Sometime in the 1960s, seemingly out of nowhere, therapists began to hear of new somatic approaches taught by colorful gurus, who frequently named their new methods after themselves. There was the Feldenkrais Method, the Alexander Technique, the Rubenfeld Synergy Method. There was Ida Rolf’s Rolfing to break up your fascia and realign your skeletal system, and bioenergetics to release the chronic muscle tension that contributes to emotional stress. By the early 1970s, “batakas”—padded foam bats for thrashing oversized pillows to vent long-repressed rage—were standard equipment in New Age encounter groups around the country.
I felt like I think a lot of clinicians did at that time—that these approaches were fringy and possibly hazardous. Most of the therapeutic community continued to believe that talk was king, the body its unruly subject. If anything, these interventions only strengthened the conviction that the mind was a separate country from the body.
Still, out of curiosity—and need for a respite from the stifling atmosphere of my grad school program—I attended one of the new, body-oriented encounter weekends at a retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Besides a friend and me, there wasn’t a credentialed therapist in sight. So at first, I observed the carnival of pillow-pounding, hugging, and tearful truth-telling with a sense of bemusement and being above it all. But something made me go back again—and again.
I couldn’t describe my sweaty, visceral encounter experiences in the same formal terms I was learning in grad school, but whether I admitted it to my professors or not, I felt these excursions offered an opening to a world of feeling more intense and vitalizing than anything their curriculum could provide.
For many years after, body therapy remained a semi-underground movement within the field. Then, in 1993, award-winning journalist Bill Moyers hosted a five-part PBS series called Healing and the Mind. Along with some 10 million viewers, I sat glued to my couch as he interviewed neuroscientists, physicians, psychotherapists, and patients about the intersection of Eastern and Western healing approaches, in the process documenting not just the art but the science behind practices like tai chi, meditation, and acupuncture. To millions of skeptics, including many therapists, it validated the connection between mind and body as something worth exploring.
Today, interest in that once arcane link has grown way beyond anything that could’ve been predicted at the time. Increasing numbers of clinicians are bringing the somatic element of the mind–body union more prominently into their work. They’re going beyond expanding awareness, instilling relaxation, and sharpening mental focus as they utilize highly interactive, body-based approaches to help clients locate the somatic sources of their pain as well as discover new pathways to aliveness and joy.
Does that mean our time-honored, chair-based style of conducting therapy will one day go the way of the psychoanalytic couch—a once de rigeur arrangement that became a chuckle-worthy relic? Probably not. But I do suspect that a more finely tuned appreciation of the body’s role in healing—and the active use of that knowledge in session—will play a crucial role in shaping the future of psychotherapy.
Richard Simon, Editor