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What is Body Therapy?

The discipline known as body therapy starts with a basic and hugely persuasive insight: that our emotional problems will not only show up in our minds, they can logically be expected to manifest themselves in our bodies as well. Our unhappiness and neuroses will have echoes in the way we sit and breathe; in how we hold our shoulders, in our sleep patterns, digestive processes, attitudes to exercise and ways of treating our skin. 

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It therefore follows that, in order for therapy to be effective, it cannot afford to view the mind in isolation. We cannot be expected to heal only through discussion and analysis; we need to help the body to feel heard, give it a chance to weep and lament, to release its sorrows and give it some of what it has for too long lacked: an opportunity to be free, held, calmed and honoured.

If we were made to feel unworthy and unloveable, then our bodies will almost certainly repulse us. Our degree of self-love has a direct relationship to our bodily self image: it is impossible to hate oneself and not at the same time revile one’s appearance — though, in the strange manner of these things, it may take us a long time to put the two elements together. It is equally impossible to have been frightened for many years without fear showing up in our back muscles and shoulders, in the way we pick at bits of skin or hold our head down as we walk. Our digestive mechanisms similarly contain our biographies; our sleep patterns are a palimpsest of our emotional trajectories.

Once we look at them properly (with tenderness, imagination and love), our bodies emerge as a detailed score sheet of the evidence of the troubles in our pasts. 

Body psychotherapy began in Europe in the 1930s at the hands of the Austrian doctor and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Reich spoke of his unwell patients having developed what he termed ‘body armour’ in response to trauma — and he sought to release them of this by placing pressure on particular parts of the body where he felt their pain had collected. He also encouraged them to study themselves in a mirror, scream, kick, dance, jiggle or curl up — and generally become more conscious of how a sense of shame had pitted them against their bodily selves. 

In the 1960s, the American body therapist Alexander Lowen, originally a student of Wilhelm Reich, was in the habit of asking his patients what they felt their bodies needed. What were their bodies trying to communicate? If one gave them a voice, what might these bodies say? Many patients spoke of a wish either to release long pent-up tension by moving limbs in a particular way or else to have pressure applied in order to contain fear, both of these aspirations being read by Lowen as bids for corrective experiences related to deprivations from childhood. Once therapists had spent a certain amount of time listening to a client, they were to put in motion a set of exercises that would work in the opposite direction to their pain, silence and isolation. A therapy session might turn into a cross between a dance, a massage, a purification ritual and a theatrical performance.

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People who have grown up having to deal with the overwhelming rage of a parent have typically learnt to suppress their own anger and their desire to hit back at all those who hurt them, then and now. In their minds, they will have become meek and precisely attuned to fulfilling the wishes of others, however unreasonable these might be. But, as importantly, in their bodies, they will have learnt to be very still, almost frozen, because a part of them associates the expression of anything exuberant or powerful with the risk of bringing about catastrophic retaliation. These people might sit in a particularly stiff way and have an ingrained resistance to running that has nothing to do with laziness: what is at stake is a fear of one’s own vitality.

In trying to treat such people, a body therapist might recommend that they try kickboxing or karate, competitive running or swimming — sports these people might have resisted because of a cowed and ambivalent relationship to their strength. They might also try out rhythmical chanting or drumming, thereby additionally releasing pent-up longings to assert one’s right to be.

Traumatised people tend to have bodies that are either too alert — responding to every breath and touch, flinching and bristling at contact. Or else too numb, shut down, heavy and immobile. Treatment seeks to find a more comfortable half-way house between these two extremes.

Body therapists help to heal people who, at the start of their lives, were not properly held, caressed and reassured, in the way that young children need to be in order to feel at home in their own skin and in the world. They want us to get back in touch with a body that was not properly, and by loving hands, touched or cuddled, gently swung from side to side or hung upside down for a giggly moment. In a body therapy clinic, under the instruction of a therapist, one might dive onto foam filled mats, have a roll around in a ball pool, jump on a swing and balance on a beam. It sounds child-like and is meant to be, offering a chance to go back a step to correct a long-standing adult alienation. 

Those who were once neglected by emotionally stunted parents have often almost literally withdrawn from their bodies. They ‘own’ them but they do not properly ‘live’ in them. They might be rendered deeply uncomfortable if anyone touches their shoulders or strokes their back. They might intuitively think their body was ‘disgusting’ , because that’s how it once seemed in the eyes of those who were meant to look after them. For such people, a body therapist might advise a therapeutically-informed massage to help rebuild a basic trust in one’s skin and limbs. 

Photo by Vadim Fomenok on Unsplash

It is no doubt deeply unfortunate that a difficult past appears to give us physical as well as mental symptoms. But body therapy does the enormous service of speaking up on behalf of our numb and disenfranchised limbs. To heal may involve not just a highly attuned and kind conversation but also a chance to scream, dance, shout or curl up into a small and cosy animal; all that too may belong to the therapy we need.

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