Honoring a somatic pioneer
Little known outside the domains of dance and theater, Mabel Todd is one of the pioneers of somatic movement education. A voice teacher in early 20th century Massachusetts, Todd became dissatisfied and frustrated by the conflicting ideas about the anatomy and posture of singing she encountered.
Her subsequent studies in the medical sciences, mechanics, and motion led her to develop an original approach, which she presented in the incredibly inventive, insightful, and ingenious The Thinking Body, first published in 1937. As she wrote, this book “offers a method of acquiring bodily balance in accord with the principles of mechanics for the conservation of physical and nervous energy.”
What struck me when I learned of Todd’s work — while studying Contact Improvisation in San Francisco in the 1970s — was how she starts with movement. It wasn’t just that she had progressed beyond the all too common static, reductionist framework. Long before we recognized the effectiveness of visualization in education, therapy, and performance enhancement, Todd harnessed imagery to change how we perceive ourselves and coordinate our actions. I can’t help but wonder if she was one of the first people, if not the first person, to utilize imagination as a tool for movement education and personal development.
Fascinated by Todd’s profound understanding of movement, Moshe Feldenkrais included The Thinking Body among the recommended books he provided to those who studied with him. Years later, some students were unhappy when I used it as one of the primary texts in a course on neurophysical learning at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. They glumly wondered why they had to read a text written so long ago. My response was, “Because no one has written anything better since.” That is still true.
Recently, I received an email from the Thinking Body Institute (TBI) announcing a new edition. Unlike the available reprints, this updated version features modern typography, enhanced illustrations, and a new introduction to Ms. Todd’s life and career. (I just ordered a copy.)
TBI has republished The Hidden You, which has been nearly impossible to find for far too long. In it, Todd introduces her methodology, now called Ideokinesis, to the general public. While the language is outdated, her embodied perspective is prescient. What must it have been like to understand being in the world in this way long before most people were ready to acknowledge it?
I created the illustration at the top of today’s blog from a photo by Engin Akyurt available on pexels.com. The image of Mabel Todd comes from the TBI website.
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Good morning from a snowy spring day on NZ. lovely to hear from you. I was wondering whether your health was no good, or you were busy…
I will reread The thinking body. it is many years since i picked it up.
Hugs from NZ Feldenkrais folks. We are starting an Advanced training today with Caryn and David in Auckland. Cheers Diane Sowerby
Hello Diane –
Good to hear from you, too.
To give myself a break from the rigors of writing, I took the month of August. It was only after I stopped that I realized how good it felt to finally stop and take a real rest. That’s why my summer blog break got extended into the fall. I am happy to be getting back communicating here.
Hugs from home,
I read The Thinking Body a couple of years ago with a group of about six practitioner. On a fortnightly basis one of us would lead the discussion about the particular chapter that was up for discussion. I have contacted the TBI in order to find if there was other book, papers etc available to no avail so thank you for informing us about this book.
I have read a little on ideokinesis and have been using some imagery particular in relation to what way the “energy” is moving down my back and from under my arms to my fingers. Initially I found the imagining difficult but at those moments when I am not trying to figure out the imagining my movement changes. I feel grounded yet soft yet powerful.
I have also read Irene Dowd’s book taking root to fly and have been looking at Eric Franklin’s way on imagining to explore imagining. A world I continue to explore. Like many words I think the meaning is misunderstood. During the training my idea of imagining is not what iit is today. The Feldenkrais training opened my up to the body and movement but three years later my own exploration has given me a tiny bit more about what it means to allow the body’s own intelligence to move the whole of me.
Lastly I have been reading Khrishnamutri book “Can the Mind be Quiet”. I will need to read this 20 times in order to glean some insight. The word I have been exploring lately is patience. I have discovered that my rushing is not useful but rather if I am patient time seems endless.
Regards and be well
Hello Mia –
Thank you so much for letting me know about how you read and worked your way through The Thinking Body with colleagues. How wonderful!
I’m glad you mentioned Irene Dowd’s Taking Root to Fly – it’s a wonderful continuation of Todd’s Ideokinetic approach brought to life by Irene’s beautiful illustrations. I have such a great appreciation for her work as a fine contemporary example of this approach that brought her to the teacher training program I directed in NYC.
Patience is, of course, central to our work. It is an attribute worth developing. My thought? “Patience comes to those who wait.”
Thanks for this. I don’t know if she was the first to use imagery, but I do know that every good dance teacher I had used imagery in their teaching. Some of my favorites: from Martha Graham: move like you have the hand of a loved one in the small of your back. Finnis Jung: land from a jump as softly as a cat. Sheila Xoregos: walk as if you were suspended by a few hairs from the crown of your head. And Frania Zins: (🤣) feel like your body is a sail, and movement is the wind passing in and through it.
Hello Frania –
Yes, you’re right. Good dance teachers use imagery in their classes.
What I meant was that Todd was the first to use visualization as the basis for a somatic methodology. I’m making a distinction between imagery as a part of movement instruction and as a means of neurophysical change, that is to say, of making prfound and fundamental changes in what Feldenkrais referred to as self image.
Thanks for helping me clarify what I meant!
Oh Larry, thank you for calling attention to Mabel Todd….”The Hidden You” is one of my favorite books, I find it so accessible and so charmingly written! I Years ago, I found the only existing copy in the entire Michigan library system happily resting on a shelf in a library near me, and because it was not in print at the time, I copied the entire book out by hand. I remember once Dennis Leri told me that when Feldenkrais was asked why he had SO many students in his Amherst trainings, his reply was, “Because maybe in there, I will find one Mabel Todd.”
Hello Alice –
Thank you for echoing and amplifying my appreciation for Mabel Todd and The Hidden You! I’m impressed that you copied the entire book by hand. I, too, found it accessible and charming.
Thank you also for recounting Dennis Leri’s question — one so many of us had and only he dared ask — and Moshe’s revelatory answer.