The Birth of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy

by Penny Boreham

“The body is our general medium for having a world” Merleau-Ponty (1902-1961).

Pat Ogden, the founder of a therapy that many of our therapists practice at Khiron House, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, had the insights that led to the birth of her new therapy at a time when paradigms were shifting.

She was developing her ideas not long after the french philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1902-1961), broke with the intellectual tradition he was part of by emphasising the body as the primary site of knowing the world. That tradition had always viewed consciousness as the source of knowledge but for Merleau-Ponty the body was completely enmeshed with ‘that which it perceived’.

He emphasised the importance of ‘experience’ :

“the world is not what I think, but what I live through”.

Merleau Ponty is now widely regarded as a hugely influential and under rated thinker, but at the time, in his philosophical and intellectual circles, this thinking was seen as far from the mainstream and as unusual. However, it would undoubtedly have made complete and utter sense to the body therapists (like Pat Ogden) who were starting to emerge around the end of Merleau-Ponty’s life.

In the early 1970’s, Pat Ogden was working as a technician and a yoga and dance teacher at a short term psychiatric unit. She started to notice a correspondence between her clients’ disconnection from their bodies, their physical patterns and their psychological issues. Dr Ogden realised that, while most of the patients with trauma were constantly at the mercy of reliving their past traumatising experiences, the treatments at the hospital were actually also triggering traumatic reminders.

For Pat Ogden it started to become very clear that “the body had been left out of the talking cure” and she then became deeply committed to working in and developing body-centred somatic psychotherapy.

She went on to co-found the Hakomi Institute with Ron Kurtz. Then, in 1981, she began her own school , the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, which pioneered a therapy that draws on somatic (‘of the body’) therapies, neuroscience, attachment theory and cognitive approaches.

The beginnings of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy in the UK

Our clinical lead, Catriona Morten, was one of the very first UK graduates in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy when training began in this country.

The very first time Catriona came across Pat Ogden’s work was at a conference, here in the UK, where leading Sensorimotor psychotherapist, Janina Fisher, from the Sensorimotor Institute in Boston, was speaking about Pat Ogden’s approach and also giving a practical presentation.

At the time of the conference, twelve years ago, Catriona Morten was a therapist at the NSPCC and she was finding that the therapies at her disposal were not answering the needs of the deeply traumatised children she was working with. She was realising that approaches that required these children to recall the events from their past, and to speak about those experiences, resulted in them completely detaching

So when Catriona Morten first saw Janina Fisher working with experiences as “felt” and processed within the body, and heard about and witnessed the powerful impact this therapy was having with traumatised people, she recalls:

“it was as though a light bulb went on, and I felt this was exactly what these children needed. It was a therapeutic approach that I just knew would work, and it did, and I also knew I had found something that could help people recover from trauma and not just learn to live with it. This had been the message we were getting from the medical profession at the time. Also I now knew that people did not have to tell me deeply painful and humiliating details in order to get better”. 

And, as they say, the rest is history – Catriona Morten and the team of therapists here at Khiron House are still finding that Sensorimotor Psychotherapy offers an approach that can transform lives. By using the body as the primary entry point in processing trauma, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy directly treats the effects on the body, which then allows us to heal emotionally and psychologically.

“Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it’s caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing.But, because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself” Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 

Several research studies to gather data on the effectiveness of SP are underway or in the process of publication at the following institutions:

  • Maudsley Hospital (London, UK)
  • Womens’ College Hospital (Toronto, Ontario)
  • Modum Bad Outpatient Clinic (Oslo, Norway)

This is part of our series of blogs which are telling the story of trauma treatment, how it has developed and is still developing every day. In this series our expert practitioners will be sharing their knowledge with you, we will be finding out what recent scientific breakthroughs are teaching us all about the nervous system, and we will be keeping you in touch with the latest news about the life transforming therapies that are becoming more sophisticated and responsive every day. 

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