Is the Somatics movement racist?

Last month a huge spirituality event took place online, called the Embodiment Conference. It boasted a stellar line-up — Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Charles Eisenstein, Ken Wilber, Gabor Mate, Richard Strozzi-Hecler, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and loads of famous people from the world of ‘Somatics’. Kind of an amazing moment, in the midst of a pandemic which has deprived us of touch, to have this enormous conference on embodiment…on Zoom!

The Conference apparently got half a million people to sign up for its free talks, harvesting their emails to then try and sell them content afterwards. It sounds like it worked and made the organizers some good money. But it also attracted some controversy. Tada Hozumi, a practitioner in ‘cultural somatics’, wrote an open letter to the conference’s organizer, British embodiment practitioner Mark Walsh, saying not only was the conference racist — because the organizer is white and so were most of the speakers — but the entire field of Somatics is racist, because it involves white men appropriating practices from non-white cultures. Mark Walsh reacted angrily on Facebook, apparently, dismissing these accusations as ‘c***tery’.

Is Somatics racist, then? I discussed this question in an interview with Don Hanlon Johnson, one of the pioneers of the movement.

I came across Don’s life and work via Jeffrey Kripal’s history of Esalen, the spiritual college in northern California. Esalen helped to develop many of the embodiment practices of the last half century, such as Gestalt therapy, neo-Shamanic energy healing, Somatic psychotherapy, psychedelic therapy and ecstatic dance / 5 Rhythms. It combined intellectual talks with massage, hot-spring bathing, nudity and free love.

Jeff Kripal argues that Esalen was at the centre of a new religious movement in western culture, which went beyond the body-negating of Buddhism and Vedanta, and instead forged an American spirituality which sees the body and soul as inextricably intertwined.

Esalen was co-founded, and owned, by Michael Murphy, an intensely spiritual Californian who was celibate for the first three decades of his life. Shortly after he founded Esalen, he lost his virginity. The same night, he was involved in an almost fatal car accident, as if the reintegration of sex into his spirituality was a life-threatening crisis point.

Murphy then helped to frame the culture of Esalen and its celebration and spiritualization of the body. He would write a grand tome, The Future of the Body, discussing evolutionary spirituality and the idea that humans are evolving superhuman physical and spiritual potentialities.

Spiritual elitism and hierarchies of wisdom

Now, as regular readers know, I have been researching the shadow side of western spirituality — things like spiritual emergencies, ‘conspirituality’, and also the tendency towards spiritual elitism and contempt for the masses.

As I pointed out in my essay last week, Kripal sometimes compares Esalen to the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning in X-Men — a school for evolutionary superheroes, in other words. But the risk of that, I said, is that Xavier turns into Magneto, the Nietzschean X-Man who thinks homo sapiens has outgrown their use and should be exterminated. You sometimes encounter that sort of Darwinian contempt for homo inferior in New Age teachers as well.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of speaking with Jeff Kripal at an online conference, and we had a great discussion on this point. You can watch Jeff’s talk here, but to summarise, he basically said, look, western spirituality simply is elitist. It will always be esoteric, for the few rather than the many. The many simply have no interest in spiritual practices or transcendence.

One could argue with that. I mean…yoga, meditation, psychedelics, energy healing, astrology…these are pretty mainstream these days. But it’s an interesting point.

Jeff also spoke about the influence of Nietzsche and his theory of the superman on western spirituality. He’s writing a book exploring this topic. And he said exactly the same thing as me — the dark side of the X-Men is Magneto. This is a tendency we have to wrestle with in western spirituality, he said. We have to wrestle with Nietzsche.

If you read Jeff’s history of Esalen, you can see this cult of the superman appear occasionally in the long history of the human potential movement. It’s there in Sri Aurobindo (an Indian guru who was a big influence on Esalen, who thought some humans were evolving into superhumans that would live forever). It’s there in Frederic Myers, in Richard M. Bucke, in Vivekananda, in Theosophy, in Aldous and Julian Huxley, in Gerald Heard, in Abraham Maslow, in Osho, arguably in Ken Wilber.

And it’s there in ‘Somatics’ as well. Kripal writes about Ida Rolf, a founding figure for the Somatics movement, and how she would ‘make odd and disturbing statements about the creation of a superior race through imposing the Template on a small elite. In one of her final letters to the Rolf Institute, for example, she wrote: “It is possible that we are seeing here the first conscious attempt at evolution made by any species in modern times.”

One of her students, Don Hanlon Johnson, took particular exception to this elitist and sometimes racist thread in body-work. So I reached out to Don to ask if I could interview him. He’s now 83, a ‘wise elder’ of the Somatics field which he helped to establish. He founded the first masters programme in Somatics, taught many workshops at Esalen (he’s still on the board there), and is also on the faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies. He’s written and edited many books, like Diverse Bodies, Diverse Practices, and Body: Recovering Our Sensual Wisdom.

He told me that he started off his life very dissociated from his body. He had a difficult birth, and grew up with a damaged spine, and a tendency to sickness and asthma. ‘I had a really bad entry into the body world. I was never really there. I feel much more embodied now than I did when I was 10.’

Don became a Jesuit priest, and was celibate until he was 33. Then he was introduced to LSD by some other Jesuit priests in 1964. He first tried LSD with Ken Kesey, when Kesey lived in Perry Lane in Palo Alto. Apparently, according to Kripal’s book, he came back from that first session with a massive erection — psychedelics had awakened his repressed sexual-somatic energy.

This was the beginning of the end of Don’s life as a celibate priest, but he insists that his Jesuit training also included the idea of the spiritualization of the body: ‘I had this strange Jesuit master who was infamous for being into this old esoteric tradition that spirituality transforms the body, from raw meat into the immortal body of Jesus.’

He visited Esalen, and received his first ‘Rolfing’. This is a type of body-work developed by Ida Rolf, which seems to involve deep-tissue massage (I haven’t tried it myself). That first experience was as profound for Don as taking LSD. ‘I thought I was going to die. I was very dissociated from my body — I felt like an empty doll. Suddenly, I discovered I was a solid body.’

Don then went to Yale to write a philosophy PhD on body-work, examining in particular a famous debate between Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse, in which Brown claimed body-work could be a radical act of democratic healing, while Marcuse claimed it was all just narcissism. Don agreed with Brown. But he eventually thought ‘why am I writing about this, why aren’t I doing it?’ So he went to train with Ida Rolf.

Don was hugely into Ida’s work — ‘Rolfing’ — which became a big part of Esalen culture. He says: ‘Thank God for Ida. Rolfing helps so much with ageing. I get it at least once a month. Ida was trained as an osteopath. The claim that Ida made is that Rolfing changes the actual structure of the body, while osteopathy improves the circulation. I feel that claim is true — that Rolfing makes minute shifts in my body structure, say in the relationship of my shoulders to my rib cage.’

On the other hand, he was not so into her teaching style, which could be quite authoritarian, nor into her drift in old age into elitism and racism. He says:

She was a white supremacist. I saw it pretty early on. I’ve been thinking about some of the horrible stories. In our early training, we worked with African-American teenagers. Ida turned to me and said ‘these are not our type of people. We’re only interested in the elite who are going to change the world’. I thought, oh my God, is this Germany in the middle of the Kulturkampf?’

This was not the only racist elitism he encountered in body-work:

The worst I ever encountered was in France, with a woman named Therese Bertherat, author of the best-seller The Body Has its Reasons. Her teaching was the more our bodies looked like sculptures in the Parthenon, the more we approach perfection. She knelt down on my shoulders to force me into this ideal.

Don would write an essay on the tendency in body-work to measure messy humanity against a (sometimes racialized) ideal of perfect beauty — he called it ‘Somatic Platonism’. He adds: ‘The deeper issue in the human potential movement was patriarchy. Aldous Huxley was part of that. The human potential movement was so dominated by patriarchy. You know the sorry history of all the gurus and their abuse of students. It’s just one story after another.’

At the same time, he talks about Esalen and Michael Murphy with deep fondness:

Michael Murphy, who is one of my oldest friends, kind of gave me Esalen to invite whoever I wanted to explore Somatics. So for ten years I brought together these really great scientists, artists, theologians, practitioners. We lived in the big house, spent a week there working together.

About five of us were in the core group developing the field of Somatics. Back then, in the early 70s, there were many different types of body-work — Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, Rolfing, and others. But it was like different Christian churches — they were all fighting, despite sharing this deep commitment to embodiment. The things they said about each other were terrible. They’d say ‘don’t go near that school, they ruin the body’. So we tried various strategies to bring the field together, including coining the word ‘Somatics’. The philosopher Tom Hanna started a journal called Somatics, and had a couple of conferences on that. Ilana Rubenfeld started Integrative Somatics. Stanley Keleman started Somatic Psychotherapy after studying with Wilhelm Reich. I started the first Masters programme in Somatics.

Esalen’s unique culture helped to forge this friendly truce in the ‘body wars’.

A big part of Esalen is the hospitality. What I noticed early on is, in the classrooms in Esalen, everyone would bad-mouth each other. Then we’d go to the dining room and have great times together, and be human together. And the baths helped as well. When you’re in the baths naked it’s hard to be pretentious.

How does he feel about the Somatics / embodiment movement now, when half a million people sign up for an online embodiment event? He says:

There was a lot of turmoil around that event. But the good side of that was I had some very touching conversations with old friends and fellow practitioners about what we’re doing. We agreed that just doing bodywork doesn’t make you a good person. You have to think about how you’re shaping yourself. Are you doing it for fitness, to make yourself a vital person, or are you also cultivating kindness?

He adds:

I live on Mount Tam outside San Francisco, two houses down from one of the three inventors of the mountain bike. When I moved here, mountain bikes had just been invented, so a few people would be biking up and down the mountain. Now there are thousands. And it’s fascinating how fit people are. It’s a good example of what happened early on with hatha yoga — people adapt to a new way of cultivating vitality and strength. That’s a really good step. But it’s not necessarily virtuous. There has to be something else to bring that into virtue. ‘Now that I have all this breath capacity and strength, now what?’

One could say the same thing about ecstatic experiences. They’re not necessarily virtuous, it depends how you integrate and use them. He says of the booming psychedelic therapy market: ‘In my history, Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary are a good teaching story. Alpert put visionary experiences into a life of service, and Leary ended up a drunk Irishman. It can go either way. That’s the danger, to get addicted to the experience rather than the consequences.’

I ask him what does he think of the intersection between spirituality and social justice / anti-racism movements, and the rise of ‘woke spirituality’. He says:

At CIIS [the place he works at in San Francisco] it has been really intense, super intense. We arrived at a certain matrix of diversity, which is wonderful. But it’s been hard — some people have been really angry and vicious. And then you get bullshit like Robin DiAngelo, trying to undercut us by calling it ‘white fragility’. I want to say ‘don’t take away my identity by just calling me a name. I have something to say’.

This brings us to Hozumi’s open letter against ‘the embodiment industry’. Hozumi writes this:

the current embodiment industry is dominated by white people, and especially white men, who have acted as founder-discoverers, while the bulk of their actual practice has and continues to come from marginalized communities of color. Somatic Experiencing, Hakomi Method, Continuum, Strozzi Institute & Generative Somatics, Dance Movement Therapy … you name it, the core inspiration of these modalities comes from cultural practices such as yoga, qigong/energy work, indigenous ritual, internal martial arts, Afro-diasporic dance, and so on — all of which arise from communities that have been in opposition to Western/white Imperialism. Simply put: there are no modern ‘Western’ modalities that we know of that do not find their origins in the white elite’s fascination with the cultures of the mystical other.

Speaking personally, it surprises me that Tada Hozumi’s letter was received so uncritically (by, for example, the otherwise wonderful Conspirituality podcast — listen to their episode on the Embodiment Conference, and how uncritically it shares Hozumi’s accusations).

Hozumi makes a historical claim that the entire field of Somatics was appropriated by white men from non-white cultures. This is clearly not accurate. Somatics has roots in the physical culture movements of late 19th and early 20th century Europe, particularly in Germany and Sweden. Don points out that many of the founders of Somatics grew up in the German ‘Wandervogel’ movement, where thousands of teenagers would gather in forests to live the natural life. Some of them then travelled to California and helped to invent the hippie scene, whole food stores, and so on.

This early Somatics culture could certainly be racist — some of the Wandervogel youth would later join the Hitler Youth. It could also be eugenic — late Victorian and Edwardian physical culture and body-building movements were often obsessed with turning a nation’s youth from ‘C3’ (ie not fit for the military) to ‘A1’ (ie superfit).

So I’m not saying there weren’t and aren’t racist, authoritarian and intolerant aspects to European physical culture movements. There were and there are. What I’m saying is Hozumi is flat-out wrong to say Somatics was entirely appropriated by white men from non-western cultures. In fact, as Mark Singleton has explored, there was influence in both directions — hatha yoga in the early 20th century was influenced by European physical culture movements, and some of what people think is millennia-old asanas actually emerge from Swedish gymnastics.

It’s also obvious that many of the pioneers of western Somatics were women — like Ida Rolf, Elsa Gindler, Charlotte Selver, Anna Halprin, Gabrielle Roth and Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen.

Hozumi, it seems to me, is trying to negate and appropriate a long history of practices in western culture, and to police who can legitimately practice in a field, based on their skin colour and ancestry. He makes proud reference to his own Japanese ancestors — fair enough. But Japanese history and culture is not without its own tendencies to violent racist imperialism.

As for Hozumi’s specific points about the Embodiment Conference…I don’t know anything about the conference or Mark Walsh and can’t comment on that. But you can get prominence in two ways these days — by building something, or by attacking something someone else has built. It’s easier to attack than to build (I personally probably do more attacking than building). What warm, friendly, nourishing spiritual communities are we building at the moment?

In 2022, Esalen will celebrate its 60th birthday. It’s the longest-lasting institution in western spirituality. Don says: ‘Esalen is in great danger. It’s up against serious bankruptcy because of COVID and the extreme weather in northern California. What will keep it moving? Mike Murphy is inspired by the Benedictines [the longest-existing institution in western Christianity] and their ideal of hospitality. Maybe the Esalen of the future could be like that — people come for their own retreats, rather than paying for workshops. But it’s in a critical period.’

He ends in a reflective mood: ‘In the Sixties, there were Jewish leaders, Christian leaders, African-American leaders. Now, I don’t see the moral leaders so much. The thing is so big now, when you have 400,000 people signed up for a conference. It’s hard to get that together without a fanatic…It’s clear to me what’s missing right now. When we grew up in the 60s communication was really important. All these places like Esalen thrived because we spent a lot of time in serious conversation. Now there doesn’t seem to be the energy for collaborative ventures.’

Indeed. We need places to sit down and talk, embodied places, intimate places, hospitable places, friendly places where we can have difficult conversations.

Author of Philosophy for Life and other books. Honorary fellow, Centre for the History of the Emotions. www.philosophyforlife.org.

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