The Body Braid, Somatic Healing and Body Armoring

I’ve been exploring the potential benefits of the Body Braid soon after I first tried it on during Tensegrity Touch and Movement Therapy training with Diane Bruni at 80 Gladstone over a year ago.

What is the Body Braid?

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The Body Braid is a soft, elastic body wrap that traces over the fascial spiral lines and provides gentle cues to help you move in healthy ways. Invented by a Canadian doctor who wanted to help people feel better in their bodies, Body Braid provides support where you need it and freedom of movement everywhere else.

Some use Body Braid to enhance body awareness during yoga and movement practices.

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(taken from Anatomy Trains)

I’ve been using the Body Braid at Urbanfitt for movement and for the somatic healing work I do with the many clients I see who are interested in going in through the body as a way to heal past trauma, deal with chronic pain, live with PTSD and live in a state of constant hypervigilance or over activation of the nervous system (most of us in the Western world to a certain degree).  And MOST people recognize that by feeling physically stronger, they will feel emotionally more resilient as well.  Change the body, change the mind right?  I consider the strength, movement and body work I do with people as a nervous system ‘reset’ and deprogramming.  “Fitness” is about the fitness of the nervous system in large part.  Although work at Urbanfitt can become somatic in nature,  I’m not a qualified psychotherapist.  However, I am trained in numerous movement and bodywork techniques which allow me to work through the body and be able to hold the space for whatever might come up emotionally for people as we move and work together.

What is Somatic Healing?

Most people who have done a lot of talk therapy would agree that something has been missing from their experience, the body.  If you’re interested in a short history of the development of somatic healing here’s a link to an excellent article. 

Something happened during the 1960s which carried us far beyond the tranquil days of simple medicine. An invisible dam seems to have broken, and out tumbled, one upon the other, wondrous new therapies: sensitivity training, gestalt therapy, encounter, T-groups, transactional analysis, bioenergetics, psychosynthesis, dance therapy, Rolfing and scores of others. To add to the confusion, from Asia there appeared a number of ancient disciplines which also seemed to have therapeutic virtues: various forms of yoga, meditation, the martial arts and more.

One characteristic of these new procedures is that they view the person as a dynamic whole in whom mental and physical functions intertwine. These new therapies leave behind the traditional split between the mental and physical and use techniques that work on both mind and body together.

This wholistic approach is strongest in the somatic therapies where the therapist deals with the patient’s body, understanding that he thereby deals simultaneously with the patient’s mind, This approach is “somatic” in the precise sense that it sees the human mind as embodied.

A somatic therapist sees that the fate of the human mind is utterly bound up with the fate of the body – a view which is, of course, shared by traditional medicine.

But another aspect of the somatic viewpoint is unique: namely, that the workings of the mind also have the power to transform the body. For the somatic therapists it goes both ways: if the state of one’s body directly affects one’s mind, then the reverse also holds. Within the integrity of a single organism, they do not see how it could be otherwise.

This article was published in 1977 by Thomas Hanna  An original philosopher/teacher, Hanna developed a theory of somatology and of the field he named Somatics.  If it sounds like new age woo woo, it’s actually not.  These theories first arose in the 1940s flowing out of Freud’s work.  

So it would seem finally that somatics is being introduced beyond body workers and somatic therapists into mainstream psychotherapy, movement and wellness.  Most people who work closely with people during movement and exercise can generally observe that the body can affect thoughts and emotions and the processing of psychological tension and trauma.  Not just the other way around.  These ideas are no longer just relegated to people who call themselves somatic therapists.  It’s an exciting time for this cutting edge work and this evolution can be found across multiple disciplines.

Although somatic healing has been around for decades, it is only now gaining in wider spread popularity in part because it’s just too hard to ignore anymore.  Neuroplasticity has been one of the catalysts for this development.  The mysteries of neuroplasticity are forcing scientists to look beyond the duality of mind and body and see the emobodied nature of all our experiences.

What is Body Armor?

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Wilhelm Reich was a major contributor to the bodymind sciences of the early 20th century, and is credited as being the key driver of this form of scientific enquiry in the West up until the 1940’s. 

He stated “Armoring is the condition that results when energy is bound by muscular contraction and does not flow through the body”(Reich:1936) . He saw that there existed character armouring which he defined as “the sum total of typical character attitudes, which an individual develops as a blocking against their emotional excitations, resulting in rigidity in the body, and lack of emotional contact ”.  He defined muscular armouring as “the sum total of muscular(chronic muscular spasms) which an individual develops as a block against the breakthrough of emotions and organ sensations, particularly anxiety, rage and sexual excitation” .  (taken from)

FUNCTIONS OF MUSCULAR ARMOR:

  • Keeps potentially explosive emotions contained
  • Acts as a protective coping mechanism resulting from the fight or flight impulse being continually inhibited into a state of freeze often experienced in victims of abuse. See Polyvagal Theory 
  • Wards off the emotions of others and provide a physical barrier to external stress or threat like a protective container.
  • Creates a sense of physical safety and containment as a coping mechanism to deal with chronic stressful life events

Body armor and character armour are essentially the same. Their function is trying to protect yourself against the pain of notexpressing things that society says you may not express. Muscular armor is character armor expressed in body, muscular rigidity.

Armoring is the sum total of the muscular attitudes which a person develops as a defense against the breakthrough of emotions, especially anxiety, rage, sexual excitation. Character armor is the sum total of all the years of the muscular attitudes that have also been incorporated in the person’s character through a more stimulated habitual nervous system response.
An armored person doesn’t feel their armor because it develops over time and, as such, we wouldn’t notice the accumulation of muscular tension, fascial adhesions and blocks.  What is body armor made of?  Hypertonic fascia.  We accumulate denser connective tissue (that is, fascia) when we engage in body armoring.
And without finding a way in to rebalancing the optimal tonicity of the fascia, which is a system running all through our bodies and multiple levels, it is very very very hard to shut down the body armoring response and general way of dealing with life.  Given that the fascia and autonomic nervous system are intimately connected, somatic healing and neuroplasticity MUST go hand in hand.  Changing the structure of such a complex and integral system of ubiquitous material is essential for healing of trauma, chronic stress and emotional reactivity.

Norman Doidge’s (MD) “The Brain’s Way of Healing”

Although, Norman Doidge’s new book is a New York Times Best isn’t specifically about Somatic Healing, he dives head first into discussing the way we can go in through the body to heal the brain.

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For centuries it was believed that the price we paid for our brain’s complexity was that, compared with other organs, it was fixed and unregenerative—unable to recover mental abilities lost because of damage or disease. The Brain’s Way of Healing turns that belief on its head, as Doidge lucidly explains how the brain’s capacities are highly dynamic, and how its very sophistication makes possible a unique and gentle kind of healing. He describes natural, noninvasive avenues into the brain provided by the forms of energy around us—light, sound, vibration, movement—that can pass through our senses and our bodies to awaken the plastic brain’s own transformative capacities without surgery or medication and their unpleasant side effects or risks.

For people who have been suffering with chronic pain, PTSD, and other states that won’t shift through traditional medicine, this book is both hopeful and potentially validating of the therapies many healers have been working with for decades now.  Resistance to an embodied approach to healing is becoming futile (or so I hope).

The Body Braid as a way to reprogram Body Armor

I’m always looking for tools I can bring into my sessions to develope more optimal nervous system regulation.  If our nervous systems are deregulated as they are in body armoring, any lasting health benefits of movement and strength training are almost completely negated.

When I’ve wrapped people up in the Body Braid, I immediately notice a change in mood, nervous system activation and often their experience of pain in specific joints or systemically.  While it hasn’t worked for everyone, the Body Braid  has been especially mood altering and freeing for people with histories of PTSD and trauma, a population most likely to use body armoring as a protective mechanism.  Most people I’ve worked with who are living with ‘enhanced’ body armor experience an immediate relief from the tension they hold in various areas of their bodies.  Their movements become more fluid.  Chronic pain held in different parts of the body or systemically seems to diminish.

Often times, I will work on movement including fascial fitness, strength work, joint mobility, specific yoga postures or even high intensity interval training before offering any hands on collaborative body work.  What we do really depends on someone’s need to discharge stress or excess energy, their breathing habits, need for prehab or rehab work for specific injuries etc.  Most often, before doing any body work including something called fascial stretch therapy, I use the loops of the body braid to oscillate the legs, provide gentle and free movement into the psoas to down regulate it’s hypervigilance.  I also find that using a technique I’ve modified based on the Stress and Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) developed by Dr. David Berceli has been enhanced with the use of the Body Braid.  People seem to be able to go into the self induced tremoring with more ease.

Signs of an over active sympathetic nervous system often diminish almost immediately after wrapping someone in the Body Braid including fighter’s stance (closed chest blocking vital organs).  The Body Braid gently realigns someone shoulder girdle and helps them stand in a more dignified postural stance.  Widened eyes soften and relax and people might relax a lifted head and immediately move with less rigidity.

So my assumption based on a vast number of hands on observations of the potential affects of the Body Braid on the body armoring response has shown me first hand that there is something quite remarkable at play.  Is it a science yet?  How can I explain why some days someone wants to wear it and other days they don’t?  Why do some people absolutely feel immediate relief from stress and tension and pain and other people (fewer) not want to keep it on?

The direct connection with the fascial spiral line while the Body Braid being soft and elastic is a big clue.  It’s been described as feeling like a gentle hug.

The Body Braid provides an external armor so that the body’s armor can relax.  

This in turn down regulates the sympathetic nervous system.  As people can find softness and less physical hypervigilance (that is, a bracing for something bad to happen including pain experiences) the body is freer to find joy in movement.

As people move, build strength, healthier movement patterns and improve flexibility in blocked areas of the body in this less armored state, the very nature of our physical structure can start to shift over time and potentially change the properties of our connective tissue, that is, fascia.  This change can then in turn start to directly impact the autonomic nervous system over time and alter our emotional reactions to life events. Without better ANS regulation, we stay stuck in habitual emotional reactivity.  Some theorize that our memories and their severity can be impacted by down regulating the ANS and, in fact, without downregulating the ANS, we stay trapped in habitual obsessive thoughts or stinking thinking as some call it.

There’s also some postural magic that affects the mind when wearing the Body Braid.  This more centered less guarded posture that the Body Braid supports can create a new feedback loop into our minds.  If our bodies aren’t being held in a fight or flight stance on a postural level, it feeds back into our minds that there isn’t any danger to armor and brace for.  There’s an expression, ‘change your posture, change your mind’ that postural psychologist believe.  Postural psychologists follow a self-validation theory.  Self-Validation theory is when a participant’s posture has a significant affect on his or her self-evaluation of their emotions.  Basically, if we weren’t in a crap mood but then put our bodies in a demoralized or tense postural state, we would shift our emotions and vice versa.  Another way into shifting thoughts and emotions through body.

I recently did a movement and body work session with a psychotherapist colleague of mine who uses a very embodied approach to working with her clients.  Working as a finely attuned team, we were able to substantially shift some habitual sensory patterns in her body using a combination of the nervous system reset tools I’ve curated including the Body Braid.

So I’m all about having a BIG tool kit to draw on.  And I’m very happy to say that after a full weekend of getting certified by Diane Bruni in the Body Braid and working with it over this last year in many different movement and body work capacities, it is a permanent addition to my tool kit.  I think we will see over time that the Body Braid or it’s continually improve upon versions will become a tool for many movement and somatic therapists.

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  1. Jane Clapp - The Breathe Network The Breathe Network - November 30, 2015

    […] will work with you through your body using cutting edge tools (see her article on the Body Braid and body armoring) and techniques to release stubborn and unconscious body patterns that keep us stuck in loops of […]

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