Our Body Speaks in PsychotherapyYoga

by Thomas Larkin

Sometimes clients come to therapy and find it hard to speak. They feel ‘if I’m not saying anything, nothing is happening’. What they don’t realise is they communicate the second they come into the room. Their body tells their own story. How we stand or sit, how we hold ourselves, where we scratch, where the tics and fidgets are, all tell the story of what happened to us, how we tried to protect ourselves and where that’s left us on the inside. Our body is a living organism that pulses. This pulsing produces feelings and allows self-recognition. When we go through difficult experiences the startle reflex is triggered within our nervous system. This is our instinctive reflex to danger or potential threat. Our body reacts by contracting – our shoulders go up, our legs prepare to run or we freeze, our eyes sharpen. Our body comes out of this process as the danger passes and we return to the natural pulsing. Our body rebounds from this shock in some violent outburst such as crying, screaming or anger.

If the nature of the event is severe enough, or ongoing for long enough, the startle reflex remains in place. The natural pulsing stops and the body remains braced. It becomes rigid. Our muscles then form around the startle.  Our body becomes locked in defence, keeping the outside world out and the inside world in. Experiences such as deprivation, neglect, punishment and anxiety are felt bodily and result in our bodies becoming set. This setting of the body is called ‘body armour’.  With body armour in place we become disconnected from our experience and ourselves. Clients often speak about feeling like they are ‘in a bubble’ or have a sense of ‘floating’ or ‘un-realness’ about their lives. They are no longer in their bodies and the only place left to be is in their heads where everything is rationalised. One anxious thought chases the next and the anxiety spirals making us more and more disconnected from our bodies. Our bodies no longer speak as it is frozen and our life on the outside mirrors what is happening on the inside, we are stuck.

Therapy is a process not unlike cooking. First of all our body has to thaw. If meat is cooked from frozen it doesn’t work. As we sit in therapy and trust begins to emerge our body is able to begin to release the tension it feels, it is thawing. This is happening regardless of what is being said or not said in therapy. At the start of therapy we tend to talk for the sake of talking, out of our own discomfort, out of our own disconnection. As we settle, we begin to talk from the part of ourselves that has been frozen. As that experience is processed and heard and acknowledged by both the therapist and the client the anxiety, anger and sadness of those experiences is felt and released. Our body is then free to return to its natural pulsing. Our body informs our mind and there is dialogue between them. We feel more connected to the world and ourselves. We can now allow our inside world out and the outside world in, fitting with the natural rhythm of life and our bodies.

PsychotherapyYoga, Awareness and Expression

Yoga helps us to relax into ourselves, to sink into our bodies and allow the chattering in our heads to subside. It takes our bodies from having our ‘head in the clouds’ to being on the ground – or “grounded”. As our internal dialogue slows we can begin to get a more whole sense of ourselves, giving us perspective on our busyness. This deeper bodily awareness is the important and satisfying experience of yoga. However, this alone will not reach or change the deep imprints of our life‘s experience that is etched in our bodies. Thus soon after a yoga session we can return to how we were before the session. Body Psychotherapy says that this awareness and expression from our bodies are both needed to fully connect to, understand and process our experience. This frees up our bodies, and minds, to remain grounded and connected in our daily lives and not just during a yoga session.

Tension from restrictive messages

Our body literally is our unconscious mind but she does not speak in words, she speaks through tension. We have constrictions and blockages in our bodies where our body is ‘overcharged‘. This charge is held in place by restrictive messages we developed early in life. We can also have limp or dead areas of our body. This is called ‘deleted behaviour’, where our body deadens itself so as not to repeat the restricted behaviour. These restrictive messages are called ‘toxic introjects‘. They block the natural impulses in our bodies to reach out and achieve satisfaction. They achieve this through our experience of anxiety as we approach the forbidden actions and our ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’. This stops us getting our needs met and increases self-alienation. If the blocks are strong, the energy we normally use to speak out can turn into self-attacking or resignation. They are about a need to maintain control, captured in the phrase “don’t lose your head”, and can be the basis of tension headaches.

Hear the body speak

But we have to be able to hear our bodies rather than demanding she speak or tell her what she is saying without listening. Arnie Mindell (1982), a body psychotherapist, said: “Once the abandoned self in the body has been touched by listening and caring for it, the body awakens and acts like a partner of consciousness.” When our body speaks it comes in involuntary movement, feeling, image and metaphor and is an expression of our whole personality – conscious and unconscious. We hear the restrictive messages, the ‘shoulds‘.

Express from the body

The heart’s primary channel of communication is through the throat and mouth. When we express these ‘shoulds’ with bodily connection to the feelings we find the unmet needs behind them. This unblocks the constrictions and puts life back into the dead areas of our bodies. We speak ‘from the heart’. This allows our past to become present, clearing space for a new future. When we are not connected bodily someone ‘speaks off the top of his head’ or ‘out of his hat.’ This helps us make the transition between being ‘hung up’ or tense and being on solid ground or ‘grounded’ for the long term. In the transition is the anxiety of letting go of the ‘shoulds‘ – a bit like Humpty Dumpty thinking the cracking of his shell is the end of him when it actually reveals a new identity. This journey takes some time but each step gives us invaluable insights. We use yoga to familiarise with the grounded state, we learn to listen to our bodies, hear and express the restrictions, allow the needs behind them to be felt, and free ourselves strand by strand of the restrictions in our lives.

Thomas Larkin IAHIP works in private practice in Dublin City Centre.

Contact 085 7283697. www.thomaslarkin.ie


Mindell, A. (1982) Dreambody, London: Penguin