Reconnecting to the earth

Hancock resident opens home-based business on Main Street focused on sensory awareness

  • Stefan Laeng-Gillatt<br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)
  • Stefan Laeng-Gillatt<br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)
  • Stefan Laeng-Gillatt<br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)
  • Stefan Laeng-Gillatt<br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)

Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt says if he could use just one word to describe his work, it would be “connection.”

Laeng-Gilliatt, 53, is the former president and executive manager of the Sensory Awareness Foundation, based in northern California. He’s now living in Hancock, with his wife, Sarah, and their 10-year-old son, Julian. He’s also running a new home-based business, called The Mindful Barn, in a recently built studio in the barn attached to his home on Main Street.

“Sensory awareness is a way to help people reconnect,” Laeng-Gilliatt says. “At the basic level, it’s about connecting to gravity, which is the core of our being. Weight is just your relationship to the earth. It’s an attraction, a pull, that calls for a response. We often fight gravity, or we collapse. Our relationship needs careful attention.”

Laeng-Gilliatt tries to help people connect to the earth through individual sessions, classes for couples and groups, and workshops. He said he works to get people to explore movement in playful ways. The studio is filled with wooden balls of various sizes, bamboo sticks, containers of polished stones, a heavy rope coiled on the floor. There are mats and blankets, but unlike a yoga session, sensory awareness does not focus on a specific set of movements.

“This doesn’t have a form. It’s very improvisational,” Laeng-Gilliatt says. “It gives the participant authority over his or her experience. We ask the students to find out what feels right, rather than telling them.”

Laeng-Gilliatt tries to make his sessions fun.

“It’s very playful work. That’s what I love most about it,” he says. “Movements express our connections to the earth. I routinely invent new movements in a session, as a way to explore how we move.”

The sensory awareness movement originated in Germany in the early 1900s through the work of Elsa Gindler in Berlin. Laeng-Gilliatt said it still doesn’t have a name in Germany — “sensory awareness” is a label applied in the United States during the 1950s.

“Giving it a name was almost like a sacrilege,” Laeng-Gilliatt said. “It is not a method. It’s just being alive.”

Laeng-Gilliatt studied with Charlotte Selver, one of Gindler’s students. Selver, who was Jewish, left Germany in 1938 and came to New York City, where she taught until 1970, while also traveling and teaching in California and Mexico. Laeng-Gilliatt, a native of Switzerland, said his first exposure to sensory awareness was in the early 1980s, when he was working at a Swiss retreat center.

“Then I got involved with Buddhist practice and Gestalt therapy,” he said. “I came back to [sensory awareness] a few years later. I felt that it involved Buddhist practice without the overlay of religion and tradition. Some of the original students were still alive and I studied in Switzerland with three or four teachers.”

He came to the United States to participate in study groups with Selver in 1990, and three years later he moved to California to help take care of Selver, who was 93 at the time. In 1995, Laeng-Gilliatt was asked to manage the Sensory Awareness Foundation in California. A few years later, he met Sarah, and after they married he continued to run the foundation from their home in Santa Fe, where he also taught, before the family moved to Hancock a few years ago.

Laeng-Gilliatt said there is no formal training program or certification standards in the field of sensory awareness.

“There is an international sensory awareness leaders guild,” he said. “It sounds very grand, but we are a small movement. There’s no set method or form. I have a few students I mentor. You cannot train someone for two or three years and say, ‘Now you have it.’ It’s a long process. But there is a transition when a teacher will say, ‘Now you’re ready.’”

Laeng-Gilliatt is no longer directly involved with the Sensory Awareness Foundation.

The family lives in a Main Street house once owned by Sara’s grandmother, and Laeng-Gilliatt has remodeled a portion of the large barn in back, which gave the business its name, to serve as his studio. Sara is planning to open a home business to market goat cheese in the lower level of the barn this summer.

Meanwhile, Laeng-Gilliatt is focusing on three projects: writing a biography of Selver, travelling a couple of times a year to Germany and Holland to teach workshops, and building a clientele for his new practice space in Hancock. The business’s website is www.themindfulbarn.org.

“With individuals, you can hone in on their needs — disconnection, stress, anxiety,” Laeng-Gilliatt said. “Sometimes I’ll do hands-on work, but this is not a treatment. I’m working to help people become more sensitized, more aware and to reconnect with the world that they are a part of.”

Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or danderson@ledgertranscript.com. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.

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