Working with muscular tensions alone, without analyzing psychic defenses or evoking suppressed feeling, is not a therapeutic process. Body work, such as massage and yoga exercises, have a positive value but is not specifically therapeutic in itself” (Lowen, 1978).
While I mostly agree with Alexander Lowen, I disagree that yoga is not therapeutic. Therapeutic goals, while engaged in a hatha yoga practice, are achievable. This article traces Lowen’s work back to Reich, whose ideas originate from Freud’s psycho-sexual analytic approach. Reich separated from Freud not because he was in disagreement with Freud regarding the importance of sexual issues in dealing with the health of the organism, but because he chose to focus on the energetic aspect of sexuality in the body whereas Freud psychologized the body. Lowen further revised neo-Reichian theory to a model which he found more practical.
Our bodies are armored when there is muscular rigidity that limits emotional and sexual energy (a much broader interpretation of sexual energy is implied.) Body armor is expressed in posture, gesture, facial expression, and outward behaviors (Murphy, 1992). Layer upon layer of tensions exist within the body, each one representative of experiences that have shaped our “character structure” as described by Lowen (1958). While Lowen says that these are defenses of the ego, they are also “protectors”. When tensions of the character structure are no longer necessary and are surrendered, the body regains sense-ability and spontaneity.
Body armor has a strong effect upon respiration and, subsequently, on psychological states of mind. It has been determined that a persons mental state changes as their patterns of respiration change. This was demonstrated by the use of spirographic recordings (Christianson, 1972). Additionally, abdominal and thoracic muscular movements increase action potentials, which is the “voltage” activity of muscles to stimulate nerves (think nauli). The activity between muscular movement, respiration, action potentials and the nervous system are restricted by body armor.
The ability to control respiration varies between individuals. Many factors affect breath styles, such as gender-based cultural factors. There is no doubt that sexual tension inhibits breath, one of the premises of Reich’s hypothesis, resulting in a limited experience of pleasure and unitary consciousness.
Reich described an economy of energy in the body that could be charged and discharged. To “charge” is to build up the excitation within the body for the purpose of discharge. Therapeutic techniques are used to develop the breath in order to mobilize sensations in the body, thereby charging the body and, subsequently, softening muscular tensions that block expression of feelings.
It was Reich’s goal to fully discharge the excitation of the body and surrender to spontaneous and involuntary movements of the body in association with the respiratory process. This involuntary movement of pleasure he called the orgasm reflex and it has a spiritual aspect as well. (More recently, in 2010, I heard of this referred to as “the wave” in a yoga class and at the time a demonstration of spontaneous abdominal movements was given.) The complete discharge during the orgasm reflex is supposed to lead to unitary consciousness. Network Chiropractice, which I have also observed and experienced, is another method whereby the practitioner uses mental imagery and his own energy to act as a catalyst for the release of pranic energy in the client. When muscular tension releases, a wave like sensation is felt up and down the spine as the body moves involuntarily to produce its own structural realignment.
Lowen introduced the concept of “grounding” and developed many exercises for this effect. To be grounded means to be in touch with physical reality in order to experience release. This is also described as soulfulness (Lowen, 1978). Concentration on the feet and one’s contact with the earth is emphasized. To have one’s head in the clouds, full of abstract thinking, will not lead to a direct experience of physical reality, which is necessary for the orgasm reflex to occur. Grounding exercises are a key element of mind-body work.
Lowen called his practice Bioenergetics. Bioenergetics works through the pain that has become lodged in the body as armor. Body armor keeps the hurt going. This secondary hurt is potentially more damaging than the original pain. Lowen’s goal is to utilize the body to heal emotional wounds, because the “body determines what goes on in the mind.” As the heart is opened, health is restored to the body and the mind.
Character structure is the basis of posture, which became an important observation to both Reich and Lowen in determining where muscular tension was blocked. Posture reflects an individual’s ideology and is useful in gathering psychological and biological information about a person.
Bjorn Christiansen (1972) in Thus Speaks the Body states tentatively that genital drives and conflicts related to such drives are expressed in the tonicity of the legs. These conflicts can be warded off in ways which give rise to enduring postural patterns. Likewise, the posture of the arms reflects personality traits of assertiveness, dominance, submission, aggression, restraint, longing and contact seeking related to the heart. Lowen (1958) speculates in The Physical Dynamics of Character Structure that arms are for protection, not for support as they are in animals. The muscular armor develops when aggression is suppressed, which produces tension in both the shoulders and the pelvic area, stretching and contracting muscles in a rigid sheath of tightness.
Respiration affects posture (and vice versa) as demonstrated by inhibited respiration accompanying muscular tensions in the chest when armored, along with tension in the pelvic region. Different rates of respiration are associated with different emotional states such as excitement, fear, pleasure, and pain. Since the diaphragm is a muscle that is affected by posture, the ability to change posture to alleviate muscular tension will also change respiration patterns. The change of respiration pattern releases bands of tension in the jaw area, neck area, waist area, and hips.
YOGA and BODY ARMOR
Hatha yoga brings the emotional anatomy of the body to our cognition. Layer after layer of rigidity is worked through in yoga postures as the mind is taken deeper into awareness of the body. The postures teach us where the muscles are contracted and tight. Physical resistance and emotional fear are evoked in the poses, and in working with the breath along with concentration, muscles can be softened. The character of the personality expressed in the structure of the body is gradually surrendered to the free flow of energy and as sense-ability is regained.
The psychological aspects of yoga were described by Joel Kramer (Yoga Journal, May/June, 1980) “Psychological tensions live in the musculature: when you are uptight you are literally tightening the muscles and blocking energy. Through years of accumulated tensions, the body becomes a repository for the unconscious, in that it learns to close off different physical areas that affect emotional states.”
Yoga postures bring attention to closed off areas that are really just resistance to feelings. For example, opening the chest can lead to a feeling of expansiveness, but initially the pain of being emotionally protected has to be experienced. To relate it back to mind-body terminology, resistance is body armor. The goal of yoga is to soften the body armor with an attentive state of mind while in the postures.
As in mind-body psychology, respiration is the most important element of yoga, and breath practice is called pranayama. Regulated breathing is a psychological cleanser for the body and mind. I liken it to cleaning the inside of a bowl. The breath is used to release and dissolve tension, emotional hurt or physical pain. The breath is visually sent to the closed off area and allowed to expand it to release the contraction of the muscles. When the body follows the breath in a flowing yoga practice, the breath melts away resistance to a full body experience.
YOGA and CHARGE/DISCHARGE
Yoga postures increase the charge in the body, as do bioenergetic exercises, to produce “streaming” sensations of vibration. Forward bends and backward bends are described in Lowen’s Bioenergetics (1978) which are modified yoga postures. The streaming sensations are encouraged to allow the charge to build for the ultimate release of muscular tension, whereas a vinyasa practice will naturally charge the body with energy for the ultimate discharge in the corpse pose or svasana.
After bringing as many muscles as possible to conscious awareness, the body is relaxed in supine posture on the floor. On this point I would agree with Lowen that traditional yoga does not lead to the orgasm reflex as described by Reich. I think that is because it is the whole practice of vinyasa that includes the orgasm reflex as the spine moves forwards and backwards with the breath in an elongated wave-like fashion, for example, in the salutations when done in this fashion with the breath. In a vinyasa practice there is a sense that the movement through the postures is involuntary as the body follows the breath. Finally, during corpse pose a total surrender of the organism leads to bliss. Bliss is the non-psychoanalytical result of psychic discharge and possibly equivalent to the orgasm reflex described by Reich.
YOGA and GROUNDING
There is a direct correlation between hatha yoga and mind-body psychology on the subject of grounding. “The postures are a means of gaining steadiness of position and help to gain success in contemplation” according to Sinh (1982). Steadiness of position is gained only as a resulting of grounding, which is the basis of hatha yoga. Grounding allows gravity to support the body. The pleasant result of grounding is that consciousness expands and lifts the mind. Grounding includes becoming aware of the subtle muscles of hand, foot, and the deeper muscles of the torso that are not normally in full consciousness. The mind directs awareness in the body and brings muscles under conscious control. This is a key factor in bioenergetic theory and is also reflected in hatha yoga. Grounding is sensing your stability on earth, feeling supported and as such, safe.
YOGA and POSTURE
A body-mind therapist will use structure (posture) as a tool for the analysis of character. Traditionally, it has not been the practice in hatha yoga to attempt to understand the cause or emotional basis for structural imbalances. The fact that bodies misalign is something that is accepted. With practice and patience, consciousness will be brought to bear on agonist and antagonist muscles, and align the bones to bring them into proper relationship. I have noticed in my own practice that when a core emotional issue is understood, the body aligns itself. And, likewise, when I am made aware that the body is out of alignment, I focus awareness to ascertain the cause.
The purpose of asanas (postures) is to still the body-mind (Feuerstein, 1989). To be grounded and comfortable for long periods of time creates the necessary environment for meditation and concentration. Feuerstein states that the muscular tension of the body is distracting, and it is difficult to sense the mood altering effects of different postures upon the body-mind initially, but with practice an inner quietness is obtained for the purpose of working on consciousness directly. Later, hatha yoga was developed for therapeutic purposes but the stillness of body-mind is, nevertheless, emphasized.
Hatha yoga is similar to mind-body therapies in its ability to cultivate positive character structure. Many yoga practitioners are working towards the development of body positive consciousness. What I mean is the heroic feeling one can establish in the hero pose, or the courage one can acquire in the lion posture or even the inner qualities of any of the other 32 basic postures. Positive character development is experienced on physical, mental and emotional levels. These postures “are designed to regulate the life force in the body in order to balance, strengthen, and heal it…even the meditative postures are said to have therapeutic value, and in some instances rather exaggerated claims are made” (Feuerstein, 1989).
Expanded states of consciousness are a side-effect of a hatha yoga practice, especially when combined with meditation.
The breath and the postures used in hatha yoga serve to increase the body’s ability to handle greater degrees of charge/discharge for more enlightened states of mind. A contributing factor is the work yogis do with mudras (seals) and bandhas (locks). The bandhas are an energetic and physical lifting of the life force in the trunk of the body (Feuerstein, 1989). The mudras seal the energy from dispersion. These techniques increase the life force in the body and are generally considered secret. The irony is that they are not easy to master so they are a secret unto themselves!
In conclusion, the orgasm reflex described by Reich is the result of the release of muscular tension along with free and full respiration. The orgasm reflex is the full expression of pleasure within the body which, combined with yoga, contains the possibility of ecstatic consciousness. The orgasm reflex is experienced in the reflexive postures of a spontaneous vinyasa practice where poses flow gradually from one posture to the next in perfect ease. One does not have to pause in their practice in order to experience the “orgasm reflex” rather it is contained within the vinyasa as a gradual process that unfolds over time…but the release can be experienced in moments during the practice by using the two part shamanic inhale (upper respiratory) and the two part tantric exhale (diaphragm) while in poses. Beautiful.