The  Motoric (Muscular) Ego


"Mental capacity develops on the basis of the mind's recognition and awareness of physiological function. The physical body is the prototype." (Gaddini)

This chapter brings together biological, neurological, developmental and psychological theory to extend and illuminate a concept fundamental to body psychotherapy: the muscular system as the motoric ego. Body psychotherapy has always based its understanding of the psyche on a knowledge of physical function. As developmental theory (itself a multidisciplinary field) advances, this deepens and affirms the concept of a body-mind. In the first two sections I have highlighted key aspects of biology, neurology and development, that reflect the current state of research and theoretical modelling, drawing particularly on the work of Deane Juhan in Job's Body: a Handbook for Bodyworkers and the work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, in her own words in  Sensing, Feeling and Action, and in Linda Hartley's  Wisdom of the Body Moving; [1] At this point I want to make a preliminary comparison:

Muscle is the fundamental structuring, mediating, enabling tissue in the body - it is nourished by the organs, underpinned by bones, enveloped by skin and connective tissue, and enlivened by the bodily fluids. The infant and child's muscle is developed through contact with the world, and in relation to space, and objects.

 In the history of psychoanalysis Ego has been conceived as a mental structure - defined in widely differing ways[2] - which reflects the individual's habitual adjustment to the external world. It incorporates early developmental experience (as introjected objects), and, according to Reich, holds at bay "the repressed drive demands of the id". (CA, 155)

Ego functions include containment, expression, repression and splitting. Ego capacities include both facilitating the highest most complex and deeply felt expression;  and inhibiting, distorting and turning against the self. Body psychotherapy works from the premise that these defences and capabilities are directly embodied in the musculature.

The Biological Function of Muscles

Movement - muscle mechanics

Muscle is designed for movement and is known as the motor system. The qualities and tone of our individual muscles are reflected in our posture and actions, from the minutest movement to our broadest gestures. Muscle accounts for 70-85 % of  our body weight, and defines our size, contour, and feel. In addition, the musculature helps generate heat in the body: 70% of the energy produced by the muscles is released as warmth which permeates the body. 

There are three kinds of muscle: the muscle of the viscera, known as smooth muscle; cardiac muscle; and skeletal muscle. Skeletal muscle is known as striated muscle and it consists of elastic fibres bound together in bundles. These are bound together  by a thick band, usually spindle shaped and contained in a membranous sheath. This sheath is extended at the end to form strong fibrous bands known as the tendons which fasten muscles to bone. In conventional physiology muscle are considered to work in pairs, or groups of pairs: the prime movers initiating or maintaining a movement and the antagonists opposing or holding in check that movement. Movement happens when one pair contracts,and the opposing muscles  lengthens.[3]

and on the work of neurologist Antonio Damasio.

Tracing the evolution of the concept of muscle as the embodiment of certain ego functions, the third section is a concise history of contributions from Wilhelm Reich through to the integrative model taught at Chiron. The fourth section interweaves the theory from these different disciplines into a series of reflections on muscular themes, which reveal the paradoxical qualities of both muscle and the motoric ego.

The full complexity of the parallel functions of ego and muscle are explored at the end of this chapter.“In well-balanced activity, each half of the agonist-antagonist pair contributes a substantially equal share to a given muscular task […] Paired muscles in a precise spatial balance have substantially similar tone levels; they stimulate and reinforce each other. The antagonist of a muscle consistently called on for unbalanced over activity deteriorates very rapidly. The agonist then tries unsuccessfully  to compensate for the weakened antagonist, [leading to] progressive disorganisation of the body.” (Rolf, 109-110)

Metabolism  - energy conversion

Our musculature is the largest and most metabolically active organ of the body. It metabolizes through movement. Nerve stimuli cause the muscles to contract, and this causes chemical changes in the muscle (the Krebs cycle).  Deane Juhan compares muscle to liquid crystal because of its characteristic capacity to change rapidly from sol (fluid, ie. flaccid) to gel (flexed). In addition the flow of blood to the muscle brings nutrients, oxygen and hormones, in different combinations and concentrations. This produces  variety of textures and qualities, which are sensed by neural devices, and can be palpated. (Damasio, 1999, 140)

Vestibular system.“concentrating on the muscles, I was amazed to feel the change in pulsation when she simply imagined was during this exploration that I got the sense of body as tapas and how assessing the muscles in terms of different foods actually helped me as a way into working. As I remember the image of her tibialis anterior as uncooked aubergine, it is as if I am physically feeling it again.” (massage student, palpating muscle)

The process of shortening and lengthening affects the muscles ecology by pumping fluids. When there is chronic contraction, the pump becomes a squeeze and fluid delivery is decreased. This causes hormonal and chemical deposits to build up, creating denser collagenous tissue. In addition continued contraction of a muscle constitutes ‘work’ and therefore uses energy: sustained tension is exhausting.

Neurological levels - an orchestration

Muscle activity has the unique property of being mediated by the voluntary nervous system, unlike other organs and tissues, making it the closest of body systems to consciousness. In fact the muscle system is a convergence or coherence zone for all levels of brain functioning, from automated reflexive responses to highly tuned skills. The cerebellum (an outcrop of the brain stem)  is important for automated or instinctual movements, such as sucking. It is heavily dependent on sensory feedback. Meanwhile the basal ganglia, within the brain stem, governs rhythmic and ballistic movement (ie involcing forward motion, such as running), as well as other vital life functions like heart-beat and respiration. It is made up of different parts, which keep each other in check. When dysfunctional it results in wild, involuntary movements, or the opposite, muscle rigidity and tremor.

Meanwhile the cortex, the outer and most recent evolutionary layer of the brain, relates to more complex and less stereotyped muscle behaviour, such as manual dexterity and speech. The supplementary motor and lateral premotor areas - parts of the cortex - dominate when conscious control is required, and can override signals from the brain stem. On the other hand, once certain skills are learned, or habits acquired, the cerebellum and basal ganglia can take over these activities, freeing up the cortex for other roles. Many habitual movements  become automatic – knitting, driving, washing up – leaving our attention free for other activites. When these learned movments need to be modified, we have to concentrate again. In skilled activity, such as sports or playing an instrument, there is an emphasis on learning good habits from the start, because it is quite hard to undo patterns which have become largely unconscious. This applies to emotional patterns which have become fixed in the musculature as well.

Juhan highlights the significance of these two motor systems - the alpha, originating from the cortex, and the gamma, from the brain stem - whose interrelationship, both sensory and functional, underpins the complexity of our conscious and unconscious movement.

The human movement repertoire  is incredibly varied, when compared with the distinctive motions which characterize each species of animal. We can imitate a cat or a mouse as a generic type of movement.  Our vast range of habitual, skilled and expressive movements reflect our need and capacity for adaptation and expression in a variety  of physical and emotional environments.[4]

Proprioception - the instant 3-d map

Proprioception means 'to receive oneself'.  Effectively, groups of receptors act as an ensemble providing a sensory map or picture of movement. Golgi tendon organs measure tension values and effort. The muscle spindles are sensitive to the slightest changes in lengthening or shortening of the muscle, and the speed at which these are occuring. Other receptors note joint position, and changes in pressure in the body tissue. The vestibular system – or ‘inner ear’ – also gives feedback relating to balance and spatial orientation. This map is dynamic, dense, and detailed; it continuously records changes in position, movement and tension of the total muscular system.

All this information is integrated to provide a substantial, three dimensional sensory picture - like a felt hologram - which creates a background depth which we experience as a sense of embodiment. By contrast, states of dissociation and depersonalisation, where 'reality' is felt as thin and alien, reflect severely decreased integration of proprioceptive signals.  The extensive implications of the bodies' capacity to internally represent itself  - of which muscular proprioception is a significant part - are currently being integrated into neurology and cognitive psychology: science is able now to provide the most detailed explanation for how we feel and think through our bodies.[5]

Although science is now catching up, Bonnie Cohen commentss, "it is fascinating...and frustrating to me that the sensations of movement and visceral activity have been excluded from the "5 senses". As all sciences are reflections of the socio-political -religous ideas of their time, it is appropriate that the historical repression of bodily sensation in Western Culture has been transmitted as a matter of scientific fact." (Cohen  114)

Learning and sensorimotor integration

This sensory map influences the motor system in two ways: adaptation/motor learning (long-term influences) and immediate adjustments to movement. In addition to proprioception, vision, hearing and cognition are crucial to motor learning. Initially, vision may have a dominant role over proprioception, ie. direct observation or a visual image will accelerate the learning of a skill. But once a movement is memorized the dominance of vision is reduced in favour of proprioception.[6] Experiences with strong emotional significance are almost always transferred from the short- to the long-term memory, along with the muscle patterns they stimulated.

Many motor activities do not rely on instantaneous feedback but adjust to previous sensory input, stored in the form of sensory engrams, in other words, habitual patterns. Proprioceptive feedback itself is not neccessary for us to carry out movement – we can perform familiar tasks quite mechanically. Crucially, however, in the absence of proprioception, the motor system is incapable of controlling fine or new learned movements, or of improving these movements. (Lederman, 78) In other words, for change to occur, sensory feedback is vital. The body needs to know itself, in order to transform  fixed patterns.

"Learning is the opening of ourselves to the experience of life. The opening is a motor act; the experience is interaction between motor and sensory happenings."(my emphasis) (Cohen, 118)

Memory in the muscle

Sensory engrams record the information from the proprioceptors about the state and position of the muscles, as well as the biochemical activity associated with an event or person. Memories which depend on language, facts, descriptions are known as explicit  or declarative memories. But another kind of memory, implicit memory, involves procedures and internal states that are less conscious. Sensing the muscle can help us to recall an emotional situation or the position and posture connected to a point in time. For example, if you forget what it is you are meant to be doing, you can go back to the place and posture from which the decision originated. In body psychotherapy, the use of muscular self-awareness is a crucial clue to memory, repressed impulses and trauma.

 Damasio refers to “sensory, motor or autonomic recall” which form part of a “mulit-site network” (Damasio, 1999,  221) He proposes that our sense of self derives fundamentally from the activation of memories from this multi-site network, which depicts in minute detail the state of the organism from moment to moment.

 “Voluntary” is relative

Adaptation (survival) and expression are an emergent property of neural processes becoming synthesised through the muscular system. In evolutionary terms, muscle links us with animals, which, like us, can run, bite, grip, communicate through vivid language of movement and expression. But development of the neo-cortex also means we can suspend, suppress and distort or reformulate instinctual behaviour. A clash of needs and perceptions internally may create manifold and contradictory mental and muscle impulses.

            I could not tell I had jumped off that bus,

            that bus in motion, with my child in my arms,

            because I did not know it. I believed my own story:

            I had fallen, or the bus had started up

            when I had one foot in the air.

            I would not remember the tightening of my jaw

            the rage that I'd missed my stop, the leap

            into the air, the clear child

            gazing about her in the air as I plunged........

            Sharon Olds, 53

To the extent that there is integration between systems, we have the symphony of grace, purpose, congruence. Failures of integration - from normal to extreme - diminish our sense of ourselves and reflect our painful, complex and individual circumstances and history.

Although we talk of 'voluntary' muscles, and the cortex is associated with 'conscious' activity, these assumptions are misleading. Learned behaviours are initiated and controlled by engrams or gestalts, memories of how specific actions have felt. "These sensory memories function more like blueprints, or templates, than they do like a linear sequence of commands....each quantum of engrammatic memory contains the whole of a particular movement [...] stored as an image or outline." (Juhan, 289)

Even when we  think we are choosing an action deliberately, the manner in which we do it is the sum of our history.

 (It is interesting that with the increasing use of CC TV cameras to catch criminals, the police are relying of the idiosyncrasies of an individual’s gait to spot them when they are disguised. This is because if someone is trying to ‘act natural’ they will move in their habitual way)

Movement as Active Perception, Movement as Cognition

"movement is a is the first perception to develop (the vestibular nerves, which register movement, are the first to myelinate in utero) and therefore the most important for survival; each experience sets a baseline for future experiences, movement helps to establish the process of how we perceive; we perceive movement becomes an integral part of how we perceive through other senses." (Cohen, 114)

Even the sense organs, which we think of as part of the nervous system, are intricately bound up with the musculature. For example, muscles are a major component of the eyes. Sight is affected by muscles in and around the eye, the eyelids, forehead, and tear glands, as well as the deep muscles at the base of the occiput, and all the muscles which orient the head in the direction of what is being looked at. "[Bates, Kelly , Lowen] believe that myopia is largely the result of traumatized eye muscles, and that when the trauma or conflict is resolved, the muscle of the eye are then freed to develop and form in a more natural, vital fashion". (Dychtwald, 227)

Damasio points out that the senses operate at least dually: there is the information from the sense organ itself; and a set of body signals that indicate that the sense organ is engaged, so that “you feel you are seeing something with your eyes” and direct and focus them accordingly. (Damasio, 1994, 232) Similarly we ‘prick up our ears’, sniff, lick or touch as we utilize our other senses.

"in all these cognitive processes, perception and action are inseparable" (Santiago theory) "cognition is an integral part  of the way a living organism interacts with its environment"(Capra, 268)

Movement and will

 Animation - having the capacity to move - derives from the Latin word animus, meaning air, breath, life, consciousness.

In a bold proposal Damasio suggests that there is a particular region of the brain where the systems concerned with feeling, attention, and working memory interact so intimately that the constitute the source for the energy of both external action (movement) and internal action (thought animation, reasoning) The key region includes the anterior cingulate cortex, the supplementary motor area , the third motor area and the motor cortex. (Remember ‘motor’ means to do with movement and therefore muscles). Together they constitute an important sector of the frontal lobe.  “Damage to this sector not only  produces impairment in movement, emotion and attentiveness, but also causes a virtual suspension of the animation of action  and though processes such that reason is no longer viable”. (Damasio, 1994, 72) 

Damasio describes a patient with such damage, who was inanimate, though capable of making gestures and movement, and of speech. She was extremely impassive. As she emerged from this state, and began to answer questions, she said she had not suffered any anguish from this immobility. Rather, she said, “I really had nothing to say”. Lack of mental and physical animation went hand in hand.


Developmental Stages

 Knowledge is only rumour until it is in the muscle - New Guinea proverb

Muscle is literally developed thro ugh contact with the world. In the beginning the uterine environment offers the baby resistance to its own movement, as well as offering the experience of the mother's movements. This is followed by birth which requires powerful physical effort and an immense act of will on the part of the birthing child. "As the head of the birthing child pushes into and through the birth canal and the tail of the spine and the feet respond by pushing against the contracting walls of the womb, the push of the head transforms into a reaching through to the new world outside."  (Hartley, 53)[7]

The development of voluntary  - as opposed to reflexive - muscle activity happens in a precisely differentiated sequence. Learning gross and fine motor control takes place intensively in the first seven years - sucking, manipulating objects, rolling, crawling, walking, speaking, writing - but continues to be refined throughout latency, adolescence and adulthood.[8]

            When the bare feet of the baby beat across the grass

            The little white feet nod like white flowers in the wind,

            They poise and run like ripples lapping across the water


Muscle, brain and ego development are inseparable, and depend on sensory and relational (human) feedback: "the greatest sensory motor organisation occurs during adaptive response....each adaptive response leads to further integration of sensations....[and] leaves the brain in a more organised state." (Bernhardt, 54) The acquisiton of new skills leads to a sense of mastery, and an increase in the capacity for reality testing, which strengthens the ego. Common phrases about being able to "handle" life, or "get a grip" or "put the best foot forward", and "take a step in the right direction" sum up our intuitive understanding of this connection.

Challenge and new input are vital to further development. However, trauma and high levels of stress  reduce the sensory field, which is a key integrating system. Deficits and traumatic interactions appear as a disturbance or imbalance in tonicity of specific muscle groups, which affect the final shape, movement, and style of the adult body.


Tone means pitch or tension, and refers to the state or quality of the muscle: it expresses the readiness of the muscle to act, to respond, to relate. Hypertonus refers to highly toned or tense muscle; hypotonus refers to low tone, or slackness. illus.bab1.tif Tone is a product of the interplay of : the health and maturity of the organs;  the quality, or lack, of dynamic support;  the child's degree of mobility; and continuity of or interruptions to meaningful emotional contact. Tone develops from using the muscles and for this the infant requires motivation, desire, and attention. The dynamics of meeting, overcoming, yielding to gravity and balancing resistance - gained through play with others and exploring a diverse and structured environment - are vital food for the developing muscles. The weight of the body being moved through space becomes the resistive force which increases the strength and support of the larger, more powerful muscles.

"Postural tone begins to develop in utero....after birth, the tone continues to be a response to gravity and is further modified by the way we are related to physically, perceptually and emotionally. Tone is relative and is reflective  of the interaction between one's inner and outer environment." (Cohen, 125)


Flexion is the characteristic state of the infant in utero, where the flexor muscles on the front of the body are toned so that the body is curled up. Outside the womb, the developmental thrust is towards extension, with the extensor muscles of the back gaining tone until the point when the infant can fully arch. This basic process overlaps with the gradual individuation of flexion and extension in each limb. This develops through the emergence of the reflexes, equilibrium responses, and the acquisition of motor skills.[9] A balance between  flexor and extensor muscles is reflected in good overall tone and a sense of being grounded. Too much tone in flexors either manifests in the tendency to curl up, or in a compensatory attitude in the extensors, a braced attitude.  Flexion and extension underlie our most basic expressive movement patterns. Flexion suggests containment, contraction, closing, hiding, protecting, retreating, defending.

Extension implies expansion, opening, reaching, pushing, showing, exposing, moving outward/ toward.[10]

Flexion......                                                     Extension

You lie, snail-like, on your stomach -             The authentic! It rolls

I dare not speak or touch,                                just out of reach, beyond

Knowing too well the ways of our kind-         running feet and

The retreat, the narrowing spiral                    stretching fingers

Wendy Cope,  'Depression'                                    Denise Levertov, 'Matins' (Adcock)

The Psychological Function of Muscle

A Historical Perspective:

Wilhem Reich - Muscle armour and character

Wilhelm Reich, the father of body psychotherapy and a major influence on the development of bodywork, was the first to postulate a direct connection between musculature and psychological function.[11]   "Muscular rigidity....represents the most essential part of the process of repression ....and is the basis of its continued preservation." (1947, 39) Muscle rigidity became known as armour, and its function, according to Reich, was to bind or block "basic biological excitations", such as  anxiety, hate or sexual feelings. It is the functional equivalent of the ego's binding of unacceptable impulses. Its origin is in the infant or child's habitual inhibition of impulses and expressions of feeling in situations of unpleasure, typically the disapproval of its parents and significant others. The child learns to tense the muscles to hold back the movement or feeling - whether it is a facial expression, or an undesired behaviour - and when this is done repeatedly, the muscular holding pattern becomes chronic and unconscious.[12]

The muscular inhibition of an impulse is a concrete and visible manifestation of the parental or environmental prohibition. It is the physical manifestation of the process of introjection. (Johnson, .68)

Reich characterised muscular armour as being divided into seven horizontal segments, from the ocular segments to the legs, depending on the emotional function of each area.[13]   He also recognised how an individual's muscular armour carried the nuance and idiom of his sense of identity.  He described a patient whose "reserved countenance...noble stride and... patrician bearing" was very striking. Reich told him that he was playing the role of an English lord, and this led directly to the patient's revelation of a long-standing fantasy that he had an aristocratic lineage, in contrast to his status as the son of "an insignificant Jewish merchant". (1947, 194-5) In this example the identity has a defensive function correlative with the patient's attempt to remain "above it all", ie. on top of his feelings. Today we might also note that the fantasy is also an effect of internalised anti-Semitism. "Every muscular rigidity contains the history and meaning of its origin."(1947     )

Breathing – “the central mechanism”

Reich grasped  the fundamental role of breathing in controlling emotions.  Before  fim the French psychologist, Janet 

The direct manipulation of the muscles, including pressure on muscle insertions,  became an intrinsic part of Reich's characterological work. Supported and interwoven with verbal analysis, this helped support  vegetative changes, cathartic release - such as sobbing or shouting - and softening and enlivening of the musculature. Reich's language of  therapeutic "attack" and "breaking down defences"  comes across today as inappropriately aggressive, but the basic principle of addressing muscular armour as part of a broader therapeutic endeavour has had a far reaching influence.

The Biodynamic model:

The startle reflex and the somatic compromise

Boyesen recognised the activation and incompletion of the startle reflex as an important pattern underlying habitual muscular contraction.[14] (see Bones chapter) The inhibited reflex results in contractive patterns retained as micro-gestures. This is the startle remnant, which co-exists with the maintenance of a tendency to hold the diaphragm in an inspiratory tension, and other vegetative holding patterns, to create what Boyesen called the somatic compromise. In extreme cases, the gesture, such as ducking the head, and moving the shoulders forward to protect the heart, is visibly reified in the musculature.

Boyesen emphasises that the failure of the parental environment is a key factor in the development of the somatic compromise. Both Reich and Boyesen focussed on the effects of repressive parenting on children, but paid less attention to the infant's need for holding, before they have attained significant voluntary muscle activity.[15] Falling anxiety - which can relate to the absence of good enough psychological as well as physical holding - can set up some of the deepest patterns of underlying muscular rigidity. David Boadella writes, "how we handle the infant in these first early hours and days establishes basic patterns in how he holds his body, his muscular organisation as he resists and opposes or surrenders to gravity." (Life, 59)

The Motoric Ego

In the biodynamic model the musculature became more broadly  associated with ego function and self-regulation: "the ego regulates the id's vertical upsurge by means of the horizontal counterforce of the bodies' musculature". (Clov,INN) The muscles are seen as a structural container. 'Horizontal' functions are to do with agency, the ability to translate ideas into action, to interacting in and with the world. The muscular system embodies the 'motoric ego' . The 'vertical', embodied in the alimentary  or 'id-canal' is the instinctual force of feeling and impulse. Ideally, vertical and horizontal work together in  'dynamic  equilibrium', creating psychological, physical and energetic balance, reflected in good muscle tone. As Boadella phrases it, "the inner organ language of the vegetative system"  is integrated with "the outer muscle language of the muscular-skeletal system" (Roots, 17)[16]    This constitutes ego-strength, a psychological term to which  Gerda Boyesen gives a physiological dimension. 

Where the ego has a pseudo-strength - ie. the person has a capacity to act, and to do, but little sense of sponteneity or meaning  - this is reflected in rigid muscles. There may be heavy armouring in places of the body to which expression has been denied. By contrast, the ego weak person is overwhelmed by the feelings and impulses of the id, and has difficulty  containing the charge or bringing it to fruition in the world. He or she  is ungrounded, finding it hard to focus and identify needs, and easily thrown off balance. From Lilemor Johnson, Gerda learned about the underdevelopment of muscle which relates to problems in early development, and this is reflected in the ego weak person's flaccidity of muscle and tendency to collapse. Low muscle tone is related to over-active or compensatory fantasy; high muscle tone is related to control.

[extend Johnson?]

[Boadella and Biosynthesis

vertical and horizontal grounding

David Smith 'Movement and Character'  integrating Laban's work

recent developments?]

The Bodynamic concept: muscle as a resource

At the Bodynamic Institute in Denmark , Lisbeth Marcher has integrated Reich's and Johnson's discoveries, with an in-depth understanding of psychomotor development. [17]She emphasises that sensory -motor development takes place in relation to people and the environment. For the growing infant and child, each new level of development, new motor capacities provide possibilities for new sensory experience, new perspectives, and new possibilities for interacting with the world. In addition, for the ego to develop, "the child needs to acquire forms for the containment of energy, for protecting the self against overwhelming external stimulus and for distancing the self from internal stimulus that cannot be regulated." (Marcher, 59) Muscles are thus understood as being a resource which enable motor activity, containment, self-regulation and reality testing.

The sequence of muscle development is quite specific, and  Marcher has developed a diagnostic technique called 'body mapping', which consists of testing the major muscles for their hyper or hypo responsiveness. It is based on the notion that muscles have a dual response to stress, becoming either hyper- or hypotonic. If a stressor is relatively light or comes at an age where there has been sufficient development , the muscle is likely to become hypertonic. If the stressor is relatively massive, or is premature for a child's developmental stage, the muscle will be hypotonic. The distribution of muscular tonicity, its pattern and degree reflects each person's complex and unique history

Chiron - an integrative model

Charge theory, developed at Chiron, draws on the theory and practice of Gestalt, developmental models, Reichian, Jungian and Object Relations. This is an integrative model based  on understanding and responding to the client's habitual fixed relational postures. It explores how these muscular attitudes impact on the therapist through direct observation and bodily resonance (countertransference). In this sense, muscle carries the charge in the transference-countertransference relationship.

Muscular Themes

The following is a brief summary of themes, many of which have already implied in earlier sections of this chapter.


Intention, from the Latin, in-tendere - to stretch toward

Muscle tone and quality reflects ego capacity to the degree that we are organically organized for any given activity. This means being able to focus our attention and intention on an activity and feel adequate to the task.Muscles reflect our sense of purpose, or lack of purpose. illus. meliss1.tif

        I ate the day

            Deliberately, that its tang

            Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

            H 92

We can use brisk muscular activity - walking, cleaning, exercise - to shore up the ego in times of strain. Taken to an extreme, physical activity for its own sake can be mechanical, even robotic. When activity is disconnected from an inner source, we refer to  'going through the motions', a phrase associated with a person who is in shock or severely depressed. Or we may see it as manic activity, a flight from the internal world.

Optimally, muscle is a vehicle for expressing and fulfilling our selves:

            The hands that hammered in those nails

            emptied that kettle one last time

            are these two hands

            and they have caught the baby leaping

            from between trembling legs

            and they have worked the vacuum aspirator

            and stroked the sweated temples

            and steered the boat....

            Rich, 9

Body Image, Identity and Identification

It is not the body-object described by biologists that actually exists, but the body as lived in by the subject. (Beauvoir, 1953, 69)

The muscular system carries our ego identity in the broadest sense. How we use our muscle, our characteristic posture, gait, gesture reflects and communicates a great deal about our gender, class, race, culture, and lifestyle, as well as our developmental history. Embedded in our muscles are all the skills, habits, expressions and defences we have acquired. The range of our learning includes normal development skills, such as feeding, and walking; specific skills - such as weaving, carpentry, juggling, driving; character attitudes, such as defiance or deference; patterns stemming from trauma, including birth trauma; and identifications made with others. 

Psychological identification happens to a significant extent through mirroring or mimicking another's physical stance and movements, or echoing their shape or rhythm. Identification is one of our earliest expressions of an emotional tie with another. It may be deliberate and purposeful - as when learning a skill - or it may be unconscious, stemming largely from emotional needs or defences. It is a major psychological tool of the human species, enabling us to survive, to understand others, and make connections with families or groups that we use to define ourselves.[18]

I stamp like the bear    I call like the wind of the thaw

I leap like the sea spring-running.

My sun-struck daughters splutter

and chuckle and bang their spoons:

Mummy is singing at breakfast and dancing!

20C 267

Identification  has many aspects to it but to understand how muscles are involved in this process, it is useful to compare the phenomena of imprinting in animals.  Imprinting was studied by Konrad Lorenz, who observed that when ducklings hatch they respond to the first thing that moves - in this experiment, him - follow it and treat it as mother. He found that if he reintroduced them to the real mother, they still continued to treat him as mother, and carried on copying his movements.

Identification complicates identity because it is multiplicitous, generating layer upon layer of history and potential. illus. head1.tif From object relations, we derive the understanding that it is not just individual figures that we internalize but actually relationships between ourselves and others. For example, a girl bullied by her elder sister may identify with her (identification with the aggressor), and carry in her body both the frightening object and the frightened one (herself). The sister's movements of swaggering, threatening, hitting are remembered internally as a particular set of movements, while the experience of being the victim is held in a feeling of being paralysed.  Later in life, moving in a certain way may be unconsciously associated with power and danger, whilst being still  may be associated with hiding.

The concept of body image explored by psychologists and psychoanalysts comes over as rather static, and overly visual.[19] But it has highlighted our culture's narcissistic obsession with the body, and the body as battleground for control between, for example, a mother and daughter.[20]It has been usefully taken up in art and movement therapy, as well as body psychotherapy, as a way of helping the client access and represent feelings about themselves.

Arnold Schwartenegger articulates the narcissistic attitude: You don't really see a muscle as part of you....the bicep has to be longer, or the tricep thicker...You look at it and it doesn't even seem to belong to you. Like a sculpture, you form it. (Schwartzenegger, Wood, 122)

Instinctual Patterns and Archetypes

Not all fixed patterns are limiting. The reflexes which makes you put your hands out to break a fall, or which enable you to swallow, or which sustain uterine contractions during labour are part of our human inheritance. They can be considered the physiological equivalents of psychological archetypes, deep patterns or imprints which connect us to our species and are intrinsic to survival and reproduction. A physical reflex may constitute a literal response to a tangible event, or it may appear as a form of memory (often a traumatic memory), or as a symbolic communication. Examples such as feeding, gagging or birth reflexes carry powerful object-relational dynamics, often embodying deeply unconscious statements of relationships and orientation.[21]

Contact/Grounding/Reality Testing

body as an object in space and time

"The beginning of the loss of reality testing in schizophrenia lies in a patient's misinterpretation of sensations arising in his own body." (FO, 24)

needs extending....

 sensory info vital

“Primordial representations of the body proper in action [..] offer a spatial and temporal framework, a metric on which other representations could be grounded. The representation of what we now construct as space with three dimensions would be engendered in the brain, on the basis of the body’s anatomy and patterns of movement in the environment.” (Damasio, 1994, 235)


"Muscle is the tissue with which we surely feel the present moment. Bones grow over decades, connective tissue tends to change over months or years.But muscles can go through contraction, extension, and holding all in the course of moments" RN

Muscle is contractile and excitable and therefore instantly responsive, enabling us to move and react with skill, speed, and sponteneity. We have seen how muscular stiffness (armour) indicates an emotional inhibition, but hyperflexibility can represent the opposite polarity, "passivity and a highly emotive consciousness”, a lack of internal structure and rapidly fluctuating ego states. (Maps, 38)  Muscle has the function of stabilising the flow of energy, whether it is conceived of as metabolic or psychic energy. The musculature regulates through movement, or contracting against the impulse  - hence the function of exercise, or compulsive actions or gestures, such as foot tapping, in 'using up' or 'diverting' psychic energy.

Containment/ Boundaries/ Interface

Muscle provides shape and structure in the body, defining and making boundaries between sections of the body, and between the individual's internal structure and the outer world. Cross restrictions The muscular mass can provide a sense of substance and structure beneath the superficial boundary of the skin. Likewise, Reich described the ego as a "buffer in the struggle between id and the outer world".

If we repeatedly use the muscles for pushing away, and not pulling towards

The musculature provides a crucial container for binding and organising energy, and its capacity to do so is reflected in the tonus and differentiation of the muscles.

"The ego is as strong as the amount of energy it can meet without there being shock". (Gvirtzman, 39)


 "Words can lie. The expression never lies. Although most people are unaware of it, it is the immediate manifestation of character" (Reich 19 73: 171) Or as it is put in NLP "you cannot not communicate." The totality of muscular patterns, both chronic and temporary, conscious and unconscious, creates a constant stream of information and communication. For example, we sense whether someone's smile is genuine or not. This is possible because involuntary expression is activated subcortically (in the limbic system), whilst deliberate expression is activated through the cortex, or 'higher' brain. The genuine smile actually engages an additional set of muscles around the eyes, and we intuitively know that "smiling with the eyes" indicates a deeper level of feeling than a smile which looks "plastered on." [22] Despite the musculature’s capacity to inhibit impulse,  it represents as it conceals. This is the paradox:  it expresses even as it defends against, and it conserves as it wards off feeling. Like a symptom.[23]


"Sometimes the [...] impulse and the inhibition of the same impulse can be localised in the same muscle group [....] the conflict between impulse and defence, with which we are so familiar in the psychic realm, has a direct correlation in physiological behaviour. At other times, impulse and inhibition are distributed among various muscle groups" WR 330

Muscles are constructed to work around tension, operating in complementary or opposing pairs. Feeling our muscles can give us the experiential sense of dynamism and division, force against force, as in wrestling or struggling against another, or ourselves. As we are jammed in internal conflict, the stuckness is palpable in the knots and tensions in our musculature. Muscle has a paradoxical function: it 'pulls us together' - organises us into a familiar pattern, including energetic withdrawal and binding of anxiety, rage, sadness - even as its tension embody our splits.

 "There is constriction around my neck and in a diagonal line down my back. By holding certain of my muscles, I literally seem to create the physical sensation of being split off from myself.....And now...I feel a different kind of muscular patterning. I feel excited and can feel the muscles around my chest extend.  The muscles in my face which control smiling are starting to contract.

I wonder is there any part of my experience which is not expressed with my muscles?"

"I notice I am straining muscles around my diaphragm, contracting muscles in my neck and high up next to my occiput. Its a feeling that I want to batten everything down .......I want to grasp the truth with my muscles."

"I feel this deep sense of habit in my muscular patterning, the sense of wanting to withdraw, and hold and contract while pushing and straining. Its all a muscular trip. I have the image of a friend smiling and feel something happening in my heart, and my face muscles contract and extend into a broad smile. My diaphragm flutters, my throat constricts again. There seems to be no ending."

This stream-of-consciousness report gives clues to the hidden conflicts beneath the surface eloquence, as attention moves from one aspect or impulse to another. The mental image, or topography of the postural model of the body is continuously being constructed and destroyed. (Schilder in Levy 9)

Synthesis/ Integration

"The rhythmicity of one's movements, the alternation of muscular tension and relaxation in movement go together with the capacity for linguistic modulation and general musicality" (Reich, CA, 345) Just as the musculature can reflect the strain of holding together conflicted parts, so too it can embody through an individual's grace,  and intricacy of movement an extraordinary synthesis of sponteneity and acquired skill. 

O body swayed to music, oh brightening glance

how can we know the dancer from the dance?


In a therapeutic context there may be a 'coming together' in the client, visible in the musculature as a deepened breath, aliveness and congruence in their presence - a 'bodyshift' equivalent to, and sometimes accompanied by, a conscious insight.

Muscle and Ego: Parallel Functions

Unusually, rather than just using psychological/analytical models and clinical experience as the basis for defining ego, I have tried to extend the notion of ego by deepening my understanding of neurology and physiology, particularly of the muscle. Of course the totality of ego functions depends on the body as a whole - it arises out of the interaction of multiple systems. But the biological and developmental function of muscle has important parallels with ego, and I believe the concept of the motoric ego is sufficiently robust to bear expanding.

Muscle is the system we think of when we talk about the body working. In psychoanalysis "working through" implies the ego's struggle to integrate.  Both muscle and ego go through stages of profound change between foetal life, infancy and adulthood : a development which is not just a growth in size, but the evolution to a more highly organised state. The adult ego of the mother or her substitute 'holds' the baby while it progressively learns to hold itself; the earth/floor or parent holds the baby as it lies until it is able through rolling, crawling and finally standing to hold itself up against gravity.

The analyst Micheal Balint, who was influenced by Reich and Ferenzci, and who articulated the difference between benign and malign regression, noted the parallel responses of ego and muscle to the viscissitudes of life. "When the strain is too great, the child has two ways of recovering his balance. Either his ego may be overwhelmed by the growing excitation and a state of panic sets in, which then finds relief in an outbreak of affect and unco-ordinated movements. Or else it will do its utmost  and call up all his energies to  stem the excitation. The first method resembles a clonic,[24] and the second a tonic spasm [...] these two modes of reaction are the ego's primal forms of defence." [25]

Muscle and ego both have a characteristic capacity to divide against themselves in order to hold a peripheral structure together, and protect a deeper structure. As NickTotton  puts it, Reich's discovery was that "the ego[....] pits muscular energy against itself - using muscular tension to inhibit muscular impulse." The capacity of the ego/muscles for "interrupting, holding back [...] can be a deliberate temporary reaction or it can be a chronic fixed habitual pattern which is outside awareness. The first one is an important source of creativity (Jung's opus contra naturam). Its the latter which Reich considered to be the root of neurosis." (Soth, 17)


Adcock, Fleur ed. (1987)Twentieth Century Women’s Poetry (Faber, London)

Beauvoir, S.  (1953) The Second Sex

Berhardt, P. and Bentzen, M. (  ) ‘Waking the Body Ego: Lisbeth Marcher’s Somatic Developmental Psychology’ in Energy and Character (Abbotsbury Publications}

Boadella, D. ed (   ) Maps of Character

Boadella, D. (1997) ‘Awakening sensibility, recovering motility. Paycho-physical synthesis at the foundation s of body psychotherapy’ in International Journal of Psychotherapy vol. 2, no.1

Capra, F. (1996) The Web of Life: A new Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (Doubleday, New York)

Cohen, Bonnie Bainbridge  (   ) Sensing, Feeling and Action

Damasio, A. (1994) Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (Putnam, New York)

Damsio, A. (1999) The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness (Heineman, London)

Dychtwald, K  Bodymind

Gvirtzman, D. (1990) ‘Bones, Self and Paradox’ Energy and Character (Abbotsbury Publications vol 21, no.2

Hartley, L. The Wisdom of the Body Moving

Heaney, S. (1988) New Selected Poems 1966-1987 (Faber)

Juhan, D. Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodyworkers

Lawrence, D. H. Selected Poems (Penguin)

Lederman, E  (1997) Fundamentals of Manual Therapy: Physiology, Neurology and Psychology (Churchill Livingstone, London)

Levy, F (1988) Dance Movement Therapy (NDA AAHPERD)

Olds, S (1980) Satan Says (U. Pittsburgh Press)

Reich, W. (1945) Character Analysis (Reprinted, Farrar, New York, 1990)

Reich, W.  (1947) The Function of the Orgasm (Reprinted Souvernir Press, 1990)

Rich, A.(1981) A Wild Patience Has Taken Me Thus Far: Poems 1978:1981 (Norton, London)

Rolf, I. (1977) Rolfing: the Integration of Human Structures (Harper, London)

Soth, M. (2000) ‘Body/mind Integration’ AChP Newsletter, nos 17, 18, 19

Totton, N. (1998) The Water in the Glass: Body and Mind in Psychoanalysis (London, Rebus Press)

Ussher, J Body Talk

Wood, K. ed Identity and Difference

[1] This is not meant to suggest an equation of muscle with the totality of ego functions, other body systems reflect other aspects of ego - eg. the skin ego (see chapter on Skin)- and of course the cortex as a key information processing centre (cognitive ego).

[2] A term originally used by Freud..Reich used the terms ego and id, although he substantially modified them. (see Totton) Body psychotherapy follows this tradition. Changes in emphasis make use of terms ironic -  Freud's 'id' or 'it' ( a term he borrowed from Groddeck) evokes a sense of alienation from the unconscious. In body psychotherapy the id is seen as a spontaneous impulse to be invited, supported and nourished as belonging to the client's real self. Ego on the other hand, rather than being an 'I' (the English translation of the Latin) is constituted from introjects and therefore less 'I' than 'it'!  The term self is used to refer to the individual's experienced sense of self, and more generally to the totality of the personality, as Jungians use it. 

[3] Viewed more systemically, Juhan makes the point that its probably more accurate to think of muscle as one organ, with many compartments, rather than as six hundred separate muscles.

[4] A point made by the German pioneer in movement analysis, Rudolf Laban, who has been a major influence on dance movement therapy and on some body psychotherapists - See Boadella and Smith Maps of Character and Fran Levy  Dance Movement Therapy (Virginia, 1988)

[5] This radical breakthrough in understanding results from an accumulation of information across disciplines, including insight from systems and information theory. A lucid exposition of this revolution is to be found in Damasio Descartes' Error.

[6] This is general learning theory. However, in NLP - which, among many things, is a theory of learning - it is posited that individuals have particular biases towards sensory/representational systems. Some people are said to learn optimally through the kinesthetic (ie proprioceptive) while others are dominated more by auditory or visual learning styles. A similar concept of sensory “channels” for information is found in Mindell’s Process Oriented Psychology. The more sensory input across modalities we have, the more information we have. 

[7] Research into all aspects in uterine life and the birth process has given us a deeper understanding of the life-long significance of this event for an individual. It underpins or is an integral part of several major therapies: rebirthing, holotropic breath work, bodymind centering, primal integration, biosynthesis and, to some degree, all forms of body psychotherapy. Outstanding pioneers in this field include Stanislav Grof who explored the relationship of prebirth and birth experiences to personality organisation and patterns of transformation within the psyche; Francis Mott, David Wasdell and Frank Lake, who focussed on the life processes in embryonic existence.  Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen has created - or integrated - a way of working with developmental processes that is grounded in a very precise underststanding of the interplay of body systems. See Linda Hartley, The Wisdom of the Body Moving.

[8]   An embodied understanding of physical/emotional development is in terms of grounding, grasping etc is one of the foundations of body psychotherapy. See Keleman, Lowen, Boadella. In particular David Smith's essays on  'Biodynamics and Object Relations' in Maps of Character constitute important integrative work.

[9] See 'The Alphabet of Movement' in Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen Sensing, Feeling and Action

[10]   This polarity is similarto Boadella's distinction between schizoid and hysterical patterns, Maps of Character.

[11]   Reich's work and influence on subsequent therapies has been covered else where  bibliog.   David Boadella's article 'Somatic Psychotherapy: its roots and traditions' , Energy and Character, vol 21. no.1, April 1990 delineates the extensive network of influence generated by Reich and the variety of its therapeutic transformations. For other commentaries on Reich's influence see Micheal Soth 'Relating to and with the Objectified Body' Self and Society, vol no.    , Bernd Eiden  'The History of Body Psychotherapy - an overview', Counselling  vol     , and Nick Totton TheWater in the Glass: Body and Mind in Psychoanalysis (Rebus, London, 1998).

[12] Reich's theory of muscle armour is only briefly summarised here. It has been widely covered by other writers, particularly David Boadella. (See bibliography)

[13] For an extended description of Reichian segments, see Jack Rosenberg Body,Self and Soul ,  A.Lowen, The Language of the Body and Ken Dychtwald, Bodymind.

[14] Reich also refers to the startle reflex, which has been seen in body psychotherapy as the fundamental reflex which, disturbed in function, underlies neurosis. However, I believe the startle reflex has been emphasised to the exclusion of a whole range of other significant reflexes. According to Cohen, it is the development of all the equilibrium, orientation and survival reflex which together which influences the overall tonus of muscles.

[15] Both were keen supporters of more liberal styles of parenting, a tradition continued by many body psychotherapists today. For a deeper understanding of physical/emotional/environmental holding, body psychotherapy has drawn on Winnicott.

[16] Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen has arrived at a similar model in her development of Body Mind Centering, which has mapped  the energetic and physiological connections between the organs and the motoric system through exploration in movement and contact.

[17] Marcher's work has been brought to Chiron by Babette Rothschild as part of her Somatic Trauma Therapy Course. I'd like to see more integration of muscle analysis into our teaching!

[18] Identification has been widely treated in the literature of psychoanalysis and psychology, but its physiological aspect has been largely overlooked (the exception being Dance movement therapy). Though I emphasise muscles here, it involves all the systems of the body, right down to a cellular level. See pp,...

[19] e.g Body Talk Ed. Jane Ussher and Identity and Difference, ed. K Woodward

[20] I distinguish between muscular identification, which is based on pattern, attitude and movement and incorporation, which is a fantasy of swallowing or in some way taking in an object into the body, and refers to the oral stage in development.

[21] See my article 'Mapping the body: Massage and Psychotherapy'.

[22] This example is given by Damasio in Descartes' Error, p.140-2.

[23] Whole books are devoted to this subject, for example: Lowen's Language of the Body and Kurtz' The Body Reveals, which give details of segmental and characterological armouring and expression.

[24] Clonic - a convulsive spasm, alternating contraction and relaxation of the muscle. From the Greek klonos tumult.

[25] From Primary Love and Psychoanalytic Technique (New York, 1965), quoted in 'Biodynamics and Object Relations'  by David Smith, who points our that Balint was influenced By Ferenczi and Reich.


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