Staying Grounded

How to Avoid “Somatic Contagion”

By Lawrence Gold

To be grounded is to preserve the well-being of sensitive people by avoiding, discharging, or draining out the toxic psychic influences of others, so they can function well. I would argue that grounding actually protects us from the harmonic resonance that occurs between therapist and client, and the debilitating functional patterns that resonance brings forth.

One reason being grounded is such an issue for some people who practice bodywork may be that they are more mentally oriented to the living, self-aware, self-moving body as an object than they are to it as an experience (soma).

People who use ideas and imagining as a way of being grounded tend to remain tenuously grounded. They are often subject to feeling ungrounded in their work and in life, in general, despite their best intentions. One common grounding visualization has toxins, or toxic feelings, flowing from the body into the ground. Other visualization techniques involve fields of white light, subtle barriers, or imagining a grounding cord going from the solar plexus into the center of the Earth. While these are perfectly adequate grounding techniques, some therapists are left a little “untethered” with the results.

There’s a reason for this. Being grounded has to do with a person’s control of their own faculties, with their degree of functional awakening and integration, and with how they take in and process memory impressions.

Being grounded in this sense doesn’t have to do with the flow of anything. When people ground themselves, many think they are avoiding a toxicity that accumulates or flows into them from a client (as a substance or energy flows). Actually, I would argue that grounding protects us from a functional pattern induced by harmonic resonance between people; it’s the pattern that must be addressed, not a substance. To ground yourself, from this perspective, means to avoid getting caught in a resonance pattern that exists both as a physiological state and as residual memory imprints in the body.

Somatic Contagion

Everybody has had the experience of seeing someone yawn and then feeling a yawn coming on themselves. The same is true of laughter, fear, attitudes in general, and, in fact, any other activity. Whether we think in terms of “monkey see, monkey do,” or “the morphogenetic field,” there is a kind of contagion—a communication of experiential states—from person to person.

You can’t shield against that kind of contagion—not with white light, imaginary force fields, chakra balancing, or grounding cords. If you put your attention on someone who is experiencing one state or another, you start to experience that person’s state. Your balanced chakras start to resonate with theirs and pretty soon begin to mimic the contagion. Neurophysiological research has come up with an explanation for the phenomenon: mirror neurons—an actual type of neuron that causes a person to feel inwardly what he or she is outwardly perceiving. Call it the Law of Oneness, if you like, or Multiplicity in Oneness. It’s a product of harmonic resonance between people. The logic of bodywork makes bodyworkers especially subject to that kind of contagion with their clients.

The Logic of Bodywork

If you put your attention on a client, and are sufficiently free of your own “stuckness,” you experience their state. The logic of bodywork is about working on someone. You are doing something to someone and they are “being done to,” by you.

When you’re working on a client, what you are working on is their state of adaptation, or their memory patterns expressed through the physical body as patterns of physiological function, such as muscular tension, circulation, myofascial pattern, cycles of organ function, etc. You are working to change dysfunctional memory patterns by means of physical manipulations.

Think about that for a second. You work on your client by imposing your intent on your client’s memory patterns, which have physical expression as muscular tension, circulation, myofascial pattern, or visceral functioning. You are imposing your intent on tissue, in effect, to change the controlling memory associated with the tissue. You may think in terms of muscle memory, if you like, although the memories reside elsewhere than in muscles, which carry out the memories.

A person’s functioning is more than his or her tissue; it’s more intimately his or her subconscious memory of self, to which he or she returns after being affected by experience. You may think that the pattern of the tissue is the pattern of the memory, but the pattern of function (generally, movement) is actually the pattern of the memory; the tissue is just the medium through which function manifests. The tissue physically expresses the habitual self by its patterns, which are dynamically self-maintaining through the holographic memory of the entire person (and his or her relations in the world). Let’s look more closely at changing memories by changing tissue.

How do memory patterns change? We might say there are two ways: imposition/inducement and learning.


Ever argue with someone who had firm convictions? How successful were you in changing their point of view (i.e., their memory of “how things are”)? Even if they give in, many say if you “convince a man against his will, he remains an unbeliever, still.”

In bodywork sessions, you are trying to do the same thing—not verbally, but physically. You are, in effect, arguing with your clients’ subconscious, which maintains his or her patterns. That’s why bodywork can be so laborious; why changes either come slowly, painfully, or temporarily; and why you take on so much from your clients. You two are in a nonverbal argument, which involves the heightened communication of stresses. You are experiencing the somatic contagion of the conflict-stress between your client’s old, entrenched adaptation (habits and life stresses) and the new adaptation you are inducing (induced release of those habits and life stresses). The more you are concerned with making functional changes, and the larger the changes you intend, the more of that stress your client experiences—and you experience. It’s the “backwash” of the stresses of change with which you resonate; it’s somatic contagion.

There is no doubt about it—people are more or less toxic, both physically and psychically. Here, however, we are talking about an intensification of that, as your client reflexively maintains his or her pattern against your work. However refined your touch may be and however much your client may want your work, there is that conflict-stress between subconscious patterns of adaptation—cognitive dissonance—that some misunderstand as resistance.


Contrast this with a situation in which, instead of arguing, you are teaching a willing student who is internalizing what you are teaching. There’s a certain amount of labor there, but much less stress. Instead of conflict?stress, there is excitement and appetite. In many instances, your student’s energy combines with your own.

The Answer

If you’re doing bodywork, that kind of conflict-stress and the somatic contagion of it are inevitable. What can you do to minimize it? Some people try to avoid somatic contagion by doing gentle work. But, of course, that doesn’t get much done. There are some self-care techniques, however, that might reduce the chance of that physiological stress with your clients.

Apply Yourself in Your Work

Much is taught about good body mechanics as an aspect of good technique.

But your body mechanics (and technique) can be only as good as your own state of somatic integration—your kinesthetic awareness and your coordination, your feeling-attention and your intentions. You may apply yourself relatively well or relatively poorly, and not know it.

The poignant fact is that people, being used to being themselves, are unaware of their gaps or deficiencies of kinesthetic awareness. They don’t know that they don’t know. With their coordination, it’s the same thing: unconscious habit, by tendency, rules. Therapists’ abilities to calibrate themselves to the self-organizing process of their client falls in the same category. Ultimately, therapists’ habit patterns infiltrate and shape their work.

If you work in a state of physical strain due to awkward positioning, held working positions, or poor balance (your own subconscious, habitual action patterns), whatever somatic contagion you experience gets imprinted on those holding patterns and intensifies them. To the degree that you impose on your client, there is reflexive resistance, which you feel. In addition to your client’s toxicity, you are experiencing a magnification of your own toxicity.

If you apply yourself well to your work, the somatic contagion imprints itself on that healthier pattern that, because of its higher integrity, can better tolerate it. In effect, the somatic contagion reinforces the healthy pattern and you can eliminate the contagion better and faster.

To apply yourself well to your work is not something that can be established in an afternoon. You can learn certain things, but integration of those things is something that must be developed, practically speaking, over time.

Disperse the Accumulated Effects of Your Work

Every occupation has its hazards—most commonly the accumulation of the effects of repetitive actions. We form tension patterns by repetition. The problems you accumulate from your work aren’t only the toxicity of your clients; they’re also your own unresolved, subconscious problems (i.e., habit patterns). They’re grist for your mill. Your clients’ toxicity, experienced as somatic contagion, dissipates; what doesn’t dissipate is your own.

You must groom yourself of those effects or you may encounter a burnout crisis sometime down the line. Such grooming may involve getting work from someone else, somatic exercises, a meditation practice, brain-wave training, or some direct way of releasing what you accumulate from the level at which you’ve accumulated it. If you’ve accumulated habitual muscular tensions, visualization isn’t going to do it; it’s too superficial. You need a conscious movement discipline (and possibly clinical somatic education) to reach the core of tension habits. If you experience somatic contagion at the emotional level (and have your own issues at the emotional level), a movement discipline isn’t going to do it in the long run (even though muscular tension patterns may temporarily relax). It will help, but you need to address the emotional issues on their own terms.

True, different disciplines at different levels complement and support each other, but you must address each form of accumulation on its own terms. If you don’t address each pattern on its own terms, you may get temporary or partial relief from some measure, but the pattern won’t change and you’ll feel endlessly vulnerable to toxicity and feeling ungrounded.

If you want to feel grounded, you need to develop a better integrated pattern of function. The term for this kind of development is somatic education.

Somatic Education

I’ve used the term somatic contagion, but before I say anything about somatic education, I feel the need to define the word somatic because, as I mean it, and as the one who coined the term—Thomas Hanna—meant it, it has a different meaning than “everything associated with the body.” If that were its correct meaning, we wouldn’t need the word somatic; “bodily” would do.

Somatic indicates the experience of “an aware, embodied, living being experienced and controlled from within.” Somatic education isn’t another form of bodywork, but a developmental process that involves patterns of self-control. Actions performed by one person on another are not somatic, whatever physiological effects may result. Somatic implies someone’s 50–50 sensory-motor (or attentional-intentional) participation in an experience, not their passivity, or even receptive passivity.

The question about why a person even needs bodywork enters here. I’m not talking about how he might benefit from it, but how he got into a condition in which he would need it. We might say “injuries and stress,” but the more basic answer is “his residual adaptation to injuries and stress,” such as tissue changes and habituated functional patterns. Habituated means “learned, remembered, and enacted.” If a person has just emerged from a bodywork session, he has some improvement over his state going in. Generally, this improvement comes from what was done to him, rather than what he learned. It was given to him.

Sometimes the change is permanent, but often he has to keep going back for more bodywork for a long time because, although bodywork addresses tissue changes directly, it addresses habit patterns indirectly. Habit patterns and behavior persist unless changed from within via a learning process. If a habit pattern is deeply ingrained (or he keeps refreshing it through repetitive actions), he tends automatically to revert to it (or to a close approximation). As long as a dysfunctional habit pattern persists as his dominant mode of function, and until he’s learned his way out of it, it’s what’s available to him, it’s what he knows, it’s where he can go—and it’s where he goes. The old adage, “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach him to fish, he feeds himself for a lifetime,” applies.

Somatic education is a developmental process, as much as a remedial one. It’s about more than release, flexibility, physical structure or posture, or relief of pain; it’s about awakening better internal sensory awareness of where things are in us and how we’re put together (how we feel that, not how it looks on a chart), more gradation of control over muscular activity from all-out effort (full strength) to complete release of effort (complete relaxation), and better coordinated control of movement (more results from less effort). Somatic education grooms out the disorganization and interferences of injuries and stress. To the degree that functional patterns result from lifestyle and work habits, you can groom yourself of their effects. Consider how that would affect your feeling of being grounded.

One might consider somatic education a form of grooming, in the old sense of the term—a process of self-development, as in being groomed for a position, as well as the sense of clean-up. It isn’t something done once—or learned intellectually from a writing such as this one. It’s a developmental practice applied over time, like meditation (the exception being clinical somatic education, which works extremely quickly), and, as a developmental practice, it has a cycle to it.

Like all meditation and all ongoing personal practices, the cycle of somatic development involves four stages: awakening, differentiation, integration, and transcendence. The first stage, awakening, involves becoming aware of a new functional potential and getting rudimentary control of it. Think: learning that there’s a discipline called massage. Differentiation involves getting distinct control of that function. Think: learning different massage techniques. Integration involves combining that function with other functions. Think: learning to apply different massage techniques appropriately. Finally, transcendence involves having enough attention left over to add something new (back to awakening). Think: learning to understand massage in the larger context of other health disciplines or the viewpoint of somatic education, itself.

These examples point to a progressive development and mastery of our own faculties. The greater the mastery of our faculties, the more tolerance we have for random influences, such as somatic contagion. Even when compromised, our level of function stays higher than that of a person who hasn’t developed as much self-mastery. Because it’s a process of self-development and self-mastery, not everyone is attracted to it to the same degree.

Back to Groundedness

To stay grounded means the capacity to retain or regenerate our sense of organization—our cohesiveness and clarity. We feel grounded when we feel well put together and in control of our own faculties; we feel ungrounded when we lose integrity or experience somatic contagion in places where we have not developed sufficient integration, or sufficient, competent responsibility.

The world is grounded in itself as the vast, unpredictable process of habits and changing conditions. If we don’t sufficiently master our own habits (through somatic development and education), the interactions of life (somatic contagion) may make us feel ungrounded.

To get grounded involves awakening and integrating our own faculties; grooming ourselves of the effects of subconscious habits and somatic contagion; and ongoing self-transcendence (integration and continued growth). There’s no need for white light, grounding cords, visualizations, or subtle barriers in order to feel grounded. We awaken and integrate ourselves, apply ourselves well to our work (so that we minimize the effects we accumulate), and groom ourselves of the effects of somatic contagion and of our habitual way of working. As our own habitual ways of operating get refined, as our functional capacity increases, and as somatic contagion troubles us less, we feel grounded.

Somatic means more than the body. In its purest sense, somatic development encompasses the full spectrum of experience available to living beings through the entire developmental potential—physical, emotional, mental, and intuitive (lower and higher). It’s a different approach to continuing education: knowing and integrating self. All our subtler functions, such as mind and emotion, express themselves as tensions and physiological changes. It’s all somatic (though different functions are seated in and controlled from different layers of the being). Different disciplines address different somatic functions, but what they have in common is attention and intention and the cycle of development I have outlined.

What’s intriguing is that as we awaken and integrate ourselves in some particular way, such as solving one of our own problems, we may find that clients come to us who need exactly that kind of awakening and integration themselves. Because we’ve done the work ourselves and are functionally grounded in it, we know the territory and can help them.

 Lawrence Gold is a long-time clinical somatic educator certified in the Rolf method of structural integration and in Hanna Somatic Education (trained by Thomas Hanna in 1990). See Gold’s video about somatics on YouTube (channel Lawrence9Gold). Contact him and see overviews of somatic exercises on his site at