Foundations of Somatic Practice, Part 2

The Questions We Need Answered

By Thomas Myers

This is the second part of an exploratory article on what a higher education program in somatics might give us as a profession. Primarily, it would give us a well-maintained pipeline from the pure biological/biomechanical research that supports our work to the day-to-day practitioner doing sessions and making connections with clients. It would open many avenues of development for us as a group.

First, we could divide somatics into inexact and overlapping areas of interest.

• Spa and “fluff and buff” massage

• Remedial massage

• Sports massage

• Body-centered psychotherapies

• Energetics

• Structural/integrative

• Awareness/movement education

(Forgive any omissions; I’m just

trying to present a spectrum.)

My personal interest as a consumer extends to all of these specialties; my interest as a practitioner is more focused on the last three or four; and as a teacher I confine myself to the last two. If your interests lie elsewhere in this list, adjust as you read to counter my prejudice.

Secondly, I am well aware that suggesting higher education for somatic professionals goes against the trend in the industry right now, which centers around programs of primarily 500--–1,000 hours to produce competent practitioners ready for licensing. These events are structured as trainings—short, intensive courses designed to immerse the student in a craft, induce a confident state of mind, and convey the practical considerations that come with the territory. I attempt to run such a school myself, and believe such intensives are adequate for producing someone who is capable of going out there and becoming a competent practitioner with practice and continuing education.

Trainings work. They probably will remain the primary foundation for skill-building and preparing a relaxation massage practitioner. Every other category in our field, however, is rapidly getting more complex, meaning that we need not only competent practitioners with ever more knowledge and background, but also connection to the researchers and people diving deeper into the field to support them.

We need an education—a more extensive exploration of our field and all the factors that surround and affect it, preparing the student for a lifetime of productive navigating within an area of inquiry, just as an architectural degree does for architecture. Not everyone who builds a shed needs an architectural degree, but the things learned in such degree programs lead to engineering specs—development that might be usefully taken up by the day-to-day practitioner.

Nothing here suggests that everyone in this field needs a graduate degree, or to denigrate the fine schools that are doing a great job, by and large, of educating much-needed craftspeople. At the same time, the field of bodywork and somatics has opened up so much in the last 30 years; I believe there is now a place for expanding our field of inquiry into the socially accepted realm of academia.

What do we want to know?

Prior to this stage, we as a group were too close to the ground, struggling to keep from being dismissed as being too trivial, or worse yet, as part of the adult leisure industry. Much of the science behind bodywork was cobbled together from various sources and mixed with dubious lore, some of which still survives today. We all got a big boost in 1987 with the publication of Job’s Body, Deane Juhan’s magnum opus, and also Ashley Montagu’s Touching, both of which laid the foundation for a science of somatics.1, 2

This increasing sophistication of our methods and theories, as well as the tremendous public response to hands-on treatment and the economic clout that comes with such success, allows us to poke our head into the airier realms of a theoretical basis that would organize our work and allow it to move further to meet the future needs of society.

My suggestion is not born out of a desire for recognition by the medical establishment (why handcuff yourself to the Titanic?), or a need for validation. Bodyworkers—including the larger field of other movement-oriented practitioners engaged in similar lines of inquiry—are on the cutting edge of an absolutely essential question for the 21st century: how does a Neolithic body make sense out of the man-made world in which we ask our children to live?

Our bodies—an essential part of our souls—are not greatly genetically modified from the time we first tamed fire and painted the cave walls some 35,000–70,000 years ago. Multiple diets, to take an example, lay claim to naturalness, but the truth is that most of the food we ate in those days is long gone from the earth. For just the last 10 millennia, we have accustomed ourselves to agriculturally grown foods (all genetically modified from wild plants, though not in the Monsanto sense), and for the lucky few, industrialized foods have been increasingly available over the last hundred years—read The Omnivore’s Dilemma for a devastatingly cogent piece of reporting on our food chain—and our bodies have largely adapted to them.3

This example of food is outside the bodyworker’s immediate realm, but it serves to illustrate the larger problem of adaptation to a world of our own making: the need to eat, the enzymatic chemistry for processing the food, and the need to regularly evacuate remain essentially unchanged, as are the genetics that control them, no matter how our civilization tries to hide or sanitize it all.

Three other questions related to the one above are right up our alley and need sustained exploration to answer adequately for the physical culture of our 21st century:

1. What characteristics of tissues account for the changes we see in bodywork, and what contributes to their permanence or progression (or loss)?

2. What constitutes good use of the body, and how do we successfully and easily cultivate better use?

3. How do electronified, urban-dwelling people receive, handle, and resolve stress in a way helpful to both soma and psyche, and even world (or at least local) peace?


Moving backward through these questions: what stresses our bodies has changed, but the response to stress remains written into our bodies from tougher ancient times. The balance between fight or flight and repose and repair has been with us since vertebrates first arose more than 350 million years ago. The stress response needs to be studied a great deal more, in both men and women (who now appear to be organized differently—surprise, surprise).4, 5

Stress is the measure of difference between what we feel ought to be and what we actually understand of what is. Our ought to be may be misplaced, and we may misunderstand what is is, but we get stressed out (distressed, in scientific parlance) just the same, whether we are responding to reality or only our version of it. What is important to our bodies and our stress reactions is simply the dissonance between how we picture our world and how the world is picturing itself to us.

How this system is triggered, its proper pathways, what constitutes trauma, and the road to resolution needs to be mapped out in far more detail before any therapy can be more than a stab in the dark at this ubiquitous problem. The responses were developed to saber-toothed tigers; how do we transfer them over to traffic, economic competition, and personal goal-seeking without upsetting civilization? This is a very pressing question and one to which bodyworkers can contribute significantly.6, 7

Body Use

Our bones, muscles, and joints are about the same as ever, but the work they are subjected to has changed dramatically for those within the industrialized world. We are moving out of the industrial revolution into the electronic era, and that will require some further serious thinking about how we want to educate our young, as they become more and more connected to a thrumming, electronic über-brain.8, 9. 10

The use of the self is rapidly changing as our environment and way of moving through it changes radically with each passing generation. When was the last time you stepped on a natural surface—one unchanged by human hands? I live quite rurally, and even so, I often go through a day—along my driveway, over the lawn, on the wharf—without stepping on anything unaltered by human hands. Most of the time I have shoes on; especially when teaching in the city, so my feet never touch God’s earth at all.

One must work hard these days, and walk a long way to find oneself in a truly natural surrounding. In short, we have changed our own environment totally, while changing our bodies minimally. Hence the question: can we help our children adapt successfully to this environment we have created for them? Bodyworkers have a lot to say about this ability to adapt, and the proper use of the self.11, 12, 13

Tissue properties

This area is very exciting right now in connecting research to everyday practice. More is being learned every day about the mechanisms of muscle contraction and holding, trigger points as minimum energy systems, recovery, and ability to train. Overtaking muscle research is a large wave of new material about cells and the connective tissues between them in the fascial web. We now know that every cell is not only “tasting” its local chemical environment, each cell is webbed into the connective tissue net and able to test, pull against, or rest easy in its tensional, mechanical environment. This new field of mechanobiology, which has been the holy grail of physiotherapy on the macro level—joint efficiency, biomechanics of sport, or rehabilitative actions—is now being supplemented, indeed overshadowed, by the new cellular level of mechanobiology: how cells stick together, communicate, and handle local tensions, and what kind of tissue responses there are to these forces.14, 15

We are discovering more and more about the relationship between the connective tissue that ensheathes the nerves (the perineuria) and blood vessels, again linking adverse mechanical strain to particular conditions and treatments. More information is arriving about manipulating the movements of the organs and the coelomic bags they come in (mesentery, peritoneum, pleura, mediastinum, etc.).16

We are seeing that the fascial net has more avenues of response than we previously believed. Then we include the interesting and recently discovered myofibroblasts, which are connective tissue cells capable of running into a telephone booth to change into their superhero form, which can exert significant pull into the connective tissue matrix, for better or worse.17 All this to demonstrate that a higher exploration of somatics and bodywork is not entirely an academic exercise, but rather has a vital real world application. We are living in an increasingly man-crafted environment where the usual biological and genetic bearings are few and far between. Simple and natural processes are now up for analysis, and bodyworkers are out front in this exploration. Our focus here is not on the details of an actual program, but an outline of what such a program could explore.

A graduate degree in somatics, or MSE (Masters in Somatic Education), could follow on from an undergraduate degree in medicine, psychology, sociology, anthropology, or dance, as examples. Vocational tracks in a university—nursing, occupational therapy, or physiotherapy—would surely also qualify. A massage therapist would probably need to start out with some background college courses to ready himself or herself for graduate work.

Anatomy and physiology are a given, and since physiology is underpinned by organic chemistry, I don’t see how this scientific track can be avoided by the upper level bodyworker/researcher (although if I take my own advice, this will be my hardest slog). We already mentioned in the last article that a junior year abroad—some time out of your own language and culture—is a very important part of being a good bodyworker. Some patterns are personal and individual, some belong to particular social groups, some belong to entire cultures; time out of your own culture gives you deeper appreciation patterns. Some courses in cultural and social anthropology are a must also, to understand the alternate norms in differing cultures from that of your youth and family of origin.

Very important to the inquiry into somatics is the question “What shapes us?” Most of those questions of change of shape are currently answered by chemistry (food or drugs) or by psychology (talk it out), but very little social effort is going into training the kinesthetic sense, opening our fibrous body, or exploring the role of shape and form in our personality, health, development, and function.

So in our master’s program, we would need to include embryology and  morphogenesis—how shape comes into being. The lessons of embryology are just beginning to reveal their mysteries to the world. Any glance at the embryology texts shows how primitive our understanding is of the forces involved and how they work. Most embryology concentrates on the biochemistry and has completely ignored the biomechanics of embryology. Now that we understand cellular mechanics more completely, and see the wide role mechanotransduction plays in normal function and pathology, it is time to extend that knowledge into embryology: How does the fetus form? What are the tensional lines inside? Which are elastic and which inelastic?18, 19, 20

Aside from the problem of formation, we need to explore the avenues of intra-body communication. Although we know something of nerve conduction and blood circulation, we are only just getting hints of the dynamic interaction among these two systems and the third whole body system—the blood, the nerves, and the fascia. Our somatic practitioners need to be conversant with palpation and release techniques for all three of these systems, not just the musculoskeletal system.

Manipulation methods are available for the meningeal system around the brain, for the bags around the organs, and for the sheaths surrounding the nerves and blood vessels, as well as the joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascial membranes. Exposure to, if not familiarity with, all these would be a requirement of the person who wishes to build a career in somatics.

The nervous system, of course, is responsible for coordinating movement, and the sensory nerves invest the fascia more than any other organ; your fascia is your richest sense organ. From the sensory collection of raw data though the perception of the world, to organizing an action plan, to coordinating the cascade of impulses, to executing those impulses down through the motor system to the muscles, the neural symphony of movement—already well-studied in neurology and kinesiology—would be necessary to complete our education for the somatic therapist.

Advancing the Dialogue

Associating with a university, I realize, is not everyone’s cup of tea. Lots of folks got into this kinesthetic profession because their learning style did not lend itself to regular school visual and auditory learning. That is all well and good, but I am urging those of us with the youth or background or inclination to associate with a university in whatever way you can. Take courses, contact professors, work to get a somatics program started within the dance or psychology department. Do not be frightened or intimidated; no one starts out with all the answers. The important part is to have some questions, and then to find the people who can help you find the answers.

Working therapists are the essential part of this profession, supported by schools and professional organizations. Researchers are necessary to confirm or correct the impressions gained by practitioners or innovators in the field. In the current environment where our methods and goals are reaching up beyond the original parameters, we need degree programs in somatics to advance the dialogue, connect the research to the practice, and coordinate with other professions engaged in similar inquiries. Let’s get started!

 Thomas Myers has practiced integrative bodywork for nearly 30 years. He teaches workshops internationally on anatomy, movement, and soft-tissue work. His book, Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists, was published by Elsevier in 2001. He lives, writes, and sails on the coast of Maine.


1. D. Juhan,  Job’s Body (New York: Barrytown, 1987).

2. A. Montagu, Touching, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1986).

3. M. Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (New York: Penguin, 2006).

4. H. Selye, The Stress of Life, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1956).

5. S. Taylor, Health Psychology, 5th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2003).

6. S. Levine, Waking the Tiger (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997).

7. B. Rothschild, The Body Remembers, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000).

8. R. Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines (New York: Penguin, 2000).

9. F.M. Alexander, The Use of the Self, Original 1932, (London: Orion Books, 2001).

10. M. Bond, The New Rules of Posture (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2007).

11. M. Feldenkrais, The Case of Nora. (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).

12. J. Aston, Aston Postural Assessment Workbook. (San Antonio: TX: Therapy Skill Builders, 1998).

13. C. McHose, How Life Moves (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2006).

14. D.E. Ingber, “The Architecture of Life,” Scientific American 278 (January 1998): 48-57.

15. S. McGill, Low Back Disorders (Waterloo, ON: Human Kinetics, 2002).

16. J.P. Barral, Visceral Manipulation, Rev. Ed. (Seattle: Eastland Press, 2005).

17. R. Schleip. see articles on myofibroblasts by Hinz, Grinnell, and Schleip on, accessed September 2008.

18. R. Sheldrake, The Presence of the Past (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1995).

19. E. Blechschmidt, The Ontogenetic Basis of Human Anatomy (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2004).

20. R. Grossinger, Embryogenesis (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1986).