Being Animal

Being Animal

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Integrating principles of trans-species psychology with innovative and traditional approaches to healing non-human animals

This summer I interviewed Gloria Hester, a Somatic Coach and Educator for humans and other vertebrate species. She is the founder of Yogic Wisdom for Horse and Humans, an educational program that includes somatic healing retreats and workshops with horse and human participants. Gloria is a certified therapeutic yoga teacher, and Certified Hanna Somatic Educator for humans and equines and runs a private practice as a Somatic Coach and Educator for humans, horses, canines, and other animals.


Glo & SpidermanAs a Body Ecologist certified by Donna Gates, Gloria infuses retreats, workshops and trainings with lectures on the subject of nutrition, food-based healing, and how food affects the nervous system. She reflects the new edge of integrating principles of trans-species psychology with innovative and traditional approaches to healing non-human animals. Critically, she engages psyche (mind) and soma (body), which in contrast to conventional behavioral training, gives animals voice and respect in support of their well-being and self-determination.


JK: Gloria, how would you define Somatics as a practice that can be shared across species?


GH: Somatics is a science and an art. It involves principles from neuroscience and biomechanics. It offers an integrated understanding of how vertebrate animals function. Somatics is both very simple and complex in its application and understanding. It is a practice that requires not only a knowledge base, but also the cultivation of various key senses: awareness, quietness, receptivity, inquisitiveness, and patience with no expectations of the ‘other’. Its purpose is to help disable and “re-tune” unhealthful culturally conditioned sensory and motor aspects of the nervous system. As a personal practice, it also helps to reorient sensory motor impulses that underlie the tendency to objectify, dominate, and silence other nonhuman and human animals.


JK: What is the purpose of somatic education?


GH: When people have an opportunity to experience somatic work, they learn how to create a more embodied life with themselves and the animals with whom they live. Somatic work is both reflexive—facilitating an individual’s own unique process of ‘remembering’ things that are innate—and therapeutic—facilitating the healing of the animal with whom the practitioner is working.


JK: How do you approach somatic work with a nonhuman animal compared to human somatic work?


GH: With horses, I like to meet the horse first, and talk with their guardians about why they have asked me to come in, what they have noticed and what has come to their attention that prompted them to bring their horse to me. Usually they don’t know what has happened to the horse. Somehow, the horse’s attitude, mood or body has changed. It could have been that the horse had a fall, or maybe not. In any case they notice a ‘difference’ in how the horse is moving or behaving. Other people are much more interested in somatic work not as a way to “fix” something, rather they wish to employ it as a way to be with their horse. All of these factors influence how we approach the session. But when I meet the horse, I am not meeting him or her with the guardian’s agenda. I am meeting the horse, one on one. Again respecting his or her agency.


003-Gloria&Max_1_3When working with a horse, for example, I begin by observing the individual in his or her space so that I can get a sense of what is happening to the horse relative to his/her environment at that moment. For example, I first want to see whether or not the horse feels safe. A sense of safety is critical for the horse and for his/her guardian or somatic practitioner. Often, horses move very quickly and startle easily, which can be dangerous in a confined space. A feeling of safety is foundational. Movement is different for each species, and somatic work addresses the movement capability of each individual, while working with patterns shared across species.


The back and forth of the relationship with a human is different than with another animal, as we tend to use verbal language among humans much more to cue and create certain movement processes. Intention is important when working with humans or nonhumans, and while vocal quality is also very important when working with nonhuman animals, the words I use with humans play a different role. The nonverbal elements of a somatic session with an animal are more emphasized than they are typically with humans. Our species are often thinking about the meaning of the words themselves.


But no matter the species, the primary therapeutic goal of somatic education is to help an individual reset their nervous system back to a place where they’re not in a “fight or flight” reactive mode, but in a place of “rest and digest.” This is a more grounded space that encourages easy, fluid movement. You can see this as the individual appears relaxed and secure: walking with ease, resting with ease, and communicating gracefully.


JK: There is a wonderful quality of sharing the space which is visible in pictures of you being with horses. How do you create the opening and trust for this sharing to happen?


GH: Firstly, it is about my intention in the space which is to pay attention to them as if seeing through their eyes, rather than mine. Second, I bring in a sense of embodiment—that is, I make sure that I am able to feel my own center, particularly my gut, in relation to the verticality of my body. Am I standing in a grounded way in relation to my center and the rest of my spine and head? Is my gut relaxed? I check to see how my feet are resting on the ground. I imagine a long thread pulling up through my body out through the top of my head—like dancers do. I check to see if there are any areas that feel stuck between those two places—my feet and my head. What I mean by “stuck” is where there isn’t a continuous responsiveness throughout the core and verticality of my body. I also sense a softening of the tension in my skin. From that place of centeredness and stability, I then attune to the environment. This includes everything I become aware of—not just the horse. And this is important because horses want to know that you are aware of everything around them. That way, there are two of you looking after their well-being—you and them. If they can feel that, then they feel safer.


One horse I worked with at a rescue center had his legs tied together in a forest before being rescued, likely to keep him from running away. This horse tried to kill the farrier at the rescue when he tried to look at his hooves—which is understandable given what the horse had experienced in relation to his feet and legs. If an animal is traumatized, how are we going to work with them? Horses are so quick, and this horse always had to ‘hop’ when his legs were tied together previously, so his movements were abrupt and unusual and in that way also unpredictable even to those who were familiar with helping rescued horses. He had been through a lot, and this had to be considered when he was handled or approached even in ordinary, daily care-taking processes. When you work with other species you want the time together to end on a good note because you can’t call them up and change the last moments you had with them and where things went together. They remember how things ended, and that impacts how they will look upon the next time someone approaches them in a similar way. Knowing something about a horse’s previous experiences and recognizing unusual patterns and defenses that grew out of those experiences, can be important in establishing a trusting rapport from the very start.


In another instance at the rescue center, I was introducing four women to somatic work with the horses there. There was a big arena, and we could stand upstairs and watch a horse moving in the arena. It gave us a wonderful vantage point. I was introducing the women to somatic concepts, explaining what a session might be like. The horse we were watching in the arena was running around and having a good time. Every once in a while he would stop and look at us. He did this repeatedly. By the time we were ready to work with him, he was listening and had already entered the conversation. Everyone there could tell he was part of our conversation. It was as if there weren’t any secrets anymore, between us and him. Everyone there was open to the exchange they could see happening, and the Arabian clearly thought the conversation more interesting than ripping around the arena.


By the time we got to work, he had already gotten a lot of it, and he shifted significantly in 30 minutes—he was a different horse after that. Before the session, when he saw something he didn’t know, he would run backwards. After the session, he walked towards people he didn’t know, and greeted them—people there were crying, because they knew him from before, and suddenly he was able to move towards things with curiosity. To create that exchange in relationship always plays a part when I am working with a group of people and individual horses: the group affects the session and the session affects the group. A woman there who was videoing was scared of horses, and after one day of watching somatic movement sessions, she was no longer afraid of them.


So this is another example of how I create that space through intention, working nonverbally, and conveying through touch, where I’d like to bring their awareness as I introduce a movement and encourage them to come into and out of the movement slowly. I am always waiting for their feedback, giving them time to take in and digest what is happening as we go along.


JK: Can you describe how somatic work resets the nervous system?


GH: Somatic work resets the resting tonus of the muscle—that is, how the muscle would be if it is not already in an ‘alert’ and readied state of contraction. When contracted muscles relax and return to their natural length, there is a feeling of comfort, peacefulness, and confidence. This occurs when the muscle’s resting tonus feeds back information to the brain that says “everything is fine,” that there is no need to tense or contract in fear or defensiveness. The environment is safe. Here, the body is the director. The body tells the mind what to do and feel. In essence, when any individual, regardless of species, has such somatic education they begin to live in their current reality, and are no longer a victim or trapped in stressful events or experiences of the past.


JK: What makes somatic education different than other more commonly known modalities that people might seek out for themselves or other animals such as chiropractic, massage, or other physical therapies?


GH: Ideally, somatic educators facilitate reawakening of an individual’s nervous system. This is in contrast to other approaches that manipulate the body such as techniques performed in chiropody, osteopathy, and massage. A somatic approach invites more active involvement of the individual by reeducating the nervous system from a first-person rather than third person perspective. Yoga is also different than somatic work, in that the yoga teacher imposes their ideas onto the mover—directs the individual about form and how to achieve the form. Similarly, chiropractic work literally puts your bones where the practitioner thinks they need to be. In somatic work, the transformation is in the hands of the individual, the somatic practitioner aims to help the individual find his/her way back to his/her unique form and expression. Somatic education puts the locus of activation within the nervous system with the aim to literally enervate and communicate to muscle without requiring any particular “form” outcome.


JK: You have been practicing and teaching Somatic work across species for several years, and sometimes you are able to work with humans along with the animals they care for. How do those things differ?


GH: The set of principles with which I work are the same across species but are applied differently according to the body and form of the species. There are also different ways in which a practitioner approaches a client, including the use of touch. For example I would never go in and “pet” a human client. However, some sort of somatic gesture might be appropriate to communicate. I might reach out to touch or stroke a nonhuman animal’s head, and I am not likely to do that with a human. Human relationship to touch is often more loaded than with other species even if there has been no abuse, though, of course with any animal, touch has to be very sensitive and include what the animal will be responsive to in a positive way, as well as include awareness of ways that touch has been used negatively. Whereas nonhuman animals might feel love and respect when you stroke their head, a human is more likely to interpret that as a condescending gesture. Domestic animals are also accustomed to being stroked as a way of showing love and caring. And they let you know if that is what they are expecting or looking for from you. Humans are less likely to accept touch specifically as a calming or kind gesture, unless you are already into a somatic session and touch has been accepted from you to them through a more formal agreement. A somatic session with a human can include quite a lot of verbal cueing, while with another animal, cueing is generally done through quality of touch. The quality of touch with a nonhuman animal, in a somatic session, is used only as an invitation, and not as a demand. And the same applies in the use of touch with humans.


But once touch is understood as an invitation and not a command, typically, when I start working with the animal, he or she picks up very quickly what the work is about. The way I use my own body in a session is very specific to the given species for this very reason. For example, I might use my whole arm space across the body of a horse, still gently and with sensitivity to their responses, whereas with a human or a canine reaching across them doesn’t work so well, because the differential in body size makes it inappropriate. I establish relationship through sharing the space with them in individual ways that relate to their embodiment.


JK: What would you say is the thread that runs through all of us—human and non-human animals—that makes Somatic work particularly useful across species? Is there something more than as trans-species psychology says, that all of us—horses, humans, cats, dogs, turtles and so on—share basically the same brain and mind and associated capacities?


GH: The thread running through all of us is personal agency: the personal will, and right, to live, to express, to be. Our common thread is never ending. This is a key principle in somatic education and one that is often ignored or overlooked.


A lot of people maintain that they “love” animals, but these feelings are often quite predatory and selfish. In other words, this “love” is possessive and directed to the desires of the human not the animals; the feelings and actions toward the animal are motivated by the human and not the animal.


For example, let’s say when you were a child your mother thought you needed to wear a hat, and the hat band was really tight on your head and was uncomfortable and painful. But, because your mother insisted and you wanted to please her or felt you had to do what she said, you had to go through a day continuously experiencing this tightness on your head. Your parents wanted you to wear it, and there you were with a tight, uncomfortable hat that you had to endure because of your parents’ desires, not your own. Such actions are done out of concern with good intentions but they often fail to take into consideration what is going on in the mind and body of the child. Without listening to the somatic responses of the person we love, we can cause damage.


In our human culture, as we mature, we are allowed to have more say, exercise agency, in greater ways. Yet so much of our society and social rules continue to constrict and limit agency. This situation happens very often for animals who as “pets” or as workers for humans, are confined and restricted. A family “pet” is regularly confined to small spaces, or wears a collar that is not comfortable for her or him. Maybe they’d rather be without that collar while they sleep. The same thing happens with a horse’s halter. For example, a horse’s halter is often kept on, not for the horse, but to satisfy human convenience. More often than not, people overlook what the horse may be experiencing.


There is so much we do unthinkingly out of habit that is culturally conditioned, with non-human animals whom we “love,” without really giving much thought to its impact on their personal agency and physical experience.


Another thing I would add, is that we do share with other vertebrate animals the same prime muscles that move in response to some stimulus such as a cringe reflex or a startle response. We tend to get hung up on outside form and forget that we share a lot of movement patterns across species. Many of us (human and nonhuman) are walking around holding previous constrictions or past events that inform our current reality. The stimulus in our current reality is colored by the past, and these memories are held in the nervous system, and mirrored in the musculature.


JK: What is the similarity between Hanna Human Somatics and Hanna Equine Somatics?


GH: The similarities between Hanna Human and Equine Somatics are in the principles and the common patterns that we share across species in the nervous system. As vertebrates, we share patterns of tensions and contractions in the neuro-muscular system. But there are differences that relate to body form and activities. For example, horses have patterns of contraction that evolve from carrying saddles, wearing a bit, and being led by the head which humans may not have. While our patterns of habituation across species are different, we share contraction of tension patterns. In a similar fashion, the compensation patterns—that is, ways that we alter our inherent movement ability to compensate for pain or disabilities—might be different. A horse may shake his head and stretch his mouth in response to the bit and bridle and being directed through the head.


On other hand, humans might keep their shoulders drawn up towards their ears, or move the head forward away from the spine, or tuck their pelvis under and push from their thighs to move in space. Human compensation patterns are different due to the difference in daily demand and the species’ anatomy, but we all share similar prime mover muscle responses to the environment. With horses, canines and humans, the principles are applied through working with the sensory motor system in a way that the individual is receptive to, working with the individual nervous system.


Glo&BellaJK: What are you doing instead when you meet with the horse?


GH: I come to the horse on the horse’s own terms. For instance, I worked with a horse with a hip injury. However, some states in the U.S. do not allow you to put your hands on a horse unless you are a veterinarian or chiropractor. So in those cases, I teach the guardian how to work with the horse and to work with his or her horse somatically. In other instances, I can work as a “trainer,” because legally, as a “trainer” you may touch a horse, but of course, I am not at all working as a trainer would. Unfortunately, you don’t have to have a license to spur a horse, but you have to have a license to “help” a horse. This reflects a big problem for horses. They are still regarded as objects and tools for human use. In all cases, I teach the horse and the horse’s person somatic principles so that when I leave, both the horse and the person have a new understanding about how their mutual brains and bodies connect as a first-person based experience.


JK: How do you get first-person feedback from a horse?


GH: A first-person response is the feeling one has when making a movement, or watching the end result after a movement is made. I ask through somatic observation and relationship, how I can find a way to make a particular movement feel even better. Then I watch the horse to see changes in breath, head-hanging, sighing, licking and chewing—all of which lets me know that the horse has an experience of a pattern that is efficient and integrated. These responses in a horse are relaxation responses. For a horse, I don’t have an agenda for the horse to hold his/her head a certain way (or a person for that matter). Rather, I want them to find all the potential that feels good to them, creating choices in their own experience. That’s the individual’s first-person based experience, their experience of the movement or the quality of touch or the awakening that might occur. It is not me imposing something on them.


When working in first-person based experience, the relationship includes establishing a rapport that feels good to the human or non-human animal, so they don’t have to guard with me, or feel a threat that would come from imposing my will on them in any way, in terms of movement or quality of touch. There is no expectation for something particular to happen in a certain way, and that creates space for the horse or human to explore and to trust, and to learn that there’s a sort of symbiotic relationship between them and how I am being with them in the space. Something happens during that work, ideally—with horses they know why I’m there, and owners say they see their horses respond to me as if they understand why I’m working with them. To do this, it is vital to create a kind of space together that allows the other animal to be receptive to the exchange. When an animal is allowed to make their own decisions in a relationship they begin to trust that your will is not going to be imposed upon them, and they relax their defenses and come into relationship with you in the work that you are doing for their benefit.


JK: What relaxation responses would you see in a human?


GH: Typically, a softening of the face, of the musculature, the complexion will look different. The person’s eyes will become clearer and brighter, the jaw more relaxed and they will be more effortlessly upright and vertical.


JK: Can you describe some of the specific movement work you do in Hanna Somatics with horses?


GH: Two of the principles that we utilize in Hanna Somatics, is Kinetic Mirroring and Pandiculation. Kinetic mirroring is a method where you bring the origin of the muscle and the insertion closer together. This entails a person placing their hands on the horse’s body on different ends of a muscle group, very gently bringing them closer together, and then releasing the area slowly. If the brain is keeping the muscle very contracted, kinetic mirroring that area for the horse allows the horse’s brain to stop sending all those motor units to the muscles that have been keeping the muscle short or tight.


All vertebrate animals pandiculate, and if there has been injury or a lot of stress, pandiculation lessens or ceases altogether. Pandiculation is like the stretching we do when we awaken, or yawn—where opposing muscle groups elongate into eccentric contractions. When we see an animal do “upward dog” or “downward dog,” those are examples of pandiculations.


When an animal feels safe and healthy that’s the way they naturally reset the resting tonicity of the muscles. You see cats do it, when they stretch their front legs onto a wall, or put their hips in the air while lengthening the spine and front legs.


So, part of my job is to help the animal remember their natural pandiculation pattern, which I do by inviting the animal to make a movement, and then allowing the freedom to go into it or not, slowly and with awareness—going into the movement slowly, and coming out of it slowly, as an eccentric contraction, inviting the animal to sense what it feels like to go from point a to point b where the “means” is the focus rather than the “end.” Within all of these processes, the individual’s nervous system is participating in the action as the initiator of the movement process. This is rather different than someone outside of your own nervous system initiating the action (that is, motivating the beginning of the movement), and this is part of the big problem with humans dominating animals. They are the initiator of the action when they are dominating, and therefore, the animal doesn’t have the opportunity to express their own natural, healthy movement patterns from the very start of the movement.


JK: In your childhood, you had the opportunity to live in a home environment that included multiple horses as well as other animals. Do you think that had a bearing on the work that you do, and if so, in what way?


GH: Yes, my relationships with other species early in life certainly has a bearing on my work. From the beginning, I related to the horses and dogs in my life as sentient beings who were responding to the environment and things in it every moment, and who needed very particular care and attention.


My mother was a horse trainer, and was also the president of the local humane society. She was very concerned about the welfare of animals generally, and was involved in several harrowing rescue efforts locally. I was taught how to be around horses, of course, as we might have fifty of them at any given time in the stables. But it wasn’t the traditional domination approach where one doesn’t include the other animal’s needs. From the time I was old enough to walk, I was taught not to interfere with the horse’s way of being, not to startle or alarm them—never to run up the stable aisle, for example. I was taught to keep my movement smooth and to allow them to experience the space as their own. I was taught to wait and let the horses come to me. Horses weigh approximately 1200 pounds, and most people who become interested in horses don’t understand that horses have a different way that they behave compared with most humans. The dynamics of the herd are very different than the way humans relate to each other. At best, if working with domesticated horses, we have a skill set for keeping horses and humans safe together.


Buck Brannaman, who is known by some as the “horse whisperer” and upon whose work the film “Buck” is based, might look like he’s being aggressive when working with horses, but it makes sense to the horse, and the horse gains a sense of trust in the individual as a leader. But I’m not a trainer, and that is relative, too—the level of what a trainer is willing to do with the horse that they consider necessary for accomplishing particular skills and behavior. If you’re going to work with horses in competitions, you have to give “clear” cues about what you want them to do. But when I was growing up around horses in training, I was always asking “what if the horse doesn’t want to?” This would upset my mother: as a horse trainer she would say that I was “ruining” the horse…in the work I do somatically, asking what the horse wants and doesn’t want is at the center of the approach, and that feels a lot more comfortable for me. That is, to put the horse first, rather than organizing your relationship with them around what you want them to do.


JK: I notice a softening in your own body boundaries or edges when you are working with animals—where the feelings you have for them are evident in the volume that you embody yourself. What do you think this communicates, and why would that be important?


GH: It communicates that I care about them, and that I am interested in their well-being; that I am empathetic about the fact that sometimes they have had to carry riders on their back who were not very good riders, and have harsh hands. I have empathy for their various experiences, and for being denied sentience while these experiences are taking place. When I was around race horses in Kentucky, it really struck me how often the horses are moved, how quickly they’re bought and sold and have to acclimate to different situations. Not true of all horses, but it struck me as a big part of the race horses’ experiences, and I had a feeling of empathy for all the accommodating and adjusting they had to do, how they had no say in where they went or when.


JK: Is there a way that you prepare yourself consciously, before doing a session with another animal, and how would you contrast that with how you prepare to work with another human?


GH: I make sure I’m in as clear a space as I possibly can be, and try to do my own somatic movement before I work with them. Animals seem to be very forgiving with me—if I haven’t done that, it doesn’t seem to affect it one way or another. I just try to stay in that space all the time I am with them, making a conscious choice about my somatic state.


JK: Tell us some of the ways that horses have responded to your somatic work with them. How do they express their acceptance of the movement process, and how do you know when you have shifted something important in their experience of themselves?


GH: There are visible signs that are easy to recognize. For example, their head lowers below their withers. This is a sign of relaxation, which is the opposite of being frightened or fearful. They may drop their ears wide, falling away from each other, the bottom lip lowers, their coat will become dappled and shiny, where before it was really dull. This can change within 30 minutes. Their eyes change from dull and listless to shiny and bright. Sighing, yawning, licking and chewing—all of these express how they are digesting the experience. They can also become really curious, where before they were not —and they can become really affectionate. Which to a trainer is a really dangerous thing, because they want the horse to be “under control” at all times. I’d like to bridge that gap, which is another challenge for me working in the horse world.


JK: Do you think somatic work is as effective in rescue environments as it is in a typical guardianship environment?


GH: Yes, it is very effective, surprisingly so. The work is profound with rescue horses—their personalities change so radically—going from being reserved and shy, even head-shy, to being curious and engaging with people. These are things the caregivers can see and have reported as continuing afterwards. There can be dramatic shifts—where horses who would not even bring their heads over the stall door, after the session would take their heads out to see further, to engage with others who came to see them. It is very moving to witness these changes. The work creates trust again, and they start to believe that there’s a place for them after all.


Glo & Scout the DogJK: What are some examples of the somatic work you’ve done with canines?


GH: One rescued canine with whom I worked had a high profile, and touched the heart of everyone who knew him because of his formidable spirit. His body was stunted from malnutrition but his heart was not. He was all love, and I had the privilege of working with him towards the end of his life. He was a Great Dane—only six months old—but his growth had been stunted as if he were just two months old. He couldn’t walk, only crawl, so I would work with him on movement patterns, helping him learn how to crawl along the floor better. His rescue guardians had me work with him repeatedly, as they saw how much joy it gave him and helped him to feel more alive. The rescue organization funded his somatic education on the recommendation of his foster parents. Although he didn’t survive long, it brought relief and joy into his physical experience, which also brought joy into the life he shared with his care takers and other animals in the home.


JK: Do dogs respond differently than horses might, or is there a response that you can observe across species?


GH: There are definitely differences between canines and horses. Typically canines are not “in training,” where horses often are or have been. The first thing with a horse, is to let them know this is very different than a trainer or rider expecting anything of them. With dogs, that’s not usually the environment they are living in, where there are expectations they are having to meet whenever they are around humans. I’ve worked with a lot of older dogs and rescue dogs, and they leave a mark on me, some of them are so full of love, and so special, but for one reason or another, they haven’t gotten what they needed to thrive.


Depending on their personality and how their guardian has interacted with them, sometimes dogs are playful or goofy, and then they have to realize “oh I’m supposed to be feeling what this movement feels like,” and that is different than where they’re starting from. At that point, they start to get more of what we’re doing. I worked with a golden lab with some problems, and the veterinarian could never decide what had happened to him. But he really enjoyed the sessions a lot. Normally he would be all attentive to his “father” guardian, but when he was with me he was really paying attention to the experience he was having. So they said “he really likes what you’re doing.” Sometimes it does feel that there is a bit of playfulness that you have to get through with canines, when you introduce the idea of “notice what it feels like to fold your paw underneath. Notice what the pads of your paw feel like”… they do pick it up quickly, after they realize you aren’t just playing with them.


But the playful response doesn’t happen with a horse. That’s what dogs do with humans, they play and romp. With a dog, working somatically requires a different position of your body, too. Sometimes I never actually see the top of the spine of a horse… and with a dog you can see the body fully. If a movement doesn’t feel good for a dog, you can get so involved you forget, but a dog’s first defense would be to snap, whereas a horse would cow kick… if you’re leaning over the dog or the dog is lying down, that’s not a smart thing to do. They startle differently, and with a dog you don’t want them to feel crowded, and have to be mindful of how you place your body in relation to theirs not to crowd them or elicit a protective response. With humans, there are additional considerations. For example, you have to be aware that parts of your body don’t touch or intrude near particular parts of your client’s body, so as not to be confused with sexuality. With a horse it is so much easier, because I don’t have to be self-conscious about social inferences in relation to our human bodies.


JK: What would you suggest other humans can do, to help access greater physical and emotional understanding with non-human animals?


GH: Imagine what anything you do might feel like for the animal experiencing it. Anything you’re seeing or doing, even do the movement you see them do, to understand better what they are experiencing. Practices of mindfulness, whether that is meditation, somatic movement, Tai Chi or Qi Gong, each of these help us to become more sensitive in our own bodies, deepening our experience of embodiment, which makes us more sensitive to others’ experiences. The therapeutic yoga trainings I did had a huge impact on the quality of my touch as well as my own embodiment, and my understanding about sharing the space with others.


If you don’t possess your own embodiment, how can you relate to the embodiment of others?



Being Animal

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In this post of Being Animal, Janet interviews photographer Gina Easley about her Kindred Spirits Project. Janet’s incisive questions highlight the artist’s skill at portraying the trans-species bond.


JK: Tell me something about how Kindred Spirits, as a photographic project, came into being for you?


GE: A friend of mine casually mentioned her mother’s pet tortoise, Henry, who had been in their family for 50 years. I had never heard of anyone having a pet for that long and was so intrigued I asked to meet him and photograph the two of them together. Kathleen was happy to oblige and that experience really started it all. One of the things that stuck with me after that first meeting was Kathleen telling me that she’d had a longer relationship with Henry than anyone else, and that he has provided a sense of continuity and is a grounding presence in her life.


I thought about that a lot, and went home and researched how long the average marriage in the U.S. lasts, and found it to be around seven years. I realized then that a lot of people are with their pets longer than their spouses! My experience with Kathleen and Henry was so interesting, that I was compelled to meet and photograph more of these people and animals who had been together long term. I have a lot of animal-loving friends, so I put the word out and it didn’t take long before I found myself very busy with this series.


JK: What in the animal world has compelled you to do this work?


GE: I’ve always had a deep love for animals.  I’ve been vegetarian for 25 years and am now moving toward being vegan.  I’ve become increasingly aware of how the choices I make affect other living beings, and once I started becoming conscious of those things I realized there’s no turning back.  I wanted not only to combine my love of animals and photography, but also make an impact, even if only a small one, in the goal of making the world a kinder place for animals.


JK: How do you feel photography, as a nonverbal medium, is able to capture the essence of the trans-species bonds shared by your subjects?


GE: The emotional impact from a photograph can go straight to the heart. I think sometimes, in matters of the heart, it can be more powerful to skip over words altogether. A photo is immediate, direct, and can’t rely on words to communicate a message, much like a connection to a beloved pet.


JK: Do you first have to establish a relationship with the animals photographed in your Kindred Spirits project before they reveal themselves fully, as you might have to do with a human subject?


GE: No, in fact a lot of the people and animals in this series were photographed just minutes after I met them for the first time. I do like to take some time to talk to the person, ask questions and get to know the animal a bit beforehand, but it is usually brief. Dogs will often sniff my camera, and me, when we meet, and I do take a few minutes to let them see that I’m friendly and non-threatening. But since the photos are about the relationship between the person and animal being photographed I haven’t found it necessary to spend a lot of time with them beforehand. That would be fun, but it isn’t always possible and hasn’t seemed in most cases to be necessary.


JK: There is something I see in your pictures of children that I also see in your pictures of humans and animals in close relationships: an inner landscape, and conscious subjectivity, perhaps. Is this something you are looking for in your photographs?


GE: It’s not an intentional thing that I’m doing, but I think I understand what you’re seeing. I believe the similarity to be an element of openness and innocence, which is something I’ve always been drawn to as subject matter for my photos.


JK: Do you find that your Kindred Spirits project makes visible, relational elements that are universal across species? Can you speak about what those elements might be, from your vantage point as a photographer?


GE: The one thing that all of the animals in this series share is their dependence on a person to care for all of their needs. These are well-loved animals and therefore I believe you see not only their dependence but also their trust in their human counterpart. That trust is mutual and flows back and forth between human and animal, and I believe that is something that is reflected in the photos.


JK: Viewing your photographs of human/animal relationships evokes some of the tenderness and depth of feeling I experience personally with other animals. Do you think those who do not have close bonds with animals are able to see these elements also?


GE: This is such a good question! And it makes me curious to know the answer, too.  I’ve never had anyone tell me that they’re someone who doesn’t have a close bond with animals, so I’m not sure what those people are seeing when they view the photos. I’d love to know, though. Most of the people I hear from are those who really relate to the work because they have had a deep bond with an animal, or a love of animals in general.


JK: Do you think the physical aspects of the bonds you photograph are particularly important?


GE: Definitely. One of the first things I ask people is “how do you and your pet generally interact with each other?” so that I don’t try to force something that is unnatural. Some animals love to be cuddled and held close. Others are more hands off or independent, or prefer interacting through movement or play.  The first time I photographed Kathleen and her tortoise, Henry, this series hadn’t yet taken shape. So I was thinking mostly in terms of composition, and asked Kathleen to hold Henry on her lap so I could get them both in the photo.


We got a few shots like that but Henry was clearly confused and uncomfortable, because being held on Kathleen’s lap was not something that they would normally do. Since then I’ve tried to not ask the animals to do anything that feels too much out of the norm. Just yesterday I photographed a woman with her 18 year old dog. In the past year he has become uncomfortable with being touched, so we took photos of him standing next to her or just being nearby, staying true to their relationship as it really is now.


 JK: How might your photographic work help to bring other humans into more compassionate and loving relationships with animals?


GE: I hope that people can feel the love in these photos. It would be so gratifying to me if seeing this series touched something inside the viewer that moved them to become more deeply bonded with their own pet, or to consider adopting a pet in need, or giving a donation to a rescue organization; anything that would help in the cause of making this world a kinder, friendlier place for animals and people to co-exist.


JK: The Kindred Spirits Project illustrates the transformative nature of trans-species relationships, through your own personal artistic lens.  Is there an aspect of embodiment that you bring to your photo shoots that helps to support your own process as a photographer?


GE: I feel that I’ve been changed, in a very good way, by the relationships I’ve had with my own pets through the years. Currently, I have a dog, Simon, who is almost 10. I adopted him from a shelter when he was 2 months old and I was newly divorced. There were times, during those puppy days, when I felt I’d made a mistake and was in over my head.


Thankfully, we survived that time because we were rewarded with a very strong bond, a friendship that is unlike any other in my life. I believe we can read each other’s minds. He is so sensitive to me that if I’m in a bad mood, even though I’m not expressing it, he can feel it and slinks off to the basement for a little alone time. He opens my heart in a way that is completely unique and I’m so grateful for him.


I also have a cat, Mister, whom I inherited from my mom when she passed away six years ago. At first, I was grieving and wasn’t the best caretaker for him but my husband, a cat lover, stepped in to give him all the attention he needed. Once my grief subsided, I realized what an incredible gift it is, to be able to care for my mom’s cat, which is in a way like being able to keep actively loving her through this act. And it wasn’t long before I grew to love him deeply, for who he is.


Six weeks ago we adopted a seven-year-old French Bulldog that we’ve named Sister. She was a breeder in a puppy mill and never had the life of “normal” dog. Thankfully she was rescued by a great organization and we were given the chance to adopt her. It is an entirely different situation with her. Frenchies don’t have really long lifespans to begin with, and she’s had a rough life until now. I’m keeping my expectations low as to how long we will get to have her but hoping for the best. We already love and trust each other and that is just amazing.  I’ve loved and lost a number of pets throughout my life and I can’t imagine doing this type of photo project without having had those experiences.



Being Animal is a blogspot written by Kerulos faculty and board member, Janet Kaylo. Being Animal addresses inter-species topics and relationships through interviews with artists, dancers, and others about their embodied experiences fostering trans-species communication, respect and well-being. Janet holds an MA with Distinction in Jungian and Post Jungian Studies from the University of Essex, Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, UK. She is also a Registered Dance Movement Psychotherapist, Somatic Movement Therapist, Movement Analyst, and Founder of Laban/Bartenieff and Somatic Studies International, which presents professional certification in Movement Analysis and Somatic Practice.



Being Animal

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Bringing movement and body into learning and living with animal kin.


Being Animal is a new blogspot written by Kerulos faculty and board member, Janet Kaylo. Being Animal addresses inter-species topics and relationships through interviews with artists, dancers, and others about their embodied experiences fostering trans-species communication, respect and well-being.


Janet holds an MA with Distinction in Jungian and Post Jungian Studies from the University of Essex, Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, UK. She is also a Registered Dance Movement Psychotherapist, Somatic Movement Therapist, and Founder of Laban/Bartenieff and Somatic Studies International, which presents professional certification in Movement Analysis and Somatic Practice.


Here, in an interview by Kerulos executive director, Gay Bradshaw, Janet talks about the importance of bringing movement and somatic awareness into animal studies. She also discusses her work with Gay as co-authors of the book, Living Animal: Creating an Ethical Space and Episteme with Other Animals (Spring Publishers, 2015).


Woman in dance poseGB: Why is understanding movement so important for animal studies and care?


JK: Our bodies are organically linked to other animals: we share so much across species, particularly of course with vertebrate animals who express themselves in movement in ways very similar to our own. Because of this, non-human animals are generally capable of perceiving intentions of others very clearly – even more clearly than we might as humans. When our human movement expresses our intentions consciously it makes the communication more direct and immediate with other animals.


Individual and cultural neuroses are also expressed in movement, and when our movement is unconscious or fails to acknowledge the individual movement of animals around us, we create an overall environment that the animal has to accommodate and adjust to – adding another layer of confusion, miscommunication, or uncertainty that the other animals have to figure out moment by moment, or internalize as stress.


Awareness of our bodily movement is consciously integrated in our understanding of human-nonhuman animal interactions less frequently than it should be. I think perhaps for many people, their way of relating to animals comes from a specifically differentiated human construct, based on language and ‘ideas’, or sentimental emotions. Looking more closely at the way we move, and how other animals move, offers an opportunity to create relationships that are based on our shared corporeality – which is expressed continuously in movement, including how we occupy our personal space. Often, we forget to grant that same personal movement space as an important element of individual agency in other animals.


We adjust our movement to other humans all day long – because we are socially acculturated to do so. But with other nonhuman animals, we often neglect that same opportunity to share the space together, to move within the relationship itself on some kind of equal physical footing. When relating to other animals, the same thing applies as it does when adult humans relate to children – as well as to other adults. But while adults have perceptual filters that allow them to ignore a whole range of nonverbal disharmonies, allowing for all manner of individual variation (not to mention accepting a cultural bias towards language over other ways of relating), nonhuman animals generally ‘read’ what we do in movement with great precision.


If we recognize where another animal is in the space, including how their body shape and movement defines their personal space, and if we sense more closely what their movement qualities are like, we are more likely to communicate to them that we ‘see’ and ‘hear’ them, which enhances their sense of freedom and self-determination in the environment they are sharing with us.


Just becoming aware of our movement around other animals goes a long way towards improving our communication and sharing with them. It is not difficult to do – but it does require paying attention to what we do, and how we do it. Here is one everyday example:


If my cat is in the middle of the kitchen floor, while my husband and I are preparing food, do I move toward her space as if she isn’t there? Do I just expect her to scamper out of the way when I get near her? If I do, that communicates to my cat that my presence in the space is more important than hers is. This is a very simple exercise that anyone can try, who co-habits with other animals. Just start to notice how your relationship is formed in movement. Ask yourself:


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  • Do you make pathways in the space that include an animal’s presence and movement, or just expect that animal to accommodate you?
  • Do you stroke an animal mindlessly, to calm yourself?
  • Do you come into an animal’s personal space in a way that communicates an equal right to be there uninterrupted?
  • Do you touch or pick an animal up from behind, unexpectedly or without their willing consent?

There are so many ways that we communicate a disregard for individual agency, individual need, desire, interest… And a good place to start with awareness of an Other – person or other animal – is looking at how we relate through movement. So much of what we do with animals regularly includes these not-so-subtle and regular ways of dominating and over-riding individual experience, through violating their bodies and their personal space, among other things. How about expressing general politeness? Would we walk into a room where another human was, without in some way acknowledging their presence? And yet we do this with animals all the time: moving into their space where they can see us, without acknowledging that they are even there.


Because I always acknowledge my cats, for example, whenever I enter a space where they are, they always acknowledge me as well. Oftentimes, they do this even before I do, making sure I know they are there. Because I speak to them and move in a way that includes them, they speak to me vocally and in movement to establish our corporeal and psychic connection. When other people come into my house, my cats do the same thing with them, because this is what they expect of humans – to be seen, acknowledged, and moved with as equals. Most people find this quite touching, being unused to social etiquette in cats, and certainly not used to a cat vocally answering their greetings!


Communicating through conscious movement awareness is actually more effective than unconsciously communicating dominance, or assuming that animals are embodied differently than we are, and therefore are not really paying attention in the way another human might. Being aware of our movement together helps create an environment in which we are reading each other – rather than just expecting animals we share a space with to read us.


For those who care for animals in a shelter or sanctuary, being aware of their own and other animals’ movement qualities helps to create environments where the animals feel safe. Our quick unexpected movements, loud voices, pounding feet, waving arms, and general unawareness of proximity and personal space with nonhuman animals is part of how we terrorize and subordinate them – even without knowing we are doing so.


GB: What is the difference between embodied communication and not?


Woman talking with cow.JK: Embodied communication is communication where the quality of our bodily presence and movement is congruent with what we mean to communicate. It is a consciousness that includes all of ourselves, including our sensations of temperature, sound, what we see, how we experience the weight of our bodies and the space we are occupying. It includes our gestures, posture, and our spontaneous movement that communicates being together in that moment. In a simple way, it is about being consciously, in our senses and our proprioception, where we are and what we are doing at that moment in time and space. It is a clearly focused, aware experience.


In contrast, dis-embodied communication is communication that does not include the other person’s corporeality – or our own. That is, when our words, thoughts, or feelings are not contained and shaped by our physical experience in the moment we are communicating.


GB: Dance is a human enterprise, no? So how does it connect us to other animals? How does it bring greater depth of understanding? How does it help dissolve the barrier between humans and other animals?


JK: A wonderful question. Well, dance itself needs a definition, even in our human terms. What do we call dance? This is something I am particularly aware of now, as I have begun doing Public Moving Art projects that are based on awareness of place, sensation, imagination, and present-moment experience. It is not dance as it is commonly understood, but would probably be fairly well understood and accepted as normal behavior by non-human animals!


Typically, we think of dance as something that falls into recognizable form – something we can name, or study, or identify. And these are very valuable experiences, for humans to experience the connection between nonverbal, expressive movement and the state of our own quality of existence. A Butoh master once said that the dance already exists, and the dancer’s job is to find it. I think a lot of what we call dance, is just rehearsed movement design. But dancing as an act of perception, which includes the perception of our own bodies moving in space, is a celebration of what we can experience as sentient beings. I am not so sure we don’t share this kind of dance with other animals. Perhaps they just do it differently.


GB: Can movement inform a trans-species ethic? How?


JK: From my point of view, as a person for whom movement reflects every experience of life, yes, I think movement can inform a trans-species ethic – perhaps more ably than most anything else.


If we put ourselves bodily into the bodily experience of other animals – which means the site of their cognition, emotion, bonding, families, sense of place, exercise of agency – it makes things quite clear. Unfortunately, embodiment has not been traditionally included in our policy or cultural attitudes towards other animals.


It doesn’t take much analysis to know when an animal’s individual agency and right to self-determination has been breached, if we look at it from the point of view of that animal’s need and desire for movement. What would I know of myself, if I were confined to a 10 or 20 foot square enclosure, and never allowed beyond its boundaries? What would I know of myself, if I couldn’t create and move in my own place of safety, away from others, towards or away from sound, light, or touch? Who would I become, if I could no longer move in the wind, or smell the sea, walk in the wet grass, or stretch my neck and back to see the moon rising in the sky?


These are the kinds of things we take away from other animals systematically, as if movement were not an intrinsic part of their identities and experiences, just as it is for humans. What we take away from any animal’s natural movement repertoire shapes how the animal experiences itself. If all I can do is stand up, turn around, or lie down, on the same surface, day after day, then all the areas of the body/mind that are explicitly present for the purpose of sensing, perceiving, feeling, and action essentially turn off – they ‘go dark’, so to speak. But before just shutting down our perceptions and feelings, our needs and desire for movement are frustrated to the point of madness, I would expect. Small wonder both human and nonhuman animals get depressed when they are cordoned off, if their initiative is stifled, their senses under-stimulated, and their movement agency denied.


The more we constrain an animal (human or otherwise), the more we distort who the animal actually is: controlling the psyche by controlling movement. That is exactly how it is done. Preventing an animal from being itself, apart from being an object for human observation, as in a laboratory, is a perfect example of the connection between movement and ethics. Even collaring, tagging, and otherwise tracing the movements of so-called wild animals, brings up ethical questions for many, for this same reason. Impact the movement of the animal, and you have impacted that animal’s experience of itself, distorting its individual agency, cultural belonging, and sentient right to move fully in the world.


GB: You have recently moved to Savannah, Georgia and started up SMAP? Can you describe what it is and tell us why you started it?


JK: I have been in the professional dance world, and later also in dance/movement therapy training and degree programs, for over 35 years. I began in New York City as a professional dancer, formed my own dance company in New Orleans, and even before I knew what embodiment was, as a subjective, first-person based experience, I wanted to take people places they hadn’t been before. I felt in my bones, so to speak, that movement could transport people to a collective truth: truth of love, beauty, angst, sharing, and even power. In my work as University faculty in London, and in the extensive teaching I have done in the US, Europe and Canada, my goal has been to encourage people to own their experiences, through expanding their personal knowledge and expression of embodiment. To claim, and utilize, what it is to be embodied. Because in doing that, in giving people back their own embodiment, they become much more sensitive to the embodiment of others, and what it means to be a part of the living, organic movement system that our world is.


When I moved to Savannah, GA, where my ancestors started life in America 100s of years ago, I founded SMAP – which is the acronym for Savannah Moving Art Projects. It is partly my way of establishing ‘place’ through embodied, moving narratives in the landscape.


SMAP is a site-specific, improvisational dance/movement process that brings an expression of embodiment into public spaces. The primary objective of our public moving art works is to arrest attention and interest in the experience of moving that arises out of awareness in the present moment, in perception, imagination, and spontaneous expression. It is a joining of the environment and embodiment, through the art of movement. Though it is only for a human pedestrian audience (and whatever birds or other creatures might arrive), we are being human animals in the space – noticing what is there, engaging with immediate sensation and perception, and responding to that experience in movement exploration and expression. After working in theaters, classrooms and studios for decades, I wanted finally to go directly to the public’s experience, to make some kind of impact on what humans choose to perceive in a passing moment. That is, to give them an opportunity to awaken to themselves through the dancers’ willingness to demonstrate what is there in the space all along: embodiment and movement. Here is the dance, if you will only arrive to find it.


Circle of people listening to lectureGB: You have also been teaching Being Animal workshops in Europe. Tell us about that.


JK: I ran a pilot workshop in the Czech Republic, called Being with Other Animals, which was inspired by my work with Kerulos, and by an arresting experience I had after doing a module of training in Equine Somatics. When I returned from the first module, I was astonished to discover that I could communicate my intentions and even my thoughts, it seemed, to other animals I was around, with very little effort.


The horses I had been working with at a therapeutic riding facility were suddenly cooperative, attentive, interested, and relaxed when I was around them. I could communicate – without ever pulling on their lead ropes – when to stop, where to go, how far to back up. They followed me for the sessions, and we danced together non-verbally – in a shared, three-dimensional, non-dominating space. They gathered around the fence to see me, sniffing the air and whinnying when I drove up in my car. It was like I had become another person to them – one who they could sense, hear, and even trust.


The fox that lived near my house in the woods, would sit down to take stock of me, instead of high-tailing it up the hill when we ran into each other. Other animals that would appear at night out of the woods, while I was sitting on my porch, came close to me as if I was as natural in their landscape as anything else. I was even able to make an agreement with the wasps around my house, not to dive-bomb or sting me, in return for being allowed to nest in my laundry room. The truce was never broken.


There were many examples of unusual and delightful human-animal experiences that happened for me as a result of working with clear intentions and hands-on work with horses therapeutically. I didn’t know what had happened, I just knew that several layers of my own perception had shifted, and I could see other animals more clearly as they actually were.


At that point, I decided I wanted to teach other people how to get to the place of acceptance and cooperation that had occurred unexpectedly for me. I knew through my therapeutic work as a Dance Movement Psychotherapist and Somatic Movement Therapist, that somatic modes of perceiving were very different than how people generally perceived, and that it created important bonds of trust and acceptance between a therapist and a client. So this is where I started.


In the Being with Other Animals workshop, I first taught participants how to ‘attune’ with other people, how to experience other people’s bodies as something like their own (mirror neurons must be the seat of these possibilities), which immediately created greater empathy and rapport between them. Then I set particular movement tasks for them in pairs, that were something like the movement they might have to accommodate or sense with another animal.


After these exercises and practices, we worked specifically with animals that were in a small sanctuary in the countryside, attuning with them through their corporality – consciously setting aside our thoughts and ideas, and sentiments about them. We did this by bringing our attention initially to our own breath, and our sense of weight, and then extending that interest and awareness to another animals’ breathing, sense of weight, and finally taking our attunement into the other’s quality of movement in time and space.


In summary, I outlined a process of attuning that becomes an embodied way of observing, communicating, and sharing the space with another animal – which necessarily includes how that other animal responds to our presence in this process.


Extraordinary things happened, for participants, and even for some of the animals who became so relaxed they lay down right where they were, stopped pacing or jostling about, or chasing each other off. Or, as with some horses we were near, closing in together as they would in the wild, front-to-back, heads and eyelids lowered, a big sigh, and then going to sleep – in the middle of the day with a group of strangers standing with them in the space.


Woman holding baby bunny.It was very exciting to see how quickly the human participants learned to sense the other animal’s body, as if from a first person position – and then how immediately empathy, safety and caring was communicated for the other animal. In simple terms, it visibly diffused fear, nervousness and unease, opening the opportunity for an easy interaction, for both the humans and the animals. Being with other animals is more harmonious and reciprocal when we first create a corporeal rapport. This is something you can see in film and photographs of people who form special, embodied relationships with other animals – there is an undeniable, mutual corporeal rapport present.


NEXT ISSUE of Being Animal features Janet’s interview of photographer Gina Easley