The Contributions of the Embodied Psychotherapy Movement to Developments in the Wider Field of Psychotherapy

The role of the ‘body’ in psychotherapy was a taboo issue – an “elephant in the room” – for many years until the 1960s. It was not really until the Humanistic Psychology movement arose as a “third force” that the ‘body’ was once again included (along with the spirit) in the general field of psychology and psychotherapy.

This is not to say that the founders of Humanistic Psychology (e.g. Carl RogersAbraham Maslow, and others) related directly to, or worked with, their patients’ (client’s) bodies, nor used any specific embodied approaches: they just noted that, given the five basic principles of humanistic psychology, the body had – up to then – essentially been left out of psychology and psychotherapy. This later inclusion (or recognition) was the start of a ‘subtle’ revolution. It is interesting to note that attention to embodiment developed more quickly and consistently than attention to spiritual aspects: and, whilst we have also seen the development of several transpersonal psychotherapies, they have not carried as much weight as body-oriented aspects.

Fritz Perls, one of the founders of Gestalt therapy (a development of Gestalt psychology ), who had also been a patient of Wilhelm Reich in Berlin in the early 1930s , started to work more directly with the body in his therapy work at the Esalen Institute in the 1960s and 1970s. This was paralleled by the development of the Esalen Massage & Bodywork Association (EMBA), and also by the presence at Easalen of several people who later became quite influential in the field of psychotherapy: among others, Ilana Rubenfeld, who founded Rubenfeld Synergy (a synthesis of Gestalt psychotherapy, Feldenkrais work, and the Alexander Technique) that has been accepted in the USA as a Body Psychotherapy; Will Schultz (author of Joy: Expanding Human Awareness – and a ‘promoter’ of Encounter Groups); Diana Whitmore (who went on to develop Assagioli’s ‘Psychosynthesis Psychotherapy’ in the UK), and Stanislav Grof (who developed a transpersonal technique he calls Holotropic Breathwork. that he claims has similar effects to taking LSD).

The Esalen community (in Big Sur, CA) also provided many opportunities for developments in the fields of Somatics, as well as for specific embodied techniques such as Holotropic Breathwork. It became a major centre for new humanistic and body-oriented psychotherapies, which in the 1970s helped to facilitate, first in America and then in Europe, a gradual greater acceptance of the significance of embodied approaches, emphasising not only the body in psychotherapy, but also the development of various body-oriented psychotherapeutic approaches that started to develop more widely.

More specifically, in the USA, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, two of Reich’s pupils, Alexander Lowenand John Pierrakos, developed another form of embodied psychotherapy, that was later popularised in a number of best-selling books by Lowen. They called this Bioenergetic Analysis, which became much more widely known than the more purist Reichian tradition which still used Reich’s term ‘Orgonomy‘. A great number of people became influenced by Reich’s work and the importance of the body in psychotherapy.

In Europe, David Boadella had in 1970 founded the journal Energy & Character, which became a pre-internet conduit for those interested in body-oriented approaches. He subsequently developed his own form of Body-Oriented Psychotherapy, that he calls “Biosynthesis” and published the definitive (1987) book of his work, Lifestreams. Also in the 1970s, Gerda Boyesen (a psychology patient of Ola Raknes and a physiotherapy pupil of Aadel Bulow-Hansen) began to teach her own form of body-oriented psychotherapy in London, Biodynamic Psychotherapy.

There had been a very strong Norwegian tradition of body-oriented techniques and their influence into psychiatry, physiotherapy, child psychiatry and psychotherapy, dating back to Reich’s pre-WW2 work (1934-1939) that is still alive and strong today. It developed primarily from the post-WW2 work of Ola Raknes, Nic Waal, and Reich’s ‘second wife’ Elsa Lindenberg. Trygve Braatoy was another eminent Norwegian psychiatrist, who had been strongly influenced by Reich and who also collaborated with Bulow-Hansen. Lillemor Johnsen (1970), another physiotherapist with an interest in Reich’s work, subsequently influenced Lisbeth Marcher and her body-oriented psychotherapy, ‘Bodynamics’. Bjorn Blumenthal (and others) have carried forward this reasonably well establish tradition of integration and collaboration with Reich’s Character Analytic Vegetotherapy, work.

Michael Heller has written about “The Golden Age of Psychotherapy in Norway” (2007a, 2007b) and he describes how a number of psychoanalysts and psychotherapists have since picked up on the body-oriented themes (inherent in Reich’s work) of somatic countertransference (Lewis, 1984; Samuels, 1985; Ross, 2000; Stone, 2006; Pallaro, 2007; Orbach, 2009; Carroll, 2010; Gubb, 2014) and “embodied empathy” (Scheflen, 1964; Gendlin, 1981; Cox & Theilgaard, 1987; Erskine et al., 1999; Pearmain, 1999; Sletvold, 2015).

There were also several other neo-Reichian ‘spin-offs’, especially in America: Charles Kelley had developed his own form of an embodied approach, Radix; and Ron Kurtz developed his embodied (and somewhat transpersonal) approach, which he called Hakomi. All of these had an increasing impact throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s in the field of psychotherapy, in general. Many other people in America, not connected to Body Psychotherapy, had also been strongly influenced by Reich’s work: these included Frank Zappa, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Itzak Perlman, Fritjov Capra, Saul Bellow, Alan Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and William Burroughs (Mannion, 2002), as well as the New Yorker artist William Steig, who married Reich’s daughter; the actor Orson Bean, who wrote Me and the Orgone; and the singer Kate Bush. These people helped to popularise Reich’s work after his death.

We have already seen in previous papers how bodily-oriented techniques can be integrated or synthesised with a psychotherapy method or modality to form a body-oriented psychotherapy: for example, Postural Integrative Psychotherapy, or Rubenfeld Synergy. Other ways in which the influence of the embodied psychotherapies has contributed to other forms of psychotherapy include:

  1. A group of French (Geneva-based) psychoanalysists (Guimon, 1997), many of whom were influenced by De Ajuriaguerra, who developed a particular form of relaxation psychotherapy, used in psychoanalysis and later extended into ‘psychomotor therapy’. A similar development was the Jacobsen Relaxation method, also used by psychoanalysts to amplify body awareness (Fortini & Tissot, 1997).
  2. The Autogenic Training technique, developed originally by Schultz for people with hypertension, has since evolved into a recognised form of psychotherapy, prominent in Austria, Germany and Spain, and this has also developed a bodily awareness technique they call the ‘autogenic state’ (de Rivera, 1997);
  3. Sophrology, a study of harmony between body and mind, similar in some respects to phenomenology, developed originally by Alfonso Cadcedo, a Columbian neuro-psychiatrist in the 1960s, and then furthered by Abrezol in the late-1960’s to enhance the performance of sports-persons, with remarkable success.

One of the major contributions to the field of Gestalt psychotherapy (post Fritz Perls) has been the work of Jim Kepner with his Gestalt Body Process Psychotherapy (1993), and also with the significance of body-oriented work in the healing of trauma (1995). Ruella Frank, another Gestalt psychotherapist, endorsed and extended this movement, especially in her 2001 book, Body of Awareness, which looks especially at developmental models. William Cornell (2015) has also extended his body-oriented form of Transactional Analysis into psychoanalysis and psychotherapy contributing to those mentioned in the final paragraph.

In addition, the aspect of work with trauma has also been paralleled more generally: by Babette Rothschild (2000), with what she calls Somatic Trauma Therapy; by Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing work in understanding and healing trauma (1997, 2010, 2015); by Pat Ogden’s Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and her books (2006, 2014); and by Bessel van der Kolk’s (1999, 2015) ground-breaking work linking brain research and body-oriented psychotherapy (see also here). This area is becoming increasingly significant.

Finally, it is clear that a significant branch of psychoanalytical psychotherapy, Relational Psychoanalysis, has relatively recently and whole-heartedly taken up body-oriented work, as Anderson’s (2010) compilation indicates: chapters by Cornell (2010), Bucci (2010), Eldredge & Cole (2010), Pacifici (2010), Gerbarg (2010),Bass (2010) and Newman (2010) all show how various psychoanalysts have brought bodily experience back into their practice. Additionally, other analysts who have utilised bodily experience in their treatment relationship, namely Knoblauch (2010), Nebbiosi & Federici-Nebbiosi (2010) provide useful references. Analysts who describe using their body as both subject and object are Petrucelli (2010) and Harris & Sinsheimer (2010). There are a few further examples of this trend in Aron & Anderson’s (1998)earlier collection, particularly in two contributions in the final section by Karen Hopenwasser, Tamsin Looker and Ron Balamuth, that extend and enhance the theme of the importance of both the analyst’s and the analysand’s somatic experiences in the relational matrix. These works, which have come out of the ‘postdoc’ community of New York University’s Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis program, begin to bridge the 100-year gap between psychoanalysis and the body.


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