Body Psychotherapy for the 21st Century

Book Review

Nick Totton
2020, Confer Publications

Dr Toyin Okitikpi

Body Psychotherapy for the 21st Century is a slim volume and, although it is relatively easy to navigate its pages, the main aim of the book is quite bold. Firstly the publication is an attempt to provide a lucid explanation of the nature and essence of body psychotherapy and its place within the growing subsets, or sub-modalities, under the umbrella of Psychotherapy. Indeed a quick glance of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy’s (UKCP) website reveals that there are about 29 different psychotherapy methods and approaches available from which people can choose. While some appear to be mere variations of a particular approach, with a different emphasis here and there, others offer a more distinct off-branch with a different perspective and techniques from the main strand. However, it is important to acknowledge that there are distinctions to be drawn between body psychotherapy, body-oriented psychotherapy and dance movement psychotherapy. Although they all have the body as their frame of reference, their orientation and underpinning motif, as it were, is quite different. Secondly the book discusses the increasing influence and impact of neuroscience, cognitive studies and phenomenology on body psychotherapy, as these disciplines come to realise that they have been ‘working in the same territory’. The author, who is steeped in the world of body psychotherapy and is clearly passionate about its relevance and importance in transforming lives and promoting a well-integrated self, asserts that body psychotherapy effectively aims to resolve the Cartesian duality and the separation of the body and mind. As far as I can tell the aim is not to displace Rene Descartes’ cognito-ergo-sum, but rather to reinforce the doctrine by making the argument that our subjective experiences does not exist in a cerebral vacuum, but is in fact encased in a body, a being.

In the introduction, as well as setting out the parameters of the four chapters, Totton asserts that the ‘job of body psychotherapy is one of supporting clients in recognising and re-evaluating the conscious and unconscious embodied choices that they made, and opening up new opportunities for relating to the world, to themselves, and to others’. The plea, if there is one, is to move away from seeing psychotherapy as only consisting of 'mots' that are locked in 'langue'. In other words, it should not be seen as a mere talking experience, a univocal approach, if you will, for dealing with the intra-psychic and inter-psychic experiences and the wounds and pains that lies within. This is one of those books that expects the reader to read sequentially, starting from the introduction page to the final chapter. It could be read out of sequence, but to do so would be to miss the logical and well-presented argument of the book. For example, in the introduction the author sets out what he identifies as the four core models for body psychotherapy; the Adjustment model, the Trauma/Discharge model, the Process model and the Relational model. These four models are offered as a way of understanding both the differences and similarities of schools of body psychotherapy. While chapter one sets out a clear and easily accessible history, chapter two explores current thinking and influences as well as the fight for recognition and legitimacy and chapter three focuses on laying out, including giving practical examples of what a body psychotherapy session actually entails.

The concluding chapter, chapter four, is an open and honest examination of the ‘problems, debates, controversies [and] futures of body psychotherapy’. Refreshingly, the chapter does not shy away from exposing contradictions, differences of opinion and approaches, as well as body psychotherapy's link to the counter-culture. Totton’s premise, which is not dissimilar to the assertions of Amanda Light and Tina Johnson in relation to dance movement psychotherapy, is that to just focus on language and medications in therapy is to miss the crucial role that the body-mind-spirit plays in the healing process. The body 'talks' (my term), but it is the role of the skilled body psychotherapist to observe, understand, interpret, work with, acknowledge and deconstruct what they see before them, as well as what is presented and said to them by the client.

This book is fascinating, accessible without being simplistic, challenging without being over complicated. True newcomers to body psychotherapy may find that the publication is strewn with unfamiliar terms and there are references to pinching, pressing, hyperventilation, modalities, bioenergy, prana, orgone, radix, holotropic, vitality affect, skying, centring, armouring, but all these terms and concepts are fully discussed and thoughtfully explored. In this publication the author opines that ‘For body psychotherapists, contact is an essential prerequisite of the work……’ Of course ‘holding’, ‘contact’ and ‘touch’ in this case refer to both the actual and metaphoric sense of the terms.  Although, in the climate of #MeToo, of the hyper-sexualisation of the body, and the demand for and importance of creating safe spaces, I could not help but wonder how these tensions might be reconciled. There is also a lingering question of who, in sessions where there is physicality and contact and where touch could potentially be an important catalyst to unlocking or unblocking trauma, would mediate the encounter in the closed confines of the therapy room. However, despite these questions, the book is a way into ideas and approaches that attempts to integrate the body and the mind (spirit) without valorising one over the other. It posits that as humans we not only experience the world with our minds, mediated through our modes of communication, but the body is an integral part of the whole. I really enjoyed reading this book, though I found myself at times incredulous at some of the approaches. It encouraged me to seek more information, evidence that the author managed to get me fully engaged. I would recommend this book not only to people involved in the world of therapy, for example students, practitioners and clients, but also lay readers looking to expand their knowledge and understanding of psychotherapy in general and body psychotherapy in particular.

Dr Toyin Okitikpi was Principal Lecturer and Head of Social Work at London South Bank University. Having started in residential care he qualified as a generic social worker and worked in the field for many years before moving into social work education as senior lecturer at Brunel University. He now works with tribunals involving adjudication and arbitration services but he continues to have an interest in social work education, specifically practice related theories; refugee and asylum seeking children and their families; social integration and cohesion and working with children of mixed parentage.
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