There is an abundance of information available that discusses The Hakomi Method of Mindfulness-Centered Somatic Psychotherapy in great detail (it was called The Hakomi Method of Experiential Psychotherapy when I studied it in 2004-2006). What I will write about here is how it changed my professional practices and how it affected me on a personal level. In order to do that, I do need to give just a hint of an overview of the method. From the Hakomi Institute website:
Hakomi helps people change “core material.” Core material is composed of memories, images, beliefs, neural patterns and deeply held emotional dispositions. It shapes the styles, habits, behaviors, perceptions and attitudes that define us as individuals…
…The heart of the Method works with the client’s present, felt experience, as it is presented spontaneously, or deliberately and gently evoked by having them experiment with habitual tension or movement patterns known as “indicators.” These emotional/cognitive patterns automatically keep deeper experience out of present awareness.
As an example, part of the “core material” of my 72-year old client who was having unexplained chronic shoulder pain came from the trauma he’d suffered when he fell off his horse when he was thirteen and broke his shoulder bones. This manifested through the memory, the emotions, and retaining the posture of holding his shoulder as though he were in pain. Working with this man in his “present, felt experience, as it presented spontaneously” began when he began to show signs of tension in his entire body as I started to release the tension in his shoulder. The deep seated pattern of moving away from the pain and the memories showed up as he began to tense his back, legs and hands. It was gentle, and would have been unperceivable except that tension flows through the body and I could feel it beneath my hands as they were gently moving the tissues of his shoulder. Think of a wave gently washing up on the beach in its own ebb and flow, and then suddenly there is a wall there and the waves hit it and go no further. That’s what the rhythms of the body feel like when they are moving freely and then when there is tension or pain. The feeling of how the waves roll back after hitting the wall tells me how much tension, pain or resistance there is.
In Hakomi psychotherapy, the therapist might use words or even suggest the client gently move in a certain way to have them “experiment with habitual tension or movement patterns”. In my bodywork, I feel the “indicators” (tension, changes in breathing, relaxing of the tissues) responding in my hands, and so I use subtle changes in pressure or direction to evoke the client’s experience in the present moment. It is necessary to be completely aware of reactions and know when to keep on, change pressure and/or direction, or maintain the “still point” and wait for the client’s body to give permission to proceed. Having studied various forms of bodywork and movement therapy and following my own intuition, I had known to do this. What Hakomi added was the knowledge of how to phrase words of encouragement for the client to open to the process in the moment. Hakomi was also a very good source for understanding the various ways in which people approach life according to the experiences that they have had. In learning the “character strategies” and ways to address each of them, I increased my ability to connect with my clients verbally in ways that they would be able to understand best. The mindfulness that I had always brought to my bodywork blended very well with the mindfulness that Hakomi teaches for psychotherapy. Hakomi gave me the pieces that I had been missing to be able to fully address the emotional releases that occurred as I worked with my clients on a physical level. The knowledge I gained became ingrained in my bodywork practice, which I ultimately branded The Riley School of Integrated Somatic Bodywork ©.
The two years that I spent studying the Hakomi Method were also years of changes in my personal life. After Kyle turned 18, we decided to move to Boulder. After we got settled in Boulder in January of 2005, we traveled to New York for a friend’s wedding and took the opportunity to spend some time in Ithaca with my father. A few weeks after that, I took Kyle to Scotland for two weeks. Returning to Boulder, it was nice to finish out the Hakomi course as a “local” and be able to spend time with my classmates both socially and in study groups.
On a very personal level, those two years gave me a very deep experience of somatic bodywork and psychotherapy. When the course began, we were all instructed to keep ourselves in the moment of the class work and not to allow ourselves to go too deeply into our own needs. We were to stay with the process of learning, not fall in to taking care of and processing our own psychological needs. While there was an inconsistency in how this was handled, and many class hours were spent focused upon one person who was having some form of emotional release, I stayed true to the original instruction of staying out of my own process. At times it was difficult. The learning process would take me to the edge of my emotions as I played “the client” in practice sessions, and yet I was never able to fully process the feelings because the real objective was to give someone else a chance to practice being a therapist. Class time did not allow for real therapy to take place, regardless of those who grabbed the time for themselves with the instructors while the rest of us could only watch. I remember writing notes in my class binder every so often about how I was left with one emotion or another and had to deal with it on my own. Over time, this began to take a physiological toll on me. The constant touching upon the feelings of my childhood but not fully processing them began to show itself with symptoms that had me convinced that I had, like my mother, contracted Multiple Sclerosis.
From about the midpoint of the series of classes, I began to have bouts of neuropathy and slowly became weaker so that by the time I received my certificate in the summer of 2006, I was nearly walking with a cane. I received a full physical workup, including an MRI. There was absolutely no sign of MS. I was fortunate to have a neuro-surgeon who knew that I understood the mind-body component of medicine and understood it herself. She sat me down, showed me the images of my brain, and told me flat out that I was having a somatic reaction to something. At that point, the healing began because I knew what I needed to do.
My body had reacted to two years of invitations to become mindful of where it was in relation to where I had been. I have often said to clients that if we do not pay attention to the subtle ways our bodies try to inform us of what it needs in order to heal, the messages will get stronger until we pay attention. This flies in the face of “no pain, no gain”. I think what’s meant there is “no effort, no gain” for we do need to push ourselves to become better in our bodies. But pain is a signal that the body is in trouble and we need to stop doing what we are doing and either do it differently, or not so strongly. A little twinge of pain ignored can grow to a serious injury. In the same regard, perhaps I should have been one of the students who made demands upon the class to wait and witness while I received help for what I was going through, because the signs were there that I needed it. I kept on though, and the signals that my body sent to me became stronger and stronger until I had no choice but to pay attention.
I called upon one of the Teachers’ Assistants from my Hakomi class with whom I had formed a bond and asked her to do therapy with me. I knew that one of the teachers of a manual therapy that I had studied a few years before lived in Boulder, and so I called her and asked her to treat me. For the next three months, I saw both of them, usually on the same day. In a couple of weeks, I was out of pain, and in a couple of months I was feeling physically strong and well. At the end of the three months, I had a very clear sense of what had triggered the episode and had dealt with the issues on a somatic level. It hadn’t made a lot of difference that I had done a lot of talk therapy over the years. The pain, the emotions the “core material” was still in my bodymind, and the fact that I could sit and talk calmly about the traumas of my childhood did nothing to heal the wounds that were lodged in my cellular structure. During the last session with my Hakomi therapist, she asked me if I had any thoughts as to why this had showed up as MS-like symptoms. The answer came easily to me: it was what my mother had had, and what caused her death. It seemed reasonable that my body would mimic the symptoms of the one who had perpetrated so many traumas in my life.
It is not only that deeply-embedded traumas can show up as physical manifestations; acute, or recent, injuries can trigger character strategies (see above) that can be addressed as well. Another person that I worked with had a knee injury from skiing and was slated for surgery. I offered to see what I could do to relieve his pain in the meantime. Knowing that he had a very self reliant way of being in the world, even the way in which I offered to help was given in a way to suit his temperament. In order to give him plenty of emotional space to consider the offer, I merely stated that I felt that I could help and that I was available should he decide that he would like to take me up on my offer. After a bit of time, when he felt ready, he did accept my working on his knee. He was silent throughout the session even though his body rhythms told me that he was processing very deeply. In this case the scope was to address the physical injury, but I still needed to pay attention to the emotional reactions in order to gain access. Being self-reliant, he would never tell me if the work was getting too intense, and so I had to be even more mindful and vigilant of any changes in his body rhythms.
When I work, there is a dialog that takes places between my hands and the person’s body that some bodywork therapies call “unwinding”. I feel it more as that wavelike motion that shows me where the blocked places are. Whether they are based in the physical or the emotional, the blocked places will always manifest in the place that is the bodymind. Coming from the still point of pressure that is only enough to connect with the tissues and not interfere with how they are in the moment, I can then sense the rhythms in the body. As long as I am mindful of the present experience that is being reflected in to my hands, without judging it or assuming that I know what’s going on, I can then send little messages to the body through subtle movement of my fingers. This may be to go with the rhythm of the tissues, to gently move against it, or to maintain the still point. All of them give me the feedback that I need from the body to be able to assess what to do next. In Hakomi therapy, this is referred to as doing a little experiment, or “probe” in order to shift the awareness of the client. In Hakomi, it is done mostly with words, sometimes with a suggestion to move the body in a certain way; in my work I do it non-verbally, yet a great amount of dialogue takes place directly with the body.
There are times when words are very effective in the healing of the physical. This was the case with my 72-year old client who found his healing through telling the story and understanding the emotional impact of his injury from so many years before. With the knee injury, that person needed to completely process on his own and so words were not needed. Whatever happened for him emotionally was completely internal. My focus was the physical injury and being completely present as a silent witness to his process. The end result was that he didn’t need to have the surgery; that’s what mattered.
Another woman came to see me with a shoulder injury from falling off a bicycle a couple weeks beforehand. In her case, words were very important. As I worked on her, it was obvious that she was holding back from saying something. Every time the pain started to subside, she would tense up and tighten her jaw, and then the pain in her shoulder would increase again as the tension moved down from her jaw back in to her shoulder. I reminded her of the sacred space that we had around us, and suggested that she go ahead and say whatever she was thinking and trying so hard not to say out loud. She held back yet again, and I softly said that this might be a good time to say what she was feeling. With a full and exacerbated exhalation, she started crying and said, “I just feel so stupid! I’m and adult and I fell of a bicycle! How stupid!”
“Wow, that’s a huge feeling for you, I can see that. Who told you that you were stupid?” I asked.
From that point, the real healing began. She released a lot of emotion about the way she had been brought up, the constant cloud of “you’re not good enough; you’re stupid” that surrounded her from her father’s way of being with her. I kept working while she talked and the tissues in her shoulder became completely relaxed. By the time she walked out of the room she had a lot of pain and emotion off her shoulders.
Having had such a profound personal experience with something that could have easily been mistaken for a physiological malady and therefore masked with medications gave me an awareness to look beyond what is presented as the reason for seeking bodywork. Oftentimes the symptoms are completely physical and require the awareness of how best to release the ways in which the body is holding the pain. Oftentimes the physical symptoms are a response to something that is emotional and require the awareness of how best to support the client through the discovery of the root cause. Studying Hakomi gave me the tools to be able to better assess the difference and give the best support in both cases.