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Working with poles in Sensory Awareness

Dear Friends of Sensory Awareness,

A heartfelt thank you to all of you who have generously responded to our annual appeal with your memberships and donations. It is because of your support that we can keep offering opportunities to practice Sensory Awareness.

If you haven’t done so yet, you can learn more about the benefits of a membership and make your gift here:

Leaders Guild Members (SALG), please follow this link to renew, not the button above.

Curious about the photograph in the above collage?

A student asked me recently: “Why is lying on poles part of Sensory Awareness?” The question came as such a surprise. I realized with some astonishment that in over four decades of studying Sensory Awareness and with all the research I have done as a biographer of Charlotte Selver, I never asked where working with poles came from. We know that Charlotte’s teacher Elsa Gindler used them but we don’t know if it was her invention or if she learned it from her teachers.*

The question inspired me to look through my collection of photographs to see where poles show up. This is how the collage came about. Here are some notes to the pictures. I hope you’ll enjoy this excursion through the decades.

With much gratitude for your participation and your generosity,

Stefan Laeng
SAF Executive Director

  • * Sascha Rimasch wrote in response to this that Charlotte told him Gindler had the idea of lying on pole because of her colleague Heinrich Jacoby, who had a deformed spine (from Rickets, I believe). In an attempt to help him she suggested he lie on a broom stick, which he then supposedly did for many years “until he was a free man.”

This is in Charlotte Selver’s studio in Leipzig, Germany, taken in the early 1930s, after Charlotte made the radical shift away from the choreographed movements of Bode Gymnastik to the explorative work inspired by her teacher Elsa Gindler. In the foreground is Charlotte’s student and assistant Erika Kimstedt. The other young women are students of a high school.

Charlotte Selver: “I went to meet with the director of a large girls school, the Erste Höhere Mädchenschule because I was hoping to teach there. The director was a large square-shouldered man with an enormous bald head. I told him about my work and he, sitting at his desk, explained: ‘This here is the First Girls’ Highschool where the daughters of Leipzig’s important and well-to-do families go to school. Then there is the Second Girls’ Highschool and that’s where the daughters of the fat Jews go.’ When he was done I said: ‘Mr. Headmaster, I cannot teach at your school.’ He, ‘Why?’ Because my father is one of those fat Jews you just mentioned,’ I responded. You should have seen the man. He sat there and his huge head went down. After a long silence he raised his head and said: ‘You just taught me something. Of course you will teach at my school, of course!’ And he immediately reached for the phone to call his wife. ‘There’s someone here who will give you private lessons,’ he said to her. And he sent me to the gym where I had to demonstrate my work in front of all students. It must have been very funny because everyone laughed. But they hired me on the spot and the students soon began to win races and other competitions.”

Though some of Charlotte’s patrons tried to protect her from the Nazis, she was forced to give up her teaching and her studio in Leipzig in 1935, when she was also robbed of her German citizenship. She left Germany for the United States in 1938.

From an article in Life Magazine, April 21, 1961, about Alan Watts: Eager Exponent of Zen. The caption says: “At the New York Studio of a colleague, Charlotte Selver (foreground), Watts experiments with bamboo pole.”

There’s no name for this. Charlotte learned it in Germany. It’s a Western form of Taoism – a form of spontaneous action that makes you and your surroundings become one.” Alan Watts

To this I would humbly respond: It’s not that it makes us become one – we already are but we lost the sense of it. Sensory Awareness has indeed the potential to reawaken this deep knowing that we are part and not apart from everything. I’m not saying this lightly. I believe it is crucial for our survival and for the health of this planet that we cultivate – with practices like Sensory Awareness – the conditions for this reawakening to be possible.

New York City, 1962. My search did not turn up any work related pictures from the 1940s and ’50s. Hard to imagine that Charlotte wouldn’t have taken any. She had originally studied photography and always had a camera nearby.

This is a more “classic” way of working with the poles, which students of Charlotte and of other representatives of the work of Elsa Gindler will immediately recognize. From Charlotte Selver’s 2001 Study Group at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center near her home in Muir Beach. In the foreground Sensory Awareness leader Hannah Rausch from Vienna. The image is a still from Sascha Rimasch’s extensive film documentation of Charlotte Selver’s workshops in the last years of her life.

The late Seymour Carter (center in the back) leading a session during the Sensory Awareness Foundation’s March 2003 conference at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Charlotte Selver gave her last official class on that weekend. She then retired at the age of 102 but continued to work with a small circle of students at her home in Muir Beach during the last months of her life.

From SAF’s 2014 conference at Vallombrosa Retreat Center in Menlo Park, California. I believe this is our dear Sara Gordon, long-time secretary of the Foundation, jumping.

An example of free exploration during a workshop I gave in Freiburg, Germany, in 2014. Without being given specific instructions, students found their own way of experiencing balance through playful stick work.

Another example of free exploration. Enric Bruguera offered a series of “experiments,” as we sometimes call them, with tiny sticks during our 2016 conference at the Garrison Institute in Garrison NY.

Image in the rope circle: I believe I took this photo at Garrison too. We had very long bamboo sticks that were to be lifted by as many students as could fit alongside them, each using only one finger. The tricky part was to then bring it back to the floor again together – a surprisingly almost impossible task.

Two photos from a Zen & Sensory Awareness retreat I gave together with Patrick Damschen and Johanna Debik in Hesseln, Germany, in 2018.
You can read more about the long friendship between Zen and Sensory Awareness practitioners here: When Bodhidharma Met a German Gymnastics Teacher.

Finally, at the base of the collage is a photo from our recent workshop in New York City, October 2023.

Leaders Guild Members (SALG), please follow this link to renew, not the button above.

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