History of Somatics pt. 1

Conversation with Matt Zepelin, PhD

2019, July - Boulder, Colorado

Ethan: I'm super excited to talk to you because I saw your talk at the Feldenkrais conference about whether or not Moshe Feldenkrais could be considered the Freud of Somatics. It was a very cool talk that had a lot of information that I just didn't know. I want to start by thanking you for making that presentation.

Matthew: You're welcome.

E: It brought up a lot of questions for me. The first one has to do with you. Where did you come from? How did you get to this point where you're writing a PhD dissertation about the History of Somatics?

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M: History and Somatics were separate strains in my life, with History coming first. I got an undergraduate major in History. And I wrote an honors thesis on the History of Zen. Zen in America. The Zen boom. That was about 100 pages long and it was a lot of original research. From that point, I knew I would probably want to do graduate work in History. But first, I was living at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center in southern Colorado doing monastic Zen practice. And I’d had a really bad neck injury in high school, snowboarding. So the intensive meditation was proving virtually impossible for me to do because my spine was so unstable. My posture was really bad. So there was a guy there—Russell Smith—you probably know Russell, right?

E: Yeah.

M: He was living there at the time. And he would teach little ATMs and I remember very vividly, he taught spinal chain—like a super basic 20 minutes spinal chain—one day. And I stood up, and I was like, ‘I feel great.’ It was more than ‘I feel better.’ I was like, ‘I feel fantastic.’ And it hit me, deeply. Something works with this method, and it's something I could learn to do. Like, ‘it's not him.’ It's not someone doing it to me. It’s not like, ‘either it sticks or it doesn't.’ It's like, ‘I can learn to do this.’

And the other transformative moment was with Norm Allard here in Boulder. I saw him one on one. That was probably even before that ATM. And he was just touching my neck, at the start of a session, for probably two minutes. And then he looks at me and says, ‘You can either learn how to deal with this injury or you're going to be coming to see people like me for the rest of your life.’

E: Bam! Laying it down.

M: Yeah. I loved how honest he was. He was the first person I'd seen, out of many doctors and physical therapists, acupuncturist, massage therapists, who basically said, ‘This is a serious problem. And I'm not going to fix it for you or pretend that I can.’ So, between those two things I felt like Feldenkrais was actually talking to my experience at a somatic level and a conceptual level.

Then it was years later—it took five or six years—after I had left the monastery, that I joined a Feldenkrais training and got into this PhD program. And I just had a sense, like, ‘There has to be a history to Feldenkrais and to this Somatics that's more than just looking at one founder of a method and thinking about it biographically. There has to be a cultural and intellectual history to it.’

E: Yeah.

M: And luckily, I knew a professor at CU Boulder, Mark Pittenger, who was open to me exploring that as a topic. He trusted me from my undergraduate years that I would do good work. And we shared a lot of intellectual interests. So even though he didn't really know what somatics was, he was open to me taking that topic on.

What is Intellectual History?

E: Can you give me a relatively simple origin story about intellectual history as a discipline? Because when you were talking, I could tell from the way you put together your History of Somatics, that this project is part of this whole other discourse, where people have a framework for thinking about the world in a way that is probably different than the framework most Somatic practitioners have.

M: Yeah. Intellectual History is a certain approach to history. And it's not so technical that you can really clearly show where the boundary is between that and say, Social or Cultural History, or Labor History or Race History. But you kind of know it when you see it. And it has to do with looking really seriously at the history of ideas in cultural context.

In earlier eras of Intellectual History, it might have been more abstract. You might have looked at a lot of great thinkers—almost always white men—and looked at their work, and then how it influenced the next generation of white male thinkers. But now, for a long time, for decades, historians have said, ‘No. Intellectual History can be—and should be—about all levels of society.’ It's about how ideas influence culture and how culture influences ideas. It tends to take very seriously the study of texts. There's a concept called ‘communities of discourse.’ For example, if you're going to study Darwin, you need to know who Darwin was exchanging letters with and what books he was reading. Otherwise, it would be hard to say that you actually know how he understood what he was doing.

E: Yeah, this is what was so cool about your presentation. It put the thought of Feldenkrais in context. This was at the Feldenkrais conference, so everybody in the room was already into Feldenkrais. But through the lens of Intellectual History, it became clear that Feldenkrais was one person participating in an ongoing conversation that preceded his involvement in the conversation. And the term that you use—Somatics—is not.. I don't know.. I think Feldenkrais practitioners might not necessarily want to get on the boat and say, ‘We’re Somatics people.’ But it was really cool to see that there have been many people throughout history who have had very similar experiences, even though they’ve used different cultural frameworks to understand the experiences.

M: What I really appreciate about Intellectual History is that it takes a broad view, but not totally broad. In an earlier draft of the introduction to my dissertation, I actually critiqued the idea of including cross cultural practices within the definition of Somatics. I see the value in doing that, but...

E: What would be an example of a cross cultural practice?

M: Yoga, for instance. Like saying, ‘Oh, because Somatics is Mind-Body Integration methods, let's call yoga Somatics. Or let’s call this practice I know about from South America... Let's call all those somatics.’ If you do that, then there's no way to study the development over time. There are no boundaries around it. For me, Intellectual History, when it's really good, is tracking specific relationships and developments. I do write about yoga a little bit in my dissertation, but it's very specifically about, When did Western teachers start to pick up ideas from yoga? Or from what they thought was yoga? And how did they understand that? I think that's the power of a historical view, is that you really try to track influence over time in a specific way.

E: The other cool thing about what you're doing is that, you are—and, I think you wrote this somewhere in the dissertation, or maybe you said in the presentation—but you're trying to give Somatics practitioners, of various stripes, a sense of who has gone before. I think that’s important when you’re involved in a fringe, definitely not mainstream activity. And I really appreciated that there was a sense of generosity about what you're doing. You're giving people some sense of continuity. Because as a practitioner, you can feel like you're way out in left field, just doing this thing that nobody in mainstream culture really understands.

M: Yeah, thanks for saying that. Coming from inside of the Feldenkrais method, I did want to, in a sense, knock Feldenkrais off his pedestal a little bit. Because I actually don't think it serves anyone to have this idea that he was superhuman, or that he was... I DO think he was a genius. But if we make him such a genius that we can’t understand how he developed, then it's not very relatable. Or it's disempowering to think that we couldn't recreate what he did. But on the other hand, I feel like there's this broader lineage, a cultural lineage, of people in the Western world who've been pursuing mind-body awareness and integration. I'm fine with calling that Somatics. I mean, I can see arguments for why we might want a different word, but to me, I've sometimes referred to the world of Somatics as being balkanized. The various disciplines are actually really similar. From the outside, they're very similar techniques, or at least sets of values and orientations.

E: Yeah, like if you pulled somebody off the street of a major American city who had never encountered anything like this. And you put them in a Feldenkrais class, and then sent them to an Alexander class, and maybe a body-mind centering class, they probably wouldn’t make a ton of distinctions between those things. They'd probably be like, ‘This is all sort of in the same ballpark.’

M: Yeah, exactly. And it's not that the distinctions don't matter. But they only matter internally. It does matter to me how Feldenkrais Method is different from Alexander Technique. But I don't want to front that in talking to someone who doesn't know about it. Because then it looks insecure, or divisive. It's the same in the Zen world. For people who practice Soto Zen, the difference between Soto and Renzai can seem crucially important, and then you can't even successfully explain the difference to someone who hasn't exposed themselves to the practice.


What are the origins of Somatics in the West?

E: When you are going through this process of figuring out how to take Feldenkrais off the pedestal and then looking at the field more broadly, Where do you go back to find the origin of Somatics In the West?

M: In my dissertation, I took a stab at it. And if someone else took another stab at it, they would come up with something a little bit different. In general, in professional history, you want a number of people to explore the same territory, to really get a perspective from multiple angles. But what happened for me was, I was familiar with Feldenkrais. And I knew that if I dug into his background, I would find connections to whatever influenced him.

And then my first Zen teacher, Richard Baker, who was Suzuki Roshi’s Dharma Heir at the San Francisco Zen center, he practiced with Charlotte Selver there. She would host Sensory Awareness workshops at Green Gulch, and he knew her. She had a big influence on him in the 1960s. So I was aware that there was this other teacher. And Where did she come from? I found out she was German. And she had this teacher, Elsa Gindler. And then I knew of Alexander, the Alexander Technique. So I worked backward from individual teachers that I knew about, asking, Who was their teacher? Where did they come from? And did that teacher have a teacher who they identified as their primary influence?

And then what was the most satisfying and the coolest is when I would start to see connections by moving backward. For instance, Charlotte Selver's teacher was Elsa Gindler. Elsa Gindler’s teacher was a woman whose teacher was Genevieve Stebbins, who was an American woman who studied with the student of Francoise Delsarte. So suddenly, I was like, okay, there's this practice that originated in mid 19th century France, moved to late 19th century United States, went to Germany in the early 20th century, and then showed up in Berkeley in the 1960s. And it transforms so much during that time, you wouldn't know it unless you track it. And really, as I write somewhere in the dissertation, the ideal person to study this history would be fluent in English, French, and German, and potentially other languages. Especially German, there are all kinds of resources there.

And on the other hand, because there's so little work done in History of Somatics, I had more than enough to do just with English language. But someone could spend their whole career looking into this, and then it would be ideal to be able to track documents in German. Even to do the database searches, you need to be fluent enough in the language to find the documents.

Who was Francois Delsarte?

E: When I went back and read your chapter about Delsarte, I was very, very interested because he seemed like a proto-somatic... Would you be willing to tell this story about his moment of realization at the Conservatory in Paris, where he discovered the possibility of self-observation?

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M: Yeah, sure. That's a great story. And with Delsarte, as I write in the dissertation, there is definitely a certain amount of self invention in his narratives. But in a way, it doesn't matter, because he sold it so successfully. It doesn't matter what was true or not true, because it became true through his later success. But yes. Francoise Deslarte was born in 1810, in France, and after a pretty rough childhood, he demonstrated some strong musical talent and got a place at the Paris Conservatory, which was relatively recent, maybe 20 years old at the time that he started appearing there. At that time, the conservatory was teaching a mix of music, singing and oratory. There was a tradition of oratorical performance in the 19th century, transnational.

E: Yeah, that was big in America, too.

M: Yeah, it was. It doesn't exist anymore. After the radio, and after TV, people weren't as interested in live performance that way. So, he was training, and he was being trained in a master-disciple model, where the teacher would demonstrate their way of doing it and the disciple was supposed to follow until they got it. 

And the teacher would apply some theory to it. But it was basically a post hoc explanation. Like, ‘This is the way I do it. And this is why it's right.’ 

Delsarte was not doing well in the conservatory. He was not winning the roles he wanted or impressing his teachers. So the way he told the story is that he went to visit his cousin, somewhere else in Paris, and he had been trying to master a line from a play where he was supposed enact surprise. And the way that his teacher told him to do it was never coming off naturally. It was something like throwing his arms forward and doing something with his head. But then he saw his cousin unexpectedly walking into the courtyard, and made the gesture of surprise, and in that moment, he said, he had the realization, ‘Oh, I could just study my own gestures in daily life and study other people's gestures, and teach myself how to act and also voice affect and facial expression. And that would be a better way than just doing whatever my teacher tells me to do.’ And so, in this self invention narrative he never looked back. From that moment on, he was his own teacher, and no one could tell him otherwise. 

Delsarte wasn't actually very successful then, but he had this intense conviction about his way of doing things. And he did really stick to it as a method of pedagogy. And I think it was sufficiently innovative, and he was sufficiently keen as an observer, that he ended up having things to teach that probably no one else was able to teach to the Paris art world.

E: So in the history of somatics, that story produces an origin point for a lineage. Because the origin point is him defying his relationship to his teachers by saying, ‘No. I'm not part of whatever you're doing. This is the beginning of my observations.’ But then that seed of observational practice, can continue on through all those generations of people.

M: Yes and no. In reality, I think it's a both/and thing, because people do have original observations. And they do have transformative experiences that start new things and new lineages. And they're also always informed by whatever they were reading and seeing around them. For example, I was able to read some French scholars, writing about Delsarte, who pointed out little sources of things that he read. Like Charles Bell wrote an influential book on facial expression in 1810 that influenced Darwin. And they're pretty sure Delsarte read it, too. Delsarte didn't like citing any influences or sources, but in some cases it's pretty clear that he was reading something.

E: Well, the other part of your chapter is about the ‘Law of Correspondences,‘ and all of the metaphysical framework that Delsarte used to contextualize the things that he was observing.

M: Yeah, there were two laws that became integral to Delsartism. The Law of Correspondence, which means that every gesture corresponds to an inner emotional state, which corresponds to an outer spiritual state. And the Law of Trinity, which is hard to understand. It’s easier if you look at the pictures, but it's basically that any gesture with any part of the body will have nine basic forms to it. Right? Which seems kind of arbitrary from our perspective. 

So the point I wanted to make in writing about the Law of Trinity, which I think is pertinent to the History of Somatics as a whole, is that before Western cultures were secular, there couldn't be any secular understanding of Mind Body integration. How would there have been? Everyone around you was Christian, or everyone around you was Jewish, or everyone around you was Muslim. So you're not going to just suddenly say, ‘No. This is just about anatomy,’ There's no way to do that.

E: The whole framework that we have for thinking about Somatics now is mind-body, but at that point, it couldn't have been just mind-body, because everybody had a conception of another spiritual dimension. Is that right?

M: Yeah. I mean, in that period, in the mid 19th century, it was early in the advent of secularization. So you do start to see individual thinkers thinking very differently. But in an earlier version of my dissertation, I wrote a whole chapter on Descartes, going back to the 17th century.

E: Isn’t Descartes the one who proposed the original Mind Body split that everybody always refers back to?

M: Yeah. But in his case, one of the things I found really important to point out is that it was a soul-body split.

E: Wow.

M: For him, the word soul better captures what he saw as being separate from the body.

E: So all the stuff that we say about Cartesian dualism makes sense to us because of all the stuff that happened since then, but that's really not how he was thinking about it.

M: Yeah, that's right. I think his idea about the dualism had incredible traction over time, and it actually carried the revolution, through the advent of favoring mind instead of soul. And I would even say, up to the present, where we're much more interested in talking about the brain than the mind. The Cartesian dualism lives on today as this fixation with the brain being in control and the body somehow being like the puppet of the brain. Right? But that’s all really different than what he was talking about. 

What is Esotericism?

E: At the end of your talk, you got into some of your thinking about the current fascination, at least for some people in the Feldenkrais community, around using science as a way to validate the kinds of experiences that people have. It seemed like your suggestion was, ‘That's all good. The people who are really gung-ho about doing double blind studies and figuring out a way to put Feldenkrais into a scientific context should do that.’ But you also made a suggestion that it might be useful to think about what we're doing in terms of spirituality. You said in the talk a few times that the History of Esotericism had been really useful to you at various points in your research in helping you understand what some of these somatic practices are about. Can you give an introduction to Esotericism and how that feeds into the idea that maybe we could think about what we're doing in terms of spirituality?

M: Yeah. I'll give it a shot. It's a big topic. But it's fascinating. 

Flammarion Woodcut, 1888

Flammarion Woodcut, 1888

Western Esotericism as a subject of academic history is relatively recent. It’s been happening for the last 50 years and in the last 30 years, it's become really solid. 

Basically, historians have noticed that there are certain phenomena going back millennia in Western history, really to the Alexandrian invasion of Egypt, when there was this massive collision of Greek and Egyptian culture. That collision produced the hermetic texts, which are these wisdom texts that predate Christianity, but got absorbed into Christianity, especially in the early founding of Christianity. The church fathers saw that these texts were so popular, and they wanted to pull them into Christianity. And then later, they tried to eject them back out. 

So we're talking about like a deep, deep strain in Western culture that has to do with cultural mixing and boundary space around spirituality, and also around art, and then later around science. 

So this is easier and harder to track in different eras, but particularly from the Renaissance forward, you can track pretty closely, certain individuals and movements where from one angle, it looks religious, and from another angle, it looks scientific, and from another angle, it looks artistic. And Historians finally said, ‘Let's stop trying to pigeonhole this into one or the other of these and call it its own thing.’ And the term they came up with for that is Esotericism or Western Esotericism. Some of the major players in this are Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism...

E: Wait, so Hermeticism is referring to Hermes?

M: Yeah. So Hermes was... there are Egyptian and Greek versions of this figure, and in the Hermetic texts the figure is in discussion with a kind of God or Spirit. And there are characteristic themes that come up in the texts. I'm not an expert on this, and there was no way I could go back into classical antiquity for my history of 20th century Somatics, but one of the major themes that you see is, What is the relationship of the body to spirit? 

The larger portion of the Hermetic texts talk about it as something that has to be overcome. A common theme is that Spirituality is like using a ladder to climb out of the body and completely shed the body until you're in a realm of pure spirit. But then there's also a minority of Hermetic texts that are quite the opposite, that say that spirit is immanent, throughout all matter. It's in the sun, and it's pervading your body. It's in the stars, and they're pervading your body. So that really gave this counter note throughout Western spiritual history for people to say, ‘No. Sacredness and spirituality are right here in the body.’

E: So, if I were to totally dumb it down and simplify it, could I say that anytime in Western culture when somebody makes that move, saying, ‘Well, actually, everything that you think is out there is actually immanent, here right now.’ That move was first done in the context of this hermetic tradition?

M: As a general statement, I would say that's probably true. For instance, you might see people in the history of Christianity noticing, ‘Everybody's saying that the body is impure, and that it's a sin and that sexuality is a sin. But what about Jesus's body? God incarnated as Jesus in a body, and I'm in a body.’ And that person, even if maybe up to that point, they hadn't identified as esoteric, they would have found more congenial friends who were Esotericists than in mainstream Christianity. It's like a refuge, would be a way one way to look at it.

Why does the West marginalize somatics?

E: That makes me want to jump ahead because when I hear that Alexandrian culture and Egyptian culture met and there was something potent at the boundary, I’m reminded of the 20th century meeting between East and West, which is a key feature of the Feldenkrais story. How do we make sense of the fact that in the 20th century, when Western people wanted to do phenomenological, personal observation about the mind-body relationship, many of them chose to use techniques from the East, like yoga or Tai Chi? It seems that we Westerners are more comfortable using practices from the East to do that.

M: I basically have two perspectives on that. One is that it's very important for Western people to affirm that we have our own bodies and minds that we can study. We don't have to have someone from another culture give us permission to do phenomenological practice or set up a framework. My personal perspective is that our contemporary, heavily materialistic, individualistic, capitalistic culture has led us to basically distrust our own experience, because we have no education around Mind-Body exploration. But that doesn't mean we don't have the underlying material. 

Ironically in this case, a lot of my competence in that kind of education comes from my Buddhist background. Buddhism says very strongly, ‘Every person has Buddha nature.’ I don't want to go and get into what that means right now.

E: In this context it could just mean that every person has the... I don't want to use the word resources, because that's a very extractive, Western idea, but everybody has the opportunity, just with what we’re born with, to achieve some kind of knowledge that is pretty extraordinary.

M: The words that I would use would be: Everybody has awareness. Everybody has attention. And everybody has aliveness. And those are the ingredients you need. So, all of that said, I think there are multiple reasons why people have chosen to go toward Asian traditions. On the more negative side, it's exoticism or Orientalism. Or maybe it's 1960s, ‘I'm rebelling against my parents and the Vietnam War. And here's this amazing Japanese or Tibetan or Taiwanese teacher, and I'm just going to make them my new parent, and I'll just take everything they have to give.’ 

On the positive side, the most concrete way I can put it is: If I wanted to go live with Feldenkrais people, doing Feldenkrais full time, where would I do that?

When I was 19 years old, I wanted to live in a practice community, and there were multiple Buddhist centers around. If I had been more into yoga, there were multiple Hindu and yoga centers around. If I wanted to go to China, I could live at a Tai Chi center. But there is no place to go if you want to commit your life to Somatics. It doesn’t exist.

E: This is something that I'm so jealous about when I think about the people who were actually Feldenkrais’ students in the 70s, the Americans who were our teachers. They had the opportunity to go over to Israel, where Feldenkrais was really setup, and it was possible for at least some of them to be there, be working, be seeing clients, be getting lessons from him, working with the 13 original Israelis who were all already at a certain level. I wish that we had that opportunity, as practitioners.

M: It may be that there hasn't been enough time for Western Somatics to develop. If it does go in the direction of spirituality, or in a direction where people can make a life commitment, it might need more time to develop in that direction. The Eastern traditions that we're talking about are constantly evolving, but they are thousands of years old. When Suzuki Roshi came from Japan to California, he had a fair amount of support from the Soto Zen establishment, but even without any of that, as a single individual, he knew how to set up monastic environment where dozens or hundreds of people could live. And that is centuries of experience flowing into him as an individual. No matter how much of a genius someone is, I don't think that they can just produce something like that in one lifetime.

E: Yeah. It’s a big question of how to create the cultural and social conditions where phenomenological experience can be given priority. Because as practitioners these days, every one of us is struggling to either make a living doing this fringe phenomenological activity or working some other job to support ourselves in the culture that we're in.

M: That might circle back to the point about science and spirituality. I would say I'm very ambivalent, because I see value on both sides. The value in representing Feldenkrais in scientific language and seeing it through a scientific lens, is that it supports spreading it in the culture and attracting people and making a living at it. And by making a living at it, you can do it more, and then you can spread it more. 

On the other side, it's giving a lot of power to the terms and values of science, which I think should undergo a lot of interrogation. Because science has been deeply, deeply intertwined with materialism, capitalism, and individualism. It's been that way for many, many decades now. Science is a leading cultural driver along with these other things. 

So even though the spirituality side is kind of poor and marginal, the door is wide open for us there, and there's a lot of integrity there. But there's also a lot of struggle around how you can make money at it or how you're then going to relate to the mainstream culture.


What are the next steps in writing the History of Somatics?

E: Earlier, we talked about how yours is the first historical monograph on Somatics. And you said that ideally, there would be a lot of people who would go at this question of the History of Somatics from different perspectives. Your dissertation goes up through 1950, so there's still work to be done covering time up to now. Can you give a bird's eye view of what happened between when your research ends and where we are now? If you had unlimited resources and time to continue with this research project, where would it be going?

M: If I could go back and start my PhD program again, or start the dissertation again, I would center the project much more in the 20th century. I got caught up in the 19th century, partially because there was all this fascinating material, including the fantastic Delsarte stuff, but also because of pressure from my committee members, and wanting to make sure I would graduate. So I wrote about some topics that are better known to historians, and I ran out of time to move beyond the 1950s. I had already written 500 pages, then cut it down to 350. So I found a neat way to wrap it up, which was showing how and why the early generations of Somatics teachers, when you get to the 1950s, were set up for success in the Esalen direction and not in the scientific direction. Clearly, they had set up Somatics as a phenomenological practice.

E: Maybe this would be a good moment to say what Phenomenological means.

M: I understand Phenomenology to mean the first person study of experience. Third person forms of data can inform first person experience, but you're never departing first person experience as your location in phenomenological practice. For instance, I can use a model of a skeleton to help me understand my own skeleton. But if I am doing Phenomenological practice, I'm not going to a doctor to say, ‘You tell me what my skeleton is.’ I’m going to experience that myself.

E: So instead of going to get an MRI and seeing big, bulging discs, you might say, ‘My back feels a certain way. And if I pay attention to it with with  something particular in mind, my experience can change.’

M: We value science so much. Even when you say something like that, I noticed myself getting nervous, like, ‘Oh, no. You need to know you have bulging discs.’ And then I have to remind myself, ‘No. Lots of people with serious medical problems end up having those problems worsened by the third person reflection they get about it.’ If someone tells them they have a bulging disc and then they get a surgery, and then have other problems. Maybe if they had just laid down on the floor and really sensed their own movement, it would have gotten better.

E: There have now been scientific studies that have shown that there are tons of people out there who have all sorts of things that will show up on an image—bulging discs and other abnormalities—who don't experience pain in any way. And there are some people who experience pain and an image made by a doctor will not show any kind of structural abnormality.

M: It's so hard to swim against that stream. I struggle with it. I've been doing phenomenological practice for 20 years, and I have strong convictions about it. And still... Today, I was in an acupuncture session. And the acupuncturist did a really good session, but she had packed a lot in. Then at the end she was like, ‘Now flip over. I'm gonna put four more needles in your jaw.’ And I was like, ‘Okay.’ And then thankfully, I paused. And I was like, ‘Actually, no. Please don't do that. I really had plenty.’

Anyway, I'll go back to your earlier question. Someone could easily write a whole book about the history of Somatics in the 1960s and 70s. Because that was when it really hit a cultural moment. There was a lot of support. 

Someone could also write a whole book about Somatics or body-mind integration practices in Interwar Germany. That was another moment, especially in Weimar Berlin. It was totally intertwined with the explosion in artistic creativity and dance. There was this whole nudity culture there. And that has connections to Nazism in interesting ways.

E: So you need a book to really get it... [laughter].

1920s Germany

1920s Germany

1968, Esalen, California

1968, Esalen, California

M: Yeah. If I were going to connect it, and maybe I will at some point—I think I wrote about half of the book of History of Somatics in that dissertation, and I would need to write the other half, which would require a lot of research—I would fill in the connections between American counterculture of the 1960s, and 70s, and these specific teachers and what they were doing [to stay with the American case]. I think there would be a ton of connections to be drawn around, How aware were these teachers of each other? How are they influencing each other? What aspects of mainstream culture and the counterculture were flowing into their teaching?

And then to bring it up to the present, the story of the History of Somatics probably maps pretty closely on to the story of the broader History of the 1960s.  In some ways, the 60s were a big success. For example, there are a lot more Feldenkrais trainings happening around the world now than there were in the 1970s. But in other ways, some kind of revolutionary spirit that was there got sucked out of it. I'm sure you've heard a bunch of stories like the one I heard at the conference, where someone said about the 70s, ‘Well, I just really liked the practice. And I talked about it to everyone I knew. And I made a living. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't that hard.’ And now, I don't think I've ever heard someone graduate from a Feldenkrais training in the last 20 years who has a story like that. Initially, I thought, ‘Oh, that's about me.’ And now I think, ‘No, it's about the culture changing.’ 

The only speculative thing I would say is, It seems like Feldenkrais and other Somatic methods are swimming against a cultural current that's pretty strong, and I can only imagine that we would be stronger if we band together more. I know there are legitimate fears about diluting the methods or about conflating things. But I really think that banding together as somatic practices with anyone who seems like they're doing something similar, would probably be stronger than hoping that the individual lineages and practices can just swim in the mainstream on their own.

On the other hand, I do take some solace from this deep history of Western esotericism because another way to look at it is: All you need is one teacher and one student to pass a lineage on, and it can be very quiet for a long, long periods of time. So, if the Feldenkrais Guild eventually folds because there's not enough support, it doesn't mean the practice will end. People can keep teaching it and practicing it and, who knows, maybe in five centuries we will have the Feldenkrais monastery.

E: Well, that seems like a beautiful place to end. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk about this, and also for the work that you've done. This research is exciting. If there are people out there who read this and want to know more, what is the best way for them to get in touch with you or find out more about your work?

M: My email address is Matthew.zepelin@gmail.com. I've been sending my dissertation along to anyone who asks. I'm happy to share it. I'd rather people read it than it sit around.