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“As you teach so will you learn. If that is true, and it is true indeed, do not forget that what you teach is teaching you.”

A Course in Miracles

My Journey to Somatic Expression

I was born into this world a bright being: light, expressive and energetic. Over time, the rules of society and my life experience began to squelch this effervescence. The kindergarten teacher worried when I played house with the girls. (I enjoyed being the Daddy and the center of attention!) She made me play by myself, like the other boys, with blocks and trucks. The rough and tumble world of boys' play on the playground became even less appealing, and enjoyable activities, like skipping rope, were considered inappropriate for boys. And after two traumatic blows to my skull at the age of 5 (being hit with a baseball bat and falling from a tree), I retreated from physical risk-taking. Fortunately, I had access to the natural world as a child. I found freedom and movement in nature, whether exploring my grandparents’ farm or playing in the water for hours at the beach.

Life changed with the onset of puberty. Hormones, a growth spurt, a new private school with fellow smart boys, and disillusionment with the Church, all coalesced at the same time. Vietnam War protests were happening in my city; the anger and rejection of society by the counterculture gave me fuel for my own adolescent fire. My parents didn’t know how to deal with my turbulence, as they had no idea how to deal with their own. And since I didn’t have a physical outlet for my energy, or guidance for dealing with my feelings, I poured myself into creative writing and music. Creative writing kept me sane in high school. Going to a Benedictine prep school, where the curriculum was mapped out and everything had one answer, creative writing was liberating: I got to be me, to have my own voice and be independent of the voices of others.

When I went away to college, I woke up from the trance. All of a sudden, I was on my own, with no one else’s plan for me to follow or rebel against. I had no idea what I wanted for my life and began the journey of self-creation, with daily meditation, dropping out of school for a year, writing poetry, cleaning up my diet, and riding my bicycle halfway across the country. When I finally returned to school, I took up karate with a friend. The physical discipline connected me to the power of my body. Periodically, our class would go to a local disco and dance in a circle together, with one person at a time going into the center and improvising. This was my introduction to dancing as a community. I knew nothing at the time, though, of the connection between movement and emotion. The explosive movement of karate began to affect my psyche, and I would quickly anger at times. I also found myself feeling increasingly limited by the karate vocabulary, and wanted other ways to move.

This led me to a dance improvisation class at the University. After the limitations of karate, being able to dance my own dance with a much broader vocabulary of movement was liberating. Exploring my body and what was possible was a delight. Moving around the cavernous wooden gym with a group of people like a flock of birds with no pre-planned ideas, or paying attention to the concepts of space, time and force, was like landing on another planet. Improvisational dance allowed my body to speak and express itself freely. It was like creative writing: I got to be me and have my own voice. In coming to dance this way, rather than through traditional technique classes where everyone does the same movement at the same time, a life theme was set: Dance is for personal liberation, exploration and creative expression, with everyone ultimately the choreographer of their own lives.

During this time of discovering freedom of movement and imagination, I was working two part-time jobs: as an aide at a facility for retarded adults and as a pre-school teacher. Working with these populations inspired me to devote myself to play, creativity and movement as recreation, or "re-creation". I created an independent degree program and took many dance classes as part of my study to become a recreational therapist. This period of being a dancer was an important antidote to the years of bodily suppression and encoded fear. It was as if I was “born again”, finding my way back to the early years of movement exploration that had been interrupted by my traumas.

I went on to teach creative drama and movement in public schools. The lessons of technique class truly seemed irrelevant in that context as children were already gifted with movement intelligence. The dance and theatre improvisation classes, on the other hand, gave me enough of a framework to get things moving. Comparable to elementary school art teachers giving students materials and a theme so they could create whatever they wanted, I approached movement the same way, and began creating improvisational performance pieces with my students. Particularly helpful were the writings of Barbara Mettler 1, who developed dance as a creative art activity for people of all ages.

I worked in public schools for eight years, primarily at the elementary level, with support first from the school district, then as an Artist-in-Residence through the Wisconsin Arts Board. I was a crusader for dance in education, and the right of all boys and girls to experience their creativity in movement. In the longer residencies, I began orchestrating all-school festivals, so that large groups of children and adults could dance together. I wanted more guidance to further that vision, and found Anna Halprin, a world-renowned dancer who had inspired many postmodern choreographers and was creating large-scale works with non-dancers. In my first workshop with her in 1985 (when she was 65), she showed how basic movement such as walking, running and standing could have power and meaning. As there was not the struggle to master complicated movement, which is the case in most dance classes, personal feeling could more easily come into the foreground. There was also no concern about an audience; we simply moved with awareness of our experience and each other, just like my early experiences in improvisation. Her passion about the power of dance for all people inspired me to leave my work in the schools and go to her school in California, Tamalpa Institute 2.

After a year of study, I decided not to return to the Midwest and my work in the public schools. I began to assist Anna in community classes and workshops, and started teaching in the Training Program. I taught Anna’s Movement Ritual 1. 3 This series of movements performed on the floor focuses on the full range of spinal articulation with breath support and minimal muscular exertion. Movement Ritual 1 is a fluid Yoga with an emphasis on exploration. This daily movement meditation became a pathway to take me directly into the language of the body and out of the ramblings of my mind. The more I practiced this language, the more secure and centered I felt in my own body. This is when dance became less of a performing art and more of a healing art for me.

In 1991, I attended an intensive with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, creator of Body-Mind Centering, which covered the body systems and the developmental pathway. In the developmental pathway (the movement progression all human infants progress through early in life), I saw connections between this natural phenomenon and Anna’s intuitively formed Movement Ritual. In this and subsequent workshops with Bonnie, we sang the glands, touched the organs, moved the fluids, and became still in the bones. 4

These various languages of the body and its expression were becoming more familiar. My meditation practice was also changing. Steven Levine, in his workshops on death and dying, introduced me to Vipassana meditation. 5 This gave my meditation a more body-centered focus, as attending to sensation is central to the practice. I first encountered the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh 6 at a Vipassana center. I was so impressed by this man who, despite what he had endured during the Vietnam War, could proclaim that life was beautiful. His teaching was simple and profound: be aware of and enjoy your breath to create mindfulness, and smile into life to create peace. Over the years I have experienced his presence and appreciate him as a profound teacher of Somatics.

In 1993, I participated in a seminar with Jungian innovator Arnold Mindell 7 for people with chronic physical illnesses. The intention was to support healing by discovering the message and meaning of symptoms as reflections of unconscious processes. Two themes unfolded in the seminar: to live my intense, passionate nature more and to channel that into being a performer once again. When I came home, one of my clients died of AIDS at the age of 27. Mixed in with my grief was outrage over the life he wasn’t able to live. Two weeks later, I used Arnie’s process in a ten-minute improvisation at a studio opening. I was as stunned as the audience by the physical and emotional power that emerged as I embodied the repeated question, "Who will live? Who will die? And why?"  The next day, I committed to creating a solo performance-ceremony. “Alive at the Edge: Field Notes from an Endangered Species” premiered on my birthday. For the next three years, I performed in churches, conferences, and colleges throughout the United States and Europe.

In 1994, I attended the first of many Continuum workshops with Emilie Conrad 8. Continuum is based on the multi-dimensionality of the breath, and its impact on movement. What hooked me was the work with specific vibratory sounds. When people chant or sing in groups, the emphasis is on getting sound out into the room. In the Continuum process, sound is directed inward to become a form of subtle movement. One sinks deeply into the interior as the trance-like sound dissolves barriers to feeling and perception. Continuum gave me a new approach for working with my breath and voice, and Emilie has become a loving mentor and friend over the years.

I became increasingly curious about the nature of the body. What is the body really? Since our thoughts, feelings, actions, and interpersonal interactions all influence our organism, isn’t the body more malleable and fluid than we think? Many of these questions were amplified by meeting George F. Solomon, one of the fathers of psychoneuroimmunology. Being exposed to his vast wealth of knowledge, and collaborating with him on several seminars, brought me into contact with the world of scientific research on body/mind healing. The world of somatics gave me a practical “owner’s manual” for my body, and the world of PNI research gave me a theoretical springboard for more investigation.

I lived in Switzerland for two years, teaching workshops and trainings throughout Europe and discovering the universality of somatic and expressive work. When I returned to the United States in 1998, I saw our culture with different eyes. The country was deeply divided about the President’s affair. The discomfort with sexuality, and, by extension, the body, was a strong reminder of the great healing our culture needs. The Columbine massacre in 1999 was a similar reminder. The alienation that had brought these teenagers to such desperate lengths stimulated memories of my own adolescent history, and my own collaborative work with youth in schools. It reminded me: physical expression and the creative process, the somatic and the expressive, are powerful mediums for generating life rather than destroying it. This “medicine” can help heal the great discord in our own bodies and in the body politic.

In 2000, I set off on an extended sabbatical to reflect on the world of somatic movement education and therapy. Living by the ocean and immersing myself in reading and writing solidified the essence of my work, and “Somatic Expression”- the soma expressing itself through its five indigenous technologies of breath, vocalization, contact, movement and stillness - came into being. In the seven years since then, I have had many opportunities in the United States and Europe to use this approach with different audiences: gay men, people with HIV and cancer, students of holistic health and expressive arts therapy, and many others on the path of embodiment.

Coming back home to the sanctuary of our bodies is essential in these modern times of rapid change and chaos. In a post-911 world, with images of terror all around, I see more clearly how creative embodiment is an antidote to fear and a pathway to peace. As the 20th Century sage Krishnamurti remarked, "War is but a spectacular expression of our everyday behavior." Anything we can do to sow the seeds of peace within and stop the war at home in our own bodies is powerful medicine. My own practice of the five somatic technologies continues to develop, supporting my own health, healing and maturation. I offer you these tools and methods for discovering the nature of your own body so you too can more readily find peace, security and freedom in your life.


1. Barbara Mettler: www.dancecreative.org

2. Tamalpa Institute: www.tamalpa.org  Anna Halprin: www.annahalprin.org

3. The Movement Ritual 1 book and CD are available through Anna Halprin. www.annahalprin.org

4. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen/ School for Body-Mind Centering: www.bodymindcentering.com

5. Vipassana Meditation: www.spiritrock.org

6. Thich Nhat Hanh: www.plumvillage.org

7. Arnie Mindell: www.aamindell.net

8. Emilie Conrad/ Continuum: www.continuummovement.com


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Jamie McHugh.