History of somatics

Somatics: How this field of research emerges and reflects itself

As a relatively new term, Somatics defines a variety of pedagogical or therapeutic methods and techniques focussing in a body-centred way. It concentrates on practicing body awareness, working with movements and contacts, based on coherent practical knowledge of psychological and physical processes.

At the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, Thomas Hanna, the American Feldenkrais teacher and founder of his own method, characterized the concept of Somatics in various publications and manifest it by publishing the same named magazine Somatics.

Since the 1970s, publications of biofeedback, phenomenology, martial arts, meditation, dance, pedagogy, yoga, sensory awareness, acupuncture, autogenic training and ethical issues have appeared here, as well as articles on "pioneers" such as Ida Rolf, Moshe Feldenkrais, Carl Rogers, Gerda Alexander, Carola Speads and F. Matthias Alexander. (cf. website of Somatics)

Soma - body awareness from within

Hanna defined Somatics as as the body experienced from within, where we experience mind/body integration. As well as many of his colleagues Hanna researched and practised with the aim of understanding how living bodies regulate themselves and how people can perceive and change limiting and unconscious patterns of movement and behaviour through practicing awareness. This is what he called "somatic learning."

The history of Somatics, as the constitution of an US-American field of research including an object of research, methods and questions of research begins at the Esalen Institute. The research itself relates beyond the USA into other continents, other cultures, other centuries and other fields than those of psychology, movement education and massage.

Somatics is a generative concept like "cognitive science" or "ecology" or "QiGong"; names whose task it is to create opportunities for communities that are otherwise isolated from each other and often in competition and conflict in working together. Thus, between the Reichian bioenergetics, Rolfing and Hatha Yoga seemed to be an unattainalbe connection. Now we can see how each of these practices can strengthen the others and make them more effective. Thanks to this new paradgim. (cf. website of Don Hanlon Johnson) 

Is there an universal idea of the human being?

In the process of reaching an understanding about common concerns and principles, in the exchange about the respective working methods and in the development of training guidelines in the USA, the awareness of differences also grew. An important line of questioning was: is there a universal ideal image of the human being? Was there the right pelvic position with the right vibration of the spine for everyone? Should the clients be manipulated into the "right" alignment? Or was it a matter of showing everyone ways to feel the needs of their own unique body, despite the commonality with all other human bodies, to perceive its impulses and give them space and thus learn to develop their own unique way of standing and acting in the world?

Don Hanlon Johnson, a former Jesuit and doctor of philosophy, then certified Rolfer and founder of the first academic study program for somatics in 1983, has made this part of the history and self-reflection of somatics comprehensible in all its philosophical, spiritual and political dimensions in his books (including Body, Spirit and Democracy).

Don Hanlon Johnson had suffered from a completely stiffened spine since early childhood. His body resisted all manipulation in the direction of ideal alignment. Ida Rolf, his instructor, made him understand that a truly deep spiritual development would never be possible for him.He felt like a handicapped person who would never be a fully developed human being.His experiences and research led him to the profoundly democratic view that every person, by virtue of their unique standpoint on their uniquely shaped feet, has an indefensible view of the world that can neither be replaced nor generalized and requires knowledge of as many other embodied standpoints as possible in order to form the most multidimensional picture of the world.According to Don Hanlon Johnson, body-therapeutic methods can also either have a democratic effect by valuing the uniqueness of each individual or bear the traits of an organized religion or another totalitarian institution by subordinating the life and body of the individual to some norm, ideal or collective.

The political and social dimension of enabling or restricting physical self-perception, self-acceptance, self-regulation and self-efficacy becomes very clear in the historical research on the mostly European prehistory of American somatics. The historical lines initially lead to Northern Europe at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, in particular to Germany in the period between the two world wars.

In her study of the "beginnings of modern body therapies", Karoline von Steinacker has shown how close fascist and democratic orientations were in the scene of breathing and physical education, nudism, the early environmental movement, the youth movement and the ecstatic celebration of the 'natural' body liberated from industrial fronts and darkness. (cf. Karoline von Steinacker: Luftsprünge. Anfänge moderner Körpertherapien, Munich 2000) Both shared ideals of beauty, purity and order.

Greek statues of naked people in dance, gymnastics and film were role models for the powerful, centered human being. Elsa Gindler, one of the founding figures of German physical and breathing education, worked with this ideal, as did Leni Riefenstahl, who staged it in her films.The seemingly small difference between the playful movement with relaxed muscles in physical education and the taut, overstretched posture in the National Socialist films makes all the difference here.

In the particularly explosive context of the German interwar period, the historical and social influence of body images and body methods becomes very clear. The work on a liberated, upright "natural" posture and the preferences and role models in expression developed in a network of socio-political, artistic and spiritual movements; they are just as inseparable from developments in dance and drama as they are from economic or medical developments, pedagogical teachings or the development of gender relations.


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