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Do you remember those OD’s who walked through the bunkhouses in camp and inspired respect simply by the click-clacking of their firm tread? Do you remember those head counselors who slouched in front of the dining room while the campers ran haywire and you felt like yelling at them, “Stand up straight and then we can listen to you!” What about those camp interviews where your body shriveled up in itself and you could not make eye contact and your head hung down on your neck? Or maybe you are a counselor or camp director and you notice the body postures of your campers. You notice how some scream sadness at you. Or indifference. Or anger or frustration or arrogance. And maybe you also recognize the body posture of confidence, excitement, interest, warmth, openness, and vitality.
Non-verbal communication is important
As a somatic therapist, a new world of non-verbal communication has been opened up to me and it feels like people are constantly speaking to me, even when they don’t say a word with their tongue, lips, or mouths. They say it all with their body.
Clients talk to me in the rigidity of their posture, the hanging of their head, the unnatural looseness of their limbs splayed on my couch as if they will disconnect at any moment. They speak in the rhythm of their speech, the quiet voice that I can barely hear, the sudden movement that startles even themselves. They speak in the bowed back, in the stiff spine, the clenched fists, and the tense shoulders.
It was William Reich, one of the early disciples of psychotherapy in the 1930s, who had the revolutionary idea that muscle tension was a sign of repressed emotion. Duh, right? But everything we take for granted today as common knowledge originated somewhere. Reich was actually expelled from the psychotherapy world (for reasons irrelevant to our discussion here) and his ideas about body psychotherapy fell to the wayside until more recent times when somatic therapies began to spring up again.
What is somatic therapy?
Somatic therapy combines talk therapy with some form of bodywork. This bodywork could be breathing, exercise, yoga, other types of movement, vocalization, and even massage.
Sensorimotor therapy, somatic experiencing (SE), and somatic interventions (SI), along with the parts of the EMDR protocol that pay attention to certain somatic symptoms, are all evidence-based therapies that have infiltrated current psychology and social work practices. Since they’ve come along, they’ve changed who we are as therapists and how we work to improve our clients’ functioning.
During one of my training sessions, I was introduced to another form of somatic therapy which addressed an interesting aspect of movement which we learned to utilize as part of our repertoire of body-based interventions. That therapy was called Body-Mind Centering (BMC).
Okay, so what is Body-Mind Centering Therapy?
Body-Mind Centering is based on the fundamental premise that there are universal patterns of movement from the moment we are born that are not only body-based, but are interwoven into our emotional, social and psychological psyche.
Sounds complicated, right? Not once we break it down. Stay with me here.
The theories of Body-Mind Centering posit that each movement contains one of the five critical actions: yielding, pushing, reaching, holding, and pulling. Every time you move your limbs, you are essentially engaging in one of these actions.
So what? What does each of these mean?
Listen up, because it’s fascinating.
The act of yielding is about our straightforward, uncomplicated relationship with the world. It is how we exist within our world, not doing but simply being. And someone who can just “be” has the ability in that yielding to discern which further movement — pushing, reaching, holding, or pulling — is necessary, appropriate, or even desired. It’s the body language of a person who is completely at home with themself within their environment. People who exhibit yielding are often described by those who study Body-Mind Centering as someone who is “comfortable in their skin”.
Pushing is about separation from the world and from the immediate environment. In order to push, the body contracts and becomes more compact and solid. Someone who can push can establish appropriate boundaries with themselves and others, both physically and emotionally. They’re comfortable being themselves and are confident in that self. They have clearly established boundaries and space. One example of this is a child who can firmly push away the hand of that annoying aunt who pinches her cheek.
Reaching takes the boundaries of pushing a step further. It’s the movement away from one’s self and towards another person or object. Body-Mind Centering therapy tells us the psychological component of reaching stems from curiosity, compassion, and knowing the world beyond one’s own small view. It is a bold action that carries the vulnerability of being exposed outside of one’s comfort zone. If you reach out, you may touch poison ivy. If you reach out, you may be rejected. There are risks inherent in reaching.
Holding and Pulling:
The last two, holding and pulling, are intertwined. They are bolder and more courageous movements, both physically and psychologically, than reaching. This is because holding and pulling is not only about reaching out of one’s comfort zone, it’s about pulling something you want toward you and then holding on very tightly to keep it. It’s about pulling and holding that nosh you asked your mother to give you and not trading it away. Or holding onto a friendship that matters and pulling it close. It’s about holding onto a dream of who you want to be and pulling it close even when nobody understands. Pulling and holding is even riskier than reaching.
But obviously, it is the success of the prior movements — the ability to simply be, the ability to push and maintain boundaries, the ability to reach for what you want — that allows for the risk-taking of pulling and holding.
Think of that child who confidently swings through the monkey bars, pulling and holding, pulling, and holding. She can do the same pulling and holding when she walks into a new classroom or a new bunk at camp, and approaches a girl and says, “Do you want to take a walk around the grounds?” pulling her out of the bunkhouse, and holding her new friend!
How body-mind centering therapy works in the therapy room and helps us overcome real-life problems:
Often, a client will talk about someone who creates havoc in her life. My client, away from this person, can often yield. But in the presence of this someone, her equilibrium is destroyed. I will create an “experiment” in which I will ask my client to engage in a pushing exercise, using a pillow perhaps, or the wall, or the floor beneath her feet, and ask her to push.
This physical pushing act, which a client will not be able to do unless she is psychologically strong, will also impact her psychological wellbeing and ability to maintain boundaries with this unpleasant other.
Another way body mind centering therapy can be used is with a client who struggles to reach out to others to ask for help, support, and love. In these cases, I will stretch out my hand and have her reach for it. Sometimes physically, sometimes symbolically. And when her hand reaches for mine, I know that one day she will also be able to pull and hold. To marry, to parent, to love.
This article was originally published in Binah Magazine.
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