Somatic Process: Developing a More Inclusive Somatics Education

By Tristan Koepke, MFA, Certified Rolfer®
April 2024

ABSTRACT This paper discusses teaching somatics in higher education and professional settings. The author examines his background in somatics, dance, and Rolfing® Structural Integration, as well as his research about racialized phenomenologies. The interspersed reflections and curiosities are to encourage engagement, including strategies for implementing antiracist and globally inclusive approaches to lesson planning and curriculum. The Rolfing Structural Integration Principles of Intervention were used as an overarching framework to discuss somatics pedagogy and process. Asking questions of the reader, the author traces his education to inspire an audience of dance and somatic educators to expand their personal threads of inquiry. Ultimately, the goal is to motivate people invested in the field of somatics education and to deepen their approaches towards inclusivity in content and curricula.


For years I have been exploring strategies for implementing antiracist and globally inclusive approaches to teaching somatics in higher education and professional settings. The first half of this article discusses my background in dance, somatics, and Rolfing® Structural Integration, as well as my research in racialized phenomenologies. By ‘somatics’, I am broadly referring to embodied practices that focus on experience, sensation, and wellness. In the second half, I go on to discuss a course I taught in Spring 2022, interspersing reflection, questions, and curiosities for your engagement, while using the Rolfing Structural Integration Principles of Intervention (Wholism, Adaptability, Support, Palintonicity, and Closure) as an organizing strategy (Sultan and Hack 2021). Throughout, I ask questions of myself and the community of somatics educators to critique, audit, and wonder at the expansive possibilities of somatic education.

This article is not a guide or a how-to manual for teachers. It is by no means comprehensive. Instead, I trace my learning in such a way as to inspire an audience of practitioners and teachers to expand their own threads of inquiry. Put another way, I hope to move somatics educators, including structural integration practitioners, to deepen their own approaches towards inclusivity in somatics education, both by expanding course content and by deepening the invitation for critical engagement.

I am a White, cis-gender male whose life and livelihood is indebted to the work of somatics educators, many of them women. My own embodiment has been deeply informed by the philosophies and embodied praxis of Barbara Mahler, Klein Technique™/choreographer, Ida Rolf, PhD (1896-1979), Erin Thompson, award-winning choreographer, and Joan Skinner (1924-2021), modern dance pioneer and former University of Washington Dance faculty, all of whom are/were White.

Before I started dancing, however, my early somatics trainings were in yoga and martial arts forms, most notably tae kwon do and tai chi, as well as the latter’s more wellness-oriented counterpart, qi gong. Late in middle school, after stumbling into a class with a friend, dance became my primary endeavor. Soon after, I pursued a career in dance performance, beginning with my undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota and continuing with full-time performance work with various contemporary companies in the Midwest and on the East Coast. In my mid-twenties, I slowed down my performance career, became a Certified Rolfer® and Board Certified Structural IntegratorCM, and began my Rolfing Structural Integration practice.

More recently, I juggled my Rolfing work while completing my graduate studies in dance at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD). I am now an Assistant Professor of Dance at Bates College where I teach dance, somatics, and performance studies. While some of my dance work leans more into experimental performance, somatics practices have been the bridge that spans my dance and Rolfing careers.

Studying a wide variety of somatics, as I already mentioned, these are broadly embodied practices that focus on experience, sensation, and wellness (as compared to, say, dance practices that focus on performative techniques,  spiritual expression, or community connection). These have been extremely liberating for me, helping me to listen to and trust my body, its knowledge, and its resiliency. Somatics practices have also been incredibly grounding, helping me to sustain a career in performance for over a dozen years with little to no injury.

Yet, I carry a certain amount of privilege in this world due to my various embodied identities, making many somatics practices accessible to me. Not everyone has the same access to somatics practices that I’ve had (such as certifications in Rolfing Structural Integration, yoga, and Spiraldynamik®, as well as my ongoing practices of Gyrotonic® and Alexander Technique). Engaging in many somatics practices requires a substantial amount of expendable income. On top of that, many somatic practices have not been inclusive of people living with historical and institutional trauma, and have been Western and Euro-centric in focus.

This line of thought led me to write an article called “A Phenomenology of Whiteness in Rolfing Structural Integration,” published in Structure, Function, Integration in 2021. Using Rolfing work as an example, I explored how somatic practices are imbued with racialized embodiments, while simultaneously disguising them as neutral. I asked the readers to join me in wondering about how the modalities and techniques we practice might inadvertently reinforce these racist paradigms. Moving forward, I hoped to be more proactively inclusive and antiracist in my own approaches in my practice
and teaching.

Somatic Process

Later in 2021, during my final year as a Graduate Teaching Assistant with UMD’s School of Theatre, Dance, and Performing Arts, and while seeking to continue my above-mentioned goal, I proposed a new somatics class for the program. Typically, their single somatics course each year is taught by Crystal Davis, a fantastic movement analyst and critical theorist who facilitates bias education. In an effort to give Davis time to focus on finishing her book (the recently published Dance and Belonging: Implicit Bias and Inclusion in Dance Education, 2022), I was given the opportunity to teach my class, called “Somatic Process.” However, in order to work within the bureaucratic structures in place, my class was to be given a new title, a new section . . . under the umbrella course “Global Dance Forms.” The class was to meet for eighty minutes, twice a week, for two credits.

While I firmly believe a somatics class should prioritize embodied practice, in 'Global Dance Forms: Somatic Process', I sought to weave critical theory and analysis into and within as many of our exercises, reflections, and discussions as possible. I also sought to engage in more contemporary discussions from global, inclusive, and antiracist perspectives. These ideas have recently been upending and reorganizing many dance department’s curricula, as they have historically focused primarily on ballet and American modern dance forms (Hernández 2022).

Within the context of Global Dance Forms: Somatic Process, I defined a global perspective as understanding that somatic forms arise in culturally-specific contexts and are part of a vast web of interconnected ideas that circulate across space and time. I defined an inclusive perspective as incorporating a wide scope of ideas that would invite participation from a more diverse group of students and purposefully embracing ideas and bodies that have been historically disenfranchised and excluded from somatics education. I anticipated this would make space for more students to access somatics, and may, in turn, have a broader impact. Additionally, I hoped to give students experience with an extensive range of somatic ideas across various forms and cultures so as to empower students to choose which ones work best for them.

Antiracism describes actions and attitudes that work purposefully against the tide of structural racism embedded within our structures, institutions, and beliefs (Braveman et. al. 2022). I define an antiracist perspective as continually considering how I’m reflecting upon my own biases and assumptions, and to proactively divest from perpetuating (accidentally or purposefully) racist practices or tropes. Incorporating an antiracist perspective within a somatics class aids me in understanding that anyone engaged in somatics cannot divorce themselves from their body’s context or history, and our experience as individuals is inextricably linked to community, power, culture, and politics. Additionally, an antiracist perspective reminds me that health and wellness, two ideas intertwined with the goals and benefits of many somatics practices, look and feel different in every body. Difference in all its forms must be acknowledged and embraced.

With all this in mind, I developed the following course objectives for Global Dance Forms: Somatic Process.

  • Understand and define somatics, various specific techniques/approaches, and related key terminology from global, inclusive, and antiracist perspectives.
  • Identify and locate basic anatomy and describe biomechanical principles used in a diverse set of somatic experiences.
  • Consider the role of appropriation inherent to somatic experiences and modalities.
  • Understand, create, and apply effective cues for somatic experiences.
  • Articulate course concepts in written, embodied, and oral form.

I want to discuss some of the terms I just mentioned, and offer two critiques that fertilize the ground on which I stand. Both of these critiques lead to foundational questions that currently permeate my pedagogy.

Somatics educator and historian Dr. Martha Eddy, when discussing the work of somatics pioneer Thomas Hanna, PhD (1928-1990), describes somatics education as “the experience of bringing attention to the living body while in stillness and moving” (Eddy 2017, 6). While this definition is quite broad, typically somatics refers to a particular group of movement modalities: Bartenieff FundamentalsSM, Feldenkrais Method®, Body Mind Centering®, Rolf Movement® Integration, Aston KineticsTM, Skinner Release TechniqueTM, Pilates, and Gyrokinesis® to name a few. Note that all or most of these modalities have a name attached, a phenomenon owed to our global capitalist context that emphasizes trademarking and ownership.

While ownership of a movement paradigm may be helpful in our world to help people navigate and orient to different styles of movement and somatics, it’s important to consider that those people named as somatics leaders aren’t necessarily inventors of their form. Instead, they are constellating ideas through their embodied experiences, and then codifying those ideas into movements and techniques. Many times, this process of creating a somatic style involves appropriating (taking without explicit permission) movement ideas from other practitioners, or at times, culturally specific movement traditions, like tai chi and yoga.

Eddy wrote a book published in 2017 called Mindful Movement: The Evolution of the Somatic Arts and Conscious Action. In it, she traced the roots of the aforementioned somatic modalities (and many more). The book is extremely helpful in sifting through the specifics of each modality and their leaders, the cross-pollination between, and some of the instances of appropriation, as in the vast proliferation of yoga movements and ideas throughout Gyrokinesis and Pilates (140). In an attempt towards inclusivity, Eddy included a chapter on what she calls “The Global Roots of Somatic Movement: Asian and African Influences” (83-100). I applaud her efforts here and find the book as a whole both exciting and informative; it is vast in scope, includes many somatic forms in one resource, discusses historic influences and developments across the field, and occasionally leans into analysis, such as the aforementioned chapter’s inclusion of yoga scholar Mark Singleton’s rich analysis of the complicated and dialectic history of yoga as we know it today (88-89).

However, this chapter doesn’t offer a much-needed critique that directly names the violence inherent to the rampant appropriation utilized by the somatics leaders. Diasporic dance scholar Thomas Talawa Prestø offers us another word to consider here: arrogation, which he uses to describe acts of appropriation that move beyond appreciation or assimilation to the space of arrogance, self-promotion, and profit (Prestø, 2022). Arrogation is useful to consider the ways in which somatic imperatives within forms such as qi gong (for Bartenieff) and judo (for Feldenkrais) were retooled for education within a globalizing world, but also within the capitalist imperative of trademarking, creating, inventing, and owning (Eddy 2017, 85).

I’m not arguing that these somatic educators were malicious in intent, although there is plenty more history to contend with (see Doran George’s The Natural Body (2020) and its discussion of F. M. Alexander’s reliance on early twentieth-century racial theory in the development of Alexander Technique). Instead, I want to consider what these formulations of systems might mean in relation to contemporary prerogatives for antiracism and decolonizing efforts within our institutions and pedagogies (George 2020, 14-16). If a somatics class is to pursue antiracism as a course objective, then the lessons must include, in addition to recognizing appropriation in course content, critical consideration of arrogation and each modality’s potential for complicity within structural racism.

My second critique was more thoroughly explored in my own aforementioned article (Koepke 2021). In it, I analyzed the assumed Whiteness within the Platonic ideal body promoted, inadvertently or not, by Rolfing Structural Integration. I discussed how bodies are phenomenologically orientated towards race by reifying racialized standards and ideals. Drawing from the work of dance scholar Rebecca Chaleff, PhD, and queer theorist Sara Ahmed, PhD, I argued that Europeanist directives for uprighting and expanding into space, while adhering to notions of neutrality of alignment (itself an abstract and racialized concept), imbue people White.

Referencing dance scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild, PhD, White Europeanist ideals such as ‘centeredness’, ‘control’, ‘linearity’, and ‘directness’ play into the pursuit of Rolfing Structural Integration, and by extension, most modalities we’ve come to know as somatic (Gottschild 1996). I hoped that this critique more generally asks of somatics educators to move beyond what Don Hanlon Johnson calls “somatic platonism,” a dangerous and pervasive phenomenon of upholding White, athletic, European maleness as the standard body for comparisons (Johnson 1980, 4-8). As a somatics teacher who embodies many of those physical standards (tall, athletic, White, male, all inherent in that platonic ideal), I feel particularly charged with a responsibility to work against these standards in my classroom.

While I mention my critique of some of the fundamental assumptions of Rolfing Structural Integration, I also hope to model that our relationships with forms and epistemologies can be complicated and nuanced. As a Rolfer myself, I continue to contend with my own ideologies, and the ways in which I both subscribe and rebel against my own embodied education.

As I return now to discuss my course, Global Dance Forms: Somatic Process, I employed the Rolfing Structural Integration Five Principles of Intervention as an organizational form for inquiry. Retired Advanced Rolfing Instructor Jeffrey Maitland, PhD and Advanced Rolfing Instructor Jan H. Sultan were the first to define this practical framework about Rolf’s Ten Series (1992, Sultan and Hack 2021). I hope this structure models to the reader, as it has to me, that the theories supporting structural integration lend themselves to diversity and antiracist work in the studio and classroom.


Wholism, the first Rolfing Principle of Intervention, refers to having a broad focus when investigating people and systems. It recognizes that change may happen by direct and localized intervention, however, the exact results of those interventions are always part of a larger, global system. For the density of a certain tissue to change, like superficial facia for example, the current state of the whole person (considering the psycho-socio-biological) must be addressed and considered. As a somatics teacher, Wholism asks of me the following:

  • What is my direct approach lesson-to-lesson, and what is the larger scope of my curricula?
  • How can I, in a semester-long course, offer a breadth of topics and entry points to the world of somatic practices that contribute to, rather than strip away, cultural specificity and ways of knowing in the body?

How can a somatics course utilize auto-ethnographic methodologies, encouraging students to take authorship of their own stories, challenges, processes, and growth?

In response to these questions, I assigned weekly readings that bolstered embodied practice and invited critical inquiry during in-class discussions. We read two primary texts, Mary Bond’s 2021 The Body Mandala, as well as Martha Eddy’s aforementioned book, Mindful Movement: The Evolution of the Somatic Arts and Conscious Action (2017). We supplemented these texts with articles and chapters from Johnson’s Diverse Bodies, Diverse Practices (2018), Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body is Not an Apology (2018), and adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Practice (2019). Class discussions and written reflections encouraged students to creatively bridge the critical divide between ways of knowing and understanding embodiment. I asked students to consider the ways that our embodied practices related to their everyday lives, and how they could incorporate them holistically into their lifestyles.


The second Principle is Adaptability. As I consider the adaptability of somatic epistemologies, I’m curious about how putting the aforementioned texts in conversation with our embodied experiences engenders intellectual and somatic agility in students. To this end, I created course units based on common themes found in diverse somatics practices and endeavored to teach material and topics responsibly. The units were:

  • Breath
  • Grounding
  • Walking
  • Sensing Self
  • Sensing Space
  • Social Somatics

Within these units, I relied on my areas of expertise in a broad range of somatic forms. I primarily utilized various yoga forms, Klein technique, qi gong, and tae kwon do, while, budget allowing, also bringing in guest instructors with expertise and cultural experience different from my own. For example, I brought in teachers with expertise in Gyrokinesis, Dunham Technique, and YorchhaTM.

While offering this breadth of modalities, I emphasized curiosity and choice. This methodology comes out of my experience teaching Trauma-Informed Yoga (TIY). Instead of directing movements, the teaching methodology found in most Hatha Yoga forms such as Iyengar, Vinyasa, Bikram, and even Restorative, TIY emphasizes invitational language, followed by supporting the student in deciding which movements and pathways best fit their needs and/or desires. The benefits of TIY are found in that choice, just as our student’s move towards the critical and creative, rather than parroting information. This approach is student-centered, it reinforces adaptability by insisting that course topics and learning objectives evolve to meet the needs, desires, and curiosities of the students.

Additionally, in Global Dance Forms: Somatic Process, this invitation to adapt material empowered students to bring their own cultural specificity and interests into direct conversation with the somatics exercises we studied. For example, during a lesson on meditation, I asked students to adapt a meditation I offered in class to new meditations that specifically addressed something personally important. One student with an interest in Black feminist studies began including Audre Lorde text in her meditations as a means to feel grounded and connected to her lineage. Another student, who was a military veteran, shared his anecdotal experience with post-traumatic stress disorder, and stitched together a series of breathing exercises from class that had helped him personally. These students were then invited to share and reflect on how they crafted their meditations, ultimately coming together in learning to create somatics exercises flexible enough to meet the needs and interests of a particular group of people.


The third Principle is Support, which helps me consider the ways in which my lessons prioritize offering tools for students to use outside of the classroom. It is no secret that academic life is stressful, with the current Zoomer generation reporting high levels of mental health concerns. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the rising costs of tuition and, more generally, living stressors, environmental catastrophe, and social and political violence are all taking their toll on our students. But if my course could, in some way, engender a student’s ability to support themselves and their communities’ capacity for recovery and resilience, that, for me, demonstrates a success.

In order to offer students tools to support themselves in their learning, I created the first unit of the course around the topic of breath. We discussed the physiological benefits of mindful breathwork, and practiced various techniques in yoga, qi gong, Wim Hof Method®, and Rolf Movement®. We discussed the vagus nerve and how simple breath exercises have well-researched positive outcomes for health. We considered mental, emotional, and physical health to all be part of one’s overarching embodied health. Many of my students were particularly attracted to vagus nerve toning practices, and drew connections from these breath practices to course topics throughout the semester, even engaging them in their final projects, in which they presented on a somatics subject of choice. Many of the students continued the work of personalizing their somatics experiences to their own backgrounds and interests. For example, one student, as a basketball player, presented a project that explored the Wim Hof Method in relation to recovery from physically demanding practices.


Palintonicity, the fourth Principle of Intervention, is derived from the Greek palantonos, meaning stretched back and forth. It suggests an embodied sensibility: an expansion in all directions to fulfil spatial possibilities. Dancers are familiar with this: push down to go up, and sense your backspace when directing your focus forward. I extend palintonicity to critical engagement, encountering somatic practices as dialogic, complex, and even contradictory. For example, when first encountering Mary Bond’s Your Body Mandala (2018), students researched and discussed mandala, a Sanskrit word meaning disk, that is used to describe a circular and artistic configuration of symbols found in many spiritual practices, notably in Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism. Historically, mandalas are used for establishing sacred spaces and trance induction. Students were able then to critique mandala’s appropriation within White-majority somatics settings, spaces, and resources, such as in Bond’s book, and in Power Yoga sequencing.

I offered brief history lessons on the various somatic modalities encountered throughout class, honoring founders of techniques without turning a blind eye to themes of colonization. Movement education has inherent appropriation, consider presenting these bodies of work as both culturally specific, globally expansive, and participating in the neoliberal marketplace. I chose to teach a course that was stretched back and forth between depth and breadth. It was a fine balance and a difficult task of time management. Additionally, students were encouraged to stretch their understanding and definition of somatics by encountering forms that are typically labelled dance, such as Dunham Technique and Yorchha, the technique developed by Dr. Ananya Chatterjea, based on Odissi, Chhao, and yoga. Students were tasked with finding ways to apply their quiet skills in listening and attunement to dynamic rhythmic practices that required slightly more athleticism.


The fifth and final Principle is Closure. However, any experienced somatics practitioner knows that closure is simply a pause, or a comma, placed in such a way to encourage rest and reflection: a time for the nervous system to integrate new learnings and understandings. In the theme of integration, as well as carrying the work forward beyond the self, one of the course’s ongoing assignments was to engage cueing. Students were invited to create their own guided somatic experience, or borrow one from Mary Bond’s Your Body Mandala (2018). These somatic experiences were often simple, involving laying or sitting and sensing the body from within, a practice of interoception. At their most complex, the practice was reminiscent of a simple X exercise, similar to Bartenieff Fundamentals, or what Bond calls “Leonardo” (Bond 2018, 170-173).  

The students recorded their cueing, and typically practiced several attempts before sending it on to a peer to practice with. Students reported learning a lot from this project, which became increasingly complex by the end of the semester. Not only did students have to consider their own environment for practice, they also had to visualize the practice while cueing: how to breathe, as well as indicate that their peer should breathe, and more generally, how to pace an exercise. Additionally, some students added sound scores or gentle music to facilitate a calming effect, often considered helpful for many somatic exercises and modalities. Students reported that this ongoing practice of self-authorship integrated their learning into regular reflection that enlivened their somatics practices, and were additionally applicable beyond course material. I compiled and shared all of the recordings so that the students could leave the course with a collaboratively-developed tool to continue their somatics journey.


I set about creating the Global Dance Forms: Somatic Process course in an effort to make somatics more inclusive and to divest from racist tropes in my and my students’ envisioning of the body. The Rolfing Structural Integration Principles of Intervention provided me a structure for organizing and auditing my approach. First and foremost, Wholism invited me to balance embodied practice and critical inquiry. Adaptability encouraged a broad range of expertise and cultural experience, both in course content and also the ways students were encouraged to approach the material through invitational language that emphasized choice, agency, and autonomy. Support cultivates space for breath, rest, and education on vagus nerve toning and its benefits. Palintonicity reminded me that somatic experiences are dialogic, conversational, culturally specific, and globally expansive. Closure gave myself and my students the space to consider ways to integrate new learnings into applicable assignments and practices, while opening a window for continued curiosity and inquiry.

After offering context and describing where I am currently in this racialized phenomenologies research, I seek to spark more questions than answers. After all, that is the work of inclusivity and antiracism: continually reflecting, questioning, and auditing to address the evolving community and power structures therein. And this work truly starts with the self.

How does your cultural posturing and body action inscribe your own cultural positions, and in what ways do you understand your positioning in relation to somatics and your somatics students?

In what ways does your practice and pedagogy assume or uphold somatic platonism, including Eurocentric aesthetic standards of health, beauty, and embodiment?

Do you rely on terms, forms, and somatic methodologies steeped with a legacy of appropriation, and in what ways can you teach them as discursive and complex, offering exercises and assignments that promote student’s critical and embodied inquiries?

Are there epistemologies and approaches to embodiment that can be responsibly included in your practice and/or curriculum to broaden the scope of your sessions and/or course content, offering a more pluralistic and holistic vision of somatics?

Tristan Koepke, MFA (he/him) is a dancer, educator, choreographer, and Rolfer® based in Portland, Maine. He is an Assistant Professor at Bates College, and is Associate Director of the Young Dancers Intensive at the Bates Dance Festival. He has been a Rolfer since 2016, and now serves as Chair of the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute’s® Committee for Diversity and Anti-Racism. Koepke is also the Diversity and Inclusion Editor of Structure, Function, Integration.


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somatics; higher education; dance; racialized phenomenologies; antiracist; movement curriculum; Rolfing Principles of Intervention; somatics education. ■

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