Somatic Practices as Creative and Therapeutic Tools

by Emma Meehan

The word “somatics” has been used as an umbrella term to describe therapeutic movement practices which focus on the internal experience of the participant in the process of movement exploration along with the integration of body and mind in the process. Forms include practices such as Feldenkrais, the Alexander technique, Body-Mind Centering, and Authentic Movement, while Linda Hartley (2004: 11) links the principles of somatics back to ancient forms such as yoga and meditation. While somatic practices have existed in diverse places and eras, developments in fields of dance, phenomenology and psychoanalysis have brought about the validation and expansion of somatic practices in the West (Eddy, 2009:6). In this article, I discuss my experience of participating in somatic training with choreographer, psychotherapist and movement therapist Joan Davis. Davis founded Dublin Contemporary Dance Theatre in the 1970s, and travelled to America and the U.K. to study the somatic practices of Authentic Movement and Body Mind Centering during the 1990s. She also extensively studied Mindell’s Process Oriented Psychology and Hakomi Sensorimotor Trauma Psychotherapy. Since then, she has been facilitating courses and creating performances combining her background as a dancer and therapist in an ongoing project called “Maya Lila”. Along with offering a reflection on my own personal experiences of the Maya Lila training, I describe the principles of somatic practices and how they interweave in Davis’ work. Finally, I note how the approach has helped me to become aware of the links between personal process and creativity in my own work. The following is a brief description of my experience of an Authentic Movement session with Davis at her Gorse Hill centre in Co. Wicklow.

With my eyes closed, I reach into the space and find a tangled heap of soft wool with my hands. I draw the material towards the centre of my body and place the gentle texture against my stomach. I notice the full, expansive fleshiness of the wool in contact with my caved-in body as I lie curled in a ball on the floor. I imagine the woollen strands are my guts, spilling out. I start to caress the wool and feel the strands between my fingers. I then start to emulate the soft and pliable qualities of the wool, and find myself rolling, breathing deeply, and stretching with pulsating movements. As I become absorbed in the experience, I become a twisting, turning, vibrant, messy, churning, expanding and contracting digestive system. I notice an emerging ease in my body as I play between feeling the texture of the wool, and embodying my perception of the wool as guts, finding new possibilities for moving in the space.

In Authentic Movement, as in this sequence I have just described, the mover waits for an internal impulse and then allows it to take form, following and supporting the movement until it comes to completion. Through bringing attention to impulses and processing the material in a conscious way, the participant often uncovers insights about what is happening in the realm of the unconscious. Authentic Movement practice was developed in the 1940s in America by Mary Starks Whitehouse, a dancer who later studied Jungian psychoanalysis. She was particularly drawn to Jung’s approach called “active imagination”, in which he investigated the therapeutic potential of symbolic play. In this process, Jung invited the client to allow unconscious personal material to arise and take conscious creative form. Whitehouse extended the link between dance and active imagination – an artistic form that Jung only occasionally used in this work (Chodorow, 1997). Authentic Movement was developed further by Whitehouse’s student Janet Adler who emphasised the idea of the “witness”. The witness is now a central part of the practice, represented by the therapist or another group member who watches the mover while reflecting on his or her own experience of that movement as it unfolds. In fact, there is a whole discipline around the use of language where a witness takes ownership of the experience, rather than projecting ideas onto the mover – speaking in phrases such as “I see/I feel/I imagine”. During the process of working through Authentic Movement, the participant starts to develop an “internal witness” or the capacity for witnessing oneself in motion.

In the sequence of movement I described earlier, I follow my impulses for touching and moving with the wool, along with tracking my experience through witnessing. The movement/witnessing process has helped me not only to develop a sense of non-judgemental self-reflection while in motion, but also has aided me in understanding the ways in which I interact with the surrounding environment. By placing objects in the space, Davis introduced the idea of “object relations”, a rich field of research in psychotherapy dealing with the relationships between the individual, other people, and the surrounding environment. While moving with the wool, I became engaged in a process of projecting qualities onto the wool and identifying with or embody these characteristics. By enacting the movement of “guts”, I can draw comparisons between my own patterns of holding tension in the body and new possibilities for softening the body through rolls, breathing and stretching. This same process of projection and identification also occurs in relationship with people, of course, so the work helps in understanding how I interact with others in the world. For example, I might make contact with another mover in the Authentic Movement session and develop “object relations” based on habitual response patterns such as pulling away suddenly or merging with the other person’s movement. Through witnessing, the participant can start to note patterns of behaviour and explore new models of relationship as the work develops.

The somatic practice of Body-Mind Centering (BMC) is another aspect of Davis training which is integrated into the somatic workshops. The practice has also been called “experiential anatomy”, describing how the participant comes to understand and experience muscles, bones and other body systems from inside the body. The different body systems often appear in the workshops with Davis and in moving with the wool, the digestive organs were strongly evoked for me. This work can then be deepened as Davis guides participants through elements of BMC practice which support the individual’s process. Body-Mind Centering was developed in the 1970s in the USA by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, a dancer and occupational therapist. She was highly influenced by dance-movement therapy pioneers such as Rudolph Laban, Irmgard Bartenieff, and Marian Chace, also citing influences such as circus, yoga and t’ai chi (Eddy, 2006: 86). BMC uses body-mind experiential exercises to awaken potential movement or to bring awareness to areas of difficulty through breathing, movement, visualisation, touch and study of anatomy. Linda Hartley (2004: 175) notes on Body-Mind Centering: “Overall the change we look for is to bring into awareness, support, and facilitate the natural functioning and flow of energy through the cells and tissues of the body. An understanding of healthy functioning is the model used to contextualise and guide the work, and this is a primary focus of study.”

The body systems explored in BMC include the skin, the skeletal system, the muscular system, the organs, the nervous system, the ligaments and the fluid system.  In a session concentrating on the skeletal system, for instance, we can imagine and experience the different layers of tissue that bones are made from, or try out the various movements available to joints. The exploration of each body system awakens different types of movement and states of mind – for example, Linda Hartley (1989: 156, 183) suggests that bones offer structure and support to movement, while organs give weight and substance to movement. At the same time, responses are unique to each person and can uncover personal movement preferences and environmental influences on movement. Another aspect of BMC is the work on Developmental Movement Patterns, where the participant explores basic underlying movement patterns that begin in utero and develop throughout childhood. In working with, for example, the basic locomotive force of  yield and push, the participant can experience the underlying reflex which helps the infant with its first negotiations with gravity –  yielding into the floor on different surfaces of the body, and noticing how that supports the movement of pushing away from the gravitational pull with arms and legs. The basic movement patterns in BMC act as building blocks to more complex movement such as walking and dance. Davis often uses the title “experiences” rather than “exercises” in order to emphasise that the movements are not meant to be mechanically learned, but rather participants are invited to focus on sensations, emotions and thoughts that occur during the process, thus re-patterning at all levels. Davis often generates creative experiments for participants to deepen their experience of the work, and in my next example, Davis invited the group to play with the different patterns we had learned.

It is a bright, sunny, spring day and Davis takes the group down the winding steps, through the upper garden, down into the lower garden and finally into the amphitheatre space overlooking the sea at Gorse Hill. She invites us to make the journey back to the centre, exploring the developmental movement patterns we have learned over the last few months. To begin, we all giggle as we try frog-leaping, crawling, rolling and slithering up the garden. As the journey develops, I notice the effort and drive needed to travel without walking upright. I feel the weight of my body, the strength of my arms and legs propelling me forward. The journey starts to feel long and arduous, as I struggle to keep going. I am exhausted and I wonder if I will ever make it to the top of the garden. With effort, sweat and will power, I finally get to the centre and turn around to see trails of striving participants, moving forward at their own pace. I realise that my drive to get to the finish line reflects a personal pattern where I push my body to the limits and then collapse rather than pacing myself. Over the next few days, I am in bed with a bad cold, wondering if there might be a new way of responding to the weaving journey of life which allows me to take my time, notice the scenery along with way and enjoy the process as much as the final result.

As the title of the practice implies, Body-Mind Centering emphasises the relationship between the body and mind as a means to develop movement capacity and to examine how the mind is expressed through the body. Thomas Hanna, a physical therapist who has been credited with applying the term “somatic” to contemporary body-mind practices, argued for the integration of the internal experience of the body and the third person point of view in his work. By integrating body and mind, Hanna believed that the client could become part of the therapeutic process. He states that “curing and treating are what is done to a passive patient – an external engineering feat that goes from the outside to the inside. Sensory-motor remembering is an educational procedure, done by an active person – an internal somatic feat that goes from inside the brain to the muscle system” (1988: 36). In somatic practices, the aim is not to provide a “cure” for physical and psychological problems, but rather to provide a space for the client to become aware of restrictions and to develop the possibility of making different choices. This approach emphasises how the body-mind is used by the participant to develop movement capacity, rather than a client simply repeating the movements or being manipulated by a therapist. The reflective response of the participant in bringing awareness to experiences within the process is a primary focus in Davis’ work.

Hanna (1995:351) notes that the human soma is in an optimal state when “having a highly differentiated repertoire of response possibilities to environmental stimulus.” In the somatic training with Joan Davis, the purpose is also to arouse the participants’ own capacity for movement so that they can make movement choices in different contexts. Although the Maya Lila training is attended by people from a wide range of backgrounds, I have found this approach useful as a performer. The training has helped me to develop a greater movement range and Davis (2007: 108) notes that “if a muscle is held in a habitual fashion for any reason, then the cells are not free to find their own pathways of expression. Bodywork, re-education or re-patterning of the cells and tissues enables me to have an opportunity to experience my body in a different way.” The training methods in Maya Lila are formulated to open the participant’s awareness of physical and psychological processes, along with extending his or her capacity for expression. For example, rigid body postures or confused boundaries might appear in the training and other possibilities can be tried out in the safe space of the workshop. This is important information for a performer as it means that they can become aware of repetitive movement patterns and can make other choices, useful for developing character or devising movement sequences. The therapeutic aspect of the training also means that the participant can develop safe ways for dealing with personal material that arises in an artistic context and methods for managing group dynamics or personal judgment, as Judith Koltai (2007:381) notes: “Authentic Movement presents itself as a singularly appropriate container for the exploratory and process-oriented aspects of the actor’s work.”

Somatic practices have begun to influence dance education, responding to physical and psychological issues encountered in dance training. Dancer Jenny Roche (2008, interview), who has participated in Davis’ public Maya Lila performances, comments on her ballet training: “as a woman it was very confusing because how you’re expected to be as a ballet dancer, very thin and submissive, and incredibly disciplined”. In many genres of performance, the performer is under pressure to conform to ideal body image and behaviour in order to obtain work. Indeed, this is a more general issue in a visual culture, which focuses on external appearance at the expense of physical and psychological health. Davis’ work can be seen as a reaction against the highly disciplined dance traditions which push the performer’s body to its limits. In the Maya Lila training, Davis works to open choices available within a participant’s own capacity. She moves away from observation, disciplining and defined forms, and towards an examination of the possibilities available to the mover and self-witnessing as a means of assessment.

Davis’ somatic training does not concentrate on performance, but rather focuses on how this approach can be used in exploring personal and group process. The somatic training has had knock effects on my everyday activities such as walking and sleeping, to more complex interactions such as maintaining boundaries in relationships. This combination of somatic practices in Davis’ training programme can be of use to therapists in helping clients to note habitual behaviour patterns and to develop new strategies for responding to situations. It can also help in dealing with conflict through the use of witnessing and creating clarity around emotional response and physical reactions. Further, it deals with issues of body image which are pervasive in society today, transforming the perception of the body as an object to be moulded and disciplined, into the subjective experience of the “soma” within different contexts.

Emma Meehan is a performer and researcher, and has recently submitted her doctoral research at Trinity College, Dublin, on the use of somatic practices in performance.


Chodorow, J. (1997) “Introduction” in Joan Chodorow (ed.) Jung on Active Imagination: Key Readings Selected and Introduced by Joan Chodorow. London: Routledge, 1997.

Davis, J. (2007) Maya Lila: Bringing Authentic Movement into Performance – The Process. Norfolk: Elmdon Books.

Eddy, M. (2009) “A brief history of somatic practices and dance: historical development of the field of somatic education and its relationship to dance.” Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices 1, no. 1: 5–27.

———. (2006) “The Practical Application of Body-Mind Centering (BMC) in Dance Pedagogy.” Journal of Dance Education 6, no. 3: 86-91.

Hanna, T. (1995) “What is Somatics?” in D.H. Johnson (ed.) Bone, Breath, and Gesture: Practices of Embodiment. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.

———. (1988) Somatics: reawakening the minds control of movement, flexibility, and health. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press (Perseus Books).

Hartley, L. (2004) Somatic Psychology: Body, Mind and Meaning. London: Whurr.

———. (1989) Wisdom of the Body Moving: An Introduction to Body-Mind Centering. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Koltai, J. (2007) “The Pleasure of the Text: Embodying Classical Theatrical Language Through the Practice of Authentic Movement” in P. Pallaro (ed.) Authentic Movement: Moving the Body, Moving the Self, Being Moved: A Collection of Essays – Volume Two, London: Jessica Kinsley.