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Personal Reflections on the Relevance and Use of Body Work Techniques in Psychotherapy

By Emille Boland

In this article I will be commenting on the practical application of body work techniques in the therapeutic setting, drawing on my own experience as a therapist in the past ten years. My approach is person centred and eclectic. As with Reich, my basic premise is: defenses are ‘Psychobiologic’ and not simply mental phenomena. The greatest influence on my work has been Dr. Frank Lake’s approach to person, and his contribution to primal integration methods. I incorporate the use of Bioenergctic postures to ground and help access feelings stored in the body. I also use Reich’s technique of working directly on the muscular armouring of the body using deep massage and pressure points to release energy blocks. As Reich said in 1942, ‘Every muscular rigidity contains the history and meaning of its origins’.

My aim is to work with the individual using a process that will do justice to the whole person. Our consciousness is almost exclusively ‘Head Con­sciousness’. We act as if we ‘are‘ our heads and we ‘own’ our bodies. In order to avoid feelings we try to keep the body under control. Breathing is an important instrument in this, as is muscular tension. Much of the work is about integrating mind and body. The therapeutic relationship is crucial. Respect and trust are the basis of this relationship. You may ask, what about the person who has been so hurt that they are unable to trust? This individual has to take the risk of ‘Trying to Trust’ (1). In order to undertake the often painful journey back to childhood or even pre-birth, the client must have a strong enough ego. So the task initially in therapy may be to build up ‘a competent adult’.(2) It will be his/her task (and not ours) ‘to descend into, identify with and give recognition and acceptance to their own inner child of the past’.

Once this alliance is made with the client there are five stages that need to be gone through. These are as follows:

1. Commitment by the individual to give up their efforts to maintain their defenses against their own internal process. (This is crucial although it may be easier said than done).

2. Reliving of the original trauma and ventilation of feelings. It is worth stat­ing here that repression retains the memory intact. Lake says ‘Therapeutic Regression … is made easier by reason of the fact that the original wound is, or feels to be as recent and raw now as in the hour that it happened. Though in part split off from consciousness, dissociated and repressed – no detail of the incident has been obliterated. The adult who is bent on achieving this integration can bring the hurt child of the past into the present and give it a voice’. There is a lot more that could be said about memories which have been split off from consciousness and indeed the splits which occur in the body as a result. However, let me not digress.

3. Insight: this is often spontaneous during or after a ‘Body Work’ session. The meaning of the muscular armouring together with the attitudes and behaviours these defenses have been maintaining in day to day living often become crystal clear. Thus the original experience can be integrated and so there is no need for the flow of energy to be blocked any more.

4. Counteraction: the client is encouraged to try out new behaviours as a result of the insights gained. Support is often needed during this stage of therapy and group work can also be very helpful.

5. Proaction: means taking responsibility for one’s own life’s direction. Having released the energy which was ‘bound up’ in repression there is more available. Generally there is more motivation to find ‘need satisfying’ ways of being in the world. People usually feel more alive and have an enhanced capacity for pleasure and achievement.

From the above it will be clear that the process includes simultaneous psychological work and body work. Having outlined the important stages in the therapy process let us now look at some practical applications.

‘The body cannot lie, it is incapable of lying’ is a statement I have found to hold true. Our bodies tell of our ‘Histories’. We all have our own ‘character armouring’. However, I do not believe in labelling people. What I find helpful when I meet a client for the first time is to notice their posture, their movements, their skin tone, the expression of the eyes. The sense of vitality and the proportions of the body make a statement in themselves. They express the person within, very often much more so than what the person says. I find when I sit with the client for the first hour I often become aware in my own body of how he/she is breathing and, indeed, of where the most pronounced tension or deadness lies. Usually he/she is totally un­aware of these, by now, automatic, ways of being. This is what Reich calls ‘Character Armouring’ i.e. ‘the total constellations of attitudes and behav­iours ‘Neurotics’ (I regret the word) develop to protect themselves against the threat of external hurt by others and the internal threat of their repressed emotions’.

Using the ‘identified problem’ the client presents with as the starting point, we begin the task of restoring the link between the physical and the emotional, the inner and the outer world. My preferred way of doing this is through the use of body awareness exercises (e.g. Tony de Mello) or a short relaxation technique. (The most worthwhile £5 I ever spent was on a relaxa­tion tape in 1981. I found it an invaluable resource for my own inner journey). I have used these gentle methods to great avail as a therapist too.

I remember some years ago working with Dave, a man in his early 30s. He came to therapy complaining of fatigue and a difficulty maintaining intimate relationships. He was of average height, very thin, with gaunt cheeks and a grey complexion. His eyes were lifeless and his movements rigid; almost like an automaton. (3) At the second session I talked him through a short relaxation and encouraged him to deepen his breathing. Within minutes he was ‘convulsing with sobs’, while still sitting in the chair. Some of the hurt and lack of support which he had experienced as a child (and which he had a compulsion to repeat) had surfaced spontaneously. He had touched into his longing and need for love and affection.

He was as surprised as I was, that it had erupted so quickly in the therapy process. I am often struck by the way the ‘unconscious’ co-operates once a person is committed to change. Sometimes people find themselves in life situations which recapitulate the original feelings and issues. I trust the person’s unconscious to allow ‘up’ only what he/she is ready to deal with. So each individual goes at his/her own pace.

Lowen’s Bioenergetic Postures are also very useful tools at any stage in therapy. They can be used as in the case of Eileen, a third level student. She was hard working, but a poor examination candidate. She came to therapy six weeks before her second year exams. She was terrified she would blank out and fail her exams once more. She had to continuously repeat all the way through school and college; she could not bear to face the same ordeal again. From the language she was using and the anxiety and distress she was describing, I hypothesised that she was recapitulating her birth trauma. I explained a little about ‘Body Work’ to her and she was willing, albeit reluctantly, to try out the grounding exercises. I then encouraged her to kick and thump like a three year old, while lying on her back. She managed to let go of some of her self-consciousness and made a little sound on the out-breath.

Eileen was very pleased with the outcome; she felt much more grounded in her body and relaxed. A measure of this stayed with her between sessions. She never returned to that ‘woolly headed’ place that she was in the first day. She attended for four more sessions before her exams. We stuck to the bioenergetic grounding exercises. She was afraid to ‘let go’ of her tension completely at that time, so we did not risk doing primal work. She did keep her anxiety levels down and got through her exams without blanking out. Her results were good and for the first time ever she did not have to repeat!

I have often been asked ‘How do I identify appropriate interventions’? As can be deduced from the above I follow the ‘energy’ of the client where it takes us. I see my role as facilitator. I introduce differing methods such as postures, relaxation, deep breathing and take my cue from the client. I am reminded of something Patrick Casement said; it’s like giving a baby utensils such as a spoon and allowing him/her to experiment with it. He/she might use the handle for eating off, or maybe bang the spoon on the table, the dish, your head! etc. So, too, each client will make use of these skills in the appro­priate way for him/her at a given time in their process.

In as much as the client takes risks (in a positive sense) when he/she tries out something new in therapy, so, too, as the therapist, I find myself called upon to be creative and courageous in making suggestions at times.

My suggestions are based on experience. Firstly, I abide by Lowen’s principle, (4) that of never asking the client to do what you have not done yourself. I believe in this totally. Lake says, the therapeutic journey involves hearing, going to, being with and within … to feel with and help … the person to bear and express the pain. (5) How can we as therapists do this unless we have stopped fleeing from our own hurt and perhaps terrified inner child? Secondly, I call on my intuition and experience as a therapist. How do I perceive that these methods work?

Let us bear in mind that the therapeutic relationship is central to the healing process no matter what methods are used. Having said that, let us look at some of the types of problems which are presented in therapy. Many clients come with symptoms such as shortness of breath or backache which has no medical cause. They have tried using ‘discipline’ and ‘will power 7 with little success. They are battling with the outer effect. It is like cutting down a weed and leaving the roots in the ground. The weed grows again unless the roots are treated. Likewise, to effect any lasting change, many people need to look at and explore the roots of their issues, not just the symptoms.

Freud said in 1933, ‘Symptoms are created in order to avoid outbreaks of the anxiety state’. Generally the roots are to be found in childhood and/or very early, even pre-verbal experiences, stored in the unconscious.

In order to reach down to these memories the work involves the connec­tion and reconciliation of four essential aspects of experience:

a) Cognition   b) Imagination    c) Sensation   d) Emotion

There are various means of doing this e.g. through depth relaxation, and/or guided imagery; through abdominal breathing which produces theta rhythm activity in the brain etc. Bioenergetics can be used too. Direct work on the body’s defences such as massage and/or pressure is also very effective.

For those individuals who self-select to revisit pre-verbal states the rewards can be great. However, I often think that people need to be ‘desperate enough’ and ‘disillusioned enough’ in their everyday lives to be willing to face the pain and make the changes necessary to live more effectively.

Mary was a woman in her late 40’s who had lived all her life with a sense of dread. She could find no explanation for the high anxiety she experienced daily. Despite being surrounded by people who loved and cared for her, she could not feel it and experienced little pleasure in life. She came to therapy having been meditating for over a year. She worked in individual sessions initially, but soon joined a ‘Regression Group’ for 4 – 6 people. The break­through came for Mary when she was able to go into the terror and isolation she felt as a very young child. She had stored this ‘Primal Pain’ deep in her abdomen and in her eyes. By lying back over several cushions she was able to open her chest area and, in turn, her breathing and solar plexus. Her feet were planted on the mattress, one member of the group held them firmly to help her stay grounded. Another trusted member of the group sat at her head and held eye contact with her. I massaged the knotted area under her diaphragm and later round the naval area. This enabled her to feel and release the rage and terror, through deep breathing, sounds (like a tiny baby would make) and also through sobs, trembling and thumping cushions. Afterwards, Mary allowed herself to be held and to receive warmth and acceptance from the group.

I believe the encouragement from the group, the acceptance she received and the sharing of the pain all helped Mary to bear what could not be borne as an infant. Her fear and dread were faced and assimilated so she did not need to split off again. She was able to come more into contact with her own body and her authentic self, and in so doing she was more in touch with those around her. The effort to keep herself ‘up out’ of the pain had kept her out of her body – out of her pleasure and power centres and ultimately ungrounded her. This made the world an unsafe place because she had ‘no body’. In time, she learned it was safe to stay grounded and reach out to have her needs met.

Body work as a whole can be summed up as: ‘A facilitation for the self-regulatory process of the body and psyche. It connects us with our past, our feelings and our energies and teaches us to go with the flow of these energies’ (6). In practice I find clients experience an increase in their self-awareness and sense of well being and aliveness. The energy which was bound up in internal conflicts and repression is now available for everyday living. The changes are usually quite marked, both physically and emotionally. The countenance is usually more open and expressive. The eyes are brighter and the body more vibrant. Changes in weight loss or gain (whichever is needed) happen automatically. Asthma has been known to disappear, eyesight to improve and backache to cease.

As Lowen said, To be vibrantly alive one needs to feel good about one’s life, to find some satisfaction in work and to have pleasure in personal contacts’ (7). This I believe can be achieved as outlined earlier by using a combination of body work and other therapy methods. Of course body work is not the only way to release the energy of the psyche. However, it has been said that the body is the last to give up its defenses. In my experience this holds true. Through working actively with the body, many people experi­ence an immeasurable expansion of their being by literally finding their feet, their voice, their exuberance. I find this an exciting, challenging and very worthwhile way of working.


1. Frank Lake: Tight Corners in Pastoral Counselling (p.47)
2. Frank Lake: Tight Corners in Pastoral Counselling (p.24)
3. A. Lowen: Depression and the Body (p.84)
4. A. Lowen: The Betrayal of the Body
5. Frank Lake: Tight Corners in Pastoral Counselling (p.28)
6. S. Krzowski & P. Land: In our Experience
7. A. Lowen: The Way to Vibrant Health

Emille Boland is a body oriented psychotherapist working in private practice in Dublin.

The Irish Association of Humanistic
& Integrative Psychotherapy (IAHIP) CLG.

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