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From the Townsend Letter
January 2007


Reichian-Myofascial Release Therapy for Deeper Emotional and Physical Healing
by Peter M. Bernstein, PhD

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Dr. Bernstein performs an occipital condyle release to improve craniosacral system mobility and release armoring in the neck, shoulder, and upper back muscles. Occipital condyle release

Reichian Theory and Myofascial Release
How does Reichian theory and practice intersect – or more precisely - overlap with myofascial release and its applications? In his book, Myofascial Release, the Hidden Search for Excellence, John Barnes, PT, describes how myofascial release physical therapy techniques can access submerged, repressed, often totally blocked memories, including trauma and sexual abuse (my comments are in brackets):

The body remembers everything that has ever happened to it. When a person has experienced unpleasant situations or trauma that overload the ability to cope, the body in an attempt to protect [e.g., armor] itself from further harm, effects a dissociation or amnesia of the event. Time does not heal emotional wounds; it simply covers them up with an adaptive fascial layer, tightening over time. These buried [or repressed unconscious] memories in the fascial system [which I will explain later in the paper] are uncovered during the "myofascial unwinding process," reversing the amnesia or dissociation that was not available to the person's consciousness. This is called state dependent learning, memory, and behavior, a concept that can be expanded to include "position dependent" learning, memory, and behavior. This theory states that when a particular state or position is attained, all physiological responses, memories, and beliefs at that event become conscious and can be re-experienced. This places the patient in a state of awareness, allowing for a change of beliefs, emotions, holding or bracing patterns that are responsible for perpetuating myofascial restrictions and their resultant symptoms.

From this brief excerpt, it's possible to see how the theories of Reichian psychotherapy and myofascial release physical therapy complement each other. How then do the techniques reinforce each other in real practice and application? Let's look at a typical therapy scenario for an explanation.

Observing the Patient
An experienced Reichian psychotherapist will develop a clear impression of the patient as soon the person enters the room – even before any words are spoken. The way patients walk, dress, hold their postures, as well as manifest their attitudes reveals how individual live lives and interact with others.

In Reichian psychotherapy, the patient is observed from two perspectives: first, the therapist defines the symptoms, the patient's history, and the observed behavior. These give the therapist an indication of the psychological side of the patient's character. Second, the psychotherapist observes how and where the patient manifests emotional repression in his physical structure to determine where the patient's body is armored. This second part of the Reichian process is where the elegance and refinement of myofascial release applications become such an improvement to the Reichian treatment process.

Let me show you how this works in my practice.

In the traditional Reichian techniques that I apply, the male patient wears a pair of shorts. For women, a two-piece workout outfit will suffice. The brief apparel allows me to see as much of their body as common modesty will allow. As I start working with the patient, I look for changes in skin color, skin temperature, hair erection ("gooseflesh"), and the visual and palpable signs of muscular tension. Before proceeding with a specific treatment, I assess the patient in the following ways:

  • Their manner – Is the patient at ease or uncomfortable? Is he or she upset, tightened, angry, or saddened?
  • Their body language – Do they lie on the table or "couch" with their legs crossed, spread open, separated with the toes turned in or outward?
  • Their body signs – Are they pale? Are their hands sweaty and cold? Are their pupils dilated?
  • Their features – Is the patient's face masked, serious, sad, embarrassed, or expectant? Does the patient look as if he or she will break into a smile or tears?
  • Are there any sharp lines of demarcation (flushed face and neck, pale chest) or any sharp lines of temperature change (warm abdomen, cold legs, etc.).
  • Their level of tension – What body areas are relaxed?

Because the patient's body reveals an emotional state, this initial visual assessment shows me more about patients and their condition than most individuals could tell me in hours of discussion. As I continue to work with the patient, the signs that I listed above continue to provide me a stream of information that guides both the choice and application of specific techniques. In this way, Reichian psychotherapy is quite different from other therapies, which rely mainly on verbal exchange to produce their results.

Release of the glenohumeral joint, a particular site of pain and restriction for this patient with multiple sclerosis. Release of glenohumeral joint

Myofascial Release Refines Reichian Therapy
Earlier in this paper I quoted John Barnes, an innovative myofascial release physical therapist. Though he doesn't come from a Reichian perspective, he has learned to distinguish the armored segments of the body and has developed skilled applications which are extremely effective in softening and diffusing muscular and physical armoring. In the process, he has developed an understanding which closely mirrors the Reichian principles discussed earlier (again, my comments appear in brackets below):

It's like when we get injured a lot of times, it seems like an indelible imprint is made in our entities when there's high emotional content and somehow that gets locked into the tissue memory system. I think what happens is that our need to survive and protect ourselves gets shoved down, and we tend to disassociate from [the emotional content], which is fine for a while as a coping mechanism, but the problem is that because we were taught to mask symptoms or run from our problems, the fascial systems slowly tend to tighten around those [affected] areas and then create restrictions.**

(** Exclusive interview with John Barnes:

When Barnes' numerous myofascial techniques and approaches are applied, not only do the muscles and fascia begin to release, but the unconscious repressed material that is behind the muscular and fascial tension is also released, much as it is in Reichian psychotherapy.

Of particular interest is that, in myofascial release, the memories are actually relived positionally, that is to say that the patient will often repeat physical actions relating directly to the original trauma. For example, if a patient was abused as a child, he or she may assume the physical posture of that abused child, cringing, cowering, or dodging the blows received years earlier. This positional relief, along with the associated emotional catharsis, produces a result that is far more dramatic than that achieved with Reichian psychotherapy alone.

Conclusion: Combining the Therapies Produces Deeper Healing
The two applications, used independently, are extremely effective in bringing the patient a depth of healing that would never be attained by simply analyzing or verbalizing. Yet, when the two practices are combined, the results are even more extraordinary, and through continued application of the combined therapies, patients improve dramatically. When the old emotional material is finally released the patient becomes "unstuck," experiences a new openness and vulnerability, and is transformed. At this point of transformation, the Reichian verbal and analytic psychotherapy takes on a major role in the healing process. The therapist, through experience and insight, helps the patient gain perspective, and – thanks to the myofascial release therapy – the depth of healing is much greater.

As patients begin to unwind, they begin to understand how their armoring causes them to mix the past and the present, confusing their traumatic past with their current life. Releasing their armoring allows them to see that their distorted perspectives, created by early damage, skew their present day behaviors and attitudes.

This point in the patient's therapy is exactly where the relationship with a psychotherapist who is trustworthy and well-trained and who has personally experienced these two therapies becomes key to helping the patient integrate this new experience. Over a period of time, the process of living and sorting out all of this information becomes integral to the healing process.

The psoas muscle can hold a great deal of repressed emotions. During a pause in this patient’s unwinding process, Dr. Bernstein palpates the psoas muscle and releases it using strumming and sustained pressure. Palpating the psoas muscle

Both Reichian psychotherapy and myofascial release physical therapy are brilliant innovations that have led to wonderful, therapeutic results. I have discovered the value of integrating these two schools of thought into an effective practice in a way that had been undiscovered up until now. As a result, the healing tools that I now am using are greater together than either one of these applications alone.

I am very grateful for the creative minds that have influenced Reichian- Myofascial Release: Wilhelm Reich, John Barnes, and another great influence on my life – my mentor, the late Dr. Gerald Frank. Without their knowledge and the personal guidance of Dr. Frank, I would not have made these discoveries.

Testimonials follow author's bio.

Peter Bernstein, PhD
The Bernstein Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy
600 Seavey Road
Petaluma, California 94952

Note: Dr. Bernstein will provide more specific references and footnotes upon request.

Peter M Bernstein, PhD, DAPA, MFT, CMT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in California since 1974, working with individuals, couples, families and children. He holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, specializing in Reichian psychotherapy, from the International College. He earned post-doctoral recognition and Diplomate status from the American Psychotherapy Association. Dr. Bernstein is the founder and director of the Bernstein Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy in Petaluma, California. In his practice he uses an integrative approach to psychotherapy and the treatment of emotional and physical pain. His therapeutic approach incorporates a broad spectrum of services, including a new modality he developed called Reichian-Myofascial Release Therapy. As of 2006, Dr. Bernstein has completed over 350 hours of training in myofascial release physical therapy. The Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals have certified him as a Body Therapist. Dr. Bernstein is a clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, a member of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, the American Association of Christian Counselors, and the American Academy of Pain Management. His website is

Following are some of the testimonials from patients who were previously treated with either Reichian psychotherapy or myofascial release work alone, and what they have to say about their therapy experiences utilizing the combination of both treatments:

I've been in Reichian psychotherapy for many years. Though its benefits have made a substantial improvement in the quality of my life, I was astounded at the profound additional release from both physical and emotional pain I received after Dr. Bernstein began combining myofascial release with Reichian techniques.
-Business owner

I have great praise for what myofascial release combined with Reichian psychotherapy is doing for me. My emotional pain reflects itself in my body. I am feeling physical relief while reaching deeper emotional level – consequently healing even further.
-Administrative Assistant

I experienced Reichian-myofascial therapy after several years of Reichian psychotherapy alone. With his new therapy, Dr. Bernstein helped me release a large amount of emotional material that was holding back my progress. I have been able to take significant steps toward emotional maturity as a result.

My therapy has changed dramatically. There are areas I don't think would have been touched without the addition of Myofascial Release...When I just let go, I'm amazed at the energy I feel brings hope to the process and the future.

Reichian-myofascial release therapy has profoundly changed my life. For 22 years, I have been struggling to remember and resolve the trauma in my past. I felt an immediate difference after the very first Reichian-myofascial release session.

Dr. Bernstein's work has had a profound effect on all aspects of my life – marriage, motherhood, health, spirituality, and creativity. The legacy of my biological family was hopelessness, but through an inspired combination of training, wisdom, and practical advice, Dr. Bernstein guided me to a new life.
-Writer / Mother of Three

As both a recipient of Reichian-myofascial release therapy that Peter Bernstein shares, and now, as a practitioner of the body work, I am very grateful for the benefits that it has provided to me. This work can be very transformative. I like to refer to the work as sort of a personal drain cleaner. When I first experienced the work, I was about ready to call it quits. I have tried just about every treatment available to lessen the personal pain that I
have carried in my body for years. Nothing had worked. With the work that Dr. Bernstein does, I feel like my drains have been unclogged, and life is flowing through me in a wonderfully healthy fashion. This does in no way imply that my life is free from struggles, but I now have an awareness of the reality of my problems and along with them new ways to view possible solutions.
- Practitioner

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