The whole being: An interview with Michael Muir, somatic psychotherapist.

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Upasana: How did you originally discover somatic psychotherapy in your own life?

Michael: My journey started in the mid-nineties with a personal development seminar called the Turning Point.  It was somatically based and centred on the work of Alexander Lowen.  I was fascinated by the idea that our bodies hold our history and our story.

My fascination led me to a diploma of Somatic Psychotherapy.  The diploma merged the somatic components with psychodynamic theories.  At first I studied the diploma for my own growth, but it soon became a passion – a passion that i wanted to share with the world as a somatic psychotherapist.

Upasana: What was it that helped you to know that this would be your chosen modality of work?

Michael: From a young age I would close myself in my room, put on an LP (record) and dance. Movement and moving my body have always been really important to me and have assisted me to feel good about being myself.  So the step from self-nurturing through movement to working in a modality in which the body is integral to the therapy was not a big one. Somatics is all about movement, breath and sound – not necessarily big movement (like dance), but also subtle ones, like a shiver, the pulsation of a heart, or the blink of an eye.

Upasana:  Who have your teachers and influences been?

Michael: Somatic Psychotherapy has a long lineage that goes all the way back to Freud and Reich (shhh don’t tell anyone!).  Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy takes the best of the theorists and their theories and merges them in to a modern model that is relevant today.

Some of the recent teachers who have made the most impact on my life are Dr Tony Richardson and Julie Henderson – highly experienced somaticists.  There are a number of Tibetan Buddhist teachers who have also impacted in a big way on my life, in general and in my work.

Upasana: Could you tell us about Somatic Psychotherapy?

Michael: Psychotherapy provides a safe, non-judgmental space and relationship in which to explore difficulties in areas such as work, relationships, parenting, achieving one’s goals, addictions or repetitive painful states such as depression, anxiety, confusion, negative feelings or low self esteem.

Somatic is a Greek word meaning “of the body” and in this context means employing body-centred approaches to assist people in integrating and transforming.  The root of this word is ‘soma’ meaning the body of an organism.

Somatic psychotherapy is grounded in the belief that psyche and soma form a single holistic entity, the bodymind. Thought, emotion and bodily experience are understood as inter-functioning aspects of the person’s whole being.

As well as working verbally in the relationship with the client, somatic psychotherapists are trained to engage directly with the client’s dynamic bodily experience. This includes patterns of breathing, posture, sensation and movement, and also working with body image, metaphor and through touch when appropriate.

Upasana: Does ‘somatic’ refer to movement or to touch – or both?

Michael: Somatic refers to all that and more.  For some clients somatic may mean simply observing their body, maybe watching the way they breathe or the way their skin changes colour when they discuss a certain situation.  For other clients it may mean a hug, a reassuring hand or maybe providing a space to scream out some fear or throw a tantrum.  For others still it may mean a bio-dynamic massage where I work with their bodies to gently release some blockage or simply to provide relaxation.

Upasana: Are there many versions of this kind of therapy? And if so, which do you practice?

Michael: Within the field of Somatic Psychotherapy, like all modalities, practitioners tend to focus on some aspects more than others.  I’d have to say that the body is really important in my sessions – that doesn’t mean I force people to do anything – it just means that unlike some of my peers who are more psychodynamic, I definitely utilise both the somatic and psychodynamic aspects in each session.

Upasana: Could you describe one or two techniques you may use with clients?

Michael: Tracking is a technique i frequently employ to get people to become more aware of their bodies and their internal processes.  Very simply, the client follows sensation around their body, noticing, verbalising and following the sensation to the next part of their body – it’s very simple yet very powerful in building awareness.

Bio-dynamic massage is another technique I may employ (depending on the contract I have with the client) in order to create more flow within the body and assist in the movement (unblocking) of energetic holds.

Upasana: Why is this referred to as psychotherapy and not bodywork?

Michael: Somatic Psychotherapy is not just bodywork.  Psychodynamic theories are also key to informing the therapeutic process.  Attachment and inter-subjective theories are a really important parts of the work.  Sessions with me are psychological based but assisted by including the body’s process as well.

Upasana: Why are talking and cognitive type therapies not sufficient to address emotional and psychological well being?

Michael: Talking and cognitive therapies are great.  They assist us to bring more awareness to issues, and that can only be good. The thing is though that we are not just minds we are also bodies, and by including the cognitive and body processes in therapy there is greater likelihood of long term results and deeper understanding of ‘what we do’ and ‘why we do it’.  This means that we end up being able to notice what we are doing or about to do and then make a choice.  Great stuff for family get-togethers or Christmas lunch when family dynamics are generally at their most potent.

Upasana: Why is the somatic so vital to us?

Michael: Our bodies and our minds react to situations.  It’s like when we are angry and feel like punching the table – or feel scared and our breathing becomes shallow.  When we are in difficult situations our bodies as well as our minds react – they work together to help us cope.  The thing is though that these coping mechanisms don’t help us resolve the problem they just mask it – so the difficult situation repeats over and over.  The inclusion of the body in the therapy allows the client and me, as therapist, to explore feeling and sensation and their link to the cognitive process – leading to more significant and permanent change.

Upasana: How do your clients come to you?

Michael: It’s really a mix of ways.  Word of mouth, peer referral, my website www.michaelmuir.com.au and also social media.  I also run somatic groups and this too can lead to people wanting to come for one-on-one sessions with me.

Upasana:  I know that the two Australian training institutions the Somatics College and the Australian College of Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy have closed down in recent years.

Do you think somatic psychotherapy has had more difficulty taking root in Australia than overseas?

Michael: The issue with the colleges closing is about government accreditation processes.  In order to be recognised there are a whole pile of regulations that need to be met as well as the associated costs.  It’s really sad, as modalities such as Somatic Psychotherapy just don’t have the same ground swell that counsellors or Reichian’s have so we can’t compete.  This is a key concern for our association Australian Somatic Psychotherapy Association and I know they are talking to places like the Jansen Newman Institute about getting Somatic modules as part of their training.

Upasana: Why do you feel there may be such resistance to an approach that acknowledges our physical experience?

Michael: When we are young we habitually learn to disconnect from the feelings in our bodies in order to fit in with family, friends and the community.  If we feel uncomfortable in a situation our mind helps us rationalise the fear so we can suppress it and function “normally”.

As adults, if we start to move beyond our brains and minds in to our bodies then fears often bubble up.This is because we are suddenly faced with the truth of how we feel and the reality of having to deal with it when most of our life has been spent on keeping this stuff inside and in our subconscious.

So society, in order to maintain the status quo, requires proof that the body’s process is important.  Since all of our upbringing and conditioning tells us that feelings and bodies are “irrational” and it’s our brain that provides the “truth”, society puts very little effort into gathering empirical data to prove the body is important – so the scientists say that the work can’t be proved.

In short, the resistance is a mix of fear of the unknown and the medical fraternity who require empirical data before they can accept the benefits.

Upasana: Are there many others practicing this form of psychotherapy in Australia? Is there still a community that you touch base with and gain support from?

Michael: There is a network of practicing Somatic Psychotherapists mainly on the east coast of Australia.  Many of us belong to the Australian Somatic Psychotherapy Association which is a member association of PACFA (Psychotherapist’s and Counsellor’s Federation of Australia).  As a member we come together for conferences, professional development and sometimes just for a coffee and chat.  Being part of the community is a really important resource for me.

Upasana: What do you see as the consequence of not acknowledging our bodies and our energy?

Michael: Not acknowledging our bodies and our energy means that we are not looking at the whole of our experience and being.  It means that we cannot become fully self aware and that we are disconnected from our natural vitality and our spirituality.

Upasana:  How do you retain your own sense of life/work balance? How do you care for yourself?

Michael: All of us – therapists included – need to make sure we have resources in order to maintain a sense of wellbeing.  For me I have a number of resources which include

being in nature like a park surrounded by grass and trees, or at the beach and taking in the beauty around me; my Buddhist practices; meditation practice and hanging out with my peers.

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Upasana: Michael, thank you so much for participating in this project and for answering questions of particular interest to me.

If anyone would like to ask Michael anything further about Sydney Somatic Psychotherapy,

please contact him through his website: www.michaelmuir.com.au