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Movement and Gestalt

Movement Therapy: Therapy for mind and body

movement and gestalt


Movement therapy attributes to a wide spectrum of Eastern and Western methods of therapy used for cultivating emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical well-being. It has cultural importance and has been proved to be helpful in community and personal healing while creating a community. People began to recognize that dance was more than expressive art during the 1930s and 1940s in the United States and Europe, and that it could even improve the mover's health physically and mentally.

Western movement therapy originated from dance by choreographers who wanted to prevent or recover from an injury or were intrigued about the effects of new ways of moving. Physical therapy, psychology, and bodywork were also influences of movement therapy.

Eastern movement therapy originated as self-defense or spiritual exercise which unfolded into healing therapies like yoga, qigong, and t’ai chi which are known for prolonging and improving life. Taoist monks learned to use specific breathing and movement patterns for developing and promoting their physical strength, mental clarity, and practice of meditation.

Origin of Movement Therapy

Dance therapy was founded by Marian Chace in 1942 and became the first president of the American Dance Therapy Association. She was a choreographer, who noticed healthy effects of dance and movement on her students. This attracted attention from numerous researchers and doctors, who began sending their patients to her for treatment and later offered her a position at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington. Dance has been termed as "the psychotherapeutic use of movement as a process which furthers the emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual" by the ADTA.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the second wave of Dance Movement Therapy came and therapists began to experiment with the psychotherapeutic applications of dance and movement, leading to the categorization of it as a form of psychotherapy.

Origins of the Body Movement Therapy

“Body movement is a technique that emerged from Gestalt therapy. Perls believed that a client’s verbal and nonverbal cues could strengthen a client’s understanding of their own thoughts and feelings that underlie their emotional responses. The counselor using gestalt therapy applies a holistic approach and an assortment of techniques to raise their client’s self-awareness. Counselors use body movement with clients to become conscious of the verbal and nonverbal cues(Corey, 2015).

Basic concepts underlying Dance/ Movement Therapy

Techniques and concepts that underlie dance/movement therapy, could also be wont to teach traditional therapists skills which will assist them in sharing the experience with their patients. Trauma and substance abuse patients possess their quest to remain “safe” by detaching themselves from their bodily felt traumatic experiences. People with eating disorders have shifted their life focus to form it about food, weight, and therefore the human body. The challenge of therapists is to shift the most focus back to the more natural way of living that features experiencing feelings.

Ignoring internal states amounts to burying feelings and also the graveyard exists within the body itself. Feelings fester inside and erupt once it becomes intolerable, and encourages us to develop a stronger relationship with ourselves (Kleinman & Hall, 2006, Kleinman, 2009).

In order to facilitate experiences that help our patients experience and “move” their feelings, we'd like to not only be able to move our feelings but to grasp how to manage with therapeutic balance.

Essentially, maintaining appropriate boundaries is important to balance attuning to our patients while simultaneously attuning to ourselves (Bloomgarden, Mennuti, and Cohen, 2003, p. 9-10). (Gerstein, Botwin & Kleinman, 2004) state that “exquisite attunement to one’s self can permit therapists to sift through and discard feelings that indicate that they may be over-identifying with patients, while still allowing the chance that they will be also tapping into the patient’s issues in an embodied, less conscious, fashion”.

Techniques that emanate from concepts underlying dance/movement therapy, emphasizing one’s inner experience, allow therapists to use their feeling states to know on a body level what their patients are experiencing.

Rhythmic Synchrony personifies the ability to be in tune with, and cultivate relationships and connections between ourselves and our patients (Kleinman & Hall, 2006, Ressler Kleinman & Mott, 2010, Ressler & Kleinman, 2012). This could occur by walking with the patient, inhaling constant rhythm, or maybe speaking at a pace that duplicates their rhythm. When therapists aren't in rhythm with their patients, they'll attempt to progress too fast, request an excessive amount of information, or speak too quickly. This could trigger patients to wish to detach if they become overwhelmed.

Kinesthetic Awareness is the therapist’s ability to sense themselves physically on both an internal and an external level( Kleinman & Hall, 2006, Ressler, Kleinman & Mott, 2010, Ressler & Kleinman, 2012). For example, a therapist might ask their patient an issue and simultaneously, specialize in their inner feeling states. When therapists accept the language of the ”cognitive mind” only and are detached from being attentive to their body, their interventions may reflect their lack of connection to themselves. Therefore, it's likely that their patients will respond with an equivalent degree of detachment.

Kinesthetic Empathy is a therapist's ability to foster shared expression. (Berger,1956, Kleinman & Hall, 2006, Kleinman, 2009, Ressler, Kleinman & Mott, 2010, Ressler & Kleinman, 2012).

Techniques emphasizing these concepts challenge therapists to expand their boundaries, without losing their therapeutic balance, so to think with their body and as their mind. Therapists can pass on these skills to their patients when they learn them.

By focusing on body language and encouraging patients to express their thoughts and feelings, we can help patients with eating disorders explore how they feel within their bodies, a crucial factor for true change. This, in turn, affects how they live their lives, the sign that recovery has occurred, and that the patient is on the way to having more meaningful and productive life experiences. (Ressler & Kleinman, 2006).

However, once we allow ourselves to be accountable, we yield to our authentic life forces, creating a natural result within that's empowering. Therefore, it's vital that we, as therapists, take the end to help our patients trust themselves to seek out their natural flow.

Experiential understanding generates cognitive comprehension and uniting it with feelings could also be turned into insightful cognitions. There is always communication present. When therapists can connect with and utilize their feelings as an area of the therapeutic process, they'll help their patients decode their own inner experiences and transform them into opportunities for growth.

Movement Therapy Sessions

Dance/movement therapy sessions can look much like talk therapy sessions and vary greatly depending on the individual. It is often up to the patient how large the movement is or how indulgent it's going to be. It can incorporate breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness, stretching, and, yes, dance, additionally to verbal processing. It is often done individually, as a couple, or maybe during a group. Sessions can occur in hospitals, nursing homes, day centers, schools, studios, homes, and offices around the world. It is a holistic body-based therapy that will be done standing up, sitting down, or maybe from a person’s bedside.

Implementation of the Body Movement Therapy

While implementing body movement, the counselor first observes the verbal and nonverbal cues of the client. They pay close attention to nonverbal behavior and identify what may seem like unimportant gestures but are extremely vital like slouched posture, shaking hands or legs (trembling), crossed arms, clenched fists, facial grimacing (Corey, 2015, p. 212). After identifying the gesture, the counselor asks the client to exaggerate or explain in the hope of finding the meaning of the apparent unimportant gesture, thus offering a voice to the movement/ gesture.

The usefulness of Body Movement Therapy

Flexibility is a reason why Gestalt techniques are popular among counselors. Because there are not any rigid guidelines for using these techniques and can be altered and modified for different issues. The techniques from Gestalt therapy are modified to figure with many various clients and present problems, but some clients will presumably not like the Gestalt approach (Wolfert & Cook, 1999). For example, professional counselors should think about employing techniques from other theoretical approaches when working with clients who are severely disturbed or who don't seem to be conscious of their own experiences (Harman, 1974). Still, Strumpfel and Goldman (2002) reviewed the research on Gestalt techniques and found that techniques like body movement and exaggeration may be used with a range of emotional disturbances, like personality disorders, phobias, depression, psychosomatic disturbances, and substance abuse issues.” (Erford, 2015)

Since individuals communicate through their bodies long before they learn to speak, the language of the body is actually our linguistic communication. We keep adding words to our vocabulary as we grow, however, body language remains our most basic way of expressing (Chace with Dyrud, 1993; Kleinman & Hall, 2006).

Origin of Somatic Psychotherapy

Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian psychoanalyst was one of the first individuals to study the body’s role in psychotherapy. His book Character Analysis (1933) stressed the importance of repressed emotions and how an individual's personality is expressed through muscular tension, posture, and physical movement. He called this concept “body armor” and believed that physical pressure was required by people in therapy. Reich was a former student of Freud and believed that human impulses are innately good.

Sigmund Freud was also interested in the body’s role in the initiation of mental health problems. Pierre Janet, a french psychotherapist also contributed to the development of somatic psychology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Reich founded and formed several vital concepts for body psychotherapy, setting the groundwork for prospective research. Alexander Lowen, John Pierrakos, and Charles Kelley were some of the people he treated, who later researched and built on his work to develop their forms of body psychotherapy.

There have been several developments since the 1900s. The detachment between mind and body is less distinctive presently than it was in the 1930s, and many mental health experts are now realizing the benefits of a holistic approach in their treatment approaches. Some of these new approaches are:

  • Hakomi- a combination of therapy and mindfulness with a somatic approach

  • Core Energetics- utilizing movement to balance energy between body, mind, and spirit and express innate qualities in a better way

  • Bioenergetic Analysis- integration of treatment with psychology and bodywork

  • Biodynamics- using the body for addressing and resolving psychological concerns

Biodynamic psychology, emotional reintegration, concentrative movement psychotherapy, unitive psychotherapy, and emotional reintegration are some of the other approaches which help in holistic development.

Somatic psychotherapy is a mental health treatment approach that addresses the physical effects of trauma, anxiety, and other issues, including muscle tension, digestive problems, trouble sleeping, chronic pain, and respiratory problems. A somatic therapist uses physical approaches to treatment like breathing, meditative, or relaxation exercises, along with talk therapy. Somatic therapy helps you in noticing physical responses brought up by traumatic memories.

Somatic Experiencing

Somatic experiencing helps in relieving the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other problems related to trauma by concentrating on body sensations. This alternative form of therapy was developed by Peter A. Levine, a trauma therapist.

Sessions are usually held in person and encourage their client to track their physical experiences. Mental health practitioners like social workers, psychotherapists, psychologists, and family therapists, and marriage, along with nurses, massage therapists, physical therapists, physicians, yoga therapists, educators, mediators, coaches, etc. practice somatic experiencing.

Somatic experiencing therapy can be used for shock trauma in the short term and developmental trauma in the long term along with psychotherapy. It attempts to spread awareness and release physical tension from past trauma.

Somatic Exercises

Somatic Exercises are based on you focusing on your inner experience as you move your body and expand your internal awareness. They include:

  •  Rolfing- a system of bodywork by Ida Rolf involving deep manipulation of the body's soft tissue to realign and balance the body.

  • Body-Mind Centering- based on the application of developmental, anatomical, psychophysical, and physiological principles.

  • Alexander technique- alternative therapy which believes that poor posture results in health problems.

  • Feldenkrais method- reorganizes and improves links between the body and brain

  • Laban movement analysis- language and method for visualizing, interpreting, describing, and noting human movement.

  • Some other well-known exercises are dance, yoga, Pilates, Aikido which can help you in being more efficient and effective in moving while replacing less effective patterns of movement. Unlike a typical workout, you don’t emphasize the amount of exercise you did, rather you focus on your body and its movements, which would increase your emotional awareness as many people find it easier to express difficult emotions through movement.

Research studies

Due to less participation in Dance Movement Therapy, there is little backing to the research conducted. From what is gathered till now, DMT does not affect depression, stress, anxiety, fatigue, self-esteem, and body image. Larger studies and trials are required for a better assessment of the benefits of dance movement therapy.

However, it does have a positive impact on the quality of life, social functioning, somatization, and vigor of women with breast cancer. DMT has also been regarded as more effective than standard care for adults. DMT meets the criteria for exercise programs for Parkinson’s patients. In short-term studies, quite a few benefits have been found like gait function, balance, and quality of life, however, more studies are required to see if there are long-term benefits.

Somatic Therapy and Gestalt Therapy

The influence of somatic therapy showcases the need for an embodied approach to personal growth and psychotherapy, which doesn’t negatively impact clear thinking and encourages being present at the moment.

Fritz Perls, a Gestalt therapist knew the importance of living an embodied life “Lose your mind and come to your senses”, implying that there is value in being empty-headed. Fritz was not trying to advocate being clueless or dull-minded but rather suggested that we should experiment with our repetitive thoughts to connect our body with our mind and soul.

The relationship between movement and healing physical and mental health

Human beings start communicating through their bodies long before they learn to talk. Body language is our most basic means of identifying our needs and expressing ourselves (Chace with Dyrud, 1993; Kleinman & Hall, 2006). Inherent within the dance of life, we have the ability to share our emotions with others. This can be linked to the mirror neurons.

All successful therapy involves an interaction between the mind and the body (Kleinman & Hall, 2005, 2006, Kleinman, 2009, Ressler, Kleinman & Mott, 2010). Dance/movement therapists work directly with feelings using the whole body as an empathic receptor and responder to the patient (Harris, 2008, Ressler, Kleinman & Mott, 2010, Ressler & Kleinman, 20012).

This enables therapists to identify and trust their innate ability to respond in an authentic manner, “attend” with empathy, and translate the non-verbal cues into cognitive insights. Dance/movement therapists are taught to hone their linguistic communication and therapeutic skills that free them to spontaneously develop on the visual communication and nuances of these they're working with.

A patient’s nonverbal cues and signals like eye gaze, facial expressions, tone of voice, and bodily motion, can reveal the state of mind and body ( Kleinman, 2009, Ressler, Kleinman & Mott, 2010, Ressler & Kleinman, 2012). The therapist must resonate and feel these emotions and not just understand them theoretically or conceptually (Siegel, p. 290, 1999.)

The therapist’s own experiences of embodiment, ability to access unconscious material, and way of being within the body, is a component of their sense of self and plays a vital role in the therapist-client relationship (Kleinman, 2004, Kleinman, 2009, Ressler, Kleinman & Mott, 2010, Ressler & Kleinman, 2012).


Dance/movement therapy is useful for people of all ages, abilities, and life circumstances because it supports the individual on a body level where they are at this specific moment in time. Dance/movement therapy incorporates a broad range of health benefits clinically effective at improving body image, self-esteem, focus, attention, communication skills, and self-awareness. It's been shown to cut back stress, fears, and anxieties, also lessen feelings of isolation, body tension, chronic pain, and depression. In addition, it can enhance the functioning of the body’s circulatory and respiratory systems. It's been used with individuals coping with, but not limited to, Alzheimer’s disease, Autism, ADHD, cancer, chronic pain, depression, dementia, mental disease, mood and anxiety disorders, movement disorders, sensory processing disorders, trauma, and even violence prevention. Dance/movement therapy allows a person to explore identity on a cellular level, it enables an individual to endure in something which will be would not comfortable and facilitates expression for what's often too deep for words.


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This article on 'Movement And Gestalt' has been contributed by Pranjali Rai who is currently pursuing BA in psychology from Sophia College, Mumbai and the article is Peer reviewed by Aastha Panjwani who has completed her graduation in Psychology from Jai Hind College.

Both Pranjali and Aastha are part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP), which is mentored by Anil Thomas.

Pranjali loves to learn about the human psyche and hopes to raise awareness about mental health, gender issues, and cruelty to animals.

Aastha is a research-oriented and empathetic person with a passion for Psychology, and loves working with others to achieve predetermined objectives.

GIRP is an initiative by (International Journal of Neurolinguistics & Gestalt Psychology) IJNGP and Umang Foundation Trust to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.

Anil is an internationally certified NLP Master Practitioner and Gestalt Therapist. He has conducted NLP Training in Mumbai, and across 6 other countries. The NLP practitioner course is conducted twice every year. To get your NLP certification 


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