What is Body Psychotherapy?
Psychologist and body psychotherapist Irina Solovyova talks to Nasha Psikhologia editor Vladislav Bozheday.
- Nasha Psikhologia as NP
- Irina Solovyova as IS
NASHA PSIKHOLOGIA: Irina, could you tell us what body psychotherapy is?
IRINA SOLOVYOVA: Well, first of all, it’s psychotherapy. Its goals and objectives are exactly the same as any other discipline. Look at it this way – you can drive to work, take the subway, walk or even go by scooter. The various approaches in psychotherapy are like “scooters” and the “subway,” but the goal is the same – to get to work. Clients come to us because they have a specific issue, something they want fixing, and we help them do just that. Body psychotherapy is not an end in itself, it is merely a means of resolving a given issue. We work with body to get in touch with the client’s inner world.
NP: There are a lot of misconceptions regarding this kind of therapy. Most people think that it’s about the psychotherapist touching you right away.
IS: These misconceptions stem from anxiety, as the body is something intimate and sacred. It isn’t easy to let a stranger touch you. And that’s exactly what a psychotherapist is when you first meet them – a stranger. Another misconception is that body psychotherapy is nothing more than a massage or other medical procedure, when the reality is that, while it may indeed involve touching (and massage may be a part of this), there are a number of techniques and approaches that do not imply bodily contact. In any case, we are always very careful when it comes to touching, obtaining the consent of the client and explaining why such an approach would be helpful. For example, breathwork allows the client to get in touch with his or her feelings, unlock their potential and become freer. Other methods we use include movement activities and static poses, as well as drawings – where the client can “draw” their pain, for example. Body awareness is another wonderful exercise that teaches clients to listen to, and get a greater sense of, their bodies. You can’t be fully present in the “now” if you’re not properly in touch with your body. Otherwise, you’ll perceive reality through the prism of illusion, just like in the Emerald City [from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – ed.], where everyone wore emerald glasses.
It is not possible to stay in the reality without feeling and sensing your body well. Otherwise the reality is seen through the prism of illusion, just like in the Emerald city (from “The Magic of Oz”) where all its citizens wore green-tinted glasses.
NP: So, what you’re saying is that body psychotherapy can be used to treat any kind of psychological issue, and it should not be strictly about the body?
IS: Exactly. The body is a means of working with a psychological problem, unlike medicine, where the body is the object of therapeutic and healing efforts. Body psychotherapists work with all kinds of clients (children, adolescents, adults and the elderly) to resolve a wide range of issues, including addiction, loss, crises or depression. We work with individuals, groups, couples – you name it.
NP: What other misconceptions are there about body psychotherapy other than “it’s about getting touched”?
IS: Bodily contact has been overly sexualized in our society, and for no real reason. The fact of the matter is that bodily contact, even between a man and a woman, does not always have to have a sexual connotation. Humans are very “tactile” creatures – we love to touch and be touched. We need that contact, to be hugged and caressed. You’re probably aware of the theory that there are “auditory,” “visual” and “kinaesthetic” people. These three modalities are actually present in equal measure within us, but we tend to work on our kinaesthetic side the least. Society encourages the visual modality more than any of the others. It’s like being in a museum – “look, but don’t touch!” – and we end up craving bodily contact. Some parents hardly ever hug their children!
NP: Can we ever satisfy this craving? How?
IS: Psychotherapy can help to partially satisfy this kinaesthetic craving, and so can everyday life. There’s no need to be afraid of human contact. It just has to be consensual – Can I give you a hug? Give me a hug! That kind of thing. There are certain social norms, of course, and you can’t just go around hugging everyone. Your pet fish can swim anywhere it likes, as long as it’s within the confines of its tank. It’s important to find a balance between what you “want” to do and what you “ought” to do, and each situation is different.
NP: Can you tell what psychological issues a person has just by looking at them?
IS: Yes and no. The body is an open yet difficult to decipher book. What helps us is our knowledge of body symbols or the so-called “problematic anatomy.” The knees are associated with a fear of being betrayed, while the hands are responsible for interacting with the outside world – more precisely, the right hand is responsible for contact with men and the left hand is responsible for contact with women, etc. These are archetypal symbols, which means that they are universal for everyone in any part of the world.
NP: There’s also cultural symbolism, right?
IS: Yes, and it’s a more superficial layer of the psyche, something that is true for a given culture only – a tribe that worships the Sun or the fly agaric mushroom, for example. Cultural symbolism is present in all societies, and it sets the limits for our corporeal selves, the social norms by which we live. How to greet a friend, how to greet our boss. What is the correct way to say “goodbye” or book a taxi? But even here we find individuality. For example, social convention dictates that we shake a person’s hand upon meeting them. But everyone has their own way of doing this, and we can glean a lot about a person’s character by the way they shake hands: aggressiveness, indecision, the desire to dominate. I heard a story once about a successful businessman who liked to pull the person he was greeting towards him slightly when he was shaking their hand. This is a clear indication that he wanted – how can I put this – “everything he got his hands on.” Unsurprisingly, he became a millionaire.
NP: What can a person’s physical ailments tell you about them?
IS: Of course, there are illnesses that are not caused by a person’s psychological state, and there is no need to complicate the matter here. Haemophilia is a genetic disorder, for example. Like this joke about Freud says, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” But so-called psychosomatic illnesses are indeed triggered by suppressed feelings. When we shut ourselves off from our feelings, this does not mean that they go away. Just like when you put something you don’t like away in the attic – it doesn’t go anywhere. It just sits there, collecting dust, which may very well start to get on your nerves. Our feelings start to meander around our bodies, and if they can’t find a way out, they develop into painful symptoms. So, what I’m saying is that physical ailments are rooted in feelings stemming from unresolved issues. For example, suppressed anger can lead to high blood pressure. Legs are associated with movement along one’s life path. If we make a wrong decision, we feel it in our legs, as if they don’t want to go in that direction. Meanwhile, feet represent our connection with our ancestors, our roots – the right foot represents paternal lineage, while the left foot represents maternal lineage.
NP: Does this mean that you can tell what a person has been through by looking at his or her body?
IS: Body memory goes back to before birth, effectively to the moment of conception. Everything that happens to us is remembered by the body and is imprinted upon it. Our bodies can tell more about us than our conscious selves possibly could or may care to tell.
NP: So, people with strong and healthy bodies are psychologically healthy, and vice versa?
IS: “Healthy body, healthy mind,” as they say. And the opposite is also true, of course. You were correct when you described such people as having “strong and healthy bodies.” We’re not talking about beauty pageant winners here, people who are just naturally beautiful. Natural beauty is when we are attracted to what is healthy and useful, while dangerous things push us away. The smell of food is enticing, rot disgusts us. We like the so-called “hourglass” figure because it is optimal for giving birth. It is the proportion that is the most important feature here, as some women look slimmer and other plumper. This is an archetypal beauty and harmony. Yet there are aesthetic canons that have been imposed upon us by society and are not natural. They are fleeting and belong to the zeitgeist during which they appeared. One tribe decides that elongated earlobes are physically attractive, while another chops them off entirely. This is fashion, not beauty, and it is temporary.
NP: Is this why a beautiful model may have an ugly soul, so to speak?
IS: Yes, because she is beautiful according to social norms. A once beautiful face may become less attractive if anger and envy occupy that person’s soul, leaving their mark on his or her physical features. We instinctively turn away from such people, associating their faces with danger. The image of the perfect female body today runs
directly counter to nature – slight hips, broad shoulders… Models have huge problems giving birth! And young girls strive to look like them. Modern society,
particularly in the West, has moved away from the traditional model of health and beauty and is now paying the price, with all kinds of health issues and problems conceiving and giving birth. So, on the one hand we have beauty as defined by social norms, while on the other hand we have natural beauty. And natural beauty is always healthy.
NP: How can we keep in tune with our natural beauty in the face of such strong, albeit latent, societal pressure?
IS: We should value the natural beauty that we all possess. Nature blesses us with different body types, and that’s OK. Some prefer a fuller figure, the so-called “pyknic type.” Of course, when a person gains too much weight, their body begins to lose its natural beauty. This is because obesity is unnatural and even harmful. Being overweight is the result of an unresolved psychological problem. Once a psychological balance is found, the body finds harmony as well. It is only when we can perceive our own beauty that we are able see it in others. Do you remember the Luc Besson film Angel-A, when the angel drags the hero in front of a mirror so that he can see himself, his true self? Once he learns to love and accept himself, he is able to smile at others.