Embodiment & Somatic Therapy
Updated: Jan 17
We frequently hear the term embodiment these days, but what exactly does this word mean, and how do we become more embodied? This word points to a way of being and experiencing that is through and from the body, rather than about the body. The online Marriam Webster online dictionary defines embodiment as ‘the act of embodying’ as well as ‘the state of being embodied’, which tells us that it this is a participatory experiential process, an enquiry into bodily experiences that is concerned with how we live and inhabit the world, through our senses. Marion Woodman describes bodywork as ‘soulwork’, and said that ‘to live a rich life we have to be in contact with our inner world’. Mary Whitehouse, the founder of Authentic Movement, writes about embodied movement in a similar vein, saying: “Movement, to be experienced, has to be ‘found’ in the body, not put on like a dress or a coat. There is that in us which has moved from the very beginning. It is that which can liberate us.” Essentially this work must be experienced.
Exploring the field of embodied embryology has given me a deep-seated appreciation of our early relational fluidity, wholeness and potential. The notion of the fluid potential underpins my approach to bodywork, an understanding developed first in the context of craniosacral therapy, and later in my training with Linda Hartley. This perception points to an appreciation of the organisation of our formation as coordinated by forces that originate from conception, through embryological development, and which continue to organise our present bodymind system (Becker, R. 2001). William Garner Sutherland, an early pioneer in the field of Osteopathy, called this organising life force energy ‘the breath of life’, which, he stipulated, is the same intelligence involved in coordinating healing within our bodymind system. “He realised that it is the breath of life, and the intelligent forces it generates, which make and carry out healing decisions, and that these arise from a depth of stillness and practitioner presence” (Sills, 2011).
Echoing Sutherland’s perspectives of ‘the breath of life’, Jaap Van der Wal describes how motion is the primary force, form secondary, and that these forces stay with us throughout life. He writes: “the embryonic way of being is not a past, not a phase in our life you left behind. It is actual and living.” (2012). Throughout Van der Wal’s writings he presents the notion of the embryo as the embodiment of soul, and urges us to ‘be a participant... take for true your own sense experience and what you experience in, and by means of, your body.’ This, he writes, ‘is the primary reality’. I am deeply grateful for the opportunities I have found to be such a participant of this ‘primary reality’. And when holding and listening to a client’s system in treatment sessions, it always feels like a great honour to be able to witness their system as their expresses fluid potential, of tidal movement of cerebrospinal fluid, and as the body tells it’s story of the earliest journeys into being.
I have found such a phenomenological approach to lie at the heart of somatic therapy. This approach offers a rich and enlightening inquiry, in which we come into contact with our own history and early patterning - patterns of experiencing, perceiving, expressing and relating. As we trace the path of our early embryological unfolding, we orient to the wisdom and deep resources of each stage, discovering new possibilities for choice, wholeness and integration.
“In the practice of somatic therapy, we consciously explore specific movement, energetic, and postural patterns by directing our awareness to particular tissues in the body, and touching or moving the body with the intention to effect change in those tissues. This may open us to feelings, images, memories, and sensations which we were not conscious of before. Past experiences which we have been unable to integrate, or which have been forgotten or repressed, are stored in the body tissues and fluids as bound energy; they are also stored in the unconscious psyche as images. Somatic work touches upon and awakens the unconscious store of memories, feelings, images, and knowledge held in the body, as the body softens and opens, allowing the life force beneath our habitual patterns of movement and behaviour to be contacted.”
Linda Hartley, ‘Somatic Psychology’, 1995