John Lindsay in conversation with Alan A. Mooney
Bioenergetics is not about the body only but about the whole Body/Mind/Spirit relationship, with the emphasis on the body. Often during the course of therapy it becomes evident that a client is blocked in the expression of feelings and will identify the physical location of the “block”: “My throat feels locked closed”. “It’s like a lump in my chest”. “I have no voice”. Based in the theories of Reich, Lowen and others, bioenergetic bodywork can help to release and clear these blocks. The client is enabled to connect with the feelings that have been hidden by these “stuck places” and can be helped to express them, perhaps for the first time in many years. Feelings can range from rage and anger to fear and sadness.
It is self evident therefore, that the primary emphasis in a bioenergetic group is safety. Any such group needs to guarantee clients that they will be supported in their work and that they will not be judged as a result of their expressive work. This is really important because one of the reasons they may not have been able to express feeling up to now is that there has been some kind of taboo associated with them. Since the expression of feelings
can be “dramatic” at times, it can be disconcerting for clients and they need to be reassured that it’s “all right”.
As another element of safety, a bioenergetic group benefits by having eight to twelve members. This is small enough for the therapist to be able to stay in touch with all the participants and large enough for individuals to feel anonymous if they need to at any particular stage of their process. A smaller group is more risky for people because intense feelings being expressed can cause someone, who feels too exposed, to “disappear”. People are there to be part of a group but it must be on their terms.
Another safety feature is the “Go Round”. At the beginning of every session, members of the group are given the chance to check in, to say whatever they need to say or whatever they need the others and the therapist to know about them. Usually this go round forms the basis of work to be done during the session.
Breathing is a very important element in bioenergetics. Usually the more shallowly a person is breathing the more holding is going on so a go round is often preceded by some expanding breathing exercises to help loosen and deepen the participants connection with themselves, (e.g. the bioenergetic “bow”, Lowen)
Groups used to be open, with people coming and going from week to week but it was found that this was very disruptive to the other members and also went against the sense of containment and safety necessary for trust to develop. Now groups are closed and participants are asked to make a commitment to the whole series. A series used to consist of ten two hour sessions but this duration was found to be inadequate with people only beginning to let go in the group. Now it is envisaged that groups will last twenty sessions to allow for a fuller development of the potential and healing of members.
People often come to therapy because they feel a failure in their relationships so a key element of a bioenergetic group is to facilitate the development of a deeply connected relationship of each participant with themselves, with the group and with the therapist. My role as therapist is most often to follow the client in the loosening and releasing process.
It is therefore very respectful of boundaries and while the emphasis in the work is on the body I am always very careful not to invade the space of a client at work in the group. Physical contact is always negotiated and never assumed to be acceptable by the therapist.
Because the therapeutic stance is of following the client, the group process is not like encounter nor is it explicitly confrontative, though a client may be encouraged to stay in a difficult piece of work even though they would like to avoid it. In the end if clients choose to stop at a particular point it is a principle that this is respected as a clear awareness in clients that this is as far as they wish to go for now.
One of the key delights of body work in a group is that in sharing what’s happening in one’s body, participants often come to a sense of relationship with themselves and other members of the group that is deeper than they ever thought possible. One of the benefits of sharing like this is that it often triggers another member into a piece of work that frees them into a new appreciation of themselves or to a new place of healing. The sense of connection and support that develops is profound and can be deeply spiritual. The experience of deep human contact can and does bring with it an experience of depth and mystery.
One way of holding the safety of clients work is that we do not “over refer” to it. Work done is done. Some exploration of a piece of work is helpful. For example, when holding was let go what memories came to the surface? How did the client feel in relation to others in the group and to themselves? This kind of intervention can help clarify new insights, perspectives and new depths of feeling.
It is the role of the therapist to take care of the client so I don’t stay too long with a client even if it seems important. It is easy for a client to become flooded or exhausted by the depth of the work. It is important not to try to do all the work that could be done. Integration takes time.
Because the focus in this kind of group is on the body, there is an emphasis on “letting go” – allowing energy to flow freely. This can take different forms: For example, violent shaking of the whole body, releasing all tension or strong anger verbally and/or physically expressed using the safety of cushions. This energy flow can also by very peaceful, with a feeling of contentment as you breath into yourself. There can be a deep acknowledgement of the spirit.
This cathartic element of the work is important. As therapist I am looking for real letting go and not just letting “out”. So, I look at the quality of a client’s breathing. Is it loose and flowing or is it constricted? I’m looking at the quality of sound. Is it tight and constricted or full throated and free?
Sometimes when I notice a client who is letting out but not letting go I will encourage them to explore the constriction. Where is-it in the body? I have found that having a towel that can be twisted and “strangled” can make the difference. It can enable a client to break through the tightness and constriction to a free flowing energy.
The importance of helping the client to bring their “tension” into the present “body moment” cannot be over stressed. It can bring up many difficult feelings like fear, falling anxiety, death, the expression of grief.
I will always incorporate some slowing down exercise and some grounding work into a session because people can get lost in themselves and can get mixed up with everything else that’s going on in the rush to get somewhere. Taking care of the balance is part of my role as therapist and while it is important to face the “demons” it is also very important to remain grounded and centred. Heavy walking exercises and long walking exercise helps to ground the energy and when this is allied with breathing it brings about a centring that is as important as the work itself.
A lot of time in any one session is spent sharing experience. This is important for lots of reasons. It facilitates the group process of trust and support and it enables participants to put words on their experience. It is also important because it gives clients the chance to express what it’s like to live in their bodies again and to feel alive.
‘The body’s life is the life of sensations and emotions. The body feels real hunger, real thirst, real joy … real tenderness, real anger, real sorrow, real warmth, real passion, real hate, real grief. All emotions belong to the body and are only recognised by the mind. (Adapted from D.H.Lawrence, Sex, Literature and Censorship)
John Lindsay is a director of Connect Associates. He works as a counsellor and psychotherapist with individuals, couples and groups. He has a particular interest in body oriented therapy but also draws on his experience of other approaches. John can be contacted at 2884155.