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A SOMA Diary

by Sean Patrick Donovan

© 2004. Written permission must be secured from the author to use or reproduce this article in part or whole.


Plunging headfirst over an 8-foot ledge, while blindfolded – as I did the day before I began Session 1 – is not an apt metaphor for my experience with SOMA bodywork, but it does illustrate some key elements.

SOMA, an 11-session series of deep-tissue massage (or “bodywork”) is designed, as I understand it, to help our bodies achieve “structural integration.” What this translates to in my experience is that it helps us to become more fully relaxed and aware, unconsciously graceful, and with exceptional ease and efficiency in our movements.

As to the similarities between SOMA and my precipitous plunge, I offer the following: I was blindfold at the time of my tumble (to take part in an exercise in trust), a “blindness” not unlike venturing into the unknown realms of the body, where sense counts far more than sight; I engaged in boisterous wrestling with my best friend, also blindfolded, in the sort of spontaneous playfulness and movement encouraged and facilitated by the bodywork; and, I flew (with perfect grace, I'm told), landing safely and solidly grounded, albeit a bit stunned, with a whole new body awareness.

Just as my errant flight was decidedly not a planned element of the trust exercise, undertaking change on the scale of SOMA bodywork has inherent in it the potential for many mysterious and exhilarating discoveries regarding oneself. People are attracted to SOMA for a wide variety of reasons, including healing from injury and seeking optimal performance from their body, but by and large I perceive it's the referral network, of friends relating their profound physical and emotional transformations to friends, that typically intrigues and motivates first-timers. Once initiated into the work, and having experienced firsthand its effectiveness and potency, return is generally inevitable.

I last went through the sessions several years ago, a time during which I came to understand the assertion of SOMA practitioners that “the work,” as they term it, keeps on working. That is, the results just keep coming. As a professional dance instructor and longtime yoga practitioner (and occasional instructor), knowledge of my body and its more intricate workings are essential. As a direct result of SOMA, this knowledge has grown exponentially, and I continually experience fascinating physical insights. For instance, I'll simply find, one day, that I can articulate a particular muscle or joint in a new and interesting way, or that I can manage a profoundly satisfying movement where before I'd no physical conception of it. Now, nearly every time I dance – or walk, run, or crawl, for that matter – I discover a deeper, subtler, more graceful or novel way to move.

With dance in particular, I'm privy to watching or actually partnering with people who I consider to have extraordinary movement, whose supple ease and natural sensuality have been gained through a lifetime of dance. If one understands movement, or nonverbal communication, as a language, then these people can be thought to have an extensive and elegant vocabulary. Regarding a foreign movement or sound and faithfully recreating it in my own body are often two entirely different stories, as you may know if you've ever taken dance or language lessons. One of the most lasting, profound, and growing effects of SOMA is this ability to see or feel a movement and then to accurately manifest that movement in my own body. In this way, SOMA has increased my physical vocabulary at least a hundredfold.

At the behest of my primary SOMA Practitioner and sister, Shelly Donovan, LMP, Certified Advanced SOMA Practitioner, I am undertaking to write about my experiences as I go through the eleven sessions. For this, my sixth series, I have several specific goals. Physically, I want to attain a greater ability to access and move independently my tail (base of the spine) and upper back (between the shoulder blades), two areas of my body that have felt more or less frozen. Emotionally, I've been mired – both in pining for relationships long gone, as well as a general difficulty in relating, currently, on a consistently respectful level. My intention is to gain clarity on these situations in order to set my heart and energy free for more immediate possibilities. Similarly, my finances are in an ever-worsening spiral of decay, and my work in several areas feels spotty and scattered, as if I've my hand in too many pots at once. Thus, my wish is to find clarity, simplicity, and to initiate movement in general.


SESSION 1: The Rib Cage and Lower Back

Session 1 has always been a very inviting and pleasant session for me. Not overly challenging, I typically leave feeling refreshed and settled, able to breathe more easily and automatically. This Session 1 proved consistent, and much needed.

I'd noticed it being more difficult to breathe of late, almost as if I were struggling to draw even the shallowest breath. Several months ago I found myself, quite ecstatically, as the host of my own radio show. Listening to a recording of the show, I was appalled to hear myself gasping between sentences. An immediate benefit of this session was a sensation of my body initiating and drawing breath more naturally. Gone was the chronic tenseness that, once noticed, had me wondering when I last took a breath!

I often repeat in dance and yoga classes this admonition to “Breathe!” as I find it a surefire method to ease anxiety and facilitate movement. After Session 1, I'm finding it much easier to practice what I preach.


SESSION 2: The Feet

Although somewhat lessened through the years, I still feel a sense of mild dread when approaching Session 2, for some odd quirk of my physiology renders me thoroughly manic during the time after Session 2 and prior to Session 3. In the past I've found myself darting about at ungodly hours, unable to sleep, frantically energetic yet woefully unproductive. Whether it was my hectic schedule during this week or that the mania has lessened with age, I'm happy to report a new and very grounding experience.

During the sessions, Shelly will periodically have one get up to walk around the room and “sensate,” or feel the changes in, one's body. This can be an unsettling experience when, say, she's completed work on your left foot and not yet your right, so that you end up dragging your right leg round the room in a comic imitation of Igor, while the left prances gaily, unfettered and lightly mocking. Moreover, Shelly will occasionally query whether I sense anything different about my body during these walkabouts and, put on the spot, my mind and body maddeningly choose to go numb, as it were. I rarely feel more ignorant of my self than in these moments. Shelly's imperturbable gaze and oblique “mm-hmms,” with her head cocked appraisingly to one side, create a sense within me that something profound and worthy must be described. Yet I typically mutter something noncommittal about this side feeling separate from that, or that leg feeling longer or more “grounded,” which seems to satisfy her. Of course, this only causes me to feel as if I've been evasive, and to long for that moment when she's through arranging the bolster and I can gratefully leap back onto the massage table.

However, the walkabouts during this particular session 2 provided dramatic and pleasantly surprising results, which I found quite chat-worthy. For once I could say I felt grounded and mean it. My feet actually shifted position in relation to the floor, and seemed to have a clearer, more cat-like grip. In fact, I found myself quelling the urge to dart about in the small room while assuming various feline pouncing positions.

My feet – much neglected and often considered only when they've been careless enough to have a toe painfully stubbed or to engage in an excruciating death cramp – are often quite tender when addressed in a deep-tissue manner. Initially tensing in anticipation as Shelly began working them with her formidable knuckles, I found myself relaxing and enjoying the intense sensations as she skillfully proceeded. Once again, I was reminded how essential are my feet to my existence and to the practice of my various disciplines, and a sense of shame crept over me in relation to the level at which I take them for granted. A short while later, however, that feeling had been replaced by one of tearful gratitude for this body and how well it continues to function, despite my sometimes careless abuse and inattention.

If I could pinpoint a single facet of SOMA that keeps drawing me back, it would be this: The realization and continuing evolution of a borderless connection between body, mind, and spirit. Whether one believes in this trinity, it is the closest I can come to describing the sensation of unity and blessedness which engulfs me when I'm able to sense my body at this level. Truly, it is in these moments when I feel most at home as a respectful tenant in this God-given body, with a clear sense of my responsibilities in regards to its care and tending. Humbled, I vow to love my body forever…


SESSION 3: Sides of the Body and Shoulders

As a safeguard against the frantic mania I nearly always experience after Session 2, I'd scheduled Session 3 less than a week later. This brevity was also due to my having to leave town for a week, and I found myself calm and well possessed of my senses, happy to have this first 3-session group completed prior to my trip.

I experienced a magnificent looseness and freedom, deeply in my hips and core belly, after Session 3. My abiding memory will be that of making my way home from the local coffee shop, thoroughly immersed in the act of walking, while enjoying immensely the incumbent sensations. Sashaying down the sidewalk, I found myself taking the long way, wishing I could go on for hours, it felt that good to move. Accustomed to scurrying to and fro with a tight, quick little gait – perpetually late – I now luxuriated in this simple yet extremely pleasurable physical movement. Sinking into that right brain, creative sense of timelessness when in the “zone,” I became completely absorbed in the moment's activities.

Also after this session, I received a tremendous compliment from a private dance student regarding my movement being very different in the upper back and chest area. She remarked on it several times during our hour-long session together, and indeed, though I was largely unconscious of it until she pointed it out, I soon found myself squirming delightedly in this newly accessible area of my back and spine. Here it was only Session 3, and I'd already made significant progress toward my goal of finding more movement in this specific area.

This elation is tempered somewhat by upcoming Sessions 4 through 6, ominously referred to as the “core” sessions. I approach Session 4 with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, knowing that our bodies, and our lives, can sometimes be required to fall apart, disintegrating into chaos, before they can be re-integrated into a new, higher order. I repeat a mantra I once heard that the shortest way home is the long way around.


SESSION 4: The Core

We commence with an ode to the SOMA practitioner's most formidable tool.

O! Elbow

O! Elbow
We praise thee!
With such insistence
inevitably, you subdue

Your resolve is enviable
You will not be turned away
Mighty muscles quiver and
surrender, at your approach

Where desperate strongholds
ruled with iron grip
Where back and buttocks
clenched in painful habit

New release! and freedom
Though you make us tremble
and writhe in ecstatic agony
O Elbow! We adore thee

Lying still while someone encourages their elbow into the outside of one's buttocks and hips is, certainly, one of the most exquisite examples I've yet experienced of the very fine line between pain and pleasure. Longing for it to continue, and yet, wanting it to stop – if only for a moment to collect oneself – is testimony to the essential grayness of human existence. There is little black and white when the elbow comes – only the squirming, the desperate remembrance to breathe deeply and relax, while at the same moment there is the sigh of blissful relief, the wash of happy well being which accompanies blessed surrender, as the tension of the big muscles is released and their energy reclaimed.

Flashes of intense irritability, and being a bit more tired than usual, seem to be the extent of what I initially dreaded from this initial core session. There's also the tight, sore lower back that feels like an accordion which, once compressed, remained stuck. During session 5, Shelly will divulge that lower back distress is a fairly common complaint among those who've had their pelvises adjusted, in this way, during Session 4. Overall, I am quite delighted at the lack of intense emotional and physical reactions to the initial core work, and very pleased with how my body is responding throughout the sessions. Knock on wood.

Moreover, there is a pervading sense of emotional curiosity in regards to these sessions, and to my body in general these days. This curiosity has, thankfully, partly replaced the judgmental criticism of my body, and the arrogant expectation of an external force come to make me all better. At times I've projected that expectation onto the practitioner, the work, and even onto my own self and body, and I can tell you that it only leads to anxious disappointment. Approaching myself and the work with a truly fresh perspective of objective observation, along with an awareness of choice, has been a quiet yet profound breakthrough. I see now why the time finally felt right to once again undergo the sessions.

Modeled over time by Shelly herself, this respect for and acceptance of the body is at once radical and counter-cultural, transporting me into the explorative, childlike realm of first learning to move, as opposed to the harsh adult demands for a perpetually well-functioning machine. For example, while I routinely ignore the basic care of my automobile, I nevertheless demand it perform adequately every time I turn the key, and I'm outraged when for some reason or another it fails to heed my command. Likewise, I often take this merciless tack with my body. Replacing that with the simple physical delight at discovery – at finding out this arm and shoulder can move just so; that this hip can come round ever so smoothly (and precisely how I imagined it!); that the spine can undulate in a manner not yet experienced or remembered – is revolutionary. This is the ecstatic movement natural to infants and children, to which I also have access, and is, I imagine, the beginning of truly listening to the body's own “intelligence.”

Instructed by Shelly to “ Go home and play with the base of your pelvis,” I depart session 4 feeling cautiously optimistic. As ordered, later that night – while maintaining an awareness of the pelvis – I put on music and begin to dance. Often, during these private moments, I attempt to experience physical abandon, allowing me to spiral into ever more exciting and improbable areas of movement. This evening, magically, the phrase that comes to mind is “Elemental Rhythm.” This I now use to describe the state I reach when moving unabashedly and spontaneously, where suddenly I discover that, rather than having to initiate movement or interpret the dance, I am actually being moved. If, in my surprise, I'm careful not to interrupt these moments with effort, they can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes or more. What precisely leads to this release I'm not sure, but when it happens my body is often overtaken in an effortless, repetitive motion such as my head bobbing back and forth, or my hips swaying rhythmically, with my will completely detached and observing. No longer “in control,” my muscles simply respond to this spontaneous, almost otherworldly sensation of having my body propelled by an alien force. Sumptuously exquisite and highly addictive, I find myself dancing alone, and seeking to invite back the aliens, more often of late.


SESSION 5: Abdominal (Trust)

I've a painful sore on the left side of my tongue (that causes me to lisp when I talk) and a persistent foul taste in my mouth. Whatever it is Shelly unearthed while digging around my abdomen during this session, I am grateful and relieved that it seems to be making an exit. Present in my mind are those furtive cigarettes greedily consumed in times of acute stress, and I repent of the various impure substances ingested, imbibed, and devoured over the years.

In general, life seems overwhelming at the moment, and for the past few days I've felt hopeless and depressed by the crushing weight of my financial and relationship issues. Core issues. But my lower back sure feels better! Moreover, I had one of those insight flashes regarding my selfish absorption, and was humbled and ashamed at my lack of personal outreach and compassion. When one is collapsed in upon oneself, it is hard to see anything but the dirt. If it's one thing the SOMA work does for me, it's forcing me to open up to other possibilities – however much I might resist that often painful stretch – and to expand, figuratively and literally, my horizon.

Shelly mentions that this session works “in the deepest part of your body,” and refers to it being about trust. In fact, I do leave with a keen sense of vulnerability. Lately, the adult aspect of my personality seems conspicuously absent, at least where my core issues are concerned. In effect, this leads me to make decisions based largely on the counsel of my more childish predilections. During stressful situations, this can lead to dire consequences. In everyday life, it tends to perpetuate my fairy tale outlook, where I ignore chronic and mounting problems in favor of immediate gratification, sensual delights, and exciting new pursuits.

I can tell I've entered this mode when I find it difficult to concentrate or focus on the serious issues in my life, preferring instead to get caught up in an altogether new or unrelated drama. If I'm cleaning house – I mean really cleaning – it's a safe bet I'm avoiding something important. And if you observe me doing more than three things at once, I'm decidedly unsettled.

For instance, I've taken to languishing in long, hot baths saturated with Epsom Salts, which is a great and therapeutic comfort for me. However, I'm often combining it with watching a movie or TV, reading, or talking on the phone. Though I feel acutely its necessity, I've resisted mightily the urge to sit quietly and reflect. What demons lurk just beyond that moment between noisy distraction and quiet insight, that I fear will rabidly attack should I tarry too long? What realizations could possibly be so violent and disturbing that I cannot bear to calm myself long enough to acknowledge them? Or is it merely habit that constrains me, agitates me to read while eating, to snatch up the phone and make a call whenever a free moment presents itself, or to switch on the television and allow the morbid images to mollify my lonely heart and restless mind? Trust, indeed.


SESSION 6: Letting Go (Free Fall)

I suspect, as I arrive for session 6, that I am coming down with a cold. Aching, irritable, and annoyed – sure signs of impending illness – I am also somewhat surprised, since I have been healthy the better part of the year. At 41, I know from what older friends tell me that their mid-40's were, physically, some of their best. Not so much in terms of prime athletic prowess, which has abandoned many of us long ago, but simply in terms of feeling healthy, strong, and physically commanding. Paradoxically, the past seven years or so have not been my best in terms of good health, while during this same time I have consistently felt better than ever. My movement and flexibility, in dancing, yoga, and in general, are way beyond what I've ever experienced. Likewise, the awareness and respect I've found for my self and my body are very noticeably greater as time passes. On the other hand, I've suffered my greatest physical ailments during this same period, in terms of a near-complete physical and emotional breakdown eight years ago, resulting in a lasting experience of drastically low energy, a general lack of fitness, and susceptibility to colds. Hopefully, the balance between these extremes will continue developing in the near future.

Session 6 is a godsend. My fiercely clenched buttocks and rope-like back and spine muscles require intervention, and Shelly addresses them and their concerns with compassion, albeit simultaneously insisting upon their release. In addition to the oncoming cold, I pulled a muscle in my back last week, behind the rib cage, while playing a brief game of King of the Hill on a steaming wood chip pile. While initially painful, it developed during the three or four days prior to my session into an intensely uncomfortable hindrance. A gesture as simple as rolling over in bed became a frustrating, excruciating exercise in agony. The injury's severity tapered off in the days after the session until, after a day of yoga and night of zydeco dancing – which began tentatively and transformed during the final few dances into a lurid free-for-all – it disappeared altogether.

It's rare that an injury will sideline me for that long, and be that incapacitating, and I wonder at the structural changes occurring in my pelvis, hips, and legs, and whether they're responsible for this new vulnerability. The muscles of my mid-back, as a whole, definitely have my attention these days. Both sides feel coiled and prepared to go AWOL should I make the slightest misstep, but as I make many missteps during the course of a day, this recurring perception is not so much couched in reality, I'm guessing, as in trying to prevent me from engaging in any wrestling foolishness for a while, until things have a chance to settle.

Trust and faith have certainly been present in my life lately, in that I've been considering an offer to housesit my father's cabin, tucked away in the North Carolina mountains, for the entire month of January and a week into February. It's true I've dreamed of taking just such a sabbatical for many years, but was convinced my financial woes would preclude indefinitely any such adventure. While my situation has not improved, clearly, the opportunity is simply too grand to pass up. What's more, I've had steady work in my primary occupation, graphic design, for the last month or two, and am beginning to see some cash flow. With no clear plan as of yet, I decide to blindly trust that I'll have enough funds to hold me over during the time I'm away, and accept my father's invitation.


SESSION 7: The Head

Digging into the dark, nasty places behind the toilet, under the bed, behind the moldy cat box – these are the cleansing thoughts occupying my mind of late. While aggressive action has yet to be taken on many of these areas, I am keenly aware of the generally grimy state of my living quarters.

It took over three weeks for Shelly and I to get together for Session 7, due to illness on my part, and a necessary cancellation apiece. During that time, I had ample opportunity to dwell on the possible reasons for this delay, whether conscious or not. At one point I had a flash of insight that perhaps the jaw was where some real juice resided for me, and that work in that area could be significantly disturbing and revelatory.

Since my mid-twenties I've fostered a condition which makes my jaw pop, diagnosed many years ago as TMJ (for temporal mandibular joint). A dentist recommended and forged for me a hard plastic mouthpiece, which snapped into place while I slept, and thus protected my teeth from the apparent nightly clenching and grinding of my jaw. In short order the mouthpiece cracked clean through, and I remember being incensed as I showed the faulty product to the dentist and demanded retribution. I still recall his stunned look as he agreed to file the broken area down, but insisted the product had been in good order, and that it was my use that had caused it's failure.

I left disappointed, with a feeling of being had, and it took some time before I came to realize what he meant – that the magnificent force exerted by the tenseness in my jaw each night had actually shattered the mouthpiece. I think he even recommended biofeedback to help me release some tension, and he seemed clearly afraid to risk his fingers any longer in my violent maw. At least that's the way I interpret his look of shock and awe, the impression of which still remains.

To this day I hold tension in my jaw, as apparently do many others who've become victim to this “yuppie” TMJ condition, as I once heard it described. So I wonder, is it the reluctance to speak out, or to speak up that contributes to this tension? Surely I've suffered that miserable and frustrating silence at times in my life. Moreover, the stressed shoulders, I'm aware, greatly add to the rigidity in the neck and jaw. I'm not sure how much working on the computer is responsible for that, but not using my body in a physical way has got to have a lot to do with the excess energy in the upper back and shoulders, pooled and constantly gripping. Just now, as I became aware of my shoulders, I noticed them creeping toward my ears, exerting so much more force than is called for to type these lines, with the excess energy getting translated into the neck and jaw.

At any rate, during this session Shelly works into the temporal mandibular joint as well as throughout the mouth, head, and neck. While I was dreading the release of some monstrous entity, come fluttering wildly from my jaw muscles as Shelly poked at them and chasing us both about the room, that scenario never came to pass. In fact, there was no horrifying specter, no glorious revelation, and I must say I was a bit crestfallen no beast or angel materialized. Eager for the magic release that would make everything come clear at once, in a brilliant flash, I was left instead with incremental progress and the silent knowledge that breakthroughs rarely occur where and when we expect.

Satisfied with my happy shoulders and easy neck, I wandered off into the twilight.


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