Listening to the Body
by Ruth Jacobson, Ph.D.
The growing field of somatic psychotherapy recognizes what many Eastern spiritual traditions have taught for hundreds of years: our emotions and our bodies are very connected.
Given the deep and inextricable connection between emotions and the physical body, applying traditional systems of wisdom from the East which understand and work with this connection to the practice of psychotherapy makes good sense. Many of the principles and practices of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy (PRYT), a mind-body-spirit modality founded by Michael Lee, M.A. in the late 1980’s based on the ancient practice of yoga, can both inform and deepen traditional talk therapy. As psychotherapists, we can learn to listen deeply to the body and to the wisdom it contains to support personal growth while honoring the physical boundaries inherent in the psychotherapist-client relationship.
PRYT offers the opportunity for people to connect deeply with their inner experience, release layers of physical and emotional tension/holding, and find (experientially rather than theoretically) the beauty and strength that resides within. The work, based on the client-centered approach of Carl Rogers, is oriented towards trusting the innate capacities and motivations for healing and transformation that exist within all of us; it is the role of the practitioner to support that process. The power of this work is in the engagement of the body as well as the mind. “Undigested experiences are held in the body even after the mind has understood them. Some emotional release can come from the mind alone, but my experience is that the deeper levels of holding are more readily accessed through the truths held within the body. The presence of the practitioner is also a key to the power of PRYT; often clients can go deeper when their experience is “held” by the clear loving presence of another.
Learning the principles and techniques associated with PRYT has had a profound impact on the way I practice psychotherapy. Most importantly, I listen more deeply and with greater respect. I have learned the subtle ways my own “stuff” can get in the way of clients’ work, and have learned what it means to be present to another without agenda.
The Phoenix Rising training helped me learn to work more skillfully with people with varying capacities to “be with” experience in their bodies. My increased understanding about this varying capacity has translated into a very general clinical diagnostic tool. A client’s degree of access to feelings in his/her body and ability to stay present to body experiences tells me much about the direction and pace of work in therapy. Clients who have more ability to connect to and work with experience in the physical body are more inclined to working directly with traumatic experiences held in the body, including the associated feelings and memories.
Becoming a witness to feelings without over-identfying with them, i.e., without believing the stories they contain, can be profoundly liberating. It offers, perhaps for the first time in a client’s experience, the spaciousness to allow experience to be as it is, without judging or fixing, which paves the way for new, non-habitual responses to emerge. Being with feelings as body experiences essentially builds “emotional muscle,” — people who consistently practice this kind of “training” find themselves able to do things (such as remain calm, think and speak clearly in a situation that normally would have evoked reactive disappearance or combativeness)that were previously not within the realm of possibility.
Janet, a client with a history of both neglect and sexual abuse, questioned how she could ever learn to “hold herself” when she had never been held. We worked on this for years with traditional talk therapy methods. In one session I did the Phoenix Rising integration process with her. Janet’s face and body softened, and gentle tears began to flow. It seemed that something important was happening, and I intuitively left many minutes of silence. When she opened her eyes, Janet reported, “I was being held.” Since that initial experience, Janet has returned to this inner felt sense of being held to help support herself through many life challenges that were associated with previously unbearable feelings and memories.
Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy is a unique approach to working with body, mind and, emotions that has proved to have many rich applications to my practice of psychotherapy. One woman participant in a Level 1 training program commented, “MY body has a novel in it.” Phoenix Rising processes provide tools to help each of us open our own books, to decipher the messages encoded in the text, and to live from the wisdom gleaned from what we have read. As psychotherapists, the principles and tools of this modality can support healing and transformation in both ourselves and in those with whom we work.
Ruth Jacobson, Ph.D.
Ruth is a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in North Carolina. She is also a yoga teacher, group and workshop leader, and Phoenix Rising practitioner and faculty member.