Does Our Body Talk?

BreathWork Counseling – 
A short introduction to the complex and fascinating theme of “body mediation”

Written by Milena Screm, Counselor Supervisor and Manager of INSIGHT school

A key pillar for helping relationships is the quality of communication, both from the client and from the Counselor. This can often be the difference in achieving good results. It is up to the professional to try to make the roles clear. Good communication is needed in order to establish an empathic relationship based on mutual trust (an essential requirement for the relationship). This aspect is part of the professional’s responsibility. 
In all its complexity communication occurs on multiple levels and entails different languages. One is body language. In this area an integrated approach is quite unparalleled in its communicative clarity. It can certainly help to bring out defense mechanisms.
The field of “nonverbal communication” is large, rich, and complex. The body is just one area of possible exploration within this wide field. Physicality and its meta- languages, thoughts and words, is exactly what “body-mediated” Counseling models stand for.
Among the various possibilities for inquiry our body offers, conscious breathing (BreathWork) is a practical tool to ascertain whether what is expressed by words matches what is brought to light by the body. For example, during a session of breathing exercises, one can immediately point out easily detectable signs of mismatch between gesture and speech, such as postural features and physical blocks, followed by other levels of meta-communication, such as expressed or repressed emotionality, “presence”, proprioception, or one’s own perception, the quality of breathing (with its multiple nuances), etc.
The body, guided by breathing, communicates what “is”. The body does not know the principles of mind abstraction that can hide realities that are hard to face and manage. These are issues that, if unconscious and consequently unmanaged, may reduce the effectiveness of the efforts to achieve personal growth and awareness.
Breathing and Verbalizing can together act as a reference point for a gradual approach to an awareness of limitations and resistances that the individual may have. In fact, a conversation phase as an introduction to the breathing practice (always in the context of a helping relationship), can often bring out a tendency towards closure of “critical” issues that the client have difficulties facing. While often after the breathing exercises, people naturally recover a greater openness to themselves and to the world and can communicate verbally what they had previously avoided to pay attention to.
The “movement” brought about by the breathing (physiological or otherwise) usually succeeds in clearing inner difficulties that otherwise often even may be embittered by verbalizing alone. Even more importantly, the breathing only acts on the body and mind to bring awareness in a pace and way that the person is ready to handle any case.
Once upon a time… the body.
Until quite recently, the body was “left outside”, while mind and words played a prominent role. It was not many decades ago that a turning point came about. The body started to win greater consideration, and so did the world of sensations and emotions. Today, scientific researches and literature are full of treatises about this new model; every day, psycho-neuro-immunology and neurophysiology bring forth new ideas and discoveries in this field.
In the last quarter of the last century, a new conception of mind-body relationship has come into being. We no longer see it as separate human aspects, as the prevailing Cartesian approach did. On the contrary the growing consensus is that mind-body operates together, and that this unity is the very cornerstone of an individual’s psychical balance.
The journey from a negative view of physicality and emotions – to recognizing the valuable resources existing in the body self, has been long and still ongoing. It went through a century of prejudice against emotions. Until the beginning of the last century, Italian vocabularies used to advise against using the word itself…
First of all, we have to thank Chancellor Bismarck’s personal physician, Dr. G. Groddeck for this. He realized that the psyche and denied emotions are symbolically manifested by the body. After him, W. Reich, the rebel psychoanalyst, with his model of “character” also put emphasis on the body; as well as a student of Reich A. Lowen, (bioenergetics), M. Brown (organismic therapy), and J. Liss (biosystems). Thanks to their work and thoughts (as well as many other) researchers and psychotherapists, body and feeling have gradually found their true, “rightful” place in the evaluation of resources available to every human being throughout their different life phases.
In the discussion of mind-body-emotions relationships, we need to bring in another key perspective: the systemic vision. In connection with physicality and psychic forces, systemic is an adjective describing an approach that includes a vision of things and events as regards how they are related and the context in which they occur. The systemic approach focuses on events, processes, and changes. It includes multiple perspectives with focus on interrelationship, interactivity, and mutuality. Based on these assumptions, what happens or is made to happen (for example, by practicing a particular technique) in the body necessarily produces reflex effects on other levels of consciousness, and vice versa.
On that basis, in this time of rise and growth (in Italy) of “the art of helping others and ourselves”, Body-mediated counseling has a significant place. It is a specific skill that requires an integration of the Rogersian model with other approaches to self-awareness development. The Italian picture is rich in this regard. There is no single model of Body-mediated counseling. It is therefore hard to define a common language or a single reference theory. The common denominator is the acknowledgment of mind-body unity whereas there can be a multitude of methodological approaches through which these resources can be explored, developed, and integrated.
We can outline some further general features of how body-mediated counseling distinguishes itself from other types of counseling. In addition to a verbal relationship between counselor and client it is supported by knowledge of the body as a means to lead to the (re-)discovering of one’s resources. The basic attitude for the professional is not to limit themselves to just observing mind aspects or to listen to the client’s words. Rather, it is a matter of developing attention and “good listening” at more than one level, or even at “multiple levels” i.e. body-mind-emotions. As in conventional counseling, empathy is clearly a key here.
Knowledge of body language and emotional dynamics, as well as communication, are essential skills. But the field of “nonverbal communication” is large, rich, and complex. The body is just one area of possible exploration in this wide field.
For professional skills, training of this kind of Counseling requires much practical experience, as well as theoretical knowledge. In fact, we believe a) that comprehension is a different learning process from understanding, and implies different outcomes, and b) that learning leads to changes only if it involves the person as a whole, body and mind, cognitive and emotional level. In order to train Counselors and clients it is essential to take up the challenge, to be active and experiment in a practical and direct way, albeit in a safe way with protected settings. In other words this is a training approach based on knowing, knowing how to do, knowing how to be, with personal development and professional training side by side.

Keywords; counselling, personal development, body language, emotional dynamics, breathwork

© Milena Screm 2014

About the author:
Supervisor Counselor & BreathWorker
Founder and president INSIGHT School of BreathWork Counseling – Milan (Italy)
Author of fourteen books in psychology, published in Italy, France and Spain, among which we denote: “BreathWork” (1998), “Autogenic Training” (1989,2012), “Rebirthing & Water” (1994), “The history of Rebirthing” ( 1992 ), “Rebirthing, breathe for renewal”, the first book published in Italy on rebirthing (1989, 1993, 2011)