Massage Magazine Interviews Joan
Wulfsohn’s Cellular Recall Therapy reaches clients on an energetic level, opening them up to new creative potential. In this interview Wulfsohn describes the development of her technique, which she has brought to California by way of South Africa and Europe.
When I walked into the garden at Joan Wulfsohn’s last June, it was full of atmosphere, with tiles, plants, trees, shrubs and a lovely fountain in the center. When not in Paris she lives up in an old part of Hollywood, her place refreshingly cool and shaded. She has a beautiful 1928 apartment, styled with Moorish/Spanish influence, and with lots of well-kept wood and tiles.
Wulfsohn has a wonderful vitality and energy about her that makes you feel she will suddenly stand up and show you something. Her hair is short and dances like the fire in her head, her thoughts full of reflection and discovery.
Joan was teaching her Cellular Recall Therapy at the International Professional School of Bodywork (IPSB) in San Diego, which aims to release and heighten others’ creative potential. She developed this method during 30 years as a celebrated dancer, teacher, choreographer, actress and bodyworker.
At a class I attended at IPSB, Joan had students work with the client’s breathing. The person on the table was to breathe normally and try not to change their breath, and then the person who was going to work on them was to match the breathing. She allowed them a long time to come into synchronicity. After that was accomplished, she talked about and taught them a stroke, one of the fundamental exercises. She indicated that there’s no set choreography, strokes or particular exercises that are part of her teaching format. In her class Joan explained about how she works on a low massage table, that she likes to work very low so she can draw upon the earth energy, and use her body more fully as she’s working on people.
What is her work and how is it accomplished?
These are questions that our scientific minds want exact descriptions of, that our emotional and spiritual selves need only to experience. During my session with her, the hour passed quickly and I still don’t know exactly what she did with her hands or with my body. I know it was extremely peaceful and nurturing, and I felt my breath deepen and my body lengthen. When I arose I had a sense of quietude that had been missing in my life in the last few hectic months.
I believe that she and I created our own ritual of comfort and caring, in a liquid way. I felt as though we had meditated together and came to a knowing place where I could acknowledge my own inner beauty and value. Joan had touched a place in me that needed no explanations, only acknowledgment and serenity.
What was it that appealed to you about bodywork after being a teacher for so long?
Wulfsohn: “One of the major reasons I decided to actually make a career of hands-on bodywork was because of my battle with ego as a teacher. I now realize that the ego could have been the spirit, if you’ll just put it in the spirit’s hands. But I had spoken so much for so many years, and shouted so loud and realized that maybe four or five people in the room actually got the message. If I could teach without saying a word, then I would eliminate the ‘me’ in it. The people who had difficulty with the class the other night were the people who found that one had to be too passive, too patient and too much in the service of the person on the table.”
That wasn’t easy for them.
Wulfsohn: “No, it was not easy for them to be unable to manipulate or control, when they realized the first lesson that I give is how to follow in the dance, not how to lead. I could immediately see who was not going to stay in the class.”
How did you develop cellular recall therapy?
Wulfsohn: “My first realization was that I was a person who goes into trance very easily and always has been very familiar and comfortable in a trance state since a very young child…
“From learning to meditate I realized that one enters a stage of meditation by concentrating on one’s own breath. So it occurred to me that if I concentrated on the breath of the client and timed all my movements in rhythm with their breath as if their breath was a tune and I was following their rhythm, and I was dancing to their tune and dancing their body to their tune, that they would become hypnotized. Whether they knew it or not, they would be focusing on their breath because every move I made had to do with whether they were breathing in or breathing out. I could put them in this altered state by following their breath rhythms.
“They would then experience these memories. When you go into that altered state, everything slips, all your boundaries slip, you keep sliding into other dimensions. When you touch certain parts of the body, they are evocative of certain periods of your life, a certain event that happened in your life…
“I tried to put that together. I thought if I could put somebody in an altered state plus stay long enough on any given part of their body, for them to start drifting when I was working in that one place for even 10 minutes, which is a long time, that they would be able to access memories…”
Whatever their memory is, they still feel safe.
Wulfsohn: “Yes. The best compliment anybody ever gives me is to say that they totally forgot that I was even in the room. They didn’t know they weren’t alone in there. They forgot they were having a session.”
Then they’ll come out of that state back into their bodies again.
Wulfsohn: “Right. Well, they’re in their bodies all the time”
What distinguishes your technique from other types of bodywork?
Wulfsohn: “A lot of practitioners, especially those who deal with energy work, lack grounding and a scientific structure. I have tried to bring that together, this ability to follow the body as well as to lead, which comes from dance, which comes from really allowing yourself to be led in dance and having that push-pull, that dynamic between your body and another body. I combine being the leader with no expectations of a specific goal happening with that person.”
It’s not really goal-oriented.
Wulfsohn: “No. I might have a goal in mind but I don’t insist on it happening. Very often I have a subliminal goal when somebody comes to me and tells me that they’ve had something happen in their past, or they’ve had a certain illness. I think without knowing it there’s an intention to address that on a subliminal level.”
To bring balance to that issue.
Wulfsohn: “Yes, and then it happens. That’s the only way I explain why I’ve had results with issues about which I know nothing. If people came to me with something new, why did I get a result? Eventually, I understood by working with enough people with the same problem, how to go about it, but essentially that person was my teacher when they first came to me…
“There is a kind of nurturing, maternal, intense kind of love I will feel when I’m touching somebody that has nothing to do with who they are and who I am, because when I’m not touching them, I don’t feel it. That’s something else that takes over…
“More, I think it’s the fact that I deal with the body on an emotional, mechanical, spiritual and energetic level. I specifically try to deal with each individual’s creative process.”
There’s a term used in the course description, thin boundary and thick boundary people. Would you say that people who could be receptive to this work are thin boundaried?
Wulfsohn: “Yes, absolutely. Thin boundaried people are those who ‘merge’ easily with others, and are empathetic to the others’ experience.”
I noticed you told them to hold pressure and stretch the skin until you felt it melting. That’s very interesting. Do you have any training or other bodywork experience?
Wulfsohn: “Not really. I’m singularly ignorant about a lot of techniques…. Feldenkrais put it together in a package that was extremely lucid. I felt he brought the male energy to [his technique] that he had learned from a female.
“We [women] don’t explain things well. We understand things and then we need men for that kind of direction and thrust and the way they document things in a lucid manner. So I felt that gave me an enormous amount of documented, clear instruction on how the mechanics of movement could be taught….Then I experienced some Alexander work, not a great deal. I never experienced exactly the kind of touch that I have tried to give to people….”
Do you feel Feldenkrais taught people to bring their intentions to their work, or take their personality out?
Wulfsohn: “I think that he very much spoke of it not having intention, or personality….This is what I found where the work hadn’t gone that extra step. If you read his books it certainly says so, but in practice it was not always a fact because people didn’t deal with their personal issues in the work. There was a great evolution of the mechanism of movement, but no real change in the character of the people. As you know, we don’t change. But if we gain an inner knowledge and look at that, and acknowledge it and try to control it a little bit, we can somehow be open to something purer coming through. We make space for it, I think.”
Could you tell me more about the principles that you’re working with?
Wulfsohn: “Right…to help release and heighten others’ creative potential. Also, I want to help them access altered states, most importantly the’dreaming’ or energy body without the use of psychotropic drugs. The goal is to give the client the ability to make choices beyond the normal range of options available….”
And what would the syllabus be for energy work…for someone who didn’t know chakras, or anything?
Wulfsohn: “In the classes that I teach, I take visualizations from anywhere I can find them. From working through the chakras and the colors, visualizing them. Scrutinizing one’s response to the different chakras as one goes through them….”
How is the public’s acceptance of your bodywork?
Wulfsohn: “It’s different in the U.S. because I’m in a place where there are all these people doing healing work, and all these techniques and schools are strongly established. A lot of people that I have worked with have gone into one or another of the established schools, such as Alexander or Feldenkrais work. I had a lot of people [from] Feldenkrais training. I have a lot of people [who do] Alexander work in Paris…
“What I found was my work was very well-accepted all over Europe. I’ve taught in 11 countries, which is a lot. I think it was because I had a prior reputation, as a teacher, choreographer and dancer. When I started to teach this, people would eventually say, ‘Well, let’s go and listen to whatever she’s teaching.’ Here, there’s enormous competition so it’s taken longer. But, it’s certainly happening…
“In the beginning I thought that I had spontaneous success in Europe and then when I sat down and thought about it, I realized the kind of people who were behind me in Europe were those like Rosella Hightower who was also artistic director of the Paris opera, people who were directors of well-known companies. All these very prestigious schools were in fact very responsible for giving me a reputation. It wasn’t that it just happened. So when I first came here, I thought if I just went and sat in a room somewhere everybody’s going to come….”
What do you do when you come to a point of resistance?
Wulfsohn: “I don’t go to where there’s resistance. I back off from resistance because of tricking the mind into forgetting limits. When coaxing resistance, I’m aware that my client and I are experiencing the same thing. One of three things can happen: one, they are ready to release and will let go willingly; two, we hit a defense, a counter-resistance; and three, the person has an awareness of the resistance. In either of the last two cases, I back off until the person calms down and they’ll let go anyway.
“Part of what I do is this ‘sliding the skin.’ There’s a lot of supporting and moving the skeleton. I’m constantly showing people what they can do rather than what they can’t do. People were confused with this in class the other night. They wanted to try and lead the body to a place that it couldn’t go….
“What I do is keep tricking the body into forgetting its limits and then when that moment of forgetfulness comes, there’s always a huge sigh that happens, a release, then I lead it into a new repertoire.”
So you wait for the breath. I heard you telling the students to wait until they could synchronize their breathing with yours.
Wulfsohn: “Yes, I do that just as an exercise. I don’t have people synchronize their breathing constantly, but as an exercise.”
But being aware is quite important.
Wulfsohn: “Yes, and you’ll find that if you ask people to watch each other’s breathing that both for the watcher and the watchee, so to speak, there’s an enormous feeling of nurturing that happens.”
Wulfsohn: “Pay attention, exactly. So that the whole of the first part of the lessons is only about paying attention, not hitting the limit. Every time you hit somebody’s limit, it re-establishes the idea that they have a boundary. You have to trick people into forgetting the boundaries….”
So in Europe, people followed this idea of energy work…
Wulfsohn: “Yes. In Switzerland there were a lot of psychologists. In Italy I have practically only dancers and some people who teach. I used to have circus people. That was great having these incredible acrobats.”
Europeans acknowledged a need for another element, not just straightening out the fascia and all the instruction to go back to balance. There needs to be emotion.
Wulfsohn: “Exactly. I went through the Rolfing training program as a model. I think I had the best training in the whole program because what [the instructor] did was use me as a model and taught it on my body.”
Did more emotional issues surface?
Wulfsohn: “You know, I think that I’m a special case insomuch as I’ve done so much work in theater and so much introspection that I will just really sob and cry right there in front of a whole group full of people. I have no problems with that.”
Did your instructor ever say this is what will happen? “When this happens do such and such, ignore it?”
Wulfsohn: “No, I think what happens when practitioners work on me is they can see I really have a grip, because I’ll be sobbing and then suddenly I’ll start laughing at myself. I can speak lucidly about it all the time, all the way through the process. Again, if you’ve done theater you always have a lucidity about your personal process because you get paid to show it.
“I found that with dancers, a lot of the time, they don’t need to talk much about the emotional issues because they really are accustomed to dealing with their problems, to dealing with pain. If they want to talk, I’m there for them. They know they can talk if they need to, but I don’t force the issue.
“I think that gives people a certain kind of security knowing that if they want to be private they can, or they may be working with a therapist and prefer to speak with their therapist about the stuff that comes up. Or the stuff comes up after they’ve spoken with the therapist on the table.
“I’ll emphasize to a great degree in my teaching and the channeling of energy that people have to get past those first chakras and bring the energy through the heart chakra. I will do things like get on the table with the person, cradle them, or wrap myself around them, if they’re really in a terrible state. I think you have to be very careful about teaching people to do that because people really have to clean up their act before they can do that.”
Wulfsohn: “This psychologist in Switzerland, after working with me a couple of years said, ‘You know, I’ve done a great deal of workshops and training and therapy, and I’ve never ever been in a workshop before where sexuality was so clearly divorced from touching.”‘
Oh sure, people confuse sexuality and sensuality…
Wulfsohn: “With dancing, there is the difference between sexuality and sensuality. Because it was so sensual. We are so sensual and we roll over each other all the time in sweaty dripping bodies, with any part of the body applied to any part of the other person’s body. We never think twice about it.”
That’s just because we’re using the body as a tool. We’re not using it as a seduction.
Wulfsohn: “Exactly…. ”
Can you recall a particularly rewarding experience?
Wulfsohn: “One of my most rewarding experiences was this 8-year-old boy who was brain damaged. He was my teacher. An 8-year-old does not lie down on the table and let you do bodywork on him.
“So, for years I was playing games, anything that would incorporate some nervous system education and then he got rewarded after doing a little bit of what I wanted him to do, acting out all these stories with him. We were using a play context, acting out developmental patterns similar to sensory motor integration, but my own creation….
“We put costumes on and clogs and dressed up, and this was part of the session. So that he could get to direct me. I realized that with him, he’d been directed so much by so many doctors that he had to be the boss.
“The incredible thing about him is that he has picked up so much of my work. He’ll tell me to lie on the table sometimes and he’ll do stuff on me, and I realize he has technically understood….”
And what is his situation now?
Wulfsohn: “He has much better balance, functions better, and has a wonderful speech teacher, so he also speaks a lot better.”
So these were all things they didn’t expect to happen?
Wulfsohn: “Right. I also worked on a brain-damaged baby in Paris who had never been touched by anyone but her mother and wouldn’t even go to her father. The very first session I had with her I performed on her mother’s body. This child was spastic, and spastic children do not sleep. They’re constantly there, and can’t rest. She would fall asleep for an hour while I worked on her mother….”
You recently returned to South Africa?
Wulfsohn: “I only went to South Africa very recently. I had stayed away for more than 25 years. I had left when I found it politically impossible to be there. I’d also lost my citizenship there many years ago, and I had a pattern of walking away from a situation or from people who had hurt me deeply. I would simply pack my bags and leave and never go back for many years until I realized it was a pattern….
“South Africa caused me so much pain that I just never wanted to see it again. I went back only about four years ago. I had an incredible response.
“I owe it partly to the journalist who came to me for a session. It was one of those serendipitous meetings where the person’s right for the work and the work is right for them, and there’s a happy marriage that happens to the person. They have an incredible experience, and they’re going to write something great, obviously.
“What she wrote…brought so many people who felt that because I had gone through all this garbage they could trust me. Then it took me until last year to break down and take out an ad. Because where I come from, in South Africa and England, you just don’t do this. You don’t advertise. It’s just considered the sleaziest, most unethical way to attract clientele. You just don’t do it….”
If I were to come in to you for a session, how long would it be?
Wulfsohn: “An hour.”
It seems to have its own beginning, middle and ending in that hour.
Wulfsohn: “Oh yes. What I do is pretty structured. Once I decide what area I’m going to work on, the person’s reaction may lead me in different directions, but there’s always five minutes of integration that is very clear and structured at the end of the session. You have to integrate for the person what they have learned. Usually you have to integrate by giving them a feeling of a movement through the spine from the feet that has to do with walking, or standing up, something very practical….
“They have a way to incorporate what they have learned into their normal pattern of movement. When they get up, they get up with a new function that they haven’t had before. That new function has to be integrated into their present and existing function….”
I heard you mention in class something about the body analysis, a sketch you go through on the body.
Wulfsohn: “Yes….By putting a body flat on its back with no support I begin anywhere and analyze where it resists gravity. You can already see where the key patterns are. Even a natural curve in the spine will flatten out if the body is relaxed. The backs of the knees will touch down. The shoulders will touch, the wrists will touch. The body is relaxed. You know the sacrum is going to be involved also.
“If you see wrists off the table you know nothing is happening in the scapula. There are certain patterns that are indicative immediately of certain forms of stress. I do also speak about the symbology of certain patterns of holding, like the thrusting backwards of the pelvis, for instance, and what it can mean psychologically….Many times it relates to sexual fear, refusal or frigidity. It can also occur when a child has tried to walk or stand too soon….”
So the metaphor of the body translates into what the thought process might be?
Wulfsohn: “Exactly, and also to a certain extent what body parts in general relate to what period of our lives….Starting with the fetus, as infants, going through sibling rivalry the first seven years of your life which go to your knees, which is why people hurt their knees in competition all the time. Makes perfect sense….
“Then you get to adolescence in the thighs because obviously one’s whole sexual awakening, thighs, pelvis. You get into the pelvis at the age of creating, of reproducing and you keep moving upwards….
“There are certain patterns that I have discovered just by seeing people do things over and over again. I see women turn their left foot in, and after I see three or four I realize that they have been sexually abused or have been very promiscuous. So either way, they’re protecting themselves. But if I see that pattern, I know right away that nine times out of 10 I can assume there was some sexual abuse….”
How long are your workshops?
Wulfsohn: “Usually four hours a week for 10 weeks….”
So 40 hours altogether.
Wulfsohn: “Forty hours right now. Ninety percent of the people in the workshop have worked with me before. I guess this is just the way it’s going to have to be in the beginning….So it really is going to have to be people who have reached a certain level of both sophistication and wisdom.”
And childlike ability…
To be completely open, vulnerable and available.
Wulfsohn: “Yes….I think that it’s work that requires the practitioner to have done a great deal of personal work on themselves. And this is a little daunting for a first year massage student….
“I have a large community, for some reason, of child educators. I think it started with one or two and then they told everybody else. So at every workshop I have all these kindergarten teachers, and they use it.”
They’re allowed to do hands-on work with the children?
Wulfsohn: “I guess there’s not as much stigma there [as in the United States]. In Europe I also have a lot of chiropractors and osteopaths. I have a lot of people who are already working professionals in the field who come to the workshops.”
Is this the first class you’re teaching in the United States?
Wulfsohn: “Yes, this is the first class that I’m teaching in the United States that has any length to it. I am hopeful I will be able to take it to other levels. In Europe I took it to another level every year, and there’s a whole section of work that I haven’t even suggested at IPSB yet….”
How did you get to where you are today? How did the bodywork start for you as a dancer?
Wulfsohn: “What happened was I went to visit my dance partner in Paris. I told my husband that I was thinking of separating from him and going to Paris to think about it, and what he did was take the children and leave the country while I was in Paris.”
You were in the midst of a dance career at that time?
Wulfsohn: “No. I was acting because it was very hard for me to dance. I was living in Laguna Beach, had three children at the time to take care of. My first son was born in South Africa. I was more or less housebound and what I did was go out one day and audition for a play, not for a moment thinking I would get it, and I did. I was entered into competition in a festival and I got this award for best actress in California for the very first play I did. So that really launched me into something. That was very good for me….
“Then, the very next year I ended up in Orange County Hospital. They took a look at all these lumps in my breasts and said I had to have both breasts removed.”
What year was this, in the 1970s?
Wulfsohn: “Yes, 1972. I was 33 at the time. I subsequently had a lot of surgeries after that first. I had reconstructive work done immediately. I was terribly uncomfortable with it and had two more surgeries to reduce the size of the implants. My body constantly reacted. One of the implants actually broke. It didn’t even occur to me not to have reconstructive surgery.”
Yes, because you wanted to retain the female shape.
Wulfsohn: “Exactly. So, what with all this trauma of not ever seeing my children and added to that the trauma of not really being able to have much movement in my arms.”
From the adhesions.
Wulfsohn: “Yes. It was a long time before I could even get my arms above my head without actually hearing tearing inside. So I got into Feldenkrais work. Mainly because I wanted to get that freedom of movement in my arms.”
And you’d seen results from other people.
Wulfsohn: “I hadn’t seen results with other people, but somebody who hired me as a guest choreographer at the college in which she was the dance department administrator was a Feldenkrais practitioner and was trying to get into a practice. She did a lot of work on me as a guinea pig, and for this I’m very grateful because I got a lot of free work. Also, she worked a great deal of stuff out of my body. She went very slowly and very gently.”
She was exploring with you.
Wulfsohn: “Of course, she was exploring and was extremely sensitive….I just loved this soft exploring of my body and I had several epiphanies and incredible revelations. I would go into trance and have all these visions and memories. I realize now it was not so much her work but my natural inclination to be in a trance state. It was very easily triggered by having bodywork….”
So you surrendered to any possibility.
Wulfsohn: “Any possibility. It was a fabulous period of my life….I started into this bodywork because I literally had lost my identity and had to reinvent myself.
“I started to invent my own spiritual practice, my own religion. I went in and out of all kinds of ways of believing. I always created my own rituals anyway. I thought if anybody was going to be the priest it was going to be me. That was a very creative period for me. The bodywork just opened up a part of my brain that had never worked or functioned before. I became far more lucid, far more logical, not less intuitive, but I added that other dimension of being a little more logical than I was, understanding a little bit more [about] mathematical concepts which were very difficult for me before.
“When I saw what it could do, I started to practice on my friends who were dancers in Paris. I had never had any instruction so I was just creating something that I thought I’d frozen in my body. There were certain things about alignment and placement, and putting one’s limbs in a socket in a way that connected to the rest of the spine that I absolutely knew intuitively, and I still think there are very few people who know how to do that….”
What tells you you know that it’s lined up?
Wulfsohn: “I can feel there’s a place where the leg or the arm has no restrictions to clicking into a place where you push even slightly there’s a whole ripple of movement all the way up through to the head. There’s a connection that if I move a toe it will move up to the head. You could see the head move. Veronique Rabl, who was a very good Feldenkrais practitioner and also a physician from Vienna, said that when she worked with me, she had never worked with anybody who had such an idea of coordinated muscular function.
“I think a lot of that came from dance. You know what it is? When I was a child, I was taught ballet by teachers who didn’t dance, who taught in high heels and tight skirts, right. A book my father gave me when I was 8 years old taught me everything I ever knew about line. I would go through that book over and over again and then recreate those lines in the mirror.
“I always had fabulous lines as a dancer. Even when I didn’t have very strong technique, I had impeccable line, and I got it from that book. So I learned very young to visualize and recreate in line. I think that something that’s maybe a little bit special in the work I do is my understanding about line and alignment, from dance, and being able to show it to the body. Then the body just gets it and remembers it.”
The wonderful part of it is that the body experiences the “ah-ha” without the mind having to.
Wulfsohn: “Right, and that’s where I learned to look at the breath. It goes, ‘Oh yeah, that’s so good, why does that feel so right?’ The person always experiences a feeling of rightness. In other words, people still need to understand….
“When I was first teaching this, I was teaching a great deal in Switzerland where these people were scientific because they were psychologists. So they were asking for explanations of things that I only knew intuitively. So they were forcing me to define what I did. They taught me to teach what I did by asking questions.”
Yes, the descriptions you would give in those answers.
Wulfsohn: “Exactly. It’s been years for me of training myself to answer people’s questions that has taught me that I had a method. I had no idea I had a method. Now it’s all come together where I can say, ‘Well, I can teach a technique.’ Even then I hope that people will just take what they get from it, use what they want.”
So right now you work privately with people during the week and then occasionally are teaching?
Wulfsohn: “And I teach in Europe.”
When you teach in Europe, are those one-week classes?
Wulfsohn: “Yes, I usually will teach for a whole week, or I will teach three-day weekends. It’s always at least three-day weekends….”
Do you see yourself in another 10 years still doing a lot of hands-on work individually?
Wulfsohn: “I think so….”
What precautions do you take to make sure you don’t burn out?
Wulfsohn: “I burn out all the time. But I do ritual every night, cleansing ritual. I dance every day for the spirit, and I dance to perfect myself, and for no particular reason at all. For me to get perfect technique in classical ballet, at my age, is so ridiculous that it can only be a spiritual quest. And I love it….”
You have to be using your telepathy.
Wulfsohn: “All the time, and that give and take. That dynamic. To me that’s what the bodywork is. It’s a dance that is happening. I really feel I’m dancing with the person that’s on the table.” Thank you, Joan. C9 Readers may write Joan Wulfsohn at 1861 N. KingsleyDrive, LosAngeles, CA 90027 or c/o Peter Goss, 44 Tue de Roi de Sicile, 75004 Paris.
About the Author of This Interview:
Marci Javril has been dancing since age 11. Her repertoire includes modern, jazz, tap, ballet and gymnastics. Her massage training includes Swedish, sports, deep tissue, Touch for Health, polarity, ortho-bionomy, tui na, acupressure, cranial sacral, myofascial, pregnancy and infant massage, and Chi Nei Tsang. She teaches at the Institute for Psycho-Structural Balancing and the Touch Therapy Institute, and maintains a private practice in West Los Angeles.