The body electric

Suzanne River has been teaching body-mind centering for more than 20 years. Photo by Janet Hostetter.

Suzanne River has been teaching body-mind centering for more than 20 years. Photo by Janet Hostetter.

Somatic: if you’ve never heard of the term, you’re not alone. Though some may think of soma, the drug of choice in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Webster’s Dictionary says somatic means “of the body; bodily; physical.” Suzanne River, founder of Green River Dance for Global Somatics in St. Paul, agrees, but with a twist. Somatics, she says, is a field of study that’s been developing for 50 years.

“[It’s] where people learn about the physical body by experiencing it from the inside out,” she explained. “So instead of going and cutting up a cadaver and seeing what the bones are like or studying the coloring in the bones and naming the bones, you go in and you feel your bones and touch them; you sound into them, you feel how the cells move in the bones, you look at how the bones work together, how the different joints work.”

In the field of somatics, River said, the body is viewed as a living laboratory, and it’s not considered separate from the mind or spirit. There’s a strong spiritual element to her work, as there is in her past.

“I’m part Native American and in a way, [somatics is] really like honoring that beauty of creation, as it came forth in the body,” she said.

Social justice and spirituality

River’s dad was an Army doctor, so she moved around a lot as a child, but her family comes from West Virginia and returned there each summer; she considers that her ancestral home. “I’m a hills woman,” she said.

After River graduated from a small Catholic high school near Chicago, she attended the all-women Rosary College (now called Dominican University) in River Forest, Illinois. She earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities, and then volunteered in Mobile, Alabama, for two years; she taught in the schools, worked in the prisons and developed an art program for teens as part of a program called Apostolic Volunteers. The group of nuns she lived and worked with had an enormous influence on River. “They modeled to me a kind of courage that I wanted to live,” she said. “I felt so much love and I wanted to make a commitment of some kind.”

At 24, River became a nun. She stayed in the convent for four years.

In 1977, though, she realized that she wanted something more. “I left [the convent] because I couldn’t live a radical enough life,” she recalled. “I wanted to be living with a small group of women and have our doors open to the poor.”

A year later, she left the Catholic Church. “It was my feminist awakening,” River said. She was just 12 credits shy of a master’s degree in pastoral ministry at the University of St. Thomas, focusing on liberation theology and nonviolent demonstration, when she had an epiphany. “I went to Mass one night and I saw the priest’s hands holding the bread and wine and I got very sick to my stomach, and I knew that until a woman’s hands could hold that as well, I couldn’t be there anymore,” she remembered. “I stumbled out of the chapel and I actually did get sick and I laid on the grass and cried.”

Though she knew it was the right thing for her to do, leaving the church was emotionally difficult and River was deeply depressed for months. Two books saved her, she said: Gyn/Ecology, by Mary Daly, and The Spiral Dance, by Starhawk.

“I read them every morning on my way to dance class,” she said. “Putting those two books together, I knew who I was again.”

A new spiritual awakening

River started on a new path—one that she’s stayed with to this day. “It was a reawakening of a deeper spirituality,” she said. “I did work with the whole wise woman, or witch’s way, for years. I feel like that really influences how I teach. Because I teach to have a ceremony happen in class, and to have the support of the four directions, and to have each individual be actively engaged in something that’s bigger than all of us.”

At that time she also became very active in the peace movement: she helped form peace camps, worked with Women Against Military Madness, protested in Europe and was jailed several times. “I wanted to change the world,” she said, “and it was devastating to me to realize that, basically, the world is the way it is, because of capitalism and greed.”

River returned to school and earned another bachelor’s, this time in dance.

One of her teachers told her about body-mind centering, and in the summer of 1982 she spent a week in Boulder, Colorado, training with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, the founder of the School for Body-Mind Centering. River fell in love with the work, and in 1983 she opened her own school, Green River Dance Center (now Green River Dance for Global Somatics) and started teaching body-mind centering.

A school like no other

River continued to take classes as well as teach. In 1989, she was certified as a practitioner of body-mind centering and in 1997, as a teacher—the only one in Minnesota. But although River enjoyed teaching, by 2002 she’d come to a crossroads.

“After teaching for 20 years here it was still really hard for me to keep marketing the work every season—will the classes fill? It’s still new work, it’s hard to put into words, hard to get publicity,” she explained. “So I decided rather than quit, I’m going to package a training program. I had taught all of these [BMC] courses, which nobody else really had done. There’s 23 of them…I had taught every one at least twice.”

When the School for Body-Mind Centering wouldn’t give River permission to call her program by the same name, she came up with the term global somatics. “I called it global because the approach is so global,” she said. “We are using body-mind centering, but like when the students study the muscles of the body, they get an introduction to massage. When they study the fascia system of the body, they get an introduction to Rolfing. When they study the reflexes of the body, they learn contact improvisation. I blended all these, giving people introductions into all these different somatic modalities through the core curriculum.”

Her program offers students something unique, said River. “I have taken the work that we do with the physical body and extended it into the energy field. The students are trained very systematically how to work with the dimensions of the energy-body that you cannot see. That’s something I call vibration aspects.”

In June 2005, the first 10 students graduated from River’s 20-month training program, among them a dance teacher at Carleton College, two choreographers and a yoga instructor. The graduates are incorporating global somatics into their professions and have also opened private practices, said River.

River’s school has been approved by the International Somatic Movement Education and Therapy Association and Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals, and also licensed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education as a private career school.

Because it’s licensed by the state, students can now get loans from the state, which River said makes a significant difference: 50 percent of the students in her training program were from working class backgrounds and probably wouldn’t have been able to afford the roughly $13,000 program without loans.

“It’s really great, because most people who are interested in this kind of work are bodyworkers already, or dancers, people who really have a love of the consciousness of the physical body,” said River. “Most of those people don’t make very much money, and most of them are women.”

Women especially can benefit from the rigors of body-mind work, said River. “There’s a piece of weaving and of spiral and working with mystery that I think women have an easier time with,” she said. “Women I’ve worked with have reclaimed themselves from rape, from incest, from losing their voice over centuries of silence.…[Global somatics] is another way that women can reclaim who they really are.”

Global somatics is also a force for change for the planet as a whole, said River. “I do feel my work is extremely political,” she said. “Because we’re going to keep repeating these patterns [of war and greed] and these habits until we change these perceptions, and the perceptions live in the body.”