Modern psychotherapy generally occurs with the therapist and client sitting on chairs or on a couch. The client(s) talks about their problems, the therapist listens, asks questions and offers insights. While bioenergetic therapy starts in this way, it doesn’t end there. Bioenergetic therapists incorporate movement as part of the therapy. The movement includes exercises to be more connected to the ground, to open restricted breathing patterns, to practice asserting personal boundaries and to express sometimes unpleasant or repressed emotions, safely and appropriately.
Rooted in awareness of the fundamental connection between mind and body, modern bioenergetic therapy offers an integrated approach to mental health. While this therapy was developed in the 1950s, contemporary scientific advances support the value of working with the body in psychotherapy. Neuroscientists and other researchers emphasize the important role of the body in common conditions such as depression, anxiety and traumatic stress. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her book How Emotions Are Made, for example, links the body and emotions stating: “your body and your mind are deeply interconnected…the most important thing you can do to master your emotions, in fact, is to keep your body budget in good shape.” (Barrett, 2017) Bioenergetics addresses this through active participation of both body and mind in therapy for maximum effectiveness.
As a bioenergetic therapist, I begin most sessions by checking in with my client (or clients when working with a couple) about their current experience. As in any other psychotherapy approach, listening attentively provides a starting point. Developing a trusting therapeutic relationship, where the client feels safe, valued and respected, builds a necessary foundation for our work.
As the client talks, along with listening, I observe my client’s body language. I pay attention to their spontaneous movements, to the sound of their voice, to the quality of their breathing and to their overall posture. I look for clues from what their body expresses, which may be out of their awareness.
In a break in the conversation, I often ask my client: What are you aware of sensing in your body as you are talking? Their responses vary widely. Some clients look at me confused and state they don’t feel anything or they don’t know what they feel. In this situation we need to dig deeper and I may offer suggestions about what to explore. I encourage them to scan their body looking for areas that call their attention. I suggest they observe if they feel tense or in pain. I tell them to notice their breathing patterns, their level or hunger or thirst, heat or cold, and tiredness or energy.
Many times, clients offer a clear response to my question about what they notice in their body. Their hand goes to their heart, for example. Or they identify a specific area of tension – such as their shoulders, neck or solar plexus. They may say “I feel exhausted.” or “I feel hungry.” With a focus on connecting their body, their mind and their emotions, this is important information. Their responses often provide a useful place to begin further exploration.
Bioenergetic therapy is an intuitive method, focused on what the client needs moment to moment, rather than on a specified set of instructions. This allows for creativity and flexibility to meet the client where they are and guide them towards their desired goals. Bioenergetic therapists are trained in techniques – both physical and mental – to address a variety of issues. We assess what our client needs and offer suggestions for using the techniques to their benefit.
Based on the client’s story, along with information gained from their body awareness, a direction for the session emerges. In a recent session, for instance, my client identified feeling tense in a particular spot in her upper back. I encouraged her to bring her awareness there and invited her to put a hand on the area. I suggested that she start with exaggerating the tension. I explained that this is counterintuitive as the tension was uncomfortable, but invited her to see it as an exploration of a message from her body.
As she exaggerated the tension, she described feeling disgust. I encouraged her to stand so she could move more freely with this emotion. We worked with a grounding exercise of simply bending and straightening her legs while pressing her feet down on the floor. She spontaneously began to shake out her arms and her head. I encouraged her to allow this movement and to continue with the shaking. She then talked about memories of times from her childhood when her father violated her boundaries (such as walking in when she was in the shower as a young teenager).
In listening to her describe these memories, I felt anger rising in my body – which I identify as a natural response to this type of violation. Sympathetic responses are common. Some of you might put your hand to your own heart when you hear someone else’s bad news, or you may feel angry when hearing about someone being hurt or violated.
I know this client well as we have worked together weekly for a few years. She has been through significant difficulties in the time she has been coming to therapy and has a solid sense of herself. She has expressed her anger many times previously in her therapy sessions. From this, I assessed that she would benefit from working actively with her anger. I felt clear that she could integrate these feelings while staying grounded in herself.
With a client I did not know as well or who did not have this level of ego strength, I would have moved more slowly. I would have likely suggested more grounding exercises and would have explored their feelings, offering empathy and compassion for the painful memories. I would introduce movement and encourage expression more gradually.
With this client, I invited her to get a towel (we were working on tele health) and to start by twisting it. I encouraged her to express to her father what she couldn’t say when she was a child, with both words and sounds. I suggested she bend and straighten her legs a few times to stay solidly grounded. If she had said she did not feel angry, we would have explored what she felt instead. But this direction resonated for her. She expressed her anger at her father – saying, “Get out!” and “Go away!” She made sounds which expressed her anger and frustration as well. After a few minutes of doing this, her expression slowed. She spontaneously shook out her arms, releasing the emotion and the memory.
I encouraged her to continue bending and straightening her legs to emphasize grounding, as the emotion moved through her and she integrated the experience. I also encouraged her to put her arms out in front of her with her palms facing outward to affirm her right to her boundaries and her ability to assert them in the present. After doing this for a few minutes she reported feeling better. She was calmer and the tension in her upper back had released.
Working with her body provided a safe way for the memories and emotions from the past to move through her. Through grounding in her body, she could identify that what happened was not acceptable and that she has the strength as an adult (which she could not have as a child) to protect her boundaries. She was able to learn from the message of her body (the tension in her back). As she processed the painful memories and related emotions, the tension released. More tension will likely appear for her as there may be more difficult memories to uncover, but she has the experience to know she can work through it and come out feeling better than she did before.
In other situations, I use an exercise ball or a bioenergetic stool (which looks like a step ladder with a rolled up blanket on top) to help clients release tensions which constrict their breathing. I instruct clients to slowly lower their body backwards over the ball or the stool, with their hands supporting their head, gently stretching it back to rest on the ball or stool. Some people need a pillow behind their head to support their neck. I tell them that their balance is in their legs so remind them to keep one foot on the floor at all times.
In this position I encourage my clients to notice what they sense in their body. I suggest they breathe into any areas of tension, even putting a hand on those areas for support. I let them experience this stretch. I observe what happens in their body, especially with their breathing, in the process. I often invite them to focus their mind on what’s happening in their body. I suggest they give in to the support of the ball or stool, letting it hold them.
This exercise elicits a variety of responses. Sometimes an emotion arises, such as sadness, anger or fear. Often my clients observe changes in their breathing. At other times, a memory emerges or they note various sensations in their body. We work with whatever emerges and follow with appropriate movements. If sadness arises, for example, I encourage them to allow it to move through, which may include tears. Some movements lead to pleasurable sensations, which we aim to allow and even to increase. Making sounds can help with releasing tensions and expressing emotions. Most people experience this as awkward or uncomfortable initially. But over time, as they do it repeatedly, they observe that it feels good and helps to let go of stress. Dr. Stephen Porges, originator of the Polyvagal Theory, confirms this in his descriptions of how singing and vocalizing help to calm the vagus nerve. (Porges, 2017).
These are some of the ways that bioenergetic therapists integrate work with the body in psychotherapy. Bioenergetic therapists explore their client’s story, including both present issues and childhood experiences. We integrate work with a person’s mind, body, spirit, emotions and relationships to offer an opportunity for maximum effectiveness. This method is not quick or easy, but can offer hope in addressing some of the most challenging conditions such as trauma, loss, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, addictions, etc. Bioenergetics focuses on helping people have more vitality and capacity to enjoy their life. I have witnessed many clients grow enormously. Many have stated in the course of therapy: “Bioenergetic therapy has saved my life!” I have personally experienced deep, life-changing transformation through this approach.
Feldman Barrett, L. 2017. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 176
Porges, S. 2017. The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co. 185 – 186