A Brief History of Body-Psychotherapy
A Brief History of Body-Psychotherapy
In the world of western psychotherapy "Body Oriented Psychotherapy" appears to be a new trend. But in reality Body-Psychotherapy dates back to the days of Sigmund Freud! Body-Psychotherapy was pioneered by Wilhelm Reich, who lived from 1897-1957. Reich grew up on a farm in what is now the Ukraine. He was tutored at home and spent most of his time outside. I have read that he was a natural scientist, known to experiment with breeding insects and animals as a child. He fled his home in 1914 because of WWI. After the war he went to medical school and by 1920 he was active in Freud’s inner circle and considered one of Freud’s most promising students. By 1922 he had his own “bio-psychiatry” practice and was an astute researcher and lecturer.
At this time Freud was hypothesizing that “neurosis” was caused by denial of our natural sexual instincts which leads to frustration. He called this sexual energy “libido”. It is well known that Freud later diluted this idea, in part because of his reaction to patients telling him about sexual abuse, and because of the complicated social implications of the discovery.
Meanwhile, Reich was conducting experiments that led him to conclude that life energy can be qualitatively measured in the body and that the natural build-up and discharge of this energy heightens one’s sense of well-being. Or, if it is frustrated, it can lead to the development of physical armoring and psychological problems. Reich was able to confirm the existence of this biological energy (which is more than sexual excitation) that he called “orgone energy” in the human body. He also verified its presence in the earth’s atmosphere; he developed instrumentation to observe and collect it in plants, and he harnessed it for a variety of purposes. It is because of Reich’s work that science made progress in areas such as cancer treatment, motor power and weather experimentation. But Reich’s passion and his life study was human behavior.
Reich finally split from Freud when Freud, having recanted the libido theory, developed the notion of the “death instinct”, the idea that human suffering is inevitable and therefore there is a natural tendency for self-destruction. Reich felt instead that there is a natural tendency for healing and growth. He believed that the system turns against itself only when it becomes frustrated through inability to express or to get what it needs for survival. People develop patterns of blockages in the body based in part on genetics but also because of the developmental stage he is in when major holding patterns, or frustrations, first occur.
Two psychiatrists, Alexander Lowen and John Pierrakos, continued the development of Reich’s work creating Bio-energetics. Pierrakos eventually added a Spiritual component to the work and called it Core Energetics. I practiced Core Energetics for several but now my work is changing to incorporate what we understand through the fields of Epigenetics and from Interpersonal Neurobiology and Trauma Therapies. My work is much gentler and easier on the system than the way I was taught. I also find that Indigenous practices and work on the Imaginal Realm inform how I work with clients. However, this particular article describes the work that has grown directly out of Reich’s discoveries.
The principle is that our early experiences leave us with images that are generalized into our world view when we are children. These dictate what we believe about the world and how we fit into it. Energy that is held back, not expressed, from these early experiences remains trapped in the biological system so that we are bumping up against it again and again throughout our life. Core Energetic treatment is based on accessing this energy and allowing it to flow again while simultaneously dissolving the old image and freeing the person to live in and react to the present rather than to old expectations and beliefs.
As an example, imagine a baby who is repeatedly left to cry. As long as he can cry for what he needs his energy flows strongly through his body. His growing bones are still soft and when he is left to cry for too long his ribs may spread at the sternum from the exertion. After some time the baby becomes frustrated and the crying takes a different tone, “wah, WAH, WAH”, he demands.
But eventually he becomes exhausted, his voice is hoarse and the crying wanes. Still not getting a response, the infant falls into a state of despair about getting his needs met. He gives up. If this happens regularly the tendency to give up can become hardwired into the body. In some people we can see a caved in place in the middle of the chest. A result for many people is that they are hesitant to ask for what they need. Being quiet can be a compensation to avoid the despair that may be built into the system.
This experience becomes an attitude, part of our character or personality structure. It is maintained as muscle and body structure develops around the physical posture that portrays the attitude. For many reasons these early patterns are perpetuated in a person’s life and this is usually when they seek help from a therapist.
For therapy to work it is important for healing to occur on all levels of the person at once. This means the issue is treated in the body, the mind, the emotions, the behaviors (will) and the spiritual aspect so there is congruence on every level with regards to the issue. It is not enough to just talk and understand your behavior around a certain issues. It may not be enough to understand it and feel your feelings about the patterns; when you really get to the core issue you will also have a physiological change along with an emotional reaction and a new understanding of your choices and reactions. Along with this we do physical exercise to impact the body structure and support the change process.
Many modalities open the energy in the body, or work with the body and the emotions, or work with emotion, thoughts and behavior. They can help for awhile but it is crucial that all 5 levels be addressed for lasting change, otherwise any one of the levels can pull the system back to status quo. In Core Energetic/ Evolution we also use physical exercise to explore the attitudes that we hide from ourselves and from others. When we hide it, it can control us. A part of the therapy is to embrace our deep dark truths and allow them to transform.
Exercises are also used to change the body-structure. The really fun part of this kind of therapy is that there is movement and energy, the client and practitioner don’t just sit and talk and this tends to be energizing and exciting. People often report feeling more alive, more like themselves than they have ever felt before. It inevitably leads to the spiritual aspect, a deepening respect for all of life that impacts how we go about in the world .
While many practitioners are body-oriented because they bring attention to certain aspects of the body along with other traditional elements of therapy, body-psychotherapy in its deepest form can fully restore the organism to its natural state of aliveness. When we bring our awareness to how we block our life energy and release these holding patterns, we are better able to maintain this healthy state for the long term. Allowing our life to open and unfold in new ways every day is a truly joyful practice!
Aylee Welch, LICSW