This section is from the book "Melting Armour: Some Notes On Self-Help Reichian Therapy", by William West. Also available from Amazon: Melting Armour: Some Notes On Self-Help Reichian Therapy.
Reichian therapy is derived from the work of Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) who (re)discovered the existence of a specific life energy which he called orgone energy. In a healthy human or animal this orgone energy flows freely. However our way of life is anything but healthy from birth—or even pre-birth—onwards and one terrible consequence is a disruption in this healthy flow of life energy.
Such a disruption or energy imbalance underpins all our states of dis-ease whether we regard them as emotional, physical, spiritual, or some combination of the three.
This energy disruption takes two forms; one, a dampening down of what energy we have available, mainly by shallow breathing but also by poor diet and general unhealthy living; two, by blocking the energy flow at specific points in our body by muscular stiffness so that the energy flow is sluggish and will dam up near these blocks and go stale. There are, in addition, corresponding mental attitudes which work hand in hand with these muscular tensions. For example, stiff necked is a mental attitude and a physical reality.
This muscular stiffness Reich termed 'armouring' and he found that sets of muscles acted together to block the energy flow in a systematic way. He also discovered that our armour operates in seven distinct sections or segments with only several segments being involved in any particular blocking. For example, we use different segments to hold back different emotions which will be associated with the flow of orgone energy. So to hold back crying a person is likely to be armoured around the eyes, the jaw and throat, the chest and possibly the stomach. (ie in the ocular, oral, thoracic and abdominal segments - see diagram.)
Reichian therapy aims to improve our orgone energy flow by encouraging a deeper and healthier breathing, systematically loosening our armour, and by examining and confronting rigid mental attitudes, e.g. men don't cry, women don't get angry, I can't write. Apart from improved energy flow this will also often result in quite strong emotional outpourings, sometimes with memories of the situation in which the block first arose, and there is often in addition an increased feeling of well being, especially when a particular piece of therapy work is complete.
Reichian therapists usually work head downwards when loosening the armour so that the freed energy always has some way out. If not, if for example we worked on the pelvis then the energy would be forced out through the above armouring which would not only be a forced and harsh discharge, but also possibly cause confusion and unnecessary distress in the client. However spontaneous and intuitive work occurs as well so this is not a rigid rule.
Reich saw armoured people—i.e. most if not all people in our society- as having three layers of character. These are; core layer, that part of us buried deep inside from which we are spontaneously, loving, caring, cooperative, and rationally angry; a secondary layer of repressed impulses, mostly of a sadistic, masochistic or murderous nature which arise as a consequence of the blocking of healthy core impulses from birth onwards; finally an outer layer of polite sociability and sham love and cooperativeness which is a weak imitation of our core selves. We work with these layers in Reichian therapy within each segment.
Following on from Freud's discovery of infant sexuality and how its repression led to neurosis Reich studied human sexuality in terms of orgone energy flow. He discovered that there was a definite rhythm to orgasm in an unarmoured human. There is a slow build up to a peak followed by a period of relaxation. Reich identified 4 phases to this orgasm cycle which he termed charge, tension, discharge, relaxation, and he discovered that there was a specific energy flow in orgasm from the centre to the periphery (i.e. to the genitals) and away again after the peak. Armouring interferes with this flow and leaves us unsatisfied.
Reich found that this energy cycle not only applied to human orgasm but also to cell subdivision and even to the formation of galaxies. It also applies to good therapy which should have its peaks and its relaxation, John Southgate and Rosemary Randall have found this same cycle in healthy group dynamics (see reading list) and their terms for the four stages are; nurturing energising, peak, relaxing -phases noticeable in a good therapy session.
It is important not to be stuck with the notion that therapy is about anger, fear and pain. It is so often in the early stages of someone's therapy, but it is also about joy, sexuality, fun, creativity and releasing blocks to their expression.
Unlike some other ideas on breathing the Reichian notion of breathing is not something we have to learn. We can all breathe well once our armour is dissolved. Meantime to help raise energy for a therapy session and to make the blocks more apparent, the therapist works to encourage healthier breathing in her/his client, mainly by loosening the chest armouring and by helping the out breath, since this will automatically encourage the in breath.
We can learn a lot from watching how people breathe firstly without encouragement, then with verbal encouragement—asking them to breathe deeper, finally by pressing down on the chest and possible the abdomen. Good Reichian breathing involves breathing evenly into both the chest and abdomen, more or less at the same time and then out again, with the in and out breath merging into one another in a natural rhythm. A more systematic discussion of breathing work and the therapeutic information available from Reichian breathing work can be found in an excellent article by Nic Waal et al (see reading list).
"The best way is just to breathe and relax, and let it come naturally. Never force anything. Just let it be natural and it will always be okay" Reich to Peter, his son.