Body therapy – my experience with Pesso Boyden

Jul 3, 2017


It is a warm and sunny day and I find myself sitting on a beanbag in a light and airy room in a small Oxfordshire village. I have come here to take part in the second of four Pesso Boyden experiential days and, although I have been to one training day already, I am not sure I am quite aware of what is about to happen to me. I have signed up for these days because I want to explore a new form of therapy. Although Pesso Boyden – which originated in New York by two dancers Albert Pesso and Diane Boyden – was created as a system a few decades ago, it is relatively new to the UK.

What Albert Pesso saw with his dancers was how they could reach a certain standard of dance yet something was holding them back. He begun to wonder if it was an emotional block rather than just physical that prevented them from reaching a higher level. He then created a system in which the participants could find a physical experience of past painful events and then, through re-experiencing them but having a ‘different’ more positive version of past events, these traumas would lessen in their hold and effect.

Over the past few weeks, I have seen this in action. Through what Al Pesso called ‘structures’, I have watched other participants curl in to balls and cry. I have watched a range of deeply emotional reactions come to the fore – there’s been crying, wailing, laughter, joy. It has left me feeling moved and somewhat nervous all at the same time.

While I am keen on doing my own structure, I am worried about what might ‘come up’ for me.

Yet I have always been fascinated in how we hold difficult and desperate emotions in our bodies. In my own clinical practice, I see emotional trauma express itself through physical problems on a regular basis. There is the man, traumatised by divorce, who couldn’t cry and had a HUGE stye in his eye. There is the woman whose husband and mother had died very recently and within months of each other who said she felt ‘paralysed’ by grief and was actually paralysed down her right hand side.

Sometimes people find it very difficult to think about or get anywhere near accepting that their body is holding their trauma.

It is even more difficult to ponder on the fact that, by re-experiencing something, we may go some way in shifting it. But, what has come obvious to me, is that we all have ‘gut’ feelings and, when I pay attention to what is going on in my body, I often feel a pain/nausea/unease in my stomach. It is there with me much of the time – this feeling of fear, dread, anxiety, abandonment.

This is why I am now sitting opposite my Pesso Boyden trainer. Her role is to take me to the place where this ill-feeling resides. She does this by asking me questions and using a range of props as ‘placeholders’. She puts in front of me some stones and shells and various other bits of coloured ribbons. As I talk about people such as my mother and father, she asks me to choose an object to represent them. Pretty soon I have a range of shells, stones and ribbons in front of me representing friends and family and what they mean to me.

While I am talking, the trainer is watching me very carefully. She comments on what is going on in my body, saying things like, “a witness can see how happy you look when you talk about your husband.” In this technique, the word ‘I’ is not used by the trainer – this is because the concept of being ‘witnessed’ can be very validating and it also makes it less about the trainer and more about the whole group witnessing what is going on.

Somehow – and I am not sure how this happens – we end up with my issues around my father and how he left my family when I was young without saying goodbye. When we get to this place, she notices I give a big sigh. I tell her I am tired of talking about this. I have had years of therapy and have explored this early abandonment in numerous sessions. However, the trainer asks if I would like to ‘role’ people up. This is another element of the Pesso Boyden experience. People in the group take on roles such as ‘ideal mother’ and ‘ideal father’. They then follow the script set out by the trainer, sometimes saying words or holding the client. It depends on what the trainer thinks the client might need.

In my case, we agree that I would like two members of the group to take on being my ‘ideal’ parents. The trainer places them where she thinks it is best for me, close but not overwhelmingly so.

Suddenly, as my ‘ideal’ father gazes at me lovingly, I feel the horrible sensation in my stomach again. It grips me, a spasm of pain. I bend over and a helpless, furious noise comes out of me, right from the bottom of my belly. It’s like a howl and a yell and it sounds abandoned and angry all at the same time.

My ‘ideal’ father is given words to speak, how, if he was my father, he would never have left me.

That is it for me. I cannot help myself. I am howling and yelling and crying all at the same time. I have no idea how long this goes on for, time seems to amass in to one long unbroken continuum. All I am aware of is this pain in my stomach and my ‘ideal’ parent speaking tender, kind reassuring words to me. Then, as fast is the pain comes, it subsides. I go from being tearful and distressed to calm and quiet.

The trainer gradually brings my ‘structure’ to a close. It turns out it has taken two whole hours. She asks me how I feel and I have to be honest. I am exhausted and a bit shaken.

When I get home that night, I just want to go to bed and I sleep very deeply.

But, for the next few days, I think about what has gone on. The idea is that, by using objects, I get a sensory feeling for who is in my life and what they mean to me. The experience of the ‘ideal parents’ means that, on some level, I have had a totally different experience to the one I actually did have of my childhood abandonment. It doesn’t change what actually happened, but the idea is that my body has ‘felt’ what it is like to have an alternative version or body memory of those traumatic events. I have experienced what it would have been like if my father had been ‘ideal’ and not left. It is a difficult system to understand, but I do sort of get it.

Has it made a difference? I am not sure as yet. I do know that I am now far more able to recognise this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach and calm it down. That, in itself, is a huge step forwards. There is more to be done here, I feel, but I am interested in what the final two sessions will bring up.