Body Reading: The lecture of the body in body-oriented therapy

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by Dirk Marivoet, MSc, PT, PMT, ECP, CCEP


Body Reading is based on the concept that structure is frozen function. What this means is that a person’s physical structure is a reflection of his psycho-biological history and his current psycho-biological functioning. Think of a physical structure molded by the experiences of life. That is a continuous process, in which the body structure evolves with the experiences in interaction with the physical and social worlds that intervene. Body structure can be seen as a frozen conversation or dialogue between conflicting parts of the self. The conversation was frozen because one part had gained the upper hand, and a balance disturbed in the direction of fragility or or a burdened. What was once an active struggle between individual and environment, and then between parts of the self, became institutionalized in physical behavior and structure (Kepner, 1987). Parts of the body that are used and nurtured will grow to their genetic limits. These parts that are not practiced and nurtured will not fully develop, or may atrophy, become sick, or even completely cease to function. The principle that applies here can be described as, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Behind the abuse, or the non-use of parts of the body, are organismic decisions that were made in response to “parental messages” (in the broad sense “culture-normative messages”). When these messages are “toxic” and injected, the result is non-use or abuse of parts of the body. Part of the body will be dead, armored, out of use to some degree, or it will be used in ways that are not natural and positive to life. Other parts are at risk of damage from physical trauma.

So what we can see in a person’s physical structure is the current point of evolution of the interaction of a genetic basis and the indulgence of a “body script.” This body script consists of all permissions and prohibitions regarding the life of the body-mind (use, non-use, abuse). If a therapist now looks at his client’s body, s/he can “note” certain present observable phenomena. S/he can see the body structure, and possibly generate hypotheses about the psychobiological dynamics behind the observed phenomena. The client also gets the opportunity to feel their own body and are supported to come into dialogue with the bodily phenomena, the inner polarities and opposites and what life has “imprinted” in their body. A therapeutic goal is to resolve the conflicts and to allow all aspects of the self to exist and function as necessary parts of the entire organism. The wearing of clothes, by their very nature, tends to hide the bodily phenomena. Therefore, body reading becomes easier if the client wears as little clothing as possible. The more skin that is covered, and the more the clothing attracts attention (due to color, printing patterns, etc.), the more difficult it is to estimate the actual condition of the body. Of course, the therapist should take into account and respect the limits of the client. Together we look for what is feasible.

Body reading can be useful in the beginning of a body-oriented therapy. First, it gives an impression of the physical, energetic, and emotional body to both the therapist and the client. Together, the client and therapist can distil themes and work points for the therapy session. Second, it is a means of evaluating therapeutic change. It is evident that before starting a body reading, one first explains the theory and its intention to the client. The next logical question seems to me to be: “When we look at the body together with the client, what are we looking for?” This question brings us to the different styles of body reading that exist. We can distinguish between styles of body reading that use a typology, and these that work without a typology.

Body reading without a typology

Body reading without a typology involves, at the most basic level, a phenomenological look at the client’s body. This means looking carefully at the client and naively seeing what appears. By naive I mean without evaluations or interpretations of what is seen. Eg. The knees are locked, the left shoulder is higher than the right, the legs are relatively thicker than the trunk, etc. First, the phenomena of the body are seen. Then one can, for example, experience these phenomena even better by exaggerating them, or exploring an opposite pole for them. Some therapists (of more analytical streak) may also transition to the level of interpretation to interpret the meaning of these phenomena, i.e. formulate a hypothesis about elements in the client’s history and current dynamics. As a skill in phenomenological perception, a therapist can also rely on empathy and imitation with one’s own body of the perceived posture or body structure. One can then feel what it should be like to stand or move in such a position.
In some cases where imitation is not possible, one can imagine a “virtual” idea of ​​what it should be like, for example, to have relatively thick legs versus a lean torso. These methods could be called “empathic body simulation” and “fantasized empathic body simulation”, respectively.
Another method of phenomenological body reading is the use of “intuitive metaphors”, in which the body or part of the body is translated into a metaphor, for example an animal, plant or other metaphor. “A big bull”, “a stone wall”, “a thick oak tree”. This translation is done intuitively, not through an analytical process or a deliberate search for a metaphor.
Still another way is to look at a number of dimensions that can be meaningful in the body phenomena (Keleman, 1979), so-called “somatic descriptive parameters”. For example, one could look at the degree of excitement or “death” in any part of the body. Likewise, one can look at expansion versus contraction, boundedness versus unboundedness, tight or loose, active or passive, soft or hard, charged versus discharged, slow versus fast, relationship to gravity, patterns of posture and movement, tendency to think, feel and focus action on organization or disorganization. etc. One can also look for the presence of asymmetries. The therapist looks at parts of the body that don’t seem to belong together. These cleavages in the body have been recognized and interpreted by several authors such as Ken Dychtwald (1978). He identifies five major splits: left-right, top-bottom, front-back, head-body, torso-limbs.

Body reading without a typology
A second way is body reading with a typology. A typology is a system of classification based on certain characteristics. In body reading, the presence of certain combinations of structural features can define body types. To the extent that there are psychobiological characteristics that correspond to body types, body reading can reveal organismic syndromes. The early work of relating physical characteristics and behavior to each other was to compile dictionaries of folk beliefs regarding these relationships. Examples of this approach are found in Lavater (1804) and Gall and Spurzheim in 1809. The next step was to observe more closely and see whether indeed such relationships exist between physical characteristics and behavior. Such early empirical work and further cataloging was done by Rostan (1824), Viola (1909), Sigaud (1914), Naccarati (1921) and Kretschmer (1921). For centuries, constitutional views have been the precursors to the existence of academic psychology.

Constitution types

With regard to their constitution, there are notable differences between people. Traditionally, efforts have been made to reduce these differences to variations of some basic constitutional types. Numerous typologies have been drawn up throughout history.

  • HIPPOKRATES. Hippocrates was one of the first in the Western tradition to deal with constitution. He suggested a typology of the physical, a temperament typology and a conception of moods (“humors” – body fluids) that is consistent with current thinking in connection with the role of endocrine secretions in human behavior. Hippocrates’ body typology consists of 2 types: the short and fat versus the long and thin. The first type was destined to have apoplexy (a stroke) (Habitus apoplecticus). The second (long and thin) was destined to get TB (Habitus phthisicus). In terms of temperament, Hippocrates suggested 4 basic types. Each type is dominated by 1 of the 4 body fluids. The 2 extreme types are the “choleric” and the “melanchole“. In between are the 2 moderate types, namely the “Sanguinic” and the “Phlegmatic”. These types correspond to a predominance of yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegma respectively. Hippokrates also linked these types to the four elements and to the four seasons. Galenus based his classification on (excess of one of) “body juices”. Galen’s classification has been the most influential for centuries. A renewed interest in this typology was noted in the 19th century. Many systems have been set up. For example, Rostan divided into four types: the digestive, the muscular, the respirative and the cerebral. The classification criterion here is the relationship size of the organ systems. Sigaud describes two important reactions to the environment: dilatation (hyposensitivity), retraction (hypersensitivity). He describes three types: le dilaté (content de soi), le rétracté (mélancolique), le gras (indifférent). Viola based on the relationship between trunk and limbs, and thus came to 3 types: macrosplanchnic, normosplanchnic and microsplanchnic, characterized resp. by highly developed trunk and relatively small limbs, by normal, harmonic proportions and by a small trunk and long limbs (Gr., splanchna, viscera). Sheldon, has compiled an impressive table showing 29 authors who have all built their systems more or less on two or three main types.

KRETSCHMER (1925) The movement towards greater precision and objectivity in body typing continued with the work of the German psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer. His method was to make the subject stand naked before the observer who then filled in a long checklist with descriptive phrases for each of the main body parts. This was a very systematic and time consuming procedure. A complex analysis of these ratings and objective measurements led to three basic types.

The asthenic: frail, linear appearance, tall stature, narrow, flat chest, long limbs, thin neck, little chin, pointed nose.

The athletic: muscular and powerful, vital, well-proportioned, type of sportsman or sportswoman.

The pycnian: plump, stocky shape, thick torso, gracial limbs, short neck, heavy head.

– + The dysplastic: unusual body structures, weird, surprising, ugly

Kretschmer talks about three temperaments: syntone, schizoid and ictaffin. In a study of 260 psychotic patients, Kretschmer concludes that there is a clear biological affinity between the pycnic type and manic-depressive psychosis and between the asthenic, athletic and certain dysplastic types and schizophrenia. Kretschmer saw psychotic and normal on a continuum, and spoke of these dimensions as follows: (normal) schizothym – schizoid – schizophrenia, and (normal) cyclothym – cycloid – manic-depressive. Continuing this view of a continuum from normal to psychotic, Kretschmer believed that there is a relationship between body type and behavior in normal persons. Subsequent investigations have cast serious doubts on the link he put forward between physique and psychological habit.

  • SHELDON. The person who brought this line of theory and research to a high level was William Sheldon. His constitutional psychology is complex and extensive. In Sheldon’s view, there is a “morphogenotype” or hypothetical biological structure that is below the “phenotype” or observable physical. The morphogenotype plays a role in both determining the physical structure and influencing behavior. Measuring the phenotype provides an indirect estimate of the morphogenotype. These measurements identify a “somatotype“. A careful analysis of 4000 photos revealed three primary components of the physical: endomorphism, mesomorphism and ectomorphism. Each body then represents a combination of the degree of each component. Sheldon has suggested several secondary features of the physical that allow for a more complete description: dysplasia (borrowed from Kretschmer), gynandromorphism and textural aspect. Sheldon also deduced primary components of temperament: viscerotony, somatotony and cerebrotony. Significant research by Sheldon and his colleagues has shown that there is a strong relationship between primary components of physical (structure) and primary components of temperament (function). Sheldon’s findings appear to be consistent with the three neurotic solutions that Karen Horney (1945) saw in people who felt helpless and isolated, namely, “a move towards the people”, “a move away from the people” and ” a movement against the people ‘. For some typologies, which are based only on a psychological basis, and therefore cover only one aspect of the constitution types, we refer to Heymans and Jung.
  • THE REICHIAN TRADITION. Although not widely known, even among clinicians, the system that has enjoyed the greatest public is that proposed by Alexander LOWEN (in collaboration with John Pierrakos) (1971, 1975). This system is based on the work of Wilhelm REICH and is an extension of the observations made by Reich (1949) about the patterns of body armor, which are found in different character types. Because it is a clinical / diagnostic tool rather than a precise laboratory tool, the Reich / Lowen system of character reading of the body is not based on body measurements. In this regard, it differs from Sheldon’s somatotyping. Unlike Sheldon’s theory of somatotypes, the Reich / Lowen theory of character is not based on genetic determinism. On the other hand, character is seen as developing from the past life experiences. The associated body structure is a reflection of how the body has been used, not used or misused as part of these experiences. A character structure can be described as a coherent whole of views, physical characteristics, behavioral patterns and feelings, which is the answer of each individual to his living conditions. It is the result of surviving those circumstances. A character structure can therefore be understood as both a defense of the inner self against its living conditions, as well as an expression of the inner self in the process of life and survival. (Van Praag, 1979). Reich and Lowen differ slightly in their approach to Body Reading. In the Reichian approach, the emphasis is on discovering the “core” armor and thereby making a decision about the patient’s character style. Lowen, on the other hand, tends to observe the overall body structure and from there discover the character style.

To begin with, I want to look at the Reichian approach as beautifully explained by Elsworth BAKER (1967). Character development, according to him, depends on the degree of fixation at the different erogenous levels. On the somatic plane, character development depends on the degree of armor in each of the erogenous zones. Baker (1967) speaks of 4 major erogenous zones, each representing a developmental stage. The zones are the eyes, the mouth, the anus, and the genitals, with the developmental stages ocular, oral, anal, phallic, and genital (the phallic stage is actually an early or incomplete stage of genitality). Symptoms “characteristic” for these levels are present when there is an energy block in an erogenous zone. Most people have a pronounced blockage in one of the erogenous levels of development, with less blockage in another level or levels. This means that muscular armor is greatest in one separate erogenous zone, with a lesser degree of armor in other erogenous zones in most people. Usually there is also armor in other parts of the body (non-erogenous zones), but as Baker (1967, p. 113) puts it, “it is only the armor in the erogenous zones that determine the character type”. The armor in the erogenous zones that determine the character type ”. The armor in the non-erogenous zones creates the individual differences within a character type.

In normal development, each stage takes its turn as the primary focus of energy, and after the person has progressed to the next stage, the earlier zones remain important in the experience of pleasure. If, on the other hand, the person is traumatized at some stage, blockage or armor will occur in that erogenous zone. This stop in development prevents the attainment of genitals and therefore prevents access to full genital energy processing. The accumulation of energy on a pre-genital erogenous zone produces clinical symptoms. Baker (1967) goes on to say that emotional trauma at any stage can have two possible outcomes: 1) repression; or 2) persistent dissatisfaction. With repression, the person never develops pleasant functioning at this stage, never learns to enjoy using this erogenous zone. In the case of dissatisfaction, the unsatisfactory, the person is insatiable, always trying to obtain the known satisfaction. In repression there is more complete armor than there is in the case of persistent unsatisfaction. In the latter case, striving is felt, but the armor prevents sufficient expression from bringing to full satisfaction. The result is an almost constant urge to express.

By means of recognizing the locus of the heaviest armor, one can identify the ocular, oral, anal, phallic, and genital characters. In addition to looking at and feeling the armor, the patient can also be asked about symptoms which can then lead to a convergence of evidence for armor. Where do people have pain, discomfort, illness and dysfunction? When such phenomena involve the erogenous zones, they provide evidence for the character type. Starting from this scheme of 5 basic character types, Baker (1967) develops several specific syndromes in each of these. These syndromes, some of which correspond to traditional diagnostic categories, are based on the patterning of armor in erogenous and non-erogenous zones secondary to the primary armor of an erogenous zone defining the basic character type. For more information, see Man in the Trap (Baker, 1967).

Character types Suppressed and unsatisfied

Character type (Developmental Stage)Primary ArmoringSuppressed formUnsatisfied form
OcularOcular segment (“doesn’t see”)ConfusionVoyeurism
0ralOral segmentDepressionOverindulgence
AnalPelvic segment (especially back)ControlSubmission
PhallischPelvic segment (especially front)RighteousnessDon Juanism
GenitalPelvic segmentEscape or freezeInsane behavior

Now let’s take a look at Lowen, and see how he further developed Reich’s character reading (with accompanying body reading) from the body. Lowen (1971, 1974, 1975) has done much to both systematize and expand the theory of character. And with this, he defined character types in terms of visible physical structure. In 1958 Lowen wrote about the following character types: the oral, masochistic, hysterical, phallic-narcissistic, passive-feminine, schizophrenic, and schizoid. By 1974 he had further systematized the study of character by defining 5 major character types and their relationships. A “character” is a hypothetical syndrome. Nobody is a pure character type, but rather every person has elements of the different types. What we are looking for is which character type is dominant and which other type or types are secondary in someone’s dynamics. The five character types are listed in a developmental order in their etiology. The earliest type is the schizoid, then the oral, the psychopathic, the masochist, and then the rigid types. The character that is developed depends on the stage of development at which the child is traumatized. If the trauma occurs relatively early, then the person will have difficulties developing through the subsequent stages. Therefore, the character types are in descending order of complexity, because part of a type is always added to a type, the earlier the initial trauma. So, if one goes higher in the developmental sequence of character types, there is a greater variety in the syndrome, because more personality differentiation has taken place prior to the trauma. By the time the rigid types are reached, a sexual differentiation has been achieved, so that the rigid types in male forms (phallic-narcissistic and compulsive) and a female form (hysterical) decompose.

Note: Kurtz and Prestera (1976), in their book ‘The body reveals’, attempt to change Lowen and Reich’s psychiatric terminology into more understandable terms such as the needy, the burdened and the conceited type. Other authors have less difficulty with the loaded terminology, because they assume that people are not types, but each is unique in itself, and therefore cannot be summed up in a term even if it sounds negative to some. Nice is the way in which they depict a number of silhouettes in a simplified way, so that they can think more concretely about these types, and they also get a kind of coat rack in the body reading.

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Dirk Marivoet is Internationaal Opleider in Postural Integration®, Energetic Integration® en Pelvic-Heart Integration®, methodes van Bodymind Integration. Lid van VVPMT, EABP, EAP, BVP-ABP, ICPIT. Hij is tevens opgeleid in Psychomotorische Therapie (KUL) en Reichiaans Therapeut opgeleid in Core-Energetics