The Role of Bodywork in Change
It is a testament to our culture's alienation from the body, that any work towards feeling better which incorporates the body at all has to be described as bodywork as if to warn people that the body will be involved. Our present culture may seem to 'worship' the body as far as magazines and movies go. However, this is not appreciation for the living surprises and felt joys of a body, but is rather the ego using the body as 'clay' to form an image.
Within the modern Reich and Lowen tradition, the term bodywork is used to separate active physical techniques from analysis. The ultimate goals are to improve vibration, grounding, and breathing. Thus bodywork can lead to new experience, but not all experiential work is bodywork. Bodywork is not just an avenue of further knowledge or insight, but is actual neuro-muscular and biological development.
Even within the sincere tradition of a feeling-based body orientation, there are perhaps two large missteps possible. The first is the idea of 'laying on of hands.' A clue to this is often that passivity of the transaction. In bodywork, the person may sometimes be still (except for breath and vibration) but is never passive but rather is actively receiving. That is why in the practices section of this website I use the term participant. There is a group of passively experienced 'alternative' treatments that are, I think, too hastily and casually lumped with bodywork traditions. Examples are Thought Field Therapy, Reikki, or Non-Contact Therapeutic Touch. These passive modalities may use 'somatic' language, but do not use bodywork as it will be defined below. Being a healer, or laying on of hands, whether or not it is a verifiable phenomenon, has never been an element of the Reich and Lowen Tradition. This is certainly an angle ripe for charlatanism, witting and unwitting. Pseudo-scientific gadgets have been developed that fill the same niche. Body work is 'energy work, yes, but anything that is labeled 'energy work' but is passively applied is suspect. It is the participants own bodily feeling that is the authority on whether anything is happening.
The second misstep is depending two much on awareness alone. At any given level of awareness, the subjective impression in all of our minds is that our awareness is now maximum. New feelings increase awareness but awareness doesn't increase feeling. There is often a border area of feeling that is present but disregarded by the mind. Paying attention to and respecting such neglected feeling is a necessarily first step in Reich and Lowen work. The habit or ideology of ignoring feelings has to be set aside. But there are some therapy approaches that do not go beyond this. These might be called 'focusing' therapies. They do avoid issues of a trainer causing discomfort or issues of a trainer dominating someone. Practices that increase conscious awareness of body importance, or body feeling, are no doubt very useful for people that are reluctant to try bodywork or very vulnerable. Eventually this will become circular. In the absence of bodywork as defined below, there is a very real tendency to 'mentalize' the body and make it into just another metaphor or idea, rather than an actual source of energy and good feeling. The real work is increasing feeling, perhaps not always globally, but at a minimum in suppressed areas. When strong feelings do arise, awareness largely takes care of itself! (Grounding may be timely at this point)
I now think of bodywork being of two types: kinesiological and sensory. Kinesiological work consists of causing some movement, perhaps just vibration. Sensory work consists of creating sense impressions in a manner that reflexively changes the functioning of sense organs or nearby muscles. Sensory work is particularly fruitful for the face which is hard to reach with kinesiological work. Sensory work is also especially important with the creator character.
In the kinesiological area, very 'permissive', free-form approaches to movement have a role in bringing expression to movement, but they usually fail to 'touch' a large part of the restriction, since in the normal course of things, we all avoid some movement (or more commonly we are incapable of it) and thereby miss some type of experience unless we can be concretely guided in some movements, either by human direction, or techniques that use props.
On the other side of the split, there are many physical training traditions of course that move the body but without paying attention. Some attention may be paid to the 'shell' of a movement (end-gaining) but not the 'guts' of a movement. Attention is paid to to final results, but attention is not paid to the movement details. No new experience results.
Operational Goals of Bodywork
The work of Reich and Lowen implies a more or less universally desirable body condition that is roughly 'un-armored enough.' That is the therapist seeks to provide 'correction', not just exploration. There are about five operational goals of bodywork in this tradition:
- Deepen, slow, and regulate respiration This is fundamental and where body work starts. The other four tasks of bodywork depend on improving respiration. Deepening respiration is not synonymous with sheer increase of air exchange. There is some debate on the efficacy of deliberate breathwork on changing the involuntary unconscious breathing pattern. Wilhelm Reich relied on it, but Alexander Lowen disfavored direct manipulation. However, to me, in this day and age, average breathing is so dysfunctional that some basic exercises seem to constitute a very low-hanging fruit toward feeling better.
- Balance the autonomic nervous system. Because most modern people suffer from sympathetic shift, this usually entails increasing parasympathetic innervation. Work on the autonomic nervous system also seems to balance the immune and endocrine systems.
- Improve alignment of the body, including the spine. This is a very complex task since it will involve about every joint and muscle in the body. Generally, it will require lengthening and relaxation of several muscle groups. When alignment achieves a 'poised-enough' threshold movement seems to become effortless and is largely pleasureable. Although the word grounding has taken on a psychological meaning that cannot be separated from the physical, grounding also very much refers to these modifications of alignment in the body that allow the earth both to be felt and to be used as a support and a springboard for movement
- Reduce muscular tightness: This is done with shaking, massage, re-alignment, expressive, or lengthening techniques.
- Increase the capacity for self-expression. This is done by working with the voice, mouth, face, eyes, and arms. In expressive work done in sessions, especially before a group, clients will often conceive the message expressed as the purpose of expressive work. It can be. However, it is growth in a persons ability to possess and shape expression that changes in-session catharsis into self-expression that transfers well to daily life.
Release: The approach of release is based on the concept of armor--muscular rigidities that stop emotion and perception that the person is fully capable of, and which would otherwise occur if not held back. The emphasis is on a 'natural' completion, and only secondarily on form. The exercises of Alexander Lowen are the epitome of this. There are perhaps a few 'subtypes': 1) Stress positions: this is putting the body in a position which cannot be maintained for long, so in deliberately staying in it, the participant' tight muscles 'must give way' 2) Pressure Massage: tight muscles are painful when pressed upon. Applying that pressure 'forces' the tight muscle to relax, 3) Priming the Pump: Starting to scream, tantrum or hitting on purpose puts one in position where spontaneous feeling to do the same is likelier to arise. Therapeutic massage, more gently, is about release. Hyperventilation techniques are about release.
Neuro-Muscular Development: In this approach, exercises are used that gently challenge the participant's abilities. The emphasis is on form, not completion, because the goal is motor control not motor release. This perspective is based on the idea that when organismic negation has occurred earlier, the ability for some feeling and expression has never had its biological underpinnings developed, and so such expression cannot be released but has to be 'built up'.
For an adult, with a mixture muscular tensions and muscular incapacities, any new movement or expression will both stimulate new learning but also fight existing rigidities. However, most traditions of bodywork emphasize one approach or another. Awareness-based approaches like Feldenkreis, Alexander Technique are permissive but developmentally focused. Pilates is not permissive, but very developmentally focused, avoiding stress. Lowenian approaches to bodywork have some elements of developmental focus, such as grounding exercises, but as suggested above, are very much about release and to this end use some stress.
About Practices Listed Here
The practices listed here in the second, purple, horizontal menu are listed mainly so that rationales and derivations could be listed. This is so that they do not have to be practiced superstitiously ("I don't know why this works but I once saw Dr X do this...") If someone finds a new exercise and tries it and finds it felicitous, so much the better. I have tried to list (and of course this effort goes on is far from complete) 1) all solo practices whether some skill is part of it or not, because I assume any sincere person can learn the skill, and 2) all practices where the participant may need a helper, but the helper does not need skill but just instructions from the participant. I have not listed specific exercises where the participant needs help from a skilled person, for the self-evident reason that the essence may misconveyed. I am also not listing exercises where there is a coherent, widely available, intact teaching tradition, such as yogasana, deep tissue massage, Pilates, and many others. The teaching tradition of Lowenian bioenergetics, at least in North America, seems, alas, not very viable.