What is Bioenergetics? – The Work of Alexander Lowen
What is Bioenergetics?
Bioenergetics is defined as a therapeutic technique focusing on getting in touch with the body and reaching a satisfying degree of ‘life of the body’. According to this approach, core functions of the body are breathing, feeling, expression and motility. Any physical, emotional or intellectual blockings of these functions are examined (Lowen, 1994).
According to Alexander Lowen, pyschotherapist, a strong body-mind connection is needed to have a healthy life and this is only possible if the person releases the chronic tension. This release is necessary for freeing people from inner flow blockages and expression of feelings (Lowen, 2005).
Bioenergetic Analysis is the bioenergetic therapy. With this approach, people go through a self-discovery journey through their bodies (Lowen, Lowen, & Skalecki, 2012). All techniques are aimed to help a person become aware of their limiting breathing and movement patterns and blocked expressive actions. The person learns about the flow of inner excitation and how it can be blocked because of childhood experiences (Lowen, Lowen, & Skalecki, 2012). Therefore, we can say that bioenergetics studies personality in regards to energy and its process in the body.
History of Bioenergetics
In the 30s, William Reich’s work led the way for body-oriented psychology. He focused on muscular tension and how it indicates emotions that were repressed (Lowen, 1994). Reich established pressure techniques to release these emotions which were stored in what he called ‘body armour’. Based on his ideas, many new branches of body psychology flourished, one of them being Bioenergetics by Lowen. Lowen worked with Reich for years before establishing his own theory in the 50s (Lowen, 1994).
Core principles of Bioenergetics
The core principles of Bioenergetics include vibration and motility, and grounding and breathing (Bioenergetic Analysis, n.d.)
Conscious breathing is important in Bioenergetics. According to Lowen, unlike babies and animals, adults can’t breathe correctly in a natural way because of chronic muscular tensions. Conscious breathing is a tool to help adults gain healthy breathing patterns (Lowen, Lowen, & Skalecki, 2012).
Grounding is the connection between feet and the ground. With grounding, the energy flows from the body to the ground. Thus people are able to let go, release, get close to earth where their center of gravity lowers into the pelvis and self centered in the lower part of the abdomen (Lowen, Lowen, & Skalecki, 2012). Grounding establishes a sense of safety. With grounding, a person can get in touch with the lower part of their body which is associated with instinctive functions like sexuality and defecation (Grounding, n.d.). Keeping the knees flexed and bending them when you carry an object is advised for grounding (Grounding, n.d.).
According to Bioenergetics, vibration is the essence of aliveness. State of vibration, motility and spontaneous activity in the body which is caused by inner excitement only diminishes in death (Lowen, Lowen, & Skalecki, 2012). Losing motility before death is pathological according to Lowen. Decreasing of vibration means the energetic charge is reduced and Bioenergetic practices aim to help with that. The clients go through a continuous vibrating state thus increasing the tolerance for excitation. For this to occur, first the ego has to be secured and the person needs to surrender to the involuntary responses of their bodies (Vibration and Motility, n.d.). As a result, people feel a sense of integration, a co-ordination which is characterised as the natural grace (Lowen, Lowen, & Skalecki, 2012).
Bioenergetics and Characterology
According to the bioenergetics approach, there are five types of basic character structures built upon a system of defenses which can manifest in the form of chronic muscle tension and various psychological, physical patterns: Psychopathic, Masochistic, Rigid, Schizoid and Oral (Lowen, 1994).
- Psychopathic: Psychopathic characteristic is mainly defined by the denial of feelings which is incompatible with the ego’s function of reaching pleasure (Lowen, 1994). Psychopathic characteristics have desires to dominate and they strive for power. There are two types of Psychopathic structures: the first one is people who gain power by bullying. They are characterised with disproportionately large upper bodies. The other one is the people who gain power by seducing. The seductive type has a regular look. Even though they have dissimilar looks, both experience blockage in the flow between the upper and lower parts of the body (Lowen, 1994).
-Masochistic: this character is defined by submissiveness even though complaining about the situations. They submit on the outside but they experience spiteful and superior feelings inside. They hold these feelings back with a muscle restrain. They are energetically charged but this is held very tightly which leads them to have decreased expressive action. Muscular body is characterised as thick and short in masochistic characters (Lowen, 1994).
-Rigid: Rigid characters stand stiffly with a straight backbone. The pride within this posture implies defensiveness. Rigid characters don’t like losing control or letting go and they use their ground in reality as a defense mechanism. The main chronic muscle tension is in the long muscles. Rigid characters are commonly ambitious and aggressive (Lowen, 1994).
-Schizoid: Schizoid characters separate thoughts from feelings. ‘Schizoid’ describes someone who has a weak ego and is disconnected from the body. They avoid intimate relationships. Their energy is held from peripheral structures like the face and hands. This means that the energy in the core is blocked and can’t reach the organs with a function of outside connection. The inner flow is stuck in the core area. Their bodies are narrow and their faces are ‘masklike’. (Lowen, 1994)
-Oral: Oral characteristics experience deprivation feelings. They are defined with the characteristics of the oral period which is the infancy. They mute hostile feelings, tend to cling, need connection and most importantly they lack independence. They have a tendency for mood swings and feelings of emptiness. According to bioenergetic characterology orals are under-charged and their energy flow is weak. Their bodies are characterised as long and thin (Lowen, 1994).
Bioenergetics and Breathwork
Bioenergetics techniques and concepts are used in different treatment strategies based on mind-body connection. For example, Holotropic Breathwork by Grof involves releasing the muscular tensions of bioenergetic blocks in the body by using breathing techniques, bodywork and music (Grof & Grof 2010).
Studies about Bioenergetics
Studies in Bioenergetics started with case reports and vignettes. These studies concluded that Bioenergetic therapy was effective in psychological problems like social or emotional stress adjustment, chronic severe depression, somatic disturbances and eating disorders (Eckberg, 1999; Mahr, 2001; Ventling, 2002; Ventling, 2004 as cited in Ventling, Phil, Bertschi, & Gerhard, 2007). However, for generalisable results, quantitative data is required.
The first large-scale study was conducted by Gudat (as cited in Ventling, Phil, Bertschi, & Gerhard, 2007) with 309 patients. Gudat found that Bioenergetic therapy helped patients with neurotic and psychosomatic problems however it was less effective in patients with personality disorders.
In a study in 2006 (Nickel et al.), Bioenergetics were used to help with somatization, depression, anxiety and hostility in subjects with chronic somatoform disorders.
The bioenergetic approach has received criticism. For example, the techniques of Bioenergetics requires physical connection. Therapeutic touch is a tool that requires cautious limits and a well-established approach as it can cause some unintended harm to some (Phillips, 2002), so trained professionals are required to perform this work. Also, even though some body of research exists, the field still needs scientific research on efficacy and effectiveness studies, especially larger-scale studies.
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