What I have learned after a year of Somatic Therapy
Serendipity brought me to somatic therapy. I am shy, especially about my body. I never would have imagined arriving at the office of my therapist to engage in punching a mattress so hard it would make my knuckles bleed. Or screaming at the top of my lungs as I voraciously karate chopped a punching bag until I started bawling like a toddler. Or being held in the fetal position as I sobbed uncontrollably.
This was not my domain; I was not supposed to be here. I am an intellectual person, sophisticated, and tame. I was supposed to be sitting comfortable on my therapist’s couch talking my way through my neuroses. I was supposed to enter a predictable therapeutic relationship that was known, tested, and common. But as with most matters in life, I was given exactly what I needed, and at just the right time.
In late 2020, I entered a dark night of the soul catalyzed by a deep mid-life initiation. I desperately needed help. I reached out to a licensed psychotherapist and had a series of sessions that left me feeling unmoved. I hadn’t been to therapy in years, was this what it was like? I continued to go through the motions of an experience that only involved words, but I needed more than words. I had lived my whole life from the head up, eternally placing value, as our cultural instructs us to do, on the cerebral experience of life. I yearned for more, but I didn’t know what that more was. I was transiting a mid-life breakdown at the height of a global pandemic; I needed a resource with some fire. I needed to move the energy. I needed to use my voice, not to coherently speak about my life and problems; words would not suffice, I needed to scream.
During one of my darkest days, I managed to motivate myself to attend a yoga class, something that I enjoyed doing. We breathed, moved, danced, and chanted. I felt a momentary reprieve amidst my intense suffering. Following the class, and in a desperate attempt for human contact, I engaged with one of the yogis there, unloaded my story onto her, and she compassionately offered me a suggestion. She offered me the idea of somatic therapy from a local therapist, a medical doctor, practicing Bioenergetics. She said, “I had one session with him in which we sat back-to-back for an hour in silence while I cried.” That was all I needed to hear. I was sold. I booked an appointment that following day and had my first encounter with somatic therapy a short two weeks later. I entrusted my psyche-soma to an experienced guide, and embarked on an intimate, whole-body journey back to myself. The result? My life has been forever changed.
What is Somatic Therapy?
The connection between mind, body, and soul has been known for thousands of years, originating in the east through the ancient practices of yoga, meditation, breathwork, tai chi, acupuncture, among many others. This connection has only recently begun to be accepted as a reputable psychotherapeutic theory in western clinical practice, as well as in western medicine. Scientists are now in the early stages of studying the effects of Mind-Body Interventions which are referred to as “practices that focus on the interactions among the brain, body, mind, and behavior with the intent of using the mind to alter physical function and promote overall health” (Brom, D et el, 2017). As a therapeutic modality, somatic therapy remains vastly under researched when compared to traditional psychotherapeutic models. Literature on the effectiveness is scarce and scientifically insufficient (Brom et el, 2017). However, the awareness of the psyche-soma connection is not new to the field of western psychology. In fact, it was of upmost importance to both Carl Jung and Freud. Carl Jung (1984) lectured frequently on this topic, saying:
Probably in absolute reality, there is no such thing as body and mind, but body and mind and soul are the same, the same life, subject to the same laws, and what the body does is happening also in the mind. (p. 20).
It wasn’t until the discoveries of Wilhelm Reich, an apprentice and student of Freud, that the theoretical formulations of somatic therapy began to take shape. As innovator of his time and a disruptor to the traditional field of psychotherapy (Higgins, 1968), he said, “The greatest thing that ever happened in psychiatry was the discovery that the core of the neurosis was somatic.” (p. 69). One of Reich’s most important contributions to the field was that of the muscular armor (Sharf, 2015), which he postulated develops because “instinctual needs conflict with the demands of the parent and others in the environment” (p. 563). The muscular armor then becomes a life-long “protective mechanism” (p. 563). Reich observed that when a patient’s body was manipulated through physical movement, breathing, and touch, “emotional energy could be released and life forces could flow freely through the body.” (p. 563). He called this approach, vegetotherapy (2015). The premise of vegetotherapy, the foundation of somatic therapy, is the notion that by working with the body-mind system, with the goal of dissolving some of the body armor, physiological and psychological changes could occur together (Sharf, 2015).
Reich’s students, Alexander Lowen and John Pierrakos, expanded on his work to include psychoanalytic concepts, dreamwork, as well as practices from Gestalt therapy, later forming the therapeutic model of Bioenergetics (Sharf, 2015). More recently, psychotherapist, Peter Levine, has taken the work of Bioenergetics, combining it with mindfulness and neuroscience, to form Somatic Experiencing Therapy. Somatic modalities have been further popularized by psychologist and trauma thought leader Bessel van der Kolk with his bestselling book, The Body Keeps the Score. Through his extensive work with trauma, Bessel has emphasized rhythmic body-based methods such as breathwork, yoga, and tension release exercises as a means for self-regulating the nervous system (van der Kolk, 2015).
Beyond Levine and van der Kolk, the cultural New Age movement, fueled by technological innovation, has also edged the importance of the psyche-some connection forward through alternative therapies and practices such as dance therapy, nature therapy, hypnosis, biofeedback, reiki, art therapy, and music therapy, among many others. As a collective, we are beginning to blend eastern and western modalities giving way to multi-method ecosystems of healing. No longer are we prescribing to traditional models as these traditional models are not proving effective. It was James Hillman who wrote the book We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy — And the World’s Getting Worse; published in 1993! Indeed, something is not adding up. As a collective we are ready for a revolution in psychotherapy. We need it. Somatic therapy, as a western psychotherapeutic model, remains at the forefront of this revolution and is innovating the way we approach, practice, and perceive traditional psychotherapy.
A Relational Approach
Despite the origins and differences between somatic therapy models, at the heart of them all, and a key differentiator from more traditional therapeutic models, is an intimate, relational approach between therapist and client that extends beyond cognition into the physical realm. Having dipped a toe into a few forms of therapy, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Existential Therapy, and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, I can attest that somatic therapy, thus far, has been the most effective way to practice emotional release and healing, due in part to the intimate and experiential nature of the therapist and client relationship. Not only am I moving my physical body throughout most of the session, but the therapist is moving with me, instructing me, and using physical touch, when necessary, to guide our journey together. Up until this point, I had never had a physical relationship with any therapist. I assumed that was off-limits, taboo, and even dangerous. But having experienced the power of these hard and soft body psychotherapy techniques (Sharf, 2015), I now understand that somatic therapy is potent because it is a deeply unifying and embodied experience: mind and body, therapist and client, psyche and soma.
I believe that is why I relate to somatic therapy to such a high degree. Intimacy is a core need in my relationships, which requires a deep level of vulnerability and trust on my part and the part of the other. It is also a core need to feel grounded in my body, and therefore my mind. While other therapies remain extremely cerebral in nature, I have found that somatic therapy offers me the opportunity to experience life and emotions from a new vantage point — the neck down. I am a very analytical person, often lost in endless loops of overthinking. Being in my body is a foreign concept, which makes it such a profound place to learn and cultivate presence. The body is always here now, waiting to communicate with us.
Perhaps I am a more likely candidate for somatic therapy than I first imagined. I love doing yoga and meditation, I have experimented with different breathwork modalities including the controversial Holotropic Breathwork. I enjoy using movement practices such as tai chi and qigong as a means for cultivating physical and mental health, as well as body therapies including massage, acupuncture, and hot and cold exposure treatments. I am interested in Eastern philosophy and have found myself practicing dynamic meditations at an Osho ashram in Amsterdam, chanting at a yoga wellness center in Pokhara, Nepal, and getting scalp treatments in Bali. I suppose I am no stranger to the more esoteric modes of healing, and one could say that I have an innate disposition for openness which thereby makes somatic therapy a good psychotherapeutic model for my inborn temperament. So, this brings me to a key question: Is somatic therapy good for everyone? Only with more research we will know the truth of its effectiveness.
During his Zarathustra seminar (1988), Carl Jung said, “Soul and body and not two things, they are one.” (p. 355). I knew this as well, in theory, but not as a lived experience. Somatic therapy was my gateway to living a more fully embodied life. I am no longer divorced my physicality but living in harmony with it. This has greatly impacted my connection to myself, nature, and all living things. Knowing that I have a built-in GPS helping me make decisions, both large and small, has made a tremendous difference in the quality of my life. My body is my guide, ally, and wise friend. I have learned this all through the deeply intimate relationship I developed with my somatic therapist. Bessel van der Kolk (2015) writes, “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.” (p. 114). Somatic therapists, by the very nature of the work, must be comfortable with intimacy. In my experience, it is this intimacy, combined and accentuated by embodied movement and physical touch, that has allowed me to drop into my body, once again inhabiting the home where my soul resides.