“One of the most fundamental exercises in Bioenergetics is also the easiest and simplest. We use it to start the vibrations in the legs and to help the person sense them…The feeling contact between the feet and the ground is known in Bioenergetics as grounding. This denotes a flow of excitation through the legs into the feet and ground. One is then connected to the ground, not ‘up in the air’ or ‘hung-up.’”
– Alexander Lowen, M.D., from The Way to Vibrant Health: A Manual of Bioenergetic Exercises
Alexander Lowen, who started Bioenergetic Therapy in the 1950s, developed exercises to use along with analysis to help people work through emotional problems and to express themselves more fully. He is partially known for getting people off the couch (from the traditional psychoanalytic position) and getting them onto their feet. The bioenergetic grounding exercise forms a basis for helping people work through a variety of issues. We could discuss grounding as a concept but actually having people practice it as an exercise accesses a direct experience.
In bioenergetic analysis, grounding refers to a set of specific exercises. These exercises have a few specific goals. They help people to:
- Connect with gravity downward through the earth rather than pulling up away from contact with the ground. Contemporary western culture tends to value thinking over feeling. This leads to people’s attention being focused in their heads rather than on their bodies. Too much attention in the head leads to anxiety and disconnection from the ground, which generally increases awareness of the present moment and brings calm.
- Release tensions in the feet and the legs, especially the souls of the feet and the hamstrings. People are often unaware of the significant tension they hold in their feet and legs. While holding helps prevent distressing sensations and expression of emotions when not appropriate, tension held chronically limits all sensations and emotions. Further, chronic tension requires the body’s energy, which could be used in other, more satisfying ways. Constrictions prevent people from feeling alive, including feeling the pleasurable vibrations that Alexander Lowen describes.
- Develop a foundation of strength within themselves, rather than only focusing outward for validation, encouragement, or support. Through contact with oneself, starting with the feet and legs, a person can develop or increase a solid foundation. This allows a person to stay focused on their own needs, desires and wants in their relationships with others. It forms the basis for making choices from an integrated sense of self, connected to one’s body, intuition, and truth.
- Allow energy and emotions to move freely through the body. Like electrical outlets, where one wire holds the charge and the other wire grounds the energy, the more a person is free of tension in their feet and legs and connected to the ground, the more charge they can safely tolerate. The charge relates to energy – for tolerating strong emotions of all types, enjoying sexuality, asserting one’s needs and wants, and experiencing pleasure in life.
- Focus on being in reality and the present rather than living in fantasy or thoughts about the future or the past. We use the expression “having one’s feet on the ground,” meaning a person is solidly rooted in the present and in their sense of themselves rather than being “spaced out” or out of touch with reality by having their head in the clouds. Doing the exercise, rather than simply talking about the concept, can help people learn to shift their focus.
Grounding is an effective exercise for everyone. It is especially valuable for addressing common issues such as anxiety, depression, and recovery from trauma. Many people who come to therapy complain of issues such as worrying, racing mind, or perseverating. They often struggle with negative thoughts, low self-esteem, and concern about what others think of them. In focusing on the ground, through physical exercises, to increase contact with their legs and feet, rather than focusing upwards with attention on the head, these exercises help people focus less on their mind and more on their body. Grounding exercises help shift the focus to contact with the earth. Grounding exercises also form the basis for setting boundary limits and reaching out for support in relationships.
I use the grounding exercise frequently in sessions with clients. I use it to help clients connect with their body rather than their head and with what they feel rather than what they think. For example, I suggest they do a grounding exercise when exploring their feelings about an issue that concerns them. I also encourage clients to do a grounding exercise after an exercise to open their breathing (such as leaning backward over a ball) or after a strong exercise (such as expressing anger). Further, with clients who dissociate, I regularly suggest they do the grounding exercise before leaving my office.
For myself, I practice the bend-over grounding exercise almost every night before going to bed. It helps to release any tension I have developed throughout the day. As a result, I sleep better and rarely suffer from leg cramps. I set the timer on my phone for 5 minutes. I suggest to my clients that they do this as well. I tell them that doing it for 5 minutes may seem like a long time, but you can get used to it!
Basic Bioenergetic grounding exercises:
1) Standing up grounding:
Stand with your feet hip-width apart (approximately 8” – 10”). Place your feet parallel to each other, with your toes going forward. Slowly bend and slowly straighten your legs. When you straighten your legs, be sure not to lock your knees, as this cuts off your connection to the ground. Roll your knees out over your second toes. Notice your breathing and aim for slow deep breaths. Slowly bend and slowly straighten your legs several times. Imagine that you have roots in the bottoms of your feet that, like a tree, draw energy up from the ground and give you solidness as you press down. If you stay with the bending and straightening, you may feel some shaking in your legs. Allow it – this means your legs are not too tense and that you are alive!
2) Bend over grounding:
Stand with your feet hip-width apart (approximately 8” – 10”). Place your feet parallel to each other, with your toes going forward. Bend your upper body forward and let your arms dangle. Rest your fingers on the floor to help with balance but without weight on them. Let your head go. This may take some practice as your head may initially resist letting go. Keep your weight slightly forward over the arches of your feet. Gradually bend and straighten your knees several times (without locking your knees). Breathe fully and deeply. Breathe in as you bend your knees and breathe out as you straighten them.
If you encounter any pain or discomfort as you stretch, letting out sounds will help to release the pain. Unless you have a knee injury, the pain generally relates to areas of tension. If you have a knee injury, be gentle with the pressure on your knee. If you experience shaking or vibrations in your legs, let them go through you. This is energy moving in the stretch as you are stressing the muscles. As you get used to shaking, most people find it pleasurable.
Stay in the bent-over position for several minutes. You can modify the stretch by rocking forward and back and from side to side on your feet. You can also experiment with straightening your legs as much as you can without locking them to increase the vibrations. Keep checking that your head is letting go and that you aren’t holding tension in your neck. When you are ready to end, come up slowly and keep pressing down on your feet as you come up. Notice how you feel and what you experience. If you experience any dizziness or lightheadedness, stamping your feet down a few times usually shifts this.
3) Chair grounding:
While sitting, put both feet flat on the floor. As you breathe in, gently press your feet into the floor and your butt into the chair. As you breathe out, focus on relaxing on the chair and the floor. Feel the chair supporting you and holding you. Feel the solidness of the ground beneath you. Notice any sensations that arise in your body. Notice if any areas of your body specifically call your attention. Notice your breathing.
Guest, D, Parker, J. Grounding, 2021. A Guide to Becoming Grounded: For Somatic Therapists and Individuals. Independently published.
Lowen, A., Lowen, L. 1977. The Way to Vibrant Health: A Manual of Bioenergetic Exercises. The International Institute for Bioenergetic Analysis. New York: NY.