© Rainer Mahr

The “Grounding” of   Bioenergetic  Concepts from a Biological Point of View. 

The headline of this article holds two hypotheses which could be relevant for the understanding and developing of Bioenergetic Analysis:

  1. The concepts of Bioenergetic Analysis need more clear grounding.
  2. The grounding of Bioenergetic Analysis is its biological point of view.  Or, it is helpful to observe bioenergetic concepts by biological glasses

Controversial discussions about medical and psychotherapeutic concepts are sometimes concluded with the remark “Who heals is right”. The dispute over the right and best treatment method is decided in practical work on the ground, not by comparison of different theoretical models.  But the following example will show that theoretical questions cannot be decided always with the sentence “Who heals is right”:

Mothers of infants who are constantly crying and who cannot be calmed down at all, find themselves very quickly in a desperate and helpless situation. Professional advisors recommend ever so often, not to pick the infant up, not to hug and console the child because it would mean to reward the crying and thus enhance it. This recommendation is supported by a basic, scientifically verified psychological theory: Every desired behavior of human beings and animals is acquired by learning and through the enhancement by rewarding when the behavior occurs at random.

Mothers who act according to this advice of not reacting to the unwanted behavior are usually successful. But it seems to almost break their hearts if they try to ignore the crying infant.

For other advisors who are more committed to bounding theories, this recommendation is a mere catastrophe. The infant stops crying only because he or she has given up and lost the hope that someone would listen to its distress. The child knows now that it doesn’t have to expect anything helpful in this world.

The desired result was achieved and thus the theory on which it is based is right. But the results of the successful intervention are somewhat problematic because they do not correspond with the perception and the needs of the infant. This problematic intervention was developed on the base of a correct theory which unfortunately does not really suit the problem which has to be solved. It is not based on facts of psychology of development and biology.

This means for the Bioenergetic Analysis:  According to the bioenergetic concept everything that happens in the human psyche expresses itself in the body. That means it happens with biological, chemical and physiological processes and it can be influenced by physical interventions. If this theory is true then these processes must be described in biological categories and must comply with them.

The body, and I mean the body as a whole from head to toe, is the reference on which the bioenergetic concepts are based and with which these concepts have to be justified.

The biological view of what is happening in psychotherapy is the “grounding” of Bioenergetic Analysis.

Not only we, the therapists or our clients need a good grounding. It is also necessary to examine, nurse, and stabilize bioenergetic concepts which I will try to do in the following remarks.

Doing this several topics are touched which are important for the bioenergetic theory and practice. But it is not possible to present them in detail here and now.  This is an experiment to describe the bioenergetic work in its wholeness with the biological glasses. A blueprint should be developed to understand and describe psychotherapeutic processes.


1.    Body, soul, and mind are functionally identical

Part of the grounding of bioenergetic concepts is the hypothesis of the functional identity of body, soul and mind. Physical sensations can find their expression in moods and emotions, feelings influence physical reactions, postures, voice, and breathing, etc. There is an interaction between physical structures and states of mind. It seems to be an interaction between two independent units, similar to the interaction between different organs. But with such an idea we fall back into a dualistic way of thinking which should have been overcome by the formulation of the functional identity of body, soul and mind.

The recent scientific discussion does not accept this dualistic view anymore. Especially neuroscience, which describes mental and intellectual occurrences with neuronal and biochemical categories and which finds rising consideration in Bioenergetic Analysis, has a clear biological perception.

On the other hand many experiences and discussions in the spiritual and esoteric field seem to support and revive the dualistic view. Meant are perceptions and experiences of a soul that exists independently from the body, a soul that can look onto the physical existence from the outside and that can come in touch with other souls. Other levels of existence emerge, in which the past, the presence, and the future are connected with each other and communicate with each other.

I don’t want to go deeper into this perception of the relation between body, soul, and mind. In this domain only people can contribute and comment who have made corresponding experiences themselves. Otherwise these perceptions have a very speculative character with arbitrary beliefs. Furthermore there is an extend discussion of the predominant biological position of neurosciences and its claim to be able to explain mind and spirit. It is a discussion related to philosophical and psychological facts with high emphasis using exact defined terms (Tretter, Grünhut).

This is an additional reason that the “physical view” on psychotherapeutic processes is a limited one maybe. But the scientific world of our occidental culture with which we are in exchange and by which we want to be noticed, has this biological view and the Bioenergetic Analysis was also developed in this tradition. Trials to integrate other points of view into the bioenergetic concept will become successful only if the foundation, the grounding is clear and stable and if we are aware of that.


2.    Structures and functional principals of the human organism.

For the Bioenergetic  Analysis focuses on physical processes and tries to understand and influence mental occurrences  in this way, essential structures, working principles and functional relations of the human organism need to be considered which create and influence the mental experience.

  1. The human being is a biological being. That means, he organizes his life exclusively with biological, chemical, and physical processes. These processes can be observed, measured and influenced; Health and vitality are depending on their effectiveness.
  2. What is the sense of these biological processes? Or, in other words: What is the sense of life? People concern themselves with this question in different ways until they die. Philosophy and religion offer manifold answers with different impact. From the biological point of view the answer is clear: Whatever people do and try, the main goal is to survive, to survive in an easier and better way, and to guarantee the survival of mankind. Every day people gain new, more or less helpful experiences, and come to new insights about themselves and the world. This does not happen for its own sake but is meant to help stabilizing our existence. The only criteria in judging whether a new knowledge or insight, a new product, or a psychotherapeutic method is good or bad, is its value for sustaining life and world.
  3. All vital processes take place in cells. Every cell is a complete and independent living being. The human organism is the association of innumerous monocellular living organisms. Some day these monocellular living beings have formed a community. The possibility of survival was easier to guarantee this way.  (Bacteria populate in great quantity our world and our body. They are helping or harming us with their great vigor and vitality but they only consist of a single cell and existed already long time before the human species appeared.)   This is of enormous importance for the body-psychotherapeutic view for focusing mainly on neuronal processes, muscle structures and other areas of the organism means ignoring at the same time a huge part of human reality. Every cell and every cell community is molded and configurated by the entire development of the human being. Every cell participates therefore also in processes of live and their changes in one way or the other. If they cannot be reached directly or indirectly by therapeutic intervention, a new orientation of the system can only be partly successful.
  4. The symbiotic community of monocellular living organisms has developed structures based on the division of labor which are linked with each other and can work coordinated. In order to ensure mutual information and the supply with necessary material, appropriate and corresponding information systems and supply channels are in place:
    • Circulatory system
    • Central nervous system (CNS)
    • (The neuronal processes, with which the CNS works, have a function for this symbiotic community but are not life or the nucleus of this life itself)
    • Autonomic nervous system
    • (Autonomic because the adaptations occur as reflexes, involuntarily)
    • Breathing system
    • Hormonal system
    • Lymph system
    • Photon system
    • Other, unknown systems

Many therapeutic concepts, including the body psychotherapy, try to influence these supply and communication channels which can be very effective and important. The actual life processes though don’t take place there but instead in the cells themselves. However the information and supply systems themselves are built by cell structures. Perhaps the following idea will clarify this complex and confusing situation:  People wish crossing a river but there is no bridge. The involved women with little children cannot swim.  Therefore part of the group goes down into the water creating a bridge with their bodies.  They are human beings and they go on being human beings but at the same time they are a bridge.

5. This community of monocellular organisms works basically with the principle of self regulation.

 For example: The cells in the human organism need a constant temperature of 37° degrees centigrade. If this temperature is exceeded by higher temperatures outside or hard work, the organism starts sweating and tries to cool itself down to the normal temperature.

These processes of self regulation are not limited to the structures inside the organism. If environmental conditions, in which the human organism exists, are changing, this organism has to be able to adapt itself (climate change, different food supply, etc) and it can. Finally this organism also needs the ability to regulate the relations to its social environment:

If a human being is forced to live with neighbors, then he or she should not disturb or annoy them if possible. He must prevent them from harming him; he must nurture contact in order to find help from them if he needs any.

Does this human being want children because he wants to be nursed in his old age or he wants to hand down his brilliancy then he must fall in love and be able to father children. Social competence is necessary for the ability of regulating conditions for an ideal life.


3.    Patterns of behavior

The human organism is an incredibly complex system that needs constantly to be measured, checked and regulated.  In order to simplify these different activities, they are combined in so called behavior patterns.

Who sits at the steering wheel of a car for the first time, has not developed behavior patterns for driving yet. Therefore it is rather difficult to think of all the necessary movements and maneuvers, to watch the traffic at the same time, and all of this in a coordinated way. Only after some training the ability develops to do all these things almost automatically. With such a pattern one can drive a car relaxed and secure; one can even talk to other people or enjoy the landscape.

Most of our actions consist of such behavior patterns.

If we want to move for example from one place to another, we just get up and go there. But for this movement we have to get up from our chair, look where we are aimed at, turn towards this aim, move one foot into the direction, shift the weight of our body onto this foot, move the second foot into the same direction, etc. This quite complex activity is simplified through the impulse to walk which invokes the pattern that has stored all the necessary movements and lets them unwind in a coordinated way.

Our mental and social actions are also predetermined with such patterns. They are formed in the course of our development and education. Many of them are also inborn or evolve from the configuration of specific genetic structures.

These patterns were acquired in a very specific reality of life and attuned to these conditions. A person who has grown up in a jungle has acquired patterns with which he can perfectly live there. If he comes into a big city, he will experience this environment as rather threatening and feel quite helpless. He has no behavior patterns for this kind of reality. He must change his patterns or develop entire new ones. The faster living conditions of a person are changing the more this person must be able to learn new patterns.

Neurobiological science was able to show by corresponding research how deeply ingrained these patterns in human beings are. Even before we become aware of doing this or letting drop that, one can predict what is going to happen by the changing activities in the brain. Neurobiological researchers concluded from this finding that there cannot be any autonomous decisions of humans. There is no free will. Other groups, among them legal practitioners discuss therefore whether it makes sense at all to hold people responsible for their actions and punish them. Biological processes are responsible that someone becomes a criminal, he himself cannot be blamed.

If these conclusions from the scientific findings are correct, psychotherapy as well doesn’t make any sense anymore. The behavior patterns are biologically deep seated and not accessible for any interventions. Every smoker, drinker or drug addict who has desperately tried to get rid of his addiction will subscribe to that.

These conclusions from scientific findings are drawn due to the dualistic view of the human being. Biological processes as source for certain behavior patterns are separated from the personality of a human being with its possibilities to make decisions. What emerges from the depth of neuronal structures has nothing to do with the person and he or she is also not responsible for it.

According to the holistic view of the Bioenergetic Analysis, these biological processes, as unconscious as they might be, belong to the personality of this individual and its character. As difficult as it might be to change some behavior patterns, it is basically possible. Constantly we humans are busy reflecting, whether we should or should not give in to this urge or the other, to change behavior patterns and often we are successful.

Since over sixty years conflicts among nations in Western Europe are settled through negotiations and not on the battle field. That means, after two horrible world wars the archaic behavior pattern of settling different interests among peoples by war, was changed. It cannot be the issue to challenge the institution of freedom of decision. If our world and our societies shall survive and solve the problems lined up, humans need to be able to change time and again and faster their behavior patterns.  We don’t need less but more free will.

To understand, reflect and change ways of thinking and behavior which rule our life, is the essence of psychotherapeutic work, irrespective of the applied method.


4.    Emotion, Feeling , Thought.

If the human organism is not able to create new patterns in a self regulative way or to eliminate dysfunctions, it becomes necessary to intervene from the outside in order to develop new patterns.

For that purpose it is first of all necessary to learn something about the disturbance or dysfunction of the system. Did a person severely hurt its foot, he or she must see and feel it and understand it as a danger. He or she sees the blood running from the wound, feels the pain, and becomes frightened. Without this information the person would not be able to help himself because he does not know anything about his problem.

One could compare this situation with the failing monitor of a computer. The computer continues working, but nobody knows what it is doing and nobody can influence the machine. The words, pictures and sounds on the screen show us, what is happening inside it. They do not exist in the processor itself but are the product of certain calculation results which are presented as words, pictures and sounds on the screen. 

All the information like pain and fear show that the organism is in danger, needs support or that it works with behavior patterns, which are not helpful for his reality of life.

From the physiological point of view these necessary information are measuring data. But it is presented to us as emotion and feelings like on the screen. They are created by the biological system but don’t exist as objects themselves.

On a CD with piano music you will not find a piano itself but it only sounds like a piano.

Feelings and emotion can activate other biological structures, which try out new behavior patterns and improve the condition of the system. That needs the intellectual ability to think, the brain, and the creative mind.

Emotion, mind and consciousness were not developed in order to make our lives more beautiful, more interesting and diverse but solely for the purpose of survival. The mental and intellectual world also does not exist in a parallel and independent way from the biological organism. It was produced by it. The psyche always consists only of the biological structures, which constitute the condition of the system. “Only” often sounds a little derogatory or resigned. “Psyche and mind are only products of the biological system.”  Perhaps it is needed to say that by some biological structures and conditions something total new will become created – mind and spirit.

A diamond is made by nothing but carbon. Only by high pressure and temperature and after very much refinement it becomes the preciously jewel. Music which will touch and influence us very deeply has a physical base. It is a sequence of different frequencies in the change with different long pauses.

But what would a computer be without a monitor? Completely  useless. Without screen we don’t know what it is doing and we cannot influence it.

Human beings are similar: The Psyche is the ingenious structure for perceiving incidents in the biological organism “human being”. It allows us to understand and influence it. Often feelings, sensations, and images give us faster, more precise, and comprehensive data about the functions of our organism than long lists of laboratory values can - if we perceive these feelings and sensations and take them seriously.

But, in order to create all these diverse feelings, which should occur on our “screen”, a vital and functional body is needed. The brain with its neuronal structures is not sufficient, because its function is only to collect and interpret the data which the body collects.


5.    Disorders in self regulation

The biological point of view describes the human organism as a self regulating system which is able to correct itself in a very flexible manner and which can adapt to different life conditions. However, as in every system disorders can occur which cannot be repaired  and eventually can create a threatening situation. Therefore mankind has developed a wide variety of healing systems in order to try to remove these disorders. Irrespective of the quality of the different methods, they all are confronted with an incredibly complex regulation structure which often cannot be entirely perceived in their complexity because these regulatory circuits are many times interlocked with each other.

A man tries for example to balance his testosterone deficit by taking medication because his sexual desire has diminished. Despite the medication the testosterone value does not rise because another part of the organism wants to ease the ailment of the man, who does not find a sexual partner, by constantly lowering the level of testosterone according to the principle: No lust, no misery. The attempt to intervene into the regulation mechanism from the outside cannot be successful since both attempts work against each other.

It seems like the concept of self regulation can be disturbed mainly by three problems:

The cells themselves become defect. Here age and toxic substances play a crucial role.

The supply of the cells with nutrients and the communication among them is disturbed.

The behavior patterns cannot be adapted to altered conditions of life.

The first two areas of disorder usually cannot be treated by psychotherapy whereas the area of behavior patterns is the specific area of work of psychotherapy regardless of the applied method. Psychotherapy always asks and looks for the factors which obstruct or prevent the modification of behavior patterns and thus self regulation. It never intervenes directly in the system of self regulation. It only tries to reactivate it.

Besides traumatic experiences there are standards of child rearing, cultural, social, and religious beliefs which affect the development of alternative behavior patterns. Wilhelm Reich called it “Psychopathy”.

The blockades which psychotherapeutic work wants to dissolve then refer to the blocked self-regulating processes. The body psychotherapeutic concepts with its interventions like deepening of breathing, muscle relaxing and stress reduction, etc. are more likely to be effective in this area. They try to minimize those factors which hinder self regulation.

When we are talking in Bioenergetic Analysis of blocked energy which should be released and get back to flow again, we mean the activation of self-regulation on the biological level and not some sort of substance called “energy”. This understanding of energy corresponds with the general definition of this term in physics. “Energy is the ability to work”.  In physics too, energy is not referred to as a substance of which more or less is existing or blocked but as a dynamic process which can unfold in very different ways as mechanic, potential, magnetic, electric energy and so forth. In our organism circulation can improve, the metabolism can be stimulated, the hormonal system can function more intensively or the immune system can work stronger. In all these processes the level of energy raises, namely the ability of the system to work intensively.

When we are talking in Bioenergetic Analysis of blocked energy which starts flowing again, we say in fact that the body feels more vivid, we see it more agile, more radiant. But we don’t make any statement about the biological, self regulating process, which was interrupted, impeded or reactivated again.


6.    Bodywork in Psychotherapy

Working with the body is important in psychotherapy. Therapeutic interventions in the human organism are only necessary if the self regulating system does not work appropriately anymore. In this case, all interventions which address the disorder are helpful and healing. Even a conversation, a look can cause this if hindering rules are put into question and the permission is granted to the client to give way to his own needs and impulses. It is crucial that the area is touched which resists a new orientation by self regulation. These can be neuronal areas if they can be reached by verbal communication. If the disturbing experiences are stored for example in the autonomic nervous system, working on breathing can be more effective because this system can be well influenced through the rhythm of breathing. Its linkage to the neuronal brain structure is not so strong that every action and reaction is influenced from there.

It makes a big difference whether I imagine how strong and agile I am or whether I experience it by physical work or exercise, when I sense how I stand, dance, carry a load or touch another human being.

If we want to express in our German language that we have understood something, we use the word “begreifen”, which literally means: touching. We have touched something with our hands if we have really understood.

People with a stiff, frozen body will perceive less emotions.  For in a state like that the organism receives less information which it needs for its self regulation. Bioenergetic body work which leads to an intensified emotional experience does not only support the psychotherapeutic process but is also an important factor for the mobilization of the biological regulatory systems in the human organism.

The current view that human life, conscious and personality is the result of neuronal activities ignores that the data with which the network brain is working, comes from organs and cells and is influenced by the conditions existing there. Many years back Antonio Damasio has already written, that a brain without its body might perhaps be able to exist in a Petri dish but it certainly would create a different consciousness, thinking and experience. The brain lacks the data from the body with which it feeds its system and lets it work in the way we know it. We probably would have to anticipate a very different identity.

The efforts towards a stable identity, the questions of the true or false self do have a great significance in psychotherapy.

The identity which we humans have acquired during our individual development has grown in contact with our real and social environment and is tied to it. If we close our eyes it is possible that we see and experience ourselves in a whole different environment and reality of life. We might not perceive anything anymore of the actual reality in which we are right now. It is a situation which is very similar to night or day dreams. We then experience ourselves in an entirely different identity and we are able to adopt very different identities in this way which all appear true to us. (Thomas Menzinger discusses corresponding research results in his book “The Ego Tunnel” Only when we open our eyes, look around in our environment, feel our feet on the ground, and listen to voices of people and animals which we can also touch, only then we connect ourselves with the identity with which we have developed. We need to anchor in this reality in order to live well and secure. Therefore “grounding” to intensify perception  and feeling  our body  being in that world we are living and moving is extremely important in our work. Spiritual human beings, who move in esoteric fields a lot, sometimes have considerable difficulty to cope with everyday life. Their bounding to the earthly reality seems to loosen. Regardless whether our image of human beings is dualistic or holistic, mental and intellectual life can only be perceived and experienced with a vital biological body. Psychotherapeutic work can only be successful if there are enough biological systems well functioning. Activities of mind and spirit are great possibilities to understand and to influence the biological system.


7.    Conclusion

  1. Even though we are trying hard in Bioenergetic Analysis to influence mental conditions and behavior, we are always working with a biological system that functions according to physiological, chemical and physical principles.
  2. The biological system creates sensations and feelings, which provide information about its condition and indicates needs for possibly necessary regulations
  3. This organism works with the principle of self-regulation.
  4. Self-regulation can possibly be disturbed by traumatic experiences, standards, cultural and religious values.
  5. The essence of psychotherapeutic work is the removal of impediments of self-regulation.
  6. Body work is necessary in psychotherapy because
  7. Only a vital body is able to generate emotional data
  8. Only the body can assure the anchoring in the real world and the decision for a single, certain identity

The human organism is a symbiotic community of many cells which are organized by division of labor. The neuronal structure is part of this community and has mainly coordinating tasks. The present focus on the findings of neuroscience neglects the entity of this community and ignores essential contexts and processes. For the development of the Bioenergetic Analysis it was vital to focus the view from the head (the intellect) to the feet (the emotion).  This focus needs to be kept and nurtured if Bioenergetic Analysis doesn’t want to lose its “grounding” and thus  every significance for the scientific psychotherapeutic world.



Brisch, K. H. (1999): Bindungsstörungen: Von der Bindungstheorie zur Therapie. Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta

Tipler, P. A. (1995): Physik . Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg, Berlin, Oxford

 Mahr, Rainer (2005)   Ein  Energiekonzept der Bioenergetischen Analyse. in: Forum der Bioenergetischen Analyse .   1/2005, S.17 - 30

Metzinger, T. (2009) The EGO Tunnel. The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. Basic Books, New York

Porges, S. W. (2011) The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. New York: Norton


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