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BodyMind Gestalt Therapy: from a view point of a Contact-Improvisation practitioner

by Arye Bursztyn


My first encounter with Gestalt therapy was in a residential intensive six day module, by the Sea of Galilee, at the north of Israel. Some of the Gestalt trainers who taught in it were friends of mine, from years before, when we collaborated in various creative workshops in dance and theater for Jewish teenagers from around the world. They were theater or youth-guiding professionals and were later trained at GIC, the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, Ohio, USA, and participated in building a "branch" of the GIC's training programs for therapists in Israel (IsraGIC). I was at that time a professional dancer and choreographer, interested mostly in Improvisation and in adapting creative processes in non-formal education. I felt that entering the world of Gestalt Therapy felt amazingly natural. I felt as if I enter a very familiar neighborhood, and realized that I stepped into this world of theory and practice well prepared and well equipped, after many years devoted to dance composition and improvisation, especially Contact-Improvisation. These disciplines were my un-intended introductory 25 years course for Gestalt Therapy. In this "dance-introduction-through-the-bones" I was taught values, attitudes and skills that in time I realized were at the core of Gestalt Therapy practice: Observe. Attend. Listen; do, rather than talk; be Present, rather than do; be Dialogical; sense and feel more rather than "think-about"; dare to be subjective, phenomenological and authentic; respect forms, adjust to their boundaries, then stretch and widen the boundary; stay creative, stay experimental, stay improvisational, i.e. stay in the Here-and-Now; be attentive to people's gestures, body-structures, and musicality. Not only to their words and stories; do not judge, do not evaluate. Appreciate. Stay curious. Stay present.

Those were some of the teachings of my improvisational-dance practice that perfectly coincided with the Gestalt ethics, values and practice. I continued my training at the GIC in Ohio, specializing in "Working with Physical Process", followed by becoming a body-oriented Gestalt Therapist and visiting-faculty both in Cleveland and in IsraGIC (which I ended up directing for a while), and eventually teaching, collaborating and practicing in various countries and psychotherapy training programs. These collaborations allowed us to develop some training programs of BodyMind Gestalt Therapy (BMGT), taught at the Tel Aviv University's School for Social work and in some other training programs of Integrative and Expressive Psychotherapy. I collaborated mostly with my friend and colleague Yaacov Kaiser, who is an acclaimed psychotherapist and lecturer. His psychodynamic and Reichian perspectives deepened the clinical and theoretical foundations of BMGT, while I contributed some improvisational and movement practices. Deeply embedded in the GIC approach to Gestalt practice, especially in James E. Kepner's "Body Process" teachings, we focused our work on exploring, experiencing and (if possible) healing the "BodySelf".

Approaching the BodySelf means approaching the person as a Whole: Energy-body-sensation-perception-mind-feeling etc., all aspects of a unity that synergistically collaborate to create a whole that is different than the sum of its parts. It is a system that tends towards integration: self-regulation, dynamic homeostasis, need-satisfaction and the fullest self-expression that is adequately possible in the given context or environment. The body, or physical-being, is storage of internal intelligence, wisdom and knowledge. We perceive every Body as containing rich information, like a rock by which a geologist can make assumptions about the conditions that surrounded it: climate, plants and fossils engraved into it. The way in which the body-self meets the world at its boundaries expresses the total wholeness of our being; it is the core where we sense ourselves as a distinct being. It is the container, the inner-home, the expression of our feelings and experiences. It is simultaneously the stage, the actor and the storyteller of our life story. The story of our biography becomes our biology: The body-self reflects, in the here-and-now, the history of our physical and emotional past, the sum-total of meaningful contacts and interactions that occurred on our boundaries. It reflects a history of coping with challenges and formative-conflicts, of love, respect and acceptance (or their absence) and our conceptions, attitudes and beliefs about ourselves and about our world: how we learned to open ourselves to life, and how to maintain a shielded, defensive stance; our needs of control and fears of falling and failing; our tolerance of energy-charge, excitement and vitality; the way we were taught to grow into separateness and autonomy, and to tend our needs for dependency and intimacy; our vulnerability and presence. As BMG therapists, counselors or facilitators we attempt to create conditions for the realization of growth-potential and change: through a respectful and appreciative attending, listening and dialogue that includes all aspects of the body, its sensations, experiences and needs; with our curiosity and sincere interest in the whole of the process of our client (including his physical process, as well as any other relevant aspect); and by bringing ourselves, as we are, fully present in our bodyself into the shared field of contact. 

In the embodied field, together with our clients, we co-create our practice: we are interested in breathing, grounding and centering of both client and therapist; in the detailed specifics of the sensory intelligence; in gestural, movement and body-structuring patterns; in the tempo, the tonality and the musicality of the voice and the behavior; in our dance together, our organization and our composition in space; in the energy field of the client and the shared field with the therapist; we use "embodied language" to highlight tendencies for splitting, projecting or alienating the body; we engage in safe and well-contracted touch-experiments and Body-Work practices with our clients; we explore in body-oriented experiments the relation of all the above to meaningful life-themes and to patterns and styles of contacting and issues of avoidance, stuckness and "resistance"; We engage in dialogical and highly relational client-therapist embodied field.

As gestalt therapists who are interested in the phenomenology of contact experiences, we witness our clients' difficulties and perceived "failures" in contacting with themselves, with others and with us. We call it "resistances", "avoidances" or "Contact-Styles" (following Gordon Wheeler). Gestalt therapy views every resistance and avoidance as essential for self-regulation. Without it, people and organizations cannot maintain their boundaries. Resistance or avoidance is another way to create and enable an appropriate grading of contact, or avoid contact altogether. As such, it is a valuable expression of the self, and a form of creative-adjustment (i.e. a Contact-Style). Avoidance, resistance or stuckness that expresses an opposition to change, is an authentic and functional expression of the self (or was authentic and functional in the past, for some developmental or survival reason). As such, it deserves to be respected and studied, rather than treated negatively as something to therapeutically break-through, crack or overcome. As Gestalt therapists we do not promote change or push for a "quick-fix". We prefer not to see ourselves as "Change-agents". We rather prefer to support conditions in which change can happen spontaneously, according to the actual energy that exists in the system. Essentially, the BMGT approach to resistances, avoidance and stuckness is based on supporting, understanding, acceptance, empathy, and mutual learning of the embodied patterns by which we make contact and avoid making contact with each other and our world.

The BMGT training emphasizes the co-creation of a supportive and encouraging environment. We value the tone, the "Heart-Qualities" and the atmosphere of a program as much as we appreciate its practical content. We engage in warm-ups, we dance, vocalize and play together, laying a firm ground for our embodied field. Parts of the trainings are conceptual and didactic, laying a theoretical ground for the practice, but most of it is experiential. It is applicable and oriented towards personal/professional growth, with a wide Range of Applications for counselling, coaching and clinical interventions. I experienced its potential for different client-systems, ranging from military and Hi-Tec organizations to groups and individual clients, and for specific disorders such as trauma, obsessions, addictions and psychosomatic disorders. In all kinds of sessions and interventions, we are aware that the most important and influential intervention is not only the therapist intelligent observation, interpretation or skilled intervention. It is not only what "I do". It is rather how "I am". It is the quality of being, the field of embodied presence that we wish to develop and support in ourselves and with our clients.
Recommended Reading:
Clemmens, M. & Bursztyn, A., (2003), “Culture and Body”. British Gestalt Journal, 12, (1), 15-21.
Kepner, James I. (1993), Body Process: Working with the Body in Psychotherapy. Jossey-Bass Publishers Inc.: San Francisco, CA.

Kepner, J. (2003). “The Embodied Field”. British Gestalt Journal, 12(1), 6-14.

Perls, Frederick S., Hefferline Ralf, Goodman Paul, 1951, Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, The Gestalt Journal Press, Highland NY

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