Charlotte Selver
Charlotte Selver

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and audio excerpts from interviews.

Click to see a complete list of the interviews conducted for the project.

December 4, 2017

A Glimpse of Wilder Years

As we approach the end of the year, I want to give thanks for your encouragement and support and for your patience as this project is moving forward, though more slowly than we all have hoped for. 

I have been working steadily this year and even though I cannot say that I am about to be finished, I am grateful for the progress I could make in a year of big changes. I want to apologize for the lack of communication in the months past. As many of you will know, I took on leadership of the Sensory Awareness Foundation again last January. I am very happy to be serving Sensory Awareness again in this way. While this poses a challenge to my schedule it also gives me a basic income which in turn frees up time and space for writing. 

While continued financial support through donations will help to bring this project to completion, the main purpose of this newsletter is not to raise money but to voice my appreciation. Your support over the years has been incredible, and I want to assure you that I will complete the book, about which I am as passionate today as I have ever been. 

The next steps — apart from writing — are to work with my editor, Arnie Kotler, on line-editing. I will also have more of the over one hundred interviews transcribed. Bill Littlewood

For the latter two, I am planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign (though work on both will commence soon, independently of funding). This will allow me to reach more people, which will not be just good for funding but to get the word out to a broader public about Charlotte Selver and the work of Sensory Awareness.

Arnie will work with the chapters up to Charlotte’s emigration from Germany. Once completed, I am considering releasing this part of the biography for donors to read.

My preparations for this news update were interrupted by the sad news of the passing of two longtime students and leaders of Sensory Awareness, Sophia Rosoff and Bill Littlewood. Both have been major forces in the world of Sensory Awareness for decades. You can find my interviews with them below.

I look forward to staying in touch with you and sharing more about the progress of my work in the months to come.

With much gratitude, 

Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt

Image by Steven Littlewood: Bill in May of 2017 with a copy of his brand new book, Viewpoint Theory.

A Glimpse of Wilder Years

Excerpts of an interview with Bill Littlewood from August 11, 2005.

By Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt

Bill: After my first workshop with Charlotte at Esalen Institute I stayed on for another few weeks while Charles and Charlotte had gone on to Monhegan Island. I knew that and I decided when I left Esalen I would go to Monhegan.

I drove my truck from California to Maine and took the boat to Monhegan, where I stayed a month. And I can’t remember what happened exactly, except that I met a whole lot of the breathers [as students of Sensory Awareness were called on the island], and I was very much impressed by what I found. So I began to follow her around. In fact, I met her at Esalen again and she asked me, “Why don’t you come and study with me for nine months.” I said: “No, I won’t do that because you keep moving around all the time. If you stood still, I’d come.” Shortly thereafter she designed the first long-term study group and I was the first person to sign up for it. That was in 71, I think. read on...

The World Opened Up for Me

A conversation with Sophia Rosoff

New York City, June 15, 2008

At age 87, Sophia is still active and sought after as a piano teacher. She took the first workshop with Charlotte in 1948, which makes her the earliest student I have been able to interview to date. Here she talks about how she met Charlotte and what working with her meant for her piano playing and teaching. (In this excerpt, you will hear Sophia say she met Charlotte in 1968. This error was corrected later in the interview.)

Listen to the excerpt

SR:  The first time I went to Charlotte I went because I had had a piano teacher who was a great pianist.  She got me to New York because she heard me play.  And I was about nineteen years old then.  But she didn’t really know how to teach; she knew how to play.  But I was her only student and I lived with her.  And she was just so – everything was so tight, and my joints got so tight, and I just couldn’t get free.  And then one day I was accompanying Artie Shaw. read on...


December 21, 2016

"It Really Doesn’t Matter What Happens, But How We Respond"

After this year’s toxic presidential election season in the US, resulting in the selection of a man who’s views and manner of conduct are deeply troubling to many, we might be tempted to resign in the face of impending doom, we might want to retreat into “save spaces” and focus on our personal well-being, to protect ourselves from the pain of loss and a sense of futility, as we see the formation of a government that threatens to undo many of civil society’s hard fought for achievements.

In the 1930s, Charlotte Selver, along with the many who had worked enthusiastically on building a new society based on life-affirming values after the horrors of World War One, was faced with the ascent to power of a government incomparably more horrendous than what we can expect to experience.

Nazi Parade in Leipzig 1933

Nazi parade, saluting Hitler.  Augustusplatz in Leibzig, July 1933.
Charlotte's studio was at the time in the building on the left,
approximately where the bright circle is. 

Then and now, the response proposed by the practice of Sensory Awareness to such troubling developments have been neither to retreat nor to react unreflected but to cultivate skillful interaction.

I hope that you will take the time to read the excerpt below from the manuscript of my biography of Charlotte Selver. It gives us a sense of how practicing Sensory Awareness is inextricably intertwined with cultivating an engaged response to anything we might encounter.

This country, the world, is very fractured, and I see Sensory Awareness as having the potential to advance the mending of such fractures, within ourselves, between us, and with the natural world. It is for that reason, too, that I am writing Charlotte’s biography. For Charlotte Selver, as well as for her teachers, the work was always about being fully engaged in all aspects of life.

• Please support my work with your year-end donation now so that I can continue to tell the story of Charlotte Selver and Sensory Awareness.

Beginning with January 2017, I will have the privilege of leading the Sensory Awareness Foundation as its Executive Director again. This is, therefore, the last time US residents will be able to receive a tax deduction for their donation, if made through the Sensory Awareness Foundation. After the end of 2016 the Foundation will no longer be my fiscal sponsor to avoid a conflict of interest. I will still be able, and I will need to, raise funds for the Book Project but not through the SAF.

Thank you for your generosity!

With many good wishes for a fulfilling new year,

Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt


“Recognize what response is called for!”

An abridged excerpt from the chapter on Charlotte Selver’s last three years in Germany.

Some context for this excerpt: In 1935, due to the persecution of Jews, Charlotte Selver was forced to abandon her school in Leipzig and move to Berlin, where her husband, Heinrich, headed a private Jewish school. Lotte Mann, like Charlotte a student of Elsa Gindler, took over Charlotte’s studio. With her professional life in shambles and her marriage falling apart, Charlotte was devastated. A letter exchange between her, Lotte Mann, and their student Agnes Ohler ensued, affording us with a rare glimpse into the formation of the practice we now call Sensory Awareness.

To one of Charlotte’s first letters, Agnes Ohler responded: “Please don’t despair. Don’t write that you are wallowing on the ground in agony. No, a warrior – and we are all warriors – cannot let herself go like that. She can only recognize what response is called for. Your greatness is in teaching, not in housekeeping, not in a subordinate job – not even in your husband’s school!”

A warrior – and we are all warriors – cannot let herself go like that.
She can only recognize what response is called for.

Agnes Ohler was one of a handful of students from Leipzig with whom Charlotte stayed in touch after she left. Students of Charlotte will recognize in Ohler’s responses to Charlotte her own admonishments to pupils decades later. “It really doesn’t matter what happens, but how we respond. Hardship can bring forth the best in us! Just like you were a role model in Gymnastik you can be a role model and support in these struggles. Nothing is harmonious in this world. We have to be ready to carry our cross, then it won’t be a burden.” A pious Christian, Ohler also had some advice for the reluctant Jew. “Don’t shrug off your religion and your race. It is nonsense to resist one’s heritage. Whether Moslem or Buddhist, Jew or Christian, it’s all the same, and we all have to live according to our kind. Maybe you don’t know your religion enough, but I’m sure it has its beauty and its solace.” She also assured her that “Germany, will surely not expel you. You just have to be patient.”

(read on)


September 16, 2016

Three short video-enhanced audio excerpts from two classes
Charlotte Selver gave in New York City on November 12, 1959.

The Thrill Comes From This


"Why not be here in the moment we are working here
to such an extent that you really feel:
this is what I want,
and this is [what] I'm here for, 
and this is what I [unclear] myself for.

The thrill comes from this!
There is not such a thing like constantly offering novelties.
Everything is a novelty – if you let it be!" 


In the 1950s Charlotte Selver worked closely with the English-American interpreter of Eastern thought, Alan Watts, such as in November of 1959, when Charlotte’s students were urged to attend Alan Watts’ lectures at the New School for Social Research. They often gave joint seminars, though this didn’t seem to have been the case in this particular series. The audio excerpts presented here are from classes given on the eve of a talk by Alan Watts on “Taoism and the Psychology of Repression”. Charlotte suggested that in her classes they also deal with "the psychology of repression. So much of the healthiest things in the world we are not admitting. We repress them,” she said at the end of her morning session on November 12.

Each of these fragments show how deeply she and others were engaged in laying the foundation in the modern Western world for the now widely recognized movement and mindfulness modalities. 

What is more, it was a very advanced study and cultivation of what it means to live fully in the present moment, beyond “practicing”. This becomes especially clear in the longer piece titled “Experiencing” vs. Observing” (below), where we also find reference to another important influence at the time on Charlotte’s understanding of consciousness and the human potential, General Semantics.


Being Permissive - Charlotte Selver

When I say permissive, 
that doesn't mean you become lifeless
or insensitive or anything like that.

Never mistake permissiveness, or 'letting happen' [allowing], 
which is in every real first class activity, 
with this kind of dulling of whatever it is.


Experiencing vs. Observing


This video is a 4:50 minutes long. The quotes below are just a couple of excerpts. You can find the full text and audio by following this link. Hear and read the full text here.

"In experiencing you have to be very clear about the difference
between enumerating all kind of items which you feel.
That is observation.
Experience is something entirely different.
This occurs to you without any enumeration."

"When the whole organism is awake
we don't need any observation anymore.
Because we are ever so much more awake
than usually when we observe."

"[Observing] leads everybody to this kind of effort in the head
which makes actual experience impossible,
or at least lowers it to a tremendous degree.
And it creates usually, let me say, a dutiful anxiety,
but not genuine experiencing."



May 27, 2016

 ... to be able to relax, not through exercises but in life, when it gets difficult!
Elsa Gindler 

Dear Friends of the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project,

In this update I want to touch on the development and application of Sensory Awareness in three distinct time periods and places, and through different people. 

In February of 1931 Charlotte Selver attended a decisive convention of the "German Gymnastics Association" in Munich, at the end of which her teacher, Elsa Gindler, a leading member of the association, gave a lecture in which she essentially laid out the foundation for today’s psycho-somatic approaches in psychotherapy. I am currently finishing up a chapter about this time in Charlotte's life in Leipzig at the onset of the Nazi reign.

Read more in As Though the Mind were a Schoolmaster.  

Charlotte Selver’s aim was to improve people's lives 
so they would do something to bring about change in the world.
Jeffrey Mordkowitz

Preventing such disasters by cultivating a deep understanding of human communication was the aim of Alfred Korzybski's life work, known as General Semantics. Charlotte was introduced to this apporach in the 1950s. In my conversations with Jeffrey Mordkowitz and Martha Santer we took a close look at the complementing practices of Sensory Awareness and General Semantics.

Read highlights from these interviews in A Language Deeper than Words.

Taking a fresh look at the natural world – with or without a camera – is at the heart of Bob Smith's Steps to Seeing classes on Monhegan Island in Maine. Bob has been offering these classes for many years in the summer months and he will do so again this summer. We spoke about his classes in an interview about his many years of studying with Charlotte Selver.

Take some Steps to Seeing here.

This newsletter and my work on the biography of Charlotte Selver is possible thanks to the generosity of 'readers like you'. As always, I very much appreciate your support of the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project. I know it is taking a long time but as I keep working on it I am glad that I can share some of my findings with you already now. Please consider a donation now. Thank you. Your support is hugely helpful.

Wishing you a delightful summer time,

Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt


December 12, 2015

The Dance in Each Moment

An Interview with Etta Ehrlich

Etta Ehrlich is one of the very few people still alive who first met Charlotte Selver in the 1950s. I had the pleasure of speaking with her in her home in Leonia, New Jersey, on December 8, 2016.

Etta Ehrlich

Etta had just attended a workshop with me in New York, where she was the oldest participant - in years but not in spirit! At 85, Etta is full of life, engaged and curious, a joy to be with. Our conversation touched such topics as,

  • Are what is happening and what is needed the same?
  • Learning from Alan Watts
  • Studying with Charlotte Selver and Betty Keane
  • Sensory Awareness in Phsychotherapy
  • Meditation as therapy
  • Growing up in an enclosed Jewish community in New York (Etta's father was a rabbi)

– and about engraved glass bottles. That's when Etta took me on a tour through her house, where her artwork is on display everywhere. Glass vessels of all shapes and sizes, engraved with insightful and playful words, such as, "Meditation is not a vacation from irritation", or "Can WAR be civil?"

Listen to excerpts of the interview go to Etta Ehrlich.
Book Project Donors and Members can listen to much more of the interview on the Members Page.


Charlotte Selver at the New School

Charlotte offered workshops through the New School in New York from about 1949 on and through the 1970s. I was interested in the early years and found about 200 documents spanning the years 1950 to 1960. Among other letters there is lots of correspondence regarding workshop write-ups, which I found particularly interesting because it gives a sense of how Charlotte’s presentation of her work developed.

Throughout the 1950s Charlotte did not use the term Sensory Awareness as a name for her work, though it, or a variation of it, appeared occasionally as a workshop title. Rather than naming her work, she gave descriptive titles to her classes.

Here are excerpts from two announcement drafts.

The first is from early 1951:

body re-orientation

This work aims to develop a more sensitive relationship to our bodies leading to greater freedom in the use of our energies.

Work in regular classes will include:

  • developing greater awareness (body sense)
  • locating and relieving unnecessary tensions
  • active relaxation in motion and rest
  • conscious use of the body's regenerative tendencies
  • balance
  • breathing
  • the influence of breathing on our condition, posture, and mobility
  • reactiveness instead of habit patterns

(From: Charlotte Selver Spring Semester 1951 Announcement, Clara Mayer papers, NA.0004.01, unprocessed collection, The New School Archives and Special Collections, The New School, New York, New York.)

Throughout the 1950s Charlotte’s connection with Alfred Korzybski's work, General Semantics depend - mainly thanks to her collaboration with Charlotte Schuchardt Read – and I now believe that it had an important influence on Charlotte's understanding and presentation of her own work, as did meeting Alan Watts. This development of Charlotte's work will be a focus in the chapter preliminarily titled Silent Levels in Charlotte's biography.
The following is from a 1958 proposal for classes through the New School:

non-verbal communication

Most human activities are forms of non-verbal communication, from simple touch, motion and gesture, to complex relationships in work, artistic creation, friendship and love. Over-emphasis on verbal communication, both in outward speech and inward thought, conceals the rich and unfamiliar world of non-verbal experience.
Non-verbal communication is deepest when the organism can receive as well as give, to its full capacity. This capacity is awakened by the practice of inner quiet and the unforced use of inner and outer senses – somewhat resembling the Chinese Taoist attitude of intellectual silence (non-clinging, constantly renewed contact, and living fully in the reality of the moment).

(From: Selver 58-59, Clara Mayer papers, NA.0004.01, unprocessed collection, The New School Archives and Special Collections, The New School, New York, New York.)


February 26, 2015

Ruth Denison 1922 - 2015

Ruth Denison, the pioneering Western Buddhist teacher died today, she was 92.

In memory of Ruth I am reposting an article I published a couple of years ago.

From Sensory Awareness to Vipassana Meditation

A Conversation with Ruth Denison

by Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt

I visited Ruth Denison on April 29,1999 at Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center, her Buddhist retreat in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. I do not recall how it came to this visit but it must have been on my way home from an extended stay with Charlotte Selver together with my then fiancé, Sarah Gilliatt, driving through the vast deserts of Southern California and seizing the opportunity. Some of my interviews with Charlotte had taken place just before and Charlotte had told me stories about Henry and Ruth Denison. I must have been inspired to hear from Ruth directly about the role of Charlotte in her life. Ruth wasn’t young then and it seemed a good idea to interview her, even though at that time writing a biography of Charlotte was only a wild idea. I had met Ruth before and when I called her she immediately invited Sarah and I to stay at her house in Joshua Tree.

Ruth has kept in touch with the Sensory Awareness community over the years, and in a way renewed her ties after Charlotte’s death. She has been a frequent visitor at Sensory Awareness conferences and workshops, be it as a presenter or to be a student again. She has also been a great supporter of the Sensory Awareness Foundation and the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book project.

It was largely thanks to Alan Watts and Henry Denison that Charlotte’s work came to California. Charlotte gave her first workshop on the West Coast at Henry’s house in Hollywood. Henry was a lifelong spiritual seeker, he had been a monk in the Advaita Vedanta order for some years before building his house in the Hollywood Hills. In the early sixties the Denisons were hosts to many luminaries of the counterculture: philosophers, psychotherapists, Zen masters. Alan Watts was among them. He and Charlotte had been collaborating for some years and he now suggested that Henry invite Charlotte into that circle.

Read on... From Sensory Awareness to Vipassana Meditation

The German director, Aleksandra Kumorek, is working on a documentary film about Ruth. See the trailer and learn about her Indiegogo campaign at:

Ruth Denison – The Silent Dance of Life


December 12, 2014

Early Years in New York City

Two interview excerpts with Charlotte Selver

Dear Supporters and Friends of the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project,

Firstly, thank you so much to those of you who generously responded to my recent newsletter with donations and with encouragement, such as this one from Don Hanlon Johnson:

Dear Stefan, it makes me so happy that you are continuing to unearth her deep wisdom. Few follow it.
Warm wishes, Don

I am very encouraged by your support and happy to know that many of you look forward to my newsletters. Please know that I am happy to share what I learn with all of you, whether or not you support the project financially.

That said, I do need the support of those who can and want to give. I happily do the work of documenting Charlotte's life but I need financial backing. As I wrote in my last email: Your contributions make it possible for Charlotte's life story and her work to be available already now to a larger audience. Also, the online format allows for highlighting of certain themes such as in the pieces below. If you see value in this too, and if you can and want to contribute to this project, please do so now. Donations are tax deductible (in the US) if made through the Sensory Awareness Foundation. For more information follow the Donate link below.

I will take a few more months writing about Charlotte's years up to her escape from Germany. After that, the next big part will be about her many years in New York City, where she lived from late 1938 to about 1970. One of the fascinating aspects of that time will be to discover how Jewish immigrants to New York networked and collaborated. When we look at Charlotte's early years in New York, we see that she connected mostly with other refugees from Nazi occupied Europe. Charlotte never spoke about that but it becomes quite obvious when we look at who she met and how she relaunched her career. The following two interview excerpts offer a glimpse into that. I hope you will enjoy hearing Charlotte remember these times.

New York City, March 1947
Touching on a few weeks of her life in New York City in the spring of 1947, Charlotte Selver remembers getting help talking about her work from Ruth Cohn, founder of TCI (Theme Centered Interaction); introducing Heinrich Jacoby to her friend, the homeopath Dr. Wilhelm Gutman; being present for the tears of a student, Bee Lamm, and those of Fritz Perls, who she met in March 1947. You can listen to the interview and read it. by following this link.
... read on, and listen to Charlotte. She was such a captivating story teller.

New York City, April 1942
In this excerpt Charlotte spoke German, as she often did when remembering the past. Appointment book entries from April 1942 reminded Charlotte of her first Chinese dinner with the art collector Karl Nierendorf; how she met a student of Elsa Gindler at one of Nierendorf's art shows; and working with the conductor Otto Klemperer after a fall from the podium years earlier in Leipzig.

You can listen to it and also read an English translation here.

Und hier etwas in Deutsch:

Im Frühjahr 1999 arbeiteten Charlotte und ich uns Seite um Seite durch ihre Agenden, um zu sehen, an welche Ereignisse und Begegnungen sie sich noch erinnern würde. Hören sie einen Ausschnitt aus dem langen Gespräch betreffend einiger Einträge vom April 1942. Charlotte erinnert sich an ihr erstes chinesisches Essen mit dem Kunsthändler Karl Nierendorf, wie sie an einer Ausstellung von ihm eine Schülerin von Elsa Gindler traf, und an den Dirigenten Otto Klemperer, dem sie nach einem Sturz vom Podium in Leipzig geholfen hat, und von dem sie viel über Bewegung gelernt hat.
Hier geht es weiter. Sie können sich den Interviewausschnitt anhören und lesen.

Das Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project ist möglich dank der Grosszügigkeit von Interessierten Lesern. Wenn auch sie das Projekt unterstützen möchten, finden sie Informationen dazu über den "Donate" Knopf. Sie können sich auch gerne direkt an mich wenden über


November 18, 2014

One of the most valued, if perhaps puzzling, pieces of advice I received from Charlotte Selver was when she once urged me to "Forget Sensory Awareness! Do what burns in you." Charlotte was very concerned about us making - and teaching - a 'method' out of what is a naturally occurring process, namely connecting, sensing, and allowing for adequate responses in any given situation. Though this process needs to be cultivated, it is not primarily done through thinking or certain exercises but by being 'sensory aware', by, as she put it in the Santa Barbara workshop mentioned below, "being in the moment or coming to the moment".

Charlotte Selver in Santa Barbara 2002

Charlotte Selver at La Casa de Maria in Santa Barbara, CA, 2002.
Still from video footage by Sascha Rimasch.

By 'method' or 'exercises' Charlotte meant a preconceived agenda for how something is supposed to be done, a mental concept. Such concepts undoubtedly have a valued place but they tend to get in the way of 'allowing' responses based on presence and connection in the moment, and trust in the intelligence of the 'living organism-in-its-environment', to phrase it in a General Semantics manner.*

The following excerpt from the chapter Becoming a Teacher in my biography of Charlotte Selver shows that such considerations were part of Charlotte's work very early on. I hope you will find the passage as illuminating as I do.

The complete chapter is still in its raw form and has not yet been line-edited by Arnie Kotler. I am currently working without any funding for the book. Though the project has been generously supported again in 2014, those funds are now exhausted. In spite of this, I continue to work daily because I love this project and because I am committed to finishing it.

I have had some hesitation to ask for your support now, because many of you have given so much over the years and the whole project is taking much longer than any of us anticipated. As I see it now, it will take at least two more years to finish writing. The main reason for the delay is the on-going challenge of providing for my family.

I know you are waiting to have a book in your hand. On the other hand (no pun intended), I see great value in the continued online publication of chapters, excerpts, and interviews. Your contributions make it possible for Charlotte's story and her work to be available already to a larger audience. Also, the format allows for highlighting of certain themes such as in the article below. If you see value in this too, and if you can and want to contribute to this project, please do so.

The Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project is possible thanks to the generosity of readers like you. I am deeply grateful for your continued support.



Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt


‘Allowing’, Intending and the Imperative of Authentic Living

Early contemplations, and later admonishments, by Charlotte Selver on what we today may call the “body-mind-problem”, the crucial role of intention in a practice that emphasizes “allowing”, and the integration of the learned into everyday life.

This is a short excerpt from the chapter Becoming a Teacher of my Biography of Charlotte Selver. The chapter’s focus is on Charlotte’s years as a student and teacher of Bode Gymnastik in the 1920s.

“Vita, don’t worry when Bode scolds you.
You are a pyramid of your own. You cannot emulate.”
Irmela Doebner to Charlotte Selver, aka Vita.

Though Charlotte Selver did not hold Dr. Rudolf Bode in high regard "as a person", she had great respect for him as a teacher of Expressive Gymnastics, even when she did not fully agree with his methods, and she was, as were many, entranced by his piano playing. Some questions about just that, however, arouse early on.

Two days before her 22nd birthday she wrote to her boyfriend Heinrich: “There was this lesson with Dr. Bode in which I felt strangely light and, in a single movement, I found the solution for the problem of life (vitality) and mind. We are learning, some of us the hard way, to destroy our bodily inhibitions so that we may move as freely as children and animals do.

Every natural movement is beautiful because it flows from the rhythm that resides within us. But only now do we begin to consciously experience this beauty because we did not have a grasp of it before.

Many a trap is lurking for those working with Bode: he, himself in a battle between his strong vitality and his analytical mind, attempts to rid us of this torment by avoiding to mention the mind and emphasizing rhythm and the flow of life. However, the whole point of his work is that it builds on the mind’s integration into life and vice-versa, each having their role. As we train ourselves according to his system, they are in constant interplay. Those who are not consciously aware of the innate rhythm and flow of life see willpower at work, even in Bode’s music.

Let me explain: the more we are absorbed by the subconscious ease of the natural flow the better, and there is no danger to drown in it. The mind has recognized the importance of that flow and wants to make it its own, knowing that without it not even the greatest of insights will lead to “being human”.

But Bode gets it wrong too: He calls dance ‘ecstasy’, complete surrender of the self, I call dance ‘to find yourself’. He calls dance: ‘will-free flow’, I call it: ‘spirited flow’. Because the question is: What is man capable of? If art is not shaped by man’s volition, if it is only will-free flow swayed by the willpower of a greater force: dear friend, what about Leonardo’s Christ, a Madonna by Mantegna, Dürrer, Zeitblom?

Even though we are not artists and we do not have the power to manifest our experience artistically, our gestures, as we evolve, become ever more personal, our experience deeper. The question arises whether or not our life outside of the classroom corresponds with what we experience so strongly in class. Alas, I see what should be entirely condemned: Some of Bode’s best students, those who represent his system in performances, are utterly insignificant, their lives untouched by the spirit of the system. I am often horrified by their sight outside the classroom. They seem to me like traitors. I see the reason for that in Bode’s wonderful music. He sweeps those who don’t have a will of their own off their feet, they become his creations. Luckily, there are those who recognize this and they can save him. Because his idea is big. Dear friend, I’ll leave it at that for now and I’ll send this to you without reading it again because I’m afraid I would never send it off otherwise. It is imperfect, as am I, but I hope you will not misunderstand. There is much in this Bode-critique that has very much to do with me as you will find out.”

Charlotte’s ‘Bode-critique’ really touches on much more than her own person. Within a few years not only many of Bode’s students but Bode himself, along with the whole German Volk, would be swept off their feet and dancing to the tune of another master, surrendering their self to the “willpower of a greater force”. ‘Will-free flow’ versus ‘spirited flow’: Charlotte’s juxtaposition of two approaches to movement may serve as a metaphor for the separation forming within the German reform movement in the 1920s and 30s. The National Socialists drew on such longings for surrender to something larger than individual willpower. The Blut und Boden mentality was a twisted attempt to shake off the shackles of man-made law imposed by the ruling class in favor of subordination to a perceived “natural order” based on one’s homeland and “race”.

Charlotte would soon find a model for her ideal of ‘spirited flow’ in the work of Elsa Gindler. Gindler’s investigative approach to study human movement and behavior offered a practical, if not easy, answer to the problem of the effect of a practice on one’s daily life. What was more, it seemed to encourage discernment rather than blind belief, and many of Gindler’s students followed her example of resisting the seductive force of mass movements. Even so, the question with which Charlotte wrestled until the end of her life remained, when she wondered: Did the practice of Sensory Awareness really make a difference in people’s daily lives or did her students only attend her classes to ‘feel good’?

During a workshop in Santa Barbara in 2002 Charlotte, aged 101, admonished her students – with that blend of utmost sincerity, irresistible charm and humor so characteristic of her – to choose wisely: “Every moment is a moment of learning. It is not a moment of growing habits but a moment of new possibilities and appropriate responses. This is not comfortable. If you want to be comfortable, go to a different address. If you want to come closer to a real connection with things, then you can stay here. In life, so many times you meet the same person, but you don’t say: ‘Oh, I know this old shoe. I know him already. This destroys so many marriages. I know her already. And yet, you don’t, you only think you do. Every moment is a new moment – if we allow it. And every moment can be an old moment – if we allow that. You can choose how to live. Allowing new moments, a new connection, a new friendship, a new husband, a new wife. – I mean”, Charlotte adds to much laughter of the students, “I mean, the same person! My mouth waters just speaking of it. Yours too? We always have the option of being there in this moment, being there with this person, being there at this occasion, being there for this task, and so on. By and by we learn how to live, how to be in the moment and, when we feel we are not, to come to the moment. Who has felt that everything is changeable in us, that we are not forced to stay as we are? Who has not felt it? Well, don’t be so lazy!”

Rudolf Bode offered a different solution to habitual behavior and ‘mental interference’: subordination to rhythm, preferably practiced in unison with others in a large group setting. It was an attempt which initially very much appealed to Charlotte and she reported with excitement from the “first German Meeting for Physical Education” in Berlin in May 1924: “I spent the whole day outside on the vast athletic grounds and enjoyed seeing those beautiful, moved bodies, showing the best of German body-culture. Bode was represented too, of course.” Even so, Charlotte seemed already torn in her allegiance to Bode Gymnastik, noting in the same letter that she had again experienced a lot during the Berlin performances that strengthened her desire to “slowly turn away from these people”.

It would be some years before that slow turn was completed, and it was really rather emotional wriggling than a slow turn. An important part of the struggle was undoubtedly the allure of professional success. Bode Gymnastik was popular, its synchronized moves and rapturous rhythms provided a sense of direction and harmony at a time of seemingly hopeless political volatility. Gindler’s work, in turn, was not as glamorous and it would proof to be much more challenging to build an economically viable career on it. Ask your local Sensory Awareness teacher, if you can find one, and she will confirm that things haven’t changed much in this respect. It is no easy feat to compete with the allure of disciplines like yoga, Pilates, or a workout at the fitness center which, with their clearly defined forms and directive teaching seem to have much more appeal to young urban people eager for results than the Sensory Awareness teacher’s request to “unlearn all you have learned and find out for yourself” and her open-ended questions. Or, as one young man at the New Mexico state penitentiary in Grants once blurted out with disarming honesty as I was guiding a group of inmates through a sensing sequence: “I don’t want to feel my fucking toes! Let’s do yoga.”

Charlotte Selver was not a follower, much as she may have adored her teachers. “The more I mature, the more I can only be myself. I can be the representative of a movement, but I have to be free of ‘system’, because it is only through freedom that one comes into one’s own,” she wrote to Heinrich early in 1925.

The notion that she needed to “be free of system” would become a center post of her life’s work. “We have to be incredibly careful that everything we do, which includes what we teach, is genuine, that we not ape our teachers”, Charlotte admonished me in 1999. “You, too, have to make this your primary principal. What you do has to come from within, it has to come from experience. And this is only possible when you don’t have a method. That is why sensing is the bases for everything in our work.” And to her boyfriend Heinrich she wrote that “one has to first find everything in oneself before one can experience it outwardly, and I have been a great sinner in this respect.”


July 14, 2014

I am delighted to share with you another chapter of my biography of Charlotte Selver. The full chapter is available to all readers to mark the first time I can present you with writing that has been professionally edited. It is still in draft form and will need further polishing but I trust that you will find it enjoyable in its present form.

Arnie Kotler cofounded Parallax Press in 1986 to publish works on socially engaged Buddhism and, in 2005 in Hawaii, he founded Koa Books. From 1969 to 1984 he lived and practiced at the San Francisco Zen Center and with Thich Nhat Hanh until 1999. He now does freelance editing and I feel very fortunate to be working with him.

When Arnie sent this chapter back to me last week, his edits included a question about Charlotte describing Alf Nölke, a man she met in Munich in 1922, as a “very interesting man.” Arnie asked, “Can you be more specific?” My first reaction was, no, I cannot, because that’s as specific as Charlotte was. I guess I never gave it much thought, and Charlotte’s accounts about Nölke and his family seemed sufficiently informative to not investigate any further. Inspired by Arnie’s question, I did more research. I knew there were letters from Alf Nölke to her. I never read them as there are simply too many letters from hundreds of people to Charlotte. The German handwriting from that time is also challenging to read, which makes it a very time consuming endeavor. As I now went through these letters it became immediately clear that Charlotte had a romance with this man at a time early in her relationship with Heinrich Selver, when her love letters him would have never suggested such a possibility. Charlotte never hinted at such an affair in our conversations either, though she frequently mentioned Nölke and his family. This took me completely by surprise.

The chapter I am showing you does not yet reflect these new insights which shed a different light on some of Charlotte’s remarks to Heinrich, and certainly on her father’s assessment that his daughter should not become a nanny to the children of a man “with such looks.” What I – and presumably Heinrich – trustingly read as true indignation in response to her parents’ refusal to let her go to Kristiania, has now quite a different flavor. I find this remarkable and it alters my image of Charlotte as a young woman who was fully committed to her relationship with Heinrich and sharing very openly every thought and emotion with him – all along suffering from his infidelities as she later told me.

But Unfoldings in Munich is about much more than relationships. I hope you will enjoy reading about Charlotte’s adventurous life in the early 1920s as much as I enjoyed the writing.

Unfoldings in Munich

“My cousin’s children called me Tante Lotte Nackedei, Aunt Charlotte the Nude, because I always walked around without clothes.”
Charlotte Selver

“I went to a cabaret in Munich where I heard a man declaiming on stage: ‘Rechts sind Bäume, links sind Bäume, und dazwischen Zwischenräume. In der Mitte fliesst ein Bach! Ach!’” Charlotte and I were sitting at the kitchen table in her Muir Beach home, sorting through piles of photographs, when I asked her about the political turmoil in Germany during the 1920s. ”I wasn’t very politically aware then,” she said. Although this may have been so, Charlotte was painfully aware of the assassination of Walter Rathenau, and the economy spiraling out of control. Rathenau, German foreign minister, was killed on June 24, 1922. Hailing from an influential Jewish family, he favored full assimilation of Jews into German society as a remedy to antisemitism. In spite of his nationalism, he was murdered by ultra-nationalists who resented the Weimar Republic in general and Rathenau in particular, for going along with the Treaty of Versailles. Besides, he was a democrat and a Jew. On June 29, Charlotte wrote to Heinrich, “On the same day St. John’s fires were lit in the mountains, people murdered in the country, a man was killed in the most despicable manner. I always admired Rathenau. He seemed to be above politics, someone devoted fully to a people. How reprehensibly people behave! I will always keep my distance from the shenanigans of politics. The need to denounce other views is one of the biggest mistakes all organizations tend to make. It is cowardly. If each human would recognize his own boundaries, we could avoid this.”

I had asked Charlotte about journalist and satirist Kurt Tucholsky and other artists of the time. Though she only vaguely remembered his name, she immediately recalled hearing “this man” recite his bitter poem about Weimar republic machinations. Then she laughed: “We repeated it enthusiastically: ‘To the left are trees, to the right are trees, and gaps are in-between. A brook flows through the center. Gee!’” Those lines and the people she met that night were very vivid in her memory. “That’s when I met Alf Nölke and his wife, from Norway. She suffered from tuberculosis, and he was a very interesting man.” (read on)


May 8, 2014

Ruth Veselko, February 3, 1918 – April 23, 2014

ruth veselko and stefan laeng-gilliatt

Sensory Awareness Leader and life-long student of the work of Heinrich Jacoby and Elsa Gindler died on April 23. She was 96. I interviewed Ruth on July 11, 2008 at her home in Winterthur. the interview is in German and you can listen to it here. (More Information to follow).

December 18, 2013

Leaving Home
A Chapter in Charlotte Selver's Life

"Even if the future left nothing to hope for — our wondrous existence in this very moment gives us that courage we need to live according to our own measure and rule: the inexplicable fact that we live right now when we've had all this time to come into existence, that we possess nothing but this day to which we should show what we've come here for and why. We are the ones responsible for our own lives and we should therefore be the helmsmen of our lives and not let our existence look like thoughtless happenstance. One has to live a bold and daring life because one will lose it in any case.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Schopenhauer as Educator

Charlotte Selver’s initial career aspiration to become a photographer was an attempt to free herself from bourgeois expectations, inspired by two women who seemed to be the ‘helmsmen of their lives’. Reading Nietzsche’s Untimely Contemplations might have further encouraged her to ‘show the day’ what she came here for. But “how do we reclaim ourselves? How can man know himself? He is such a dark and obscure matter; if a hare has seven skins, humans have seven times seventy skins to peel back and they will still not be able to say: ‘this is now really who I am, it is no longer hull.’” Sensory Awareness was Charlotte’s way of peeling away ‘what doesn’t belong’. Nietzsche believed that there are many ways to escape the ‘anesthesia’ in which we usually live ‘as in a murky cloud’. In Untimely Contemplations he suggests that a great way to do so is to remember one’s mentor.

I have the great fortune to remember my mentor every day thanks to my work. By writing I not only witness Charlotte’s remarkable coming-into-her-own, it is also a daily reminder to boldly continue my work and to live according to my own measure, just as Charlotte did. I hope it will be like that for you also as you are reading the excerpts I’ve been sending.

I know I have been challenging your patience with the long time it is taking to complete the book and I am all the more grateful for your trust that in the end it will have been worth the wait. I expect to write a lot in the months to come and I appreciate your continued support, financially or simply by bearing with me. Feel free to be in touch regarding any questions you might have about the process.

I hope you will enjoy the book chapter tentatively named Leaving Home. Your comments are welcome.
Excerpts are available for everyone here. Supporters of the project can access the full chapter on the Members pages.


Leaving Home

“I had it put in my head that I would become a photographer, because I had visited two women photographers who had a very beautiful studio in a high riser, which was sparsely decorated with very beautiful furniture and beautiful things standing around. Everything was so aesthetically pleasing.” It was an eye opening experience for the 17 year old girl growing up in the embroidered satin environment of the German Bürgertum. Here were two apparently independent women breaking with bourgeois traditions, opening up spaces where oak-salons had left little room for the expanding spirit of a generation ready for dramatic cultural changes. Charlotte admired these women and she, too, wanted to become a photographer.

But her father wouldn't hear of it: “My daughter won’t become a Fotografierfräulein!” “But what then?”, Charlotte asked: “You could become a philosopher or a writer or a doctor; anything but a photographer. No!” So Charlotte went on strike. She didn’t study, missed school, did not answer to her teachers, did not make the grades. By the end of the school year her teachers wrote to Charlotte’s parents that she did not have the ethical maturity to move on to the next grade. “I was stuck. My father and mother didn’t know what to do with me, so they sent me to relatives in Holland. There I was able to go into the galleries and see these wonderful paintings, which was very interesting. Later they sent me to relatives in Bonn. One of them studied at the university and I had a wonderful time with the young students.” Her father’s hope was that through these experiences Charlotte would change her mind, finish school and then study anything she wanted at a university. Charlotte eventually did go back to school: “I made it till Prima but then I decided I wanted to become a photographer. I was very stubborn, you know. So, at last, my parents gave in.”

Charlotte Selver in a photographic study, Munich 1921/22.
Photographs were carefully processed (today we'd call it 'photoshopped')
until the desired result was achieved.
You can read about one such process in the chapter.

But first Charlotte had to learn how to run a household. After all, the expectation was that she would eventually come to reason, marry into a proper family and settle down. The suitable finishing school was found in Freiburg. However, Charlotte showed little passion for such mundane matters. In her old age only few things were worth remembering: Sitting on the countertop in the kitchen, reciting poems, while the other girls were busy cooking. And – meeting the love of her life, Heinrich Selver. Charlotte lived with his sister, Lotte, in the stately home of a host family on Goethestrasse: “Lotte was a bundle of energy. When she got excited about something I had to lock my room lest she’d run me over. When she received a letter from Heinrich she carried it on her bosom and whether you wanted to hear it or not, she pulled it out and read it to you, shouting: ‘My brother Heinrich!’. She adored him. I was of course very curious to meet this brother and the opportunity arrived when Lotte fell in love with a boy in the dance class. Our boarding mother was so terrified, she wrote to Lotte’s family in Chemnitz to please send someone and they sent Heinrich and a son-in-law. I was in the kitchen reading poetry when Lotte stormed in, grabbed me by my white apron and pulled me into the waiting room, where Heinrich was. There I stood, clad in apron and bonnet, and Lotte said to Heinrich: ‘This is the artist in our house.’ And Heinrich, with a sardonic smile, bowed and said: ‘I am honored to meet you’.”

read on...



August 22, 2013

Charlotte Selver 1920sToday is the 10th anniversary of Charlotte's passing and in memory of her I'd like to share with you some of my recent writing on Charlotte's life. It is an excerpt from a chapter about the roots of Sensory Awareness.

This may also be a good time to reread some articles which were written after Charlotte's death:
Eulogy for Charlotte Selver, by Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt
Journeying with Charlotte Through Her Dying, by Lee Klinger-Lesser

The following excerpt from my work on Charlotte Selver's biography explores the 'beginning before the beginning' of Sensory Awareness. It provides a detailed look into the roots of this work, largely predating Charlotte's own development. I'd like to share this with you now even though it is still in a somewhat raw form. It has not been edited or proof read - indeed read - by anyone but myself, and I am asking native English speakers in particular to forgive me the inevitable grammatical errors and misspellings. I trust that you will find this illuminating anyway. Supporters and Members of the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project can read a much longer excerpt on the Members Pages (If you lost the access information let me know).

How Does a Movement Begin?

Excerpt from a biography of Charlotte Selver, a work in progress by Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt, in loving memory of Charlotte Selver on the 10th anniversary of her death on August 22, 2003.

“In a moment I will ask you to come up to standing.” Charlotte’s inquisitive voice seems to reach some of her students as from afar. They have drifted away a bit in the past minutes of resting quietly on the floor. “And I wonder if you can notice what happens just before the first movement . . . . and where it begins . . . when it begins.” By then, things will already have begun to stir in most of us. Charlotte’s voice has called us back from our resting places and her questions – dropped into us just like those pebbles Charlotte had earlier dropped into a large bowl filled with water to demonstrate how a small incident in one place affects the whole – have begun to create ripples throughout.

A new student may now look for the right answer, trying to figure out just how a movement begins. He may, in his mind, flip through the pages of an anatomy book, he may “scan his body” for those firing nerve cells and twitching muscles that are supposed to bring the whole person into motion. He will want to give the right answer, not knowing that Charlotte is less interested in the “right” result than she is in the student’s willingness to give himself to the task.

Immediately noticeable are the rings on the surface rippling outward, thoughts that will later result in questions to Charlotte: “When you say, ‘Where does a movement begin?’ and ‘Where does it end?’, what are you referring to? Is it like the little thoughts before, or the little jerks?” That thinking mind, groping for answers before the questions have chance to sink in, gets in the way of experiencing. Charlotte will brush that inquiry off with a laugh and a short: “I ask what I ask. When does a movement begin? And how does it proceed and where does it end?”

It is not what we think about it, but what is the experience? What is the first thing we notice after the question has been asked? What do we feel in the moments before the first stirring of a muscle? And then: where does the movement begin? The answer can only be felt and it may – indeed it will – be different for each student, it will vary, if just slightly, each time we approach that same task.

Memories of such questions from Charlotte surface as I attempt to tackle this one: Where did the movement begin that resulted in the work she eventually called Sensory Awareness? The more I look into this question, the more I read and try to get a handle on it, the more I feel humbled by the intricate web of influences and circumstances.

Read on...


Supporters and members of the project can read most of the chapter here: members pages



March 13, 2013

The interview with Anneke Hopfner is now online. It is in German and you can listen to on this page: Anneke Hopfner. Anneke speaks about her life-long relationship with movement and breath work, which began when she was as small girl and her mother took her to workshops with Hede Kallmeyer, who was also Elsa Gindler's teacher (Gindler was Charlotte Selver's teacher).


January 27, 2013

The Sensory Awareness community lost another dedicated teacher. Anneke Hopfner died on January 17, 2013 in the home of her daughter, Cristine Hopfner, in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany.

I interviewed Anneke in 2011. Currently, I am preparing the audio file for publication. Check back to listen to Anneke speaking about her life-long connection with the work of Elsa Gindler. This interview will be published in German.

The images of Anneke were taken at a workshop in St. Ulrich in the Black Forest, in 2006.

  Anneke Hopfner  
March 21, 1934 – January 17, 2013



December 14, 2012

From Sensory Awareness to Vipassana Meditation

A conversation with the pioneering Buddhist Teacher Ruth Denison

I visited Ruth Denison on April 29,1999 at Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center, her Buddhist retreat in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. I do not recall how it came to this visit but it must have been on my way home from an extended stay with Charlotte Selver, driving through the vast deserts of Southern California and seizing the opportunity. Some of my interviews with Charlotte had taken place just before and Charlotte had told me stories about Henry and Ruth Denison. I must have been inspired to meet Ruth and hear from her directly about the role of Charlotte in her life, and eager to meet her. Ruth wasn’t young then and it seemed a good idea to interview her, even though at that time writing a biography of Charlotte was only a wild idea. Now, thirteen years later, I am in the midst of writing that biography and Ruth recently celebrated her 90th birthday. Time to publish the interview.

Ruth has kept in touch with the Sensory Awareness community over the years, and in a way renewed her ties after Charlotte’s death. She has been a frequent visitor at Sensory Awareness conferences and workshops, be it as a presenter or to be a student again. She has also been a great supporter of the Sensory Awareness Foundation and the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book project.

Ruth Denison

Happy belated Birthday, Ruth!

It was largely thanks to Alan Watts and Henry Denison that Charlotte’s work came to California. Charlotte gave her first workshop on the West Coast at Henry’s house in Hollywood. Henry was a lifelong spiritual seeker, he had been a monk in the Advaita Vedanta order for some years before building his house in the Hollywood Hills. In the early sixties the Denisons were hosts to many luminaries of the counterculture: philosophers, psychotherapists, Zen masters. Alan Watts was among them. He and Charlotte had been collaborating for some time and he now suggested that Henry invite Charlotte into that circle. (read on)

These interviews (nearly 100 to date, see list) are not only an important source of information for my work on a biography of Charlotte. They are a fascinating collection of voices in their own right of people who's lives have been touched by her. I am collecting these memories for us to learn from and enjoy now and for future students of Sensory Awareness as a source of information and inspiration.

Many thanks to all who have contributed to my project this year. Your support allows for continued research and writing on Charlotte Selver's fascinating life and the impact of her work on many.

If you have not made a donation recently, please consider doing so today.

Thank you for your trust and continued support of the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book project.

From New England I send you good wishes for a Happy New Year and for many quiet, peaceful moments this holiday season.


Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt


November 3, 2012

Two Deaths: Virginia Veach and Seymour Carter

I was working on an email in remembrance of Virginia Veach on Thursday, when an email from a student of Seymour Carter in Moscow informed us of his sudden death in Chernovcy, Ukraine.

While Virginia's death, sad as it is for us, did not come unexpectedly, Seymour's came as a great shock.

This does not seem to be the time for many words but I want to share some photos and invite you to revisit interviews from the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project.

With sadness and gratitude,

Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt

Virginia Veach
July 7, 1932 – October 21, 2012
Seymour Carter
July 27, 1936 – November 1, 2012



August 31, 2012

Looking for and finding information about Charlotte Selver is of course a central part of my work on her biography and always fascinating. But every once in a while an unexpected gift finds its way to my desk. No big revelation perhaps but delightful nonetheless. Such is this 1988 letter to Charlotte which Marsha Feinhandler from Taos, New Mexico, sent me recently when we tried to find time for an interview. The interview hasn't happened yet but I want to share the letter with you because it is lovely and inspiring.

Letter from Marsha Feinhandler

My work on Charlotte's biography continues. It needs to be funded. If you have not made a donation recently, please consider doing so today.

Thank you for your trust and continued support of the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book project.


Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt


June 15, 2012

“There is Always a Form – Charlotte Selver’s Form was Awareness”

A Conversation with Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen

by Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt

Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt: Tell me a bit about your work.

Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen: It’s hard to describe. The form is the embodiment process. With Charlotte, the form is the awareness. It’s not about any particular thing, and in that sense they’re similar. I always felt kindred spirit. I don’t know very much about Charlotte’s work. She didn’t know very much about mine, but there was that meeting.

I remember before our first meeting at Esalen*, I sent a video of four children that I was working with – maybe twenty-five years ago – and when she saw it, she said: “And she didn’t study with me either!” Our work was just similar. I remember once, when Charles was still living, we did something with sandbags. They gave me this sandbag, and I just felt the spirit was in the sandbag, but it wasn’t about sandbags.
Most of my memories of Charlotte are just playful and pure delight. One of them is my throwing Charlotte to the ground. I don’t know what we were disagreeing about – something. She wouldn’t listen to me. I would say, “Charlotte! Listen to me!” And she’d go, “Aahaahaahahhha.” I said, “Charlotte, you have to listen to me. If you don’t listen to me I’m going to throw you to the ground!” “Aahahahah.” So I took hold of her and I threw her to the ground very gently. We just had that kind of a playful connection.
We were always laughing. Once we went to this little birdhouse that she had in Big Sur on the cliff. I happen to not like heights and she just – was a bird. She loved that house. I didn’t even want to go inside. But going up to the house she was so happy, she was running. She was like a bird, flying up the path. Read on....


January 21, 2012

Slide Show:
Charlotte Selver – A Photographic Journey

Charlotte Selver in the 20s and in the 90s

(The slide show works perfectly on Safari. It seems to work almost perfectly on Firefox and Chrome too (are the film clips moving?), but I am not sure about Windows Explorer. I would appreceate your feedback on this. Thanks.)

As you may know, the past months have been challenging in terms of funding for the book, forcing me to set other priorities. Ultimately, I think this has been a good thing because I have been able to explore more deeply what working with people through Sensory Awareness could mean for me in the future, and having a bit of distance from the book project confirmed how much I love it and care about it. I missed working on the book, though I really never put the project aside altogether.

Fortunately, the new year has brought new funds from several very generous donors and am now able to give much more time to the project again.

On a more personal note: My family and I are in a huge transition. We are relocating to Hancock in the Monadnock region of Southern New Hampshire. We will leave beautiful Northern New Mexico, our home for many years, on February 5.

New England will be a very different world but the house we are buying, a historic building from the 1820s, reminds me a bit of Charlotte and Charles' house on Monhegan Island. When I entered it for the first time last summer, one of the first thoughts was: this is a great house for writing! The village of Hancock has also a bit of a Monhegan flavor with school, village store, coffee shop, library, inn and church all in walking distance. It is not an island, though, unless you'd call the vast surrounding forests an ocean.

The house we are buying has the potential to eventually become a workshop and retreat center - a long term goal for us, where the somatic, the spiritual and the political can converge in support of changes toward a healthy earth and a sustainable future.

As we are packing our bags I am also working on these things:

  • While still in Santa Fe, I am trying to meet all students of Charlotte's who live in Santa Fe - and who are apparently all from New York. Some I have known for years, others I have yet to meet. A few weeks ago, I interviewed a woman who studied with her in the 50s.
  • I created I slide show with photographs (and two movie clips) from Charlotte's long life. Supporters of the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project will be able to see two additional clips from footage taken by Eduard Tauber in the early 50s on the Members pages.
  • I am also being interviewed about Charlotte Selver's life for Kalonymos, the newsletter of the Salomon Ludwig Steinheim Institute for German-Jewish History in Essen, Germany.

This work is made possible thanks to the generosity of people like you. Please consider a donation today.

Thank you!

December 26, 2011
I am in the process of relocating with my family to Hancock, New Hampshire. Over the next severaly weeks I will be unable to update the web site but I am working on a Photographic Journey through Charlotte Selver's Life which I will add to the web site. Please come back soon.

Wishing you and this beautiful Earth with all its amazing life a fulfilling and peaceful New Year.

Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt


September 10, 2011
Experiencing Life Like a Child – Directly – Not Mitigated by Concepts
A conversation with Christina Lehnherr about studying with Charlotte Selver, the relevance of her work for our lives, the imaginary self that we create, being a householder monk, opportunities and traps in a student-teacher relationship, and about some of the more challenging aspects of Charlotte's personality.Portrait of Christina Lehnherr

Christina Lehnherr was born 1947 in Zurich, Switzerland where shelived, trained and worked as a physical therapist and as a clinical psychologist. She moved to the US in 1988 to study and practice Zen Buddhism in residence at the San Francisco Zen Center. She was ordained as a priest in 1993 and received Dharma Trans-mission in 2005 by Tenshin Reb Anderson who gave her the Dharma name Kiku Hoetsu (Loom of Emptiness, Dharma Joy). Christina lives with her partner Marsha Angus in Mill Valley. She practices and teaches in Marin County and San Francisco. Christina first studied with Charlotte Selver in the early 80s in Europe and later attended several Sensory Awareness Study Groups at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center near San Francisco.

Go to the audio interview.

Supporters of the project can also read the transcript of this interview on the Members Pages.


April 29, 2011
German readers will find an account on the German Pages of Charlotteu's first attempts in the early 30s to write a brochure describing the work she would, some 25 years later, call Sensory Awareness. Charlotte was moving away from teaching Bode-Gymnastik and wanted to work according to her teacher Elsa Gindler's approach. See also what might have been that first brochure.

March 21, 2011
Every Moment Filled with Sensing
An Interview with Sensory Awareness Leader Virginia Veach
Virginia Veach is a psycho-oncologist, psychotherapist, and educator with a private practice in Marin County, California. From family therapy to war zones, from pain management to death and dying, her efforts to ease the effects of war, illness, and environmental degradation have taken her throughout the world. In this interview, Virginia speaks about the relevance of Sensory Awareness for her work, how it helped her living through severe illness and how it informed her engagement in a Cambodian refugee camp.

This is an edited excerpt of an interview for the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project. Supporters of this project can listen to more of this interview on the members pages.

San Rafael CA, December 13, 2009

Stefan: How did you meet Charlotte Selver?

Virginia: I went to Esalen to work with Fritz Perls in 1967. And while I was there, I met Charlotte. In September of the following year I moved to Esalen to be a resident fellow, and that’s when I really started working with her. Our explorations were like a beautiful fresh breeze blowing. It was as though I’d come home. read on...


December 8, 2010

Please donate to the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project.

I just looked through a diary Charlotte kept to take notes of workshops. In it we find a day-to-day record of what she offered and some thoughts about the classes. This particular diary covers workshops from September 1994 through September 1995. At that time I was working for Charlotte. While I do remember her taking notes, I did not remember the extent to which she was dedicated to this process of recording and reflecting on her classes. Every day, after hours of teaching, this 94 year old woman went to her room, sat down and wrote, often a page or more. Here are just a few snippets:

Green Gulch Study Period, April 24, 1995:
People are only interested in “progress”, when they see more, feel more, etc., not where they are nonreactive, without contact. They only want to be “good”, successful – – – I will have to work on that. – – 

Green Gulch Study Period, April 18, 1995:
Sensing = following, trace – “tasten”, finding one’s way like a blind person, not knowing, discovering – – 
Trust: Maria Gurewitch: We all have it, we only don’t know of it.
Gindler: Getting peaceful in one’s mind to be able to sense.
Korzybski: Becoming impregnated. sensory nervous system – experiencing – silent levels – thought based on experiencing – word – on action.

Monhegan, August 14, 1995:
I speak of Gindler’s finding of the three tendencies of the organism: renewing, healing, balancing. Can we permit them? These secret positive processes are not of our doing, they occur when we don’t hinder them.
There was as discussion about touch + embrace (in coming to rest with arms + letting hands be in loving touch with knees or thighs, not decay.) – (I would like to elaborate on: how “relaxed” hands, and arms rob us of vitality and defeat our airy structure, make us falling together + limp [pains]).

It is incredibly inspiring to see such commitment. I believe it comes from another “secret positive process”, namely the joy that comes from giving oneself fully to something instead of being absorbed by the obstacles in the way. You may have experienced this in a Sensory Awareness class; you may have experienced it at work – or on a walk in the woods. You give yourself to it – you “don’t hinder” yourself – and suddenly what you do gives you tremendous joy and energy. read on...


November 8, 2010
You can open up again
An Interview with Johanna Kulbach (January 1, 1912 – July 21, 2010)

My thanks go to all of you who have responded with generosity to my last email and request for support of this project. It was very encouraging to receive donations from people who have been contributing and from unexpected new donors. Still, fund raising is very challenging and I appreciate your continued support.

Below is an interview with Johanna Kulbach from June 12, 2008, held at her home on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Spending time with her was very inspiring in many ways. Having recently lost both legs due to arterial sclerosis, Johanna was full of life, happy to live and simply a joy to be with. Johanna died earlier this year and I am happy to share with you what she shared with me on that hot summer day in New York City.

As always, the published interview is an "edited excerpt". For an interview to work in print it is usually necessary to shorten it considerably and I often have to rearrange the order of the questions and answers to create a better flow. Occasionally I also take the liberty of rearranging the sentence structure or replace a word because the spontaneity of the spoken work does not always translate into a complete and understandable sentence in print.

The unedited, raw interview with Johanna can be accessed by supporters of this project. This is the first time I've done it and it is a bit of an experiment. You will experience "that scattering of the conversation [which] is so typical of my mother's style", as her daughter Lisle recently wrote to me. The interview contains many more details about Johanna's life, her odyssey with Lisle from Berlin to New York, and her relationship with Charlotte Selver. I only removed some personal remarks which seemed not suitable for publication. You and access it through the Members Pages, where you will also find an an audio excerpt.

These interviews are not only an important source of information for my work on an extensive biography of Charlotte Selver. They are a wonderful collection of voices in their own right of people who's lives have been touched by her. I am collecting these memories for us to learn from and enjoy now and for future students of Sensory Awareness as a source of information and inspiration. Sensory Awareness is not theory but practice, Charlotte used to say. Johanna's rich life is an inspiring example for that.

Portrait of Johanna Kulbach

Johanna Kulbach: I studied music in Berlin when I was very young. There was this big movement in Germany, everybody did something like dance or Gymnasik. We heard about all the people who taught, and so I heard about Elsa Gindler too, but she didn’t accept anyone at that time. But then a good friend of mine said to me: “I do something unusual.” She took classes with one of Gindler’s students. I went with her instead of first taking the beginners class, so I didn’t really understand what was going on. And then Nazi time came and she wasn’t supposed to teach Jewish people anymore. So she sent me to another Gindler student but I didn’t understand what was going on, and she got me to Gindler. I have to be very grateful that she did. Gindler took me to one of the beginner’s classes and slowly, slowly I began to understand. Read on...


August 19, 2010
From Ruhrort to Leipzig

Charlotte Wittgenstein was born in Ruhrort, an old city on the banks of the Ruhr and Rhine, right where these two much traveled rivers merge. The town is nestled in a maze of rivers, canals and basins which make up one of the worlds busiest inland ports. Ruhrort belongs to the large city of Duisburg and is surrounded by steel plants and coal mines but when I recently spent a week there to research Charlotte’s early life, it seemed to still have that small town feel to it about which Charlotte wrote to Heinrich Selver upon visiting her parents in 1922: “Ruhrort is one big family, I’m an outsider but for ten days its child.

Ruhrort is in the upper right corner
below the Rhine bridge on this
photograph from 1926.
(Courtesy of Stadtarchive Duisburg.)

aerial view of Ruhort 1926

And family it was. A child can walk across this town in 15 minutes and winding her way through the streets of Ruhrort little Charlotte would have passed the homes of her grandparents, she might have waved at her uncle Otto through his shop window, she might have seen an aunt on the market and later played hide and seek with her nephews – okay, that would have delayed her a bit.

She then could have hopped on a train that would have taken her in 10 minutes to Meiderich, where here father ran a firm for butcher’s supplies next to the Duisburg Slaughterhouse, the later of which still remains there to date. Then again, she might not have gone there because she was horrified by the screams of dying animals which could be heard from her father’s office. He, too, hated to be there, Charlotte told me, and he disliked the nature of his business, which presumably started as a franchise of her grandfather’s lamp factory, Wittgenstein & Horn, supplying it with tallow before electricity changed the nature of that enterprise. Read on and see more photographs...


April 21, 2010
What Should We Be Tasting Now?
Edward Espe Brown in an interview with Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt

I recently interviewed a number of people from the San Francisco Zen Center community with which Charlotte Selver and Charles Brooks had a longstanding friendship. Ed Brown first met them at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the 1960s, where he was the head cook at that time. Charlotte and Charles were frequent guests at Tassajara where they conducted workshops every summer for many years.

Ed Brown: What Charlotte Selver was teaching is so unusual and it's difficult for people to get. I remember one of the classes at Tassajara. She was instructing people: "Now turn your head to the right, and then turn it back." And right away somebody asked: "How are we supposed to do that?" Many years later when I started teaching cooking classes I would say: "Let's taste this", and then people would ask: "What should we be tasting?" It's so hard to get people to just taste. Somehow, many people would rather have the right experience than the experience they're having.

I now teach something I call mindfulness touch. Part of the inspiration for that is having done classes with Charlotte and Charles at Tassajara. In mindfulness touch it's the same thing - mindfulness is the Buddhist concept for experiencing something without judging good/bad, without assessing right/wrong. Just to experience something. This is very challenging, but I've come to understand that as long as you're judging, then you're not experiencing. Touch mostly comes with directives, and I think most moments of consciousness come with directives, and when you're giving out directives about what to do or how to be, then how do you experience anything? I had some experience with Charlotte and Charles finding this out. But it took years to have that really come to fruition in my life. Read on....


February 24, 2010
German readers please read updates in German. / Neues in deutscher Sprache findet sich hier.

February 8, 2010

Inspired by an email I recently received I would like to share with you a piece which I wrote for Charlotte Selver's memorial service in 2003. I had almost forgotten about it and enjoyed rediscovering the article. You might enjoy reading it (again) too. Follow the links below but first read the email from Pieter Jongbloed who had never heard of Charlotte Selver before:

Dear Mr Laeng-Gilliatt,

While I was searching for a recording of Frank Martin's Der Cornet, on a text of Rilke's poem, google led me to the eulogy you have written on Charlotte Selver a few years ago. Although I have not known her, I would like to tell you hat I have read the eulogy with so much pleasure. It is a wonderful and very respectful description of a no doubt very special person. Especially the section on her visits to my country during the war was interesting and delightful.

Thank you very much for having kept this text on the web.

Sincerely yours,

Pieter Jongbloed

Here is the link for the Eulogy for Charlotte Selver.

You might be interested in revisiting the other articles on the Pathways web site too. All of them touch on aspects of Sensory Awareness and its history:Pathways of Sensory Awareness: Article Page.

Charlotte Selver writing a letter



Charlotte Selver in Warnemünde in 1926, writing one of the over 700 letters she wrote to Heinrich Selver.

"Senta*, der Schelm, hat mich eines Tages geknipst, als ich Dir schrieb.
So überrascht sie mich Unwissende heute mit diesem Bild.
Willst Du es wohl annehmen?"

"Senta*, that rascal, took pictures of me one day when I was writing to you.
Today she surprised me with this photograph.
Will you accept it?"

*Senta Liecke, who some years later married the movement teacher Hinrich Medau.









November 10, 2009

Reflections on Charlotte Selver and Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

An Interview with Yvonne Rand

This is an edited excerpt of a much longer interview which was conducted as part of the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project.

Yvonne Rand: The first time Charlotte and Suzuki Roshi* taught together in North Beach in San Francisco in 1967. It was the first time Suzuki Roshi had met Charlotte. He was right there doing everything with her. He led part of the day, and she led part of the day, and he was completely a participant.

Yvonne RandHis students noticed that. Oh, so this is a teacher we should pay attention to. There were also some of Charlotte’s students who felt a resonating with Suzuki Roshi and what he was teaching.

I remember one of Charlotte’s first workshops at Green Gulch where she had some big stones. She had us lie down on the floor and put the stones on different parts of the body as a way of bringing attention to the body. Suzuki Roshi was thrilled with all of that. Because for us as Americans, even to this day, we concentrate our attention very much from the neck up. So I think he was very glad to feel that kind of company and mutuality between what he was doing and what she was doing.

For Suzuki Roshi, who loved stones – he was mad for stones – to meet somebody like Charlotte who used stones in her teaching, and who would use stones as a way of introducing her students to a kind of awakening of sensing, and beginning to allow oneself to pay attention to what one experiences in a body-based, sense-based, way – it was clear to him that she could provide what was missing. Read on...

Yvonne Rand is a meditation teacher and lay householder priest in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition. She began her practice and study of Zen with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in 1966. Her other principal teachers and mentors have been Dainin Katagiri Roshi, Maureen Stuart Roshi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Venerable Tara Tulku, and Shodo Harada Roshi. Her primary practice path is Zen, augmented by practices and teachings from the traditions of Theravada and Vajrayana. Ms. Rand incorporates insights from the psychotherapy traditions in her teaching. She also investigates the relevance of the arts and gardening for training the mind. Ms. Rand is married and is a mother and a gardener. (For more information go to

Sebtember 22, 2009

Glimpses Into a Rich Summer of Research in Europe

(Members can access a page with more photographs from my trip.)

Over the summer I spent five weeks in Europe to offer Sensory Awareness workshops and for research on the book project. I had many fascinating encounters with students and colleagues, with people who met Charlotte decades ago, with places in which Charlotte lived before fleeing Germany in 1938.

While the conversations usually began with memories about Charlotte and what it meant for people to have known her, we always came at one time or another to discuss "the work".

I am grateful for the many questions raised to which there are no easy answers: What is Sensory Awareness and what is not? How did Charlotte’s approach develop and change over the years? How did it compare to that of her peers, Elfriede Hengstenberg, Frieda Goralewsky, Sophie Ludwig, to name just a few of the many Gindler students who carried on the work? How was Charlotte’s way of working different from that of her teachers Elsa Gindler and Heinrich Jacoby?

a stack of stools

Stools, steel balls and sandbags at the Heinrich Jacoby/Elsa Gindler-Stiftung in Berlin.
Most of these materials have been used since the time of Elsa Gindler and Sophie Ludwig.

Another fascinating question to which I am hoping to find answers: How did Gindler’s own approach change over the years? This question was an important part of the conversation I had with Jutta and Eberhard Wangemann who studied with Gindler from 1951 and until her death in 1961. That was, in their experience, the time when Gindler really came into her prime and refined her work. According to the Wangemanns, the work that Charlotte experienced during the years of her most intense studies with Gindler in the 1920s and 30s must have been quite different. To shed light on such questions is something I hope to accomplish in my book about Charlotte’s life and work.

Other people who shared their knowledge with me were:
Karoline von Steinaecker, author of Luftsprünge, a beautiful book about the beginnings of modern somatic therapies.
– Ulrich Bode, grandson of Charlotte’s Expressive Gymnastics teacher Rudolf Bode.
– Karlheinz Passon, current director of the Bode School.
– Birgit Rohloff of the Heinrich-Jacoby/Elsa-Gindler-Stiftung,
who very generously opened its archives for me.
– Sensory Awareness Leader colleagues:
Thomas Niering (my very generous host in Berlin), Leonore Quest (Bewegungsraum am Lietzensee),
Ute Strub (Emmi-Pikler-Haus), Norbert Boehmer, Ioana Cisec, Peggy Zeitler (Wege der Entfaltung), Marianne Ehrat, Claudia Caviezel, Hannes Zahner (Ruth Matter Stiftung).

I am planning to make some of these conversations available online over the next months. The interviews were conducted in German and have yet to be transcribed. Do you read and write in German? Can you help?

From early on in Charlotte’s life the professional and the personal were very much intertwined. Charlotte lived for her work, and she was very passionate about it, be it in the 20s when she was a Bode Gymnastik teacher, be it as a student of Elsa Gindler and Heinrich Jacoby or later on, as many of us have experienced, when she lived in the United States. As I continue to explore Charlotte’s early life it is becoming increasingly evident that her vocation must have had a big impact on the relationship with her first husband, Heinrich Selver. An image emerges of their relationship that shows two young people who are fiercely independent in their everyday lives but emotionally entangled, two people who adored each other but who could never settle for an ‘ordinary’ marriage. It seems that they loved each other most passionately when they dreamed to build a life together but struggled when they actually shared an apartment. That is not to say that they did not enjoy living together. I know from Charlotte how much she loved coming home after a days work to join Heinrich in their apartment when he was still a student at the university of Leipzig: “I remember the evenings when I came home late from the work. I entered the living room, cigarette smoke was hanging in the air and there sat Heinrich, working very quietly and I came from the very lively lessons into this stillness.

One of the big surprises in Berlin was when I discovered a gap of about 3 to 4 years in Charlotte's otherwise very well documented life in Germany. I had always assumed that Charlotte lost her work in Leipzig in 1933 when the Nazis took power and that she then joined her husband in Berlin. He had lived there since the early 30s and by that time was the principal in a private school. When I was in Berlin it became evident that Charlotte probably didn't move to Berlin until sometime in 1935 or early 1936 when she joined Heinrich Selver in the schoolhouse of Lotte Kaliski’s private Jewish school in Berlin-Dahlem. What did Charlotte do in Leipzig after the Nazis took power? Was she still able to teach? And why did she and Heinrich not live together?

I have yet to find out when exactly Charlotte was banned from working at the University of Leipzig but it was likely in 1933. Apparently, she continued to give classes on her own for some time (years?) and she seemed to have received continued support from Hermann Altrock, the director of the institute for physical education: “He would take me in an open car and drive with me through Leipzig and I would say: 'But, Herr Professor, you cannot do that? With whom are you driving?' And he said: 'Die sollen mal kommen!' [Just let them come!]"

synagogue memorial in Leipzig

Memorial on the site of the great community synagogue in Leipzig,
desecrated and destroyed during the November Pogrom in 1938,
only days after Charlotte fled Germany.

I was always aware that Charlotte’s life became increasingly difficult in the 1930s but while in Berlin, Leipzig and Munich this knowing grew into a felt sense of turmoil. Those of us who have not experienced similar circumstances will never be able to fully grasp how the daily humiliation of antisemitism, once it became the law of the land, affected Charlotte. Moreover, as the humiliation changed to outright terror, Charlotte’s relationship with Heinrich also changed in ways that must have been very painful for both of them. Here, too, the personal and the political were tragically intertwined. This is not the place to go into detail about that and much is not clear to me yet but I am working on finding information on that time period in Charlotte’s life through state archives in Germany and – if I am very lucky – if I find people still alive who might have known Charlotte then.

All of this work is possible only because of the support of many of you and I thank you for that. Fundraising has been very successful again this year. I do not take this for granted. About $2,700 are missing to reach this year’s fund raising goal. It is a sign of great generosity and trust that it is not more. Still, as funding is tightly calculated, it would be a great help if this money could be raised. If you are moved to do support my work for the remainder of this year I would be grateful for any donations.


March 18, 2009

Over the past months I have dedicated much of my time to studying and typing Charlotte Selver's letters to her first husband, Heinrich Selver (to be precise: at the time of the letter mentioned below Charlotte and Heinrich were not married yet, though they had been a couple for about 5 years). Charlotte was a prolific correspondent and the letters are fascinating. Through them I will be able to let the young Charlotte be the guiding voice in the book throughout the 20s and 30s. Here is part of a letter from July 10, 1925, in which Charlotte writes from the sea resort of Warnemünde, where she and her colleagues from the "Bode School for Physical Education / Berlin" offered a series of workshops: Letter 1925-7-10.

To further explore that time in Charlotte's life I am planing a month-long trip to Germany this summer, where I will conduct research in Munich, Berlin, Leipzig and hopefully the city in which she spent her childhood, Duisburg.

Boats on the Rhine in Ruhrort; 1925 postcard
Postcard from January 6, 1925:
"You should, my friend, know the places where your girlfriend
spent her youth. The x shows the roofs of the houses
on the Rheinallee where our house is

Interestingly, though Charlotte and Heinrich had been dating since 1920, he had never been to Ruhrort nor had he met her parents. This should finally happen only weeks after this postcard was sent. It was part of preparing Heinrich for the visit. Why it took so long for this meeting to take place is not entirely clear to me yet but it may well have been a class issue. Charlotte, on the other hand, had long met Heinrich's family in Chemnitz.

Besides digging in the early history of Charlotte's life, I am also continuing with the oral history interviews. Listen to an excerpt of my interview with Stanley Keleman. Donors to the project can access the full interview through the members pages (including his account of a demonstration by Ida Rolf in which she insured Charlotte. This just for fun, nothing against Ida Rolf or Rolfing!). The full interview can be accessed by donors to the project on the members page.


November 20, 2008
In October I had the chance to interview more people in the Bay Area. Among them were Don Hanlon Johnson and Stanley Keleman. Read an excerpt of my interview with Don Johnson, titled Charlotte Selver is the ABC of Being Human. Members can also listen to some of the interview. I hope to add excerpts from my fascinating interview with Stanley Keleman before long.
Reaching back a bit into the growing 'vault' of interviews, here is an expcerpt of my conversation with Sophia Rosoff. At age 87, Sophia is still active and sought after as a piano teacher. She took the first workshop with Charlotte in 1948, which makes her the earliest student I have been able to interview to date. Here she talks about how she met Charlotte and what working with her meant for her piano playing. (In this excerpt, you will hear Sophia say she met Charlotte in 1968. This error was corrected later in the interview.)

October 31, 2008
I am now working through 1923 of Charlotte's letters to Heinrich Selver. It is the year of the great inflation and much turmoil in Germany. Sadly, it is also the year in which Charlotte writes about the first shocking signs of things to come, as she encounters grave anti-Semitism. Charlotte continues her training with Bode and she studies art history with Heinrich Wölfflin at the university of Munich. She mentions Heinrich Jacoby and Elsa Gindler for the first time. In the letters, Charlotte goes not into much detail about them, though it is clear that they immediately become important to her. Because the letters are a record of the times when Charlotte and Heinrich were not together, there is much about which we do not hear. Naturally, they do not reveal much about the times they spent together, though one gets a good sense of the many ups and downs in their long-distant relationship before they got married. Often, what we learn in the letters are only fragments of experiences and encounters. To give an example: in a letter dated June 6, 1923, Charlotte writes about a trip to Hellerau, today a part of Dresden, at that time a center for cultural visionaries in Germany. In Hellerau, Charlotte just visited the reform pedagogue Tami Oelfken and her school. This fascinating letter offers glimpses into a life rich with new and exciting experiences at the edge of cultural developments in Germany. But only 'en passant' does Charlotte hint at the fact that she studied with Heinrich Jacoby there and that both she and Heinrich Selver had met him before: "Jacoby: You wouldn't recognize the man as the one we met before, when having a lesson with him. To write about that would be useless, you have to experience it yourself." We do not learn anything about the nature of these lessons. This is one of the many entry points for research into the fascinating times in which Charlotte lived and about which I have the great opportunity to paint a portrait.


September 26, 2008
I have started to work through Charlotte Selver's letters to her first husband, Heinrich Selver (later I will tackle his letters to her, which are very hard to read). These letters, most of them written between 1921 and 1932, contain a wealth of information about Charlotte's formative years. Going through these letters I realize how fortunate I am to have Charlotte's voice - in writing and in interviews - covering much of her life and guiding me in my work. Many of the letters give detailed information about her studies, her whereabouts and her professional life. I am now working through 1922. This is a crucial year in Charlotte's life. She studies photography in Munich and also begins her training with Rudolph Bode in Bode Gymnastik; she meets artists and intellectuals going to "tea" at Dr. Ludwig's; she falls in love with the Bavarian alps and becomes a passionate hiker and - she sees Mary Wigman dance (see a clip on YouTube). This is quite possibly a crucial moment in her life and it is the first time she writes about the field of work which will soon become her passion and profession.

In a letter dated November 17, 1921, Charlotte writes: "Last Sunday I saw Mary Wigman, the dancer! It is impossible to describe how people are affected by her. She is supernatural and her simplicity and strength - foreign to us - her ultimate sincerity, show more about the connection of body and mind than ever before. How this woman, her gesture, moves away from the body with her body, is a miracle. All the arts seem to unite in her when she dances without music, harmonies emanate from her, her gestures show the ultimate truth of the poets; her lines, the structure of her body, its language and spirit are more beautiful and ravishing than sculpture. Her dance is completely detached from gravity. Though nothing is difficult for her and all technique transcended, she dances in uncompromising form."

German original: "Letzten Sonntag war ich bei der Mary Wigman, der Tänzerin. Es ist unmöglich zu beschreiben, wie sie auf die Menschen wirkt. Sie ist übernatürlich, und die uns fremde Einfachheit und Stärke, dieser letzte Ernst, den sie gibt, zeigt mehr den Zusammenhang von Leib und Geist als je. Wie diese Frau in der Gebärde, mit ihrem Leib ganz wegführt vom Leib, das ist das Wunder. Tanzt sie ohne Musik, so schient sie jede Art von Kunst in sich zu vereinen, Harmonien schlagen aus ihr, die letzte Wahrheit der Dichter gibt ihre Gebärde, die spricht; ihre Linien und der Aufbau ihres Körpers , seine Sprache und sein Geist sind schöner und hinreissender als Plastik, und ihr Tanz ist gänzlich losgelöst von der Erdenschwere. Obgleich es für sie keine Schwierigkeit gibt, ihr jede Technik Überwundenes ist, so tanzt sie in der strengsten Form."

I also I continue to transcribe my interviews with Charlotte from 1999. Members can hear her talk about visiting Charles Brooks in his apartment in Greenwich Village for the first time.

September 9, 2008
A rich summer is coming to its end. It is becoming cooler fast here in Santa Fe as I process this summer's "harvest". I traveled for seven weeks and was able to meet with many friends and students of Charlotte.
One of the very inspiring meetings took place on the Lower East Side in Manhatten on June 12, when I met with Johanna Kulbach. Johanna, now 96 years of age, studied with Elsa Gindler in the 30s and 40s. She came to the US in late 1949 and met Charlotte Selver soon after. Listen to a short excerpt of my interview with Johanna Kulbach (supporters will be able to listen to a longer excerpt on the Members Page). Spending time with her was very inspiring in many ways. Having recently lost both legs due to arterial sclerosis, Johanna is full of life, happy to live and simply a joy to be with.

May 28, 2008
What has been most rewarding in the past months - besides enjoying the generosity of those supporting my project fiancially - Thank you! - is to experience the warmth with which the interviewees have received me. Clearly, for most people it is as gratifying as it is for me to remember and share their “life with Charlotte”. And I am always thrilled when the conversations go beyond the biographical to include an exploration of the significance of the practice of Sensory Awareness in our personal and professional lives.

One of my trips brought me to Santa Barbara, where Charlotte, together with her husband and colleague, Charles Brooks, started to offer workshops at La Casa de Maria in the late 1960s. For a catholic retreat center to host Sensory Awareness was at that time controversial. Don George was director of La Casa for much of the time Charlotte worked there: “When Charlotte was coming with her work, no one was doing that.  It was so different from any other kind of learning we were being exposed to. When you see there are possibilities of doing things differently, that’s really significant. And there are not that many things that come along that can hit you on the side of your head and say, wait a minute, here is a whole another world of being. Charlotte was a gem, and I admired her so much, but it was also that the work was altering the way we were being in our learning and, yes, in our spirituality even.  I know she said it is not spiritual work, but it is. Today, we understand so much more of Gaia and the whole connection, but Charlotte had it back then and just didn't call it what we might call it today.”

In Santa Barbara I also met with June Christensen. Her eyes sparkled with life when she opened the door to greet me. What a warm, immediate welcome! June, now in her eighties, was a dancer when she met Charlotte. Charlotte’s relationship with dance, with performance in general, was complex and she often gave dancers a hard time in her classes when she sensed that they were performing and not exploring. I look forward to finding out more about this in the course of my research and writing. June: “Charlotte was very hard on dancers. Don’t do any performing for her! She was the Germanic master when it came to that. But I learned how to put the spirit in the dance. Later, I gave up teaching dance and became very interested in learning, in education itself.  I ran an alternative school looking at how kids learn, rather than what they’re learning. [I was offering] a lot of movement along with that, honoring that many people actually learn kinesthetically. I did that and then I became a consultant for a couple of years, and then I started working with adults.  And all that time I was doing sensory awareness classes off and on too, which Charlotte gave me permission to do. I clearly remember that experience: We were exchanging rocks, we each had a rock and we were walking around and exchanging. And in the reporting afterward I just said that it had come to me that giving and receiving were one thing”. And June recalls Charlotte’s response:  "Now! Teach that!  But don't tell your students, make them discover it for themselves."

Some interviews I conduct from my home in Santa Fe by phone: A few weeks ago I spoke with Sensory Awareness leader and psychologist Robert Kest in Montpelier, Vermont. Among many other things I asked him about the relevance of Sensory Awareness for his professional life. Robert: “The issue of character was always an integral part of sensing for me. The first time I noticed this was in an experiment [moving other students’ arms]: To just feel how totally different every person was, and to feel their whole life! Charlotte would ask the question: ‘Are you working with an arm or with a whole person?’ And moving their arm I could almost feel what their relationships are like with the world. Krishnamurti once said that we only have one relationship and that’s our relationship with life, and we do it everywhere. The way someone walks, speaks, is with their breath, is in lying – their whole life is right there and in a given moment it can all show. Sensing really helped that sense of the whole person. So many people were talking about trying to integrate mind and body and spirit, but Charlotte was saying that’s a misunderstanding. You’re not integrating it, it’s the same thing.” (Members can hear more of this interview on the members page).

Because Charlotte lived such a long life, many – in fact most – of the people who knew her, are long gone. Thus, in researching her life before the 60s, I will largely depend on archival materials. But then there is serendipity too: A few weeks ago, a violinist from Germany contacted me because she needed information about a somatic practice for a paper she’s writing. My brother, who is also a musician, had given her my address. So we had a conversation in which I told her about Sensory Awareness. A few days later she contacted me again to let me that know she had told a fellow musician about Sensory Awareness and Charlotte Selver. It turned out that this musician is the granddaughter of Erika Donner, who was a student of Charlotte in the 20s and later became colleague and friend with whom Charlotte kept in touch until the end of her life. I had known about her but assumed, rightly, that she was dead. I knew she had a son but wasn’t sure if he was still alive and how I could find out. Well, this woman is his daughter and Dieter Donner is still alive and eager to have me visit when I go to Germany this summer. He already sent me an account by his mother, in which she wrote about her life and Charlotte. Learning more from Mr. Donner will be very helpful in shedding light on Charlotte’s early years.

May 21, 2008
I have interviewed these people since the last entry: Katja Gruettner-Donner (granddaughter of Erika Donner, a friend of Charlotte's from her early years in Germany), June Christensen, Don George (La Casa de Maria, Santa Barbara), Bernard Gunther (Bernie's web site), Bruce Bryant, John Schick, Judyth Weaver (Judyth's web site), John Schick, Richard Lowe, Connie Smith Siegel, Lily Nova, Robert Kest, Terry Ray (Terry's web site).

March 27, 2008:

These are the people I have had the pleasure to interview so far: Natalie Ednie, Jill Harris, Babette Wills, Joan Barbour, Seymour Carter (Seymour's web site), Mary Conelly, Ray Fowler, Sever Woll, Marsha Woll.

A short note from my 1999 interviews with Charlotte (slightly edited for clarity): "This morning Charlotte told me about Alan Watts some more at the breakfast table. She said that she did not teach all the courses together with him. Sometimes he would just be at her place and had his own seminars. And then sometimes they would teach together but certainly not all of them. And she said that once Erich Fromm came for a seminar with Alan Watts. Erich Fromm was so straight in his suit and tie and then Alan Watts came in in his flower power 60s costume and would sit down on the couch and put his feet on the table and how Erich Fromm just hated him, she said: 'They hated each other.' And Erich Fromm wanted to get rid of him. Maybe it was not for a seminar, I don’t know. But she said: 'He started to tell Jewish jokes and wouldn’t stop until Alan Watts left.' Also, she said, that Erich Fromm was very much against Esalen. . . ."


Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project
Pathways of Sensory Awareness LLC
PO Box 185, Hancock, NH 03449, USA / Tel.: (603) 525-7289