Primate Change, Stillness and Moving Out Of the Chair

by Roz Carroll

Roz Carroll, one of the speakers at our upcoming event Moving Out of the Chair: Freeing Up Creative Potential in the Therapeutic Relationship on Saturday 7 December in London

“…a ‘threshold’ appears first as a boundary and then once approached, you realize that it is only the limit of one layer of understanding while, at the same time, it acts as the doorway to the next, deeper layer.” (Chambers, M.)

Primate Change

I’m reading a book about Primate Change – the adaptation of our bodies to changing working and living styles and environments. Like the trends and statistics concerning Climate Change, the information is disturbing. The shift towards a predominantly sedentary way of being is taking its toll on every dimension of our embodied and cognitive functioning, leading to increased pain, anxiety, poor concentration, and chronic health issues, from back pain to fatigue and bone density loss. It is changing the functionality of our bodies. Of course there are other factors involved but an overall decrease in daily movement – from standing and walking, to expressive movement, micro-movement, rhythmic movement, fine motor movement (dexterity) – has profound short-and long-term consequences, for individuals and for the species.

There is abundant evidence that varied, continuous, shared and sensory-based movement – not just “exercise” – enhances vitality, resilience, creativity and well-being (Homann 2017). In The Guardian recently there was an interview with neuroscientist Shane O’Mara, who elaborates on the “motor-centric” view of the brain: the brain evolved through movement, and movement enhances thinking. Moving activates many felt senses (spatial orientation, proprioception, kinaesthesia) that enhance cognitive mapping which in turn helps us organise and elaborate our thoughts and feelings.


But doesn’t stillness aid deep thought and inner awareness? Yes. It allows us to tune in to inner movements and resonances, or find words for formless stirrings that may bubble or flicker or stream within us. Sometimes stillness is essential to drop down into our depths. This stillness is not the absence of movement however but a quiet attentiveness to subtle internal shifts.

The Buddhist tradition of meditation has long been associated with the idea of “sitting with”. The poet Gary Snyder believes that the origin of sitting still this way can be found in early hunting, in which the hunter had to stand or sit still for long periods, waiting for game to come.
This link to being poised in readiness for action gives a very dynamic picture of stillness as focused attention, listening into the world through the body.

Freud and the early classical psychoanalysts felt that silence and stillness on the part of the analyst would enable the transference to emerge more clearly. Speech, in the form of free association, was privileged above movement, which was negatively identified with defending against insight in hysteria, acting out, flight or other kinds of non-verbal behaviour.

One concern that I have heard expressed about focusing on movement in psychotherapy is that it is about “doing” rather than “being with”. This is a misapprehension since the essence of working with movement in psychotherapy is listening and closely attending to what is felt in a gesture, action or posture. By analogy movement in psychotherapy is no more “just moving” than speech in psychotherapy is “just talking” – the layers of embodied holding, enquiry, and elaboration, both implicit and explicit, create richness and intimacy in the work.

A bit of history

The first Institute of Psychoanalysis was formalised as such in Berlin in 1923 (Heller 2012). A short distance away Elsa Gindler was developing a reformed version of Gymnastik that focused on awareness of movement, sensation and breath. Initially Gindler taught women only, including some whose partners were psychoanalysts (Annie Reich, Clare Fenichel, Elsa Lindenberg), as well as Laura Perls one of the founders of Gestalt Psychotherapy (GP), and others who would go on to shape Dance Movement Psychotherapy (DMP).

She encouraged her students to “find the gesture they need in accordance with the profound rhythms of their being…to feel movement from the inside and let movements generate inner sensation …to observe which movements free the breath…and how this opens up the world of their sensations and then their thoughts” (Heller 2012). Her teaching fostered this ability to listen to oneself and others through the body and many of her students did this alongside psychoanalysis.

Another influential figure was Laban, a pioneer of the expressionist dance movement, who also focused on the process of movement, as a means of developing the kinaesthetic sense and awakening creativity (Bloom 2005: 22). The tributaries of these influences have gathered energy as they have continued to develop in BP, GP & DMP, as well as in Active Imagination in Jungian analysis.

More recent thinking across contemporary psychotherapy practice recognises that the therapeutic relationship is shaped by therapeutic “action”: an engagement of two subjectivities. This occurs through the back and forth of dialogue, and the implicit communication via expression, gesture, and breath: the flow of life is movement.

Sitting together with another can encompass layers of rich intersubjective communication. And yet, the translation back out into the world from the emergent intersubjective process will itself require movements of all kinds. These include: the courage to get up and get out, to move towards or walk away, to negotiate relational space and find agency and purpose in daily life. It also involves the subtle micro movements of implicit relational know how embodied in rhythm, gesture and interpersonal expression.

Moving out of the Chair

Movement is a hallmark of transition. Clients and therapists shift positions in their chair as their self-states change, as new topics are introduced or as their perspective, strategy or intentions re-organise. The famous “door handle” revelation as the client leaves is often seen in transferential terms, as the last word before a quick exit. Indeed this may be so, but perhaps it can also, or equally, be the freeing up of thoughts as the client stands and moves towards the door. The difficult subject pushed out of awareness suddenly pops up as the client is mobilised. Or words flow, now, as the legs stride. Or as the door handle is grasped, this tactile contact reminds the client of something else they are trying to get hold of…

Movement both stimulates and itself can be a form of free association. At the same time it also serves a relational and communicative function. Mirroring, sensing into and inviting elaboration of a movement that may not have been in awareness can open up exploration of many layers of intersubjective process.

If the baseline of the therapy is sitting in the chair, then moving out of the chair, opens up an immediate shift in the relationship. If I stand as the client stands, we are sharing an experience. If the client gets to their feet, they are already “making a stand”. If I initiate with my movement, this activates the client’s mirror neurons and may enable them to join me with less self-consciousness because I have gone first.

Standing facing the other may have many meanings: these often emerge quite quickly because the felt sense of change in gravity, position of limbs, relative height of client and therapist, and perception of the whole standing body, brings a lot of immediate sensory information, affect and association.

Or, if we both move to the floor to look at something together – perhaps something the client has brought in on their phone – we are coming closer, lower down, feeling the ground, together.

Moving out of the Chair is also a symbolic act, perhaps a revolutionary act for the largely sedentary field of psychotherapy. It looks towards the future.

For me personally it has come to feel profoundly significant as an act at a symbolic and practical level in relation to Primate/Climate Change. Psychotherapy as a profession is grappling with many urgent social and relational changes in society that directly involve the body. There has been a huge shift towards recognising and working directly with embodiment which has focused on somatic countertransference, affect regulation, micro-movements, and resources for working with trauma such as grounding and paying attention to breath. Eco-psychotherapy is bringing a very welcome breath of fresh air into this whole field, as well as offering its own direct alternative to sitting in the chair: namely, moving out into nature.

In a parallel development, as psychotherapy attempts to address its implicit bias towards Whiteness, there is a heightened motivation to de-colonise the curriculum. This must include how we are learning and teaching psychotherapy, as well as the theoretical content. It also includes acknowledging that European approaches to movement awareness – such as those developed by Gindler, which trickled down through people as varied as Feldenkrais, Kabat Zin and Selver – were influenced by holistic practices from the East involving movement, healing and martial arts (Heller 2012).

Experiential learning favours the right-brain, bottom-up group and process centred approaches. These are less shaped by colonial influences, though of course not necessarily free of them. The inherent potential of bottom up learning is towards inclusivity of embodied subjectivity and diverse histories and cultures.

Moving Out of the Chair Conference

To illustrate the bottom up approach (so apt for moving out of the chair…) our Moving Out of the Chair day will be organised around large group, small group and dyadic explorations, experiments and role play. We will track various experience of “moving out of the chair” as the therapist and as the client. We will try it out for ourselves: what forms it may take, what invitations, supports or inspiration might be needed? In particular we will face the dilemmas involved in enabling a relational and process led experience rather than a fixed therapeutic agenda to get out of the chair. Serious play, creative engagement and therapeutic resourcefulness will be encouraged.

Sissy, Yeva and I bring the experience of many approaches to psychotherapy: Dance Movement Psychotherapy, Gestalt Psychotherapy, Body Psychotherapy, Person-Centred Psychotherapy, Relational Psychoanalysis and Attachment-based Psychotherapy. We are not aiming to teach a method but rather to open up the range of possibilities inherent in moving.

Bloom, K. (2005). The Embodied Self: Movement and Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac.
Heller, M (2012) Body Psychotherapy: History, Concepts, Method. New York: Norton.
Homann, K (2017) “Dynamic Equilibrium: engaging neurophysiological intelligences through dance movement psychotherapy” in Ed Payne, H (2017) Essentials of Dance Movement Psychotherapy: International Perspectives on Theory, Research and Practice. London: Routledge, pp37-52.