I want to share something with you in this article that I, as an Asian person and somatics practitioner, believes is critical for us students of modern/Western somatics understand the work we do.
I often refrain from speaking from my specific racial-cultural position as I understand how often that can mean usurping the power of unchallenged authority on a subject – something I’m still deeply uncomfortable with. But I am coming to see that there is sometimes such a gulf of cultural difference that it is simply helpful to offer a bridge of awareness to help people cross over, especially given the reality that awareness of Asian cultures is incredibly marginalized.
With all this said, here is something that I believe is an essential understanding for anyone who is a modern somatics practitioner:
Somatics, including Cultural Somatics, is an Asian practice.
I understand that for some people this may draw confusion because the hall-of-fame of somatics in our minds is plastered with the images of white teachers and innovators.
Yet, somatics remains an Asian cultural form in its modern roots.
Acknowledging this is similar to how we may appropriately recognize funk and rock n’ roll as Black music. While robust polyrhythms and boisterous dance circles are a feature of almost any culture if you excavate deeper, it is undoubtedly Black people and their culture, i.e. the collective work of their ancestors, that have kept alive these Afro-diasporic traditions and gifted them to those of us who live in the context of the modern post-colonial project.
Somatics, the practice of affecting change through felt-sense interoception of the body, has a similar story. Since the post-war era of the 1950s, and even before that on a smaller scale, Asian cultural practices such as qigong, yoga, zen, energetic martial arts, energy work, and Chinese medicine proliferated throughout the Western world, often accompanied by a variety of Asian philosophical orientations from Buddhism to Daoism.
The modern Western somatic modalities we have come to commonly know, from Somatic Experiencing, Hakomi Method, Generative Somatics, Embodied Leadership (Strozzi Institute), Feldenkrais, and so on, all derive their foundational somatic practices from these Asian cultural traditions. In more recent years, these embodiment tools that have been traditionally accessed for individual healing are now more and more being accessed for politicized collective healing.
Now, here is a question: with all this resourcing from our ancestors, how much do people actually know about Asian cultures? Or even better, how much can people humbly admit that they DON’T know? Because while our ancestors’ treasures have been sending gifts to the West, there has been very little understanding of who we are, what it is, the essence of ‘Asianness’ we embody, even within social justice circles that purportedly are about exploring and celebrating that which is marginalized.
The reality is, we have continuously been the last thought, constantly triaged out of relevance using a metric that we know as the hierarchy of oppression. And perhaps, there is some twisted validity in the idea that things just aren’t as bad for us so we matter less.
But lying deeper than this surface logic is a problem that eats itself. The supposedly semi-reasonable idea that we are the least important issue in the problem of racism, doesn’t mean that healing anti-Asianness can’t be the most critical key to solving the koan that systemic oppression is.
My aspirations in cultural somatics have always been about addressing this very core issue – to reclaim somatics, as an Asian cultural form, as an Asian person. In my own first explorations of the work that I now refer to as cultural somatics was a yearning to create a framework that understands change, even social change, as wholly encapsulated in the body and its innate mysterious non-dual nature, that flips and synthesizes yin and yang in a constant process of alchemy.
This mattered to me deeply because in all honestly, I just had enough of activist spaces that touted banners of ‘resistance’ and ’solidarity’ but consequently had no room for the distinctly Asian embodied sensibilities of ‘yielding’ and ‘fluidity’ as power and resource. I definitely have the first-hand experience of getting shut down for suggesting that these may be also valuable strategies for ‘fighting the enemy’.
If the above doesn’t feel like an erasure of Asianness to you, whether you’re Asian or not, you might just think about how our erasure has become cultural. Particularly, if you are a Western somatics practitioner and it has never occurred to you that embodied Asian-ness maybe important to somatics as much as Blackness is important to Black music, you might ask yourself what you have missed out on.
This brings us to the question of how do we describe embodied Asianness in pragmatic, not just conceptual, terms? Because it is in knowing this, we understand how we may maintain the integrity of somatic practice, especially cultural somatics or social justice somatics as a new politically invested paradigm that should meet much higher expectations than what has come before.
In light of this, I would like to offer a few principles that I believe are central to Asian somatics and therefore can be understood to have foundational importance within any somatics practice. Of course, there is an inherent limitation here – even if I am an Asian person who is a somatics practitioner, I am just one person and cannot possibly represent any absolute claims for an entire field of work. Ultimately, what I invite you to do is to sit with what I’m suggesting and understand it for yourself, to see if it benefits your practice for having integrated them.
With this said, below is an overview of common cultural understandings I have seen to allow for various Asian somatic styles to converse with each other.
There a few foundational understanding of embodiment that is common to almost all Asian somatic lineages. That is the seichusen (正中線), or plum line, that runs through the head, heart, and Hara (肚) or Lower Dantian (下丹田), with active energy being gathered in the lower body.
Every discipline manifests and applies this image of the body in a different way, but at the core, it is always the same. Sometimes, in Japanese, this is described as zukansokunetsu (頭寒足熱), meaning cold-head-warm-feet, or jokyokajitsu (上虚下実), meaning top-empty-bottom-full, or shizentai (自然体), meaning natural posture.
In particular, we modern Western somatics practitioners don’t know our belly, which is the anchor of our nervous system and the crux of what makes somatics an Asian cultural form in the first place. Our interoception of embodied coherence often stops at the waist because of this dissociation that is culturally conditioned by our lifestyle of sitting on chairs, taking antibiotics, wearing tight clothes, and so on. So our bodies tend to oscillate between the ego-differentiated rationalism of the mind and the enmeshed empathic emotionality of the heart.
This is crucial because our body and its conditioned posture is the source of our actions and thoughts. I’ve seen that when we try to apply somatics to social justice work from this place, what we still get is a fragmented approach that flips back and forth between the poles of too much cognition and too much emotion. It looks good as memes on social feeds but it fails in action.
The truth is, such approaches aren’t that different from the world we live in already. The great conflict we see in our communties today, ‘the culture wars’, epitomizes this dualistic oscillation between over-thinking, represented mostly by the right, and over-feeling, represented mostly by the left.
I am saying all of this because I want us to get humble, by way of humiliation. What is happening all around in the world of what people call cultural somatics or social justice somatics is akin to people practicing a black dance but feel they could become an expert, or even a teacher, without putting their hips in it. It is a dis-eased kind of absurdity that modern Western culture especially trades in.
So how do we find our bellies?
Well, a good start is to bow our heads and eat some dirt, which can also be humus, in Latin, and where the words humiliate and humble come from in the first place.
Next, instead of rapidly going back and forth between thinking and feeling, we might slow down that process, almost what feels like a grinding halt.
There we may find a place that is in between those two poles but is actually neither and both at once.
I will be honest that we may end up facing terror in this place.
For that, I have not much else than, hold on – stay in it as much as you can reasonably safely, with the reminder that nothing bad is actually happening in the present moment.
When we get past terror, we will likely feel something drop in our body. Find a different being, cradled in our pelvic bones.
This is our Hara. Make this a comfortable place.
And then pull the self slowly out along our plum line, but don’t think or feel. Just be present.
This is the matter-of-fact and I-don’t-need-to-know state that we are looking for in somatics, an Asian cultural form.