Catalase Website IndexBobby •Body Armour •

Body Armour - Wilhelm Reich

Wilhelm Reich (1897 - 1957) worked in Sigmund Freud's Psychoanalytic Polyclinic in Vienna in 1922. He watched and learned and pretty soon started coming up with theories of his own to account for the problems he encountered in his clinical practice. Some of these theories diverged strongly from Freud's. Freud at that time believed that if a man could get an erection and then ejaculate, he was sexually and emotionally healthy and therefore not neurotic --- in other words and modern terminology, he was not suffering from any emotional dysfunction.

Reich disagreed. He felt something more was needed to define emotional health. He postulated orgasm theory: That full orgasm is the very centre of human experience and ultimately determines the happiness of the human race. He wrote it all down in a book called Die Funktion des Orgasmus and dedicated a copy to Freud. Freud didn't think much of it and said so. I haven't read it myself, so feel I cannot comment on the work directly. However, I do notice that at the time of writing Reich was 25 years old, and Freud was 66, and I believe that this had to have a bearing on their many battles. Here's the old bull defending his territory for all he's worth, and not wanting to give any credence (or indeed a fair hearing) to new ideas, and the young one pushing for acceptance. Meanwhile they were both unaware of or unwilling to explore their different and serious blind spots, particularly in relation to female sexuality and gays.

Freud, the eponymous psychoanalyst, worked only verbally with his patients, in a way that is so classic it has been a cliché for decades. Patient lies on couch and talks, saying whatever random words come into consciousness (=free association). Analyst sits behind patient's head, out of sight, and listens, mostly in silence.

Reich decided the patients' body language could be more revealing than their words. He observed their tone of voice and the way they moved and concluded that people form a kind of ARMOUR to protect themselves, not only from the blows of the outside world, but also from their own desires and instincts. Most of us desire something, and immediately set out to find ways NOT to get it! Reich saw this process working in the body. Over the years a person builds up this character armour through bodily habits and patterns of physical behaviour. This being in the days before Kevlar, the armour was presented as a series of corsetry designs in canvas and whalebone, which included a shoulder-straightener for men. Reich called this work Character Analysis.

He started to interact physically with his patients, sometimes getting strong cathartic reactions. During this period Freud got more and more fed up with him, but Reich continued his research. He saw how maternity hospital procedures created the beginnings of armouring in newborn babies: Being violently expelled from a nice warm protective uterus into a much colder place, with too much bright light and hard or rough surfaces, being slapped on the bottom, prodded with various instruments, taken away from Mum and maybe left lonely, hungry and frightened. This process was continued with the imposed inhibitions of childhood and puberty; toilet training, commandments around sexuality - "Don't touch yourself there, that's dirty" etc. etc.

Reich began to see all this as a political problem, and joined the Communist party in 1927, thinking idealistically that they had the answer. He went to Russia in 1929, and published Charakeranalyse in 1933. However there were battles between him and Komintern, as well as continuing and escalating fights with Freud and in 1934 Reich got thrown out of the Communist Party and out of the International Psychoanalytic Association of Vienna.

He went to Oslo and back to Character Analysis. But he then made the break with Freudian methodology complete. He evolved something he called Vegetotherapy which recognised that muscular rigidities in the body contain the history of their origin, and began to use touch when working with his patients. I gather from his books and from a biographical film on his life and work that he used considerable force on peoples' bodies, sometimes causing a high degree of pain. Hardly surprising then, that this got a strong emotional reaction --- screaming, anger, sobbing, violent movements. Reich believed that these reactions released and healed sexual energy. He went on to propound theories about sexual energy creating a measurable electrical potential in the skin, the psychogalvanic phenomenon, bions which give off blue radiation, orgone energy etc., eventually building a device he called the orgone box.

This is where I personally feel Reich went totally off the walls.

The foregoing includes extracts from Reich For Beginners, by David Zane Mairovitz © 1986, and Charakteranalyse, by Wilhelm Reich © 1933 in the original German, together with remarks of my own.

"Body Armour" was just one of Reich's theories; Reichian Stuff is a hyperlink to a U.K. web page which has many links to more information about Reich and his ideas.

However, Reich's use of forceful touch to break down body armour and with this, emotional blocks to healing, is very similar to a therapy called Bindegewebearbeit (translation: connective tissue work) developed by a Czechoslovakian doctor around the same timespan, 1930ish, in Bratislava. This town is on the border between Austria and Czechoslovakia, and barely 50 miles away from Vienna. Given the proximity, and the fact that Vienna at that time was a major centre for medical and psychological research, it is more than likely that the two men met and exchanged ideas. In fact, looking at the similarity between their theories and working methods, I feel that it is probable that one of them used the other's ideas in his own practice. This could have been either way, or indeed there could have been a level of joint though later unattributed developmental work.

I wish I knew this Czech doctor's name. I was told about him in May 1990 by an extremely irascible and elderly German medic, who claimed to know a lot about the man's work, but would not name him or give more details. When I tried to ask further questions he stomped off huffily and said he had a lecture to go to. Actually, I think he had forgotten, and didn't want to admit to his lapse of memory. This was at Rehab International, a conference held in the Royal Dublin Society in Dublin, Ireland.

Anyway, it seems that this Czech founded a school in Germany to teach his methods. One of his pupils was a woman called Dr. Ida Rolf, who later emigrated to California where she founded the Rolfing Institute, based on these techniques. One of her pupils, Al Drucker, went on to teach the work under the name of Deep Tissue, and one of his graduates, Ryan Kopperaud, subsequently was invited to teach in Dublin by Professor Ivor Browne, then Head of Psychiatric Services for the Eastern Health Board in Ireland.

This is where I came in, in 1979. As taught by Ryan, the work had in some ways changed considerably from the days of Reich or Bratislava. The concept of using it to free sexual energies had been deleted in its entirety, and only minimal attention was paid to working with peoples' emotional issues.

Focus was on physical function or dysfunction, range of movement, repair or healing after injury etc. The touch used was still very heavy and painful. If any muscle or groups of muscles would not move easily we were taught to move them by force, using fists and/or elbows if necessary. Any client screaming in protest was told to "Breathe into the pain and let it go".

There was a lot here with which I utterly disagreed, but I held my tongue and stayed with my studies for the full five years. While there was a great deal in it I disliked, the work still appeared to have something of value not available or accessible via other methods. I found I had more energy than I had had before experiencing it, enough to make the pain almost worth while, and a greater flexibility.

Once in practice for myself I started making far-reaching changes to the work I had been taught. As a therapist I believe that people already have more pain of their own than they can easily deal with. It is therefore wrong to inflict more in the name of "helping" them to heal, and what's worse, it is utterly counterproductive. If they know you are heavy-handed, people will tighten up their muscles to defend against anticipated pain. In other words, they then create MORE armour for themselves. I use a gentle touch that barely does more than contact the skin's surface. This lets the muscles relax, gain a level of awareness of what they are doing and why, and makes it easier for them to stay soft when at rest.

I see body armour not as a shell around or all over a person's exterior, but as specific individual muscles in spasm, painful and tight as piano wire, while surrounding or overlaying tissues may be soft or even appear flabby. The work is still cathartic at times. When touch on a particular spot evokes traumatic memories or feelings the client may express them. S/he cries, shouts, kicks, screams, shakes violently, punches nearby cushions --- any or all of these. S/he may afterwards want to talk about what happened during the session or describe remembered events. This is a normal part of the process and standard rules of confidentiality apply.

Going through this catharsis probably sounds awful to anyone new to the idea. And it is dangerous to try this work alone or with an inexperienced therapist. You need someone you can trust to be with you through pain and terror, who won't be freaked by it no matter how bad it gets, and who is well able to bring you back out safe and sound. The emotions need to be fully expressed. And it can take a number of sessions to do all that needs doing with any one memory. However, when that is done completely, it is possible to leave the burden of negative feelings behind, and walk free.

Catalase Website IndexBobby •Body Armour •
"Body Armour - Wilhelm Reich" page last updated 5-July-2003