Skinner releasing technique and the autonomic nervous system
: initial discoveries on processes of nurturing embodied experiences of safety and freedom

  • Lizzy Le Quesne

    Student thesis: Master's ThesisMaster of Arts by Research


    This study explores the relationship between creative somatic dance practice Skinner Releasing Technique (SRT) and the human autonomic nervous system (ANS). Specifically this thesis considers how SRT, through supporting optimal function of the ANS, is able to engender embodied experiences of safety and freedom. It develops an understanding of the ways in which SRT frames a practical process based in astute “kinaesthetic awareness” (Skinner 2006) and somatic movement exploration that is able to access and stimulate the ANS, supporting states that engender profound and creative qualities of embodied safety and freedom in dance and in life.

    SRT, created by US dancer Joan Skinner in the 1960s, combines poetic imagery, touch, sound and somatic awareness to explore specific technical principles of dance and movement such as “softening”, “multi-directional alignment” and “buoyancy”. These are explored through improvisational movement and immersive visualisations in varying states of consciousness, and frame a delicately transformational process of personal unfolding within the “physical self” (Skinner 2006). Steven Porges’ polyvagal theory outlines the structure, function and behaviour of the ANS in its constant “quest for safety” (2017:xv); and reveals how the capacity to establish an embodied sense of safety underlies human emotional, mental and behavioural wellness. The thesis analyses practices and processes of SRT in relation to Steven Porges’ polyvagal theory of ANS function.

    Drawing on Porges and on the work of practitioners who have developed methods to apply polyvagal theory in therapeutic practice – principally clinical psychotherapist Deb Dana and bodywork healer Stanley Rosenberg - the thesis proposes an understanding of how SRT supports sophisticated function of the ANS and in particular the ventral vagal nerve, the “vagal brake” and Porges’ “social engagement system” (Porges 2011:120-121) - through its detailed, sensorial and compassionate approach to “letting go” (Skinner 2006) of habitual holding patterns within the body. I also draw on the work of embodied trauma specialist Peter Levine to explore processes of releasing trapped energy in the body. The study explores how the multi-layered combination of somatic and imaginative processes, delicately intertwined within SRT, is particularly well positioned to address the ANS which itself functions through highly sensitive yet unconscious, physiological processes. I develop a theory that SRT, embracing multiple levels of embodied consciousness and encapsulating these in easily learnable and accessible “dances” or “movement studies” (Skinner 2006) which embody “hybrid autonomic states” (Porges 2011:35-36), is particularly able to practise and maintain over time improved ANS function. I argue that SRT is thus able to support regulated qualities of mobilization and immobilization that underwrite wellbeing, dance performance and expression, and embodied emancipation.

    The research combines theoretical study of polyvagal theory, the work of Dana, Rosenberg, and Levine, applied to reflection on the author’s embodied experience as a professional somatic dance artist and teacher of SRT. Polyvagal theory and the author’s reflections on practice are explored with reference to Joan Skinner’s currently unpublished ‘Underlying Principles of the Skinner Releasing Technique’ (Skinner 2010) and class transcripts (Skinner 2011).
    Date of AwardSept 2021
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorRuth Gibson (Supervisor), Victoria Thoms (Supervisor) & Sarah Whatley (Supervisor)

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