Intro to Body-Oriented Therapy: Part 1 Why Do We Need It?
Updated: May 8
I'm setting out to answer two really big questions about holistic body-oriented therapy: why do we need it and what does it actually look like? (Hint: it's not just rolling around in essential oils for an hour.)
A quick note about language: terms like body-centered therapy, somatic psychotherapy, and body-oriented therapy are typically used interchangeably. They all refer to talk therapy, or psychotherapy, that is holistic in nature and uses the body as a vehicle for healing and self-discovery.
Top-down vs Bottom-up Therapy
Since the field of psychotherapy was first invented, most therapy approaches have been "top-down" meaning that they primarily address the mind. Top-down therapies seek to change thoughts and cognitive patterns as a means to heal painful emotions, trauma, and unhelpful patterns. It is only relatively recently that some folks in the western therapy field began to wake up to the need for more "bottom-up" approaches. Bottom-up therapy engages the body as an access point to healing rather than the mind. Even though this is a fairly recent development in western psychology, many eastern cultures have been doing this for thousands of years with practices like yoga, qigong, and ayurveda.
I believe that we as therapists need to use both top-down and bottom-up pathways in order to fully process and transform that which needs to be healed. That said, as a society we are generally overbalanced in the direction of mind and intellect. Many of us are fused with our minds but estranged from the wisdom of our bodies. For this reason, I (and many other body-oriented therapists) tend to emphasize the bottom-up stuff a bit more.
So why do we need body-oriented or "bottom-up" therapy?
Your mind, heart, body, and spirit are profoundly and beautifully intertwined. Let's say someone has a deeply held, ingrained belief that he's "not good enough." This belief might show up in his mind in the form of thoughts like "I'm not as productive as I should be" or "all my friends are more successful than I am." The same belief might show up on his heart through emotions of shame, grief, or anxiety. It might show up in his body as a slouched, defeated posture or a sensation of heavy immobility upon waking up in the morning.
The natural next question is: where did this belief come from? If prompted, this man could probably recall some times when he was made to feel "not good enough." Maybe he has childhood memories of his parents scolding him for getting less than perfect grades, or memories of being teased by other kids on the playground. Now there is a ton of therapuetic value that can come from talking about these memories and his related thoughts and feelings, but it probably won't get to the entire root of the issue. In fact, I believe that these memories are only the tip of the iceberg.
Explicit and Implicit Memory
Quick neuroscience lesson! There are two overarching types of memory: explicit memory and implicit memory. Explicit memory is conscious and narrative, like a memory of being teased on the playground at school. Implicit memory is outside of conscious awareness, like a tendency to stand with a slouched posture even though you don't remember how or why you learned to stand that way.
The experiences, beliefs, and emotions that cause us the most pain and suffering are not just explicit but also implicit in nature. And our bodies hold implicit memory exceedingly well. A deeply ingrained belief like "I'm not good enough" doesn't just live on the surface of cognitive awareness, its roots go much deeper. It's something you can feel in your bones and in the pit of your stomach. I don't know a single yoga teacher who doesn't have countless stories of people spontaneously bursting into tears due a certain stretch causing an overwhelming emotional release. Even if you tell yourself over and over again "I am good enough!" in your best motivational speaker voice, that old belief is soon going to seep out again unless the deeper implicit belief is also addressed.
So how do we heal pain, limiting beliefs, and traumas that live in us implicitly? If the body holds our painful experiences so well, then the body is also a wonderful gateway for healing and transformation. In this way, your body is one of your best allies for healing and change. In order to fully heal, we need to listen to the stories that our bodies tell and ask our bodies what they need.
If you're interested in a deeper (and much more scientific) dive, I suggest the books:
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
The Body Remembers by Babette Rothschild
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine