What!?! is “somatics”? What is body-based awareness?

Neuroscience, psychology and more disciplines have realized – and now provide science evidence for – ways that your body, your mind, your thoughts-emotions are connected and influence one another. As well, many disciplines discuss how all these parts of you are connected with other humans-nature. Many cultures, throughout time, throughout the world, have understood these interconnections.

These words, this work are activities that involve integration and fostering of bodily-mental awareness, as well as practices which foster awareness of one’s inner experience as it is in relation with the world around oneself. One can do this style of work in a variety of ways: in solo, in one-on-one settings, or in groups. In formal practice, or as a way of being, woven into everyday life.

In many western settings I find that this work is most often oriented towards learning + healing. Such practices often aim towards “elastic terrain” – That is, rather than trying to force change (such as a boot camp style environment), this work is often characterized by mental-emotional-physical stretching-encouraging-allowing – without forcing. There is an effort to ‘lean in’, to explore difficult, edgy terrain – as well as a fostering of intentional resting/restoration periods.

Some practices, like sitting meditation, yoga or kung fu have a general name, with a variety of specific styles (such as Vipassana meditation, Iyengar yoga, or Shaolin Wushu kung fu). Some practices are trademarked (such as Rolfing). Some practices never even needed a special name – people just do them.

Often this style of body-integrated awareness work is practiced via some version of meditation, breathwork, movement, bodywork, ceremony. There are not firm boundaries of what is and what is not included within this definition. This sort of work is more about how one is doing, rather than what one is doing. MORE…

 

On-going Consideration of the term ‘somatics’ …

Today I was reading in the research journal Frontiers in Neuroscience wherein I stumbled upon this reflection: “There is an emergent movement of scientists and scholars working on somatic awareness and embodiment.” I certainly agree, and identify within this movement as a practitioner now enrolled in a neuroscience degree. The term somatics is certainly trending in popular cultures as well, even if still largely unknown by many.

I write today because I have concerns about this word. I am continually trying to understand, when is it appropriate to use and when is it appropriative. And/or is there another/other terms that I could use which would fall closer in-line with my own desire to continue to move towards anti-oppressive thinking/being?

The term somatics was coined in 1979 by a white person in the US* – I mention ‘white’ and ‘US’ because those are the primary aspects that matter in relation to my concern of appropriation. In brief, in my use, I distinguish appropriation from cultural blending or sharing. Discerning what is appropriation and what is not is complex to me – not a cut and dry question that can be patently applied across the globe. One important aspect in discerning appropriation is largely about relationships of power: one group being in a dominant (socio-economic or otherwise) position of power in relation to another group’s position of oppression.

Somatics is used as an umbrella term, to talk a wide variety of practices. There are a few white/euro/decent practitioners that I know of such as Mabel Todd, Elsa Gindler, or FM Alexander, who seemed to develop their practices while in relative isolation – drawing on their personal experience and basic knowledge from their culture of origin.

Most of the people considered to be somatic founders are white people – many of which have largely been informed by much older practices outside of their culture of origin. Such as with Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen, Ida Rolf or Moshe Feldenkrais’ work, for example.

Additonal aspects of appropriation that feel key to me are: if person Q is from a dominant/colonizing culture and they are using a practice from a culture which is systemically oppressed by their culture (culture Z), especially then, some questions arise: 1. Has person Q been invited to practition/teach this practice by a well respected figure from culture Z? 2. Along with practitioning/teaching, is person Q also, actively participating in work to unravel the system of oppression that inflicts culture Z?

In some cases, it seems clear that the term somatics and/or somatic practitioners are being appropriative. (Many obvious ones can be found within yoga practitioners but elsewhere, too.)

In other situations it is quite murky to me, as to whether appropriation is happening . Then, in the few cases of people like Todd, Gindler or Alexnader, it seems they are not appropriating another’s culture – and the term ‘somatics’ is fitting, not an issue.

I am not stating that Bainbridge-Cohen, Rolf, or Feldenkrais, nor any other practitioner mentioned here, is practicing appropriation.
I am trying to approach questions about somatics, oppression and appropriation with an open and curious mind. I’m hoping to learn more about how to separate ‘the baby from the bathwater‘. I’m hoping for open dialogue amongst those invested in such questions.

I am asking: In which circumstances is the term ‘somatics’ appropriative? How does appropriation relate to the practitioners often referred to as somatic founders? And in relation to all practitioners for that matter? Relating to entire social context of each instance, when is the use of the term ‘somatics’ contributing to oppression?

Another aspect that has me confused is that I am not aware of another word that is intended as an umbrella term for all varieties of awareness, body-mind integrated practices. Is there? Is/are there umbrella term(s) that are not centered on white culture/practitioners?  Academic words such as ‘interoception’ are, again, coming from white-dominated academic culture – and thus feel as equally ill-fitting as the term ‘somatics’.

On the one hand, it seems reasonable to use the term somatics – a word to describe global practices which share some common, core attributes. On the other hand it strikes me as another instance of white/euro people renaming Turtle Island.

When I say ‘centered on white culture/practitioners this is along the lines of what I am talking about: Almost all the people often considered ‘somatic’ founders are white/light skinned people. As well – while the term is gaining in global usage (which will likely related to some change of its usage/definition) – it is presently the case that if you arrive at a gathering spot which waves the term ‘somatic’ as a title-banner, the crowd that gathers will most likely be, overwhelmingly white/euro/decent people. (In other areas I write more about economy and how economic access typically plays out along racialized lines. Economic access is another important factor in this situation.) As well, the fact that appropriation does often occur within ‘somatic’ spaces, and the fact that vast amounts of practices are much older than the term itself – all leave me very wary to continue using the term.

Thus, currently, I do not know what language to use when I am talking about a wide variety of practices which share a lot in common.

I’ve been turning to terms such as ‘awareness’ and ‘sensing’ because they seem to be shared words – these terms seemed to be used by many/not from one culture. As I continually learn towards perspectives which foster vital interconnections I imagine my language will continue to change as well. At the moment, I am still looking for which language to use.

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* I did not use Thomas Hanna’s name here because the questions that I am proposing are more about the term ‘somatics’ not about Hanna himself. In addition to wanting to steer the conversation towards the term and towards a question of appropriation – I also do not want to mislead those new to this field that Hanna is the founder of all somatic work. I understand him to be one figure among many wonderful teachers.

erinbell 2020

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MORE FROM OTHER ‘SOMATIC’ PRACTITIONERS…

“Somatic approaches emphasize sensory awareness (paying attention to sensing)…in somatics, kinesthetic awareness functions largely as a potent agent of change – a powerful means of altering habit…sensations to a large degree organize the mind. They do not simply give the mind material to organize; they are themselves a major organizing principle.” – Glenna Batson

“In other words, we bring to our journey a directed mind, and our practice, whether meditation, body work, yoga, tai ch’i, breathing, music dance or whatever, is to direct it to a place where no direction is needed any more. To some extent this happens naturally, by itself. Because even in a most controlled step by step teaching, our experience will certainly be mixed. We may be in the midst of hard work getting somewhere, such as trying to concentrate on the breath, when suddenly the breath itself just invites us in to explore the territory hidden there. We get up from a very achievement-oriented striving exercise, and just feel the sense of being alive, the sense of the morning, the mood of lightness, the moments of not caring where exactly we are. As we practice, we become more and more friendly with the wild and wonderful surprises of the present moment. The landscape tends to take us over. As we progress, our consciousness and heart themselves learn to love the freedom of the open road, of going no-where. From that place the milestones on the road are just another interesting pile of stones.” – Stephen Fulder

“A somatic approach to education integrates, as an existential whole, the experiential history of individuals with their current experience. It implies an education that trusts individuals to learn from their ability to attend and to listen to the information they are receiving from the interaction of self with the environment” – Barbara Sellers-Young.

“Somatics… understand human beings as integrated mind/body/spirit, or a psycho-biology. The understanding is that people are not mind over matter (‘If I think differently I will be different’), nor matter over mind or spirit (‘a change in chemistry or medication will wholly change my experience’), rather we are all of these things combined… Somatics approaches people as this integrated whole, working with all of these aspects of who we are… Somatics looks at the body as a place of evolutionary intelligence and learning… the mind and body are never really separate (a mind cannot live without a body and visa versa).” – Staci Haines

“These sorts of exercises – also, often referred to as embodiement or conscious practice – are any activity with a primary goal of helping you feel what is going on as your body and mind moves/exists/thinks/lives through an experience. By exercising our SENSING capacity, through practice we facilitate our bodies’ ability to heal/regulate. Plasticity does not just occur the brain – our entire body tissue has incredible capacity for plasticity (aka change-healing-learning). To explore this on your own you could try one of the practice video-links here, or use this form to help explore what you feel.” – erinbell