Embodying Spirituality

Sermon reflecting on the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Given the challenges and limitations of our bodies, it is tempting to think that connecting with the spirit means disconnecting from our body. The vast sky above us and all that lies beyond can seem like the place to go to find connection with the spirit. 

Our bodies get sick and tired, and they feel feelings we don’t like and can’t control. Bones can break, and we can be hurt, feel scared, sad, alone, or empty. Everyone experiences aches, pains, illness, and frustrations sometimes. At times, our bodies even let us down in big ways. 

As Mary Oliver says – “Tell me about despair – yours, and I will tell you mine.” We all experience despair at some time in response to something or even many things.

When we are hurt or, violated or neglected and are unable to leave or fight back, disconnecting from our bodies is a way to cope. Often, children have no one to reach out to for the comfort or connection they need. 

Sometimes, the pain is greater than we can bear on our own. Especially as children, we can be further violated through shame from being told that what happens is our fault, that we caused it, or that we are bad and wrong. This shame can leave us feeling heavy, constricted, and despairing. 

We shut down the painful feelings and sensations in our bodies by dissociating, going somewhere else in our minds, freezing, becoming numb, or tensing our muscles. Focusing attention outside of our bodies gives us a distraction from the pain, which can feel intolerable. Freezing or becoming numb keeps us from feeling. Tensing muscles restrict our unconscious breathing patterns and stop emotions that feel overwhelming. 

These are important coping strategies to get through when we have no other choice. But over the long term, they keep us from being fully alive. Many people stay stuck in this underlying despair, sadness, and pain.  

No amount of thinking or talking can change how we feel, no matter what we talk about, if we don’t make changes in the body. If we continue to be tense, frozen, or dissociated, our experience of the joy and pleasure of life will be restricted.

I practice as a body-oriented psychotherapist. The therapy I do is called Bioenergetic Therapy. I work with clients to release the tensions in their bodies and help them bring greater awareness to their bodies to address their depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. We focus on working through the impacts of trauma in their bodies, minds, and relationships so they can have more satisfaction and joy in life.

Bioenergetics was developed in the 1950s by a man named Alexander Lowen. Lowen was a student of Wilhelm Reich, a contemporary of Freud. Reich believed that Freud left out the significance of the body. Reich noticed disturbances in the breathing patterns of his patients. He focused on exploring what helped them breathe more deeply and fully while lying on the couch for analysis. 

Alexander Lowen believed that people needed more vigorous exercises to shift the tensions that restrict their breathing. He got people off the couch and onto their feet to be more grounded. He also developed exercises to help people open their breathing and release emotions pent up from the past in safe ways. 

The idea that what’s happening in our bodies affects mental health seems clear to me. but it’s still on the cutting edge of mental health treatment. Recently, I collaborated with a magazine editor on a story about my work with a client. She suffered from severe depression and significant trauma as a child and adult. I wrote about her problems with chronic constipation. The editor took out that part, saying, “I don’t see how her constipation relates to her depression and trauma.” I insisted we leave it in. Can you imagine how lousy you would feel if you were constipated every single day?? It impacted her mood and how she felt in her body. 

I worked with this client slowly and gradually over several years. I encouraged her to do exercises to help her release the tension that contributed to her constipation. She told me that she had shut down the sensations in her pelvic region due to the pain of a sexual assault she experienced. We also linked the constipation to her childhood, where her mother had not wanted to have children and likely resented having to change her dirty diapers. 

Over time, through our work together, she grew to feel more sensation and more aliveness. She told me, “I’m feeling an aliveness in my body that I never felt before.” Opening the tensions and restrictions she felt led her to enjoy her life again, and through my care for her, she grew in self-love. 

As Mary Oliver says, to “let the soft animal of our body love what it loves,” we first have to feel our body. We have to pay attention to what our bodies love—and what they don’t love. We have to learn the language of our bodies, as they don’t speak in complete sentences. 

Our bodies speak in feelings and sometimes subtle sensations. We may experience a quickening of excitement for a yes about a direction to go in or an increase in tension for a no. Spontaneous deep breaths signal a release of fear, a letting go of an ideal, or feeling seen, heard, or cared about. Our hearts beat faster when we are afraid or excited to increase adrenaline and blood flow. Sometimes, my clients report a response like burping when they are speaking their truth or nausea when coming up against a blocked emotion from their childhood. 

 Along with listening to our bodies, we need to do what gives us pleasure (which we have unfortunately made into a dirty word – associated only with sex). Pleasure is a flow of energy through the body which you can learn to feel. It comes from tending to our body’s needs – such as eating when we are hungry and choosing foods nourishing in the way our body uniquely needs. Pleasure comes also from resting when we are tired, exercising when we have energy, and sharing nurturing company. 

Further, we must allow our emotions to move through our bodies like waves. We see with children that they may be angry or sad and crying one moment, and when allowed to express it, they move on and are ready to play. Similarly, allowing our emotions to move through us can make us feel more alive and connected to ourselves and others. Anger, for example, when expressed appropriately, fuels us to speak up for the protection of self and who or what we love. Anger lies at the root of all the necessary fights for social justice.  

Sadness and grief move through us with tears, helping us let go of someone or something. Tears release toxins from the body and connect us with how deeply we care. A good cry can feel like rain washing through, clearing the air.  

Through breathing and feeling, we embody the spirit. In breathing, we are connected with all of life. During the pandemic, it became clearer than ever that we all breathe the same air. We breathe in from an infinite source. What we breathe affects us and those around us. The more deeply and fully we breathe, the more energy we have. Breath is with us all the time.

Breath connects us with “the wild geese in the clean blue air,”, as Mary Oliver writes, “where the world offers itself to our imagination.” In breath, even if we feel lonely, we are connected to each other, the earth, and the infinite. 

As we breathe fully and feel our bodies, the world offers itself to our imaginations and calls to us like wild geese—harsh and exciting. By the breath moving in our bodies, we find belonging—the world over and over, announcing our place in the family of things. 

Even with our bodies’ limitations and sometimes painful feelings, feeling fully and breathing deeply offers the path to embodying our spirituality. Through embodying our spirituality, we find connection with ourselves, one another, and with all of life. 

In closing, I offer a quote from Alexander Lowen, MD, founder of Bioenergetic Analysis:

“In my view, it is the mind, with its emphasis on knowledge and reason, that is secular and the body that is sacred. Much as we think we can explain the body’s operations, at their core is the mystery of love. The heart of man [sic] where love resides, is also the temple where god resides in the human being. 

The basis for this belief is the ability to feel a resonance between the pulse of the heart and the pulse of the universe. While the pulse of life occurs in every cell and every organ of the body, it is felt most powerfully in the beating of the heart and experienced most vividly in the feeling of love.” (from the book Spirituality of the Body)

Bioenergetic Psychotherapy Techniques for Releasing the Grip of Childhood Trauma

Excerpted from Academy of Therapy Wisdom blog post. Read the full article by clicking this link: https://therapywisdom.com/2023/12/04/bioenergetic-psychotherapy-techniques-trauma/

Did you know? Childhood trauma impacts the fascia and musculature along with the nervous system

We currently have a much greater awareness of the impact of trauma on the nervous system than we ever have. But trauma affects other systems of the body as well. The musculature and fascia develop chronic tension to hold back emotions and expression, which were unacceptable in the childhood environment. For example, when a parent tells a child to stop crying with a message such as: “Big boys don’t cry,” the child halts expression of the emotion by tightening their muscles and holding their breath. If the parent repeats this message regularly, the child learns to tense their muscles chronically, especially whenever they experience the impulse to cry.

The person no longer connects tense muscles with the message of the parent. Most people also have limited awareness of the chronic tension they carry, let alone of the emotions and expressions the tension blocks. Instead, they identify feeling depressed or anxious or symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, low energy, or dissatisfaction in relationships.  

Therapy that addresses the underlying causes of unhappiness needs to help people identify and release physical tensions. No amount of talking alone can provide the intervention necessary to release these restrictions. Without releasing the physical tension, the unhappiness will return or persist. 

Similarly, physical techniques without psychotherapeutic exploration do not provide sufficient support to create profound change. The structure of psychotherapy offers the opportunity to explore the root causes of chronic tensions. Within a healing relationship, clients can allow emotions previously blocked to flow safely. 

How Bioenergetic Therapy Works:

How Engaging the Body Can Enhance Your Psychotherapy Practice 

Perhaps you have training in EMDR, know about tapping, have read The Body Keeps the Score, or studied body-based therapy approaches that focus on awareness but have not experienced the value of working directly with the body in therapy. Bioenergetic analysis incorporates the body through movement linked with feeling and as central to the psychotherapy process. Based on the notion that the body needs to change, along with the mind, to address the roots of the issues which bring clients to psychotherapy, bioenergetic therapists learn to read a person’s history in the structure of their bodies. 

Body-based Therapy and Bioenergetic Analysis

The movement-based tools of bioenergetic analysis integrate an understanding of a client’s history and ability to address the roots of their presenting problems. This understanding fosters compassion in the therapeutic relationship and a capacity to facilitate change on a deep level. Bioenergetic therapists incorporate exercises to release chronic tension, which may be out of a person’s awareness but profoundly impacts how they feel. In addition, bioenergetic therapy focuses on exercises to open unconscious breathing patterns, increase a person’s connection to the ground, link verbal and non-verbal communications in personal boundaries, and allow emotions to move through the body beneficially. 

Bioenergetic Therapy Techniques: Movement

Studies confirm that exercise helps alleviate depression. However, getting a depressed person to exercise can be challenging. Bioenergetic therapy addresses this by introducing movement as part of psychotherapy. Further, neuroscientists such as Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett teach that the body acts as an antenna for the brain, constantly providing information about how to respond. 

In her book How Emotions Are Made, Dr. Barrett reminds us that no matter how much a person changes their thoughts, if their body does not feel good – from being tired, hungry, in pain, or filled with tension – they will not feel good. Therefore, working with the body in the context of psychotherapy makes sense and becomes essential to helping clients feel better and enjoy their lives more fully. 

To learn more about how you can incorporate movement and bioenergetic therapy into your sessions, click below to visit the course page for Laurie Ure’s online therapist course taught in collaboration with Robert Coffman and Vincentia Schroeter.


Grounding: A Foundation of Bioenergetic Therapy

“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: 

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.  
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
  5. 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. 

Bioenergetic grounding exercises in a group class

Shrink Rap Radio Podcast

I recently had the pleasure of an interview on Shrink Rap Radio. To watch it via video click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NilfH5rAoA

To listen via audio click here: https://tinyurl.com/y5574z5z

How Bioenergetic Psychotherapy Unlocks the Feelings Carried in Your Body

This science-based approach to therapy explores the mind-body connection as a healing modality

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: The Secret Life of the Brain,” 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 of 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 by 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.

A woman standing on the floor, bent forward with hands also touching the floor.
Bioenergetic grounding exercise. This and the following photos all by the author.

With this client, I invited her to get a towel (we were working via telehealth) 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 with her. She expressed her anger at her father — saying, “Get out!” and “Go away!” She made sounds that 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 that constrict their breathing. I instruct clients to slowly lower their body backward 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 heads to support their necks. I tell them that their balance is in their legs so remind them to keep one foot on the floor at all times.

A woman laying with her back on top of a large exercise ball, her feet planted on the floor.
Opening breathing over the exercise ball.

In this position, I encourage my clients to notice what they sense in their bodies. 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 release tensions and express 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.

These are some of the ways that bioenergetic therapists integrate work with the body in psychotherapy. Bioenergetic therapists explore their client’s stories, 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 transformations through this approach.

A Time for Tantrums:

What 2-year-olds model about releasing frustration and restoring calm

Imagine the familiar scene — a 2-year-old gets frustrated about not getting something they want or not being able to do something that excites them. They throw themselves on the floor, stomp their feet, pound their arms, and shout or scream. No one teaches them this behavior. The response comes organically, believe it or not. Controlling this full-body expressive response challenges parents and daycare providers, often generating feelings of frustration and helplessness. A Google search yields many links related to stopping tantrums, managing them, and teaching children to contain their emotions by talking about them rather than expressing them physically.

Consider instead that children inherently know how to release the energy built from frustrated desires. Think about how, if allowed to “complete” the tantrum, the child visibly relaxes and calms when it’s over.

With the pandemic entering the third year with the next more contagious strain, nearly everyone feels frustration and weariness. Adjusting to this situation brings realities out of our control that we don’t like or which cause uncertainty, discomfort, and varying degrees of sacrifice and suffering. Without the option of temper tantrums available to release our frustration, it can come out in road rage, conflicts in relationships, and mental health issues such as increased anxiety and depression.

As a bioenergetic (body-oriented) psychotherapist, I encourage my clients to have adult temper tantrums. I suggest they lay on their back on a mattress in the safety of my office. I guide them to lift one leg at a time and let it drop. I tell them to continue going back and forth, bringing both legs up and down. As they get into it, I invite them to add their arms, make fists to pound on the mattress, and let their head go from side to side. Words such as “It’s not fair!” or “I don’t like it!” or “WHY?!” integrate their mind into the expression.

After watching them do the exercise, I nearly always suggest a grounding exercise to reorient themselves. The grounding exercise involves standing with one’s feet about hip-width apart and feet going forward. Then, I invite them to bend slowly and gently straighten their legs without locking their knees to increase their connection with the ground.

Clients sometimes feel fear or shame as they initially do the exercise. They may relate a painful memory from being a child and an adult’s reaction to their tantrums. For example, they describe punishment with ice thrown at them or being yelled at to stop it. But nearly always, when they allow themselves to get into the exercise (and especially after), they feel more relaxed, calmer, and freer.

When a child’s expression repeatedly gets stopped in a shaming way, they use their muscles to hold back the emotions. They develop negative messages about themselves like “I’m bad” or “My anger is not acceptable.” Then, the feeling comes out another way, such as self-hate or mistreating pets or people they love. Many people deny their feelings through addictions, including alcohol, drug use, overwork, or overeating.

I do my version of temper tantrums regularly when swimming. I kick firmly with straight legs while both on my front and back. Depending on my current level of frustration, I kick with as much force as I need to release the feeling. The exercise is aerobic and usually feels energizing. I always feel lighter, calmer, and more relaxed afterward.

Children, of course, need to learn appropriate places to express themselves. Lying on the floor having a tantrum at the grocery store isn’t appropriate any more than peeing in their pants. But if they don’t have anywhere to express themselves fully, they become emotionally constipated. They then use their energy to suppress their expression. Parents can help by providing a space where children can express themselves safely.

You can try this for yourself. For example, if you swim, try it while swimming. Or lie on your back on a mattress in a private place. You will likely feel self-conscious or uncomfortable at first, especially if there’s anyone else around. If you experienced shaming or punishment for having tantrums as a child, you might feel fear or shame as you begin. It may be too uncomfortable to try on your own. You may need support from a trusted guide or therapist to work through the fear and shame. With guided practice, you can become more comfortable expressing your frustration in this safe way.

If you have children, you can do it with them. Teach them, through modeling, that everyone gets frustrated sometimes, and they can release it in ways that no one gets hurt. Everyone will feel better together! Your relationships will likely improve when you stop taking your frustration out on people around you. Imagine if the legislators started their sessions with communal tantrums. Think how much more would likely get accomplished! If we all release frustration in safe ways, the world can become a kinder, gentler place.

Enjoy the Holiday season More Fully: start by considering – what do you want?

Magazine ads, commercials, and songs lead us to believe that the holiday season is “the most wonderful time of the year.” We expect happiness, abundance, and joyful family togetherness. But this season often brings a mix of feelings and experiences. Even families that look perfect from the outside have conflicts, sorrow, and sometimes a lack of real connection. So, to enjoy your holiday season more fully, with whatever is happening in your life and your family, start with thinking about what you most need and want.

The pandemic has brought increased awareness about connections for nearly everyone. Unfortunately, most people have missed connections, had too much contact, or some of both. In this holiday season, reflect on what you have learned about yourself and your relationships during the pandemic.

Consider the following questions: What connections nourish you — with yourself and others? What do you most need or want regarding your relationships this year? Which of your needs or wants are you willing to negotiate on, and which are non-negotiable?

Start by clarifying what you want. Then, express your wishes when you can. Next, listen to the needs and wants of your family members or friends. Where your wishes differ, negotiate to get some of what you value. Discuss how you can honor some of the desires of people close to you. Everyone may not get all of what they want, but everyone should get some of their wishes.

During the pandemic, you may have learned, for instance, that you prefer more time alone. If so, consider arranging time in smaller groups or find a way to have some solitude amid big family gatherings. You might negotiate to meet for part of the day, such as gathering for dessert or appetizers rather than spending the whole day together.

On the other hand, if the pandemic has kept you from gathering with family or friends, you may realize that you value the time together more than you thought. Think about how to maximize the time with family or friends and give yourself that gift when you can. 

Perhaps, instead, you do not have close family nearby. If so, this can be a tough time of year. Consider planning a gathering with a friend. Or, explore what else would feel good to you. For example, plan a memorable day trip or do something for someone else who is alone, such as delivering a meal.

If you experience stress due to conflicts, expectations, or demands within your family, find ways to nourish yourself during these gatherings. For example, taking a break for a walk, either alone or with someone you enjoy, can help. If you’re traveling, staying at a hotel (if you can afford it) rather than staying with family can give you needed time apart.

Some families have had painful losses since the last holiday gathering. Rather than ignoring the pain, create a ritual to honor the loss together. For example, light a candle for the person, have a moment of silence, or invite family members to share memories. While suggesting this may initially be uncomfortable, it will likely feel better than not sharing it.

This time of year can also be difficult for people who have financial hardships, with an emphasis on gifts and materialism. If this includes you, look for simple ways to give something of yourself. Handmade gifts or gifts of time can mean a lot. Explore taking the risk of asking for help from someone who can provide it. Or, if you have abundance, allow yourself the joy of sharing it.

Asserting your wishes, requests, and choices may involve taking risks. Not everyone will like or approve of you when you do. You may need to accept disappointing people some of the time. Aim to release guilt if someone tries to place this on you. When you clarify what you want and need, you can usually negotiate to get at least some of it.

However you spend these days, remember this is the darkest, coldest time of year in the northern hemisphere. You likely need extra rest. Be sure to prioritize self-care, including rest, exercise, healthy eating (not overeating!)

The Road Not Built:

Saving Sacred Lands — the Grand Staircase Escalante

I celebrate the action of President Biden to restore the monuments of Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to experience these areas’ sacred and unique beauty, I share a personal account about why their preservation remains significant. My story includes the history of my aunt’s activism in the 1970s to stop a road, which remains central to the area’s remoteness today.

My Family’s History in Utah:

When I was nine years old, my father moved my family from Pittsburgh to Salt Lake City to live near his sister, the late June Viavant. Our families spent significant time hiking, camping, running rivers, and backpacking in southern Utah. My father bought a 4 wheel drive vehicle to access the very remote areas of the state.

My aunt loved the Grand Staircase-Escalante in particular. She spent years hiking and exploring this majestic region and became devoted to protecting it. My aunt loved the spectacular beauty of the unique red rock formations, waterfalls, arches, cliffs, and slot canyons carved through centuries, unique to the Escalante.

In 1996 (unfortunately after my aunt’s death), President Clinton declared the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, covering about 1.8 million acres of land — primarily accessible only by a few rough roads. The area includes:

  • The Escalante Canyon (a red rock canyon with a river running through it and many side canyons, including several narrow slot canyons)
  • The Kaiparowits Plateau (a wide desert plateau area standing above the nearby lands)
  • The Grand Staircase (referring to the layered geology in this extended area)

Raised in New Hampshire, June and her family pioneered camping and backpacking, in the 1950s, long before these activities were popular. My grandfather, a YMCA camp director, and my grandmother, later gave talks on the wildlife and birds of New England. June was always an active political advocate as well. At family dinners, for example, she often required us to write letters to our representatives (in the days before email and online petitions), advocating for the protection of places like the Escalante. When hiking together, she made sure we picked up every bit of litter and never took shortcuts of the trails.

While our families frequently vacationed in southern Utah, Thanksgiving became a favored time to go. With four days off and fewer crowds, we celebrated the holiday in this sanctuary. We camped in Zion National Park or backpacked into the Escalante or Waterpocket Fold, carrying Thanksgiving dinner on our backs. We packed turkey, dressing, homemade sticky buns, pies, and wine to enjoy around a campfire (we skipped some of the vegetables and, of course, ice cream to top the pies!). One of the memorable parts of these trips was sitting around the fire after dinner. In late November, it gets dark early, and we joked about how slow the time passed. We enjoyed singing and sang for what felt like hours when it was only 6:30 or 7:00. “It’s too early to go to bed,” someone would proclaim, but there wasn’t much else to do, so we slept a lot.

On one family trip to Death Hollow, a side canyon of the Escalante canyon, we searched for hours through the desert to find the trailhead as this was the 1970’s and trails were not yet marked. Once we located the steep trail going into the canyon, we had to pass our packs to each other, heavy with Thanksgiving fixings, to maneuver the steep cliffs. We waded through water up to our waists, on another trip, carrying our packs above our heads. We hiked through places where a stream had carved basins in the rock, with one beautiful pool following another. We camped beneath a large overhang and explored native American ruins not seen by others. We experienced the quiet, awe, and reverence of places largely untouched by humans.

June’s Political Activism to Stop the Highway:

June treasured the solitude and wildness of Grand Staircase-Escalante. She spent a lot of time backpacking in this area backpacking and she became passionate about preserving it. She worked as a school counselor in Salt Lake City, and I think what she liked best about the job was the time off it afforded her to spend in southern Utah.

In the late 1960s, June co-founded the Escalante Wilderness Committee with Ruth Frear. June and Ruth argued before the US Senate in 1970 to halt the proposed Trans-Escalante highway. The road would have cut through the heart of the Escalante wilderness, ruining its remoteness. They gathered letters from hundreds of people who expressed their intent for it to be kept wild.They testified before the US Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation.

In her testimony to the US Senate in 1970, June argued for the value of maintaining it as wilderness, stating:

The Escalante is a contrast of the huge and the minute, of openness and hidden glens — an endless expanse of Forty-Mile Bench complemented by walls eighteen inches apart, hundreds of feet high in Davis Gulch. It displays the beginnings in its massive sandstone walls, the end in its fragile ferns. The Escalante is a little of the Grand Canyon, some of Bryce and Zion, a reminder of Mesa Verde, and the last great remnant of Glen Canyon — but it possesses a unique spirit of its own. (United States Senate, 1970, p. 78)

She went on to describe her experience of the spirituality of the region:

Who can stand within the perfection of the Escalante and not in some way experience a hint of the supernatural? We all have our personal religions. To some of us, wilderness is the place worship; of what, depends on the individual. One man sees desert canyons as a hell of a place to lose a cow. Another stands alone on the rim of the Escalante Canyon and thinks ‘Perhaps when God was driven from Glen Canyon, He came to live in the Escalante.’ We can approach this beautiful, ecologically fragile area with the care and the love of a people that respects and values its last few remaining pockets of wilderness, or we can come with bulldozers and pavement, blasting our way across them. People deserve to have a chance to be drawn into the Escalante naturally — to follow a canyon stream or a canyon rim on foot, wondering what is around the next bend. (United States Senate, 1970, p. 79)

It is worthy to note that she also specifically addressed the value of the area for mining and drilling in her testimony. She referenced a document called “Geology of the Circle Cliffs Area, Garfield and Kane Counties, Utah, United States Geological Survey Bulletin #1229, Prepared on behalf of the US Atomic Energy Commission.” She reported that the document states: “The uranium deposits are small, and opportunity for discovery of any large deposits seems poor.” She goes on to comment: “no mines of consequence have yet been developed and the depth of burial would preclude its exploration in many places. No pattern of ore bodies of significant size exists to allow confident prediction of more ore bodies.” Additionally, she references the problem with drilling for oil in the area related to the lack of abundant water which remains an issue today (United States Senate, 1970, p. 80).

In Canyon Country Zephyr in 2015, Ken Sleight praised the conservation work of Ruth and June, stating:

…speaking of the Sierra Club, I’ll never forget the valiant and hard work of two of their most able leaders, Ruth Frear and June Viavant. They helped stop the proposed Trans-Escalante highway that would have stretched from Bullfrog to Wahweap marina. The road would have bridged across the Escalante canyon just downstream from Stevens Arch and Coyote Gulch. This was one of the environmentalists’ finest hours in Utah. (Sleight, paragraph 31)

June smiling in the Escalante Canyon with snow on the ground
June in Escalante Canyon, circa 1980. Photo provided by Tim Viavant

The Fragile Environment: Biological Soil Crust

While June publicly defended the Escalante, she also taught us about the crust covering much of the open desert of southern Utah, which takes many years to form. The vast expanses of land between the beautiful canyons look barren, lifeless, and desolate, but on this, we learned, lives a fragile crust unique to this environment. My aunt implored us to be mindful of where we walked to minimize the damage to this delicate crust, as even a single step can destroy it.

The fragile crust — called “biological soil crust” — consists of various organisms, including lichen, mosses, green algae, microfungi, and bacteria. Together they work to control erosion and hold water to allow plants to grow in the dry environment. One of these organisms — called cyanobacteria, or green-blue algae — is believed to be among the first living organisms on Earth! Amazingly, it can take thousands of years for this crust to form (NPS, 2020). In building roads and development of all types, fragile organisms would experience irreparable damage, including extinction.

The Bees of the Escalante — Who Knew?!!

I have recently learned that the Grand Staircase is also home to over 650 unique species of bees! Bee biologist Olivia Messinger Carril, and a team of volunteers, spent four years researching bees in the area. They found huge numbers of bees varying in size, colors, and shapes. (Zimmer, 2018) Carril and her crew produced a film about their work titled: The Bees of Grand Staircase Escalante. (You can view this interesting film at this link: https://beesofgsenm.com)

On the topic of roads, the film shows a large group of bees that lived in the unpaved, dry road going through the national monument. Sadly, a road crew using heavy equipment to grade the road devastated these bees, even after the researchers informed them of the existence of the bees and requested that they work around them. In watching the film, I reflected on the number of species of bees that would have been lost, if the road my aunt and her colleagues effectively stopped in the 1970s, had been built.

Many bee species, along with the fragile ecosystem, risked permanent damage in the recent reduction of the size of the national monument. This policy of dominance, which continues to permeate the political landscape in the United States, does not respect the needs of the other. Dominance accepts the destruction of anything in its way, especially if viewed as inferior, vulnerable, or fragile. Further, policy based on dominance does not tend to what comes after it.

Prayers, Gratitude, and Celebration

And so, I speak in honor of this tender place.

I speak for the right of untamed places to exist and of their need for protection. I speak about the incredible resiliency of life forms to thrive and adapt in even the harshest of conditions and the ability of fragile life forms to be damaged irreparably by a single action or series of actions.

I honor the efforts of people like my aunt and so many others who dedicate their lives to protecting fragile, remote environments and ecosystems so they may thrive and endure.

I hear echoes of the centuries of ancestors who called this land home, on the people who currently live there, and the expectations of generations to come who wish to enjoy this wild and wonderful planet.

I acknowledge the value of the vulnerability within every one of us, which these lands reflect.

Today I celebrate the win for places like this whose abundant riches lie in something far more significant than in the finite resources that we can extract from them.

The words of June from the introduction of the book Slickrock: Endangered Canyons of the Southwest published in 1971 ring true to me: “Much has been done to protect these wild, beautiful, lonely places. Much remains to be done. We can win many successive steps of a conservation battle, but we can lose only once” (Abbey, p. 14.) Gratefully, wildness has won again.


Abbey, E., Hyde, P. (1971). Slickrock: endangered canyons of the southwest. Sierra Club/Charles Scribner’s Sons

National Park Service. (2020, Feb 15) Biological soil crust of southeast Utah. https://www.nps.gov/articles/seug-soil-crust.htm

Sleight, K. (2015, June 1). Canyon Country Zephyr. Ken Sleight remembers, part 5: the 60s, “memories of Escalante.” Retrieved from: https://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com/2015/06/01/ken-sleight-remembers-part-5-the-60s-memories-of-escalante-by-ken-sleight/

United States Senate. Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreational Area. Hearing before the Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. (1970). Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=KwTx470b8t8C&pg=PP1&lpg=PP1&dq=United+States+Senate.+Canyonlands+National+Park+and+Glen+Canyon+National+Recreational+Area.+Hearing+before+the+Subcommittee+on+Parks+and+Recreation+of+the+Committee+on+Interior+and+Insular+Affairs.+(1970)&source=bl&ots=bUBoEb6vXN&sig=ACfU3U1l4a1i-5a6Ba3lkVMEZshkjdl8KA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiA98y0y73zAhUdonIEHdwfAVIQ6AF6BAgDEAM#v=onepage&q=United%20States%20Senate.%20Canyonlands%20National%20Park%20and%20Glen%20Canyon%20National%20Recreational%20Area.%20Hearing%20before%20the%20Subcommittee%20on%20Parks%20and%20Recreation%20of%20the%20Committee%20on%20Interior%20and%20Insular%20Affairs.%20(1970)&f=false

Zimmer, K. (2018, December 17). National Geographic. 660 species of bees live in the newly shrunk national monument. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/bee-city-at-risk-after-grand-staircase-escalante-divided

Beyond Gold

Four lessons from Simone Biles about trauma and life

After the flame from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics extinguished and I reflected on the events, my attention focused, more than anything else, on the experience of Simone Biles. In her conduct, she exemplified excellence as a role model and a teacher. In addition, through her example, she has offered invaluable lessons about honoring limits, the mind/body connection, recovering from traumatic stress, and shifting from an individual orientation to a collective focus.

1 — Respecting limits

While Simone has already brought the sport of gymnastics to a new level through all kinds of amazing feats on the balance beam, vault, and uneven bars, in this Olympics, she showed to the world that being human includes limits that deserve acknowledgment and respect.

While she had spent countless hours preparing to compete, and the hopes and expectations of many people were riding upon her success, she bravely confronted the reality that she could not compete safely. Accepting these limits and honoring the boundaries of her capacity meant valuing her safety over the accompanying disappointment — for herself and others. In this Olympics, respecting her physical, psychological, and emotional limits became one of her most remarkable feats yet.

2 — The mind/body connection

Simone has become a teacher about the mind/body connection. Though her body likely could have physically done what was required to compete, her mind could not do its part. While I do not claim to fully comprehend what happened for her (with the “twisties”), my experience as a body/mind psychotherapist provides me with theories.

From her significant training, she had sufficient muscle memory to perform her routines, and she had managed the pressure of this situation in many past competitions. Simone’s struggles emerged in twists, which requires the mind to tolerate the disorientation of the body moving through space while simultaneously finely calibrating to locate contact with the ground. The mental focus and attention required to navigate this eluded her this time.

3 — Post Traumatic Stress Response

Understanding the limits of Simone’s focus requires exploring the impact of post-traumatic stress. Specifically, Simone stated that being at the Olympics activated memories of Dr. Larry Nassar, the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics, who repeatedly abused her and numerous other Olympic athletes, including at the last Olympics of 2016.

From my practice as a psychotherapist working with clients who suffered traumatic events, I have learned that people can compartmentalize painful events, putting them out of their mind for long periods — years or even decades.

When something in the present reminds them of the painful event, memories return. Along with memories, painful emotions emerge and require attention. This can derail a person from focusing on other things until the memory and emotions are acknowledged, felt, witnessed, and processed.

Processing traumatic events requires significant mental and emotional energy. A person coping with post-traumatic stress may be able to manage familiar, straightforward tasks of life (i.e., driving, walking, cooking, eating), but they do not have the focus required for tasks that require more of them.

I can imagine that gymnastics involving the mental feat of orientating in space through twists may have been more than Simone’s mind could manage, in conjunction with processing the complex emotions and memories from the trauma. With her body connected to the ground and moving in a relatively linear direction, she could access the mental energy necessary to block out difficult memories and emotions.

However, twisting and turning through space mixes up one’s thoughts and feelings and one’s body; her mind may not have been able to both block or process painful experiences and also focus on the complexity required with twists.

I had an experience with my partner recently, which provided a simpler example of this. Our dog had become ill, which activated memories for my partner of previous pet illnesses with unfavorable outcomes (if you’ve had pets for any length of time, you know this is inevitable but sad and sometimes painful).

My partner rested more than usual over the weekend, and on Sunday afternoon, we went for a walk at a familiar place. The walk began on pavement and then moved onto a path in the woods. Shortly after shifting into the woods, with the uneven ground, she took a bad fall. I believe that in her compromised state of processing past trauma and the anxiety which accompanied this, her mind could manage walking on pavement, but not the more complex adjustments required to navigate the uneven woods path.

4 — From me to we: a value beyond winning

Finally, through the likely deep disappointment of not being able to compete fully in the Tokyo Olympics, Simone maintained a positive attitude and became a great support for her teammates rather than keeping the focus on herself. Throughout the remainder of the competition, she coached them, cheered for them, celebrated their victories, and shared their losses.

While Simone may have felt frustrated about her inability to compete at her usual level, she did not become consumed with hopelessness, bitterness, or resentment. Instead, she adjusted her expectations, shifted her balance beam routine, and encouraged her team members.

Simone may not have brought home a gold medal this time, but she landed solidly on her feet. She taught the world what exists beyond gold by honoring herself, including her limits and needs, modeling the importance of mental health, and demonstrating leadership in supporting her teammates.

Thank you, Simone

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