Somatic Education, Movement Therapy,and Massage
Freeing the Body from Habitual Patterns

By Mary Ann Foster

Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, October/November 2004.
Copyright 2004. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

A good massage is not only relaxing, it can also loosen chronic muscular tensions that restrict motion and cause pain. After an effective massage, a client may even leave with a clearer or new awareness of where she holds chronic tensions and a sense of how to release these tensions.

Many massage therapists also study somatic modalities such as Labanalysis, the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and Rolfing because they provide benefits similar to massage while adding an educational component that gives clients the tools they need to help themselves.* This sample of somatic modalities (sometimes referred to as movement therapies) constitutes some of the groundbreaking methods that use movement education and body-mind awareness as primary therapeutic tools.1 Although each modality is therapeutic and qualifies a practitioner to become a registered movement therapist through the International Somatic Movement Educator and Teacher Association, these modalities are first and foremost educational, providing information and exercises a person can continue to use for personal growth after a session or class.2

Each of these modalities shares several fundamental precepts. To begin with, they all take a somatic approach to the body. Somatic refers to the body in all its realms. A somatic approach recognizes that each body pattern is an outward manifestation of deeper mental and emotional aspects of a person. A somatic therapist views the body as a malleable form that is always in flux, whose given postures and movement styles outwardly express an inner kaleidoscope of thoughts and feelings. In a state of health, the soma (which somatic philosopher Thomas Hanna describes as "the living body in its wholeness") moves with grace, ease, and coordination.3 Conversely, inner conflicts and unresolved psychological issues manifest in chronic holding patterns. The somatic psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich termed this phenomenon "muscular armor" -- unconscious muscular contractions that block pain and underlie holding patterns.4

Regardless of whether pain is physical or emotional, skeletal muscles reflexively contract around pain. Chronic contractures create muscular imbalances that restrict motion, lead to postural problems, and underlie chronic pain. Although problematic when unresolved, in a somatic approach muscular holding patterns provide a gateway to unraveling deeper body-mind conflicts.

Another precept the somatic modalities share is that body awareness is the primary tool for change. In short, you have to be able to feel a body pattern before you can change it. During massage, the practitioner's touch helps a client become more aware of her body -- a first step to change. In somatic therapies, the client becomes more aware from sensing her body while it is in motion, either while actively moving during an exploratory exercise or while being passively moved by the somatic therapist.

A third precept of the somatic modalities is that the client or student is an active participant in the process of change, specifically in making choices. Unlike massage, where clients passively receive, somatic students actively participate in body explorations to deepen an awareness of functional patterns. Then, by sensing a contrast between old and new patterns, they can make practical choices to break dysfunctional habits and embody healthier patterns.

The goals and many of the methods used in somatic therapies and massage therapy overlap. Many people receive massage to release chronic muscular tensions as a way to rehabilitate from injuries and pains that underlie holding patterns, making pattern recognition a basic skill for most massage practitioners. The eye is naturally drawn to muscular holding or a limp as if it were nature's innate cry for help. Often in massage training, students learn to recognize and address dysfunctional patterns. In a somatic approach, practitioners also learn to recognize healthy patterns in order to cultivate balance in posture and movement.

Pattern recognition not only refines our understanding of healthy movement patterns, but it gives us tools to change unhealthy somatic patterns in both ourselves and our clients. Somatic practitioners learn to embody their work, cultivating not only an awareness of the balanced body, but more importantly, an awareness from the body. In short, we learn to practice what we preach and to guide others toward balance through example and resonance. It is my intention in this article, which describes a handful of somatic modalities that have dramatically influenced the way I practice massage, to help integrate movement therapy with hands-on skills in the world of massage.

The Bartenieff Fundamentals: Thigh lift, lateral shift, and forward pelvis tilt.

Labanalysis and the Bartenieff Fundamentals
In 1970, I stumbled upon Labanalysis and the Bartenieff Fundamentals while studying dance. Rudolph Laban (1879-1958) was a natural athlete, dancer, gymnast, and charismatic lover of people. Laban, an Austrian, committed himself to codifying dance so that this moving art form could be recorded for future generations to enjoy. To this end, he was a prolific creator of many art forms related to dance and movement, including the choreography of large dance celebrations designed to advance collective spiritual growth called "movement choirs." Eventually, Laban's progressive writings and activities were banned by the Nazis, and he fled to England.5

In England, Laban continued to teach and dance and to apply his work in psychiatric hospitals. The British government even hired Laban to study the movement patterns of factory workers in an effort to improve efficiency. Out of these pursuits came Labanalysis, one of the most multifaceted systems of movement analysis ever created. Labanalysis goes beyond the traditional fields of biomechanics and kinesiology and studies the qualities and personas of a movement phase. It provides a language for how psychology expresses itself in movement by exploring the intersections of space, effort, shape, and body. Laban sought balance in the body by exploring its opposing tensions and efforts, looking at where we move, how we move, when we move, and what we move.

The Bartenieff Fundamentals: Diagonal knee drop, arm circle, and body half.
One of Laban's students, a dancer named Irmgaard Bartenieff (1900-1980), also immigrated to New York City in 1936, where she founded the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies (LIMS) and further developed Laban's work. She created the Bartenieff Fundamentals, a series of six basic patterns -- thigh lift, lateral shift, forward pelvic shift, diagonal knee drop, arm circles, and body half (Figures 1A-1F) -- widely used to repattern movement in the dance and physical therapy fields. Bartenieff's work is also taught in most dance therapy programs as a vehicle for understanding the movement qualities that manifest with mental illnesses. Students of the Bartenieff Fundamentals use them to explore concepts that include "dynamic alignment, breath support, core support, rotary factor, initiation and sequence, spatial intent, center of weight/weight transference, effort intent, and developmental patterning and its support for level change."6

I took Bartenieff Fundamentals classes to improve dance technique and recover from injuries. We began classes lying on the floor, moving slowly with awareness, consciously initiating patterns with intrinsic, core muscles, then gradually stringing them together in more complex patterns until we were making full-body weight shifts and level changes with ease and grace. We also used touch and verbal cues to guide a partner through the patterns, nudging the partner to relax in one area while actively moving another area.

During this time, I completed certification in therapeutic massage and found that the Bartenieff Fundamentals gave me a refined lens through which to recognize and work with full-body patterns. This unique integration of patterning and hands-on guidance helped me apply massage in a way that moved the client's tissues toward more efficient movement. And, if my massage clients wanted to learn how to change maladaptive patterns, the fundamentals provided a broad array of movement exercises to teach them.

Figure B - Ideal structural alignment.

Figure 2A - A practitioner helps a student find the Rolf line.

After patterning my own faulty movement habits with the Bartenieff Fundamentals, I felt enormous relief from the pain I had developed from numerous injuries, poor posture, and years of rowdy childhood play (I have six brothers, and we played hard). To my surprise, when I returned to dance classes after a year's absence, my technique had greatly improved. But patterning only took me so far because my tissues were tight from years of abuse. As one instructor put it, my structure had not caught up with my function. This led me to Rolfing.

Ida Rolf (1896-1979), a biochemist and physiologist, developed structural integration (better known as "Rolfing"). This method is based on a 10-session series of hands-on work that systematically unravels myofascial restrictions from the outer to the inner layers. These restrictions twist, pull, and shorten the fabric of our soft tissues in much the same way that a snag or knot distorts the integrity of a sweater. Rolfing treats the common postural problems caused by shortened myofascia, which Rolf viewed as maladaptive postural responses to deeper psychological and emotional stresses. She pointed out how common these maladaptive postures are, made evident by observing the lack of verticality in the average person's alignment (Figures 2A-2D).

Figure 2D - The erratic lines of support in a random body.

Figure 2C - Ida Rold called this typical lack of alignment a random body.
Rolf was one of the first to integrate myofascial release with the client's active movement. She would apply deep pressure to tight areas of myofascia, then have her client stretch these tight areas away from her pressure. To the onlooker, Rolf's primary tool appeared to be deep-tissue stretching, yet structural integration is an educational system. It teaches a client how to release extrinsic muscular holding into gravity's pull, allowing intrinsic support to emerge that creates lift in the core and improves alignment.7

Although Rolf's work involves primarily hands-on methods, there are also Rolfing movement exercises that Rolfers teach clients to help them maintain the positive results of this work. These exercises, such as the pelvic tilt, arm and knee drops, and arcing, promote moving with a sense of weight in the bones to minimize muscular exertion and initiate movement from the core.

Figure 3 - A structural integration practitioner giving his client a pelvic lift as she tilts her pelvis.
A classic Rolfing technique that integrates bodywork with patterning is called the pelvic lift (Figure 3). To do a pelvic lift, the Rolfer places his hands under the lower back and sacrum of a supine client lying in a bent-knee position and has the client do a slow posterior pelvic tilt. As the client tilts, the Rolfer stretches the client's lower back and pelvis, helping the client release extrinsic muscular tension while facilitating intrinsic muscles.

From Rolfing movement training, I learned the choices we make about how and where to do myofascial release can be integrative or random. Rolf's 10-step recipe for myofascial release promotes structural integration in full-body patterns by addressing relational tensions within the entire fascial webbing. This combination of bodywork and movement education is remarkably effective. Rolfing releases extrinsic myofascial tensions that shorten, thicken, and tighten the body, leaving a client feeling taller and lighter.

After I completed the 10-series, I gained an inch in height. Also, I used to wear baggy pants to avoid the uncomfortable pinch of tight waistbands. My Rolfing movement teachers were adamant that the tightness I felt came from my structural imbalances rather than the pants. To prove their point, they had me lie on a massage table and applied their methods to narrow my hips. To my surprise, when I stood up, my pants slowly slid down my hips. Today, 19 years later, I maintain structural integration with somatic patterning exercises I learned in Rolfing movement and other schools of thought and still weigh the same, yet wear pants that are two sizes smaller. Lastly, although I am a small person, I have been able to practice massage for 20 years without overuse injuries due to the body mechanics I learned from my Rolfing movement teachers.

The Alexander Technique
A key feature of the Alexander Technique, one of the oldest movement therapies, is the distinct process of releasing extrinsic holding in muscles that function as prime movers by facilitating intrinsic support in the postural muscles. Mathias Alexander (1869-1955) was an Australian stage actor whose career was interrupted by a severe case of laryngitis. After seeking the advice of many well-meaning doctors who were unable to help him, Alexander grew determined to solve his own problem.

Using careful self-observation, Alexander noticed he would begin to speak by thrusting his chest out and his chin forward, fixating in a posture that actually depressed his larynx. After many attempts to change his pattern while sensing himself speak, Alexander recognized he needed to address the whole body pattern rather than just a part of it. Also, he found that his senses alone provided unreliable feedback and the habitual adjustments he made to correct the problem actually made it worse.

Figure 4 - Before and after, a practitioner helps a student find postural tone with the Alexander Technique.
Eventually, with feedback from a system of three-way mirrors, Alexander was able to inhibit his faulty postural habits and initiate movement in a more intelligent manner by shifting his head forward and up prior to speaking. This sequence of conscious control not only resolved his problem, it evolved into the Alexander Technique, which is based on his primary discovery -- the reflex mechanism triggered by shifting the head-neck relationship. This mechanism, now identified as the head-righting reflex, sets the postural tone for the entire body (Figure 4). It lengthens the spine, widens the back, and releases excessive muscular tension associated with pain patterns. For this reason, the Alexander Technique has proven to be an effective method for releasing chronic pain patterns.8

An Alexander teacher provides a gentle yet directive touch to the base of the student's head to elicit head righting and uses verbal directives such as "allow your head to go forward and up" while the student practices functional movements such as standing from sitting, or walking from standing. Lessons are also given with a student lying down, where the teacher encourages her to release excess muscular effort while gently moving her head.

I used to suffer from chronic neck pain and daily headaches. After three days in an Alexander workshop where the late Marjorie Barstow (one of Alexander's original students) repeatedly lifted my head in her gentle yet precise style, the effect was dramatic. I experienced pain relief for an entire year.

The Feldenkrais Method
Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1982), a brilliant physicist, athlete, and prolific writer, was not only a student of Alexander's, but also Rolf's colleague and friend. Doctors told Feldenkrais that he had a 50-50 chance of recovering from surgery for a disabling knee injury and might never walk again. Determined to beat the odds, he embarked upon extensive research in anatomy, psychology, physiology, and anthropology. Out of this study, he not only taught himself how to walk again, but also laid the groundwork for what has become one of the most well-known methods of therapeutic somatic education -- the Feldenkrais Method.

Feldenkrais recognized that human beings have soft-wired nervous systems; this means we have the unique ability to learn throughout a lifetime. Whereas an animal is born with most patterns hard-wired (a newborn foal can stand right after birth), humans take a long time to mature because we have to learn most of our functional patterns. Our soft-wired nature has its liabilities and benefits. We are limited by what we learn. For example, a person speaks the language of his or her origin, whereas the instinctual animal can communicate with members of the same species all over the world (every dog responds to another dog's bark). Because we do not consciously learn body-use patterns, we can easily pick up faulty patterns that manifest in poor posture and a restricted range of motion. On the flip side, we have the ability to choose healthier ways to function once we understand the choices and can continue to learn from cradle to grave.9

Feldenkrais' movement lessons, called Awareness Through Movement (ATM), draw upon our ability to choose to move more efficiently when made aware of the endless possibilities. During an ATM lesson, a student explores a series of movements practiced slowly in order to reduce incoming stimuli and distractions, practiced lightly to minimize effort, and done in a lying position to remove pressure on the feet and allow antigravity muscles to relax.

In each ATM lesson, the teacher starts with a simple movement, then adds elements to it, breaking an increasingly complex movement down into smaller components. For example, a teacher will ask students to turn the head to the right while moving the left hand to the right, then reverse the motion. Then she adds a new element, such as looking left while turning the head to the right, or rotating the waist, or extending the leg. Gradually, the coordinations become increasingly refined as more elements are added. As the students sense the complex nuances of the motion, habitual pathways begin to dissolve and new, effortless neuromuscular pathways emerge.

Feldenkrais also developed a system of hands-on work called Functional Integration in which a practitioner slowly, gently, and deliberately moves a passive client through an exploratory range of motion. Once a freer range is found, the practitioner repeats movement in this range to imprint the client's motor cortex in the brain with a new pathway, which the client can then recreate on her own.

After an ATM workshop, I observed a miraculous demonstration that 25 years later still drives me to explore somatics. During this demonstration, Gaby Yaron, one of Feldenkrais' original 13 teachers, mysteriously poked and probed a paraplegic person confined to a wheelchair. After the greater part of an hour, Yaron coaxed the woman to stand up. Although reluctant at first, the woman eventually stood and took a few tentative steps. I was stunned to realize that we were all witnessing what seemed to be a miracle.

Awed and puzzled, I searched for an explanation in Feldenkrais' prolific writings. As he explains, such a person lacks an image of how to walk, so the Feldenkrais teacher moved her body in such a way that activated muscles that she had lost touch with but that were still functional. This activation imprints the motor cortex with a new possibility.10 Seeing this possibility, and being well-supported, this woman took her first steps, her sight clouded with tears of joy.

Integrating Massage and Bodywork with Somatics
It is examples like the one described above that reveal the healing powers of integrating bodywork with somatics. You enter the somatic realm whenever you ask your clients to actively participate in a session, to relax here, breathe there, or contract and relax specific muscles. This process can be confusing for clients who just want to relax and get their knots worked out, because your requests involve an active focus on their part. Therefore, it is important to make an agreement with your clients on how you are going to work together. If you are going to ask for a client's active participation, the client needs to be made aware of this approach and its purpose and agree to an active approach before the session begins.

Somatic education can give massage therapists and bodyworkers three primary benefits. Somatics offers many tools to improve your own posture and performance, it provides a holistic paradigm to guide your choices in how you apply hands-on work, and it teaches a myriad of awareness skills and therapeutic movement exercises that you can share with clients.

Most people feel empowered when they learn ways to move out of chronic holding patterns and learn to move with grace, ease, and balance. Somatics gives you the tools to do just this. Plus, integrating somatics into bodywork has a synergistic effect: The sum of the combined efforts of you and your client is far greater than what either one of you can achieve alone. Therefore, if you work with clients who like to be involved in the process, you like to teach your clients exercises or body awareness skills, and you want to help yourself as well as your clients, you may want to explore the possibility of integrating the world of somatic education and movement therapy into your massage practice.

Mary Ann Foster has been a massage therapist and movement educator for 24 years and teaches movement classes at the Boulder College of Massage Therapy. Foster recently published Somatic Patterning, a sourcebook specifically for bodyworkers who want to integrate movement education into their practices. She can reached at

*Alexander Technique(R), Bartenieff FundamentalsSM, Feldenkrais Method(R), Rolfer(R), and Rolfing(R) are legal service marks.

1 There are many other schools of somatic education that deserve mention in this article, but due to space limitations could not be discussed here.
2 The International Somatic Movement Education and Therapy Association (ISMETA) was founded in 1988, at which time the International Movement Therapists Association-Registered Movement Therapist designation was established "as a registered mark with the U.S. Department of Labor, 'Movement Therapy' as a classification of instructional programs with the U.S. Department of Education, and 'Movement Therapist' as an occupational title with the U.S. Department of Labor." (ISMETA Newsletter, Summer 1999). For more information, write to ISMETA, 162 W. 21st St., #3S, New York, NY 10011, or visit
3 Hanna, T. The Body of Life. New York, NY: Knopf; 1979.
4 Reich, W. Character Analysis, 3rd ed. New York, NY: Noonday Press; 1949.
5 Hodgson, J and Preston-Dunlop, V. Rudolph Laban: An Introduction to His Work and Influence. Plymouth, England: Northcote House; 1990.
6 Bartenieff, I and Lewis, D. Body Movement: Coping with the Environment. New York, NY: Gordon Breach; 1980:230.
7 Rolf, I. Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures. New York, NY: Harper Row; 1977.
8 Jones, F. The Alexander Technique: Body Awareness in Action. New York, NY: Schocken Books; 1976.
9 Feldenkrais, M. Awareness Through Movement. New York, NY: Harper Row; 1972.
10 The Case of Nora: Body-Awareness as Healing Therapy, a volume in the series Adventures in the Jungle of the Brain. New York, NY: Harper Row; 1977.

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