The Motoric (Muscular) Ego:

What we can learn from the parallel and paradoxical functions of both muscle and ego

by Roz Carroll


"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.
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. 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. Ego, in the history of psychoanalysis, has been conceived as a mental structure - defined in widely differing ways - which reflects the individual's habitual adjustment to the external world. It incorporates early developmental experience (as introjected objects), and holds at bay the drive demands of the id. It is the basic premise of body psychotherapy that ego functions are body-mind processes, with the cognitive element being one side of the coin, whilst sensory, motoric capacities are the other side. The health of the ego is manifest in stability and flexible capacity; in its neurotic state the ego capacities become rigidified, even frozen. The fixed ego is reflected in character structure, and this, as Reich pointed out, is directly embodied in the musculature (and, indeed, throughout the body systems).

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.

Movement as Active Perception, Movement as Cognition

Animation - having the capacity to move - derives from the Latin word animus, meaning consciousness.
Muscle enables movement. Even sense organs, for example the eyes, rely on the exquisite organisation of tiny muscles to function effectively. 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. Theorists of embodied experience, Bates, Kelly, and 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". (Dycht, 227)In this sense the capacity to look - to select and focus visually &endash; is intrinsically connected to muscle and emotion.
In the redefiniton of cognition by Maturana (Santiago theory) it is conceived as an integral part of the way a living organism interacts with its environment, including the instinctive movements (reflexes) and responses. As Capra summarizes it in The Web of Life, "in all these cognitive processes, perception and action are inseparable" "(Capra, 268). From a different base of knowledge and experience, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, a pioneering movement therapist, asserts:
"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." (BBC, 114)

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. This combines with the flow of blood to the muscle bringing nutrients, oxygen and hormones. Deane Juhan compares muscle to liquid crystal because of its characteristic capacity to change rapidly from sol (fluid, ie. flaccid) to gel (flexed): its transformations produce a 'tapas' of textures
"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 a contraction is held for an extended period, the pump becomes a squeeze and fluid delivery is decreased. This causes hormonal and chemical deposits to build up. 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 (or brain stem) the oldest part of the brain, 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. 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. 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 need and capacity for adaptation and expression in the variety and intricacy of physical and emotional environments which humans inhabit is reflected in the incredible range of the human movement repertoire.

Proprioception - the instant 3-d map

Proprioception means 'to receive oneself'. 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. This map is dynamic, dense, and detailed; it continuously records changes in position, movement and tension of the total muscular systemAll 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.
Although science is now catching up, Bonnie Cohen confesses, "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." (BBC 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. 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. Crucially, however, in the absence of proprioception, the motor system is incapable of controlling fine or new learned movements, or of improving these movements. (78L) 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." (BBC, 118)


"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)
We may think we are choosing an action deliberately, but how we actually act is the sum of our history. And we can perform quite significant and complex actions whilst being unaware that we are doing so, like the driver who is surprised to realise he has navigated his way to a particular place whilst his mind was 'elsewhere'.



Developmental Stages

Muscle is literally developed through 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)
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.
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." (March, 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. illus.ground1.tif
Knowledge is only rumour until it is in the muscle
-New Guinea proverb
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 resting state of 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." (BBC, 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. 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. (illus.dance2.tif)
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'

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. "Muscular rigidity....represents the most essential part of the process of repression ....and is the basis of its continued preservation." (FO, 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. Reich's emphasis was on repression, but of course, the muscular responses to neglect are equally imprinted, often as collapse, as undertoned muscle.
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, p.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. 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". (FO, 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."(FO )
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. (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. 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) 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?]


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. 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

Working directly with muscle takes many forms - the use of movement, direct palpation, observation of posture etc. Within body psychotherapy, biodynamic massage is unique as a system of formal bodywork, using a table and a structured set of techniques. This naturally creates a different perspective and context from the larger scale and variety of movements witnessed in, for example, dance movement therapy, but it brings into focus parts of the body, such as the face, for close detailed work. At Chiron, biodynamic massage is taught as part of an integrative psychotherapy training which draws on the theory and practice of Gestalt, developmental models, Reichian, Jungian and Object Relations. This offers the potential to work with the client lying on the mattress, standing, moving or sitting. But the emphasis in the training is on understanding the client's habitual fixed relational postures and how these 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

The mental image, or topography of the postural model of the body is continuously being constructed and destroyed. (Schilder,Levy 9)
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.
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 - for example, on the massage table - may be associated with hiding.
The concept of body image explored by psychologists and psychoanalysts comes over as rather static, and overly visual. 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. 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 Schwarzenegger 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.

Contact/Grounding/Reality Testing

"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)
Contact and grounding in body psychotherapy are synonymous with having a felt (proprioceived) awareness of the body as an object in space and time. If we think of an animal say, a cat &endash; its well-toned muscles, orientation, balance, quickness of reflex etc are all part of its very refined and acute ability to be in its environment, in reality. The opposite of this is the psychotic state, where the person's internal state can be wildly deconstextualised, in a literal sense; they are thrown off balance, can't feel the ground under their feet. One way of bringing someone back to the present if they have been lost in a memory, or intense emotional state, is to get them to walk, to pick up an object and bring their attention to the physicality of the experience.


"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. 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". The denser the musculature the more the potential impact absorbtion (this is not just about physical density, but tone, structure et).
"The ego is as strong as the amount of energy it can meet without there being shock". (Gv, 39)
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. Recently developed somatic trauma work uses as one of its tools, a deliberate conscious toning (tensing) of muscle. Muscles relate to specific activities &endash; reaching, kicking, turning the head to see etc, which can be strengthened or relaxed to the point where the tone is optimum for it to contain the impulse (rather than repress, collapse or dissociate from it). It is the embodied contact (proprioceptive awareness) with the muscle and its function that supports the psychological attitude &endash; for example, sitting up straight, immediately changes the sense of self


"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." Despite the musculatures capacity to inhibit impulse, it represents as it conceals, it expresses as it defends against, and it conserves as it wards off feeling. Like a symptom.


"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."

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, and the second a tonic spasm [...] these two modes of reaction are the ego's primal forms of defence."
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 Nick

Totton 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)


Roz Carroll - contact: