About Body Psychotherapy
"Our history is encoded in our body just as the rings of a tree encode the life story of that tree, including its genetic inheritance
and the atmospheric conditions that were present from year to year", Tina Stromsted.
The integrating of body and mind
Body psychotherapy sees human beings as integrated body-mind, rather than as bodies with minds or minds with bodies. Whilst Body psychotherapy sessions inevitably involve talking, Body psychotherapy is often less of a 'talking therapy' than other psychotherapeutic approaches. Embodiment - a live sense of what it means to be a body-mind - is instead at the heart of the different schools of Body psychotherapy (e.g. Biodynamic psychotherapy, Bioenergetics, Biosynthesis, Core Process, Embodied-relational therapy and Hakomi among others.) Embodiment is very much about connection: body and mind, thoughts and feelings, inner and outer, self and other, therapist and client, earth and sky.
In Embodied-relational therapy, one of the approaches to Body psychotherapy in which I am trained and practise, embodied relationship is the central therapeutic approach. In other words, at the heart of the work is the embodying therapeutic relationship between therapist and client in the room. The more the therapist and client are simultaneously in contact with their own experience, and in contact with each other, the richer the work. Read about Embodied-relational therapy.
Getting 'underneath' the stories
Engaging in Body psychotherapy is stepping into an exploration of what it means to be as fully and as authentically alive as possible, and to sense that in and through your embodied experience in everyday life. In contacting the parts of yourself that are particularly alive, you are also likely to come across the parts of yourself that aren't so keen on coming to therapy some days; feeling stuck, disconnected, limited, over-charged, numb, or out of reach and exiled.
Contacting and attending to these different states with curiosity and compassion can be a vital way in getting 'underneath' the habitual and less useful stories we can tell ourselves about our life - 'I'm a failure', 'I'm worthless', 'I'm invisible' or whatever your story might be. In this way the stresses of events, traumas and difficult conditions of your past held in the body are acknowledged, perhaps with the chance of loosening our identification with old stories, particularly the limiting and life-constricting ones... In my experience as both a client and practitioner of Body psychotherapy, this process happens in a way which is very integrating, drawing new and powerful connections between the energies of head, heart, belly and gut, with the body-mind working at its own pace.
Supportive conditions for the this work
When you live through events and relationships which are challenging or unsatisfactory your body-mind does its best to adapt to these perceived threats. In the present day, these adaptations may be reflected in the way you stand, breathe, habitually respond, walk, and your particular life themes e.g. feeling lost, being an entertainer, sensing you don't belong, feeling at sea, loving being 'in charge'. Some of the trace remnants of these difficult experiences are held in your body memory, causing tensions and stuckness - rather akin to fossils formed in rock. Unlike fossils, these tensions can be dissolved; the energy caught up in them being released and transformed at their own pace. When we pay attention we realise the body-mind has an amazing capacity to heal: moving to find its own solutions, equilibrium, release and a sense of regulation. This healing can most smoothly happen if we can start to trust it, trust ourselves, and provide supportive conditions (e.g. a respectful and active therapeutic relationship), and then allow it to do its work.
In therapy sessions, my work as an Embodied-relational therapist - and fellow human being - is to pay attention to your posture and movements, your energetic presence, your gestures, your habitual responses, and your style of relating. Noticing and relating to these dimensions is as important as carefully listening to the content of that which you bring to the therapy room. I am likely to encourage you to stay with the threads which seem live and relevant, so you keep turning towards your embodied process, noticing what goes on when you find distractions, deviations and resistances. I will also be noticing and attending to my own embodied process as I work, as this is an important part of the work.
Each session is different and unique
I'm quite often asked what a Body psychotherapy session is like. They vary enormously. Some are like a quiet, still, shared meditation, others are very active, involving movement and gesture. Others may involve using the voice and sound, focusing on the throat, neck and chest. Being with the cycle of the breath may be the starting point for many sessions. Other sessions will involve safely negotiated touch, others will be just as contactful, without any physical contact being made. It is impossible to generalise, because we are each so similar and yet so different. Change cannot be forced, and the work will find its own pace and form. Body-minds heal at their own pace, in their own way. You may experience moments of huge tension releasing, or you may feel more spacious and flexible - perhaps a little spaced out - in a particular area of your body. Perhaps you will not notice much during a session, but in the week that follows, you will notice memories, images and feelings arising from past events. It is hard to predict, and most important to stay with your process, rather than to expect certain outcomes.
The most important ingredients of this work is setting up a sound foundation, in the form of a respectful relationship between therapist and client, which builds over time, as trust and rapport deepens. Co-creating this foundation for me draws upon my sense of 'metta' (universal loving-kindness) and 'mindfulness' (fully attending to experience as it happens), emerging from my practice of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation. I am also mindful of the metaskills of Embodied-relational therapy: Awareness, Trust, Contactfulness, Spontaneity, Spaciousness, Relaxation and Wild Mind. So the therapeutic relationship provides the context for the therapeutic work to take place.
The origins of Body psychotherapy
In terms of its own origins and development, Body psychotherapy grew from the work of the Austrian-American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Wilhelm Reich, who lived from 1897 to 1957. Reich was one of a group of psychiatrists who worked with Sigmund Freud in the 1920s, in the early years of psychoanalysis. Reich became increasingly interested in how psychological difficulties manifest in and through physical symptoms. He also led the way in naming the significance of social, economic and sexual conditioning and the effect upon individual development, spontaneity and freedom. Reich was the first practitioner to see that psychological difficulties could be addressed and worked with through understanding and working with people somatically ('soma' means the body, contrasted with the mind or psyche), with their whole body-mind experience. His style of Body psychotherapy or Body psychoanalysis was a moving back and forth between the somatic and psychic dimensions of the client's experience, developing ground-breaking techniques to elicit the release of blocked energy and emotions.
Many practitioners have further developed the early work of Reich, building a rich lineage in Body psychotherapy. Body psychotherapy is one of the few approaches in psychotherapy in which the humanistic and psychoanalytical divide is bridged, given that Reich started out as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, yet some of his most active descendants have been humanistic practitioners.
If you'd like to read more about Body psychotherapy, you can browse this Goodreads Listopia (book list!) of some of my favourite Body psychotherapy books. Or browse the articles I have written for Somatic Psychotherapy Today, a journal of the US Association for Body Psychotherapists. Or find out how to get hold of a copy of 'Meditating with Character', the book I've written about character structure, body armouring, and meditation.