A Field Guide to Body Work

A couple of years ago, I was attending a conference in Berkeley and a friend pointed out a man in the crowd. “I wonder who he is,” – she said. “Boy, does he look healthy.” It turned out to be Ken Dychtwald.

Ken first began investigating the relationship between the body and the mind while constructing biofeedback instruments as an undergraduate electrical engineering student. Not long after that, he visited the Esalen institute in Big Sur as a participant in a body work seminar. As part of the course, the group leader made a careful examination of his body and then, without asking him a single question, went on to tell him about his relationship with his mother and father, described his attitudes toward life, love, relationships, movement, change, and performance, and outlined his major personality strengths and weaknesses.

“Everything he said, every observation he made, was entirely correct,” Ken remembers. “I was amazed. How did he do it? How could he possibly know so much about my feelings and experiences by looking at my body? I’d revealed none of my personal life to him.

”There was only one possible explanation—somehow my body was presenting him with information that he was noticing and reading back to me. This simple, yet profound, experience convinced me that I was going to have to put some serious effort into studying the relationship between the body and the mind.”

Ken spent the next ten years in an intense study of body work. These explorations have included the study of yoga, t’ai chi, bioenergetics, acupuncture, physical fitness, and massage. He also obtained a Ph.D. in psychology and, combining all these interests, he wrote the book Bodymind. Many of the concepts explored in our conversation are expanded further in his book.

Ken has served as the co-director of SAGE, a program aimed at helping older people find ways to lead healthful, fulfilled lives. He is now president of the National Association for Humanistic Gerontology and an advisory editor of Medical Self-Care Magazine.

TF: How did you happen to leave college to study at the Esalen Institute?

KD: By the end of my junior year, that was 1970, I’d read every book on awareness, growth, and body work I could find. The authors of many of the best books turned out to be at Esalen. It was clear to me that something new was going on out there that wasn’t happening on my campus. I decided to go right to the source. It was probably the smartest thing I ever did. I spent six months at Esalen, taking dozens of workshops—yoga workshops, encounter workshops, massage workshops, sensitivity workshops, t’ai chi workshops.

You were also saying that Maslow’s book, Toward a Psychology of Being, was a very, important one for you around that time.

Yes. It’s a great book. It provided the whole context within which I was starting to think. It talks about life as being a continuum, with sickness and problems on one end and creativity and vitality, aliveness and brilliance on the other. Maslow suggests that we should experience ourselves as including that whole continuum. We are both the problems and the brilliance. He talks about a kind of growth in which we come to accept both. He calls this kind of acceptance “actualization.” I would recommend that book to anyone interested in body work or personal growth.

Another important book was Will Schutz’s Joy. It spoke of honesty and sensitivity and authenticity. It was a very revolutionary book when it came out in 1967. Since then these ideas have been widely accepted in education and religion and psychology.

Fritz Perls’ books, too Gestalt Therapy Verbatim and In and Out of the Garbage Pail. I really liked his notion of seeing yourself as a whole variety of sometimes disharmonious parts in relation to each other. And working with the separate parts to achieve a more integrated state.

What were the main ideas that the work at Esalen was based on?

I thought of them as realizations. One of the main ones was self-responsibility. I realized that I was responsible for myself to a much, much larger extent than I’d ever imagined. It soon became very clear that I was making choices in the way I breathed and the way I got sick and the way I perceived other people. I learned that I had many more alternatives than I had realized. I began to discover a much greater degree of freedom in my life than anyone had ever led me to believe.

Somehow, up to then, I’d picked up the belief that I wasn’t really empowered in my own right. That I needed to depend on my parents and my teachers and other kinds of “experts.” It was an amazing realization to discover that I was really at the root of my own life. It was pretty shattering, too, because I had to assume responsibility for a lot of situations I’d been blaming on other people and on institutions. On the other hand, I suddenly felt immensely powerful, almost godlike. I realized that if I chose to work on it, I could run a marathon, raise my IQ, learn to control my heartbeat—to do all kinds of things I’d never let myself believe I might be able to do.

What were some other realizations?

Another significant one was seeing the ways in which the mind and body were so intimately involved—like dancing partners. The mind really wasn’t separate from the body. Thinking and feeling and perceiving didn’t take place in some little box behind the eyes, as I’d always believed. My mind was present in every cell in my body. That was why the group leader in that early body work group had been able to read out my whole character. It was all there! I got so I could tell a great deal about a person by seeing them stand or sit or walk.

I learned that stress and emotional tension can become focused in a specific part of the body, and that if this happens over a long period of time it will permanently shape the person’s posture so that every movement will express that pattern. And the parts of the body in which emotions are trapped will be the parts most likely to develop malfunctions. For example, if a person needs to cry, but won’t let himself, he may stop the crying by clinching his jaw. If the jaw is held tightly, over a long period, chronic tension is likely to develop in the tempero-mandibular joint or grinding of the teeth or headaches. Or unexpressed anger, trapped in the abdomen, can lead to a wide variety of disorders.

So illness can come from unexpressed emotions.

Yes, and the opposite is also true. If a person in creative or unusually vital or energetic, it’s not just a matter of genetics or blind luck, it’s a result of choices—conscious or unconscious—that he or she is making every day.

So, the body isn’t just a static object, but a constantly-changing, pliable organism.

Yes. We are constantly in process. Our bodies are constantly being shaped by the choices we do—or don’t—make. We can passively let things go on as they are, or we can choose to make changes. I can notice that certain joints are tight and do yoga to loosen them up. If I’m feeling tense and scattered, I can meditate and actually change the kinds of brain waves I’m generating. If I’m having difficulty in personal relationships, I can get feedback from friends on my personal style of relating to people and try some new alternatives. I create myself with the choices I make every day.

So that’s what you started doing at Esalen.

Yes. I started noticing what kinds of choices made me feel good and what choices made me feel unwell. Later, when I started working as a therapist, I tried to help other people learn how to make similar kinds of choices, to design their own lives healthfully. I found that there was a real hunger for tools and skills of physical and psychological self-care.

Why do you think we are seeing this sudden interest in self-responsibility?

I think that a lot of us, whether we’re psychologists or housewives or shoe salesmen, are discovering that we’re not as healthy and fulfilled as we had dreams of being. A lot of people are discovering that giving all your faith and power to your doctor isn’t going to make you any healthier. The feeling that “I don’t know anything about my health and I don’t want to know,” which has been the predominant attitude in this culture, is really changing. People are realizing that an authoritarian medical system in which patients give over all their power to the doctors and function as though they’re deaf, dumb, and blind just isn’t meeting their needs. People are ready to take back a good deal of that power. People want to take care of themselves. And I think that the various kinds of body work are a big part of that.

What are the main approaches to body work?

One useful way of getting your bearings in the field of body work is to group kinds of body work by the general approach. Let me outline ten general kinds of self-care skills in the field of body work:

    1. developing muscular strength and tone;

    2. developing aerobic fitness;

    3. developing flexibility:

    4. developing relaxation skills;

    5. developing breathing skills;

    6. developing neuromuscular coordination;

    7. using massage to develop sensory awareness and to fulfill our need to be touched;

    8. working on emotions through the body;

    9. using the mind to influence the body;

    10. using the body to center the mind.
    Of course, there’s a great deal of overlap among these ten general approaches.

Developing muscular strength—would that be something like weight lifting?

Yes. That’s one specific way. Pushups, swimming, tennis, basketball, housework, walking, running—any activity that uses the muscles. Anything that makes us really exert ourselves. Muscles that aren’t used get flabby and lose their tone. In addition, it’s important to remember that all the muscles in the body need to be developed in a balanced way. So activities that use a broad range of muscles are the best.

I’d like to ask you, as you go along, to suggest some of the best books for each of the ten approaches.

Sure. For developing muscular strength, the best overall- book is The East-West Exercise Book, by David Smith. General approach number two is developing aerobic fitness, building up the heart as a muscle. It’s a very valuable addition to an exercise program to get a stethoscope and just spend some time listening to your heart. And, of course, monitoring your pulse is an important part of such a program.

In developing an aerobics program, it’s important to remember that you need to perform a vigorous activity such as running, swimming, rowing, or rope jumping—wherein your body is exerting itself to 75 percent of its maximum pulse rate for at least fifteen minutes at least three times a week.

Two other excellent books on improving the health of your heart are Type A Behavior and Your Heart and The American Way of Life Need Not Be Dangerous to Your Health. The best book on aerobics exercise programs is The Aerobics Way, by Kenneth Cooper.

The third category on your list was developing flexibility.

This is where activities like yoga come in. Hatha yoga is a system of postures and exercises designed to gently stretch and tone all the muscles of the body. Yoga works to systematically lengthen, vitalize, and integrate the muscles of the body and to improve circulation and glandular nervous system function. It not only makes you more flexible, but it serves as a means of centering meditation as well.

Four beginning yoga books that many people have found helpful are Richard Hittelman’s Guide to Yoga, The Light of Yoga Society’s Beginner’s Manual, Jess Steam’s Yoga, Youth, and Reincarnation, and Swami Vishnu Devananda’s The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. A good introduction for older people is provided in Easy Does It Yoga for People Over 60. My favorite introduction to the philosophies behind doing yoga is Joel Kramer’s The Passionate Mind. And the very best advanced book on yoga is the classic by B. K. S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (revised edition).

You also list relaxation skills as an approach to body work.

Few people are really good at voluntarily relaxing their bodies. As the stress of modern life increases, it becomes essential that we learn relaxation skills and take the time to practice them regularly. One of the pioneers in relaxation training was Edmund Jacobson. His system is called progressive relaxation. It’s described in his book You Must Relax!—I’ve always thought that was a pretty funny title. Another system of relaxation training is autogenics. It’s well described in Norman Shealy’s book 90 Days to Self-Health. There’s also a good cassette tape, Autogenic Training, by Vera Fryling, and a good anthology of approaches to relaxation is John White and James Fadiman’s Relax. My favorite book on preventing stress is Ken Pelletier’s Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer.

Another approach you cite is developing breathing skills.

Paying attention to breathing is one of the most underrated approaches to body work. The air we breathe gives us life, yet most of us use only 20 to 30 percent of our lung capacity. We’ve used deep breathing exercises with older people at SAGE, and we’ve found that when people begin to breathe more deeply, their bodies and minds become revitalized. They become more alert and alive. Depression and anxiety often fall away.

Breathing exercises can also help you relax. Working on breathing can be a way to get more deeply in touch with feelings, too. People who are tense and depressed tend to breathe shallowly. A person in a relaxed, joyful state will automatically breathe more deeply.

The best practical book on breathing skills I know of is Breathe Away Your Tension, by Bruno Geba.

Describe what you mean by neuromuscular coordination as an approach to body work.

As we grow up, we learn to walk and to move in certain ways, and then, in early adulthood, our neuromuscular development diminishes and, unless we become dancers or acrobats, we fall into a few familiar patterns of moving our bodies. Many kinds of exercises, like running, involve the repetition of a limited range of movements and therefore leave much to be desired in the way of developing our full neuromuscular capacities. These approaches either encourage us to perform common, everyday movements in new ways or to move in some totally new ways. Improvisational dance and Feldenkrais exercises are two good examples of such approaches.

You can make up your own ways of doing new things with your body, too, like cleaning the house or washing the dishes with your other hand. Or learning to write with your nondominant hand. Or your toes. Or blindfolding yourself and exploring the world using only your other senses. Anything that takes you out of your normal patterns of muscular or sensory activity can be considered valid body work.

These approaches try to get your mind out of a rut. For examples, runners can experiment with adding play, movement, and dance to their regular run. Try running at varying speeds or sideways. Or backward. Of course, there are other sports, like basketball, that require constant improvisation. Aikido, a noncombat form of the martial arts, requires constant improvisation. It’s a good example of high-level training in neuromuscular sophistication. So is playing a musical instrument.

What are some good books in this area?

Two books by Moishe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement and The Case of Norah, and Mabel Ellsworth Todd’s The Thinking Body. A good book on dance is Sweigard’s Human Movement Potential.

Approach number seven is massage.

In massage, one person uses his or her hands to touch and manipulate the body of another. There are many types of massage. Ideally, massage will accomplish several major goals.

Receiving a massage is an excellent way to become comfortable being touched by another person. This sounds pretty elementary, but for many of us, being touched in a nonsexual, caring fashion is not a usual part of our daily lives.

Light massage can facilitate relaxation and stimulate the sensory nervous system. Deeper massage can actually release the tension in our muscles. All kinds of massage can increase circulation and glandular functioning and promote a greater sense of well-being and aliveness.

The best overall how-to-get started book on massage is George Downing’s The Massage Book. Another book that does a nice job of summarizing the importance of being touched for our development and well-being is Ashley Montagu’s Touching.

The eighth approach is working on emotions through the body.

Emotions live in the body, and if they’re not allowed to express themselves, they may become lodged in the body as tension. Many of these approaches make uses of expressive activities in order to relieve the body of stress, frustration, and unresolved feelings. For example, instead of just stretching, you might stretch and scream or yell or make faces. Or you might hit a pillow or kick the floor to release tension. Or you might have a pretend fight with someone using Doffers kind of big, well-padded bat.

In some approaches, like bioenergetics, a therapist manipulates different areas while you focus on the memories and feelings that come up as the tension in the various parts of the body is released.

Nearly all the emotion-focused kinds of body work have grown out of the work of Wilhelm Reich. Rolling, Reichian energetics, Postural Integration, Radix, neoReichian therapies, bioenergetics, gestalt therapy, sensory awareness—these are some examples of body work methods that deal with feelings. Reich’s big contribution was the idea that when emotions lodge in the body, they can distort the body’s structure and impair its function. He then found that it was possible for these emotions to be released, leaving the individual not only feeling better but less susceptible to illness.

Would you recommend any books by Reich himself?

Probably not to start with. Reading Reich is like reading the Torah. There are some good books about Reich, though. Boadella’s book, Wilhelm Reich, The Evolution of His Work, is the best biography. Man in the Trap, by Elsworth Baker, is the best book on his clinical practice, and Bioenergetics, by Alexander Lowen, is a good introduction to Reichian thought. Then, and only then, for a general introduction to Reich’s own writings, I’d suggest The Selected Writings of Wilhelm Reich.

How about number nine, using the mind to influence the body?

In recent years there’s been a growing appreciation for the ways in which the mind can influence the functioning of the body. While most mind-body relationships take place outside of our conscious awareness, we can learn to train our minds to influence our bodies in positive, healing ways.

If you close your eyes and imagine that you’re getting beaten up, your mind will generate one kind of body state. If you imagine that you’re making love, it’ll generate another.

If I asked you to imagine that you’re lying on a warm, sunny beach on a quiet tropical island, your body would probably become more relaxed. Obviously, by choosing certain kinds of visualizations and following certain kinds of suggestions, you can put your body into various states. Some of these states can be useful for relaxing or for healing. Some techniques that make use of this approach are biofeedback, autogenics, selfhypnosis, and visualization.

A good book on visualization is Samuels and Samuels’ Seeing With the Mind’s Eye. Some others on influencing the body through the mind are Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer, by Ken Pelletier, and The Mind /Body Effect, by Herbert Benson.

That brings us to the last category using the body to center the mind.

In these approaches, the idea is to focus the body in such a way so that the mind becomes quiet and clear. Just as stress and unwellness in the body can generate confusion in the mind, stillness in the body can help to produce a deep state of peace of mind.

Probably the most well-known of these approaches is meditation in its various forms. These approaches involve sitting in an alert stillness in order to develop a very centered, transpersonal aspect of the mind. Some of the approaches to mental centering are phrased in religious language. Others are strictly secular. Yogis and meditators have been practicing these kinds of disciplines for years, but contemporary science has only become aware of them recently.

Herbert Benson’s The Relaxation Response is a good overview of meditative approaches. Probably the best how-to-do-it books are Lawrence LeShan’s How to Meditate and Ken Pelletier’s Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer (again). A favorite is Chogyam Trungpa’s Meditation in Action.

Body work covers a big area!

It certainly does. For some people, body work means yoga. For others, dance. For others, sports or massage. The best thing for you may be to sit quietly in a peaceful place for a long time. For me it may be yelling and laughing and hitting pillows.

The fact that there’s no “right way” has made my work in this field very exciting. Instead of some set of rules to follow, there’s a real freedom to explore. There are many, many ways for us to develop our bodies and our minds. All the books I’ve mentioned are ultimately talking about the same thing—each of us has our own unique path to happiness and fulfillment.

Connection error. Connection fail between instagram and your server. Please try again
Written by Tom Ferguson MD

Explore Wellness in 2021