Updated: Jan 15
Developing Shin Restore Bodywork at Eastwest Somatics Institute
by Sondra Fraleigh and Michelle Ikle, Blog Article Jan 13, 2022
Michelle Ikle asked me to write about the development of our bodywork practices and techniques. Michelle is a longtime student of Eastwest Somatics Institute, and the first Eastwest graduate eligible for certification through ISMETA. We call our approach to the use of touch, Shin Restore Somatic Bodywork, and the techniques, Contact Repatterning, the latter to identify our approach with matters of movement patterning. Michelle told me she became “fascinated” with the bodywork part of her somatics class with me in the dance department at State University of New York. It sent my mind tumbling back to the 1990s and early years of 2000, specifically to matters of defining somatic bodywork, what it is or can become, and to how our Shin Somatic methods of teaching and practicing bodywork developed. Somatic bodywork is not a unified field of endeavor. I am aware of wide differences in the hands-on somatic methods I have studied and encountered along my path in becoming a somatics teacher of dance, movement, yoga, and touch.
I take much for granted in the progress of our Eastwest Somatics Institute and its methods, but I also enjoy deconstructing our evolution, and speaking to the values of somatic methods. So, I gladly accept your challenge here Michelle, but I ask you to enter a dialogue with me in order to glean a collaborative view of the development of Shin Restore Bodywork from the positions of teacher and student, even as you have become a teacher of our work yourself.
Michelle, you have played a key role in the development of our bodywork practices, which I want to get to. But for now, what originally caught your interest in the bodywork you were learning with me during your graduate work at State University of New York, Brockport?
I was enrolled in your Somatics course in the Fall of 1993. I think this was the first time you offered this course. I still have the syllabus! I became fascinated by the bodywork for two main reasons: First, we were always encouraged to improvise and explore possibilities as we developed our skills. This intuitive improvisation taught me the value of deep listening and honed my observation skills. I discovered the pathways of connection through the body, developing a more integrative and functional understanding of human anatomy. I learned how to “move” the head by working with the legs, for example. The second aspect that was most interesting to me was recognizing that I could invite or bring about significant sensory awareness and visible physical shifts in movement quality with such little effort. Constantly alternating roles as client and practitioner with different partners was incredibly informative because I felt the subtle differences in the quality of touch and observed the responses from different partners when I was the practitioner. As the client, my experience moved beyond the physical sensations of ease and lightness. As an athletic dancer at the time, this was a fantastic discovery to access a whole new vocabulary of movement, but the experience of the work itself felt quite magical at times, too, especially when colors and imagery entered into my experience. I learned that everyone has their own story and those stories are stored in our bodies. This work seemed so simple, yet my curiosity with this work is just as alive today as it was in those early days.
You identify several strands that developed in our work as it progressed Michelle. Let me tease them out from what you say, and then I will add my perspective. Here are the facets of our early work that you identify from the practitioner’s point of view.
1. Intuitive improvisation with deep listening and observation.
2. Discovering pathways of connection through the body leading to an integrative and functional understanding of anatomy.
3. Inviting sensory awareness and visible physical shifts in movement quality with little effort.
4. Access to a whole new vocabulary of movement.
5. Value of using color and imagery with client and student recipients.
6. Discovery of stories the body holds.
I appreciate the outline that emerges from what you write. To my mind it indicates key methods and values of our hands-on approach and methods of touch. If we were to ask into the values for the client, the picture would emerge somewhat differently, and we will get to that eventually. My perspective is from the creative standpoint of the teacher/inventor, also reflective of my study of somatic therapeutic techniques with many others, particularly hands-on techniques. Several teachers of The Feldenkrais Method, Alexander Technique, Rosen Breathwork, and Cranio-Sacral Therapy inform my approach. Eventually my work took a turn toward dance and yoga. I have developed dance as a paradigm for bodywork, and somatic yoga has played a major role in naming and using patterns as a basis for our therapeutic methods, as we will get to. Now to the first point you make Michelle.
Regarding Intuitive Improvisation with deep listening and observation: At first in our hands-on learning process, improvisations are messy as hands-on students work with patterns and partners. Improvisation comes in as students learn how to adapt patterns, listening (with feeling) to how the legs of partners have complexity and individuality. A leg is never just a leg. It is always the leg of some unrepeatable person. We find that out in felt listening and kinesthetic observation, and as you say Michelle, in working with many different partners over time.
About Form and Improvisation: I consider form to be the root of improvisation in hands-on work, a kind of formal choreography. I like to provide movement patterns as formative choreography for our bodywork. Practitioners need these as known places to begin. Then improvisation comes in immediately as adaptation of choreographies to the individual bodies and needs of clients. Recipients of hands-on work are not cardboard cut outs to be manipulated or fit into formal choreographies. As a practitioner, one never gets the same scenario twice. People are individuals and one moment isn’t like the next as the body changes and adapts. So, we remain alive to the manifest needs of the moment and to how the body-self of the client responds.
Practitioners learn touch techniques and hands-on choreography as a basis for improvised work. I often begin somatic classwork with movement patterns, some of these come from my formulation of somatic yoga, and some are much simpler. For hands-on work, Dancing Legs is one of the seemingly simple ones. Practitioners begin by lifting legs of clients gently off the bodywork table from back lying, repeating and altering through ease, then observing where the legs want to settle, how they configure in resting positions, for instance.
These small dances are too simple as to be called patterns, but in lifting and lowering the legs, they become patterns. So much is discovered in listening to the pathways that emerge without stress or insistence. The practitioner’s work is minimal, and the client has the everyday work of moving the legs completely removed. We often begin this way, and with a sigh of relief. This lifting should be easy for the practitioner if they are well-grounded in stance, and provides immediate relief for the client. When legs are lifted gently, the low back is affected. It has a chance to release the work of standing upright as it comes closer to zero, releasing its natural curve and the muscular balancing work of standing up. One cannot do this leg-lift maneuver for oneself. Someone else needs to lift the client’s legs, knowing how to do it gently with felt-listening.
Of course, people want to help in the lifting. It is up to the practitioner to teach the client how to let go of the work. This can be done—nonverbally—in the way the legs are lifted. If the practitioner finds resistance, another path can be explored. Finding pathways of least resistance is one of the axioms of our work.
Do you have anything to add, Michelle? And do you want to say more about your second point above? How is this achieved? I think this one has been very persuasive in your development of experiential anatomy in your present teaching. I know you have become an expert teacher of somatic kinesiology and anatomy, even teaching classes for pre-med students at your university.
I will say more about #2, discovering pathways of connection through the body leading to an integrative and functional understanding of anatomy. Early on through experimentation with the bodywork, we explored different points of contact and strategies for inviting movement through the body in the most efficient ways. By efficiency, I mean the way we speak of it in terms of movement science—relating to mechanical efficiency, knowledge of the body’s structure, awareness of individual differences and how to notice them. This also includes understanding the bony levers within the body. For example, suppose I align the heel with the sitz bone (ischial tuberosity) with parallel legs and gently push though the calcaneus. In that case, I can see the movement travel up through the skeleton to move the head, creating a sense of integration through the whole body. Movement of the head on another plane can occur if I gently press into the elbow of the abducted shoulder joint. The head can roll to the side. The encouragement to experiment with these pathways as we developed our work led to the specific placement of the hands in our work that most directly moves other parts of the body with little effort. When working with accordion breathing, for example, the placement of one hand on the greater trochanter of the femur and the other hand capping the shoulder creates optimal leverage for accessing the breath without seeming intimate, touching the ribs directly or inducing a tickle response. These levers helped me understand the body’s anatomy at the same time that the anatomical information informed the economy of touch that is used in our work. The specific points of contact and methods born from experimentation became the foundation for the economy of touch still used in our work decades later, even as improvisation away from these forms is still encouraged.
Another example is a favorite story of mine from the early days. We were working in your basement studio. You invited a husband and wife to join us so that we could work on other people. The husband was my client. He was a very tall man. I watched him walk around the space and took notice of his posture and stride. After taking him through simple joint actions and encouraging ease and symmetry in a lesson on the table, he went for another walk. To our surprise, he had found his full height, increasing his standing height so much that he could only walk around one part of the basement that had a slightly higher ceiling. His wife said it had been ten years since he stood that tall or moved with such ease.
In these early lessons, I relied on my knowledge of the body’s structure and movement possibilities to inform my work, but this body knowledge was only a foundation, not the focal point. I had to use listening hands to really guide the lessons. It was these two aspects that helped me understand what working along the lines of least resistance means in our work. While structures are similar, they are not symmetrical and they occur in different shapes and sizes and histories with each client. We arrive in our posture as a result of our lived experiences and how we navigate the choreographies of our joints from the ground up along the way. Recognizing the dynamic nature of our posture has meant letting go of the notion of “perfect” alignment. Understanding this dance and the ease that can result through subtle shifts in the bones continues to fascinate me.
Yes, I remember the incident you speak of. This was one of those times when large changes occur immediately, and we have an opportunity to notice effects of careful touch and teaching through touch. I’m always thinking of what will remain of such change, and how I can teach people through hands-on work that they might notice changes and have movement tools to work toward change by themselves. I hope to encourage independence.
You also bring up another point in #3, inviting sensory awareness and visible physical shifts in movement quality with little effort. After these many years of practicing and teaching somatic hands-on therapies, I am still amazed at the power of small, gentle movements to change the organization of the body. It is as if the person is waiting to hear themselves beneath the noise of the everyday. And it can occur through touch in relation to sense, work with the eyes to peak vision in relation to movement, for instance.
Do you use the principle of less effort in your present work?
It is easy to remind myself that I find my own fullness as a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and a human being when I let go of unnecessary effort, but I admit I don’t live there naturally, especially as I work in higher education. As a dancer, I seek out those moments where I can let go of effort and indulge in the fullness and flow of my movement, but I don’t think I really understood what that could feel like as a dancer or how to achieve it until I experienced it through our bodywork.
Even as our work does not follow an academic model, I attend to the teaching and learning of dance in the same way I approach our bodywork. I have let go of the follow the leader model from much of my own dance training and instead begin each class with observation and listening, keeping templates and patterns in mind. Working with what presents itself, we arrive at focal points through sensory-based experiences. With time allotted to observe and share experiences, students often arrive at their own learning outcomes. Sometimes I see my younger self in the strong will of my students who still enjoy the physicality of working hard in technique class. We practice that too, because I value dynamic range as an important aspect of movement education. Similar to our bodywork, I pull from templates and patterns, but with a mindset toward approximations and individual experiences so students recognize their individual capacity to choose how they want to move at any moment. To me, this is technique. Overall, the pacing of class feels less forced or micromanaged when I let go of moving through a series of specific exercises. This might mean doing less, but what we do feels more meaningful.
I utilize imagery and cueing that invites students to experience and enjoy movement rather than trying to mimic a particular aesthetic. Sometimes the bodywork patterns are practiced in the studio too, as a partner supports and guides another’s arm in a small circle. Can they remember this sensation when they do it for themselves in a phrase? How can the arm unfold from the back rather than working to match a specific choreographic choice? I have let go of correction and specific models of “rightness.” Even in more formalized jazz classes where there can be a focus on perfecting choreography, I emphasize the relationship to the music and dance as a sensory-based experience. I want students to feel movement as music rather than matching steps with the musical counts. I enjoy witnessing this shift in their sense of musicality and personal agency and how they might think about and experience movement differently. A greater sense of individual presence emerges when they let go of what they think they are supposed to do. Sometimes old habits creep in and students forget to breathe or they start to muscle through in an effort to be “right.” Collectively, we witness this and then invite curiosity, breath and ease. When we let go of some of the unnecessary work of dance technique, both teacher and student, I think we find our way toward elevated artistry and greater joy.
I also have a more vibrant artistic experience as a performer and observer as I recognize how our work has broadened and refined my movement vocabulary. I enjoy the potency of subtle movements as focal points within complex choreography and find myself referencing our methods constantly as I create new work. When I am the performer of someone else’s choreography, our methods help me connect with the ideas, images, and perspectives of the choreographer as a collaborator. I am able to explore the subtle variations within each approximation with discriminating detail as the “yes” becomes realized. As an observer, I enjoy feeling a deep kinesthetic response when that attention to detail is present while watching others perform. Regardless of whether I am playing with more nuanced movement vocabulary or indulging in larger movements through space, I am equally intentional with effort and ease which has expanded my expressive choices as a dancer and choreographer.
Thank you for saying more about how our work has manifested in your dancing and choreography. You first mention vocabulary of movement in relation to our bodywork, so from what you say, I think there has been some influence of the hands-on work and our approach to touch throughout your work. Touch is the most difficult of subjects to write about. When you say as in #4 above that you “accessed a new vocabulary of movement,” can you remember what about the bodywork you identify as new vocabulary?
For me, our methods of touch are often entry points for locating new gestures and for choreographing relationships on stage especially with contact-based partner work. Because our bodywork can be done from multiple vantage points: lying, sitting, standing, and while dancing, there are endless options for using our methods to arrive at choreographic templates. Since our bodywork is already a dance between practitioner and client, the way a hand can be placed on the sternum to soften the torso while standing interests me as a performative gesture. In working with intuitive dance structures and contact unwinding, for example, we often witness stunning duets with unexpected points of initiation, endless options for movement sequencing, and new perspectives on spatial orientation, all which contribute to more varied movement motifs and partnering exchanges. In this way, the dance emerges through experimentation, active observation and listening. The movement vocabulary that emerges can be further crafted into choreographic forms that may not have surfaced through other choreographic methods.
You have been curious about my own background in developing this work. I am a registered Feldenkrais teacher, so that has been influential in my understanding of how to create and work with patterns, but the patterns that develop for me come from the creativity of dance and my own invention of Land to Water Yoga. I have written a book about my development of this. It uses Hatha Yoga basics, especially turning these toward dance and infant movement development. The patterns I use come from my extensive development of Land to Water over many years, and they keep evolving. In standing and sitting, I am strongly influenced by what I learned from the Alexander Technique. I studied that intensively, but am not certified. The manner of lightness in touch crosses over both Feldenkrais and Alexander. Then there is Craniosacral Therapy. I am certified in this, and the touch techniques there are also very soft and listening. My approach to touch and movement with the head is from Craniosacral Therapy. I also make connections between CT and my teaching of movement patterns, especially the Sea Horse, a pattern from Land to Water Yoga that creates a gentle wave through the whole spine, so that does involve the Craniosacral system as a whole. I have videos that show some of these connections. One is Proud Monkey, which is a standing pattern that uses the seahorse wave in standing and is fun to do.
Thus, you see that much of what I have studied has taken a creative turn toward integration of patterning and creative yoga in bodywork. You have also asked me about how dance came into the work, and if this work is primarily for dancers. I have been a teacher and writer on subjects of dance for many years, and so that motivation is always there. When I started to use improvisational dance in my university somatics classes at Brockport NY, students always asked me to do more with dance. It was easy to assimilate somatically and eventually led us into ecosomatic projects of dancing in and with the environment.
So much of what I’m saying is encapsulated in our curriculum model, which we should show alongside our conversation. I want to say that our work is not just for dancers, much as we love to dance. Even the dance is for everyone, not technical or difficult. Anyone who wants to experience our work is welcome. Those who certify dedicate a lot of time and often have professional goals, but one does not have to be a dancer or movement expert to learn our work and learn how to teach it. I firmly believe that somatic movement education is for everyone. Although, many of our graduates are dancers, not everyone has that background. Everyone who wants to give time to this perspective is welcome. Several of our teachers do volunteer teaching in their respective communities, including work with elders and children.
I think your comment about the accessibility of our work is significant. Anyone can learn our work and find it valuable in a variety of contexts. The use of imagery, and creativity with imagery in particular, contributes to the accessibility of our work for students and clients of all ages and abilities.
We can start quite simply with color. Color is everywhere present in our lives, and so it is a ready quality for facilitating imagination, and relates to directly to image. We can use color to stimulate imagination and therapeutic momentum with clients and students in bodywork. Blue is generally a calm quality, but not always, so we pay attention to what people tell us about the color. It may be sky blue or appear in a storm, and blue can be dark as night, or light to disappearing.
In a bodywork lesson, as we attend to the needs and wishes of the client, imagery can be used to help focus attention. At the beginning of a lesson, the client might indicate something that brings up an image for me to work with in the lesson. So, we sit in silence and wait for what the client senses as a sight, sound, taste, or felt sensation. Some of the images clients/students have communicated in bodywork sessions are: digging, looking up at the sky, fire in a thicket, heaviness in the chest like a rock. I have listened to and worked with many kinds of sense images, and they can and do change as we work with them. They all have felt valences or qualities in bodily tone and movement. So, they are most interesting to work with in bodywork. Images might emerge from nature, a dream a client has shared, or from a sensation of pain they describe at the start of the session/lesson. Sometimes I dance with my client through images at the beginning of a bodywork session or at the end, but I also sense how the image might be moving and changing as we move through an entire session. I notice how the breath responds as we progress in bodywork, and how the personal aspect of embodiment can change along the way. The images we work with and pay attention to from the beginning often can be associated with color, to actual narratives or short stories. These can come from anywhere. I realize I am describing a mixture of bodywork and dance, and this is often how it happens in my sessions. The dance is intuitive and simple of course, maybe just a lifted arm gesture as the client stands up after bodywork. That would indicate a whole world of change. Some people like to move a lot, and others like to move more minimally. Then the image itself has a size and might suggest a quality of movement.
With Chakra Unwinding, Depth Movement Dances or while working with particular Land to Water Yoga patterns and bodywork, we reference related images and chakras (energy vortexes of the body). In bodywork, we might reference sense images (sound, picture and form, light, color, weight, direction, heat, taste, and more, while the client experiences supported movement through hands-on work. The teacher/practitioner can name colors or other images for the client as they come to attention, even as the work we do is mostly quiet and without much talking. So, when talk comes about, it is focused and brief. We remember we are doing bodywork therapy, not talk therapy. Many color and gem images appear in the Land to Water Yoga book: ruby for the root chakra of the feet, legs, and pelvis, for instance. Colors and images from nature often appear to clients as they locate themselves metaphorically.
I interpret the third eye as a far-seeing blue pearl in its poiesis. This is a metaphors of course, and can steer the lesson toward particular bodywork patterns or a change of perspective. While red may be perceived as anger or fear, for example, red also represents the root chakra and the support we can rely on to face our fears. Here color and its felt valences veer toward psychology. Images shift throughout the lesson, inviting and indicating some form of change. We do not judge the image; rather do we let it be and shift. The client often learns something from the lesson as the image shifts, and sometimes they volunteer their perspectives and learning.
And what does the practitioner invite into a session?
We can introduce imagery to invite reflection, or joy and pleasure, focusing attention on something pleasant to invite the relaxation response. When we yield into relaxed states, a deeper story can emerge. Imagery can guide this experience as we invite the client to witness an image, without fixation, and if it is painful to let it go. As the client reflects on their experience, what they learned, and what they hope to retain, as you mentioned earlier, they move closer to recognizing their agency and are better able to see the choices before them. We don’t solve problems for clients/students, but we can help to clear away obstacles, old stories no longer needed, and brighten a path forward.
This last point is a big one, Sondra! What do you want to add to this, while also bringing this dialogue to a close?
Allowing and Witnessing what comes up for the student/client is at the core of our work, as we indicated at the start of this short dialogue exploration, Michelle. I often remind myself that everything we have experienced is held within us and physical pain usually calls our attention to this reality. Physical pain might result from injury, chronic conditions, or stored emotional pain, which brings our conversation back to the meaning of Shin: Body and Mind are One. When a client experiences physical ease through supported movement, there is often a feeling of unwinding or physical relief, witnessed through changes in breath, muscle tonus, tears, or expressions of joy. Without interference or a need to interpret, the client often experiences increased clarity and movement ease, relief from pain, and emotional clarity.
Ashley Meeder demonstrates an arm lift Shin Restore Bodywork Process