior, not at the detached, microscopic level characteristic of the biological sciences, but at the level of immediate perception. They were engaged in what Kurt Lewin called "action research", an inquiry into methods of changing human behavior by a continual cycle of application of methods, careful observation, revision, new applications, etc. Moshe Feldenkrais argued that this kind of research, which he documented in The Case of Nora, is of its very nature a healing activity.

It is not too hard to grasp why the development of this principle is typically shortchanged in training somatic therapists and educators: it simply takes too long to be "covered" in the few weeks or months that constitute the training for most practitioners. Those who have devoted themselves to this aspect of Somatics, such as Charlotte Selver and Ilana Rubenfeld, attest to the length of time it takes to rebuild the bridges to our sensory capacities eroded by decades of anti-sensual education.

A person who becomes fascinated by the importance of sensing, and gains some familiarity with ways of refining it, is impelled along the way to a lifetime of research into the problems that life presents. He or she doesn't require techniques for problem-solving, because these will have to be worked out from paying attention to the unique situation at hand. In that sense, "sensitivity" is a generative principle.


Some distinguish between the subjective and objective body. Since these terms have a long history of epistemological traps, I prefer to use words that more accurately describe the dialectic between (l) the images I have of my body (its weight, height, width; the number, shapes, and locations of its parts; their relative significance; the locations in my body of particular memories and fears, etc.) with (2) what can be publicly determined about it through measurement, dissection, and biological science.

A frequent phrase in Charlotte Selver's sensory awareness classes is the "Oh!" as one stumbles upon a new experience of the foot, for example. That "Oh!" indicates an insight into the difference between what was a few moments ago experienced vaguely as "my foot" and the suddenly new and more detailed sense of the many joints in my foot.

All the somatic pioneers work with this dialectic either explicitly or implicitly. Marion Rosen, for example, places her hands on a person's back and evokes the history of associations the person has with that specific region. Peter Levine might engage a person in a conversation about charged situations in her past and, with gentle touch, gradually help her become aware of the connection between that situation and her experience of tiny movements in her legs or abdomen. The Somatically oriented sports and exercise teachers help their students grasp how their images of their bodies needlessly restrict their strength, speed, and abilities to concentrate. The Rolfer, with his fingers deep within a person's psoas, evokes profound insights by giving the person a literal sense of how that deep muscle, normally beyond the pale of experience, reacts in fear of others, for example. The Alexander teacher or the Aston-Patterner help a person feel how what seems to be the most efficient way to get out of a chair is actually an unnecessarily stressful series of movements, the overlay of effort we typically place on our lives.

Freud's earliest essays, which Reich would later elaborate, located the significance of the gap between experience and reality. In his studies of a male hemiplegic, for example, he found that the key to understanding hysteria lay in the difference between the leg as mapped by neurology and the leg as experienced by the hemiplegic man. The man dragged his leg not as one would expect if there were nerve damage; the "leg" he dragged was the leg as understood in ordinary language. To grasp that difference requires the therapist to understand both neurology and the dynamics of body image, both what I would call "internal patterns" in contrast to ideal forms.

The dialectic between one's body image and the public dimensions and patterns of one's body can take many directions of specificity. The genius of a particular family of somatic methods can be appreciated as a specific contribution to exploring the dialectic. The structural-functional family, for example, (including the Alexander technique, Rolfing, Feldenkrais, Aston-Patterning, and their various derivatives) can reveal to a person a rich set of lessons located in the gap between one's images of one's body moving in space and the way one's body is actually affected by the field of gravity. The energetic family plunges into the mysterious realm between my experience of deep inner impulses, and their actual movements. The awareness family (Conrad Da'Oud, Selver, Rosen, Proskauer, etc.) close the gap between my fantasies of my body and my immediate experience of it.

The different levels of dialectic suggest two subsets of principles, the one governing the formation of body-image, the other having to do with biological and physical patterns common to all organisms.

2.1 Body Image and Personality: the principle that one's experience of one's body is the foundation for his or her psychology and world-view is so commonly accepted that to mention it has become trite. However, what is often overlooked is that one can spend a lifetime of therapeutic work simply elaborating this principle. What I have found, inspired by such people as Moshe Feldenkrais and Seymour Fisher, is that assisting a person in a long and patient elaboration of his or her body image is a work with its own inherent healing and educational capacities. It can include such themes as these:

· One's current body-image. An investigation into one's sense of boundaries (skin, body parts, hair, nails, clothes, house, car, country, etc.): how big does one feel in relation to others, how wide, how tall? What is one's perception of the various parts of the body? How does one relate to the various rhythms and pulses in the body: cardiovascular, muscular, peristaltic, respiratory, cerebro-spinal, etc. These reflections can be anchored in journals, drawings, movement explorations, photographs, and poetry.

The articulation of one's body image is intimately related to the development of sensitivity: as one becomes more sensitive, one becomes clearer about the maps one has constructed about one's body, and the boundaries one draws with others. The various sensory awareness strategies, visualizations, touching, deep manipulation of connective tissue, and moving of limbs all help a person get a more discriminating sense of self.

The work with body-image has a particular importance in somatic practitioners' gaining insights into the kind of work that will be most nourishing for them as distinct from directions that might encourage rigidity. For example, practicing Rolfing for ten years was a constant struggle for me; I felt limited in my creativity, making few discoveries on my own, and was in constant physical pain. The forms of Rolfing fit neatly into old ways I had learned to restrict myself in my earlier years. For other people, the practice of Rolfing has been a liberating and creative process.

Similarly in relation to clients. If I base my work with people on understanding their body-images, I will find that different people require different kinds of strategies. For some people, touch will be inappropriate; for others, light touch; for some, heavy penetrating touches; for others, combinations of imagery, long conversations, and touch, etc. Instead of organizing my work around preconceived recipes, I move in response to the person's own images; I develop techniques inspired by the needs of the other person.

I think it is easy to see how any one of the above principles can generate endless questions, possibilities of research, possible strategies. They encourage freedom and ingenuity. A fixed set of strategies with its intramural jargon is, by contrast, a strait-jacket placed on the inquiring spirit.

2.2.The Public Body. What distinguishes Somatics from, on the one hand, medicine and physical therapy, and, on the other, from traditional psychotherapy, is its commitment to both poles of the dialectic, the personal and the public. The power of Somatics comes from a constant deepening of our awareness of the experienced body, along with a serious inquiry into the effects of biological and physical laws on personal experience.

The public body is described by laws which are common to all physical organisms: the laws of physics, cellular biology and biochemistry, anatomy, and physiology. The more one becomes familiar with these laws, the more perceptive one becomes in detecting subtle gaps between the experienced and the public body.

Ida Rolf and her students immerse themselves in a study of the musculo-fascial-skeletal structures of the body, and the ways those structures are altered by gravity. Emilie Conrad and Stanley Keleman allow their methods to be nourished by biological images of cellular structures and their movements. Gerda Boyesen leads people into contact with peristalsis; Lillemor Johnsen and Carola Speads, with respiration. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen generates her work from studies of the neuroendocrine system.


The distinction between principles and techniques suggests an education of somatic practitioners based on a wide range of experiential, theoretical, and practical studies. The groundwork would be a long training in sensitivity, involving a refined awareness of one's inner feeling states, body parts, and various inner biological rhythms. It would also include developing our sensitivity to what is outside our skin: other persons and the planet. Intimately related to the education in sensitivity, would be the kinds of self-study needed to gain a full sense of the many dimensions of one's body-image, coming to grips with how it limits one's interactions with the world, as well as how it fires one's imagination. The self-study requires developing facility to recognizing instances of transference and counter-transference, rooted in a careful study of one's family and culture of origin. Group process skills are central to building a community of explorers. (Robert Hall, for example, included daily meditation and group process in his design of the Lomi School.)

Study of the individual somatic methods would focus on principles underlying the techniques: F. M. Alexander's distinction between end-gaining and means-whereby, Ida Rolf's image of the body as an organization of large weight masses affected by gravity, Lillemor Johnsen's distinction between hypotonic and hypertonic musculature, Reich's analyses of projection and contactlessness in relation to one's unawareness of one's impulses as one's own, etc.

Learning about the nature of the public body requires the somatic student to engage in extensive studies of the biological, psychological, and social sciences. But for truly effective studies in these areas, we require new methods of teaching these sciences that link them the experienced body, after models that are currently being developed in several of the training institutes.

Like any other health professional, the Somatics student would be engaged in a long-term internship where he or she would have repeated opportunities to apply various principles to a variety of people and problems, exercising his or her ingenuity in communication with peers and experienced practitioners.

Such an education is far longer and more extensive than any private institute could mount. It requires the same kind of quality education pursued by others who work in the field of human problems: physicians, psychologists, nurses, physical therapists, social workers, etc. If we really think our work is so important, why do we insist on taking so little time to learn it? In the absence of such a comprehensive education, there is no alternative but to imitate techniques created by others.

An education based on somatic principles aims at freedom. Learning techniques requires imitation, repetition, and obedience to those considered to be experts in applying the techniques. Principles unleash ingenuity; they evoke my impulses to find out about life and to organize the results of my research into my unique ways of perceiving the world. An education based on principles encourages the student to confront his or her own fears of asking questions, taking stands based on one's experience, risking error; it invites one to be as courageous as pioneers like Reich and Rolf, who pursued their vision at great personal expense. An emphasis on technique creates a society of disciples and masters; principles generate communities of explorers. In the former, authority derives from the leader of the school; in the latter, from the clarification of experience, the refinement of sensitivity, and the feedback that comes from shared research. Reich called this kind of community a "work democracy".

Although Somatics significantly alleviates specific physical and psychological discomforts, its ultimate goals, as formulated by its pioneers, concern truth and freedom. The refinement of sensitivity and the dissolution of the gap between the fantasized and the publicly knowable body bring one into a dazzling contact with the real; the dissolution of images of limitation based on fear expands one's capacities for moving in response to the changing demands of our lives. Fascination with a particular set of strategies, thought to be applicable to anyone at all, undercuts the very principles which generated the strategies in the first place.

The field of Somatics is situated within the uniquely Western contribution to a political ideal of freedom, a notion that we are capable, in community, of finding truth based on bodily experience of the sensuous world; authority derives from that experience shared in dialogue. No individual has a privileged access to truth.In this context, I want to say an impolite word about Asian techniques. While it is obviously useful to learn hatha yoga, the martial arts, Ayurvedic styles of manipulation, etc., it would be a loss to abandon the Western vision of freedom based on sensuous empiricism. Despite their sophistication over centuries in compared to our more crude experiments, Asian methods of working with the body are now far removed from their origins in empirical human inquiry, and embedded in social forms that are essentially authoritarian. (There are such notable exceptions as Vipassana and Vietnamese Buddhism.) To follow those techniques requires one to become obedient to the masters who carry on the tradition. Only a few people have succeeded in extricating principles from ancient disciplines.

These reflections relate to the future of somatic research. One symptom of the ideological fragmentation of Somatics appears in its lack of "problem" workshops. Health professionals and psychotherapists offer a wide range of such educational opportunities: how to deal with alcoholism, drug addiction, food disorders, sexual disfunctions, etc. Their problem orientation is a sign of a community of practitioners who are sufficiently conscious of their unity that they can address problems collaboratively. On the other hand, offerings for workshops in the area of Somatics emphasize teaching specific methods of body work with little focus on human problems. Within any one of the somatic institutes, there is, of course, discourse about how its method relates to specific problems. But one first has to learn the ideology of the school and its recipes for working with people: there is little sense of a basic unity within the field, of which the various methods are variations on a theme, admitting easy dialogue about the strategies that might be used most effectively for specific problems, and the solid research made possible only by a collaboration among a wide range of practitioners and theorists.

The different schools have now been engaged in refining their methods since at least l890 when F. M. Alexander arrived in London. The next step in our work is to engage in the kind of collaborative research into the relevance of our field to such issues as stress, arthritis, autism, various forms of brain-damage, cancer, heart disease, schizophrenia, sexual disfunctions, anorexia, bulimia, etc. Significant research into any of these areas requires a much broader base of theories and practices than any particular school can offer. Moreover, if research is to be seen by the larger world as truly research as distinct from marketing a particular method, it must involve a wide range of approaches, and the risk of showing that some are more effective than others in certain situations. The recognition of the principles that unite us rather than attachment to the techniques that divide would make possible this collective endeavor.

If we can engage together on those empirical issues of immediate importance to so many people instead of remaining immured in our internecine quarrels, we may earn the right to speak out our vision of how to redesign our social institutions so that they are more supportive of human bodies whose importance we uniquely appreciate.