The Dicovery of Psycho-peristalsis
Gerda Boyesen, a Norwegian clinical psychologist, physiotherapist and Reichian psychotherapist, and the founder of biodynamic psychology and biodynamic massage, made many contributions to the field of body psychotherapy, including the discovery of psycho-peristalsis. Boyesen (2000) describes this psycho-peristalsis as follows:
Peristalsis, the accepted medical term, refers to the function of digesting, absorbing and eliminating food while psycho-peristalsis (my biodynamic concept) refers to the function of digesting, absorbing and eliminating of psychological ‘food’, that is, conflicts, tensions, traumas, etc. While peristalsis describes a purely physiological function, psycho-peristalsis describes a psychological one. (p.22)
Gerda would place a stethoscope on the bellies of her clients while she worked with them to better hear what she called their ‘rumblings’. The type of noises she began to focus on were the fluid noises from the intestinal walls, which were different from the noises of the food digestion. Remembering one of Wilhelm Reich’s energy laws – that energy draws fluid – she developed Wilhelm Reich’s methods of loosening muscular body armour and thereby loosening energy blocks in the body to improve the physiological and psychological health of someone, by concentrating on muscular surface membranes.
I had discovered that working directly on muscles could be very provocative, both emotionally and vegetatively, and could be too much for many people. I started work on the muscular surface membranes and discovered fluid accumulation directly under my fingers. While working with this fluid I heard strange sounds from the client’s intestines and found to my surprise that both symptoms and nervous conditions such as pain, anxiety and depression were diminished or disappeared entirely… By working on muscle tensions, I provoked emotions and emotional energy. By working on muscular surface membranes, I helped the body to digest what I had provoked. (Boyesen, 2000, p.24)
These surface membranes Gerda talks of are connective tissue. Working with connective tissue can so directly affect the psycho-peristalsis because the therapist is literally creating more fluid in the client’s body by manipulating the tissue. This we will go on to explore, but I think it’s worth a mention now as it’s one reason that it’s so important to look closely at connective tissue, and to understand how we can best work with it in biodynamic massage.
What is Connective Tissue?
First of all I think it’s important to clarify what we mean when we refer to connective tissue. In my research I have seen it called different things, such as surface membranes and myofascia. The reason, I think, that connective tissue descriptions can be so hard to pin down is because it comes in so many different forms.
I first turned to Martini’s (2001) Fundamentals of Anatomy and Physiology, hoping for a definitive answer. However, there are a few hugely important and interesting properties of connective tissue that are missing from Fundamentals of Anatomy and Physiology, for example the potential of connective tissue to move between states and categories, it’s thixotropy, and what can happen to connective tissue with aging. The book gives us a clear understanding of what is and therefore isn’t connective tissue, but has no mention of the things that make connective tissue so important in the process of change.
The writing in Deane Juhan’s (2003) Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork, in contrast, is very easy to understand and engaging. It gracefully moves through the lattice of different types and functions of connective tissue. The book, as is clear from the title, is written for a different reader, and I found it fascinating and thought provoking.
Deane Juhan talks about connective tissue coming from the metamembrane, which glued the mass of cells together to resist the scattering forces of currents in the surrounding liquid medium, when we were primitive organisms in the sea. He talks about the different components in connective tissue, leading to different types of tissue, for example the addition of hyaline will make cartilage, the addition of mineral salts will create bone. But, importantly, Juhan (2003) tells us of connective tissue’s constant state of flux “with hardenings and dissolvings continually producing changes in shapes, sizes, and consistencies of all the structural members which it composes” (p.63). This flux is partly possible due to the separate fluid, cellular, fibrous and crystalline components being able to radically alter their relative concentration, and partly possible because of some of these separate components being able to change their make-up. For example, a fluid component of connective tissue is ground substance.
(All variations of ground substance) consist of a carbohydrate combined with a protein chain – a mucopolysaccharide… Some of the mucopolysaccharides are large and dense, creating a ground substance with a more viscid gel-state, while others are smaller molecular units which create a more fluid sol-state. And these compounds themselves are not inert, but are constantly changing their arrangement in healthy active tissue. (Juhan, 2003, p.64).
There are also the collagen fibres, the most abundant component of connective tissue. These long white fibres can be organised in many different ways to produce different types of connective tissue. Both ground substance and collagen fibres are produced by fibroblast cells.
Of all the cells in the body, these fibroblasts are the only ones which retain throughout our lives the unique property of being able to migrate to any point in the body, adjust their internal chemistry in response to local conditions, and begin manufacturing specific forms of structural tissue that are appropriate to that area (Juhan, 2003, p.66).
Connective Tissue and Aging
We’ve looked at the huge scope for variation in the make-up of connective tissue, but what causes these diversities? Connective tissue is thixotropic. This means that it becomes more gel when it’s immobile and cold, and more sol when it’s agitated or heated. As we get older we can start to move and exercise less, and use less than the full range of movement available to us if it’s not required in our daily routine. When this happens our connective tissue looses its heat, energy and sol-state, becoming less flexible and soft. This is one case where connective tissue massage can be incredibly effective. The massage therapist can aid or provide the movement, energy and heat to return the connective tissue to a more fluid, sol-state, returning forgotten movement to the body, and making it possible for the connective tissue to again adapt to cater for new movements and patterns in the body.
Hydrogen bonding is something that occurs in the collagen fibres of connective tissue. These collagen fibres have the ability to bond tightly to one another. This ability is what gives some forms of connective tissue its strength. However, over the years, these fibres can pack more and more tightly and firmly, forming more hydrogen bonds between them. This occurs even more in areas of particular stress, immobility and pressure in the body. Physical habits that we’ve formed and repeated throughout our lifetime can create areas of chronic stress or, as I mentioned earlier, areas where we no longer use our full range of movement. This encourages the gluing effect in the collagen fibres, which in turn limits the movement of the particular area and of the body as a whole.
Many people move only part of their backs when they walk, for example. As a result, connective tissue in the back loses its elastic, spider web quality and is much less adaptable or moveable. Perpetuating this immobility, connective tissue thickens and hardens. (Schultz & Feitis, 1996, p.4)
From looking at these two qualities of connective tissue we can see how vital it is to keep moving, I think, with a sense of play. As play is where we really explore the full range of our movement. I think that when we don’t do this aging is encouraged to occur much sooner than it otherwise might.
Function of Connective Tissue
There is a layer of connective tissue covering every organ, nerve, bone and muscle in the body. It is one never-ending web that serves to separate and connect everything within us.
Connective tissue literally connects and supports. It forms the structure of the body. This is a new concept. We tend to think of structure in terms of muscle and bone. But in fact, structure is the result of the organisation of muscle and bone. Connective tissue, in response to movement, is the organising structure. (Schultz & Feitis, 1996, p.4)
Connective tissue shapes who we are. I mean this literally in that it defines the body’s contour, but I think we can also take it to mean that it shapes and defines the people we are, our personalities and natures. The changeability of connective tissue becomes very interesting and hopeful when we consider this point.
Connective tissue has huge potential to contribute to the changes we experience through a psychotherapeutic process, because it so literally shapes who we are. As changes are made in our beliefs and attitudes, the way we react and deal with all the experiences of life, and our experience and perception of what we’re living through, so to will our bodies change. Who we are and how we are organised are two sides of the same coin. And although it is a huge factor in our physical organisation, connective tissue isn’t the only factor. I leave you with this quote from Juhan (2003), which more eloquently describes what I’m aiming at.
There is no single key in the skin, in the connective tissue, or in any other system we will examine which will provide us with an infallible means of improving health. Whatever we do with our hands must be done with the knowledge clearly in mind that all of the physical and mental elements within the human being are inextricably related. On one hand, it is the interconnectedness of these relationships which gives bodywork its power; and on the other hand, it is this same interconnectedness which dictates the problems and limitations of each individual technique. (p.90)
*Boyesen, G. (2000). Biodynamic psychotherapy and the intestinal brain. Energy & Character, 30 (2), 22-28.
*Juhan, D. (2003). Job’s body: A handbook for bodywork (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Barrytown / Station Hill Press.
*Kurtz, R. (1990). Body-centered psychotherapy – The hakomi method. Califirnia, CA: LifeRhythm.
*Lowen, A. (2006). The language of the body: Physical dynamics of character structure. Florida, FL: Bioenergetics Press.
*Martini, F. H. (2001). Fundamentals of anatomy &physiology (5th ed.). New Jersey, NJ: Prentice Hall.
*Schultz, R. L., & Feitis, R. (1996). The endless web: Fascial anatomy and physical reality. California, CA: North Atlantic Books.