Thursday, March 16, 2017

Living in Your Body

I was feeling a bit whoozy when I made it back home to Bowen Island. I’d just had a dental procedure dealing with an abscess. A  bit messy but I thought I handled it pretty well considering my history of nasty dental experiences.  I seemed to be doing well enough that I decided to fit in a couple of errands before I headed for the ferry, and for the massage I had scheduled at the end of a very full day.  Nothing I couldn’t handle, I told myself. 

So when the massage therapist asked me that inevitable question about how I was doing, my response was pretty positive. I thought I was doing pretty darn good.  And so the session began. 

An hour later, my confident persona was shaken.  My mouth ached, I was nauseous and my body felt like I’d been hit by a truck.  I was back in my body, and the truth of its experience. 

An interesting study by Cioffi and Holloway on the delayed costs of suppressed pain nicely illustrates how this works.  Participants in the study were asked to put their hands in ice water.  While one group paid attention to the discomfort, another group were asked to suppress their awareness of the ice water. Contrary to what you might think, after taking their hands out of the water, those who paid attention to the discomfort had the most rapid recovery from the pain and while those who suppressed the pain reported a longer time for the pain to go away.  

In a biological illustration of “holding onto the past”, our nervous system is congested with the message of past experience and is not as able to process what is happening in this moment.  As I went into my massage appointment, I may have felt that I was coping well but my only accomplishment had been to suppress my body’s reaction to the dental experience.  As the massage therapist’s expert touch brought deeper sensory awareness to my nervous system, it began to thaw, and I felt the truth of what was really there. 

When we lose the ability to be present to our experience in the moment we lose contact with our emerging story, and its essential contribution to community.  This is the greater price we pay for suppressing body awareness, and one that may be particularly applicable to the times we live in - our ability to contribute more fully to a true democracy as embodied beings.  When we can hear our body’s experience in the moment, we not only have a greater capacity to speak to our particular truth, but in that heightened capacity for body based presence, we can more fully hear the contributions of those around us. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why Somatic Studies

From its inception, my practice has been guided by the question, “what makes somatic practice work?”  It has turned into the guiding star on my long and winding road, leading me through the emerging landscape of this field, and helping me hear its voice.  Like a mantra, it has also guided me into the depths of my work, helping me understand myself as an embodied being.   

Just a few years after I started my practice, I discovered Deane Juhan asking the same question in his watershed book, Job’s Body.  

“By what possible mechanisms, then," he asked, "could something so simple as soothing touch alleviate painful and long-standing physical conditions, quell anxieties, foster more productive attitudes? And if simple touching indeed provided some sort of key, then why were some practitioners so much better at achieving these kinds of results than were others?”

Up till then, the science of physical therapy was the primary source for answering that question, and it wasn’t much of a help.  Anatomy, physiology and kinetic sciences told us that the body was a physical structure that could be corrected by through physical interventions.  But, as Juhan points out, these approaches “reflect almost exclusively the mechanical aspects of bodywork and of our own systems responses - the laws governing hydraulics, the elasticity and tensile strength of tissues, and so on.” 

The key to understanding the interaction between mind and body was in sensation, and its relationship to movement, Juhan wrote.  “Movement is the unifying bond between the mind and the body and sensations are the substance of that bond” 

Job’s Body revolutionized our understanding of embodied experience.  Juhan took our traditional approach to anatomy and physiology, and reversed the paradigm.  Somatic practices had been used to leaving the living parts of somatic experience outside the doorway when entering  the world of science. With brilliant creativity, Juhan showed how science could actually help us deepen our understanding of the rich communion that occurs in the borderland between body and mind.  

Job’s Body gave me language from science that has served me, both in my practice, and in my work as an educator.  Yet, despite its genius, the insights of Job’s Body have not spread through the world of somatic practice as fully as they deserve.  Juhan once told me that my use of Job’s Body as the text for an anatomy and physiology course was the only instance of this happening that he knew of.  

Around the same time, I stumbled across the work of Thomas Hanna and the Somatics Journal.  Hanna, a philosophy professor and Department Chair at the University of Miami, left academia and followed his interest in embodied experience to its emerging epicenter in the Bay area of San Francisco.

By 1977, Hanna had started the Somatics Journal to gather articles about mind-body integration-theory, practice and research. The Journal became a watering hole for philosophers, phenomenologists, academics, and thinkers about embodied experience.  Out of these literary conversations, a theory base began that would form the underlying principles that governed body centred practice.  Hanna called this developing field of study, “somatics.”

Hanna and the thinkers he attracted created an oasis of reflection during a time when the field of somatic practice was an exotic flowering of techniques, each claiming to be unique, and uniquely qualified to heal.  As Don Hanlon Johnson described it, “A major cause of fragmentation within the Somatics community [was] putting emphasis on the techniques peculiar to a specific method, rather than on the underlying principles which generated the method.” 

Don Hanlon Johnson, a self described “recovering philosopher”, is a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and founder of its Somatics Graduate program.  In the Somatics Journal article, Principles versus Techniques he describes how he and his colleagues have spent over 50 years studying “how the somatics pioneers actually developed their work--the puzzles that intrigued them, what they actually did in their work, and how they lived.”  In contrast, he writes, “techniques are what they did in particular instances, and what they say they did in their attempts to communicate simply with their students and the public.” (my italics)  In other words, Somatics is interested in the ways we engage with ourselves and the world, through our body.  

When first proposing Somatics as the study of the lived experience of the body, Hanna pointed out that “first person” experience was common to the outcome of health and wholeness whatever healing techniques were used. Awareness of sensation from each moment’s experience was essential to moving from a disconnected “third person” experience of oneself to feeling more fully inhabited.  To further explore these ideas, Hanlon Johnson created yearly retreats at Esalen Institute in Big Sur where leaders of a number of somatic practices gathered with academics, described in his book, Groundworks.   

Inquiry into the underlying principles of somatic practice also revealed their rich historical development.  In Bone, Breath and Gesture, Hanlon Johnson has shown how Western exploration of principles such as the role of sensing in authentic expression can be traced at least as far back as the work of Elsa Gindler early in 20th century Germany.  We can now trace the influence of these ideas across Europe and into North America, influencing somatic practices as diverse as Zen practice and Gestalt psychotherapy.  We are not separate ideas, we are an interconnected community.  

Over the last 30 years, I have been helping to clarify Somatics principles, primarily in their application to massage therapy.  It is has become clear that, when viewed through the somatics lens, anatomy, physiology, and the techniques of our practice become changed.  Intuitive understandings that have guided our practice are affirmed and given clear, descriptive voice. We learn to see tension, trauma and chronic dysfunction as signs of disconnection in the community of our organism.  And we learn to join with the impulse to wholeness and integration that continually wells up from the deepest parts of each individual’s being.     

Together, the science of the body as described by Juhan, and the science of the mind proposed by Hanna have the potential to radically change the nature of the work we do.  These changes happen in two fundamental ways: 

Touch and movement become a field for conversation between persons.  
  • We begin to free ourselves from the influence of a mechanistic paradigm - that of working on a body.  Instead, we learn to work with sensation and help support our movement from habituated reactivity, to intelligent response to the possibilities of each moment. 
  • We learn how our own ungroundedness has been limiting our client’s response.  
  • Like a yogi who teaches, our clinical practice becomes our journey of self discovery.  

It becomes possible to choose appropriate techniques from a wide range of paradigms.  Experienced practitioners understand the importance of gathering a wide range of skills.  
  • A Rolfer can become more effective at working with fascia if the fluid-fascia techniques of craniosacral work are integrated into practice. 
  • An understanding of the principles that underly each paradigm helps create a seamless integration of very different looking techniques.  
  • Through an understanding of the principles of somatic functioning, we learn to listen to the voice of each fluid and tissue, supporting its journey to greater functionality.  

This fall, I am offering a unique opportunity to explore these questions in your practice.   
The Somatic Studies Program will be a series of 10 one day workshops, divided into two sections. It will be offered through Qi Integrated Health in Vancouver.  Dates can be found here.  You can register by contacting Qi at 1-604-742-8383.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Constellating Patterns

Constellating Patterns

On a dark night, the sky is aglow with stars - the longer we look, the more we see.  The patterns we call constellations are relationships formed by our imagination.  Some of the stars in the Big Dipper are more than a hundred light years from each other but we connect them as a community in our mind. In a similar way, we organize the tissues of our organism, shaping them into an expression of our experience of life.  

Perhaps our most common experience of a tissue pattern being constellated is when we experience a simple increase of charge in our body.  We go out for a long hike or ride a horse for the first time in years. The next day we mysteriously feel not just aches and pains but an increase of tensions that restrict our movement.  Our energized body awakens the patterns that control “too much.”  If we continue to explore that energized state over time, the pattern of control adjusts to match the new limits of our identity.  However, when a charge control pattern is so engrained in our body that it has distorted the soft tissue and joints of our frame we might, for example in a yoga class, experience a recontraction or injury as a reflection of this struggle at the threshold of change.  

Basic charge control patterns tend to constellate in two areas: around metabolic control, particularly muscles of breathing in the diaphragm and rib cage; and around charge movement, primarily in the muscles of the spine, pelvis and legs.  These muscles tense against an increase of charge and attempt to control its movement through the body.  In a moment I’ll explore how these responses can be related to more sophisticated expression but let's start with with the idea that they are fundamentally a response to “too much”.  

There seem to be two essential ways in which charge can constellate as a pattern of stopped expression.  The first is more defensive; embedded in our tissue, shaping our posture in characteristic forms.  Hands-on somatic practitioners know these well.  They produce structure (and when challenged, resistance) and layer our tissue into a static organization of our internal identity, and our outer boundaries.  

Described as character armour by early somatic psychologists such as Reich and Lowen, they are identifiable as thickenings, lines of strain, and occasionally, a lack of tone that is expressive of dissociative states.   An increase of charge in the body can stir the reactiveness of static patterns as their grip on the body is challenged.  It makes me think of Bootstrap Bill Turner, embedded in the walls of the Flying Dutchman in the film, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. He can be awakened from his slumber but pulled to return as part of the structure of the ship.  
(If you’re not familiar with this arcane example, here’s a link to the scene

Stopped expression can also lie like wisps of memories in the tissues, only wakened by a resonance to the conditions in which they were first learned. You might be told, “you looked just like your mother when you made that retort”. Like structural patterns,  they are an artifact, an “orphan” movement that is the fragmented remains of an interrupted response.  But in contrast, they live in the depths and haven’t been called forth enough to become the barnacle encrusted structures of a defensive manifestation.  They may appear suddenly when a collapsed body, depleted of tone, awakens to its repressed strength with a sudden pushing away through the arm.  For another, a tick around the eye may awaken into a glare and the feeling of rage.  

Here's a last and essential manifestation: the constellation of our emerging creative response to life.  This expression is described by Jungian analyst, Marie Louise Von Franz as, “That future personality which we are to be in a year’s time … already there, only it is still in the shadow.”  Perhaps it's an emerging strength, or a maturity of response that challenges the way we’ve repressed the potential of our being.  In whatever form it manifests, it is the germinating seed, pressuring and cracking its husk. 

How do we meet with this awakening of our potential? Many body-centred practices have evolved a way of engagement often described as the “listening hand.”  Essentially, with touch, we listen for the stirrings of the future personality, working to soften and unwind the structures and the reactions that have distorted our commitment to partnering with life.  These patterns are subversive.  When we meet with them, they flow like water, pooling and reorganizing at the place of blockage until they find the place of softness, the place where the stopped story feels met and begins once again to join in the dance.  

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Connective Tissue - Easing the Ties that Bind

Rebecca and I have been getting our house ready for sale in the last couple of months. And, of course, I’ve been spending lots of time fixing those things that I never seemed to get around to. I think about how those new owners will never know how hard I worked getting the place ready for them as I get out of bed in the morning with the aches and pains that come from spending unaccustomed time laying flooring, attaching new screws into loose hinges or moving wheelbarrows of earth. I have some empathy for Jonathan Swift’s character, Gulliver, who awakes in Lilliput to find himself anchored to the ground, bound by the ropes the nation of diminutive people have laced across his body.  

I know that what’s going on inside my body is not too different from Gulliver’s experience. Little strands of connective tissue are slowly but incessantly binding the different parts of my body together so that the shape of my constant bending and kneeling makes it harder to stand straight and move with ease.  

Connective tissue is everywhere in our bodies. It is the cartilage in our nose, ears and deep on the sliding surfaces of our joints. It creates nets that hold our fat cells, intestines, nerves and vessels in place. It forms sheets that cover bones and muscles spinning the cables of tendons that connect muscles to bones and the tapes that hold joints together.  

Of all connective tissue, these sheets, called fascia, have the greatest effect on our movement. From the smallest bundle of muscles cells to the largest muscle masses, fascia helps create not only the shape of muscles but also allows a sliding of each bundle against those around it. They are instrumental in the dynamic strength of muscles that allows subtle responses of the smallest bundles while at the same time binding them together for focused action. With that strength they give our bodies an essential sense of its limits so that we don’t over-reach the range of motion of our muscles and joints. Fascia doesn’t just help shape the inner landscape of our bodies, it shapes the way we move.    

Connective tissue draws its amazing adaptability - forming itself to the needs of each part of the body - through a unique combination of two components: 1. fluid and 2. long, rope-like strands. The fluid, called ground substance, is the basic ingredient of gelatin. Like Jell-O, it is able to respond to temperature changes, moving from liquid to gel as it cools. The strands, known as collagen fibres, are the longest molecular formations in the body. They are also the strongest, with higher strength than steel cables of the same size. Collagen fibres get a lot of that strength from being twisted together like ropes and bound with hydrogen bonds that hold the strands together with Velcro like strength.  

Our most direct and dramatic experience of connective tissue at work is when we injure ourselves. The ground substance of connective tissue helps to create a thickening of the fluids in the wound while the collagen fibres throw themselves across the wound, binding it together and creating scar tissue.  

On the inside of the body, when not called to emergency duty, the fascial sheets adjust themselves to the strains that go through our muscles, tendons and ligaments, thickening themselves to help carry greater load and shaping themselves to the limits of our movements.  

This is exactly what has been happening as I work. As I hammer a new baseboard or lay paving stones, my fascia begins to thicken in my quads and calves. My chest muscles shorten with the load of carrying boxes full of books into storage and the fascia begins to shrink-wrap itself to the new shaping of my body. The deadlines and long hours I require of myself mean that my body isn’t given range of movement experiences.  Not using my full range of movement between the muscles means that the Velcro of collagen fibres begins to create stickiness between the surfaces of muscles. At night these adhesions throw down even more strands so that, like Lilliputian ropes, each tiny strand contributes to and causes the profound limitation of movement and achiness I feel when I wake in the morning or try to stand erect after a long time spent bent over.  

Thus, several weeks later, when I finally appear in yoga class, my hands can barely reach my feet in sitting forward bend, paschimottanasana and my heels cannot find the floor in my downward dog, adho mukha svanasana. Where I might have once blamed “tight muscles,” I now know the truth. My inner surfaces are sticky, my fluids have gelled and my fascial sheets have thickened around shortened muscles.  

I know I have to travel slowly on my road of re-inhabiting my body. In its essential nature, fascia is like Silly Putty. Pull too hard, too fast, and it will pull back against you and maybe snap! But go slowly enough and it melts, giving way before a gentle, engaged stretch. The gel begins to warm, melting into its fluid nature. The Velcro begins to pull apart, allowing the surfaces to slide to greater length. The thickened areas become more flexible as the load is shared across my body through the wisdom of the asanas. I return to a deeper relationship with the life of my body as their busy Lilliputian work returns to providing strength and flexibility on the journey to embodied engagement in life. 

Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of the "Yoga Bridge", the publication of the Yoga Association of Alberta. 


Myofascial release balls such as those used by the Yamuna® system are an excellent way of working out adhesions and thickened fascia.  You can find more at

An insightful (and very entertaining) video on the restrictive power of fascia can be found in anatomist Gil Hedley’s “Fuzz Speech” 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Body's Story

The Body’s Story

Comment: This is a short article I wrote as an introduction to my Anatomy and Expression workshop series.  It gives a bit of insight into the intersect between body practice and our inner experience. 

As I am working through a twist in yoga, the instructor kneels beside me, and with gentle support starts helping me move deeper. As my ribs start to move and my breathing opens I am surprised to hear sobs emerging. I have been working on the tension in my ribs and restrictions to my breathing for some time, but this was new.

The transition from physical tension to deepened experiencing is not news to any somatic practitioner who has been working for longer than a year or two. I still remember my first experience with this deepening as it occurred on my massage table. My client and I had been working together for some time, but this time she had sheets of tension through her neck and shoulders as a result of a car accident she had earlier that week. As I worked with the tension, she dissolved into tears. She remembered having to move into care-taking mode when she realized that it was an elderly man is who had been driving the car that hit her, and he looked more shocked and bewildered then she felt herself. It was only as she was able to drop into her body that her own reactions began to surface and the tensions that it held them began to soften up.

Despite the frequency of these occurrences in massage therapy and other somatic practices, little education is available in entry level training programs.  The only training that is typically available for practitioners is through specialized trainings in trauma and processed centered therapies.  

 A first step in gaining access to this valuable information is looking at it through the lens of anatomy. In the early 1900s, Pioneer psychoanalyst and researcher, Wilhelm Reich, was already describing how particular muscles in the body formed distinctive patterns of tension that he called armoring. This led to the recognition of tension bands that form at typical levels of the body such as the neck or lower back. And more broadly, how patterns of tension will form as an expression of particular types of personality, often shaped in early childhood development.

Practitioners can benefit from the recognition of these patterns by responding more specifically to them. Slight shifts in techniques can be made through the recognition that the tensions showing in a person’s body are not just physical but have a story. Recognizing the signs of a stopped story in the body may lead to a referral to a practitioner who specializes in this area.  In addition, clients can benefit through education about how unresponsive tension patterns may be related to armoured experience.  

Where Softness Begins - Justin Stone and T'ai Chi Chih

Where Softness Begins
Justin Stone and T'ai Chi Chih
Matthew van der Giessen

I had positioned myself toward the end of a long row of workshop participants when Justin Stone walked into the room and sat himself down right in front of me. My placement of safe anonymity evaporated immediately. Justin sat there, looking at nothing and everything, while we moved through our set. 

I  had arrived in Albuquerque earlier that week with teachers and students from across the continent who had gathered to celebrate Justin's 94th birthday, and to take my first Intensive workshop.

When we finished, Pam Towne, who was leading the Intensive, asked Justin for his comments. The many useful things I'm sure he said disappeared in a blur for me when, at one point, he turned to me and said, "I don't know what you think you are doing, but that's not Tai Chi Chih." I had been warned by Gail Terriff, my teacher in Edmonton, that when I went to the Intensive I would receive at least one correction that would collapse my sense that I knew how to practice Tai Chi Chih.  Little did I know that it would come as such a sweeping critique of my practice and from Justin Stone himself! I continued to absorb the impact of Justin's statement as Pam led us into the next section of teaching.

Then, a window opened awakening me from my absorbed self reflection. Justin had become a bit antsy as he waited for Carmen Brocklehurst to take him home;  he was hosting a meditation later that afternoon. Finally, he got up and headed for the door. I waited for somebody to do something but it seemed as if in that moment time stopped and nobody moved. I felt myself step forward and open the door for Justin.

As I walked him out to the car, he turned to me with the second set of words he would ever speak to me. "Your technique is just fine", he said to me. "You just have to learn to relax." It was if, having fallen into a pit as the ground opened up under my feet when he had spoken to me earlier, he had now handed me a ladder by which I might be able to find my way out.

Later that week, amongst the many invaluable things I learned, Pam handed me an essential rung for my ladder. It was the basic principles of Tai Chi Chih practice: moving from the center with softness and continuity, yining and yanging with the focus on the soles of my feet, with polarity and circularity. Somehow, I thought I could never memorize this simple line. Yet, I immediately recognized that this was the missing piece that I needed to respond to Justin's challenge to me. Every evening after our class I went home and practiced it in my hotel room. Eventually it stuck.

In my work as a massage therapist, I am interacting with people through my body every day.  After 30 years I have learned that congruent interaction is an essential part of my practice. Upon taking my new Tai Chi Chih mantra home, I discovered that holding it quietly inside myself subtly but powerfully changed the quality of my work. New options opened up with deep and unexpected shifts for my clients. In the years since my meeting with Justin, my work has gone through what is perhaps the most significant evolution of my whole career.

And perhaps as important, I find that in my every day interactions with others, whether individually or in groups, my internal mantra helps keep me grounded, helps me hear how I need to be in this moment. I feel more comfortable in myself and, perhaps, more helpful to the fellow beings who inhabit my particular universe. While Justin may no longer be with us in person, his words are there in my ear to help guide me through the rest of my life, moving from the center with softness and continuity.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Anatomy for the Inward Path

Here's an article I recently wrote for the Yoga Association of Alberta. It gives a taste of the paradigm I use in my anatomy courses with yogis and other somatic practitioners. Some very good resources becoming available to support a somatics infused approach to anatomy, particularly those that approach patterning from myofascial or neuromuscular paradigms. As an integrationist, I am spending my time developing a multi-paradigm approach. In particular, I am looking at how an full understanding of somatic patterns draws upon pattern processing through all the systems in the body. That means an inclusion, for example, of fluid and energetic systems. While the following article draws mostly from the available neuromuscular and myofascial resources, the theme of "whole being" expression talked about here is an essential aspect of how I am shaping an evolution from a single paradigm driven perspective to one that describes the experience of the whole person. -Matthew

Anatomy for the Inward Path

by Matthew van der Giessen

Stepping out of his tent as the early morning darkness faded to the first thin edge of dawn, Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, was surprised to see an African tribesman unfolding his lanky frame as he too emerged from the low door of his hut. On a journey through Africa in the 1930‘s, Jung was captivated as he watched the man step forward towards the glimmering sun, spit on his hands and raise them, open and facing the rising sun.

In yoga, we move through the same archetypal movement pattern, raising our arms from Tadasana and then bending forward into Uttanasana. We correct these poses externally and look for the energetic organization internally as we align ourselves with a way of being that has moved human beings across the world for thousands of years.

The journey into embodiment opens up a world that is, at first, enshrouded in fog. We have vague ideas of muscles and bones, joints and organs. Somewhere in our consciousness is an idea of fascia, interconnecting the landscape of our body through sheets and strands.

Travelling the inward path of embodied awareness needs a map that helps guide us through the universe of the body. Anatomy gives us that map, helping us understand our body’s language of communication, and its patterns of organization. Using the map of anatomy, we discover how an engaged shortening of the abdomen and hip flexors in Uttanasana helps the back know how to intelligently lengthen. Our understanding of patterns called kinetic chains helps us problem-solve a discomfort in the lower back when coming out of a forward bend by knowing that the engagement sequence has to move from the floor upwards, engaging the hamstrings so that a ground supported pelvis can, in turn, properly support the load on the straightening lower back.

One of the most surprising anatomy insights for yogis is that most muscle fibres in the body move diagonally, lending their individual fibres to interconnected spirals that flow across and through the body. Through the insights of anatomy we can connect points of awareness from muscle attachments deep in the soles of the feet, spiralling from the inside of the arch to the knee. From here, the spiral line follows a diagonal line across the outer quadricep, through the gluteus maximus and into the edge of the sacrum. Once we understand this connection we can feel how the engagement of the arches creates a dynamic connection that aligns the legs and connects them to the core of the pelvis.

All of these movements are contained and supported by webs and strands of fascia that, when they thicken or shorten through misuse or injury, limit a muscle’s capacity for response. Understanding the effect of fascia in restricting range of motion can move the focus of a yogi’s work away from a fixed focus on muscle lengthening. We can learn to engage the fascia and reduce the chance of strain and injury.

Each interaction with the world brings us a choice. We either awaken our instinctual responses to the natural sense of wonder that moved Carl Jung and the African tribesman, or we create another layer of habituated response that distorts and limits the expression of our essential being. Each movement towards natural expression is a response of the whole person. It draws each bone, muscle, fluid and organ into a song of praise to this moment. Through the insights of anatomy we create a channel through which the mind, so often distracted by the “things” of this world, can join in that chorus of community, and more fully take our place in creation.