Breathing, not squeezing.

We read a lot about ‘the core’ in the media, in social media sites and fitness blogs. Yes, sure, for bodyworkers like myself it is a convenient shorthand to describe a particular muscle function but it is really time to bust the myth of ‘the core’. As human beings, we are not supposed to be walking around bracing, pulling in our stomachs and squeezing our pelvic floors! It’s just not a functional or comfortable way of using our bodies. I know, if you have been to any exercise class you will have heard the advice to hold your stomach in while you exercise, and, hands up, I have been the person saying this in the past, back in the olden days when I was an aerobics instructor. The problem is, we can be pulling in our belly muscles too strongly and teaching our body to override the natural reaction of our stabilising muscles. All sorts of problems can result from this, from displacement of the pelvis to problems with the gut and breathing.

So what do we do to get our deep stabilising muscles functioning well? I spend a lot of time explaining the role of these muscles to my Pilates students. These are the muscles situated close to our joints, mostly they cross over just one joint whereas our bigger articulating muscles typically cross two joints. Stabilisers have the role of giving some firmness and solidity to our skeleton so we don’t collapse every time we move a limb. If your spinal muscles are not able to stabilise you, this collapse is more or less what happens to your spinal column over time. But here’s the thing: the body has an inbuilt way of creating stability in the system, it’s very clever and we do it all the time: breathing. In case you didn’t know, the Pilates way of movement is not about squeezing the stomach in and tensing the muscles, Pilates moves are based on learning good alignment of the skeleton and joints combined with good breathing technique. The rest follows on. Your belly muscles, buttock muscles and shoulder blades need to be ready to receive the forces that life throws at you.

When we breath the deep abdominal muscles naturally contract, being part of the fascial web containing the diaphragm. With an outward breath, the pelvic floor naturally contracts and there is more space for the shoulder blades to lower, giving freedom to your neck. How do you breath? Imagine you have a rubber band around the mid chest (women, it’s where your bra band is). Sit upright on a chair with feet square on the floor. Be relaxed! Without raising the shoulders expand the ribcage so you lightly stretch the rubber band. Inhale and expand widthways into your back. Each time you exhale, imagine you are growing taller. Breath, not squeezing, is the foundation of Pilates.

Somatic Movement Workshops

Here are the dates for the next set of Somatic Movement workshops at The Barlow Rooms, Middlethorpe Hall. I hope you’ll come and be part of this group of people who love to move.

30th January
20th February
13th March
3rd April
24th April

Sessions will be will be 10.30 am – 11.45, £12 per session. Get back to me  to book your space, you can  pay on the day or in advance by bank transfer, I’ll give bank details when you book. I’m able to take 8 movers, but sessions will always take place, even with just one other.

What is a Somatic Movement Workshop like?

I will usually begin with a loosely structured moving warm up. This work is not mat based, you are free to use all the lovely space in this beautiful room. We might walk, skip, run or roll, I’ll make movement suggestions, you choose how you’d like to interpret them.  I often introduce a theme, maybe to do with our physical anatomy, or ideas from poetry, pictures, objects. The group then explores movement with the theme in mind. While you move  other ideas, memories or imaginations bubble up into our awareness, you can follow your own movement impulses. Towards the end of the time we take 15 minutes or so to make drawings or write, reflecting on whatever our experience of movement has been during this time.

You might dance, sort of, but you don’t have to be a dancer. Somatic movement is not about performance, nor about physical fitness, we develop a sense of self and a sense of community as we move. Sometimes our movement is minimal, we might just want to cover up with a blanket and listen to the room ( blankets are provided!). We learn to listen to our body, really listen and respond to it. Without pressure, or judgement we can make the silliest movements we like, or the most serious and deeply felt shapes. And we see what arises as a result. Like training a muscle or learning to play an instrument, this type of movement practice helps reshape our neural pathways, we discover our own place of restfulness, concentration, the joy of moving and being moved, and an opening of our creative impulse as we find a feeling of flow.

I’m now available for private somatic sessions, (£55) which are of course more tailored to each person. Let me know if you’d like to work individually, either on a regular basis or an occasional session. In a private session we can move/dance together, touch and contact improvisation might be used to bring awareness to the body. We might draw, write, make structures, use props, in response to moving. Our session together will be regenerative, promoting deep rest as we drop out of the everyday and into imagination, movement and creativity.

Somatic Movement and Pilates



So, what is ‘somatics’ and what are we going to do to discover all this good stuff?

My practice of somatic dance is to do with sensing, feeling, noticing what is happening in  body and in mind as Imove. We might say this is dance but there are no steps, no pre set patterns, and sometimes even very little movement. Somatic dance is an invitation to follow the impulse of the body in the moment, all movement is welcome.

If you’ve been  in Pilates classes at our studio you might be familiar with our particular way of teaching you how to use your body. In a Pilates class I invite you to sense and feel into the movement that you are making: we try for a somatic approach. However, Pilates is not a somatic practice as such, it is a form, a discipline to be learned and mastered, the teacher adjusts your body to the optimum position to enhance strength and flexibility.
Somatics refers to a way of moving that involves awareness of bodily sensation. The somatic practitioner explores sensation in their body to bringing awareness of being in the moment, to open and play with imagination, to get a sense of where they are in the world and in life. Through spending time ‘being’ in and with body, we become more at home in ourselves, our mind is refreshed, we feel good.
In our workshops we’ll begin with some basic introduction to free movement and take some time to check in with the body… make sure we know where our head, hands and feet are. And heart of course.  …I will always begin with ‘find a place where you feel comfortable’….this might be lying down, standing up, sitting on a chair, you decide.  I’ll be your movement guide and you’ll be invited to move (or not if you’d rather be still) following your own impulse. I might bring up a theme for us to spark our imagination. There will be drawing, (my drawing is always more like scribbling and doodling, no skill is required here!) and/or writing. To me, it always feels like a restorative journey of movement, making and words, I walk away feeling that I’m the right way up. Keep in touch to hear about upcoming workshops or book for a private session.

Sensing, feeling and Pilates: a somatic approach to the Pilates Method

Somatics is a broad brush describing many approaches to embodied movement practices, put briefly, a somatic approach develops perceptual, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive sensitivity with the purpose of developing awareness of soma, the felt body self: body, mind and spirit.

Somatic practice has enriched the Pilates class for both myself and my clients: giving ourselves permission to step away from an emphasis on perfecting form and performance for a while and dropping into an experience of sensation helps us notice how the body feels as it moves. Of itself, this somatic experiencing is restorative on many levels and this way of knowing the body ultimately feeds back into every aspect of our lives, Pilates included.

My personal somatic practice is based on free dance movement, it differs from Pilates in that there is no formal structure. It goes without saying that I love the method and formality of Pilates, but somatic time is time spent with movement impulse and active imagination, a place for reflection and understanding, where I can put aside self criticism. More than anything, this is a time to explore meaning and presence in the body and get involved in a relationship between body and mind.

Contemporary somatic practices are the result of creativity and collaboration over generations of movement education reaching back into the nineteenth century and beyond. From the Alexander Technique to Authentic Movement, from Bartenieff to Halprin, from Feldenkrais to Body Mind Centering, and many others, these methods help us explore our mind body connection. Our current Pilates practices also reach back into history and are rooted in the different schools developed by Joe’s students and the people who influenced them, each teacher adding their own wisdom to the work. We may be using postural cues borrowed from the Alexander technique, release work from Feldenkrais, breathing techniques from Gendlin and Selver, rhythm from Bartenieff and Laban without realising where they have come from. Have a look at Martha Eddy’s excellent book ‘Mindful Movement’ where she lays out the history of somatic education and discusses conscious embodiment as a social and political act.

So where do I begin when a client has no sense of their own body, can’t ‘cat stretch’ or tilt their pelvis? There are so many reasons for loss of bodily sensibility and agency, or for the shape of us, or the way we feel about ourselves. We know Joe said ‘Contrology is not a fatiguing system of dull boring abhorred exercises repeated daily “ad nauseum”’ (Return to Life, page 10) but on that page in the preceding paragraph he points out that ‘Teachers start with sense organs’. My work as a somatic educator is to make suggestions which might lay open doorways into movement perception. Not to direct: arm here, leg there; (I did a lot of that when I was a fitness instructor!) but to allow my client to move however they can and for them to find meaning for themselves in their movement.

This is where bringing a somatic sensibility to Pilates can help. And I have to point out here that this approach is not for everyone. People who come to work with me in somatic movement sessions are anticipating free movement, whereas many of my Pilates clients prefer to be directed. And that is OK, what’s important here is that I respond to the needs of the client, sometimes ‘arm here, leg there’ is the right thing at that time.

My somatic session might begin with acknowledging the external environment, looking around the room and noticing the colours of the walls, the shadows and light, and the other people who are in the room. Or noticing the texture of the floor, the feeling of clothes against skin, the weight of your body as it meets the ground. We bring ourselves into presence and embodiment with sight, smell, sound, touch and taste, the sound and movement of our breath and the feel of our skin.

Touch is an invitation for the body to move and reposition itself at more than just the muscular skeletal level. Touch facilitates change not only in body but also in the mind, the psyche. Our emotions are stimulated by touch. If we are unable to touch our client, because we are teaching through a screen for example, then we can still invite and guide our clients to be aware of their body through their own touching of skin and skeleton. We can rub hands together, tap, pat, rub arms and legs, face and scalp, massage feet and toes or explore the boniness of knees, ankle, pelvis, shoulders. Remember, the body is constantly being touched by something, whether clothing, ground or air, we can bring our attention to this. Noticing and attending to touch is about waking up our felt sense of body.

In our somatic session we might take several minutes for this settling in time, to feel skin, or bone weight, or sense the presence of your organs. We could be standing, lying supine or prone, or seated, the mover may choose. Then as facilitator I must to step back and allow the client to follow their own impulse, to discover their own movement. A few suggestions dropped in might be of help, imagining the spine as a colour or as a texture for example, but also remembering that this might be meaningless to the client and allowing for that experience too. A movement suggestion might be accepted or ignored, let the mover choose. In the brain the neocortex and thalamus are involved in imagination, sensation and motor response. Using imagination to pretending to feel the weight of your pelvis, or the heart being jostled by the lungs, or the spine lengthening leads to felt awareness of bodily sensation.

If you can feel it and move it, you can change it. Through somatic movement we are aiming to feel our body from within. But let’s remember our lived experience, emotions and unexpressed trauma are held in the body. Bringing a somatic sensibility to our Pilates clients invites them into body as a felt entity, but we should be competent enough to support the client with a sense of safety and reassurance. If somatic movement education is calling you, I suggest visiting try different styles and teachers, then take time to immerse yourself. Just as with our Pilates training, we can’t learn this by just reading about it.

Patricia Issitt

Movement and fluidity, keep it flowing.


The body always strives for homeostasis. In other words the body is constantly adjusting itself to ensure cells have enough oxygen, or the gut is functioning as it should, or that we can balance upright and don’t fall over and. Of course, sometimes in life we encounter difficulties in these areas, things go wrong, but the body always attempts to correct itself or find a way around the problem. Our body is a fluid system and within the outside layer of our skin we are squelchy and squidgy fluid beings.
At a primary level, our diaphragm is continually rising and falling, our breath bringing oxygen into the body as we breathe in and expelling carbon dioxide as we breathe out. Our heart is continually beating to spin blood through vessels in a centrifugal motion, arteries taking oxygen laden blood to all the cells in the body, veins returning carbon dioxide loaded blood to the lungs to be expelled. All this activity is going on in our bodies without our intervention, it happens without our knowing it. The enteric system of the gut, the lymphatic system and the endocrine system of hormones, all are regulating the homeostasis, the balance of the body, at all times whether we know it or not. We could say that the body has it’s own intelligence, and it is a fluid intelligence. Think of how a river flows: around obstacles, carving out banks, carrying debris which sometimes becomes congested in crooks and bends in the system. Observing the flow of a body of water can give us an insight into the movement of fluid in our bodies. Consider that all our cells are jostling with each other, floating in fluid, the interstitial fluid which supports the cellularity of our body. We tend to think of ourselves as solid, it’s strange to think that we are around 75% water! It makes sense that the body is designed to move and it is movement that keeps us alive.

organic movement: it’s not only about your muscles!

We tend to think of movement as being to do with our limbs, our muscles, our skeleton and overlook the most fundamental movements of all. Deep in our body our heart is beating a rhythm against our diaphragm, and the diaphragm responds by drawing breath into the body.
The chemical reasoning for this is that we need aerobic energy for our muscles and organs to function and so our muscles demand oxygen in order to create aerobic energy in the cell. Of course it’s not just our muscle tissue which needs oxygen, every cell in the body requires to be fed with a supply. Oxygen is drawn into the body by the expansion of the lungs. In turn, this expansion is caused by the downward movement of the diaphragm, a big dome like muscle which spans the base of the rib cage, right up inside to the base of the breast bone at the front, running all the way around the rim of the rib cage and anchoring down into the the spine. Think of the shape of an umbrella and how you might tip it back over your shoulder when the rain stops. This gives you an idea of the position of the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is attached as far down as the middle of the lumbar spine, so think about how our breath can influence the position and movement of the spine. There’s a significant amount of pushing and pulling going on as a result of the action of the diaphragm. When the diaphragm pulls down into the body, air is drawn into the lungs and oxygen is taken up by microscopic blood vessels, delivered to the heart via bigger and bigger tributaries and finally through the pulmonary veins and into the left atrium. The heart is talked about as a pump which forces the blood through itself and out into the body. Rather, imagine the action of the heart to be like a spinning top, which sends the blood through the heart’s chambers by centrifugal force, causing the blood to flush through the arterial system. If you were to see a heart in dissection you would see how it can be unwrapped and then reassembled almost like a french plait, with the big tributaries forming a braid across the front of the heart. the structure of the heart itself suggests a spiralling motion rather than the image of a mechanical pump, like a bike pump.
We tend to think of our organs as being deep and fixed into position inside their cavities: the heart fixed there and immoveable, the diaphragm and lungs stuck into position, but as we move our too, so our organs move. Not only do we need the heart and diaphragm to be strong and functional in order to send blood around the body and feed our tissues, the organs as entities benefit from being subject to movements involving twisting, turning, reaching, rolling. Make sure you include these types of movements in your workout.

Stable core muscles? First let’s breathe!


      Just like any movement method, in Pilates we work with a set of principles and the 8 principles of Pilates are all an important part of how we learn to move. Yes, for sure, they are part of developing  what physiotherapists call a stable core, but the so called core muscles are not really what Pilates is about. ‘The Core’ is an expression first used by physiotherapists back in the 1980’s but Pilates as a movement form had been around for decades before then. Before the word ‘core’ was invented Joe Pilates called the muscles of the trunk ‘the Powerhouse’, and in Pilates the focus into the powerhouse is the start of our movement. Most people have perfectly adequate core muscles, in Pilates we learn to sense what they are, what they feel like and how to notice and focus on them while we move. This is why Pilates is often recommended for rehabilitation, but this focus also is the basis of many other movement methods too.
Follow the Pilates priciples; Concentrate; Move with precise alignment; lightly activate the centre muscles; breath; mentally isolate your deep muscles; move with flow, use coordinated movement and rhythm; be controlled; relax, there’s no struggle in a Pilates move.
We tend to think of movement as being to do with our limbs, our muscles and our skeleton and overlook the most fundamental movements of all. Deep in our body our heart is beating a rhythm against our diaphragm, and the diaphragm responds by drawing breath into the body. The diaphragm is attached all around the inside of the ribcage and by ligament as far down as the middle of the lumbar spine, so our breath can influence the position and movement of the spine. There’s a significant amount of pushing and pulling going on as a result of the action of the diaphragm, bringing focus to our breathing action as we move helps to establish our core muscles. When you breath out your powerhouse naturally stabilises due to the change in intra abdominal pressure, this is why we suggest using an outward breath where a movement needs stability or strength. Often, people ask “where should I breathe?” during the exercise. I always say that it’s not written in stone and first take time to feel your breath coming in and out of the body, feel the ribcage and diaphragm moving. Use the Pilates principles of concentration, relaxation and flow to notice the breathing rhythm in your body. Once you are tuned in to the feel of your breath you are able to use breathing action to support your movement. It isn’t a magic trick! Lie down and try floating your arm away from the ground a split second after you begin to exhale. Keep repeating it. Give yourself some weeks to practice this, the effect of slow practice is like water dripping on a stone: with time the effects are profound and irrevocable.

Practicing Pilates: a whole body system.

I’m often asked for an exercise to ‘fix’ a problem. For example, someone recently came to Pilates class with a niggle in their upper back and asked if there was anything they could do to sort it out. I get it of course, I know if I ever have aches and pains I just want to find a rapid solution to get rid. But Pilates doesn’t work like that, it’s not a quick fix. My usual reply to the question is to lie down and relax on the floor with knees bent…and do your Pilates routine.

Pilates is a wonderful movement method so long as you take time to learn the basic repertoire and do some daily (we hope!) practice. It will keep you strong, supple and also give you time to relax and reflect. That’s not to say it’s a soft option. I often remind my classes that they aren’t here to do a relaxation class…although they will feel relaxed after their class because of the mental focus that needs to be applied coupled with the attention to their breath and their body as they perform each move.

With time and practice we expect to see progression: the exercises should become more challenging and be felt deeper into the body – that’s where a good teacher comes in to help you find the internal focus. The more I practice Pilates the more I understand that the method is not about a series of shapes and positions that we might be able to make with our body, Pilates, or any other movement method for that matter, is about the way we sense our position and our effort. I want to feel my whole body being involved in my movement, and how often to we have the time and awareness to do that? My hour or even 10 minutes of practice is all about feeling my breath, observing my muscles working, taking courage to move into places that are new and challenging to my body.

So, how does this ‘fix’ a problem? Pilates has a reputation as the ‘go to’ system for mending backs. Physiotherapists, doctors, surgeons have all sent their patients to Pilates to promote and sustain healing. Our body is completely interconnected via our fascia and our connective tissues: ligaments, blood, lymph, nerves etc. It is the ‘whole body’ nature of Pilates that supports self healing. It works!

Creativity and Structure: a discussion of the work of Rudolph Laban and Joseph Pilates in Relationship to Personal Practice

For twenty years I have been practising and teaching the Pilates method for health and wellbeing. In that time I have learned from many different practitioners, all with their own voices and interpretations. Some have led me into blind alleys, others have inspired me to take a sideways look at a different picture, but through all, my curiosity has been driven by the body, my body, the workings of it, its mystery, and my sense of self, my relationship to others and to my environment.

Exploring the somatic process has enriched my own personal movement practice and given me a deeper physical understanding of the work that I do. As a Bowen practitioner I am intrigued by the body’s connective tissue web of fascia, a tensegrity system that maintains the body in movement and function and the evolving of understanding that the body is not the machine-like entity it has been held to be. As an artist, my creative practice has been concerned with my relationship with internal geography: what I feel, what I am: my sense of presence; and with the process of creativity. Considering the tapestry of influences that is the fabric of the somatic education field, I set out to write this essay to discover how my own interests and practice are woven in, how my own threads of understanding contribute to the whole and to pursue the cross weaving of influences from some key somatic ancestors who may have played their part in my own interpretive practice of Pilates as a somatic practice.

Introduction: unravelling a web of influences.

My love for movement and dance reaches back to my happy infant days at school in the 1960s when we children took ‘Music and Movement’ lessons from the BBC Home Service, (BBC 1957) involving free movement, expression and use of imaginative visualisation, not knowing or caring that the lesson was based on Rudolf Laban’s theories of the phenomenology of dance. The art historian and philosopher of education, Herbert Read, (Read 1943) was profoundly influential in the area of British post war teacher training. Read’s philosophy embraced Jungian psychology and the Platonic ideal of giving the arts a central position in the education of the child. Read lay the ground for Laban influenced movement to be taught in the British state school system and until the 1970’s modern educational dance was taught in most state schools. (Preston-Dunlop 2008). As a child I was familiar with this type of movement class:

Run anywhere. Which part of you is touching the floor? Now move in different ways with your feet still touching the floor. (The children may skip, hop, gallop, slip, jump, -etc……) […..] curl up in little ball on the floor; roll along. You have been rolling in a little ball. Can you roll stretched out? can you find another way of travelling with your body on the floor? (Anon. London County Council 1964: 15)

This teachers handbook cites Laban’s Modern Educational Dance in its bibliography. ‘education was for him [Laban] an education of the whole person, including the spirit.’ (Preston-Dunlop 2008: 229) Fascinated by my connection to this lineage and by how one person may shape the life of another across decades, I will first revisit some of my own influencers along the route of my journey into teaching movement and into somatic education, noting their connections to somatic education pioneers.

‘aerobics may add years to your life but it doesn’t necessarily add life to your years’ (Knaster 1996: 247). I taught aerobics to earn my keep while I was at University studying for a Degree in Art, thirty years ago, it was through this work that I encountered The Pilates Method.
As a new Pilates teacher I was introduced to the work of the somatic educator, Liz Koch, (Koch 1999) In her workshops Koch had taken inspiration from Emilie Conrad the originator of Continuum, using relaxation, sounding and breath work to promote sensation and response in deep muscle tissue. Koch incorporated the ball work of Elaine Summers’ Kinetic Awareness method into her classes, utilising soft yielding balls to promote fluidity in the fascial structures of the body.

Working with Koch facilitated for me an experience of sensual embodiment and introduced me to the work of anatomist and Rolfer Dr Gil Hedley, whose research into fascia taught me the significance of interstitial fluidity in maintaining movement function and the importance of movement to maintain fascial function (Juhan 2003). Movement is the essence of our being in a body. Studying anatomy in the pathology laboratory with Hedley, our anatomical researches are supported by our acknowledgement of what it is to be alive as we students are reminded of our somatic presence through witnessing circles, meditation and sharing touch between students at the start of each day of study.

Koch and Hedley highlighted the limitations of Cartesian Dualism for me, the traditionally held assumption that mind and body are separate, (Soloman and Higgins 1996; Stumpf and Fieser 2003) instead offering me the understanding that the body and the mind, or psyche, is a completely integrated system. These two practitioners led me into an exploration embodiment and a pursuit of understanding of the nature of fascia and its role in wellbeing. I learned that the body has the ability to make decisions, to message information throughout the entirety of itself, to self regulate function.

[…] physical action cannot be seen as mechanical manipulation mysteriously governed from a distance by mental commands. The body is not a passive vehicle simply awaiting instructions from the mind. Nor is it a system of pulleys and levers ( as seventeenth century mechanistic philosophers thought) that only comes to light when infused with a soul. Rather it is inactive entity, capable of goal oriented action and intelligent response to the environment. (Carel 2014: 26)

Bowen patients remark that, besides the change in their aches and pains, they feel lighter, happier, the fog has lifted, they feel calmer. Havi Carel, discussing the philosophical view of phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty states: ‘the separation between mind and body does not make sense’ (Ibid)

My personal practice of Pilates has become informed by my experience of Somatic Movement, my experience of giving Bowen touch therapy has been deepened by my somatic exploration of touch and presence. These practices have all contributed to developing an ongoing sense of felt connection to my internal and external environments.

From my journal: Winter solstice at Sandgreen beach. I allow my feet to anchor to the sand and my standing body to become heavy in my joints. I hear the distant sea, the oyster catcher and my own breath. I stand still and experience weight through my bones and the unity of myself and my surroundings.
Historical Context

My research into the history of the earlier influencers of somatic education and the placing of my own practice based on the work of Joseph Pilates, in this timeline, drew me to the period during and after the Great War. After the war, in Germany, following the abdication of the Kaiser and ensuing economic upheaval, there was a zeitgeist of rebellion, a desire for freedom expressed in new art forms and cultural transformations. The Expressionist Movement, expounding the expression of subjective experience, arose out of of the Weimar Republic and extended into art, dance, theatre, film, architecture and music (Eddy 2017). In this time of change and upheaval, politically engaged artists such as Otto Dix who had fought in the trenches, Ernst Kirchner who founded Die Brucke art movement and the artists such as Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee of Der Blaue Reiter group expressed a desire for a new, more liberal and open society (Tate 2019). At the University of Munich, the Munich Group of Realist Phenomenologists were concerned with the study of consciousness from a first person point of view. The development of the psychotherapeutic paradigms of Freud and Jung meant that the traditional constraints against showing feeling were being challenged. This cultural climate was ready for inner exploration of the feeling body.

In Munich in the pre war years, the artist Wasily Kandinsky, ‘Concerning the Spiritual and Art’ (1911) theorised the significance of colour and form interdependence. Kandinsky’s approach counterpointed Laban’s movement theories of rhythm and space: exciting new theories of subjectivism in art and movement, concerning expression of the experiential rather than the performative. Along with new discoveries in medicine, neurophysiology and psychology, this was the cultural background for the development of new forms of therapeutic body approaches and movement therapies. My childhood Laban based music and movement lessons reach right back into this era.

Munich was a hotbed of cultural creativity at this time and here Laban absorbed the Eurythmics of Emile-Jacques Dalcroze and studied the Korperkultur of the American physician and sculptor Bess Mensendieck a teacher of Gymnastik. considered to be one of the grandparents of somatic work. (Speads interviewed by Hanna 1981) Mensendieck’s system of Gymnastik emphasised the therapeutic benefits of exercise: a whole body and mind approach. Mensendieck was pragmatic in her approach although as Valerie Preston-Dunlop points out; ‘The focus of philosophical interest amongst thinkers, critics and artists…was undeniably spiritual’ (Preston-Dunlop 2008:19).

During the war years Laban was in Zurich and became acquainted with Carl Gustav Jung. Jung’s theories of the Four Archetypes and the functions of intuition, sensing, thinking and feeling as a means to discover an inner world, exerted a profound influence on Laban, who found parallels between psychic function and the movement framework of time, weight, space and flow. Laban’s teaching was of movement and expression and the pursuit of physical and spiritual freedom. What places him in Eddy’s timeline of Somatic pioneers and influencers (Eddy 2017:102) is his concern with inner exploration of the self through dance and movement, dance as an expression and inner felt experience, rather than the purely performative aesthetic of dance. (Bolsanello 2015)

‘Rudolf Laban’s ideas were influenced by the social and cultural changes of the time and the contexts that he worked in. Rudolf Laban believed the best way to advocate this freedom was by mirroring it in dance and the movement arts.’ (Preston-Dunlop: 2017)

Laban’s wide ranging curiosity and eclecticism explain his pivotal role in the development of the movement practices which lead into our understanding of somatic movement education. Laban provided me with my earliest influence in movement at infant and junior school, my realisation since researching this essay. I am interested to discover that Laban and Pilates were contemporaries in inter-war Hamburg. (Rouhianien 2010) After internment in Great Britain as an alien during the First World War, Joseph Pilates had returned to Germany and settled in Hamburg in 1919. (Friedman and Eisen cited in Rouhianien 2010). Laban established a dance school there in 1923, it is said that Laban watched Pilates at work and incorporated some of the strengthening routines into his own classes. (Knaster Western Movement Arts p255) (Rouhanien 2010). At this time Mensendieck was also in Hamburg teaching Gymnastik, a movement method originally designed for women. Pilates however had been a ‘Turnvereine’ coached by his father in military style of apparatus based physical fitness.

Previously the only system of physical education in Germany was created for men. It emphasised muscle building and was almost a preparation for military training. It was Mensendieck and Kallmeyer who introduced gymnastik in Germany and Elsa Gindler studied with Kallmeyer in Berlin. (Speads interviewed by Hanna 1981)

Before the war Pilates had made a reputation as a physical trainer. We can speculate about the influences that the whole body movement practices of Mensendieck, the expressionism of Laban and the breath work of Elsa Gindler in Berlin, were to have on him during the seven years that he spent in Hamburg. At this time the psychoanalytical work of Freud and Jung were well known in cultural circles and their ideas were taken up by teachers involved with physical wellbeing. We can detect no direct acknowledgement of these thinkers in Pilates’ publication ‘Your Health’ (1938) and yet his method emphasises breath, concentration, flowing movement, and control of mind over body, harking back to the work of Gindler who incorporated Freudian psychotherapeutic elements into her breath and movement work (Loukes 2006).

‘Contrology begins with mind control over muscles’ (Pilates 1998: 10) which begs the question: was something lost in translation between the doing of the movements and the writing of them? An immigrant with English as his second language, he must have found himself needing to earn his living. An advertising pamphlet for Pilates’ studio from circa 1935 states that his method of exercise will improve the individual’s life opportunities by improving his physique:‘with drooping shoulders, hanging heads, weak heart and lungs in a flat underdeveloped chest, with flat feet, bow legs, knock knees – or with a body thin or too fat, you can never be as successful as you should be’
His emphasis on the importance of a healthy body and a healthy mind appears to be more to do with the individual’s function in society rather than individual personal growth and emotional wellbeing. (ibid) However he also states in Return to Life Through Contrology:

‘such a body freed from nervous tension and over fatigue is the ideal shelter provided by nature for housing a well balanced mind that is always fully capable of successfully meeting all the complex problems of modern living. Personal problems are clearly thought out and calmly met’ (ibid: p23)

It is impossible to execute Pilates Method fully without breath awareness and bodily concentration and in this respect the practice of the Pilates Method requires somatic awareness. I propose that Pilates himself must have experienced this understanding, but was unable to convey meaning to his students. Pilates was a undoubtedly a ‘kinetic genius’ ( Eddy 2017:56), was he a somatic educator in our contemporary understanding of the word? The principles outlined by ISMETA (2019), may question whether Pilates was a somatic educator due to the overtly directed nature of his Method but he must be placed in the role of influencer to the first generation of somatic pioneers. (Eddy 2017)

An aim of somatic movement practice is ‘to develop a person’s capacity to move with internal awareness and a sensitive engagement to their body’ (Collinson and Lamford 2018) and this is certainly my experience of Pilates Method practice. Many of the pioneers of somatic education learned and practiced his method, especially in the world of dance: Martha Graham and George Balanchine would recommend dancers to Pilates for rehabilitation and strengthening, Ted Shawn, Ruth St Dennis, Hanya Holm, ( Rouhianien pp 4; 9) and Elaine Summers (Eddy 2017:56) amongst many others, took tuition from Pilates, a crossover with the influence of Laban and the ongoing development of somatic movement research carried forward by dancers such as Elaine Summers and Hanya Holm.

The Pilates method directed me towards discovery of the somatic field but my engagement with this method follows a thread from my Laban inspired creative movement education. The practice of breath, movement, concentration and quietude required in Pilates fulfils the description of a somatic practice for an experienced practitioner although the specific spoken guidance needed to teach and learn the method can, for the novice, negate spontaneity and movement impulse. Knowledge of the Somatic field will deepen practice of the Pilates method, but the reverse cannot be true.

Movement inspired by Laban and Pilates have both contributed to my own felt experience of physicality and self. Laban expounded expressionism, creativity, naturism, sexual freedom, experimentation in the pursuit of understanding self and spirit. Pilates work was about discipline and creating physical agency in a modern industrial world. ‘It is this history of diversity across numerous bodily, creative and scientific professions that engenders the continuing interdisciplinary nature of somatic education’ (Eddy 2009:11).

Reflection on historical precedents to our current position as Somatic practitioners and scholars moves us forward into a commonality from which meaningful research and evolution may take place. Considering these two pioneering influencers to our field of somatic education practice has been foundational in establishing an understanding of how my interests and practice have been informed.

Reference list

Art Terms, 2019. Tate Art Galleries. [online] Available at https;// [Accessed 20th April 2019]

BBC (1957) Home Service schedule Web page available at accessed 23rd April 2019

Bolsanello, D. (2015) ‘Is Pilates a Somatic Education Method?’, Brazilian Journal on Presence Studies, Porto Alegre. 5:1, pp101-126.

Carel, H. (2014) Illness. Routledge, Abingdon Oxon. OX14 4RN. pp 26

Collinson, P. Lamford, T. (2018) Induction notes to the MA in Dance and Somatic Wellbeing 2018-2019 University of Central Lancashire.

Eddy, M. (2009) A brief history of somatic practices and dance: historical development of the field of somatic education and it’s relationship to dance. Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices vol 1:1 p24

Eddy, M. (2017) Mindful Movement, The Evolution of the Somatic Arts and Conscious Action.
Bristol, Intellect. p65; p102;

German Expressionism, (2019). Museum of Modern Art, New York. [online] Available at < [Accessed 20th April 2019]

ISMETA (2019). Scope of Practice. Available at <https:/> Accessed 20th April 2019

Hedley, G. Inner Space Library, (2019). Available at <> accessed 24th April 2019

Hanna,T. (1981) Interview with Carola Spears, in D. Hanlon Johnson (ed) Bone, Breath and Gesture Practices of Embodiment, Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books. p26

Juhan,D. (2003), Job’s Body. Barrytown, New York: Barrytown/Station Hill Press. pp59-90

Knaster, M. (1996) Discovering the Body’s Wisdom. New York, New York: Bantam Books. p247

Koch,L. (1999) The Psoas Book. Guinea Pig Publications

London County Council (1964), Movement for Infants. London County Council, County Hall, London. p.15; p63.

Loukes, R. (2006) ‘ ‘Concentration’ and Awareness in Psychophysical Training: the Practice of Elsa Gindler’ New Theatre Quarterly 22: 4, pp.395-396
<> Accessed 17th April 2019

Preston-Dunlop, V. (2008) Rudolph Laban An Extraordinary Life. Alton, Hampshire, UK. Dance Books LTD p229; p19;

Pilates, J. (1945) Return to Life Through Contrology. Address not available, Presentation Dynamics. Second edition 1998. p10; pp8-24;

Preston-Dunlop, V. 2017. Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Rudolph Laban. Available at <> Accessed 18th April 2019
Read, H. (1948) Education Through Art. London, Faber. Third edition 1958.

Rouhianien L. (2010) ‘The Evolution of the Pilates Method and its Relation to the
Somatic Field’ Nordic Journal of Dance 2. p65

Soloman, RC and Higgins, KM. (1996) A Short History of Philosophy. Oxford University Press Inc, New York, New York. pp181-186.
Stumpf, ES and Fieser, J. (2003) Socrates to Sartre and Beyond. McGraw Hill, New York, New York. pp232-234

Making small changes will have a big impact

When my personal training students ask me for a Pilates exercise to help strengthen a particular muscle area, or a stretch to help with a muscle restriction, they might be surprised when we begin our session with movements that seem to be for a completely different part of the body. The same when someone comes for Bowen treatment with chronic neck pain, they wonder why I start their treatment on the back of their legs. But here’s the thing: our body is interconnected by mean of the entire muscular and fascial system. The skin, and the layer of fat or adipose tissue beneath, are part of a whole bodily network. What goes on in one part of the body will have an impact throughout our system.

For instance, it could be that something to do with gait – the position of the feet when you walk or run – is causing a ‘head forward’ posture which is setting off that neck pain. In that case, an adjustment to the lower leg will help get rid of troublesome neck posture. Or perhaps the pelvis rotates more than it needs to when you walk and that makes your shoulders lift up in an attempt to stabilise your spine. Rather than fix the shoulders, the problem is to do with pelvic stability.

Making small changes in the body will have a big impact. Changes to the postural system take time, focussed concentration is needed to establish the re-programming of the nervous system and neural pathways which position and move our muscles and joints. To begin with you might not even be able to feel the small movements that I might ask you to make in class. For example, think about your feet: you know you have five toes on each foot but can you feel all five? Do you feel the space between the toes and underneath them? Move each toe individually without looking at them? In a similar way, being able to find the sensation of small postural muscles, like the ones close to the spine around the back of the neck and between the shoulders, feels like an impossible job and the harder you try, the less you seem to feel! But relax, try less, and don’t too many repetitions. Allow the brain to process the information. Once you can sense it, you can feel it. Once you can feel it, you can change it.