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The Somatic Healers and The Somatic Educators

TitleThe Somatic Healers and The Somatic Educators
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsHanna, T
Full Text

Nowadays, there are so many different kinds of “body work” that even the body workers are confused about what each other is doing. Here, finally, is a way of making sense of a complex field.

Something happened during the 1960s which carried us far beyond the tranquil days of simple medicine. An invisible dam seems to have broken, and out tumbled, one upon the other, wondrous new therapies: sensitivity training, gestalt therapy, encounter, T-groups, transactional analysis, bioenergetics, psychosynthesis, dance therapy, Rolfing and scores of others. To add to the confusion, from Asia there appeared a number of ancient disciplines which also seemed to have therapeutic virtues: various forms of yoga, meditation, the martial arts and more.

One characteristic of these new procedures is that they view the person as a dynamic whole in whom mental and physical functions intertwine. These new therapies leave behind the traditional split between the mental and physical and use techniques that work on both mind and body together.

This wholistic approach is strongest in the somatic therapies where the therapist deals with the patient's body, understanding that he thereby deals simultaneously with the patient's mind, This approach is “somatic” in the precise sense that it sees the human mind as embodied. A somatic therapist sees that the fate of the human mind is utterly bound up with the fate of the body - a view which is, of course, shared by traditional medicine. But another aspect of the somatic viewpoint is unique: namely, that the workings of the mind also have the power to transform the body. For the somatic therapists it goes both ways: if the state of one's body directly affects one's mind, then the reverse also holds. Within the integrity of a single organism, they do not see how it could be otherwise.

The somatic therapies share a common viewpoint, but all of them do not move in a common direction. The somatic healers, like those in traditional medicine, offer remedies for specific ills. The somatic educators, in contrast, seek to educate the client, not to heal - cures are secondary to the more general concern to educate the client toward a higher level of health, growth and happiness.

The Somatic Healers

I think it improbable that anyone could watch somatic healers like Alexander Lowen or Stanley Keleman work with a patient and not be spellbound. Their ability to read an individual's personality in the lines of his posture is a special achievement. To see -it done is at first mystifying. Then, with more familiarity, one begins to glimpse that the lines of that particular body say something about the habitual character of that person, and that by close attention anyone can learn to read those lines. It is a question of noticing little things: the position of the head, the curve of the neck, the slope of the shoulders, the cant of the pelvis, the tension of the knees, the look of the eyes and mouth. When seen as a whole, all these things add up to a single statement of who this person is.

This reading of the patient's body is, to a large extent, a diagnosis. Once the therapist notes the person's habitual posture, he might ask his client to bend over and hold an unbalanced position until his body begins to feel stress. As the stress grows, his body begins to tremble, and if it continues long enough, the trembling swells into a convulsion; the client may even sob or scream. Or the person might be asked to lie on a bed and begin to flail and kick exactly like a child with a tantrum. As his simple, infantile action continues, he may tremble, convulse and sob.
At the end of this spellbinding spectacle the person is clearly changed. His skin is flushed, his breathing deep, his shoulders have dropped down, his eyes literally sparkle. He is calm and smiling. And, oddly enough, you notice that his voice is deeper.

This therapeutic achievement is medically classic: it is catharsis. Catharsis is a cleansing and purifying of the mind and body whereby a person gets rid of that which has brought him disease: this is one of medicine's most ancient concerns. The term catharsis tells us that bioenergetics is linked to Freud's psychoanalytic techniques.

For Reich the muscular system is the site of repression, and the sum of all these muscular tensions constituted a person's visible character structure.

Freud believed that the crucial event during a patient's psychoanalysis was when his unconscious memories and emotions are released from repression, giving him not only new insight but also relief from emotional tension. This two-fold therapeutic event is neatly psychophysiological: the gain in understanding is psychic and the relief from tension is physiological.

It was the role of Freud's disciple, Wilhelm Reich, to make psychoanalysis more concrete than Freud by seeing the terms “unconscious,” “repression,” “character,” and “catharsis” in terms of the body. Reich saw repression not as a psychic activity but as a somatic event — namely, that the muscles in those parts of the body touched by certain experiences would contract and remain so indefinitely, preventing the person from becoming aware of these experiences. For Reich the muscular system is the site of repression, and the sum of all these muscular tensions constituted a person's visible character structure. Each person's body, says Reich, has its own characteristic muscle armor, whose tensions restrict his body movement, reduce his emotional life and bar from his awareness certain types of memories. However, if the therapist can release the hold of this muscular armor, catharsis can take place, restoring suppleness to the person's body and emotions, and allowing his repressed memories to become conscious again.

Reich saw somatic healing as a needed addition to Freudian psychoanalysis which helps the patient gain insight primarily through verbal therapy. Before the patient could succeed in a talking therapy like psychoanalysis, said Reich, he should go through the non-verbal treatment of muscular release. Then, in a more relaxed and comfortable state, the patient would be better prepared for self-understanding.

Reich believed passionately that his somatic view of psychoanalysis fulfilled Freud's ideas. He did not treat the idea of libido as a metaphor, but viewed it as the immediate experience that people have of pleasurable streamings within their bodies. A free flow of these libidinal streamings, said Reich, is the sign of pleasurable health. When these streamings are bound by muscular armor, the person is unhealthy; this limits his sexual pleasure and keeps him from full orgasm. Reich was convinced that a neurotic person lacks the potency for complete sexual orgasm.

Central to Reich's therapy were the techniques he devised to rid the body of muscular armor. Quite unlike his psychoanalytic colleagues, he touched his patients, manipulating their skeleton and pressing their musculature. He also made clever use of the body's involuntary reflexes. For example, one way of getting a patient's diaphragm to relax and let him breath more deeply is to have a patient stick his finger down his throat to elicit the gag reflex. This uses an unconscious mechanism to affect muscles that we otherwise cannot control by our voluntary efforts.

Bioenergetics is Alexander Lowen's term for his extension of Reich's work. A prolific as well as lucid writer, Lowen has become the principle spokesman for the Reichean viewpoint. The tribe is large, and Reicheans under many names —vegetotherapists, orgonomists, neo-Reicheans, bioenergeticists — have scattered throughout Europe and America. Lowen and his longtime colleague, John Pierrakos, practiced and trained others together in New York. Stanley Keleman brought the Reichean tradition to the West Coast.

Forcibly stretching the fascia is somewhat painful, and this intense pressure on certain muscles causes many people to suddenly remember or relive painful incidents from their past.

All of these somatic healers are medical doctors (except for Keleman who was trained in chiropractic) who share the medical commitment to rid the patient of his offending symptom. But the Reichean healers try to do so by ridding him of muscular “blocks” that prevent free flow of energy. Reicheans take the metaphor of “blocks” in a concrete way and believe that the release and free flow of what they call bioenergy is the best state of health, and their somatic therapy is designed to bring about exactly this state.

The success of the Reicheans in bringing about a relief from chronic tension may be seen in terms that are different from the ways in which they describe their work. The celebrated neurophysiologist, Ernst Gellhorn provides a way of looking at Reichean catharsis that is, perhaps, less metaphorical.

Gellhorn distinguishes between two phases of activity in the nervous system: the ergotropic (during which the organism is under the stress of producing work and energy) and the trophotropic phase (during which the organism rests, sleeps, recuperates its energy and rebuilds tissue). Normally, when the ergotropic phase of tense activity is over there is a “rebound effect” that swings the nervous system into the trophotropic, recuperative stage. However, if a human lives a life of constant and unremitting stress —as is typical of much of contemporary life— the rebound effect never has a chance to assert itself. And the person remains in an unrelieved ergotropic state of tension and stress.

Given this situation, what is needed is an accentuation of the stressful ergotropic state so intensely that the rebound effect is finally triggered. When this is done, the person is sprung free from the depleting influence of the chronic stress state and is suddenly released into the calm, replenishing trophotropic state. The techniques of the Reicheans and the effects on their patients suggest that something like this is what takes place.

A parallel to the Reichean tradition is the pioneering work of Ida Rolf who has elaborated a technique that eliminates muscular blocks from the body. Her system is called Structural Integration — or, more popularly, Rolfing. Rolfing is not therapy in the strict sense but a general treatment that is the same for each client. Rolf has devised a series of ten sessions of deep muscular massage, each session concentrating on certain sets of muscles that are essential in standing upright. The massage is designed to free the muscles from the constraint of the tight fascial membranes that cover and connect muscle. Freed of this restraint, the muscles automatically have a wider range of movement. The ten sessions allow a person's core musculature to work with his skeleton, rather than against its support, in balancing against the force of gravity. It also leaves a person's body more supple: many people who have never been able to touch their toes do so for the first time after Structural Integration.

Like the Reicheans, Rolf seeks to rid a person's body of what constrains it. The treatment is forceful; Rolfers use sheer hand power to stress and extend the muscle fascia. Forcibly stretching the fascia is somewhat painful, and this intense pressure on certain muscles causes many people to suddenly remember or relive painful incidents from their past.

Other therapies use stress and pain to achieve a catharsis. Janov’s primal therapy and its proliferation of offshoots use stress or deliberately painful deep muscle massage to force a patient's catharsis — often with screams, sobs and hysterics.

A different approach to somatic healing is psychodrama, developed by the Viennese psychiatrist, J.L. Moreno who came to the United States during the 1930s. Moreno saw psychodrama as an extension of psychoanalysis where the patient acts out emotionally charged relationships, alternately playing himself and other family members. Psychodrama has itself spawned offshoots in Fritz Perls’ Gestalt therapy and Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis and Albert and Diane Pesso’s Psychomotor therapy. The most physical of these, Psychomotor therapy, has patients express emotions as if in a mini-drama, e.g., flailing in anger at a pillow while a helper acts out the role of a neglecting parent.

Education and therapy share the same goal: to change a person's life for the better. The therapist improves things by curing his ailments. The educator improves things by helping him become more able.

Running parallel to the Western techniques of somatic healing are the Asian traditions of acupuncture, shiatsu and polarity massage, each of which is a therapy for the removal of blocks to the proper flow of energy. These oriental techniques have become popular in the West precisely to the degree that these new Western techniques have also become popular.

The somatic healers all share the medical concern to remove symptoms and to ease pain or tension. Somatic healers see tension as pathological and relaxation as healthy. To speed the removal of blocks to relaxation, they urge the patient to “let go,” “give in,” and “surrender” or “accept” the sometimes painful changes they undergo during therapy. This speeds the therapeutic progress and leads, eventually, to healing.

This desire to heal distinguishes somatic healing from somatic education, which does not seek to remedy an ailment but to improve the client's total functioning. The somatic educators do not claim to offer an improvement over remedial medicine so much as to expand therapy in new directions, so that education leads to therapeutic results and much more.

Education and therapy share the same goal: to change a person's life for the better. The therapist improves things by curing his ailments. The educator improves things by helping him become more able. Therapy removes obstacles to our survival-, education makes us more capable of successful living. Because their motives differ, so do their methods. The somatic educators do many forms of body work which on the surface look like those of the somatic healers, but are not.

The Somatic Educators

A clinically successful form of somatic education that, at first blush, might not seem to be “body work” is biofeedback. In biofeedback we use an instrument to help us become aware of physiological events that otherwise are beneath the threshold of our consciousness. Something as simple as a mirror can be used as a biofeedback tool; F. Matthias Alexander, one of the first somatic educators, employed a mirror to find the best posture for standing. But we gain much more specific knowledge of our body with electronic devices that measure brain waves, muscle tension, skin temperature or skin electrical potential.

When a person becomes aware of specific body processes, he can gain a measure of control over them. Migraine headaches, for example, are difficult to control by standard medical therapy; since the dilation of cranial arteries around the scalp has no known cause, there is no clear remedy. But biofeedback researchers have found that if a migraine sufferer has temperature monitors taped on his fingers, he gradually can learn to raise or lower the temperature of his hands. The temperature rises as his blood vessels dilate, bringing more blood to the hands. This diversion of blood to his extremities relieves the blood pressure in his central cranial arteries, preventing the migraine pain. Often after only a few training sessions, someone who has suffered severe migraines for years, will learn to control completely the migraine pain.

The Alexander Method was developed around the turn of the century by a Shakespearean actor whose discoveries strongly influenced George Bernard Shaw, John Dewey, Aldous Huxley and, more recently, Niko Tinbergen.

This is education rather than therapy. Nothing is removed; instead, something is added: knowledge and control. Bodily processes which were beyond a person's awareness became, through biofeedback, controllable. Gaining control through gaining awareness of one's bodily processes is a general theme of the somatic educators. They see that what medicine and physiology have believed to be uncontrollable, involuntary processes are not uncontrollable after all. For the somatic educators, conscious awareness of what was previously unconscious is the gateway to change. They tend to see consciousness, not as an abstract “mind,” but as a potent neurophysiological function for controlling the body.

Feldenkrais sees all humans as somewhat paralyzed; even the normal person founders at a level of movement, coordination, well-being and awareness that is immensely less than he is capable of.

Three of the somatic educators —F. Matthias Alexander, Elsa Gindler and Moshe Feldenkrais— see that a sensory awareness of one's movements improves the balance, coordination and efficiency of a person's whole body. Each of them has developed different techniques that reflect this common theme.

The Alexander Method was developed around the turn of the century by a Shakespearean actor whose discoveries strongly influenced George Bernard Shaw, John Dewey, Aldous Huxley and, more recently, Niko Tinbergen. Alexander's method helps the learner become acutely aware of what his body is doing during basic movements such as sitting up, standing and walking. As the Alexander student becomes conscious of his poor postural habits, he gradually learns to replace them with better habits. In the end, his spine is lengthened, his breathing is deeper and his gait is more fluid.

Elsa Gindler was a Berlin physical educator who fell ill with tuberculosis in the early 1900s. She cured herself by carefully scanning her body's inner states. Gindler began to teach others how a searching attention to one's bodily events could trigger the body's regenerative abilities. Her work, which she modestly entitled, Arbeit Am Menschen (“work on humans”), shows others how to pay attention to themselves. Gindler’s students now teach her gentle work in somatic awareness throughout Europe and America. The most famous of her students is Charlotte Selver, whose Sensory Awareness training has brought renown to the Gindler tradition.

Moshe Feldenkrais, an Israeli, is perhaps the most complex of the somatic educators. A nuclear physicist and electronic engineer, he brings to the human body a viewpoint nurtured by the body awareness of a black belt in Judo and the research passion of a scientist. Feldenkrais devised a type of one-to-one body manipulation, called Functional Integration. His seemingly miraculous “cures” have brought the lame, halt and blind streaming into Tel Aviv. He taught people who were deformed to become undeformed; he taught presumed cripples to walk; he instructed those with spastic paralysis how to become supple and to move; he taught athletes, actors and artists how to excel beyond their former limits.

Feldenkrais sees all humans as somewhat paralyzed; even the normal person founders at a level of movement, coordination, well-being and awareness that is immensely less than he is capable of. He views human potential as unlimited and barely tapped. The way to tap it is simple — through learning.

Overwhelmed with clients, Feldenkrais developed thousands of ingenious exercises for people in large groups; he calls these exercises Awareness Through Movement. His one-to-one work on clients is termed Functional Integration. Whether he works with a sore-elbowed tennis player or someone who is spastically paralyzed, he teaches movements that are not so much designed to clear up symptoms as to enhance the body's over-all functioning.

The characteristic of somatic education is its assumption that the human being has evolved as a self-regulating, self-correcting and self-improving organism, who can take over greater somatic self-awareness. The kinship to Carl Roger's theory of client-centered therapy is clear.

Alexander, Gindler and Feldenkrais represent a major thrust in somatic education, but they are far from exhausting the field. In the United States Trigant Burrows, a psychoanalyst during the 1920s, was one of the early American explorers of the somatic field. Burrows was one of the earliest to study how eye movements reflected personality traits. More recently, Jean Ayres’ Kinesiology work with learning disabled children has been a successful application of somatic education to a specific population. Her work, centered in Pasadena, is called Sensory Integration.

Kinesiology, the science of bodily movement taught by physical education schools, can be directly used to improve body movement. A specific use of this science was made by a physician, Bess Mensendieck, whose Mensendieck System has been taught since the early part of the century in her European and American institutes.

Other Americans in movement education are Mabel Elsworth Todd, Lulu Sweigard and Gertrude Enelow. In both Europe and the Americas dance therapy is widely appreciated because it involves a non-verbal acting-out through movement. Most of the current teachers in this area point back to similar sources: Laban, Bartenieff and the work of Anna Halprin and her San Francisco Dance Workshop. Lastly, we might mention that Steiner’s Eurythmy, Gurdieff’s dances and the Arica gym are similar instances of somatic training.

Even as the somatic healers have their Asian counter-parts in acupuncture and shiatsu, so do the somatic educators: the somatic awareness training of batha yoga, pranayama yoga, aikido, and tai chi ch'uan are oriental versions of the same procedures created by Alexander, Gindler and Feldenkrais. The writings of Karlfried Durckheim are a chronicle of how these Eastern and Western traditions coincide.

The characteristic of somatic education is its assumption that the human being has evolved as a self-regulating, self-correcting and self-improving organism, who can take over greater control of himself through ever greater somatic self-awareness. The kinship to Carl Roger's theory of client-centered therapy is clear. But it is obvious that somatic education does not rest on psychological theories so much as on theories that are neurophysiological. Feldenkrais sees it as a direct application of neurophysiology to human education. At the heart of this neurophysiological focus is something that was once considered vacuous and non-existent but is here seen as a central neurological function: conscious awareness. Somatic educators do not speak of an entity called “mind” but of the function of awareness and paying attention. This neural function is at the center of all bodily process and is a means through which this process can be modified.

The more we study the phenomenon of the human body the less it appears solid and fixed. For physiologists a body is “structure,” but this structure is alive only through its “functions.” By this distinction research physiology does not mean that structure is “something” and function is “nothing.” Rather, both are “something,” both are actual components of the life of the body. The “something” of physiological functioning is not very solid but it is very real: the neural system guides and monitors the functions of the body, and these functions are patterns of electrochemical innervation.

Conscious awareness is a neural function of the whole human being; it is real and it motivates bodily structure. To see the human mind as an integral aspect of the functioning of the human organism is what is “new” in the somatic therapies. The newness comes about because these somatic healers and educators have categorically rejected the ancient absurdity that the conscious, experiencing mind of the human is physically and metaphysically separate from his body.

To see the human mind as an integral aspect of the functioning of the human organism is what is “new” in the somatic therapies.

Traditionally, the body of a human being has been scientifically seen as an objective datum, quite apart from the observer: the “body” is a third-person entity that can be referred to scientifically just as any third-person entity is referred to as “it,” or “he” or “she.” But, traditionally, the scientist has been made to forget that a human body is not only “out there” as a third-person object to be studied, but it is also the first-person possession of the scientist himself. All humans experience human bodies as “out there” and not themselves (as a third-person experience); and they also experience a human body as “here within” —namely, themselves. All of us have a first-person experience of our bodies, and all of us have a third-person experience of all the other living bodies that are not ourselves.

From another's point of view, I am a solid body: a third-person entity. From my point of view, I am a living “me”: a first-person entity. In short, depending on the point of view, of others and myself, I am both the “it” and “he” of science and the “I” and “me” of my own experience. This is the bimodal perception which all humans have of themselves: from one point of view I am “me,” and from another I am “it.” I am both function and structure, and if I allow the objective, third-person viewpoint to prevail, I may consider myself as no more than a helpless being captured in a structure which is not me and which I cannot influence.

The somatic therapies have made both a clinical and educational application of the fact of bimodal perception. Each of us is both I and it, both function and structure, both a first-person observer of ourselves and a third-person observer of everyone else's “bodies.” Each of us has enormous capacities to modify our bodily structures and tissues by modifying our ways of functioning.

Changing the ways in which we function is exactly what the somatic therapies are designed to do. By changing the functions we modify the structure. To what limits we can change our functions and modify our bodily structure is unknown and, indeed, it may be limitless. That is why the work of the somatic educators and healers moves toward possibilities that are beyond the known horizons of both education and medicine.

From SOMATICS: Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences, Volume I, No. 3, Autumn 1977.
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