History of Embodied Gymnastics

People are sometimes confused by the intersection of gymnastics and yoga. They joke, "aren't they the opposite of each other?". "Gymnastics" is even used derogatorily within yoga to describe a practice that has gotten caught up in the tricks. What may be more accurate is that--though the movements and equipment are different--at their heart, these are two words for the same thing. They are both deeply Esoteric arts that move through different clothes in different times and place, however the thread is of awareness through the body. In many cultures--throughout the world and throughout time--there have practices that utilize the physical body as a way to study life and self--yoga, gymnastics, tai chi, just to name a few.

Gymnastics is a powerful tool to strengthen the mind, body and heart. Unfortunately, many have come to associate the tool of gymnastics with destructive uses - like self-criticism, or over-competitiveness. At its heart, however, gymnastics is a way to consider how we move in the world and a chance to move wisely. Can we stand tall? Can we move fully? When do we need to be strong and when is it ok to release? Embodied gymnastics involves the conscious consideration of dynamics and effort in a form that addresses the the subconscious, unconscious, and nervous system as well as the power of conscious choice and will. 

In ancient Greece, Gymnastics was for everyone--not just Olympians--there was time for gymnastics everyday in school  and places for movement and play in the courtyards of the cities. It also included a consideration of nutrition. With  the rise of the Roman Empire, gymnastics became a war art. However, the heart of gymnastick--a German word tern "physical culture"--began a resurgence in Europe beginning in the late 1800s, and continued in many cultures as a means for awareness, healing,  and self-development. Today, gymnastics is most known as the Olympic  sport. However, even in its most competitive forms, it still requires wise  cultivation of the mind and heart, as well as of the body.


The word "gymnastics" from Latin, literally means "training done while naked". In ancient Greece, this was actually true, and perhaps now it reminds of leotards and tights. But it is interesting what it holds as a symbol: the sort of naked honesty and vulnerability that comes when we seek to learn about ourselves through our body. Martha Graham wrote, "The body never lies". And that is the sort of nakedness of the human experience when we come into contact with ourselves in physical form. I, personally, wanted to do dance and gymnastics my whole life, but couldn't get my first real taste until I was 12 years old. At that point, I was aware that it was the hardest thing I had ever done--not only physically, but for all the truths it held. And, from that, I knew that I had to do it.

The following is an excerpt from "Flesh and Soul: The Necessity of Hands-On Somatic Psychology in a Disconnected Culture" © 2012. It describes gymnastics as a practice in consciousness especially as it has influenced somatic psychotherapy, education, and dance. It is placed among lineages that regard the body as a direct medium to understanding the mind and the soul, and also noting how Nonfascist and non-violent psychologies tend to be rooted in the body and earth.

 The body’s story.

Early 20th-century Europe, the formative space of modern psychotherapy, was a highly polarized time. During World Wars I and II, the rise in fascism was accompanied by a countercurrent of embodied consciousness through practices in awareness of sensation, movement, and breath (Geuter, Heller, & Weaver, 2010). Pioneers working through their bodies at this time influenced dance, education, and also psychotherapy to a degree that is seldom noted. Emphasis on feeling, paying attention, and choosing, placed this psychophysical lineage in contrast to fascism and cultural dissociation in general. In The Elusive Obvious, Feldenkrais (1981) explained, “Habitual lack of free choice is often, nay, usually, disastrous” (p. iiv). He added, “Your trouble and mine is that we are trying to behave correctly, as one should, at the cost of quenching, with our own consent, our individuality” (p. xii). It must be noted that


at that time Berlin was the “social laboratorium of work on the body” (Geuter, 2000, p. 105). . . . Many reform movements were fashionable then. In 1900 Isadora Duncan had created expressive dance in Berlin; in 1904 she founded a “rhythm school”; and in 1914, Mary Wigman first appeared in public with expressive dance in Berlin. In 1905, the first “reform dresses” for women were created, made of linen and without a corset. Various ‘life reform’ movements contained and helped to create a new relationship to the body. Also in 1901, the first German “Light-Air-Swimming-Bath” opened in Berlin in which visitors went swimming without bathing suits. Young people aimed to free their body from the stiffness of Wilhelminian (Victorian) society and from the constraints of industrialization. (Geuter et al., 2010, para. 7)

At this time, a gymnastiks teacher named Else Gindler (1885–1961) also began her work. Gindler was a rarely attributed but powerful influence on many psychotherapists, theories, and practices.

Wilhelm Reich, who is often seen as the founder of body psychotherapy, came to learn of her form of somatic work before he started to work explicitly with the body. Among her students were Laura Perls, then Lore Posener, the later wife of Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy (Clarkson & Mackewn, 1993); Clare Nathanson, who married the psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel; Wilhelm Reich’s second partner, Elsa Lindenberg; Charlotte Selver, then Charlotte Silber, the founder of sensory awareness, who later taught Gindler’s work to Fritz Perls and Erich Fromm; Gertrud Falke Heller, a dancer, who gave her knowledge to Helmuth Stolze, the founder of “Concentrative Movement Therapy”; and physician Lily Ehrenfried, with whom Hilarion Petzold, the founder of “Integrative Therapy” later studied in Paris. (Geuter et al., 2010, para. 2)

Rebecca Loukes, (2006), a researcher in actor training and psychophysical awareness, found that gymnastiks was defined “by the assumption that ‘a natural movement is an integrated mental-physical concept and an expression of a personality which reflects the person’s individual style of performance’” (p. 388). These practitioners investigated not only what was being done, but also how it was being done. Gindler’s students—mostly women (Geuter et al., 2010)—would find their own way, rather than matching themselves to an external goal. There was emphasis on freedom, trust in the psychic field, and integration. These “explorations in movement and inner bodily feeling which did not claim to be psychotherapeutic, but certainly had effects on the psychic level, . . . which Heller (2008) calls today an organismic approach” (Geuter et al., 2010, para. 2). In the rise of the Nazi regime, the work of Gindler, her students, and contemporaries focused on fear and release. Gindler’s resistance to the regime included practices that would improve student’s ability to maintain in concentration camps (Loukes, 2006).

Fascism and its opposites.

In the opening of his film, The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis (2002) explained the drive theory: “He [Freud] had discovered—he said—primitive sexual and aggressive forces hidden deep inside the minds of all human beings. Forces which, if not controlled, led individuals and society to chaos and destruction.” This view stood in stark contrast to vectors of the seduction theory and the body-oriented therapists who continued them. Such theories held that an understanding of the needs of physical life could cultivate a respect—not fear—of human nature. In terms of social implications, the beliefs of the drive theory also were in contrast to where psychotherapy began. A dramatic shift had taken place.


It would be difficult to tell from much of the contemporary mainstream practice of depth psychologies in America that psychoanalysis was conceived in an atmosphere of acute consciousness of social inequalities and their impact on mental health and the provision of psychological treatment. . . . Many early psychoanalytic practitioners were engaged Marxists, socialists, or social democrats, whose practice of depth psychology issued from hopes of liberation on both social and psychological fronts, fronts which were seen as inextricably intertwined. (Watkins & Shulman, 2008, p. 55)

Reich (1942/1970) wrote, “Fascism can only be crushed if it is countered objectively and practically, with a well-grounded knowledge of life’s processes” (p. xvi). Curtis (2002), however, explained how the drive theory came to align with fascism and that “those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” Inseparable from capitalism, corporatism, war, and the Public Relations movement as headed by Freud’s American nephew, Edward Bernays, psychoanalysis became a means of mass control, an agent of a largely invisible fascist regime, still functioning to this day (Curtis, 2002).

Through his interpretation of Freud’s work, Bernays realized that it was possible to persuade people to behave irrationally and act against their own best interests by engaging with their emotional desires (Curtis, 2002). The masses could be switched from participative citizens to passive consumers of goods and information. Freud saw these desires as means of protecting people from themselves, whereas Bernays saw them as an opportunity for profit and power. Predating the work of Bernays, Freud predicted the effects that the United States would have on psychoanalysis. When invited to give his first lecture in America in 1909, “he hesitated to accept, suspicious of the fate of psychoanalysis in the cultural landscape of America. He grew contemptuous of medicalized analysis in the United States that was politically conservative, and generative of excessive affluence for its practitioners” (Watkins & Shulman, 2008, p. 56).

At the same time as fascism rose in Europe and the United States with the theme of mass control, Reich continued the thread of the abandoned seduction theory that held human nature in quite an opposite regard. Drawing in premises from Freud’s (1923/1989) seduction theory and influenced by from Gindler’s embodied exploration (Loukes, 2006), by the 1930s, Reich had begun applying psychotherapy to the physical body and culture. His particular interest was in how character structure and resistance effect and are affected by the structures of the body and society (Field, 2003; Reich, 1942/1970). Applications of these ideas quickly extended beyond the traditional boundaries of psychotherapy and came against the political climate of the time. Reich’s work necessarily broke taboos: entering into politics, genuine interpersonal interaction between therapist and client, and the use of touch. In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, originally published in 1933, Reich (1942/1970) asked confrontational question of the professions that shape society:


What are you doing in a practical way to feed the nation, without murdering other nations? What are you doing as a physician to combat chronic disease, what as an educator to intensify a child’s joy of living, what as an economist to erase poverty, what as a social worker to alleviate the weariness of mothers having too many children, what as an architect to promote hygienic conditions in living quarters? Let’s have no more of your chatter. Give us a straightforward, concrete answer or shut up. (p. xvi)

Fascism refers to “a system of government marked by a totalitarian dictator, socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition, and usually a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism” (“Fascism,” 2000, p. 496). In the structures of body, psyche, and society, Reich (1942/1970) sought ways to counter fascism by understanding its dynamics and causes.

“Fascism” is only the organized political expression of the structure of the average man’s character, a structure that is confined neither to certain races or nations nor to certain parties, but is general and international. Viewed with respect to man’s character, “fascism” is the basic emotional attitude of the suppressed man of our authoritarian machine civilization and its mechanistic-mystical conception of life. (p. xiii)

Reich (1942/1970) held that, in order to be of service, it was not enough for psychotherapists to work within the structures of society as they are, but must actually engage to create change. Parallels were drawn between the structure of character, the body, and society, and he worked directly on these tissues. He advocated sexuality, the availability of contraceptives, freedom to divorce, and the importance of general and economic empowerment of women. Degrees of change that it was not clear the future of psychoanalysis was interested in.

Work like that of Reich’s (1942/1970) was dangerous to the path psychoanalysis was choosing in the in the 1920s and 1930s. His papers were declared communistic and, in 1934, with the help of Anna Freud, Reich was denied a place in both the Vienna and Berlin Psychoanalytic Societies (Rubin, 2003). Taking similar cues from the climate of the time, as Jewish analysts sought refuge in the United States, they “suppressed their histories of social and political engagement in Europe to avoid delays in the naturalization process of the United States” (Watkins & Shulman, 2008, p. 56). A priority was placed on blending and any nonwhite, nonstatus quo beliefs and activities continued to be avoided through McCarthyism, for fears of being seen as communist (Watkins & Shulman, 2008). Opposite to most, Reich continued with his radical work once in the United States. He endured continuous persecution including the burning of much of his writing and his death in prison (Rubin, 2003).

Parallel paths. In 1931, in a speech to the German Gymnastics Association, Gindler

criticized psychoanalysts for not dealing with the body, not even their own (Ludwig, 2002, p. 102). In this talk she said: “It would be a fascinating task to show the psychotherapist by our practical experiences what he can gain for understanding his own task by consciously exploring his own body.” (Geuter et al., 2010, para. 13)

That same year, the 6th Congress of the Common Medical Society for Psychotherapy had the topic “treating the soul from the body” (Geuter et al., 2010, para. 25). Speakers suggested the inclusion of “gymnastics, sports, breath work, and massage into psychoanalytic treatment” (p. 62), and “one speaker went so far as to state that a combined body-mind-therapy would be the future of psychotherapy” (para. 25).


Although Gindler suggested that students do psychoanalysis, it is said that she never directly combined psychotherapeutic work with emotion into her work on awareness of the body (Geuter et al., 2010). This tendency to keep the body on a parallel path has continued to be the norm. It is likely, however, that more integration of psychotherapy into bodywork occurred than is recorded in history, in the way work on the soul through the body was being done through a channel other than words. Feldenkrais (1981) wrote,

I suggest and believe that I am right, that sensory stimuli are closer to our unconscious, subconscious, or autonomous functioning than to any of our conscious understanding. On a sensory level, communication is more direct with the unconscious and is therefore more effective and less distorted than at the verbal level. Words, as somebody said, are more to hide our intentions than to express them. (p. 3)

Perhaps, to use the paradigm and lexicon of psychoanalysis at that time would have meant an entry into a dualism that did not trouble this work. Gindler said, “I deliberately avoid defining this consciousness as soul, psyche, mind, feeling, subconscious, or even the ‘body-soul’. For me, the small word ‘I’ Summarizes all this” (as cited in Loukes, 2006, p. 390). Language that would have been the mark of psychotherapeutic process seemed, at least to Gindler, to be unnecessary.

During the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s, theories made room for more articulate connections between psychotherapy and embodied studies. Gestalt therapy, in particular, included a framework that required the body “even though it lacked an explicit base and rationale for hands-on work” (Kepner, 1987, p. 215). Perls had been a client of Reich’s (Kepner, 1987) and his wife and collaborator, Laura, was a modern dancer and student of Gindler (Geuter et al, 2010). Though Perls’ theories lacked the hands-on elements of Reich’s, they also extended beyond him in two major ways. First, Perls “saw the organism/person always in relation to the environment, and not only organized around internal conflicts and events” (Kepner, 1987, p. 213). Body processes and structures were viewed in light of their function, adaptation, and intelligence, rather than only as obstacles to be broken through. Second, Perls placed emphasis on the client’s experience of his or her body, not only on the therapist’s assessment.

 While living at Esalen, Perls himself underwent hands-on treatment by Rolf, which brought a period of relief from serious heart attacks (Rolf, 1990). Rolf’s system was similar to Reich’s in that she directly manipulated the tissues to release unhelpful structures. Perls incorporated touch into his treatment of clients by working alongside Rubenfeld; she would use touch with clients while he was using words (Rubenfeld, 2000). Her approach differed from more assertive or directive styles, perhaps reflecting a shift in therapy in general. She found that a light, nonintrusive touch, which she called the listening hand, could allow the body’s armor to melt. Rubenfeld wrote of those sessions with Perls: “I soon reconfirmed that there was a subtle and clear muscular response to every thought and emotion that people felt. And I learned that touch could open gateways to the mind” (p. 7).

Some believed that talk was enough, some that touch was enough, and others that the body process could be done through words alone. Rubenfeld (2000) saw the combination as essential.

I realized that for people to understand their emotional state, they would have to learn how to listen to their bodies. While observation and talk are valid tools, one of the most powerful ways to heal is through the use of touch. Often emotions are beyond words and are not linear or rational. Hands are the most sensitive receptors of the subtlety of sensation. . . . Touch and talk became an essential duet; here were two great healing forces that when synergized were greater than either alone. (p. 8)

 In the 1970s and 1980s touch found a place in Ron Kurtz’s Hakomi therapy. The nonintrusive style of touch described by Rubenfeld along with priority of listening and the belief that clients have their own answers that came with Rogerian therapy (Rogers, 1995) described a larger theoretical shift which Kurtz (2007) explored under his principle of nonviolence. Nonviolence is a therapeutic understanding made clear by the body: “using force against a living system is asking for resistance” (p. 29).

 Kurtz (2007) elaborated on this paradigm: “To work non-violently, we must drop notions about making clients change and, along with that, any tendency to take credit for their successes” (p. 5).

Violence in therapy is not just deliberate physical harm. It is a failure to accept the whole person who is client, a person with his own story, her own ideas, images, needs, wishes, capacities, pace. Violence is being too much stuck in yourself and your own agenda to really be healing for another. (p. 29)

In Hakomi therapy, touch took the form of “experiments” designed by the client in order to see what would arise in the present moment.

Focusing on present experience, especially on emotional expression . . . came with Reichian Therapy, Psychodrama, Gestalt, encounter groups and all that followed. At that point, much of psychotherapy moved from merely talking about experiences to actually having them. Clients went from talking to working. And the work involved getting back into our bodies, our senses, below our minds, away from theories, away from talk/talk/talk and into experiences. (Kurtz, 2007, p. 10)

Kurtz quoted Reich, who said, “The entire world of past experience (is) embodied in the present in the form of character attitudes. A person’s character is the fractional sum total of all past experiences” (as cited in Kurtz, 2007, p. 40). Author and anthropologist Richard Grossinger wrote, “The doctor does not need to reconstruct a traumatic moment; the traumatic moment continues to exist in every breath the patient takes, every gesture he makes” (as cited in Kurtz, 2007, p. 40). Reich (1942/1970) referred to character structure or armor, and Kurtz (2007) proposed biostrategy; Kepner (1987) described how process become structure; and Peter Levine (1997), developer of Somatic Experiencing, referred to how trauma can freeze parts of the body and soul in time. Body-based therapies share a common belief that memory, history, emotion, and adaptive strategies (Kurtz, 2007) become the structure and function of the organism. The present moment and space function as a hologram from everything. With focus and appropriately timed release of what is stuck in the past, “the goal was the same: the release of emotion and feeling to allow the client to become his/her full energetic self” (Rubenfeld, 2000, p. 8).


Despite the many well-investigated orientations combining touch with talk, there is still the general conception that touch and psychotherapy should remain complimentary or parallel (Field, 2003; Smith et al., 1998). In exploring the importance of touch in human development and healing, Field (2003) also gave an opinion that illustrates the reluctance to close the gap entirely between the body and the mind. She described a study in a teen psychiatric hospital where the teens received massage every day for 10 days. The results included less depression and anxiety, reduced stress hormones, better sleep patterns, and earlier discharge; however, the hospital remained reluctant to continue the use of therapeutic touch. The hospital’s first concern was of sexual arousal, which they resolved by using volunteer grandparents as therapists. “The staff’s second concern was that the patients talked more during massage therapy than during psychotherapy” (p. 62). Field’s solution was to ask the teens not to talk. It was her belief that massages are better without talking. In the integrative theories described above, this would be seen as a missed opportunity.

 The task of integrating healers’ understanding of flesh and soul is still at hand today. Rolf (1990) wrote,

Just as Reich began to put a physical body onto Freud’s theories, this kind of thinking and working we are doing is forming the bridge between psychology and physiology. We too are standing at that very vital point. We need to collect out clinical information together so that we can bring the psychologists down from the clouds and put their feet on the ground. (p. 58)

----end excerpt----

Embodied Gymnastics

We are in a society and time where movement and even dance have become a competition. And there is nothing wrong with competition as it is a spirit that makes us rise up, however, the illusion is established that one must be better than all the rest in order to have the right to feel comfortable in their own body and movement.  Many TV shows present it this way, and even practice and the desire to study too often come from a desire to be seen. At other times or other places, the performance of dance would be seen as a gift: the dynamics that are living in me, presented, in vulnerability and generosity, to you.

In many ways, we might push so hard that movement--or any kind of effort towards achievement--becomes a means to dissociate from our bodies, rather than enter into them. The idea of Embodied Gymnastics is 1) a hope that we could create a physical culture where movement is a part of daily life, helping people feel at home in their own body and also at home in a group, 2) an esoteric version of gymnastics where sensation is trusted, investigated, and stretched; moving from the inside out, rather than the outside in, 3) a means for integrating modern science with felt-sense, using movement as a means to balance the brain, body, and emotions.

Like any esoteric art, the appearance on the outside may end up looking the same. A handstand may be a handstand no matter how you got there. Or, a fully-lived beauty might start seeping through the skin. It is also likely that starting from the inside out might give more potential than working from the outside in. That an understanding of brain, mind, pattern, and focus may help transform what would have been a weakness into a strength or a depth. And as hinted at in the social and historical descriptions above, the hope is that such efforts might shine through the skin, into action into the world. Similar to yoga, this is a practice of action and investigation of action, intention and means. Coming from an embodied stance, coming from the body, would hopefully lead to a world that is more conscious, more kind, and more fun.

 In the United States, we seem to have a bit of a limited view on movement and of who has the right to do it. This goes beyond limiting beliefs like movement classes are a luxury or dance/gymnastics  are only for those who can win the competition. This also goes into ageism (belief that movement is only for the young), class-ism (beliefs that styles are only for the elite or  only for the poor) and sexism (in the US, boys don't compete in rhythmic gymnastics, and in many cases are discouraged from gymnastics and dance at all). Fortunately, it is not like this everywhere. Have you seen this now 87 year old gymnast before?


Want to read more like this? Read: Teaching to the Unconscious and Gymnastics, Hypnotically Speaking

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