Women, femmes, people of color— anyone on the down side of power and privilege — we pull out the stitches of unhealed wounds, allowing the people who hurt us to see the anatomy of the injuries they’ve caused. Here, the jagged jut of exposed and broken bone. There, the tender purple of a fresh bruise, blood that has settled as a marker of where they hurt us. And when they’re done examining our bruises and lacerations, they offer their sympathy, tell us how much that must hurt. But they don’t help in its healing. They don’t promise not to do it again….We talk about the harm, the hurt, the cost of it all. But when we ask what comes next, we’re too often met with radio silence. Now that we’ve shown you the depth and breadth of our pain, the harm that’s been done to us, what will you do? How will you stop it?  (Your Fat Friend, 2017)

In this article I have been asked to write about how somatic awareness impacts social justice work and even how it is informed by or related to spirituality.  I would like to share writing, past and current, that reflects how somatic education can interrupt behavior that supports on-going injustice and to quickly mention some ideas about spirituality within this context (Eddy, Weber, & Williamson 2014).  A central theme will be to name the complex issues of the place of race, culture, and economics within a field that approaches bodily experiences from the sciences of biology, neurology, and physiology – phenomenon common to all humans.  Questions emerge from this, such as – How do the biological sciences applied to consciousness and movement interface with injustice and the struggle for justice. Or “How can Somatic inquiry disrupt oppressive systems?”

The word somatic comes from the Greek word Soma, which is translated as “the living body.” “Somatics” has been further (re)defined “as experiencing the body from within” (Hanna, 1976) and/or accessing natural intelligence (Apoyshan, 2007).  The definitions highlight the role of accessing self-regulation and an innate healing capacity through awakening consciousness of the body. The somatic field is burgeoning with impact in all human areas but is particularly (and academically) active in the domains of education, dance and the performing/martials arts, psychology, and in holistic health, with some momentum in the arenas of design as well.  (Eddy, 2016a).

The field emerged spontaneously, mostly in the twentieth century, but out of rich intercontinental antecedents.  I write in Mindful Movement the evolution of the somatic arts and conscious action:

Somatic education began as discrete experiences of pioneering individuals – the wildflowers in an unidentified field. Each discovered that by paying attention to proprioceptive signals she or he could gradually use her or his body with a fuller range of motion and with more ease. In some cases, somatic pioneers regained movement capability after severe limitations or illnesses. The choice to work proactively in response to injury and illness is a recurring theme. Contact with great thinkers, travel around the globe and the generative work of students have been equally influential on the development of somatic thinking and somatic disciplines. The post-World War II diaspora furthered east-west connections and practices about the body, spawning this new wave of consciousness. (Eddy, 2016a p 22)

To connect somatics to social justice, please note that somatic methods and theories teach ways to interact with, directly and indirectly, experiences of comfort and discomfort, pain and pleasure.

Intersectionality is a key term within social justice theory. It describes the interconnections that arise from human social structures informed by race, class, gender and other experiences often are based in the body even if not recognized as such. How our bodies look or are used are what become ‘isms.’ The intersectional perspective usually focuses on the disadvantages that are experienced by the marginalized peoples involved.  These disadvantages compounded by intersections can be revealed from a somatic viewpoint.

A bias that I hold is that, as part of “establishing justice for all” each person needs to be aware of how the dominant culture intertwines its supremacy into the social fabric, impacting our bodies and life choices.  Working with concepts from Robin DiAngelo (2018), the dominant culture generally feels ease and comfort in being in the world whereas the citizens identified with non-dominant status are often compelled to adjust their behaviors, often pressured to feel “less than” and uncomfortable in a myriad of ways.  I am glad to know of the writing of DiAngelo and her concept of White Fragility.  She makes blatant the advantages of the construct of “whiteness” for whites and how these exist at the expense of People of Color. [note]Thanks also to Tim Wise and a handful of other authors who write about confronting their whiteness amongst whites who refuse to accept that our society is fraught with and driven by racism.[/note]

As a somatic movement specialist, I am interested in how somatic inquiry can help unpack these tightly woven patterns that are embedded in our cultures and that show up in our daily behavior, including our movement, and our bodily stories.   To quote, colleague Jose Vadi, this may be done in ways “…that may tie them up into knots and paralyze them from acting upon the world.” Moving into fight, flight or freeze is not the intention. Vadi goes on to say “My question is how can somatic knowledge be used to accentuate our understanding that there is only one race–the human race–without denying or dismissing the pain and suffering of the oppressed, and do so in such a way as to lead both oppressed and privileged to act in consort to change oppressive structures of power based on our common humanity” (Vadi, 2019).
While this is a tall order, a lifetime goal, I hope to share a few steps I have made along this road. One is to define what somatic education can bring to the table. Another is to share a few models of human interaction that I have developed and my colleagues’ responses to them.

How can Somatic Movement MOVE Humanity toward Equity and Justice?:
What is Somatic Movement?
Cross-case analysis of over 36 different somatic movement systems revealed these 4 main points of focus (Eddy 2009, Eddy 2016a) within each system, the content being conveyed by somatic study:

  1. Noticing and relaxing muscular (and in some instances autonomic) tensions, often by lying down
  2. Anatomical knowledge of breath and diverse practices to use breath (sitting, lying down, standing and while doing work)
  3. Finding 3-dimensional fullness in the body and movement choices by being able to breathe and move in any direction (e.g., advancing or reversing, widening or narrowing – all with ease)
  4. Recognizing that humans can choose and practicing how to transform inefficient habits through finding new coordination, exploring novel movement and thereby awakening new neural pathways to and within the brain.

The following excerpt describes a bit more about how somatic processes works:

“Whether following personal curiosity or guided by a teacher, somatic education leads an individual through somatic processes using somatic tools of touch, movement (including the movement of the breath), vocalization and language to further awareness. Somatic explorations are active investigations, and are the underpinning of the somatic arts. Curiosity fuels the investigation, which eventually leads to new awareness, balance and self-regulation. Somatic curiosity can be motivated by interest in self-discovery, pleasure, relieving pain, improved physical performance, new forms of social engagement or as a creative endeavor – the foundation of making art. Each of these motivations is resonant with dance; in this way, somatic explorations have been foundational to the art of dancing, and the art of dancing has been formative to the development of somatics.”  Mindful Movement (Eddy 2016a, p15)

A corollary within some branches of somatic psychology and somatic movement education is that we retain knowledge of new movement choices best if the body experiences it as pleasurable. A social justice lens begs the questions: Does this mean that movement and learning isn’t happening if someone is not at ease? How does this align with experiences of trauma, being oppressed, tortured, or chronically uncomfortable? In my doctoral research on violence I heard an expert on mass incarceration speak to how learning and memory while in prison is enhanced by emotional content. Specifically, strong memories of anger and fear can anchor the remembering of an experience and related facts.  Psychologists and somatic experts alike know that if an experience is deeply painful (often labeled traumatic) it can lead to disassociation or disembodiment, which serves as a temporary survival mechanism.  What is problematic is when we get stuck in this disembodied, non-feeling and often non-responsive state and yes, here memories can be hard to salvage but many other “bad memories” live strongly within us.

Neuroscience can most likely answer the question of what enhances learning in great detail before long. From research using MRIs and other instrumentation and carefully designed ethical studies we can learn what the differences are of learning from punishment and pain, or pleasure and curiosity, or from forced rote memory versus embodied exploration.  For now, and for the purposes of this article, I would like to suggest that it is important for therapists and educators who are in the dominant culture to not assume everyone’s intelligence is facilitated best by pleasure and that working with memories (and current circumstances) of what is difficult for both the client and the practitioner is also important.

For mostly privileged practitioners, I recommend that we dig into our own experiences of guilt (long enough to move through it and take action), habits of blame, and experiences of victimization, complicity and avoidance.  With increased self-awareness of our own triggers we can be more effective.  We need to be ready to be vulnerable, to choose to interact honestly with people who are different than ourselves, especially those who have been oppressed due to race, economics, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities and/or age. And, we need to remember Vadi – don’t let ourselves get tied up into knots. …but rather find the grace to keep ACTING for justice. This can mean staying conscious and inviting in meaningful conversations.

There is another sub-field of somatic education coined as “social somatics” and defined by colleagues as follows, “Social somatics uses awareness of cultural complexity and contexts of privilege and oppression to engage in creative and embodied action. These practices aim to bridge disconnections and transform cycles of injustice into new paradigms of mutual respect for all.” (Leguizaman et al. n.d in Eddy 2016a p234)

Social Somatics was a natural outgrowth of a desire among somatic educators to use somatic awareness for common good and for social justice. In particular Clyde Ford (author of Where Healing Waters Meet, 1992) and Professor, Jill Green (dance educator and Kinetic Awareness practitioner) were key investigators and continue to be leaders in this field. Both thinkers integrated movement, awareness, theory and touch into their practices.  Speaking of the role of deep relaxation within somatic processes Ford (1989), well ahead of his time, writes:

A body of knowledge has accumulated on this half-way condition called a hypnagogic state (different from hypnotic). It is noted for dramatic changes in brain wave activity, psychosomatic healing and ready access to the unconscious mind – in short, the barriers between mind and body are relaxed. What the mind ponders, the body enacts. What the body experiences, the mind absorbs. It is not surprising then that touch can evoke a state that engages two people in a healing process beyond the bounds of conventional therapy.  p13

As a ‘somaticist’ I am trained to speak about any topic from my own internal experience- from body sensations, from my own perceived “state of mind.”  I would like to postulate that this state of mind is influenced by my socialization as well as my somatic state of being.  I have been active in ‘social somatics’ for decades, having co-founded Moving On Center, with the tag line “bridging somatics with social change,” in 1994 with Carol Swann. Hence, I also speak from a perspective/approach I coined at our school – “somaction” –valuing taking action based on somatic awareness (Eddy 2016).

At Moving On Center, we have been focusing on three components – establishing a racially, economically and gender-fluid diversity in the student body, making our certification affordable to people from various continents, including our own, and modeling conflict transformation in both the content and methods of our curricula.  From today’s 2019 perspective, I want to add that I write this article as an economically and racially privileged “able-bodied” (with a hidden disability), white heterosexual woman beginning to be affected by ageism.  According to DiAngelo (2018) and many other scholars of racism, I am inherently racist.  I agree. Racism is so embedded in American culture that unless we actively work to disrupt the racist beliefs and behaviors of our families, work places and cultural institutions we are actively complicit in preserving racism in our world. This acceptance of the racism that surrounds us may be conscious but more often than not is shows up in unconscious racist behavior.  This behavior is often not outright meanness or wrong-doing but rather a failure to notice, let alone work to disrupt, institutional racism.

Having “white skin” I mostly experience being able to be “comfortable” or to simply walk away from discomfort almost anywhere in the world. (As a woman this is a bit less the case.) The comfort I am privileged to experience worldwide, is diametrically opposed to the experience of my “black skin” friends and colleagues for whom skin color is more often than not within the public or “dominant cultural” realm a road to discomfort such as being around awkward silences or being excluded, or leading to outright physical abuse. I also have had many experiences that most white people have not had.

I grew up in Spanish Harlem in the 1950s – 1970s where my neighbors and closest friends were either first or second generation Puerto Rican or black, where darker skin Puerto Ricans were referred to by family members as “Negrito.” What are characteristics of East Harlem? At that time, it was one of the most “disadvantaged” and unprotected neighborhoods in New York City, meaning it was neglected by municipal and social services – from street cleaning and garbage collection to education and health care. Another marker of “El Barrio” was that our neighbors generally were not receiving police protection but rather many were being policed, often brutally and unjustly. My parents were advocates who spent lots of times in precincts, houses of detention and prisons speaking up for their neighbors.

he potential for complicity, of not “Acting Up” in support of my friends’ experiences of being victims of predictable prejudice, abuse, racism, is a deep concern.  The caring embedded in my friendships makes it critical that I take a role in disturbing the status quo of America (and many other countries around the world) of whites being privileged. What is particularly challenging is how many whites live with privilege without awareness or feelings about how it negatively impacts others. This lack of sensitivity of the impact of power roles, and skin-color advantage, can happen with people with plenty of personal awareness, even somatic awareness.

The need to expand from personal self-reflection into social extensions is generally new in somatic work. It is easy to ignore from within a predominantly white culture. Noticing and caring, requires consciously paying attention to subtle or not so subtle cues that are external and internal. I am still learning how to do it.  Indeed, I miss a lot of opportunities to avoid racism or to stand up for justice, making hurtful mistakes too often for even my own comfort. Allowing myself to feel uncomfortable is an important “new normal.” Again, how does this square with the tenets of somatic education?  Perhaps I missed a body cue, didn’t take the time to find the words that went with the gut feeling, or the action. Perhaps I preferred to just be more comfortable and avoid the messiness.

Given that Somatics is of the living body and the body is what experiences pain and discomfort, what can somatic awareness teach as a way to support working with or through discomfort?  How can somatics support me to speak-up versus freeze in guilt. I have been wrestling with this for decades through my work in conflict resolution and violence prevention.  Over years of exploration, I have discovered that somatics helps both in awakening self-awareness (noticing habits, be they related to racism or poor physical mechanics), helps to access the physical symptoms of anger and can be a conduit for constructively transforming irritation, frustration, rage or fury (Eddy 1998, 2002, 2010a, 2010b)[note]I postulate that the capacity for somatic work to assist with emotional “dis-ease” became more common with the advent of the second generation – six female pioneers who happened to also be involved with dance.

They were more vocal (verbally and physically) about emotional distress, and the mind-body-emotional continuum. It is interesting to note that of these six white female dance professionals at least four immersed themselves in cultures with people of different skin color for a chunk of their lives. Emilie Conrad lived in Haiti. Anna Halprin also began to address racial issues through inter-racial dance projects in the 1960s. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen and Sondra Fraleigh lived in Japan (Eddy 2002,  2009, 2016a)[/note]

One process that I have developed and described is called “Waking Up to Self.”  It is a four-phase exploration that within the confines of privilege, safety or “whiteness” usually proceeds in this order – express, ground, integrate and communicate – EGIC (Eddy, Weber & Williamson 2014, Eddy 2016b).  When discussing this article with Valerie Rochon (2019) she encouraged that grounding infuse all phases of Waking up[note]See chart called Waking up to Self at end of the article.[/note]to Self. “Grounding” classically refers to being centered and connected to the earth. This can include becoming aware of one’s feet on the floor or can also include activities such as deep slow breathing, or slowing down any activity.

Generally, somatic activities provide accessible tools for finding allostasis (the multiple angled form of homeostasis) in the moment or after a negative incident. Rochon argues that grounding before expression is critical if the expression is already an action out in the world. One example, that I read today in the NY Review of Books online (Roye 2019) was Dorothy Wilkerson’s refusal some 70 years ago to buy a sandwich from a vendor “around the back and through a hole in the wall” versus directly from the front counter.  While she is proud of this courage today, I imagine it was deeply was humiliating to go through that experience. A take-a-way for me, from Rochon’s suggestion is that the invitation to express feelings requires security, safety, a “Safe Space.” This safety may not be there after years of oppression, and therefore grounding is needed first to build confidence and trust.

From a spiritual perspective these strategies can also be related to accessing Grace (Jones 2019) or Spirit. While pray or meditation in stillness can do this, somatic movement as a type of movement prayer is an inroad to feeling grace that more quickly prepares us for action. A goal I seek out are activities that support action with dignity. Knowledge about how the breathing apparatus functions physiologically and rehearsing these skills is both the gift of life, the proof of if, and important in recovery from trauma. Having ready access to breathing skills prepares us for handling stress as it arises during any activity, which is especially important when in a challenging situation. It is the ground that allows us to remain calm and keep pressing forward.

Some somatic approaches include appreciation of “gut feelings” and (re)learning to trust the sensations of our interior bodies for making decisions, rather than just relying on thinking/language based rationales. While language is important, another powerful tool from many somatic disciplines is the use of sounding or vocalization to support breath as well as an additional form of emotional expression (Eddy 2016).  These are just a few examples of explorations from somatic education that can be useful in moments when responding to injustices that occur daily or in during specific incidences.  Having access to somatic knowledge is the high-side of “somatics.”

The low-side is that somatic education is not immune to racism and other isms.  Since this essay is meant to be short, I will focus only on racism here, and elaborate on just a few areas of concern:

  • At present the 3 generations of Somatic Pioneers that I identified in Mindful Movement are all white. This is despite the fact that there have been millennia of holistic practices that have been developed by communities of color that contribute to the goals of self-healing and balance of the nervous system.
  • Most of these leaders of Somatic Disciplines had influences from the East or Global South (specifically – Afro-Caribbean and Australia/New Zealand) (Eddy 2002)
  • While underrepresented, there are leaders of different racial and ethnic backgrounds in the somatic community today. This raises the questions:
  1. Where are they and what are they feeling? What can whites as dominant forces do to release power and embolden the voices of underrepresented people?
  2. Is it always important to share people’s race in citing work. I don’t have an answer. Perhaps it is context driven?
  3. What degree of attribution is needed when ideas from another culture are incorporated into somatic practices? As I scholar I believe citation is always valuable – as a link to history and further knowledge. When does it become cooptation?

In a chapter in the book Attending to Movement (Eddy 2015) I share more on the dilemma that Michael Roguski and I “argue” and was originally mentioned in the article A brief history of somatic practices and dance (Eddy 2009).  In summary, Roguski (of Maori descent) and I discussed Emilie Conrad’s dance roots with Katherine Dunham and her years living in Haiti (Eddy 2002).  We debate, should Continuum, her somatic method, be taught with more explanation of where these ideas and healing movements come from? Working further with Roguski, a New Zealander with Maori heritage, who is a post-colonist theorist trained in psychology and cultural anthropology, helped me forge more questions. I pose them here, slightly reformatted:

Does the world of somatic movement, psychology or dance education help or hinder acculturation and/or cooptation?  Is the complementary health field an asset or an unjust trap leading into corporatized medicine without regard for the whole person and whole family system? How does a hospital work with integrative models and mind-body-emotion-spirit forces?   With the advances of the wellness industry and even the academy are we at jeopardy of once again commercializing the bodily experience through somatic experience?  And if so, whose body is represented?[note]The question of citing sources and protecting thoughts comes up in our world today around Trademarking and ServiceMarks as well. Who owns the intellectual property? Does one cite one’s source if one isn’t certified in the work?[/note]

The approach to seeking repair from injustice or finding solace from the experience of injustice – through Grace, Spirit, practicing meditation or being involved in religious or spiritual rituals of comfort have been highlighted a few times. Somatic awareness is by definition an entry point into mindfulness. It can also be a doorway into the numinous, the liminal, the right side of the cortex (Taylor 2008), the spiritual.

The Somatic practices are generally secular, non-religious experiences; however, many people experience them as spiritual (Eddy, 1995, 2005, Eddy, Weber & Williamson 2014) and some may use them to support defined religious beliefs.  Somatic awareness is contemplative and as Ford shares above can bring us into different brain wave states. Somatics involve specifically the practice of directing nonjudgmental, open attention to one’s body and listening to its messages. Movement or stillness can serve to relax, focus, relieve stress or pain, or gain spiritual insight or practical wisdom.

There is an exponential growth in the practice of mindfulness and many do so through learning meditation. Meditation practiced through somatic movement has as an advantage and that is the fact that one learns to be in meditation while moving, to recognize that our kinesthetic state can be hyper-aroused, regulated or at-ease, that when we move in different ways, we are shifting mind-states. Indeed, I entitled a one-week somatic exploration at Bates College in 1990 “Exploring the Moving Mind.”  When we are able to contact the right brain and open to valuing all of humankind (Taylor 2008, Eddy 2016) I have found that we can also use personal somatic investigation to support activism – Somaction (Eddy, 1995, 2005, Eddy, Weber & Williamson 2014).  Spiritual practice has a long tradition of allowing for forgiveness.  The somatics of forgiveness are ripe for research.

A word of caution however, somewhat like the silencing of racist forces within our institutions – meditation can serve to cover over feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, harassment, or violence. Masters (2010) refers to this as “spiritual by-passing.”  To avoid bypassing, another model of spirituality that I grew up with I believe is relevant within this context. It seeks to always take spiritual connection into action, most often in movement toward justice.  It is called Spiritual Coordination (Eddy, Weber &Williamson 2014; Eddy, Morgan & Vadi forthcoming). Spiritual Coordination is a form leadership developed by my father Norm Eddy (a community organizer in Spanish Harlem) that guides how to use multi-faith (including agnostic) spiritual disciplines to move into social action.

Its basic tenets are to (1) use meditation or prayer to center, to calm and to open to mysterious forces more potent than human egos – experienced by bodily feeling of openness to compassion; (2) only work on issues of injustice that are voiced by the people experiencing the injustices and who will be devising the solutions; (3) these same people need to continually take the lead in finding and enacting the solutions; (4) ensuring the solutions include systemic change and (5) celebrate successes in a community-wide event.

As Vadi also notes, “In meditation, I experience our deep and common humanity. Norm knew he was privileged and white but he also knew that there was an even deeper common humanity that he shared with everyone including drug addicts and street people.” (Vadi 2019).  Being aware of race may be scary and difficult but it doesn’t have to freeze people or “tie them up into knots.”  One resource for handling these emotions is to find the spiritual sensations that many somatic experts access when in touch with the body in deep appreciation. This appreciation can lead to an experience or reverence of the sacredness of the human body, elevating its materiality. This state can in turn help move us out of frozen, numb or disembodied conditions, into compassion, where compassionate action can be a vital force for change.
In conclusion, a koan: In Mindful Movement (Eddy 2016a) early on in the chapter on “social somatics” I quote the words of Clyde Ford.

I do nothing throughout the book to indicate that he is a black man. My question today is: When is racial information important to share?  I am glad to have this opportunity here to highlight the agency, intelligence and leadership of Clyde Ford as a man of color. I believe we need to do this for more of the People Of Color within the somatic field.  I have had numerous colleagues and students from around the world ask me where the People Of Color are who are active in this field. They are, infused throughout – in the history, in the practices, in the current work, and in the leadership.  When is it important to name this? Today I was in Cordova and came upon a photographic show of Sandro Miller – Malkovitch Malkovitch Malkovitch (Miller 2019) – which is an homage to great photographers. I was delighted to see Gordon Parks amongst them. Should his skin color have been highlighted?  Perhaps much like Roguski’s appeal to not overstate it is best to experience Parks as just one of the greats along with Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, Robert Maplethorpe etc.

There is a complexity in working with the universality of being human – that we each have a body. The directness of sharing what we have in common – flesh and blood, affording pain and pleasure, and the science of it, is what is often emphasized.[note]The writing of Margherita Di Giorgi (2015) is a refreshing exception.[/note] This is good and can be the very experience that leads to discovering the sacredness of being embodied and that we ARE equal at a fundamental level.  However, when the “going gets tough,” for people with privilege, people with the dominant racial, economic, gender advantage, it can easier to choose to focus on our similarities rather to enter into the mire of acknowledging difference and the resulting experiences of oppression that are embedded in our cultures and history. This is a call is for people with privilege to resist this ease and to use somatics for somaction to take action for justice.

The norm for privileged whites is to dismiss what is missing – for instance, to NOT have a dialogue about inequities, this holds true within the somatic profession as well. And we need to formulate and discuss questions like: “When and how to best appreciate and give credit to original sources.  How does the absorption of seemingly universal knowledge as “new knowledge” albeit sourced from an old tradition relate to appropriation? When is it important to identify a person’s race or heritage? I believe all will be context driven – guidelines that need to bend. What is most important is to stay in dialogue.

There are many appropriate uses of somatic knowledge – a key one is to use it to sense and feel our shared humanity, to allow it to nourish our strength and courage to uphold fairness, compassion and equality for all.
For people experiencing oppression the call could be to use the resilience all humans can access through somatic practice to insist on better more ethical action.

Clearly this article raises more questions than it answers. My hope is that these questions will erupt into new types of conversations in our work, in our classrooms, in our habitual responses – instilled with increased honesty and the willingness to confront and stick with the “difficult truths” that we are living with. If we allow all that we feel and know to be true to rise up without censor, then ground it with breath and physical awareness, the ensuing discussion may become a rationale for taking action. By turning awareness toward injustice, we are more likely to shift paradigms than in the wake of the passivity of silence.

For the majority of the therapists and educators reading this I imagine this type of interchange will most often require passage out of “the comfortable” into “the uncomfortable” zone, as well as an explicit choice to turn toward our unsung heroes and fellow leaders who are knowledgeable about embodiment from all cultures, races, sexual orientations and economic settings. This is a call to get into “shaking things up.” Discomfort has value. From here new rules of engagement based on social, economic, environmental and bodily justice may emerge.

FIGURE 1: ‘Waking Up to Self’ Dynamic Embodiment Somatic Movement Therapy – Using Anger Effectively

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