Understanding the Body-Mind

The seventeenth century French philosopher Renee Descartes famously declared ‘ I think, therefore I am’. With these words, he founded a world view which dictated that the brain and the body were separate. Like taking your car to the mechanic for faulty brakes, you could take the ‘broken part’ of the body to be repaired or removed if needed.

Descartesian logic spawned allopathy – the current dominant system in Western medicine. It can be argued that allopathy is principally built on pharmacological principles. It is the only medical system in human history that operates under the notion of a body-mind split. By this I mean that unlike Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine for example, allopathy tends to treat a health problem without considering the inter-face between body, mind and spirit.

Telling someone ‘Don’t worry, it’s all in your head’ is neither technically nor scientifically accurate.  The belief might be in the mind, but if the mind is located throughout the body, the concept of ‘mind’ needs to be expanded. It can no longer be confined to the brain or the intellect if it co-exists in every cell in our body. The word Somatics was coined by Dr. Thomas Hanne, the founder of Somatic Movement Education, to encompass this expanded definition.  The word ‘Somatics’ goes beyond the concept of ‘body’ and ‘mind’. It refers to the awake, alive, breathing, thinking body that encompasses the mind.

What integrates the body-mind represents the modern quest for the Holy Grail. Some people believe the answer is in the emotional body, some in the spiritual body and others in the physiological body. In Somatics, we see breath and movement as key links in the chain.

The beauty of a body based movement approach is that the body is immediate and tangible. It is always directly accessible. To feel, we simply tune into the sensations occurring right now. When we don’t, pain or discomfort signal us when something is not right. As my dear teacher Donna Farhi says, ‘Pain is the body’s way of saying find a more skilful pathway’. In addition, by tuning into the body, we tune into the elusive present moment. This is what yogis have been doing for 5,000 years. This alone has a quieting affect on the mind, as it cannot be ‘futurising’ or ‘past-tensing’ while in the present moment.

We all have deeply ingrained habits and thought patterns. A thought that is held and repeated becomes a belief and belief becomes biology. Our beliefs go much deeper than our thoughts and cannot simply be changed by willing them away. Most beliefs are completely unconscious and not readily available to the intellect. And, they don’t come from the intellect alone. They come from the other part that, in the past has become lodged in the cell tissue.

Specific breath and movement work allow us to change our biology and repattern our thoughts as we release the held memory in the cell tissue. Lightness can then come into both the body and the mind simultaneously.  We do not necessarily even need to understand what is happening in our bodies in order to be able to respond to it. All we need to do is to allow. Often, the understanding comes with time as our inner compass guides us back into balance.


Lisa Petersen, April 2012

In the Groove

I am in love with New Zealand ! The hills look as if they are made of golden velvet, the wines are divine, and the staff at the i-sites jump through burning hoops backwards to make sure their tourists have a good time. Then there’s the wildlife; whether it’s dolphins turning to make eye contact, manta rays launching themselves over the canoe, flirtatious alpine parrots (yes, parrots that live on glaciers), whale showing off their tails, seals basking in the rock pools, or shy kiwis, nature abounds in plenty.

New Zealand is where the Planetary Design Committee decided to pull out all the stops, get away as far as possible and fill the land and seas with everything possibly imaginable.

My yoga teacher of a decade had invited me to co-lead a teacher training in Christchurch. Donna  is a world renowned teacher and author with 4 books to her name and 25 years of leading seminal work in the field of Yoga, Somatics and movement therapy. I was delighted and truly honoured to be asked to work alongside a leader of her calibre.

Our group consisted of 3 lead-teachers, 8 assistants and 50 students from all over the world. There was a good dose of locals whose practical good sense and resilient nature shone through, especially as story after story of the earthquakes unfolded. The aftershocks continued to ripple through the ground and the buildings waking us up at night as if we were on a moving boat and not dry land.

The training is among the most highly refined work I know in the Yoga world. Part of my job was to take seemingly complex patterns, break them down into bite size intelligible pieces, and then give people an experience to anchor that learning. I love doing this! It’s something I have had to train consistently when clients who have zero body awareness walk in to the Somatics Clinic looking for answers to their pain.

Donna’s training is based on 8 patterns, called Developmental Movement Patterns which in turn were pioneered by another of my teachers Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen. Simply put, these patterns describe the ways the body-mind organises itself in order to get from fetus to feet. We would n’t be able to walk, crawl, jump or co-ordinate everyday movement without a blueprint to help. Imagine coordinating 10,000 workers to do a single job. That is exactly what the brain has to do on a biomechanical level everytime we do something as simple as making a cup of tea.

Patterning is such an obvious and natural process that it goes unnoticed most of the time. We all pattern and we do it mentally and emotionally as well as physically. It is easier to organise feelings and thoughts into related compartments rather than create a new construct everyday. We would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information to process otherwise.

So, what happens then when we get stuck in a pattern? In Yogic philosophy we call this a samskara (from 2 Sanscrit word roots that mean ‘to flow together’). A samskara is a groove in the mind that makes thoughts flow the same direction just like a groove in a record that keeps playing the same old tune. Buddhist psychology speaks of samskaras as imprints in the mind that have a life of their own. Unchecked, they become addictions. Holding patterns usually lead to pain of some kind, especially if they are patterns we have outgrown. In other words, we think we’ve moved on but the body-mind has n’t followed.

Whether I am breaking down Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) for a yoga student, coaching a professional cyclist to use his legs in a different way, or teaching a new mum how to hold her baby properly, I am essentially applying the same principle. What pattern is most prevalent and is it serving that person?

There are many doors to change, and once we open one of them, we set in motion a process capable of creating enormous growth and transformation. That is what each of the students in New Zealand did on the training. I wish them well with their journey and was deeply honoured to be able to open some doors for them.

Donna, Neal Ghosal and I will teach the next Developmental Teacher Training in Seattle in July 2013. I can only hope Seattle’s parrots are as flirtatious and the mantas just as joyful.


Lisa Petersen,

Dublin, February 2012