” The soul feels unsafe in a frightened body. The Bodywork is to breath courage into the frightened body, to feel pleasure in its own edges again. It is a way of preparing the body to be a home for the soul again”
(Mehdi Darvish Yahya, with thanks to Caffyn Jesse)
The first time I came across trauma in a visceral way was about thirty years ago. I was a young lawyer. A client had just been telling me about appalling abuse she had suffered as a child, and suddenly became very upset. I reflexively put my hand on her hand to comfort her, and it was as if I’d given her an electric shock. I immediately withdrew my hand, unsure what to do.
When the body has experienced something which makes it feel radically unsafe, two responses to touch are common: startle and freeze.
It seemed obvious to me when I started out in this work that, in Bodywork, the key to untangling the trauma was to re-empower the body, to give it agency again. So, I would agree with the client exactly what we were going to do, maintain constant dialogue, tell the client what I was going to do before I did it, (and then, not to do it without specific consent), be very aware if the client was going to zone out, and so on.
I don’t think that working in this way is wrong, but I think it’s incomplete, because it places insufficient weight on relationship and active autonomy: the client doesn’t just need to reduce the grip of historically based fear, they need to actualise their capacity for active relationship and joy. There’s a difference between the body feeling safe and the body feeling pleasure, joy and connection. The first is necessary for the second, but not sufficient. I think I thought that if the body is free from fear, it will find its own way to joy, but I now think that isn’t necessarily so.
To this end, I’ve been working in a much more flexible, client-led, experimental way, enabling the client to decide when there’s contact and when there isn’t, and the form which that contact will take.
For example, the client might want to embrace, but feel anxious about what sort of touch they will receive. A way round this is to allow the client to lead the touch, and for the practitioner simply to mirror that, at first in the physical movements and then, as confidence builds, in the intent which informs the touch. The client is always in control, and can decide when they’ve had enough.
One client said to me that I was a surrogate. She didn’t mean that I was a sexual surrogate – I don’t have sex with clients or engage in sexual acts with them – but rather, in one of my modes of working, I use my body and my intent for the benefit of the client. So, where a client’s body has been traumatised in an experience where they had no power, perhaps involving a man, that trauma can be gradually unravelled by an empowered and autonomous connection with me, and then the body, because it’s safe, can gradually feel pleasure and connection.