Since the beginning of recorded history human beings have been harnessing the environment around us very successfully. Up until this time we have focused outward. We have come to a point, however, where we are beginning to look inwardly and harness ourselves. Human beings are beginning to be more self-observant and are inventing techniques to give us the capacity to recreate ourselves and heal ourselves through various forms of somatic education.
Thanks to Moshe Feldenkrais and Thomas Hanna we now can overcome negative conditioning that causes us to suffer both bodily and mentally. Because of these two pioneers we now have become empowered to control our own physiology. In his book titled The Body of Life: Creating New Pathways for Sensory Awareness and Fluid Movement, Hanna writes of two pioneers in somatic education—F. Matthias Alexander and Elsa Gindler—stating that they confirm the adage that necessity is the mother of invention. They had no other option.
“If Alexander was to improve his stage career he had to find a way to improve his voice. He decided to study himself and diagnose what was wrong. To the end, he used the simplest form of biofeedback device: a mirror. He stood before it and watched his own movements. Eventually he saw that his neck was distorted … that it was a distortion of his throat passage, causing him to strain his vocal chords. This observation of the typical, but unconscious, movements of the somatic retraction was the beginning of the Alexander Technique.
“George Bernard Shaw concluded that the Alexander Technique was the beginning of a far-reaching science. Later Aldous Huxley was to say, ‘Alexander’s technique gives us the things we have been looking for … a method for the creative conscious control of the whole psychophysical organism.
“Elsa Gindler was a Berlin educator who was diagnosed with consumption. The physician urged a prolonged convalescence. Unable to afford such a luxury, she determined to gain control over her breathing, allowing one lung to rest. It worked. The physician refused to accept the form of healing, preferring to believe that miracles sometimes happen. But Gindler knew it was no miracle. It was the result of being searchingly attentive to what was taking place within her body.
“One of Elsa Gindler’s students, Charlotte Selver, came to the United States. And over the course of several decades Selver’s teaching profoundly influenced the thought of Eric Fromm, the development of Fritz Pearl’s Gestalt psychology, and the attitude of Wilhelm Reich toward breathing.
“But one of the most interesting effects of Selver’s work was the response of the Anglo-American philosopher Alan Watts. Upon becoming acquainted with Selver’s sensory awareness, Watts exclaimed, “Why, this is living Zen!” Selver at that time knew nothing of Zen Buddhism and wondered how the work of a Berlin physical educator could have anything to do with the practice of a Japanese sect. Eventually, however, she saw the undeniable similarities between the practices of sensory awareness and those of Zen Buddhism.
“The enlightenment sought by the Zen devotee is somatic enlightenment, and it comes with the gradual discovery or efficiency and ease in somatic functioning. Zen is not a religion. It is quite simply a way of living the philosophical truth of things.
“The Chinese tradition of Tai Chi is also a somatic discipline. What is practiced is a form of dance in which the individual goes through an exact choreography of balanced movements. It is also an ancient form of preventative medicine.”
In my next blog post I will describe how the practice of Tai Chi and the work of Stuart Heller changed my own life dramatically.
Until then, I will leave you with this thought from Hanna:
“The most ancient of all disciplines in somatic education is yoga, a tradition that, like Zen, is incomprehensible from a Western religious point of view. The intention of yoga is the liberation and consolidation of one’s self — “self” being conceived of essentially, as a soma. The state of Samadhi and the goal of nirvritti are not nonsomatic, “spiritual” goals but, instead, are attainments of somatic integrity whereby all conceptual illusions have been overcome and the nature of one’s individual identity is clarified. The eight stages of raja yoga are graduated steps of awareness and control of progressively subtler somatic functions. At the eighth and final stage, the yogi has presumably gained final stage, the yogi has presumably gained final knowledge and control of all somatic functions, and this constitutes his liberation.”
Because of these great pioneers, we have been empowered to become masters of our own destiny!
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