Foundations of Somatic Practice, Part 1

A Masterís Degree in Somatic Education

By Thomas Myers
[Feature]

This is the first of a two-part inquiry into the future training of a journeyperson in somatics. Since the second part will outline the more formal approach of what could be a master’s degree in somatic education, I first want to make a plea, for splitting that degree down the middle between a Master of Arts and a Master of Science.

Forgive me, please, if I speak personally for this piece, as my view of the education of future somatic therapists is perforce based in my own winding journey of discovery. That journey began, or had an initial nexus at least, with meeting Ida Rolf1 in 1973. Watching her work, and then experiencing structural integration,2 her unique approach to hands-on therapy, was so inspiring that I enrolled in massage school shortly afterward. I have been licensed as a massage therapist pretty much ever since, though my studies and my work, like that of so many of us, ranged wider than the scope of practice normally defined as “massage therapy” by the state laws under which I work.

That is a big part of the cheerful allure of massage. It offers such an amazing variety of methods and such a wide swath of applications in therapy and education, reaching into many nooks and crannies of our whole culture.

Although a few more chapters may yet be written in my life, that arc from 1973 reached an important milestone 34 years later with the Fascial Research Conference in Boston in October 2007.3 With this conference, where primary scientific researchers in connective tissue functioning spoke to a varied audience of practitioners, there began the building of a bridge between the (surprising) findings in the simplified complexities of the laboratory and the complex simplicity of the therapist’s daily practice.4

In the turbulent postindustrial world, our culture often seems to think that science is the only sure way to discover the truth of nature. I have certainly learned respect for the scientific way of asking questions and going about answering them in a reliable, sharable way. But I have also learned a lot about the nature of our situation from poets and visionaries and a lot about human nature from the daily observations and decisions necessary to a clinical practice in the real world.

In actual practice, it is never possible to eliminate the variables and chaotic complexities so necessary for a scientific study. So science—helpful as it can be—may support or refute our intuitive choices, but it will never catch up to the totality of a single lived human relationship, let alone developing intensive relationships with 20–30 people each week. While we would like to think that manual therapy is amenable to a scientific understanding, the somatic educator needs to be a bit of an anthropologist, sociologist, and a psychologist. Some experience with the plastic arts would help, and he or she needs to muster every ounce of intuition available. (I speak as someone who entered this profession, to quote my wife, “number than a pounded thumb.”)

LAYING THE CORNERSTONE

“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, of course, they’re very different.” —Yogi Berra

The question becomes: how do we prepare the therapist of the future for both a reliance on scientific grounding, but with a nimble response to the intuitive subtleties of an ever-evolving relationship?

I am a bodyworker, manual therapist, masseur, Rolfer, somatic educator, kinesicist (I just made that up—movement guide, if you will, or even personal trainer, though it is a different kind of fitness I purvey). Call me what you wish; I will answer to any of these sobriquets, accepting any and all of them, embracing both their positive attributes and negative connotations.

We live where touch and intimacy, both well established scientifically as vital food for the human organism, remain degraded in their value, and linked with sex in a profane way.5 The word massage can still show up in many classifieds of the naughty variety and even now can produce an uncomfortable chatter in some circles (e.g., I occasionally seek student models for my classes in the small Maine town where I live.  One local lobstermen, hearing of this opportunity for free bodywork, asked uncertainly, “They’s only going to work on the parts that hurt, ain’t they?”)

Though massage therapy in its myriad contemporary variations has understandably sought to distance itself from prostitution, what we offer to the world is not so far from the hetairas, the high-society courtesans of ancient Greece, the sexually knowledgeable high-priestesses of the Astarte sect (whence cometh our word Easter), or the “ambassador” of intimacy Inara from the great future history show Firefly.6 It is the grammar of intimacy and the immediate currency of touch as a unique form of communication beyond our words. The intimate and subjective realm of touch is a world untapped by the modern obsession with talk-based psychotherapy or the scientific love affair with psychopharmacology.

Learn from Other Cultures

R. D. Laing, M.D.,7 the prominent anti-psychiatrist of the 1960s and my friend during the early 1980s, often told us variations on this theme: “If you [are] living within an insane culture and you are judged sane by that culture, where does that leave you?”

Thus, at this point, I would make a strong plea for a junior year abroad as part of any educational program for a bodyworker. If you have not lived outside your culture, you have no basis or background from which to see your culture and its prejudices. I am talking about a minimum of six months immersed—and preferably doing your work—in a social context where another language is spoken, and other values prevail than those espoused by American TV and magazines.

I have been very fortunate to have successful practices in 15 cities in the last 35 years, including (in alphabetical, not chronological, order) Bloomington, Indiana; Boulder, Colorado; El Paso, Texas; Geneva, Switzerland; Hamburg, Germany; Jackson, Mississippi; Little Rock, Arkansas; London, England; New Orleans, Louisiana; Nairobi, Kenya; New York, New York; Portland, Maine; Poona, India; Rome, Italy; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. I learned so much from the friction between my inculcated values—family and culture—and the values of my adopted lands. Although contact with my teachers and clients has been an essential part of my education, only with deep and sustained contact to another culture could I separate out the various patterns that lead to the psychosocial “fixes” in which we find ourselves.

Other, older cultures valued the body and the bodily experience. But our modern Euro-American culture (and I use the word advisedly in this election year) is riven with the underlying inheritance of Calvinism. This thundering superego that dominates our unconscious mind equates body with bad (original sin, carnal appetites) and spirit with good (conquering angels with a moral victory), continuing the old Cartesian dichotomy that attempted to separate the “soft machine” of the warm, aromatic animal body from the cold and airy precision of the immortal soul. Modern science, most notably delivered by the incomparable Candace Pert,8 and the ineffable Oliver Sacks9 (not to mention Bruce Lipton10 and Joseph Chilton Pierce11), has put paid to the notion that body and soul can be separated in this simplistic way.

Listen to the Body

Despite our national obsession with exercise and eating and visual seduction, we still as a culture consign the body to the less noble part of us, to be commanded by the will into fitness, its baser instincts mastered, and we struggle against the ultimate betrayal of the body, in our youth-oriented nano-culture, the unmistakable and unavoidable arrival of old age. Despite lip-service, few pay much attention to the messages coming from the body, from that billion-year-old intelligence that got us to where we could start thinking. The most rational part of us is that which does not reason.

The pervasive image of the body as a machine and other remnants of the industrial way of thinking are rapidly falling in the surge of the world toward connectivity and plasticity, seeing the world in comprehensive wholes rather than collections of parts. Our physical education system—how we train parents of young children, how we physically educate the older children, and the ways we expect adults to relate to their physical life—all these aspects are up for grabs, and all are in fairly ill health during this time of transition.

In other words, our physical education system and our medical system are founded firmly in a mechanical model, and are built to fit people into an industrial social context. The industrial age is fading; the electronic age is well here—but we have yet to change our medical and physical education models to fit our new context. How do we educate a Neolithic body to live in an electronic world? This is a very pressing question for the 21st century, and it is a question to which bodyworkers hold a significant piece of the answer.

To educate a new generation for this new world will require a new educational model and delivery system and will require a cadre of a new kind of teacher. Today’s somatic therapist is a model of such a teacher, so we have to take one step up the ladder and ask: how do we train such teachers, who can go out and make differences in how parents move and handle kids, how do the schools train healthy minds with healthy bodies, and—the subject of early explorations by the fitness industry at the moment—how do we maintain optimal health with this animal body in the increasingly man-made world in which we live?

Putting even what we know now into cultural practice will require many years, many experiments (some of them good ideas with flaws; some of them useful failures, no doubt) before we arrive at a good educational program for teachers and therapists that will result in good physical preparation for our kids and our clients for real life—living successfully in a body in a man-made world.  

Accelerate Information

What would it be like to have a real somatic education program for most everyone in grade and high school? A real training in kinesthetic literacy would allow the recipient:

• To use the body well in everyday sitting, standing, and other activities, thus extending our ability to find a naturally noble posture, and resist the progressive and degenerative processes of compression and misuse.

• To respond in a somato-emotionally responsible way to insult, trauma, and assaults on self-image such that chronic tension from unexpressed emotion does not plague us as it does now and we understand these processes in those around us.

• To improve performance in physical activities without wrecking the body in the process—as Juvenal said more than a thousand years ago—mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body).

• Access to the deeper wells of intuitive sense within the body’s more unconscious level of response, such as a gut feeling or an inspiration.

The question before the house is: could a synthesis of personal training and bodywork produce a new kind of practitioner capable of training a new generation of kids to be conversant with their body’s messages (i.e., to be kinesthetically literate)? I believe the answer is a firm yes (although the curriculum is still in development), and I believe it should make its appearance as a master’s degree to follow an undergraduate degree in dance, education, medicine, or the like.

Like many old-timers in this industry, I essentially constructed my own education.  Educational opportunities in the 1970s were few and far between—some spotty, some brilliant—and there was little opportunity for comparison among methods. Most of us were inspired by a particular teacher or therapist—Ida Rolf was among the first sparks for a bonfire that came to include Moshe Feldenkrais, Judith Aston, Louis Schultz, Emilie Conrad, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Jean-Pierre Barral, Oscar Ichazo, and Werner Erhard, among many others—but the available trainings were limited in scope and surrounded by New Agey gobbledegook that sounded good but had little to nothing to back it up.

• “There are 70,000 nerve endings in the feet that are neurologically connected to the organs they serve!” Uh, no, actually.

• “Reflex points are connected to the organs they serve, because they were adjacent embryologically.” Gee, how would you determine that?

• “You create your own reality.” Although ultimate reality is in the hands of the philosophers and physicists, this should always be rendered: ‘You create your own experience of reality.”

• “You are sick, because of your unexpressed emotions.” And the environmental degradation has nothing to do with it, I suppose?

• “Massage relieves the muscle of lactic acid and other metabolites trapped in the muscle.” Even this shibboleth has fallen before investigation.

Half of what I have taught over these last two decades (including some of my favorite ideas—there’s nothing so sad as the destruction of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact) I have had to revise in the face of fresh data. I have left behind the biomechanics of levers in the light of tensegrity geometry; left behind the idea that fascia is not elastic in the light of the isometric muscles of elite runners; left behind the idea that fascia cannot actively contract as we discover myofibroblasts with significant pull on the fabric; left behind the anatomy based on single muscles working from origin to insertion in the light of kinetic chains, fascial continuities, and the lateral spread of forces through the extracellular network—the list will go on and on.

It is the fate of immature professions to rely on the torchlight provided by plucky pioneers forging on into the dark cave of our ignorance. And it is the fate of these pioneers to be left behind as ultimately obsolete, as their ideas are tested in the full light of day and found not so much wanting as necessarily incomplete.

With the advent of the Internet and the rapid turnover of information, we need to be sure our education for future bodyworkers leaves room and tolerance for changing premises within the field.

With two provisos (1. both manual and movement teachers should be included and synthesized in this program, and 2. practitioners need to understand both culture and art, as well as science and craft in order to meet the challenge of the 21st century effectively), we will continue this line of thinking in the follow-on to this article, outlining what I feel we have enough grounding and scope to successfully start now—a Master’s Degree in Somatic Education. 

 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. 

Notes

1. I. Rolf, Rolfing (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1977). Further information and publications concerning Dr. Rolf and her methods are available from the Rolf Institute, 5055 Chaparal Court, Suite 103, Boulder, Colorado 80301, www.rolf.org.

2. J. Smith, Structural Bodywork (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2005).

3. See www.fascia2007.com for book and DVDs, as well as links to the next conference in Amsterdam in 2009. 

4. This applies to the secrets revealing themselves about the properties of connective tissue and to the structural shape-shifting line of inquiry. This statement does not intend to ignore or denigrate the marvelous work of Dr. Tiffany Field, the Massage Research Foundation, or any of the other researchers in the larger field of massage, movement education, and manipulation.

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

6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firefly (TV_series)

7. R. Laing, The Politics of Experience (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967).

8. C. Pert, Molecules of Emotion (New York: Scribner, 1997).

9. Oliver Sacks, A Leg to Stand On (New York: Touchstone, 1984).

10. B. Lipton, The Biology of Belief (Santa Rosa, CA: Elite Books, 2005).

11. J. Pierce, Magical Child (New York: Plume, 1992).