Book Review of ‘The Art of Somatic Coaching – Embodying Skillful Action, Wisdom and Compassion’, by Richard Strozzi-Heckler (North Atlantic Books, 2014)

I couldn’t put this book down, and I wrote WOW in the margin at least 3 times.  Even though this book is aimed at enhancing the skills of leadership and team-building coaches, it should be required reading for all yoga teachers.

As a practicing psychotherapist, Strozzi-Heckler (RS-H) became disillusioned.  Instead of treating people for mental health disorders, as if the disorder were separate somehow, from the person, he longed to treat whole human beings.  He wanted to move away from knowing and towards being. His personal study of Aikido, Meditation and Somatics led him to the same place that yoga leads many of us.  This somewhere has its roots in spirituality, but it is life-affirming, it seeks to treat all sentient beings with compassion and to see all living things as inextricably connected.

Just ask ‘HOW’, instead of ‘who’ or ‘where’, argues RS-H and you will come to the crux of the matter:-

  • How have we let ourselves damage and pollute our beautiful planet?
  • How do we let violence and conflict continue to thrive?
  • How do we actively close the gap between rich and poor?
  • How good are we at feeling connected and interdependent on one another and the world around us?

Answer: Our inability to feel and sense.

  • How did that happen?

While Eastern philosophers went inward in their search for spiritual enlightenment, Western philosophers searched outwards. RS-H points the finger at Descartes, rationalism and the beginning of the scientific tradition in the West as the single most influential cause for this sense of separateness. ‘…the emphasis on rationalistic thinking has stunted our emotional and spiritual literacy’. (2) ‘The legacy of rationalism has made theory more important than action, domination more compelling than co-operation, ideas more regarded than life, abstract logic prevailing over moral intuition, and pure reason triumphing emotion’. (3) WOW!

This rationalistic thinking has led us to view our bodies as a series of unconnected parts that need to be organised and managed by Ground Control (i.e. the mind).  The body is there to carry the mind around so that it can do important work but essentially mind and body are separate entities- emotional and spiritual needs are pushed to one side.  RS-H tells us we need to get back in touch with our physical bodies, and our emotional, energetic and spiritual qualities.  Trying to deny them leads us to feel isolated, we suffer from stress, our lives are not fulfilling and we’ve forgotten how to get along with one another and with nature.  Separating ourselves from nature has led us to believe we can take liberties with our planet.  We can’t.

  • How can somatic coaching help us?

In keeping with other works on somatics that I have read, RS-H reiterates the view that the way we inhabit our physical bodies is largely a product of our upbringing; education, religion, family circumstances, government and society and the media all play their part.

The word ‘Somatics’ comes from the Greek somatikos – meaning bodily.  RS-H defines Somatic Coaching as encompassing the whole human form, including thinking, feeling, language, and spirituality.  The key to somatic coaching is to put us back in touch with  our life energy (something that has been honed over three billion years), thereby reviving our sense of inter-connectedness with all living things, and ending our sense of separateness and isolation.  Somatics supposes that the way we inhabit our bodies can reveal everything there is to know about us.  And because the body is inextricably linked to who we are – our sense of self – by working on the body, we can work on self-cultivation. (Here this word ‘self’ is defined as ‘How a person is Being’ (4).The somatic coach approaches a person in four ways:-

  1. Who they are now (again, in the sense of how they are being);
  2. The aspects of their life that have made them who they are;
  3.  Who are they becoming and
  4. Can who they are and who they are becoming fit well with their personal vision of life and they way they live?

RS-H uses the  word ‘sensei’ for coach or teacher .  The formal definition of ‘sensei’ is one who has gone before  (on the path the student is following).  I warmed to his explanation of this meaning – that the teacher is not necessarily superior in any way, and may not even be as talented as the student.  It is the wealth of experience and depth of understanding that the teacher brings that is key.  (As a yoga practitioner of 33 years’ standing, but who wobbles in Warrior 3 and is less than brilliant at any number of yoga postures, I found that reassuring).

RS-H claims that through Somatic Coaching, human beings can be transformed into wise, compassionate and skillful human beings.  This is achieved by enabling students to develop awareness through attention. ‘Choice follows awareness’,  RS-H states.  (How many times did my yoga tutor stress that ‘Energy follows attention’?  Oh a great many indeed …..) Furthermore, there is an assumption that these core values of compassion, wisdom and skillful action are our natural state of being – we just need to get back in touch with them.  (Sounds like yoga to me!).

The core principles of Somatic Coaching affirm an inter-connectedness with all living things, the acceptance that change is possible at any time (Karma); and that with discipline and practice we can go beyond our every day beings to something that is ‘beyond self’. RS-H refers to a universal force that animates us all (in yoga we call it Prana).

I don’t want to give the impression that this book just revisits a load of stuff I already thought I knew through yoga. It gave me a whole new insight into teaching yoga from a somatic perspective.  It revealed to me the primary concern of all human beings is for ‘connection and belonging, safety, dignity and contribution.’  (5) These are fundamental human needs. The book made me realise just how important our teaching skills are in this day and age.  We have the ability to help people make a vital transformation from thinking, to feeling. Just imagine the enormity of such a shift in emphasis on the world we live in if everybody could make that transition! And most significantly, it brought home to me the somatic view that the vast divide between how we could be, and the constrictions that social norms impose upon us, creates a tension that is embedded in the very tissue of our bodies.

‘A society that is based on disembodied ideals, and not the embodied forming of values, loses sight of enhancing the public good, the community good, and the individual good.  This tension, that is both personally embodied and embedded in social values, is revealed as a felt contraction in our muscular, organ and nervous system’. (6) WOW!

Please read this book.

 

 

(1) Somatic Coaching p. 13

(2) Somatic Coaching p. 16

(3) Somatic Coaching p. 17

(4) Somatic Coaching p. 41

(5) Somatic Coaching p. 45

(6) Somatic Coaching p. 52

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