Biodynamic Therapy Research
“You know, that’s the one with the stethoscope!”
The USP for Biodynamic therapy work is that we listen to the peristalsis in the gut with a stethoscope, but why? What sense or use can we make of it? Some fascinating research reveals how Biodynamic therapists think about and use the sounds from the gut. I have asked the man behind the therapy research, Theo Raymond, all about it.
You’ve done some fascinating research on how Biodynamic therapists use the sound of peristalsis in their work.
Can you say a bit about your different work and how the research and the world of therapy came together?
“Since the beginning of my massage training – back when I was 19 and a gap-year student – I was struck by how touch could facilitate emotional movement and release. Much of my learning back then was focused on working with the physical body. We were taught to stay away from what came up emotionally for clients during sessions. My experience was that health came from a greater integration between mind and body, and I saw this as a missed opportunity to do useful healing work. After my degree, and some years in private practice, I decided it was time to take the next step towards working with touch in a way that fully supported this integration, which is when I discovered biodynamic massage and body psychotherapy. I began training in biodynamic massage at the London School of Biodynamic Psychotherapy, at the same time as I began a master’s degree in complementary medicine at the University of Westminster. The MSc had a strong research focus, so it seemed natural to me that for the main research project I would do something on biodynamic therapy. Following the MSc, I expanded the research, which resulted in my article.”
What inspired you to do this research?
“When I chose my research topic, I was studying in two very different environments. My MSc was encouraging me to deepen my academic understanding of my clinical work, and to critically reflect on my practice. I was also going through a very experiential, emotionally profound training in biodynamic massage, including learning to work with peristalsis.
Turning the more academic lens onto peristalsis left me with a number of interesting questions. What exactly do we know from physiology about peristalsis and emotional processing? How much does this match up with what psychotherapy theorists are saying? And what is, or should be, more important in this type of work – theory or practice? Knowledge or experience? It was these initial questions that inspired me to read around the topic, refining the research question, and ultimately interview practitioners about their experiences using and interpreting peristalsis.
What inspired me to keep going with the research and develop it into a journal article was that not only were the interviews thoroughly enjoyable, but that I believed what these therapists were saying was important, and I had a responsibility to make their voices heard.”
Why do Biodynamic therapists listen to peristalsis?
“Biodynamic massage and psychotherapy were developed in the 1960s by the Norwegian psychologist and physiotherapist Gerda Boyesen. Through her practice and therapeutic observations, she theorised that the peristaltic action of the gut was a way that the body processed and released stored emotional energy through what she called ‘psycho-peristalsis’, and as such would listen to the peristalsis of her clients as she massaged them.
What came back from the interviews was that biodynamic therapists continue this practice today because they find it therapeutically useful. In addition to signaling to a therapist when they are engaging with the deeper emotional process of a client, peristalsis shapes therapy sessions by conjuring up images that speak to the therapist about the client’s process. It might tell the therapist a story, or create a sound that somehow resonates with the client’s therapeutic narrative. It might also provide practical signals during a massage, telling the therapist where in the body more emotional material seems to be active at that time.
Although the enteric nervous system has become more widely understood from Giulia Enders book, there is not yet a proven scientific link between peristalsis and emotions. How do Biodynamic therapists relate physical digestion to emotional digestion?
I think the two can be seen as overlapping phenomena. Wilhelm Reich, who many would consider the founding father of body psychotherapy, came up with the idea of ‘functional identity’, meaning for every physical function of a muscle or organ there is also an emotional one. According to this theory, as we digest food we take in material from the outside world, digest what we need, and eliminate the rest. The gut could be seen to function emotionally in a similar way, allowing us to take in material from our emotional world, digest what we need from it, and get rid of the rest (providing everything is working as it should!)”
What does it mean, to hear the different sounds? Do therapists believe they have different meanings?
“Yes, therapists would say that different sounds have different meanings. Just as one might observe a client’s breathing to be deep, shallow, fast or slow, and assess meaning from that, peristaltic sounds have similar variability. They can be watery and healthy-sounding, or staccato and faltering. They can sound like animals, voices, machines, or communicate something else entirely. While there may well be agreement on what certain types of sounds mean, what came out from the research was that people tend to have their own way of understanding peristalsis that comes from their personal experience.”
What does it mean if there are no sounds at all?
“It could mean that the client isn’t processing material on the unconscious emotional level. That isn’t to say that things aren’t being processed – they might be processing a lot of stuff in their head, for example. However, if we think about peristalsis as a sign of the ‘calm and connect’ system being activated, it might mean that the client is anxious or unable to relax, which is useful information for a therapist. It’s always worth checking the positioning of the stethoscope though, just in case it’s not in a suitable place to pick up sounds.”
What do the therapists make of their own peristalsis; can it be used as a self-help tool or self-diagnosis?
“Some therapists spoke to me about how they listened to their own peristalsis as part of their self-care, as it brings them into a greater awareness of when they are relaxing, or when they might be digesting something emotional. Other people I spoke to would tune in to what was happening in their guts while they were working with clients, and reflect on what in that moment moved them in that way.”
(If you’re curious to hear what that might sound like you can listen to some peristalsis I recorded earlier. Kate)
How can the wider therapeutic community use peristalsis in their work?
“I think anyone working in a therapy that pays attention to the autonomic nervous system should be keeping an ear out for the sounds of peristalsis. Whether you decide that the concept of ‘psycho-peristalsis’ is for you or not, I would say that peristalsis is an accessible indicator of the parasympathetic nervous system’s activation which, if we are working towards relaxation or healing, is a good thing.
I would encourage you to read my article and see what resonates with your experience as a therapist, and if you are curious about peristalsis, to track down a stethoscope, put it on a willing client and see what happens.”
Thanks so much Theo, it’s been fantastic to understand more about what Biodynamic therapists get up to!
Theo Raymond has been a practicing massage therapist since 2004. Upon leaving school, he began his training at the School of Healing Arts in San Diego, California, to which he returned regularly during his three years’ study of Human Sciences at Oxford University. After graduating, Theo attended the Wat Po Thai Traditional Medical School in Bangkok, Thailand, the foremost and oldest school of traditional Thai medicine, where he studied Thai massage. More recently, he trained in biodynamic massage at the London School of Biodynamic Psychotherapy (LSBP), and received a Masters degree in complementary medicine from University of Westminster. He is currently in his third year of body psychotherapy training at the Cambridge Body Psychotherapy Centre.
Today, Theo practices and promotes an integrative style of massage through his own business, Baby Turtle Bodyworks in North London. ‘Hearing peristalsis: theory, interpretation and practice in biodynamic psychotherapy’ is his first peer-reviewed publication and can be found in Body, Movement, and Dance in Psychotherapy – an international journal fo theory, research and practice.