embodied learning

The importance of embodiment, arts expression and deep ecology in education

Somatic Stories

A Personal story: Reflections – On becoming a primate – RJF


My advocacy for early integration of Somatic Education into education stems from learning “the hard way” (through pain and disability) that maladapted postural and emotional habits become much more entrenched in adulthood and therefore much harder to change.


I was in my 30’s when I began my studies of Somatic Education in the forms of T’ai Chi, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, and Body-Mind Centering. But my old habits ran deep and, at 51, I was felled by debilitating back pain which stems from many years as a teenager and in my 20’s of being “studious” and working with microscopes, all with poor internal postural support. My slow and painstaking ongoing rehabilitation process has involved lots of lessons in the Alexander Technique (I am blessed by being the partner of a master teacher of AT), and has been punctuated by several “aha” moments that I would like to share. These highlight the role of kinesthetic “imagery”* or “empathetic resonance” during change work in “how to” do things (resetting our procedural memory).


*Pioneers in the field of S.E. have often used imagery as part of their instruction to students: FM Alexander devised “orders”, also called “directions”, such as “Let my neck be free…let my back lengthen & widen…” (see Alexander’s book, The Use of the Self); Lulu Sweigard in her work with dancers used many “idiokinetic images” to illustrate and support them to change, such as visualizing the ribs and spine as an umbrella; she also used imagined “lines of movement” similar to Alexander’s directions to facilitate muscle lengthening (Sweigard, 1974).


The most powerful kinesthetic images I have experienced in my own somatic work have appeared spontaneously to me during and after a lesson or self-work, and they illustrate the way in which somatic work can facilitate a sense of evolutionary eco-connection:

1) Myself as the Dune worm

2) Myself as the Raptor

3) Myself as the Primate


1)    Myself as the Dune worm


One day after one of my first AT lessons, I drove home and began walking around my lounge room; the AT “feel” was still in my body, and as I walked around I suddenly WAS a huge worm, like those described in the book “Dune”! My movement was being led by my head for the “first” time, with the rest of my spine following along and my legs simply catching me with each forward step*. It felt wonderfully smooth, coherent, total-body-integrated, and I playfully undulated and swirled around in my new “worm-body”.


*The evolution of bilateral symmetry and body plans with head-tail ends, and later limbs, resulted in movement-organizational reflexes initiated by the exteroceptive sensory head end – a plan which can be observed in worms to vertebrates. Humans (and perhaps human-trained / zoo-kept animals) are unique in disrupting this pattern (Alexander referred to as “primary control”) by leading movements, such as walking and standing up from sitting, with other body parts (legs, chest, chin, etc).


Of course, this experience was generated by my kinesthetically picking up the “primary control” from the hands of an experienced AT teacher, and once I started “doing things” in my usual (remembered) way, the head-leading direction “wore off”. When I see this functioning well in young children it reinforces my belief that we all have this whole-body delightful movement as our birthright and what a shame it is to role model/educate children out of it with socially constructed postures and ways of moving (marching, ballet and gymnastic postures come to mind) or “sitting-up-straight” instructions.


2)    Myself as the Raptor

Animation movies of dinosaurs are becoming more realistic in their depiction of ancient movement patterns, but nothing beats my experience of BEING a raptor myself! This happened one day spontaneously as I stood up after a session on the AT table – my teacher had patiently been lengthening all of my habitually tense muscles so that I felt light and buoyant and springy on my feet. With my eyes and head leading I began to walk around the room and I experienced myself for the first time as a quadruped that had stood up on my hind legs! I no longer had “arms” and “legs” with completely different neural organization, but four limbs, two of which were catching my body weight as my head and torso leaned toward my intended path; the other two limbs were too short to support my walking, so they dangled loosely and could reach and carry if I desired.


It seems amazing to me now that humans are able to completely “forget” somatically that they are in fact neurally organized as quadrupeds. It seems to me that many of the maladapted patterns leading to pain and injury in joints, neck and back stem from this “forgetting”. I often wonder whether an intelligent vertebrate can perceive the “wrongness” in so much of human movement, the way a big cat can pick out a sick or injured prey…


3)    Myself as the Primate

During my self rehab I found myself drawn to watching videos (one in particular called “Cousins”) of primates moving. I intuitively felt that I could relearn how to support my poor back by watching the experts; “like watching good athletes – only even more back-to-basics”.


One day, after meditative immersion in such primate movement I got up from sitting and discovered I AM a primate! Well DER! you might say. But I’ve never felt my primateness so vividly despite all my cognitive knowledge of evolution and biological realities.


From then on, my experience of myself (when somatically conscious) has been of being a human primate – superimposed on a reptilian ancestry – even a worm-like great-great ancestry – finally in context: not a human being apart from the “animals”, but a limb on the tree of life, thoroughly embedded in my ecological context. Most recently, during the writing of this chapter and the day after watching a documentary about ancestral hominids running across the plains of Africa, I have discovered myself walking-as-if-running, with my attentional field expanded to the horizon. Perhaps I am “coming home again” to my human nature, the long way?



Sweigard, L. (1974) Human Movement Potential: Its ideokinetic facilitation, NY, Harper & Row.

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