(in Handbuch der Kšrperpsychotherapie (The Handbook of Body Psychotherapy), ed. Gustl Marlock and Halko Weiss, Stuttgart: Schattauer GmbH, Verlag fŸr Medizin und Naturwissenschaften, 2006

The Primacy of Experiential Practices in Body-Psychotherapy

Body-Oriented Psychology has been formed by the confluence of two currents moving in opposite directions.  The more well-known has developed as a branch of the depth analytic tree of therapies, particularly inspired by the theories of Wilhelm Reich, inspired by Freud's early recognition of the specific bodily roots of mental disorders.[i].  The innovators in this movement have created technical practices of breathing, touch, sensory awareness, and movement, which are conceptualized and taught within pre-existing psychoanalytic theory with articulated language constructs and sometimes bewildering dictionaries of character types. Another robust current of development moves in an opposite direction—from sustained, deliberate, and reflective bodily practices to new theory-building. 

This current, whose origins go back to the late 19th Century, is not as widely known as the analytic community because its originators typically developed their approaches in private institutes outside the academy and clinic and have written very little. They include: Eutony, Sensory Awareness, Feldenkrais, Rolfing, the F.M. Alexander Technique, Continuum, Body-Mind Centering, Authentic Movement, Middendorf Breath Work, and many others.  The nature and effects of these practices are not easy to articulate.  They are not taught within a psychological framework, even though they have psychological implications.  Nor are they just "physical,"  like physical therapy and classical Swedish massage. They exist in an inchoately conceived realm whose meanings are not easily captured in the dominant intellectual categories. 


1.  Focusing

Eugene Gendlin, the creator of Focusing, gives a paradigmatic example of this counter-direction from Isadora Duncan's autobiography:

"For hours I would stand quite still, my two hands folded between my breasts, covering the solar plexus. My mother often became alarmed to see me remain for such long intervals quite motionless as if in a trance—but I was seeking and I finally discovered the central spring of all movements, the crater of motor power, the unity from which all diversities of movements are born..." (Isadora Duncan, My Life, Liveright, N.Y.: 1927, p.75.)

Gendlin comments on this text:

Isadora Duncan stands still, sometimes for a long period. She senses dance steps she could move into, but they don't feel right. What would feel right is not sure yet. She is "seeking," she says above, looking for, waiting for the right feel to come, willing to let it come. This seeking, waiting for, looking, and letting is a kind of action. It is a way of relating to, interacting with ... What? Where? It is interaction with a right feel, a new kind of feel which will come in a new place.

This feel, and this new space, are both made in this very interaction.

Her new looking, waiting for, letting... These change what comes, but it is still not right. She responds to its changed way of feeling by being differently toward it in some way. She points to a facet of the feel of what she would dance, pursues it. In response to the pointing and the pursuing, the feel itself becomes more distinct, like something there, a datum, an object, something in a space that wasn't there before.

As it forms, the "feel" understands itself, so to speak. It carries its own "yes, yes..." with it. She is "in touch with herself" in a new way-not just a self that was there before, waiting. Rather, a new, changed, more right "feel" is there, and is the "being in touch with." Then she dances what she could not have danced before. [ii]


"Then she dances what she could not have danced before." Here is the heart of this reverse movement in the development of new approaches to psychotherapy whose source lies in methodically cultivated bodily experience and language emerging from that experience.  During the past century tens of thousands of people in Europe and the Americas have been engaging in this family of body practices.  They attend to their experiences of moving, breathing, being touched; they wait; new movements arise along with old memories long forgotten and new solutions to life problems, with new strengths to confront old wounds, loosening the bonds of an outdated sense of self. These new movements and solutions emerge not from the side of already made psychological notions, but from an experiential realm that carries an intelligence that has not yet been formulated in language and concept. These discoveries come not from already crafted depth psychoanalytic theory but from quiet systematic and communal reflections on bodily experience in specific kinds of ways created by a very large number of Somatics innovators working largely in silence.

Gendlin has been a major voice of this counter-movement, showing how our bodies are the carriers of meanings not yet put into concept nor word, that attending to bodily experiences is the key to creative thought-forms that carry us forward into new worlds of activity.[iii] Both his psychotherapeutic method and his considerable body of theoretical texts have as their core the righting of a historical  imbalance in which theoretical constructs are given more value than not-yet-conceived experiential processes.  His theories are derived from decades of observing and documenting the results on human growth of paying careful and sustained attention to the bodily felt sense and how attention to that sense slowly emerges into new verbal, conceptual expressions. His methods are designed to help people turn their attention towards the bodily felt sense as the source of fresh language and concepts in response to needs not met by the old.  As in the work of his early partner Carl Rogers, there is a freshness in his spare conceptual frameworks, redolent of characteristically American Pragmatism, without a hint of psychoanalytic seasoning.

 This turn towards experience, learning to wait attentitively until fresh notions emerge before speaking is characteristic of many practices.  It is not easy to do this; as in the cultivation of a spiritual life, one needs methods of slowing down, paying attention.  Especially for well-educated people, it is easier to rush into analytical thought and vocabularies.  So the vast number of highly skillful practices are methods of allowing practitioners to gain a fuller access to this non-verbal realm and to remain in it for a longer period of time by comparison to the time one spends in the realm of talk, thought, and entertainment.  It is in this context of methods of settling into not-yet-verbalized bodily experience that one can understand various methods of body practices and their impact on the understanding of psychotherapy and the education of psychotherapists.


2.  Authentic Movement

Focusing typically involves two people sitting quietly, learning to pay attention to the ebbs and flows of experience, waiting for words to emerge that truly express those experiences. Authentic Movement is another widespread discipline that involves a similar attitude but in the context of movement.  Its origins are in the work of Mary Whitehouse (1911-1979), one of the founders of Dance Therapy.  It has been developed with its present form and name by Janet Adler. The emphasis is on long and sustained practice of quiet movement usually in groups or pairs.  One person in the group or pair adopts the role of non-critical witness, eyes open, present to what is happening, creating an atmosphere of containment so that the mover is free to allow new and possibly fearful experiences to emerge in movement.  The mover moves with eyes closed.  At the end of a period of movement, which may last from a few minutes to an hour or more, there is a disciplined period of discourse whose aim is to allow words to emerge in the same way that movements emerged, not talking about the experience, but allowing words and thoughts to come from it.  This practiced discourse in a non-judgmental atmosphere of safety is what makes Authentic Movement unique among body movement practices and brings it into the arena of psychotherapy.  The moving and the speaking, and sometimes writing, allow the mover to claim forgotten or rejected dimensions of the self.

Mary Whitehouse writes of how she came to develop this practice, which she called "Moving in Depth:"

What I began to understand during the beginning of my work in movement in depth was that in order to release a movement that is instinctive (i.e., not the 'idea' of the person doing that movement nor my idea of what I want them to do), I found that I had to go back toward not moving.  In that way I found out where movement actually started.  It was when I learned to see what was authentic about movement, and what was not, and when people were cheating, and when I interfered, and when they were starting to move from within themselves, and when they were compelled to move because they had an image in their heads of what they wanted to do; it was then that I learned to say 'Go ahead and do your image, never mind if you are thinking of it,' and when to say 'Oh, wait longer.  Wait until you feel it from within.'[iv]

The practice involves teaching people how to wait, as did Isadora Duncan, for movement to arise and evolve as one gives oneself to it within an atmosphere of quiet attention. It is a sustained, tutored, disciplined waiting for movement—and words—to come from the self, instead of from habitual movements—or words—or moving and speaking as others would have us. 

A word about what this way of working with the body requires.  There is necessary an attitude of inner openness, a kind of capacity for listening to one's self that I would call honesty.  It is made possible only by concentration and patience.  In allowing the body to move in its way, not in a way that would look nice, or that one thinks it should, in waiting patiently for the inner impulsive, in letting the reactions come up exactly as they occur on any given evening—new capacities appear, new modes of behavior are possible, and the awareness gained in the specialized situation goes over into a new sense of one's self ...[v]

These teachers do not use words like 'instinctive' and 'natural' in the technical academically charged senses, but in a more ordinary street usage to describe commonplace experiences of the difference between posed, predictable, habitual, or stereotypical movements and those that surprise us as fresh and spontaneous. 

Authentic movement is movement that is natural to a particular person, not learned like ballet or calisthenics, not purposeful or intellectualized as 'this is the way I should move' to be pleasing, to be powerful, to be beautiful or graceful. Authentic movement is an immediate expression of how the client feels at any given moment.  The spontaneous urge to move or not to move is not checked, judged, criticized or weighed by the conscious mind."[vi] 

Janet Adler uses 'authenticity' in the same sense as Heidegger does in Being and Time, returning to the Greek roots of the word, 'self-posited.'

My core being is mine to be in one way or another. That core being has always made some sort of decision as to the way in which it is in each case mine. . .  And because core being is in each case essentially its own possibility, it can, in its very Being, 'choose' itself and win itself; it can also lose itself and never win itself; or only 'seem' to do so. But only in so far as it is essentially something which can be authentic—that is, something of its own—can it have lost itself and not yet won itself.[vii]

 'Inauthenticity' . . . amounts rather to a quite distinctive kind of Being-in-the-world—the kind which is completely fascinated by the 'world' and by the Dasein-with of Others in the 'they'.[viii]

 Just as we are our own, to dispose of within the 'they' world of gossip, trivia, and opinion; so too, our movements, our speaking, and our thinking are ours to give over to preconceived notions about how I should move, speak, or think; or, I can wait in silence until movements and words come from myself. "When movement was simple and inevitable, not to be changed no matter how limited or partial, it became what I called 'authentic'—it could be recognized as genuine, belonging to that person."[ix]

Adler's account transforms and expands Wilhelm Reich's distinction between voluntary and involuntary movements. For Reich, the paradigm of the involuntary is the tremulous shaking associated with orgastic release, evoked in the various exercises of bioenergetic therapies, mirrored in other kinds of energy discharge.  Whitehouse, Adler, and their associates are exploring a much wider realm of different kinds of non-deliberate movements, opening up different realms of feeling, memory, and image.  And unlike Reich, Adler extends this direction of movement into language and thought itself.  This breadth of bodily exploration, seeking primal roots of movement and words in many new areas, has made the practice more congenial to non-Reichian analysts and psychologists who feel the Reichian paradigm is too constricted.[x]  Practice is in the foreground, constantly being the norm against which words and theory are being reshaped. 


3.     Body-Mind Centering

The School of Body-Mind Centering, founded by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, is a particularly important practice for identifying which regions of bodily experience are missing or deficient in any particular approach to the bodily roots of personality.  For that reason, it might be called a systems approach to Body-Oriented Psychology.

Like Isadora Duncan, Ms. Cohen began her career as a dancer with Erick Hawkins working out of experiences similar to the one that Gendlin describes:  moving, stopping, waiting, listening, allowing new movements, energized by new bodily impulses, images, memories, feelings.  At the same time, her university education as a physical and occupational therapist prompted her to find ways to make that process more nuanced and articulate by engaging in a life-long systematic investigation of the relations between experienced realities and biomedical maps of the body.  Experimenting on her own over many years, she came to the discovery that each region of the lived body has its characteristic state of consciousness:  images, feelings, sensations, intuitions about the world, perceptions of other people, words and ideas, .  . . .  in short, its own mind. [xi] As with Gendlin and Adler, the interface with psychology emerges when one methodically situates oneself in one of these regions or minds and patiently waits for new words and ideas to emerge from the experience itself.

She went about her experiments in this way.  She will pose to herself the question:  what is the mind of the bones [or lungs, heart, thymus gland...]?  For as long as it takes—sometimes, she says, a year or more for a particular system—she will spend hours a day working with movement and guided awareness to explore the regions mapped out by anatomical drawings of the bones of the body:  the large and obvious bones of the legs and arms, as well as normally obscure bones, such as the metatarsals in the center of the foot, the tiny carpals in the hand and the cranial bones.  Over the months, she familiarizes herself with the distinct qualities of this skeletal land, its associated images, memories, emotions, thoughts, tones of voice, qualties of movement, words and concepts rooted in that mind.  After satisfying herself that she has gained enough information for now, she might shift her work to the mind  of the nervous system, spending months focusing on the contours and weather patterns in that realm. 

She has transformed biomedical maps from descriptions of an objectified body to maps of how to gain different experiences of the self. 

"[I find these things] through the sensory feedback system.  If you move your pelvis with your bones in your sensation, it registers one way; if you move your pelvis with your muscles in your sensation, it registers another way; if you move with your organs in mind then it registers differently."[xii] 

Her experiments led her to find specific experiential practices for entry into a particular region—methodically directed breathing, movements, attention.  In the case of the glands, for example: 

"[I open the glands] through breathing into that area.  Through sounding into that area.  Through a hissing breath.  And then through moving.  Once you've located a place it is easy to initiate movement from there.  We watch for what mind comes out of that place; what actions come out of it; what are the efforts; what are the dynamics of that movement; what are the feelings and forms of that movement; what is the sound.  All of that information comes out of that place. . .  With the glands we went into automatic movement and watched what emerged."[xiii]

Over these years of work, she has reached the ability to discern with clarity the experiential characteristics of one system of the body as contrasted with another: 

"From the gland work, I went into the nervous system more carefully, contrasting the control of the nervous system and the brain with the control of the glands.  Working with the brain as a major control system after working with the glands was moving from a very hot, emotional, volatile, chaotic system of energy and process to a cool system of organization, clarity and crystallization.  There's a wildness to the glands and a sense of control in the nervous system."[xiv]

As that quote implies, her mapping is not confined to specific regions, but extends to relationships among regions:  "If you are going to move one bone, another bone has to countersupport it.  In the same way, if you are working with the nervous system, you balance it with the endocrine system and if you're in the endocrine, you support it with the nervous system."[xv]

By exploring the layers of experience rooted in different regions of the body, she has woven an intricate system for touching other people and giving them movement instructions which will lead them into unfamiliar regions of experience.  She can focus so intently on her bones as distinct from her muscles as distinct from her organs, that her touch and movement instructions can help others find those same areas.  "If I'm working with any area of someone else's body, I will go into that area of my own body to see.  In the process I become more open also.  It becomes like two bells ringing on the same pitch.  We can resonate each other."[xvi]

Like the Jungian framework which provides a useful map for understanding limitations of the individual psyche to thinking, sensing, feeling, or imagining,[xvii] the Cohen practices reveal how a particular emphasis in Body-Oriented Psychology might be too confined to a particular class of bodily experiences; for example, some methods dwell exclusively on peristaltic and orgastic movements; others solely on sensing; others, on kinesthesia, and so forth.  The Cohen framework constantly challenges practitioners to expand the repertoire of their experiences so as to become familiar with others of their "minds."

Ms. Cohen has derived from these investigations a wide range of methods of touch and body-movement direction.  Even though she makes no claims that this work is psychotherapy in any form, the practice has profound implications for bodily-based refinements of familiar concepts of attunement, presence, projective identification, empathy.  In the education of therapists, there is always the perplexing question of how to educate novices in these essential aspects of the clinical relationship.  The practices of Body-Mind Centering add a rich complexity of detail to what can otherwise be an empty idea.  Gaining the facility to enter a variety of discrete bodily states can give the therapist an identifiable, teachable repertoire of possibilities for perceiving the experiential world of one's client and entering that world with him or her.  This is a form of Rogerian listening methodically rooted in bodily experience, lifted to the most subtle nuances of intricate experiential contact between therapist and client:  fluid to fluid, lungs to lungs, bone to bone, thymus to thymus.


 4.  The Primacy of Experiential Practice over Conceptual Systems

 A tangible difference between European and American notions of theory and practice appears institutionally in that Body-Oriented Psychology in the United States is an academic discipline offered in the psychology departments of many universities, while in Europe, even though there are some academic professorships in this field, it is pursued principally within private groups offering "practical training" outside the Academy,. Eugene Gendlin, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, and Janet Adler embody a characteristically American approach to theory-construction, representative of the robust intellectual pragmatist tradition articulated by William James, C. S. Peirce, and John Dewey. Knowledge, in this tradition, gets its validation in experiential action, which, upon reflection, reshapes pre-existing words and theories.[xviii]  Body practices are not simply, or even primarily, techniques for therapists to use with clients; they are considered essential in the very education and continuous cultivation of the therapist. A particular clinical session may even look to the outsider like any other kind of psychotherapy, with both therapist and client sitting in chairs discoursing.  But the experiential world is different, with the therapist having cultivated a highly skilled sensitivity to nuances in the client's non-verbal expressions, hints in his or her discourse of bodily references, distortions of body image, and many other aspects which reveal themselves only to one who has become richly situated within his or her own bodily reality by sustained practices of bodily exploration.  This educated sensibility creates a kind of attunement and empathy unique to Body-Oriented Psychology, a deeply embodied connection absent in exclusively verbal modes of therapy.

To understand this difference between a European and a North American tradition, it is helpful to situate both with reference to Asian notions of mind and body. Yasuo Yuasa is a Japanese scholar of the relation between bodily practices— martial arts, meditation, theater, music, writing practices—and theory development on the part of practitioners.  He argues that the most profound difference between Asian and European intellectual traditions lie in the priority given to theory or practice:

What might we discover to be the philosophical uniqueness of Eastern thought?  One revealing characteristic is that personal 'cultivation' is presupposed in the philosophical foundation of Eastern theories.  To put it simply, true knowledge cannot be obtained simply by means of theoretical thinking, but only through 'bodily recognition or realization,' that is, through the utilization of one's total mind and body.  Simply stated, this is to 'learn with the body,' not the brain.  Cultivation is a practice that attempts, so to speak, to achieve true knowledge by means of one's total mind and body.[xix]

The break, he argues, between theory and practice is an exact mirror of the Cartesian gap between mind and body, where theory is the principle of order.  Practice is merely the shaping of so-called "chaotic" experience by the mind, having no intrinisic intelligibility apart from the theories that shape it.

The Japanese view is helpful in mitigating a tendency of Europeans to mistake a North American emphasis on practice and experience for a trivial anti-intellectualism. America lies between the two great intellectual traditions of Asia and Europe; it has been a place where experimental practices occurring within a reflective communal atmosphere have taken precedence over pre-existing theories imported whole-cloth from the Old Worlds, East and West. The populist current of Body-Oriented Psychology has its unique flavor from the fact that psychotherapists identified with this field are involved in methodical investigation of many regions of bodily experience through long-term skillful practices outside the clinical relationship itself.  Therapists bring to the clinical relationship the results of such practice—juice, contact, and readier access to intrapsychic material.  They also continually reshape their thinking about the nature of therapy in light of these practices.

Righting the imbalance of theory over practice within the field of Body-Oriented Psychology might be helpful in creating a more communal dialogue where participants and practitioners might join in shared reflections on the specific intricacies of the practices themselves. This a basis for a grounded collaborative, field-generating discourse, and for appropriate research models.[xx]  Most of the approaches to Body-Oriented Psychology share practices of breathing, touching, and sensing.  But there is little common development of thick descriptions of how these practices are used in any particular school of work and their results.  What are the experiential differences, for example, ...

between different styles and rhythms of touch?

between working with clients clothed or in underwear? 

moving with eyes open or eyes closed?

giving specific kinds of guided imagery to explore body regions?

between allowing clients or directing them in certain postures, movements, sensations?

Such a shift of focus away from already-formed theories of how the body impacts psychology into the less verbose world of experiential practices might help foster the embodied sense of community which Wilhelm Reich called a "work-democracy," a badly needed model of sane collaboration in an increasingly mad world.[xxi]


[i] For example, Sigmund Freud, "Some Points for a Comparative Study of Organic and Hysterical Paralyses," and "Observations of a Severe Case of Hemi-Anaesthesia in a Hysterical Male," in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. I, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1966), pp. 169ff; and pp. 30ff.

[ii] Eugene Gendlin, http://www.focusing.org/process.html, The Focusing Handbook, "Chapter VIII-A: The Direct Referent, a) Introduction."

[iii] Gendlin, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning: A Philosophical and Psychological Approach to the Subjective. Evanston, IL: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1962.

[iv] Mary Starks Whitehouse, "An Approach to the Center," in Patrizia Pallardo, ed., Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow. (London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999), p. 23.

[v] Mary Starks Whitehouse, "The Tao of the Body," in Don Hanlon Johnson, ed., Bone, Breath, and Gesture, (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1995),p. 250.

[vi] Janet Adler, "Integrity of Body and Psyche," in Patrizia Pallardo, ed., Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow (London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999), p. 122.

[vii] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), #42, 43, p.68. I have taken the great liberty of translating Dasein, untranslated in the English texts, as "core being." There are thousands of pages of argument published about the proper translation of this central concept of Heidegger's work.

[viii] Ibid., #176, p. 220.

[ix] Mary Starks Whitehouse, "C. G. Jung and Dance Therapy," in Patrizia Pallardo, ed., Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999), p. 81.

[x] Janet Adler's new book details this process: Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002).

[xi] Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, ed. Nancy Stark Smith, Sensing, Feeling, and Action: The Experiential Anatomy of Body-Mind Centering (Northhampton, MA: Contact Editions, 1993) p. 64.

[xii] Nancy Stark Smith, "Interview with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen," Contact Quarterly, no. 1 (1981), p. 7.

[xiii] Cohen, Ibid., p. 57.

[xiv] Loc. cit.

[xv] Cohen, Ibid., p.64.

[xvi]Ibid., p. 5.

[xvii] For the growing alliances between the Jungian analytic tradition and body practices, see Barbara Holifield, "Against the Wall/Her Beating Heart: Working with the Somatic Aspects of Transference, Countertransference, and Dissociation," in The Body in Psychotherapy, ed. Don Hanlon Johnson and Ian Grand (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1998), pp. 59-84.

[xviii] Two books that give a very important picture of the relationships between American philosophy and Somatics are: Thomas Hanna's Bodies in Revolt: A Primer in Somatic Thinking (San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970): Bruce W. Wilshire's The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Native American Thought (Harrisburg, PA: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2000). Wilshire has been particularly important in articulating the implications of the well-known fact that John Dewey studied with F. M. Alexander for over twenty years. Dewey crafting of the enormously important system of progressive education is a direct application of the Alexander Technique to the structures of teacher-training and curriculum development.

[xix] Yasuo Yuasa, The Body: Toward an Eastern Mind-Body Theory, trans. Nagatomo Shigenori and T. PL. Kasulis, (New York: SUNY Press, 1987), p. 25. See also his The Body, Self-Cultivation, and Ki-Energy, trans. Nagatomo Shigenori and Monte Hull (New York: SUNY Press, 1993).

[xx] I have made a very modest foray into advancing such a model in my "Intricate Tactile Sensitivity: A Key Variable in Western Integrative Bodywork." Saper, Clifford, and Mayer, Emeran, editors. The Biological Basis for Mind Body Interactions (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2000); Prog Brain Res. vol.122: 479-90.

[xxi] Wilhelm Reich, "Preface to the Third Edition," The Mass Psychology of Fascism, trans. Vincent Carfagno (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), p. xxiii.