In high school, in the mid to late 1980’s. I roamed the library often. I dove into the existentialists, I found some references to phenomenology and Merlau-Ponty’s philosophy. In my young mind, I took in what I could. It validated a lot of my own experiences. I also discovered a book written on Alexander Technique. I was deeply into sports, athletics, surfing and anything around the body, art, ancient history and philosophy. A childhood spent running, swimming, playing cricket, riding bikes, surfboards and skateboards – meant I had back and knee injuries young.
My mother took me to a Physical Therapist who specialized in Feldenkrais Technique. It helped me quiet a lot. When I became a Professional Surfer I tried to incorporate some Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique into my surfing, and also breath work. More for developing better body awareness than injury prevention. I weaved my own land and water based training from what I gleaned from both forms of Somatic Education, along with blending visualization and meditation. I also had the support of an Olympic level kayaker, as mentor, that was involved in Experiential Outdoor Education at the time.
Today in 2023, Somatic Education has grown into the broader public eye after over a century of development. Many people are using the word. But as can happen when things take off and become a meme – the actual history and meaning can be left by the way-side. This article is an attempt to offer a basic history and framework of Somatic Education.
What is Somatics:
Somatics is an interdisciplinary field that encompasses movement, therapy, and embodied awareness. In the realm of movement and therapeutic practices, the term “somatics” has gained prominence as an approach that delves into the holistic understanding and embodiment of the human experience. Somatics focuses on the conscious exploration and integration of the mind, body, and spirit. In this article, we delve into the etymology of the word soma and its significance in the context of movement and therapeutic practices today.
The Etymology of Soma:
The term “soma” as it came to be used in Somatics, traces its roots back to ancient Greece. Derived from the Greek word “soma,” interpreted as “living organism.” In Greek philosophy, it held a profound meaning. Soma encompasses the tangible and corporeal aspects of human existence; the physical, living, and conscious aspects of the human body. Representing the wholeness and unity of the individual, ranging from the material to the spiritual dimensions. In ancient Greek thought, soma represented the vessel through which experiences, sensations, and consciousness were expressed.
Contemporary Meaning of Somatics:
The term “somatics” was coined by Thomas Hanna, a philosophy professor and movement theorist who created Hanna Somatics in the 1970’s. It brought a variety of approaches together under this term, and has gained prominence as an approach that delves into the holistic understanding and embodiment of the human experience and is incorporated or used in different fields today in cross-pollination and adaptation.
Somatic Practices and Education
In the context of movement and therapeutic practices, somatics refers to a holistic approach that recognizes the inseparable connection between the body and mind. Somatic practices aim to deepen awareness of the body, its sensations, and the interplay between movement and perception.
Modern somatic movement practices started to develop during the early 1900’s such as the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method, followed by Laban/Bartenieff Movement Analysis in the 1940’s, Emilie Conrad’s Continuum in the 1960’s, Anna Halprin’s Tamalpa Life/Art Process and Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohens Mind-Body Centering in the 1970’s to name a few practices. The International Somatic Movement Education & Therapy Association (ISMETA) was founded in 1988, as a membership-based organization to support the world-wide growth of various somatic practices.
Today the term soma refers to the lived experience of the body and the conscious exploration of bodily sensations, movement, and perception. Somatic movement approaches emphasize the cultivation of body-awareness, releasing muscular tension, and promoting efficient movement patterns.
Somatic practices invite individuals to explore their movement patterns, release tension and holding patterns, and develop greater body awareness and integration. Individuals develop a deeper understanding of their bodies’ potential for fluid, effortless, and harmonious movement.
By fostering a mindful connection with the soma, individuals can address physical limitations, reduce pain, enhance proprioception, interoception, exteroception and optimize movement efficiency. Somatic movement practices often involve gentle, exploratory movements, conscious breathing, and sensory awareness exercises; encouraging individuals to develop a heightened sensitivity to their bodily experiences.
Ecosomatics is a concept that combines ecology and somatics to explore the interconnection between the human body and the natural environment. It encompasses the embodied experience of being in relationship with the Earth and emphasizes the reciprocal influence between our physical bodies and the larger ecological systems.
Ecosomatics recognizes that the human body is not separate from the environment but is deeply interconnected with it. It acknowledges that our well-being and health are not isolated from the health of the ecosystems we inhabit. This perspective highlights the importance of cultivating a harmonious and sustainable relationship with the natural world.
Within the field of ecosomatics, practices and approaches may vary, but they often involve somatic and embodied practices such as movement, body awareness, and mindfulness that aim to deepen our connection with the Earth and foster ecological consciousness.
These practices can facilitate a sense of interconnectedness, ecological empathy, and a deeper understanding of our place within the web of life.
Ecosomatics also addresses the ecological implications of our individual and collective behaviors and choices. It invites us to consider the environmental impact of our lifestyle, consumption patterns, and the ways in which we relate to and interact with the natural world. By integrating ecological awareness into our embodied experience, we can develop a more holistic and sustainable approach to living.
Ecosomatics promotes a holistic understanding of the relationship between the human body and the environment, emphasizing the interconnectedness, interdependence, and mutual influence between the two. It encourages practices that cultivate a deep sense of ecological consciousness, fostering a more harmonious and sustainable relationship with the Earth.
Soma in a therapeutic context:
Somatics found application in therapeutic modalities. Somatic therapies emphasize the integration of body and mind in the healing process, recognizing that physical ailments and emotional well-being are interconnected. Therapeutic approaches such as Somatic Experiencing®, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, and the Hakomi Method developed in the 1980’s incorporate somatic awareness and techniques to address trauma, emotional distress, and promote overall well-being.
Somatic experiencing, conceptualized by Peter Levine in the 1970’s, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy developed by Pat Ogden in the 1980’s focuses on healing trauma by exploring the bodily sensations associated with traumatic experiences. By attending to the body’s responses, individuals can gradually release held tension, restore nervous system regulation, and cultivate resilience.
Somatic psychology integrates the principles of somatics with traditional psychotherapeutic approaches. In Europe it is sometimes interchanged as Body Psychotherapy. Its roots are attributed to Williem Reich and Pierre Janet in the 1930’s. However the practice of psychology and the profession developed as a process of talk therapy around mental and emotional processes. It marginalized some of the early theories and practices around body-based psychology. Approaches that emerged included Bioenergetic analysis developed by Alexander Lowen, John Perriakos and his Core Energetics in the 1970’s. Gestalt Therapy developed in the 1940’s through its use of awareness techniques, and a phenomenological lens also incorporated a holistic approach.
The United States Association for Body Psychotherapy (USABP) was founded in 1996. The European Association for Body Psychotherapy (EABP) was founded in 1988 but its validity was not accepted by the larger European Association for Psychotherapy (EAP) itself founded in 1991, until 1999-2000.
Today a number of colleges now teach a somatic psychology-based curriculum, incorporating different somatic-based practices for application in the field of psychology and psychotherapy. It recognizes that psychological well-being is intimately connected to bodily experiences and emphasizes the importance of embodied presence and awareness in the therapeutic process. Through somatic psychotherapy, individuals develop a deeper understanding of how emotions and past experiences manifest in the body, leading to transformative healing and self-awareness.
Body-based therapies, such as massage therapy, craniosacral therapy developed in the 1980’s, with roots in Osteopathic Medicine from the late 1800’s, and somatic bodywork, utilize touch and movement to facilitate the release of physical and emotional tension, restore balance, and promote overall well-being. These therapies recognize that the body holds wisdom and memories and that accessing the soma is vital for healing and growth.
The Significance of Somatics Today:
In a fast-paced and disembodied world, somatics offers a potent antidote, inviting individuals to reconnect with their bodies and cultivate a deeper sense of self-awareness and well-being. By embracing the somatic dimension, we can tap into our innate wisdom, unravel physical and emotional blockages, and foster a more holistic understanding of ourselves.
Somatic practices empower individuals to become active participants in their healing and personal growth, offering tools to enhance self-care, movement efficiency, stress management, and emotional resilience. Moreover, somatics challenges reductionist thinking, industrial era mechanistics and Cartesian mind-body dualism, recognizing the inseparable connection between the mind, body, and spirit.
Somatics, rooted in the etymology of the word soma, reflects a deep appreciation for the living body and its wisdom. From movement practices to therapeutic approaches, somatics invites individuals to explore the rich landscape of their soma, cultivating self-awareness, healing, and transformation. By embracing somatics, we embark on a journey of embodied exploration, discovering the profound integration of mind, body, and spirit within ourselves.
Written by Prue Jeffries, May 26th, 2023