A Brief History of Somatics

The 1960s saw the birth of the Human Potential Movement under the inspiration of Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Rollo May and the hospitality of Esalen Institute where many explorers of human consciousness, previously isolated from one another, could discuss their common visions. Within that movement was a subculture forming among the many approaches to experiencing and transforming the body—Rolf, Feldenkrais, F. M. Alexander, Sensory Awareness, Aston-Patterning, Craniosacral Osteopathy, the psychotherapeutic heirs of Wilhelm Reich, and a host of others. In 1968, The late Thomas Hanna, published Bodies in Revolt, which situated this nascent community within a long history of counter-cultural moves to resist the dominance of the mind-body split. Soon after, he established the first professional journal for these works and coined the name "Somatics" to express and foster their unity as "the field which studies the soma: namely, the body as perceived from within by first-person perception." In 1971, Stanley Keleman introduced the term in his Journal of Energy and Character in "The Roots of Consciousness." Robert Hall, Ilana Rubenfeld, Peter Levine, and Marion Rosen were among the first to create training models that incorporated direct body practices of awareness and touch along with psychological and spiritual methods of work.

I came to that fertile period of the late 1960s with a peculiar viewpoint as a member of the religious order of Jesuits and a doctoral student in philosophy. In the Jesuits, I had been steeped in an esoteric mystical tradition which placed the body at the center of transformation: by the practices of meditation, celibacy, penitential practices, and fasting we were said to be transforming our dense bodies into the luminescent body of Christ, just like the many saints whose lore we studied. In addition, I had been schooled in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl who argued that direct bodily experience was the ground of knowing and value, and without paying attention to that ground, our cultures were in great danger. I was just completing my doctoral studies in philosophy at Yale with my dissertation on the relation between changes in the body and changes in consciousness. My writing on that theme moved me to leave the academic world to train with Ida Rolf. That work and others like it brought me in touch with a community of gifted touchers, movers, and sensers who were gathering together to form a common field of study, research, practice, and philosophy.

After two decades of working with individuals within the Rolf paradigm, I returned to the academic world that felt more like home to me. In 1983, I founded the first graduate studies program in this field, now located at the California Institute of Integral Studies, where I continue to teach. Seymour Kleinman initiated the first doctoral program in Somatics within the School of Education at Ohio State University. Masters programs in the field opened at Naropa in Boulder, and JFK Univ in Orinda, CA and Pacifica Graduate Institute.

Michael Murphy, the founder of Esalen, gave me the opportunity to initiate a series of what became a 20-year series of invitational seminars which focused on practical and theoretical approaches to embodiment. In 1987, a group of European psychoanalysts founded the European Association for Body Psychotherapy, soon followed by the US Association for Body Psychotherapy with its journal. With several professional conferences each year, three journals, several research projects, and a growing body of literature, the field has gained its feet. Its cutting edge now is to move beyond its Euro-Anglo filters into serious dialogue with other cultures about the role of the body in life.