The Politics of Muscle Constriction

Posted: December 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

“Marriage as a tie, family as a duty, fatherland as a value in itself, morality as authority, religion as an obligation deriving from eternity. The rigidity of the human musculature could not be more accurately described!”                                                                                       – Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism

The purpose of therapy, whether it be massage, acupuncture, or any other variation, is to restore health to the client. But what constitutes health, and how does our relationship to the outside world affect us internally? These are the questions that were raised by a handful of revolutionary psychoanalysts in the latter half of the last century. For Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian-born contemporary of Freud, Nazi Germany’s decline into fascism was the over-arching influence of his work as a psychotherapist. For Roberto Freire, a Brazilian doctor and psychiatrist, the violent 20-year dictatorship of Brazil, during which Freire was part of the counter-insurgency, was his overwhelming context out of which sparked his revolutionary ideas about the body and the therapeutic task.

The western world seems to be making the necessary shift to wholism, seeing health as a multiplicity of factors including body, mind, and spirit. Yet crucial to the idea of holistic health is an understanding of how society, politics, and our everyday relationships also affect our well-being. Humans are born with a natural drive to pursue pleasurable situations and activities, and with the intrinsic knowledge of how to achieve this instinctive goal. Freire called this idea spontaneous self-regulation. Yet as we grow up, various factors become roadblocks in our attempts to live according to our desires. We live in what Freire called a “hetero-regulated society” in which certain norms and standards regulate our actions. We learn this at an early age from our parents, and later from our teachers, bosses, and authoritarian officials. Being a species that naturally adapts to our external situations, we often play the game strictly as a means of survival. We learn and internalize the various life-lessons that we are taught, from not farting at the dinner table, to not voicing our opinions too loudly in school. We quickly learn that if we live according to our desires it will get us in trouble with the authority figures in our lives. In popular psychology this survival mechanism is called the Reality Principle, which is the natural antithesis of the Pleasure Principle. In a strangely sick and mysteriously misguided way, mainstream therapy has become focused on the Reality Principle. The goal is to help clients assimilate into the reality of everyday life, to cope with the various external struggles that somehow seem inevitable to modern people. Massage therapy is no exception. In my experience, the main complaint of the overwhelming majority of clients is stress. Massage is too often sought out as a quick fix, allowing the client to find relaxation amidst the outpouring of stressors and oppressions that plague daily life.

What sets apart the revolutionary ideas of Reich and Freire, among others, is that they strive to take into consideration the political and social implications of health and well-being. Wilhelm Reich was the first not only to talk about this elephant in the room, which in his case was Nazi Fascism, but he was also the first to talk about the body as the mechanism of mental well-being. The muscles are key to understanding this. Muscles have two basic functions- expansion and contraction. Through a bit of awareness, it will become obvious to anyone that contraction creates an unpleasant feeling (a sudden gasp of breath), and that expansion creates a feeling of pleasure (a sigh of relief). Reich showed that the restrictions placed on us by society cause the contraction of our musculature. Over time, if we accept the Reality Principle as our reality, our muscles will become chronically contracted. This contraction is the roadblock that I spoke of before. It disables the free expression of the individual and what before was a choice in the interest of survival is now an unconscious process happening within the body. What binds these muscles is the energy that is being withheld from expression. Suppose you really, really want to tell your boss how you feel, but you know that it would cost you your job. So instead you clench your jaw, “bite your tongue,” and “hold it in.” These are bodily expressions. The energy that you are “holding in” is what is causing the contraction of your jaw muscles, and most likely in this situation, your abdominal muscles as well. What follows then is that releasing this tension, by means of massage therapy, can often release this bound up energy and produce the sensations and feeling associated with their constriction. Much work has been done to identify which muscle contractions are associated with which feelings.*

Massage has the opportunity to be revolutionary. It allows us to release and process the constrictions literally placed on us by society. Holistic therapy is political. We exist in a social context, and that context invariably affects our health and well-being. The therapeutic process allows us to break through our hindrances and scream loudly for our freedom. As Reich, Freire, and others have shown, we must create a culture of unhindered expression if we want to live in a truly healthy society!

*See The Language of the Body by Alexander Lowen


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