Center for Theory & Research

Volume IV: Somatics

Feldenkrais at Esalen

Ian J. Grand, Ph.D.

In the summer of 1972 I joined a group of leaders in Somatics and Psychology gathered at Esalen to participate in a six week training with Israeli Somatics practitioner, Moshe Feldenkrais. Feldenkrais had developed a somatic practice that analyzed and reworked movement patterns that were habitual and constricted.

Little known in the U.S. at the time, Feldenkrais was famous in Israel because he had worked with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and, to the horror of many, had taught the aging Ben Gurion to stand on his head.

By training, Feldenkrais was a physicist who had worked with the Curies in Paris. Later he became interested in applying the principles of physics to physical disabilities and restrictions of varying origins, thereby enabling clients with various maladies to move more easily. He was also interested in Judo, co-founding the first jiu jitsu studio in Paris, and then applying Judo principles to his somatic work as well.

The six-week seminar at Esalen, organized by Stanley Keleman and Will Shutz, was comprised of lectures, morning and afternoon exercise practice, as well as individual work with Moshe in the public setting of the group.

The group exercises were part of a development that eventually became Feldenkrais’s Awareness Through Movement process in which students follow a simple set of instructions that enable both the undoing of old patterns and the learning of new ones.

In the individual work with us, Moshe demonstrated how a trained practitioner can help re-organize a client’s individual patterns of movement. He saw habitual movement patterns as composed of smaller units that could be disaggregated from each other and re-assembled in ways that could relieve pain, alleviate chronic disabilities and remove restrictions of motion.

Moshe emphasized the neuromuscular processes of gesture, posture, and movement and called his approach Functional Integration, distinguishing it from Ida Rolf’s idea of Structural Integration.

The seamless interweaving of body and psyche soon became evident to us precisely in their dis-integration. Not long into the workshop we began to realize that our senses of self were being challenged as we disorganized our habitual movement patterns.

One person in the group started making quacking sounds and accosting other members of the group as we walked each morning from our South Coast residence to the main Esalen grounds. Some of us became manic while others became lethargic.

And this was not a group of beginners. Everyone had spent years working on themselves, both emotionally and bodily. Betty Fuller, for example, was a Trager practitioner.

Ilana Rubenfeld, originally a symphony conductor and teacher of the F.M. Alexander Technique, had developed her own approach to working with the interaction of physical posture and personality.

Judith Stransky and Frank Ottiwell were respected teachers of the Alexander Technique. Seymour Carter, a principal Esalen teacher of Charlotte Selver’s Sensory Awareness, was there, as well as Robert Parks, a voice expert, and Doris Breyer, who had developed her version of German gymnastik.

Despite all our experience, however, we were still coming undone. Some of our responses seemed new to Moshe. He did not, he said, trust psychology; it was too imprecise for him and he saw emotions as epiphenomena—like the whistle of a train that adds nothing to the speed of the locomotive.

When one member started to cry as he worked with her on the table, he apologized profusely saying that he hadn’t meant to cause her any pain. Another member would always lie down close to Moshe at the front of the room; when he got a movement wrong, Moshe would kick him.

It soon became clear to us that Moshe had not yet developed the emotional aspects of the work. At first, some people tried to simply escape by retreating or going up the coast to Nepenthe.

Then, in a series of clandestine meetings, some of us tried to formulate ways we could talk with Moshe about what we were experiencing. Eventually we began to use each other to deal with the emotional aspects that were developing, and the workshop organizers engaged Moshe around what was happening.

That first Summer Feldenkrais Training shows the importance of Esalen in the development of understandings of embodied psyche—how seekers could assist seekers. It was not just the specific training itself, the work of a single guru. A group of established practitioners came to Esalen to spend six weeks learning a new approach while interacting with each other and their teacher. We ate together and went to the baths together and had ongoing conversations about what we were experiencing.

Our meetings and talks were convivial, contentious, and critical. There was a vibrancy of learning in which teacher and students alike were together making new theory about embodiment even as we were embodying the theory we were making in our feeling and moving experience.

We left Esalen with nascent understandings of very complex ways of doing work with people. We got our first glimpses of how inner image, affect, patterns of movement and postural organizations are all of a piece. Many of us incorporated aspects of what we learned into our practices, altering the way we thought about and did our work.

From this Esalen experience, Moshe became known in the American world of Humanistic Psychology and Somatic practices. He went on to develop Awareness Through Movement programs and training programs that have trained and certified generations of Feldenkrais practitioners.

Ian J. Grand, Ph.D., is Professor in the Somatic Psychology program at the California Institute of Integral Studies and Co-Director of the Institute's Center for the Study of the Body in Psychotherapy.

The Esalen eZine is edited and curated by Esalen Board member Jay Ogilvy. To make comments or suggestions, please email him at or write to:
Esalen eZine, c/o Jay Ogilvy
3771 Rio Rd. Suite 101
Carmel, CA 93923