"I thought I had worked through my wounds and traumas. I had gone to therapy. I had even had success with EMDR but I had no idea how much my body continued to hold on to the trauma and pain until I experienced sexological bodywork at Back to the Body™. My real healing began when I accessed the wounded spaces inside myself during this therapeutic container. I had a major trauma release during my third session at my first retreat. My mind had fought going there, and it took the presence of both a male and female practitioner to create the space my body needed to finally let those protective walls down. I had used control to keep myself safe for years. The gift that Back to the Body™ gave me was learning how to access vulnerability and safety inside my own body alongside the energy of a male. It was not about trusting another, it was about trusting myself, forgiving myself, releasing the fear and rage my fourteen year-old girl had hidden deep within me to survive sexual assault. I learned to trust myself to be both vulnerable and loved, something I had never allowed myself as an adult. I think the most profound things I have gained by doing this type of work are that I have found acceptance of and a grounding within my own body and that I love who I am as an erotic being. Sexological bodywork and the Back to the Body Method™ changed the trajectory of my life." -- Christie W., attendee at Back to the Body™ retreats
Emotions are an intricate tapestry woven through the fabric of our bodies, influencing our thoughts, behaviors, and overall well-being. Emotions are not confined to the brain; they are also deeply rooted in our physical being, and can be released by working directly with the body. Therapeutic techniques designed to work in this way are profound and can often lead to a more immediate experience of the psychological material, as well as a more intense and thorough release of it.
At Back to the Body, Pamela Madsen and her team have created a paradigm shifting retreat experience where participants experience bodywork sessions in an immersive, week-long setting. The specific rituals and protocols she uses, along with assigning special emotional support staff to each woman, ensure that her attendees can truly let down their emotional walls and release long-held bodily patterns.
While this formula may seem far-out to some, there is a history of prominent psychological thinkers, therapists, and doctors to thank for its development. The tradition of accessing healing through the body likely dates back to many indigenous societies, but has been written about and explored by Western psychologists during the last century as well. This lineage of body-based emotional release provides support for the unique formula at Back to the Body, where practitioners build upon this collective wisdom, harnessing it to heal, transform, and liberate emotions in the most direct way possible.
Let’s take a look at some of the key figures, ideas, and practices in somatic release. How did this all begin? Who developed it? And how do the retreats at Back to the Body fit into and utilize the wisdom of this healing tradition?
This history of thought around somatic release began in the 1940’s with the work of Wilhelm Reich. This pioneering psychotherapist laid the foundation for understanding the body's role in storing trauma and emotion. Reich's concept of "body armor" suggested that emotions, particularly those of anger, fear, and sadness, could become trapped within the musculature, leading to physical and psychological distress. He theorized that unexpressed emotions impeded the flow of life force, known as "orgone energy," within the body. (1,2)
Reich theorized that it was vital to address emotions in this way after an experience with a patient that illustrated this profound truth. After this patient’s father died, he went through years of psychoanalysis. While the patient understood the dynamics of his relationship with his father after this experience, he could never manage to cry. Reich observed that the patient’s facial muscles, specifically those around his eyes, were extremely tense, and brought a massage therapist into a therapy session, where the therapist massaged the client’s face. The man was finally able to unabashedly sob, and this primal release brought about more emotional relief than years of therapy. This prompted Reich to take a look at the relationship of the emotions to the body in an entirely new way. The face had quite literally held in the expression of the trauma, causing the patient’s healing process to come to a halt. Bodywork released it and the emotion was able to move through the body unimpeded.
Release through bodywork beckons us to embrace all aspects of life, daring us to dance with the echoes of our past and the potential of our future. It is an invitation to undress the soul, shedding the layers of accumulated armor, and exposing the raw vulnerability that resides within.
Alexander Lowen, a student of Wilhelm Reich, continued on in this tradition, and made significant contributions to the field of somatic release through his development of Bioenergetics. (3) Inspired by Reich's work, Lowen expanded on the concept of body armor and how emotions are stored within the musculature. He too believed that chronic muscular tensions resulted from suppressed emotions, leading to physical and psychological imbalances. Lowen's approach emphasizes the importance of breath, posture, and movement to access and discharge deeply held emotions, including the client in the process of release.
Imagine woven layers of movement and touch, where suppressed emotions and hidden fears find their voice. In the depths of our beings, where emotions whisper and memories linger, lies the secret symphony of the body. Each note, a melody of unspoken stories, is etched within the sinews and muscles that dance to the rhythm of our lives. This is the realm of somatic release, a sanctuary where the body's wisdom weaves its tale, waiting to be heard, felt, and set free.
In more recent times, psychologists have continued to invent new techniques of somatic release, combining them with neuroscience-based evidence and thinking. One of the primary scientists and thinkers in this domain, Besel Van Der Kolk, expanded on Reich’s ideas in his influential work "The Body Keeps the Score". (4) He emphasized how traumatic experiences could be stored within the body, leading to conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Traditional talk therapy, Van Der Kolk argued, might not be sufficient to release deeply ingrained emotional trauma. Instead, integrating movement modalities and body-based therapies, such as yoga, dance, and tai chi, alongside conventional treatment, could facilitate the release of stored emotions and promote healing.
In this space of movement and bodywork, guided by skilled hands and compassionate hearts, the body becomes a vessel for transformation. Like a sculptor, a practitioner can coax tension from its deep-rooted abode, setting loose the captive emotions that once held sway. Recall Reich’s story of the patient who couldn’t cry, and the release of those captive emotions. Van Der Kolk brought even more movement methods and physical therapies into his somatic work, showing that each breath could be an aria of release; each movement, a tender embrace of the self.
As the interest in somatic modalities grew, another psychologist, Peter Levine, developed the Somatic Experiencing approach to address unresolved trauma stored in the body. (5) Levine observed that animals in the wild naturally discharge stress and fear through physical shaking and trembling after a life-threatening event. However, humans often suppress these instinctual bodily responses, leading to the accumulation of trauma within the body.
Through Somatic Experiencing, individuals are guided to reconnect with their bodies and allow for natural bodily movements to release stored emotional energy. By safely experiencing and discharging the trapped sensations associated with trauma, individuals can achieve emotional resolution and restore balance.
In deep emotional release, we venture beyond the boundaries of the mind, exploring the untamed terrain of sensation and energy. Like a river finally breaking free from its dam, emotions cascade forth in a symphony of catharsis.
As we surrender to this primal dance, we discover the harmony that exists within us—a harmonious melody where mind, body, and soul unite. It is the sacred alchemy of emotion, transforming anguish into liberation, and grief into renewal.
Further developments of somatic release work connected emotional healing with sensual and sexual healing. Instead of being only a way to heal trauma, pathology, and dysfunction, new thinkers included connections to joy and positive bodily feeling. Michaela Boehm, an Austrian psychotherapist and tantric yogi, developed work that brought an essential aspect to the somatic field by emphasizing the importance of pleasure and embodiment. She highlighted that pleasure, often neglected in therapeutic settings, could be a powerful gateway to accessing and healing emotional wounds.
Boehm's approach encourages individuals to explore somatic practices that promote pleasure, such as tantric practices, body-based meditations, and mindful touch. By fostering a positive relationship with the body and its sensations, individuals can open pathways to releasing stored emotions and promoting overall well-being. (6)
From here, Joseph Kramer's contribution to somatic approaches brought forth the practice of sexological bodywork. (7) Rooted in the belief that the body holds deep wisdom, sexological bodywork integrates sexual experiences with body-based therapy to facilitate emotional release and healing. This approach recognizes that sexuality is an essential aspect of human experience, deeply connected to emotions and well-being.
After getting his Masters of Divinity, Kramer also became licensed as a massage therapist. After combining these approaches in spiritual and human connection, Kramer added erotic connection to his skill set, training in Taoist sexual techniques and erotic massage. He went on to found several schools, including the Body Electric, and teach Sexological Bodywork worldwide, becoming a pioneer in the realms of somatic erotic bodywork.
Pamela Madsen, in her work at Back to the Body™ retreats, has been instrumental in showcasing the transformative potential of sexological bodywork. Her retreats offer a safe and nurturing environment for individuals seeking to explore their emotions around intimacy and pleasure. Participants report profound experiences that lead to greater self-awareness, healing, and personal growth. (8)
The journey of bodywork and emotional release leads us back to ourselves, stripping away pretense and masks, revealing the beauty and imperfections that define our humanity. It is an odyssey of rediscovery, where the essence of who we are whispers its truth, and our bodies sing with newfound freedom.
Interestingly, the power of including the naked body in therapeutic work isn’t exclusively known to somatic release practitioners! A little known part of the history of psychotherapy is that some highly influential figures in the field advocated for naked psychotherapy! Early 20th-century experiments in psychology included the use of nudity as a means to access and address emotional issues. Scholars like Joseph J. Pomeroy and Gardner Murphy explored the potential benefits of stripping down in the therapy office. (9,10) Even Abraham Maslow, known for his hierarchy of needs, expressed interest in the concept. He believed that nudity could help individuals transcend their psychological inhibitions and access a higher state of consciousness. (11, 12)
Back to the Body™ retreats provide a unique and transformative experience by combining the power of embracing the naked body, as advocated for in naked psychotherapy, with the potent somatic release modalities developed over decades. Pamela Madsen's innovative approach creates a safe and nurturing environment where participants can explore the connection between their emotions, sensuality, and the wisdom of their bodies. By integrating sexual experiences with somatic practices, individuals can access deeply stored emotions, leading to profound emotional release and healing. (13) Through this holistic combination, Back to the Body™ retreats offer a truly transformative journey towards self-discovery and empowerment.
So, let us embrace this liberation as we embark on the soul's voyage into the realm of the body. In the sacred union of body and spirit, we uncover the lost verses of our hearts, dancing to the rhythm of life's symphony—revealing the beauty of our untamed, authentic selves.
Reich, W. (1942). The Function of the Orgasm: Sex-economic problems of biological energy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Reich, W. (1972). Character Analysis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Lowen, A. (1975). Bioenergetics: The Revolutionary Therapy That Uses the Language of the Body to Heal the Problems of the Mind. Penguin Books.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking.
Levine, P. A. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. North Atlantic Books.
Boehm, M. (2017). The Wild Woman's Way: Unlock Your Full Potential for Pleasure, Power, and Fulfillment. Atria/Enliven Books.
Kramer, J. (2004). The New School of Erotic Touch: The Ultimate Guide to Sensual Massage. North Atlantic Books.
Madsen, P. (2021). Shameless: How I Ditched the Diet, Got Naked, Found True Pleasure...and Somehow Got Home in Time to Cook Dinner. Simon & Schuster.
Pomeroy, J. J. (1972). Dr. Pomeroy's Theory: A Novel. G.P. Putnam's Sons.
Murphy, G. (1966). Human Potentialities: The Challenge and the Promise. Harper & Row.
Hagen, M. (2018). Believe It or Not, Nude Psychotherapy Used to Be a Thing, and Even the APA President Supported It. Sex and Psychology.
Graham, J. (2020). Psychology's Short-Lived Experiment with Nude Psychotherapy. Vice.
Crane, B., Mial, K., & Becher, E. (2023). Exploring erotic potential: Mixed methods study on effects of a sexological bodywork retreat for people who identify as women. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 1–40.