The Role of Catharsis in the Primal Health Movement

What is Meant by the Term "Ancestral"

With the current resurgence of ancestrally based platforms for living, many of us are looking backwards to determine how to best move forward. It is a beautiful movement and I have truly gown to love the practice of doing our best to understand how our ancestors lived their lives and letting it influence us. That practice in and of itself is rather ancestral.

There is some debate in these various groups and some of them reference particular time periods, such as the Paleolithic era or even relatively modern pre industrial cultures that are still around, or were around a few hundred years ago, as their reference point. I feel as though this is beneficial, even if it is perhaps a little bit short sighted. The camp I have grasped onto the most is the one who is tracing back our ancestry to the beginning of life on this planet. 

When we say ancestral, we do not just mean humans or humans in a particular time period. Our genetic code and overall relationship to this planet and to each other is billions of years old. We are because many other species before us have been.

Often, the biological inheritances that we think about are the major players in this game of life and evolution, such as our diets, movement patterns, environments and social interactions. These of course form the major backbone of our lifestyles, but there is in my experience, a missing element in many of these conversations.

The missing element that I have encountered and have addressed in some ways in myself, through cathartic modes of release are the inner state and energetic essence of the individual.

Something to be understood is that what makes a lion in a zoo a depressed neurotic version of itself is not just the  basics of water, food and shelter.

The questions I ask here are, how free is your emotional structure and framework? How wild is your mind?

Not in a sense of it being chaotic and lacking maturity, which could be seen as primitive “perhaps”, but how many of your animalistic desires, intensity, aggression and impulses are locked away and repressed? What patterns and compensations that result from a domestication of your spirit do you have ingrained in your body? Are you truly free?

The Field of Bioenergetics 

To look deeper into these questions I would like to refer to a field of psychotherapy called “Bioenergetics”, and pull from some of what it has to offer. Even though the name has “energy” in it, it does not necessarily refer to some etheric form of unobservable energy. The first definition that comes up when I looked up the term is:

 “The study of the transformation of energy in living organisms."

The father of Bio-energetics Alexander Lowen, almost certainly had that meaning in mind when he created the field. Everything that we do, think and feel is dependent on an energy source. Have you ever been so tired that you can’t think or feel?

Something not readily obvious to many is that thoughts and emotions are literally driven by some form of energy, the basic energy of life that is supplied by food and respiration.

All the outcomes that occur from a living organism in fact are driven by bio-energy. So in essence, what we will be looking at in this article is the dynamics and distribution of this energy based off of how an individual uses it. Coming back to the field of “bioenergetics”, as a practice, the following definition is basic introduction to the idea.

 

“Bioenergetic therapy offers an integrated, effective, relational approach to address these common manifestations of early wounding, distress, and dysfunction.  At the heart of Bioenergetics is a deep conviction that there is a mind-body correlation for many psychological problems.  It makes use of the connection created in the therapeutic relationship to be the foundation that supports the process of healing.  It often includes work with body contact, boundaries, grounding, and the understanding of muscular tensions as indications of somatic and psychological defenses against past trauma.  The goal is more than the absence of symptoms – it is having aliveness, getting a taste of pleasure, joy, love – vibrant health”- Anshul Mittal

One of the most central themes in BE is what is referred to as “body armor”. Body armor is the habitual patterns of feeling and tension present in an individual that manifest as an objective and observable outcome in that person’s body. There are also qualitative aspects to it, such as how a person feels or senses various parts of the body or the degree of embodiment present. 

*First, a disclaimer, I am offering these explanations as very elementary and simplified versions of the dynamics present within these fields for the purposes of this article. There is a whole lot to BE that is way beyond the scope of this article and I will write more about them in the future.*

These patterns present themselves as a way to avoid feeling certain emotions, and the most common ones are neediness, anger, rage, sadness, grief, sexuality and excitement.

 

These structures generally develop in early childhood and relate to how a child processes the world and how his or her basic needs are met. These needs are as simple as being picked up and held, being wanted, being kept warm, being nursed, being allowed to express ourselves and being allowed to explore. Many of us don’t really get these things in the quantity/quality that is necessary to completely prevent this armor. As time passes and we grow into this armor, the repressed emotions magnify and solidify; then we build our lives with these patterns.

The notion is not that the emotion is somehow “stuck” in a particular body part, so much as emotions and feelings are related to certain body parts and we tense or disembody in order to suppress the feelings. BE uses many exercises meant to help us express these emotions and restore feeling to body parts that have been cut off. There is as well a strong intention of grounding the person in reality. The grounding helps those who “disembody” in order to prevent feeling.

Many of us in the movement and mobility circles run into this armor all the time with ourselves and with our clients (if we have clients). The collapsed chest, tight hip flexors and weak glutes may not just be a result of sitting, but could actually be tied to something that happen when the person was a year old.

 

It is harder to quantify, but that does not mean that when we help people radically transform their structure, that we are not interacting with the person’s emotional body. A movement practice dived into with earnest intention and “balance”, can totally transform a person’s character structure or it can “undo” some of it.

It is of course possible to avoid the things that are difficult and simply reinforce your armor through training. I unknowingly did this for years.

For example, if the person below made a point of squatting a lot at the expense of the upper body.

Chronic muscular tension is also a way of reducing the available energy of an organism because it takes energy to hold these rigid patterns in place and it takes extra energy to do anything in the face of these patterns, as we may be literally fighting ourselves in every moment. 

The less energy we have available the less we feel because feelings are driven by bio-energy. Hence the more energy we have at our disposal the more “alive” we are and the more alive we                                                                                     are, the more we feel.

What is Catharsis 

With that background in place, it is easier to the role of catharsis in the primal health movement. Catharsis is defined as:

ca·thar·sis

Noun

1.     the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.

“We are born with an emotional safety valve, natural catharsis. The gentlest form is talking to ourself out loud. We may be embarrassed if overheard, but children are less inhibited, and use natural catharsis as self-therapy from babyhood. They talk out loud while playing, and the meaning of the words does not matter. They fight, run, throw themselves around, shout, scream, swear, cry, laugh. When prevented they sometimes throw tantrums when they lose control of themselves.”- John Kapp

Here is an example below:

 

If we look around the animal kingdom we realize that the ability to heavily armor and distort our natural structure is mostly unique to humans. We don’t see intense postural variations in the rest of the wild world. The question arises then.....Why not?  It is theorized by some researchers and therapist that the origin of armor is the result of a few things: 

1.     Our innate purpose as a species is chosen by the individual and is not biologically hardwired, so we must “choose” what is meaningful to us. This self-chosen meaning is what drives a lot of our goal driven behavior.

2.      We have a “will” that we can impose upon our “feelings” in order to propagate self-directed goal driven behavior. The “will” of making ourselves do things that goes against impulse is the source of the armor.

3.     The human will is an imperfect mechanism of evolution and manifest itself in many secondary ways.

Below is a quote that explains this idea. “Radix” refers to bio-energy or life force.

“Goal-seeking entails the flow of the radix so as to maintain movement toward the goal in the face of alternative directions. When the goal is biologically determined, the attraction of the goal is automatic, and there is no conflict between the animal's feelings and its goal-seeking behavior. Thus the bird "feels like" building its nest or migrating or defending its territory, and does not need to "force" itself toward these instinctive ends. When goals are individually rather than species determined, however, the attraction of the goals cannot be built in. In man, the channeling toward a chosen goal of the radix flow which underlies feeling and movement is automatic. Conflict between feeling and purpose occurs often, so much that it becomes chronic. The common result of this conflict is a lasting block in the capacity to experience and express spontaneous deep feeling. The second common result is failure to develop the capacity to live purposely, either because of inability to choose appropriate long-range goals, or the inability to pursue such goals effectively after they are chosen, or both.” Charles Kelly

The world that we currently live in, is one in which, our animalistic needs are not often attended to as babies (like letting a baby cry its head off in a crib until exhausted). One in which, many of us feel very little sense of purpose, or do work that does not enliven us; as a result, we are constantly forced to do things we really would prefer not to do. This creates a lot of armor.

On top of that, intense emotional expression is seen as primitive, animalistic and wild, thus it is shunned. We are not meant to neurotically hold unto energetic emotional expressions day in and day out, the way that society teaches us to.

Emotions have a “charge” which seeks to move the body in specific ways and if we stifle this movement, we lock up this energy and we alter our structure. Tribal people appear to be less armored, as their lives are simpler, many tribal cultures are very attentive to the needs of babies, and there is less unwanted activity that is imposed upon the individual.

The more “civilized” we are the more armored we become.

They likely require/required much less in the way of cathartic episodes. It also seems like the expression of these intrinsic energetic eruptions were stifled much less with tribal culture. Does the howling, stomping native sound familiar? 

Before we move forward, I would like to point out that armor is not only negative and if we impose our will on ourselves in order to stay “disciplined”, or to push forward towards a goal despite what our feelings want, then we are employing the use of armor. Some armor is good and without some, it would be difficult to accomplish much in a Neolithic world.

The key is developing healthy armor, which can be done through intelligent strength and mobility training. Strength training teaches you how to impose will or intent. Armor can be very useful for getting things done and if you are highly driven, you’re definitely playing with a type of armor.

Hence the conquistador pummeling forward at his goal is going to be more armored, then the happy care free tribesman, whose daily task do not go heavily against his/her sense of purpose.

My own personal experience with catharsis has been life changing and has done more for my health and movement quality then other more common modalities, due to unloading enormous store houses of rage, neediness, pain and aggression (my patterns).  Doing so has opened up ranges of motion that previously faced a lot of resistance when addressed by more “structured” movement drills.

Not to say that these drills have not been beneficial of course, just offering perspective. Being a student of primal/ancestral movement, I can say that some of the most primal “movements” and responses I can imagine have come out of me during these sessions.

I have expressed movements/vocalizations that can be seen in other primates, worms, big cats and several other animals. This type of release has been more valuable than many other forms of “self- help”. I have experienced better workout recovery, more sexual energy, greater degrees of “quiet” in my mind, more freedom, better health, greater feelings of lightness and closer communal bonding. 

The out-pours of an intense cathartic session are incredibly ancient responses to the varying stimuli that we deal with and many of these types of responses are heavily suppressed by society and repressed by the individual.

Yelling, screaming, raging, crying, stomping, setting intense boundaries, anger, extreme excitement, biting and sadness are often discouraged, as they are seen as “immature”. Much of this is outside the realm of conscious thought, organized vocalization and is really impulse driven. We suppress these impulses and in doing so they can affect the health of the body mind continuum.

If you study animals for any length of time you will see these innate and “wild” responses occur and without any conscious suppression.

An energetic drive occurs within the animal and there is no “stopping” it inside the animal’s body, it does not fight against this impulse, instead the body expresses this emotional drive freely, the animal completes its cycle and lets it go. Not so with humans, as we often have feelings and impulses that we fight against and restrain in order to present what we feel we must to the world around us.

We face a unique set of circumstances in today’s world, one in which we are still biologically and energetically hunter gather’s meant for a very different world and yet, civilization offers the individual an enormous amount of potential for growth not possible in tribal cultures.

How do we bridge the gap between our animalistic past and continue to move forward in our society?

I think it is certain that we have an opportunity to include the past and sophisticate the future. With the right types of training, it is possible to absorb and take upon ourselves a very capable and healthy form of armor and simultaneously release the primal “noise” that exist inside of us, the creature the revolts against domestication. Not everyone needs catharsis, but boy if you need it, it can be a life saver.

Re-wilding must go beyond the imitation of our ancestors and address the “soul” of the person and unlock an inner state that is unburdened by civilized notions of acceptable behavior.

I am not advocating complete and utter destructive abandon, only awareness that these animalistic impulses do occur and that learning to find healthy ways to express them can be life changing, they certainly have been for me and many others.

* There are cases where this type of catharsis is contraindicated to such as psychosis, suicidal tendencies or extreme neurosis. Better to seek out a professional therapist in these cases*

Below are some suggested Practical methods of Catharsis-

1.     The mystic OSHO developed certain meditations meant to unlock and express these emotions.  Most notably his “Dynamic Meditation” and “Gibberish Meditation” methods.

2.     Alexander Lowen’s Bio-energetic drills

3.     Primal Scream Therapy

4.     Wrestling and Striking

5.     War Haka’s from the Maori Tribe

6.     Free form dance  

7.     The Body Doctor (explained below)

-My personal favorite is to combine expressive body movements and vocalizations in a free for all release with very little “structure”. The key with this form of catharsis (and the others) is to not force yourself to do anything. It should not look or sound any specific way. You allow yourself to express whatever it is you need to express; whatever feelings inside of you that seek an exit. If there is nothing wanting release then so be it. Allow yourself to erupt with freedom and awareness. In order to balance this out, lying on the ground for a while in silence afterwards is highly recommended and helps to consolidate the experience. -