A Body of Emotion - Massage and Biodynamic Psychology

In 1977 I was in my twenties, living in London, and searching for deeper meaning in my life. I had the great good fortune to meet an inspiring woman, Gerda Boyesen, and that meeting changed my life and opened me up to seeing the world and myself in a completely new and exciting way. Gerda Boyesen was Norwegian and had trained and worked in hospitals as a physiotherapist, she was deeply interested in psychology and the study of the mind-body connection. She met and subsequently trained with one of Dr.Wilhelm Reich’s students. Reich, a psychiatrist, had been a colleague of Freud, and he was one of the earliest pioneers of mind –body awareness and his observations on sexuality made him very controversial for decades and his muscle armour theories were radical at the time.

To Reich, healthy function meant a natural healthy, free-flowing connection to sexuality and a healthy, functioning body should ideally be relaxed and flexible. His observations however showed that this is not generally the case. Reich’s view was that trauma and conditioning are held within the physical body, impeding natural breathing flow and stiffening the muscles (armouring) and skeleton. The purpose of his approach was therefore to release both the psychological and physical inhibitions. Not only did he encourage emotional expression in his patients but he also created physical massage techniques to loosen up the ‘muscle armour’ thus freeing up the patient’s ‘character armour’ (defences) to loosen the vital energy and  allow freer flowing healthy function.  

As a physiotherapist, Gerda Boyesen was fascinated by Reich’s muscle armour theories as she realised that many of her patients were presenting with physical tensions which in her opinion were masking deeper emotional issues. She went a step further with her own innovative approaches to massage especially with her discovery of ‘psycho-peristalsis.’ She maintained that peristalsis in the digestive tract is noiseless, and the sounds that she heard whilst massaging clients are ‘energetic sounds’ corresponding to emotional release and rebalancing inner homeostasis.  She heard these sounds when there was release of residues of repressed emotion held in the particular muscles she was working on. The massage was freeing vital locked energy allowing emotional tensions to be released and traumas to be resolved at the somatic level. Being massaged in a particular way enables the body to self regulate and literally  digest emotional residues that were stuck in the tissues. From this perspective, this is why massage can be an emotional experience for many people and why they may experience a range of emotional effects.

According to Boyesen, these psycho-peristaltic sounds are elicited by emotional expression, movements and catharsis.  She also taught that they can also be deliberately elicited by massage. Working closely with Gerda in those years I learned that massage is a far more mysterious therapy than I had thought. I learned that the essence of touch is as much emotional and spiritual as physical, perhaps even more so. For the first 10 years that I worked with massage, I listened not only with my hands and eyes but also I listened very attentively with my ears. As I moved or rested my hands I listened to these mysterious peristaltic sounds with a stethoscope in my ears. I also listened attentively to the silences. Silence alerts one to the areas of the body where the energy movement is blocked by trauma. It is fascinating how the position of the hands on the body can track the energetic / emotional blockages of the client. The aim of such massage is to free up the sounds and thus release whatever is preventing the natural distribution of energy flow and to regulate, balance and harmonise the client’s energy. When this release and natural flow is re-established the client experiences a wonderful feeling of present independent well-being and often a deep connection to all that is. This process can never be forced, and it is a beautiful event to witness.

Massaging in this way requires great attention and focus, not only concentrating on the sounds but listening to the body with one’s hands, watching the breath with one’s open eyes and being present with one’s heart. The act of massaging becomes a mindful practice in itself, a meditative experience for both practitioner and client. Clients respond very positively to this mindful approach to massage because they feel that the treatment is one of undivided attention and intention from the therapist. This way of working is deeply connected, one works with the energy and literally flows with what is the present emotional reality of the client. Nothing is ever forced but all is mindfully witnessed and accepted in a non- judgemental way.

In my work with massage these days, I still work with my stethoscope from time to time but not always. What I do work with though is awareness. My days of listening to the peristaltic sounds finely tuned my consciousness and heightened my awareness to body responses. I am acutely aware of the way a body responds to touch, can read the slightest quiver of a muscle or the change of a breathing rhythm. For more than half of my life I have been working with massage… little did I know when I met Gerda Boyesen and then trained in Biodynamic psychology that massage would become such a big part of my life.

Since then, I have massaged and taught countless people with the intention of passing on the wisdom and gifts that I have received through Gerda and my meditation teachers. That is to stay present in the presence of simply what is and to trust that this will bring balance and independent well-being to students and clients alike and that we are all blessed in the flow of love. That is ultimately what it is about.

About the author: 

Judith Ashton was president of The Irish Massage Therapist Association many times, and was creator of The Blue Room Healing & Meditation Centre Bennetsbridge Co. Kilkenny for 15 years. She currently lives in Co. Kilkenny, where she is writing a book, loves her garden, sees clients and works on her mosaics.

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