The term somatics has been trending for some time now. – Wait. Before I go further, if you want to know about me you can dip into some of that here. For this story, situating that I live with a white, non-disabled body experience feels relevant. Ok, moving into it –
Frontiers in Neuroscience tells me, “There is an emergent movement of scientists and scholars working on somatic awareness and embodiment.”
In broader public spheres, the work of many, many people involved in movements for Black Lives have heaved global consciousness forward. From that on-going work, there have been some calls to do somatic work as part of healing and anti-racism practice.
Those are just some examples. Here and there I notice the term somatics gain that much more traction in popular knowing.
One little factoid that matters to me in this story is that the term somatics was coined in 1979 by a white person in the US. For this story, the parts that matter to me are not who coined this word, because it is not about one person. Rather, this story is more about somatics culture, appropriation, racial justice, respectful relating.
In terms of neologisms, people are always making up new words, as well as continually changing the meaning of words. Personally, I love some new made up words.
The word Somatics is used as a sort of an umbrella word. It refers to a wide variety of practices. The smelly-thing of it is, the wide variety of practices that it refers to are age-old. That is, people have been doing noticing how they feel and other related practices, all over the world, for long-long times. With that in mind, calling all of these somewhat related practices somatics seems a bit like Columbus calling new-to-him-but-already-named lands – the Americas.
But is that the case here? Were these lands already named? While these ways of being-and-doing are not new, was there already an umbrella word that this word somatics is replacing? Do you know, was there an umbrella word?
In English I know of terms like embodiment, awareness, sensing, feeling, mindful, body-mind… Anywho, whether it’s this word somatics, or any other word for that matter – is it even appropriate to name this stuff with one word, be it in English or from any other culture?
No! Says my heart-insides. Language can work magic, bursting open souls and noses into seeing new imaginations and conceptions, sensory organs into FEELing new tastes! There is no need for one word. May all the words be forever slippery!
Pragmatically speaking, having a commonly known term or two to describe this sort of work helps me with basic verbal communication – like, if I want to tell my childhood friend what it is I do. Or, for those of us who desire to earn basic income in exchange for our labor as teachers and/or healers, it certainly helps if we can tell people what the f- we do with nouns and verbs they are remotely familiar with.
Whichever words you use to describe your work, who do those words refer back to, who do they come from?
In most spaces I have been in which use the word somatics, I have repeatedly been informed that a relatively small group of people are the somatic founders. All of those people are white skinned-euro/decent people.
In my experience, when I have gone to a kung fu class, a capoeria class, a zen sit, a yoga class, an authentic movement session, a holiotropic or rebirth breathing group, a religious service, done artistic creating, sang in groups, sat by a tree, been in a focusing group – I find a lot of similar terrain in terms of being of, working with, fostering similar ways of being.
When I go to a gathering spot where people use the word somatics, I have felt a lot of shared terrain with these activities and places noted above. While they are different, they seem to be oriented towards related ways of being-doing.
And also, when I see the word somatics on a brochure – there is some amount of feeling, ‘Ah, yes. That is a somatics class’. I have felt this in so called South America, Turtle Island, and around Europe. What I am saying is, there is something of a somatics culture.
When I arrive at gathering spots which wave the word somatics, the crowd is most often white-light skinned, cis, straight, non-disabled-bodied, mostly women, mostly middle to lot of money-havers people. The spaces I facilitate, the people who work with me, tend to also be mostly white people. These tendencies speak to my own participation in racism as a white person. As well, they speak to broader systemic behavior entangled with racism, classism, patriarchy, colonial-capitalism and more.
Specifically, what I aim to highlight is that I think the word somatics is made by, refers back to, and has been largely used by white people – somatics culture centers around white people, white cultures.
Wonderfully and sometimes terribly so, words and cultures are slippery. Embodiment empires, consciousness studies programs, many spiritual gatherings, somatic or ecstatic dance, movement culture, phenomenologists and more – whatever the word origin, all these examples are cultural hubs dominated by white people. They are centered around white experience.
Call it somatics or embodiment or what have you – if whatever is happening centers white people, it centers white people.
I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. In certain contexts I think this is super – for example, when people with white experience people gather to do anti-racism undoing together and/or learn about their ancestral cultures.
In regards to somatics-and-related spaces, I think one place where bad things creep in is when the promotion material and people involved claim that space as universal, when the people involved don’t recognize or see it as white-experience centered.
I am not trying to pin down, tightly squeeze or corral the word somatics. Nor any word, nor culture noted here.
I am trying to consider them. I am trying to find respectful relating and explore in order to better understand how I do, where I go, what I say, who I am hanging out with – if-what-how that is or is not contributing to racial and other forms of oppression.
Some good news to my perceptors is that the term somatics seems to be slowly changing. This shift, as I understand it, seems to be because of the work that many, many people are – and have been – doing in relation to racial justice. As just one of many examples you could look into the work emerging over at A Lifetime in Quarantine. The word queer was reappropriated from straight people. Perhaps black, brown, global majority-bipoc people can or have already reappropriated the word somatics?!
I don’t know what any of this means for the future of somatics culture broadly, nor any other name-it-what-you-will related culture. Whatever it means, I feel excited about it.
Moving from questions of reappropriation to questions of appropriation.
At times there are real clear examples of all-lives-matter somatics people engaged in all manner of appropriation. Other times, discerning what is cultural appropriation and what is not in relation to somatics feels complex to me.
People have lots of ways to define appropriation. For me, one important aspect in discerning appropriation seems to be about relationships of power. Are people involved in lateral-relating power dynamics or hierarchical ones?
For example, take person G. G is from a dominant/colonizing culture and they are using a practice from culture Z. Culture Z has been systemically oppressed/colonized by G’s culture. Is G being appropriative? Is G earning money, social clout-likes, or practicing rather privately? Has G been invited to teach/heal using this practice by many, many people from culture Z? Is G also, actively following the lead of Z cultural leaders and doing work to unravel the system of oppression that impacts culture Z?
Importantly, as Kim Tran writes, ‘If there’s one thing I’ve learned after almost 10 years of research, it’s that knowing what is or isn’t racist is not a hard science.‘
To be clear, the appropriation I am talking about is not borrowing or cultural fusion. If you feel like those are synonymous terms with appropriation Rina Deshpande, and AORTA collective explain it further. A short way to say what I mean is – vampiring-stealing-using from someone(s) who has less material resources or systemic voice-power than you – and then not pitching in with their struggle to change that systemic power imbalance.
If the word appropriation feels radioactive in you – is there a way that you can you think about this topic through different words or questions – such that you don’t shut down or run away from investigating lateral-and-horizontal dynamics related to your life? If so, please, replace my use of this word with words that work for you.
Those white somatic founders I mentioned earlier, many of them are G. Consider Bainbridge-Cohen, Rolf, or Feldenkrais. Is their work [fill in your words that roughly equate to my use of appropriative]?
If you notice a big ol’ auto-clenching response happening in you, please take a break from this article and do some practice that supports you.
If you return, if you keep reading – I am not accusing any particular person of appropriation here. I am calling in continued awareness and conversation. For, that which has been normalized for white-light skinned people – aka what ‘everybody’ does – has historically been an inaccurate indicator of respectful relationship.
I really like so much of the work of all the people mentioned here. Yet, anytime I have ever written or spoken about appropriation in white somatics spaces I almost always hear a flurry of upset flying outwards in response to such questions. In a field which promotes flexible, responsive nervous systems and regularly leaning-in to edgy, difficult topics, and respectful relating – these questions ought not be sacrilegious to ask. No?
A few of the aforementioned ‘somatic founders‘, such as Mabel Todd, Elsa Gindler, or FM Alexander all seemed to develop their practices while in relative isolation – drawing on their personal experience and basic knowledge from their cultures of origin.
Their stories make me so happy. In part, they help me remember that – simply by exploring one’s felt experience in a nuanced way, one can find incredible things. It’s empowering. I remember that I don’t necessarily need to pay a lot of money nor learn from a god-like teacher in order to find incredibly healing tools and profound moments of being. I can explore, play, pay attention.
Nonetheless, I still find it a huge problem that all the people who I was taught and who I see being named as somatic founders are all white-light skinned people.
Can we all just agree that more-better-appropriate founders for somatic, embodiment, etc. work are other-nature-people?
As somatic culture changes, as there are more black, brown, bipoc, global majority teachers and healers, some of these topics with vastly different dyanmic-shapes rise up. For example, when person B and person Z are from roughly lateral positions in terms of social, systemic power and oppression – when and what is appropriate or appropriation?
In relation to lateral cultural appropriation I feel like there are conversations about lateral cultural appropriation happening that I find to be powerful. All My Relations and Nadra Nittle‘s way of talking about this stuff expands my understanding of relating in vital ways.
In somatic lands there are many systemic power imbalances which effect lives in roughly lateral ways – and I find them to be so friggin tricky. Once I had a boss who was a dancer with quadriplegia. I found him to be classist, sexist, racist. He found me to be ableist (and, probably, other not-so-great things.) We never found mutual, respectful relating.
I find it damaging to engage in oppression olympics. I am not a fan of making tidy lanes that each of us needs to be contained in. We are nature, we are complex, we are messy.
And – at the same time, my body bursts with a yes! to the words of Barbara Smith, “we acknowledge that people have different relations to systemic oppression, based upon who they are, and that we have to take that into account when we are trying to figure out ‘which way forward?’ and ‘what are we going to do to eradicate and to challenge that oppression?“.
Somatics work involves deep healing and learning. We have tools, practices to tend to and explore all our relationships (with humans and other-nature). If we don’t investigate how the power dynamics of our life feel, in both personal and broad, systemic ways – if we don’t use our tools to sense beyond our own skin, to listen in-to the experience of others – then, well, what the heck are we doing?
In the US, the situation is such that we are all currently, still, grappling with the land theft, genocide, slavery and other atrocities done by generations of euro-decent/white colonizing-settlers. While we cannot undo what has been done, we can do something.
We can learn about how other nation states and peoples have navigated similar conversations. We can be in conversation about what sorts of words and actions we might consider, towards national healing and new ways of relating. Many, many people, like Sheila Jackson Lee and the NDN collective for example, have been contributing to moves in this direction.
Can doing reparations work in somatics, embodiment and related cultures become a norm? Investigating power and other dynamics involved in your own line(s) of practice and life seems a piece of that.
For those of ya’ll in this field interested in reparations, deconstructing colonialism and decolonization – investigating our sort-of-lateral relationships and other more-complex dynamics – all that also feels like a part of our work. To you all – no matter what words you use, whether somatics, embodiment, healing justice, feeling, soul journey, or what have you – thank you. I hope we continue to help each other move with and through it all.
As of this crisp October day of the year of the dumpster fire, I do not know what language to use when I am talking about a wide variety of practices which share a lot in common. May the words be forever slippery! And may you turn into a pumpkin if you are not being relationally considerate.
(A version of this article was written more sloppily back in some early month of 2020. This molted version happened 22 oct 2020 – erinbell).