History and Purpose of Somatic Psychotherapy

 Donald Marmara, Somatic Psychotherapist, Artarmon, Sydney

Note (1). Somatic Psychotherapy is sometimes referred to as Body Psychotherapy, Body-centered Psychotherapy or Body-inclusive Psychotherapy.

Note (2).There are various schools of Somatic Psychotherapy. Most of them developed from the work of Wilhelm Reich. More information is in the section “the roots of somatic psychotherapy” below.


History and Purpose of Somatic Psychotherapy

Every time a natural impulse is denied ‘”don’t shout, don’t cry, don’t look, don’t get too excited…..”, we cut off our aliveness, our connection with our biological pulsation.

We stop feeling “streamings” in our body. These streamings are a basic cellular function that give us feelings of security, pleasure, belonging and wellbeing.

Most of us stopped feeling these streamings at such a young age that we have no memory of what they are like.

Then we start to look outside ourselves for sources of happiness and satisfaction because we have learnt that being who we are, which is our only true source of satisfaction, is not ok.

Hence we embark on a lifelong search that leads to more and more frustration because it is misdirected.

As one external object, person or situation fails to satisfy our needs, we try something or somebody else. We want more, thinking that if only we had enough we would feel OK.

The truth is that we cannot feel OK until we reconnect with our body and our feelings.  The ones we cut off from because we were told that they were not OK. No amount of external change or success can make a difference, except to cover up, disguise or deny our inner longing and emptiness.

And whilst words can be helpful in enabling us to reconnect with our own true nature, it often requires more than words to provide the safety and means through which we can do this effectively.

The roots of somatic psychotherapy

The modern founder of somatic psychotherapy, Wilhelm Reich, died in prison in America in 1957 after fleeing from five countries. I quote from “Wilhelm Reich : The Evolution of His Work” , an excellent book by David Boadella:

“In Vienna he was recognised by Freud as a brilliant clinician, but was excluded from the psycho-analytic association when his views became too radical…….

In Berlin….Hitler put a price on his head”… “…whilst in America he discovered a radiation in the atmosphere. Einstein confirmed two of his findings…”

“Thirty doctors practiced the new form of treatment that Reich originated, but an American Government Department pronounced it fraudulent, and all the research evidence was seized and destroyed on court order.”

Most of Reich’s books were destroyed by court order in America in 1956.

It was the concept of what Reich called “orgone energy” – later called bioenergy – that the Pure Food and Drug Administration outlawed. Reich saw this as the essence or energy of life. He also saw the splitting of love and sex as “the source of all evil” and as the source of great error on the part of science.

Quoting from “Horizons in Bioenergetics” by Dr Joseph Cassius :

“The splitting of love and sex, Reich says, results in a disturbance of vision. A scientist so split sees heartlessly, that is to say, mechanically. He reduces life to its elements and thereby misses the heart of life, which is its pulsation, its vibrance, its form, its beauty, its attractiveness.”

After Reich’s imprisonment in 1956, his students found it necessary to divorce themselves from his outspoken political views in order to continue his therapeutic work on the emotional life of the body. It was not until twenty years later that Reich’s books became widely available again .

A number of schools of therapy developed out of Reich’s work, the main ones that I am familiar with being:

  • Bioenergetics by Alexander Lowen and John Pierrakos, both long-term students of Reich
  • Core Energetics developed later by John Pierrakos who split off from Lowen and founded his own school
  • Radix “education in feeling and purpose” developed in California by Charles Kelley
  • Biodynamic Psychology and Psychotherapy founded in Norway by Gerda Boyesen who later moved to London, and
  • Biosynthesis, meaning the integration of life, founded in London by David Boadella who later moved to Zurich in Switzerland.

There are other schools that developed later, as well as the school of orgonomy which claims to be the only school of therapy that has remained true to Reich. I can find no basis for this claim.

“It’s all in the pulsation”

Whilst psychotherapists are often quoted – rightly or wrongly – as stating that “it’s all in the mind”, the study of pulsation is at the heart of somatic psychotherapy.

Wilhelm Reich found that psychological dysfunctions are linked to disturbances in pulsation. He uses the word “armouring” to describe the chronic muscular tensions that hold emotional memories and unfinished business, and block the free flow of life energy through that part of the body.

Charles(Chuck) Kelly, founder of Radix, meaning root, uses the term counter-pulsation to describe what happens when the energy flow is blocked by chronic muscular tensions, which form the basis of our psychological defence mechanisms. When the energy meets a blockage, the energy in that part of the body pulsates in the opposite direction.

This is the physical manifestation of conflict , and explains what happens physiologically when we say, for example, -“one part of me wants to move closer to you and another part wants to move away”. 

This is precisely what is happening in our bodies when we have this experience. One part of us is pulsating in one direction, another part in the opposite direction. Hence the conflict.

How do somatic psychotherapists work?

This differs depending on the school of therapy and the way each individual therapist develops his or her own style. Some therapists use touch, others don’t.

In my understanding, it is important for a somatic psychotherapist to know when to use touch and when not to, and to be able to use touch in an appropriate manner.

This includes the ability to listen with your hands, and to view all bodily signals in context, as you would with words.

Few things are more dangerous than the popular “formulae” often used to interpret body language. This is as dangerous and potentially damaging as taking words and phrases out of context.

Everything exists in relationship, and understanding relationships is an essential part of every therapist’s skill. In my opinion it is also essential for a somatic psychotherapist to have undergone a substantial amount of somatic psychotherapy himself or herself.

To my mind, personal psychotherapy is, by far, the most important part of psychotherapy training” Irvin D Yalom, Emeritus Professor Of Psychiatry, Stanford University

Think of it this way – would you be happy to have a driving instructor who has not himself learnt how to drive a car?

Personal experience is at the heart of any serious training course in somatic psychotherapy.

A somatic psychotherapist does not always work directly with the body. Some of my sessions are talking sessions. These may appear very similar to other counselling sessions, although I pay particular attention to body language and voice tone even in talking sessions.

Some somatic psychotherapists argue that content is not important. I think what is important is to use whatever method or methods benefit the client. Sometimes content is important, sometimes not.

The aim of somatic psychotherapy is to restore people’s natural, healthy pulsation. To enable them to change unwanted and often unconscious patterns and to integrate thinking, feeling and behaviour so that they can live life more fully and authentically.

Suggested reading:

  • Wilhelm Reich : The Evolution of His Work, by David Boadella
  • Your Body Speaks Its Mind, by Stanley Keleman

I developed Core Development, a creative approach to dealing successfully with life’s challenges, from my professional training, personal therapy and life experience.  Core Development is a learning process not a clinical treatment.

If you want guidance and support in dealing effectively with life’s challenges, and in being true to yourself in an environment or society that may not always share your priorities and values,  contact me on 0412 178 234 for an informal chat.