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Reading and Misreading the Body

by Allan Rudolf(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 25 - February 1998

Therapists, whether they focus on the physical mental or spiritual can only be readily certain about the physical aspects of their clients; the body never lies. If a client has tension in various parts of their body the therapist can see and palpate the tension. When it comes to mental and spiritual matters the therapist must play detective and try to ferret out information and often it is with less than one hundred percent certainty; we don't have a direct connection to the mind and spirit of clients.

It comes as no great surprise that any therapist worth his salt tries to learn as much as possible from the state of his client's physical body even, and maybe especially so, if the therapist is not involved in any sort of physical therapy. This leads to the concept of body-reading. My main practice is Rolfing and from the moment my client comes to my door I'm reading their bodies. In fact, when I had a practice in New York City, it was on the eighth floor (in the USA it was called the ninth floor) and I was able, with the aid of binoculars, to observe my clients from the distance while they were unaware and not self-conscious.

There are many forms and styles of body-reading and it would take a whole book to even briefly describe the various approaches.

However, we can divide body-reading into two broad categories and it is these two categories I want to discuss. I will also go into some detail regarding a particular model of body-reading that I find elegant, simple and -- most important -- extremely useful.

One approach to reading the body is to establish a mapping between the physical state (the known) and some other state, for example, the psychological (the unknown). Thus the therapist can make an informed guess as to what is going on, based on the body-reading.

Here is an example of this kind of reasoning.

Someone comes to a Freudian psychoanalyst because he is a stutterer The psychoanalyst using his Freudian map of the physical (stuttering) to learn about the psychological and decides he suffers from "a psycho-neurosis caused by the persistence into later life of early pre-genital oral nursing, oral sadistic, and anal sadistic components". Another Freudian interpretation of stuttering is the displacement of toilet-training anxiety to the mouth, ie verbal constipation. It turns out that the Freudian body-reading map of stuttering is nonsense. (All this and much more can be found in Stuttering, A Life Bound Up in Words by Marty Jezen. This book was one of my most enjoyable reads this year. It is much more than a valuable guide to the stutterer; it is about the human condition and is filled with profound philosophic insights.)

Closer to the world of body therapist, are theories connecting body structure with various psychological, spiritual and energetic states.

Two well-known and highly-regarded books in this area are Emotional Anatomy by Stanley Keleman and The Body Reveals by Ron Kurtz and Hector Prestera. Here is a brief quote from The Body Reveals which gives you a taste of this type of body-reading: "In some people the shoulders are drawn upward as well as forward. These individuals may be visualised as withdrawing into themselves, somewhat like turtles.... Psychologically, the same withdrawal is present with fear, lack of assertion and a vague sense of impending punishment."

Over the years, I have tried to use and integrate various forms of body-reading of the type I have just described, including the popular idea that the left side of the body represents the feminine and the right side the masculine, and the results, for me, have been so wishy-washy that I have given up on this type of body-reading.

Returning to the illustration from The Body Reveals, if a client comes in with rounded shoulders up to their ears does it mean they are withdrawing because of fear and lack of assertion (for example, because father or mother constantly berated them) or maybe this is a result of years of sitting in an inappropriate chair with desk at school? If a patient's pelvis is tipped forward hiding their genitals does this indicate sexual fears or is it a reflection of a poor ballet teacher?

The issue gets more complicated when both factors are operative. Suppose the patient's mother did scream at him but in reality this played a relatively minor role in the rounded shoulders compared to the school chair and desk. The psycho-therapist, using her model of body-reading, will in all likelihood focus on the wrong cause. To a man with a hammer every problem seems like a nail.

I kid you not. There is a Harley Street specialist whose body-reading ability is to attribute every backache to an accident. So he asks the patient to recall the accident which caused the problem. If the patient recalls an accident, that proves his theory, and if there is no recollection of an accident it simply means the patient forgot.

So, at least for myself, I am skeptical of the general usefulness of body-reading which attempts to map the physical body onto another dimension (whether it is the psychological or accidents). However, there is another type of body-reading which I find to be extremely useful.



Stuttering, Basic Books, a division of Harper Collins Publishers Inc 1997.
The Body Reveals, Harper and Row 1984.
Emotional Anatomy, Center Press 1985.


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About Allan Rudolf

Allan is a Rolfer and Feldenkrais practitioner and trained with both Dr Rolf and Dr Feldenkrais. He now lives in China and is not contactable.

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