By Joan Davis
Reviewed by Mary Abrams, MA, RSME
As a Somatic Movement Educator who has read many books by authors in the field, I felt a quickening and rising in my body and became curious, shyly excited, and a little nervous when invited to review a book by Joan Davis. Davis is among a generation of creative professionals in Ireland and across the UK dedicated their lives to in-depth explorations and research through the silent level (non-words) processes and expressions of the human body. In this very small, yet internationally growing world of somatic movement, Davis is among the “rock stars”, and she has rightfully earned her honor and fame through decades of creative, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual research that she integrated into a training programme called Origins.
The book, Origins, A Somatically Based Approach to Our Developmental and Evolutionary Process from Pre-conception to Standing, is an overview of the curriculum and methods of practice covered over three years in the training programme. When I acquired the book, my fingers, hands, wrists, arms and back galvanized with heated tension. Receiving the hardbound printed book weighing approximately five pounds was like holding a large, recently unearthed, stone. Its shape, size, and density—700, 11 x 7 pages, at first appeared and felt difficult to penetrate and absorb. The surprise of this immense book landing in my hands, slowed down my curiosity and shy excitement. My body deflated with a slight increase of edgy nervousness tightly holding my gut-throat-center. The question arose, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Committing to the task of this review, I took a few deeper breaths, felt the weight of the book settle, grounding more fully into my lap and legs. Then, as with a large heavy stone, my hands, eyes, listening mind, and whole body slowly began to take in the details page by page, word by word, image by image, texture by texture, space by space. What came to life from what initially appeared to be a dense, long inanimate book, was a spiraling journey moving with imagination, scientific research, creative play, perceptions, reflections, enquiry, PAUSES . . . , and whimsical illustrations; all articulated with sincerity, devotion, and inquisitive playfulness.
As a journey through a training programme, Origins is written primarily for an audience interested in self-inquiry, an audience most likely familiar with and educated in somatic and psychology-based practices. The writing is accessible for both self-learners and professionals. Davis includes substantial reference material to support quotes, definitions of concepts, anatomical and psychological theories and research; as she draws upon her backgrounds in Body-Mind Centering®, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, Embryology, attachment work, trauma work, Authentic Movement, and Family Constellation work. Many of her more current theoretical and scientific resources are often seen in other somatic therapy and somatic movement writings—Bainbridge Cohen, Blechschmidt, Grossinger, van der Waal. If one is versed in a variety of somatic authors who integrate similar interdisciplinary approaches, the references can seem a bit redundant and limited. Yet, they also make the most sense as these are the scientists, researchers, and direct experience practitioners who articulate the undeniable value of our human biological processes in all the ways we develop personally, socially, and culturally. Davis includes a complete reference list for each chapter, which reveals a full range of influences supporting the fullness of this work.
The structure of Origins includes a preface written by Franklyn Sills, a thorough introduction to the intention and purpose of the book, an introduction to the author, a layout and brief description of each chapter, an overview of basic understandings that inform Origins, a diagram of the somatic practices covered, an afterward, acknowledgments, and a detailed reference section. This structure offers a clear scaffolding or skeletal structure, which grounds and spaciously supports the fluid spiraling, floating, flying, juicy organic contents.
In the introduction, Davis specifically outlines why she chose to structure the book this way, and why each chapter includes the material that it does. In this way, she begins to guide the reader into the experience of the book, offering ways to orient one’s experience: To enquire, explore, disorient; and to awaken to new bodily expressions, emotional awareness, and meaning making.
There are nine chapters, called Spirals, based on the nine spirals (modules) taught/facilitated on the training programme. Each one is inspired by the nine months of human embryological-fetal gestation and birth. What follows is an abbreviated description of each Spiral as written on pages xiv-xvii.
Spiral 1—Earliest Beginnings: Perception, vibration, discovering one’s essential fluid body, cellular selves, cellular breathing; journey through embryology—fertilization, conception, implantation; experiencing developmental and evolutionary tasks of sponging and pulsation.
Spiral 2—Attachment: Embryological formation of the heart in function and form; exploring blood, the umbilical cord, and placenta; practicing the developmental task of navel radiation; exploring attachment through the umbilical cord; opening understanding of bonding to significant others.
Spiral 3—Nourishment: Organs, digestive tract, attention to the spiral along the sphincters of the body; exploring developmental tasks of mouthing, sucking and swallowing; experiencing primitive reflexes and ability to respond to environment; looking at primary principle of “Receiving as an Act of Love.”
Spiral 4—Preparation for Entry into the World: Finding our midlines and exploring the nature of connective tissue; looking at the act of forming and how limbs and bones form in utero; experiencing developmental tasks of differentiating the ‘soft spine’, notochord, and primitive streak; experiencing spinal reflexes and core beliefs.
Spiral 5—Birth: Resourcing in Preparation for Birth; making a birth plan and visiting the process of birthing; exploring the muscular system and sense of agency; giving attention to the psoas muscle complex; discovering how we bond to the earth and Mother after birth; discovering tone and what it means for humans; exploring the developmental tasks of head to tail connection and repatterning birth imprints.
Spiral 6—Onto Land: Exploring the major evolutionary step of coming onto land after birth; exploring the beginnings of self-formation; enquiring about the good and bad of it all….”a journey of primary felt experience duality”; experiencing the neuroendocrine system; examining the differentiation of the upper and lower body and the homologous patterns of the infant with underlying reflexes; exploring the movement dynamics of yield and push, reach and pull; beginning a more conscious exploration of transitions.
Spiral 7—Perception: Exploring the embryological development of the nervous system; exploring the vestibular system (hearing and equilibrium); learning about perception of sight; skin as a primary organ of exploration; delving into the perceptual cycle—how we perceive the world around us; exploring developmental tasks of differentiating the right and left sides of the body in creeping—homolateral movement—and underlying reflexes; deepening understanding and experience of attachment along with magic and transitional objects.
Spiral 8—The Flow of Life: Exploring differentiation within wholeness—a foundation principle of Origins; embodying the fluid systems through somaticizations on differentiation and wholeness; looking at the crawling pattern—contralateral movement; looking at the impact of projection in relationship; finding out what it is like to dis-identify with bodily experiences; talking about and exploring ending, leaving, and goodbye.
Spiral 9—Authentic Movement as Embodied Spiritual Practice: Through the practice of Authentic Movement journeying through early embryology, birth, and attachment, and working to strengthen the adult witness; standing as a collective, holding hands to contain each other equally; being present with what can rise and fall within the multi-dimensional space, held within equanimity by participants all in the adult role.
Each Spiral includes embryological material relative to that month of development, corresponding psycho-emotional developmental material that relates to the embryological themes, questions of “enquiry”, personal perceptions, intellectual interludes, illustrations, PAUSES, and somaticizations. The pages are laid out spaciously, with good amounts of blank space. The font size is large bringing the words to the reader’s eyes, inviting the reader to receive the letters, words, and spaces in between. Text is offered as poetry, song lyrics, short prose, longer prose, and questions.
In keeping with the spiraling nature of nature, human development, and of this book, themes from earlier Spirals reappear in later Spirals; carrying the reader in their own spiraling movement, awareness, and reflection. Occasionally this reads a bit awkwardly, yet Davis consistently keeps the spirals moving and integrating as developmental themes spiral around, through and integrate with each other. Each Spiral reveals more complexity of life processes with Spiral 8 exploring a variety of perspectives on how we differentiate within wholeness biologically and psychically; and Spiral 9 exploring how as adults in community we can support ourselves and each other in an unending process of sacred becoming.
The spaciousness in the visual design and textual content make it easy for the reader to pause, spiral more deeply into their own somatically moving experience and return to the book. The word PAUSE is offered directly numerous times throughout, often as a Principle Pause after which Davis highlights a principle significant to the Spiral. From p. 298:
WHOLENESS cannot be good or bad but surely must be both and neither
WHOLENESS has differentiation within it
Each version of her pausing offers the potential to interrupt well-learned habits of the reader’s comprehension and perception.
PAUSE . . .
The Spirals, as much as they are to be read, are also to be explored through direct experience alone or with others. All Spirals include enquiry and Somaticizations with explicit invitations and directions for what to explore, including supportive facilitation cues for timing and post-enquiry, post-experiential reflection through writing or drawing.
At times the reader is encouraged or instructed to grab a friend or two, or even a stranger, to fulfill an exploratory enquiry. In these enquiries the duo, trio or more, fulfill different roles together, such as: Interested witness, movement partner(s) offering touch or exploring with a prop to embody various concepts, and someone to verbally share experiences with.
Given that I had to meet a review deadline, minimal exploration was engaged in while reading the book. Even so, I immediately found myself integrating conceptual material and themes into my daily self-exploration and classes, i.e. gut-brain-body and organ origins supporting movement that awakened softer vision and more fluid spongey connections through back, belly, legs, and feet.
The most densely written prose throughout the book appears near the end of each Spiral as Davis articulates the Somaticizations. These offerings are intended to support movement explorations that flow through and integrate all the embryological-anatomical themes of the Spiral with corresponding psycho- emotional development. This writing is clear, full, and rich with one theme after the next unfolding, enfolding, refolding. These portions and the last two spirals are places in the book where the writing becomes a lot to read, requiring more extended periods of tension to sustain direct focus and comprehension. Paradoxically, the Somaticizations intended for the longest sustained inner-outer movement exploration and body awareness.
Given that Davis clearly formats the rest of the book with a more, easy diverse range of movement and feeling potential, is it possible that she intended to challenge the reader to sustain longer periods of tension for reading comprehension? Or challenge the reader to memorize the Somaticization, or to create a way to explore it after reading the book? This is not entirely clear. Possibly including something in the introduction or a reminder to the reader along the way, that the prose in these sections requires more sustained visual and cognitive attention, could help prepare and facilitate the reader to feel for what will support their reading experience. And, what will support their direct non- words explorations of the Somaticizations. Ideally, one would have a recording of Davis’ voice reading this material to them as they move through their own Somaticization from each Spiral.
For anyone with the knowledge and wisdom acquired by years of in-depth experience such as Davis, creating and offering a training programme is an act of devotion, courage, and generosity. The living experience of moving, discovering, and researching with others is filled with an endless range of feeling expression, serious focus, patience, and compassion. All of this is palpably present in every aspect of this monumental book. What is also present, is joyful, curious, whimsical, wild and wonderful creative play. Davis sprinkles this throughout her book with illustrations that spiral, float, entangle, fly, and land upon the pages; and with silly perceptions and questions, references to magic and faeries, and the sparkle in her eyes and smile in her author’s photo.
In Spiral 7, Davis invites the reader to enquire into perception, noting that while our perceptions are made possible through all our innate senses, our perceptions are also colored by all kinds of learned information that operates implicitly within our conscious awareness. She offers ways to explore our perceptions from different perspectives—visual angles, sensation awareness of texture, shape, and sound; imaginary narrative—and to emerge from these explorations back to, what is your perception of XX-object-thought now? As I emerge from my initial perception of this:
large, heavy, unearthed stone
book, heated tension in my body
nervous doubt in my mind;
slowing down, breathing,
weight, grounding legs-lap;
reading spiraling, floating, flying, focusing, wondering,
landing, digesting, juicy, comprehending principles
PAUSING . . . exhaaaaaaaaaaaaaling . . .
questioning, reiterating, spiraling, pulling
through writing this review;
my current perception is alive, vibrating and sparkling through my whole body with even more curiosity; and a mountain of appreciation for a well-conceived, well-executed, succinctly articulated, comprehensive book; that in a truly personal, artistic, and professional way embodies a three-year training programme. A training that can be experienced through reading with Davis’ voice holding, guiding, and facilitating an invitation for further moving self-inquiry alone and in sacred circles with others.
Mary Abrams, MA, RSME, founder/director
of Moving Body Resources, NYC, teaches classes, workshops, and private clients; and on the MA Dance & Somatic Well-being Course at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK; and the Somatic Adcademy of Berlin’s Continuum Training Program.
She is a Registered Somatic Movement Educator with the International Somatic Movement Education & Therapy Association (ISMETA) and holds an MA degree in Consciousness Studies focusing on embodied movement, affect theory, and Epistemics. Her work continues to be supported by over 20 years of working with Emilie Conrad (Continuum), Susan Harper, Gary David, Caryn McHose and Kevin Frank, among others.
Joan Davis has lived her whole life in Ireland, where she has pioneered innovative contemporary dance practices since 1976. From 1996, when she moved to Wicklow and opened a small wholistic center, she developed the arts practice and performance offerings of Maya Lila.
Two books Maya Lila, Bringing Authentic Movement into Performance: The Offering and Maya Lila, Bringing Authentic Movement into Performance: The Process was published in 2007. A film of the work of Maya Lila called ‘In the Bell’s Shadow’ was made in 2013.
In 2012 Joan offered a somatic training, the first of its kind in Ireland, called ORIGINS. This training covered somatic experiences, developmental and psychological movements from pre conception to approximately eighteen months of age.
Currently Joan is offering a new programme called ORIGINAL NATURE (2018-2021) which follows on from ORIGINS and holds the intention to deepen and refine the quality of our direct embodied presence with ourselves, our clients and groups not to mention daily living.
She has three children, four grandsons and two grand-dogs.