by Allie Berger
What is “Somatics”?
In today’s world of easy exchange of ideas and information, it is not uncommon for dancers (especially Modern dancers) to be familiar with a variety of “somatic practices,” including yoga, and to incorporate them into their training. Similarly, many yoga practitioners have become accustomed to asana classes that incorporate flowing, dance-like movement sequences. But what do we mean by “somatics,” exactly? And what are the relationships among this field of somatic practices, modern yoga, and modern dance specifically? There are many ways to enter into this dialogue, but I’d like to begin with a contemporary figure named Sondra Fraleigh.
Fraleigh is a professor emeritus of Dance at SUNY Brockport, founder of Eastwest Somatics, creator of Land to Water Yoga, and author/editor of several books, including, most recently, Moving Consciously: Somatic Transformations through Dance, Yoga, and Touch (Illinois, 2015). I have chosen to begin with her partially because her work embodies the overlapping of dance, yoga, and somatics, and partially because of my own connection to her. Though I have never met or studied directly with Fraleigh, I took a semester-long course in somatics taught by one of her certified trainers and approved as equivalent to Eastwest’s Shin Somatics Level I certification. The coursework of Shin Somatics, reflecting Fraleigh’s eclectic background, includes techniques from various somatic modalities, including Feldenkrais Method, Alexander Technique, CranioSacral Therapy, Myofascial Release, and yoga. (She developed her own method of yoga during a spontaneous asana practice following a meditation at the Sri Aurobindo ashram in India.) Coincidentally (or perhaps it was less of a coincidence than I think), I entered into this study of somatics the same year I began practicing yoga, and I encountered both in the context of earning my degree in Dance.
In the prologue to Moving Consciously, Fraleigh traces the term “somatic” to the Greek soma, meaning “body.” However, she notes that, more accurately, it is shorthand for the combined concept of soma-psyche, the complete entity of body/mind/spirit, or “embodied conscious awareness” (xxi). Somatic movement practices, then, involves intentional observation and application of kinesthetic experience. In general, somatic modalities have the aim of bringing the practitioner to greater self-awareness through observation of subtle movement patterns. The practitioner is guided, through verbal cues, hands-on work, or a combination of both to experience a new way of patterning his/her movement, a new way of experiencing and being in the world.
The historical intersections between yoga and other somatic and dance practices are too complex to outline in full here, but I’d like to highlight a few of the key figures and movements involved. First, and perhaps the simplest to trace is Ida Rolf. She developed a technique called Rolfing, or Structural Integration, designed to work with fascia and the body’s relation to gravity. She received a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia, but around the same time (1920s) she was also a student of the famous/infamous Tantric yogi, Theos Bernard, and her work might be seen as an integration of these two seemingly distinct paths.
There were also several Europeans whose techniques inspired somatic practitioners and modern dancers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of these men, as Mark Singleton points out in Yoga Body, was Frenchman Francois Delsarte, whose American students included Steele Makcay, Genevieve Stebbins (who created a method of harmonial gymnastics based on his work), and Annie Payson Call (who developed a gentler system of relaxation and gymnastics based on Stebbins’ work). The work spread back across the ocean with a British student of Call’s, Frances Archer. Her contemporary, Mollie Bagot Stack, founded the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, incorporating yoga asanas she’d learned with the popular harmonial gymnastics of the time. (Singleton, 143-151) Other notable followers of Delsarte’s technique were F. Matthias Alexander (founder of the Alexander Technique) and pioneers of modern dance, Isadora Duncan, Ted Shawn, and Ruth St. Denis.
The other influential Europeans during this time were Swiss music teacher Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, founder of Eurythmics, and Hungarian-born dancer Rudolph Laban, founder of Choreutics/Laban Movement Analysis (LMA). They directly influenced Mary Wigman and Hanya Holm, two of the early German modern dancers who helped to shape the form. Laban in particular has had a lasting impact on modern dance and the development of somatic practices. There are several extensive certification programs in LMA, and his students have continued to expand on his work. Of particular note is Irmgard Bartenieff, creator of the Bartenieff Fundamentals, a way of working with movement based on six developmental patterns.
Although it’s not clear whether or not she studied directly with any of these figures, Mabel Todd (1880-1956), founder of Ideokinesis, was at least indirectly informed by the harmonial religion/harmonial gymnastics prevalent at the time. She was certainly situated at a geographical advantage for encountering such ideas, having been raised in Syracuse and educated at Emerson University in Boston. She combined her own experiences of physical rehabilitation with courses she took on movement and vocal techniques to create her method, which combines anatomical information with metaphor to help facilitate the practitioner’s deeper understanding of posture and movement. Her work, in turn, has inspired many others, including Martha Graham dancer Eric Hawkins and founder of Body-Mind Centering, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen.
Common Methods/Divergent Goals?
Singleton asserts that the popularity of harmonial gymnastics was one factor that primed the West for postural yoga. (144) At the very least, I think we can say that postural yoga appealed to (and still appeals to) a similar audience as those who embrace other movement practices aimed at deeper self-knowledge and intentional engagement with the world. Historically, new movements in the arts around the turn of the 20th century coincided with new ideas about religion; we might even say that there was a thirst for religion to embrace the body while there was a desire for the body to include the spirit.
Today, I see postural yoga and other somatic and movement practices as inhabiting a similar methodological space. Some forms of yoga can placed under the larger bracket of somatic practices because they assume a holistic view of self and use intentional movement experiences to increase self-understanding and engage in self-transformation. (I make this distinction of “some forms” knowing that some postural yoga can be performed mechanically and as a way to overcome rather than embrace the body.) However, the danger, if there is one, in grouping many diverse techniques under a single heading, might be in overlooking their potentially divergent goals. Some techniques, such as Feldenkrais present themselves as purely functional; the goal is to increase awareness of the physical body, with no explicit mention of the soul/spirit/psyche. There is still the implication that the self is a multi-faceted whole, but the presentation is secular. Yoga is certainly portrayed as a purely secular in many situations as well, but at least as often it contains an explicit spirituality. And, of course, deeply imbedded in its history are ideas of karma and liberation. So, while it is possible to practice yoga as both a spiritual and a somatic practice, it is important to note that not all yoga is somatic and not all somatic movement practices have the same goal as yoga.
Fraleigh, Sondra, editor. Moving Consciously: Somatic Transformations through Dance, Yoga, and
Touch. U of Illinois P, 2015.
Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford UP, 2010.