SOMATIC EDUCATION is the disciplinary field of a variety of methods concerned with how living bodies (“somas”) learn and become aware as they move within the environment.
The term SOMA refers to the sum total of the body’s subjective lived experience. The soma is the living body experienced at the first person, as an “I”, both sensitive to himself or herself, and capable of perception– some would say “construction”- of an outside world. Talking about soma does not mean setting body against psyche, nor pitting the ‘soma’ against psychology as in the expression “psychosomatic”. When we speak of soma, we see the individual as a being fully integrated into its phenomenological and biological existence. By working with this somatic perspective we acknowledge that our thoughts (even the most abstract ones), our emotions, and fantasies are all manifestations of the indivisible totality of our biological and neurological processes. From the somatic point of view, consciousness itself is a characteristic feature of life and essential to the very mechanisms of self-regulation distinguishing all living systems. In short, far from being reductionist or materialistic, a somatic approach treats the living “embodied” person in an integrative way. (This is precisely what some of our colleagues call the “embodiment of life”, an expression increasingly used by English speaking authors everywhere.)
The methods of somatic education are defined in terms of the following four central aspects:
- learning (and not therapy)
- awareness of the living and sensing body (and not the body-as-object seen from outside)
- movement (and not posture or structure)
- space or, alternatively, environment (and not a shallow version of self-absorption).
Let us briefly comment on each of these terms.
The word MOVEMENT refers to displacement within the gravitational field and in space. One might therefore look at anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, biomechanics, ergonomics, as well as neurology and neuropsychology. In somatic education, however, one would also make quite sure of approaching the living body from a phenomenological or “first person” perspective, in other words from the subjective point of view of the individual “I”. It is one thing to know the names of the bones and the points of insertion of the muscles. To sense and understand movement from within is probably something quite different, for we learn to roll, jump, walk without any knowledge of the fact that we have muscles! Hence the importance of educational strategies based on experience.
It is undeniable that movement constitutes the very foundation of life, and is at least the most essential ingredient in the development of the brain, and the clearest indicator of the state of the whole nervous system.
The word AWARENESS refers to the skill with which living systems regulate their behavior in response to the feedback produced by their own actions. What is meant here is the capacity to sense, feel, and also to think, specifically in the context of and with regard to action. We will therefore treat awareness as a biological phenomenon and thus join the contemporary current in the West which rediscovered consciousness during the past fifteen years as a subject of study, discussion, and research even in the sciences. (See for instance the “Journal of Consciousness Studies”, the French publication “Science et Conscience”, or the latest book by Antonio Damasio entitled “The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness”). Consciousness no longer falls solely within the competence of specialists in matters of soul, spirit, and mind. Without entering into discussion of which is which, consciousness and awareness are now studied as phenomena of life itself. At least by some of us!
The term LEARNING highlights the innate capacity of living systems to develop and continue to evolve, creating more reliable neural connections and thereby obtaining more mature forms of self-regulation. This is called somatic learning. The methods of somatic education promote such learning employing movement, guided either verbally or through touch, in groups or individual lessons.
By choosing a learning paradigm, the methods of somatic education distinguish themselves from the majority of other somatic approaches geared towards therapy, whether from the psycho-therapeutic or physio-therapeutic point of view. By adopting the term “therapy” and the “therapeutic” paradigm one adheres to notions derived from pathology and the medical model and is therefore interested in symptoms and their causes, and in the treatment of injuries and traumatisms. On the other hand, by seeking to improve self-regulation and learning strategies (learning to learn), by laying emphasis on the individual’s capacity for taking responsibility, the methods of Somatic Education demonstrate that they are interested in facilitating healing and also in improving artistic and athletic and all forms of performance. Education and the quality of life in general are thus essentially correlated.
Finally, the word SPACE (or if you prefer the word ENVIRONMENT) places the living body in its proper context, where there are other humans, other societies and cultures, other species, or objects constituting a potential extension of the self. Somatic Education can be at the basis of our connection to the environment and to environmental awareness. Once we recognize the importance of our milieu of life, it becomes possible to leave behind a vision restricted to the limited self which stops at the surface of the skin, and dispel the rather widespread misunderstanding of Somatic Education as a form of navel gazing! Somatic Education is interested in soma and “embodiment” but, primarily, as the basis of perception and consciousness, as that which underpins our actions in a living world intimately linked to the living body. By recognizing the significance of the environment in the equation of Somatic education we also concede a preeminent place to the processes of socialization: a person’s particular body-image, the very shape their living body grows into, does not emerge in a vacuum but unavoidably within families and societies. Their influence forms this soma and regulates its interactions. Our professional field extends that far.
Excerpt from an article entitled:
The Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education?
By Yvan Joly, M.A. (Psychologist), Feldenkrais trainer and somatic educator
Published in Feldenkrais Journal UK, January 2002