Elsa Gindler and her influence on Wilhelm Reich and Body Psychotherapy (2009)

This is a preprint of an article whose final and definitive form has been published in the Body, Movement & Dance in Psychotherapy – An International Journal for Theory, Research and Practice, 2010 [copyright Taylor & Francis]. Available online at: http://www.informaworld.com.

The article has an interesting history:

I was very honored to be invited to be a keynote presenter at the European Association for Body Psychotherapys November, 2008 conference in Paris, France.  I had never attended an EABP conference even though they have been in existence much longer than the USABP.  There were 700 people in attendance from, I think it was, 26 different countries.

I attended a presentation by Michel Heller and was very surprised to hear him state that Wilhelm Reich had studied with Elsa Gindler.  I asked for more information and he said that Reich’s wife, Annie, had made him attend several courses in the 1930s.  Well, having studied with several of Gindler’s main disciples and having discussed Reich’s trajectory of study and coming into connection with the physical/energetic element with his daughter and close associate, I was pretty sure that fact was not correct but I said no more.

I came home from Paris with that little-but-important detail sticking in my mind and eventually, well, very soon after-  I emailed Heller and challenged him on the facts.  This began a very interesting email conversation into which many others joined and added their impressions and understandings.  None of these people had I ever met other than Courtenay Young who regularly attends USABP conferences and David Boadella with whom I had taken a workshop many years ago.  All of them were Europeans.  Over time most of the various people dropped out, and eventually there were just three of us still hanging in on the email conversation: Michel Heller who was born in Paris, France and lives in Switzerland, Ulfried Geuter who lives in Germany; and me, from the west coast of the United States.  We all had different education and experiences and therefore different practices in the stretched-out field of somatic psychotherapy, or body psychotherapy as they prefer to call it in Europe.

Therein began a very interesting, sometimes painful and frustrating, always time consuming process of trying to understand each others words (we all have different primary languages and I don’t speak any of the European languages), feelings, and most especially how we saw and interpreted what had happened around the situation we were interested in clarifying which is how Wilhelm Reich came to the physical and energetic element and how was Elsa Gindler an influence in the field.  We all have doctorates in psychology (mine being specifically in Reichian psychology).  Heller had trained in Biodynamic Psychology and has published a French manual on body psychotherapies. Geuter is a trainer for body psychotherapy and had studied some with a student of a student of Gindler before his psychotherapeutic training.  They both had the experience of what had happened in Europe which was very different from what had happened in the United States.  The impressions of the influences of the various practices were different.  Geuter could read the original german texts and I very personally knew Charlotte Selver and Eva Reich.  In some ways it was a very rich field in which to plow and harvest understandings and in other ways it was very conflicting so as to be confusing and frustrating.

We were asked to prepare the article for publication in   Body, Movement & Dance in Psychotherapy – An International Journal for Theory, Research and Practice that is published in English in Europe and we had a deadline. We are all perfectionists of various sorts.  We missed one deadline and perhaps another as we tried to clarify our facts, clear translations of meanings, and uncover some long-time understandings and confusions and worked to come to agreement in how to put this information out. For instance I refused to allow the word method to be used in connection with Gindlers work or to call it body work whereas these are used easily and fully in Europe.  It was, all in all, an extraordinary experience of 15 months.   I learned a lot and have great respect for my colleagues.  I still do not know these people with whom I have written this piece; we have personally written about wanting to some day meet each other. I do hope that happens.

Elsa Gindler and her influence on Wilhelm Reich and Body Psychotherapy



1 University of Marburg, German Association of Psychology (DGPs), Association of German Professional Psychologists (BDP), German Association of Body-Psychotherapy (DGK), and 2 Swiss Federation of Psychologists (FSP), Association of Psychologists of Vaud (AVP), European Association of Body-Psychotherapy (EABP), and 3 Santa Barbara Graduate Institute (SBGI), US Association of Body Psychotherapy (USABP), Association for Pre & Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH), Sensory Awareness Foundation (SAF), Sensory Awareness Leaders Guild (SALG), Foundation for Human Enrichment (FHE)




This article explores the background of Elsa Gindler, in the early part of the 20th century in Berlin, and whom she influenced in the 1930s and later, both in body psychotherapy and in other disciplines. It particularly explores the connection with Wilhelm Reich and Gindler’s indirect influence on the development of his Vegetotherapy.

Elsa Gindler (1885-1961), a German gymnastic teacher, is not very well known in the English-speaking world, but she played an important role in the development of body psychotherapy.  She influenced prominent psychotherapists in several approaches, such as psychoanalysis, Gestalt therapy and Vegetotherapy. Wilhelm Reich, who is often seen as the founder of body psychotherapy, came to learn of her form of somatic work before he started to work explicitly with the body. Among her students were Laura Perls, then Lore Posener, the later wife of Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy (Clarkson & Mackewn, 1993); Clare Nathanson, who married the psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel; Wilhelm Reich’s second partner, Elsa Lindenberg; Charlotte Selver, then Charlotte Silber, the founder of sensory awareness, who later taught Gindler’s work to Fritz Perls and Erich Fromm; Gertrud Falke Heller, a dancer, who gave her knowledge to Helmuth Stolze, the founder of “Concentrative Movement Therapy”; and physician Lily Ehrenfried, with whom Hilarion Petzold, the founder of “Integrative Therapy”, later studied in Paris. These students of Gindler, nearly all women, practiced what she had taught: explorations in movement and inner bodily feeling which did not claim to be psychotherapeutic, but certainly had effects on the psychic level, and which Heller (2008) calls today an organismic approach. They passed on Gindler’s work, over the following generation, to various psychotherapists, who took it up, enhancing and elaborating their approaches, or as an additional help for patients (Geuter, 2000a, p. 61) (see Diagram 1).

Ruth Cohn also studied Gindler’s work in Berlin, with Carola Speads (then Spitz) when still going to school without coming to know Gindler herself  (Cohn, 1984, p. 250; Zundel, 1991). Cohn was born in Berlin in 1912, and later became a psychotherapist known as the creator of a communication method called “˜Theme-Centered Interaction’ (TCI). Cohn’s concept of “˜movable equilibrium’ in interactions might thus stem from her experience in Gindler’s work (Geuter, 2000, p. 105). She writes that the “method of the Gindler-school” had been “one of the essential foundations” for her own efforts towards “psychosomatic analysis” (Cohn, 1984, p. 248).

Diagram 1

In this article we want to explore the background and principles of Gindler’s work and its impact on Reichian body psychotherapy. As there are not many written sources on Gindler this is not easy to do. Gindler only published one article during her life (Gindler, 1926). Moreover, most of her personal documents burned in April 1945 after a bomb attack (Ludwig, 2002, p. 62). Remaining documents were later collected in the archives of the Heinrich-Jacoby-Elsa-Gindler Foundation in Berlin. They were summarized and partly published by Ludwig (2002). Part of them is a formerly unpublished talk Gindler gave at the general assembly of the German Gymnastic Association in 1931. Further sources on Gindler are recollections of her students  (C. Fenichel, 1981; G. Heller, 1983, Hengstenberg, 1985) many of them are collected in a volume edited by Zeitler  (1991). In the light of these sources we try to place Gindler into the social historical context of Germany before the Nazi period and trace her influence on psychotherapy. We will discuss her conception of her work contrasting to how the relationship between body work and psychotherapy was later newly defined by Reich.

Gindler in the context of German reform movements

Gindler was born in Berlin in 1885, a daughter of a blacksmith, and wanted to study medicine but her parents were not able to afford this. She held several jobs in industry and commerce and in accordance with reform movements of the time joined an association of vegetarians and a women’s group of the “Association for body culture” (Ludwig, 2002, p. 11-16). Before the First World War, Gindler also followed the Mazdaznan theory. This was a doctrine created by Otto Hanisch, who called himself Otoman Zar-Adusht Ha’nish, declared being born in Iran and lived in the USA. His way of working on movement, posture and breathing influenced many practitioners working with the body. His system of yoga was very wide spread. He also called for a purification of the body by ritual cleaning, thus cultivating the self for a paradisiacal state of mind  (De Sambucy et al., 1973; von Steinaecker, 2000, p. 94f.). Hanisch was also prone to the idea of cultivating the Arian race, but he is mostly known for his book The Power of Breath (Hanish, 1902). The spiritual movement he founded is a good example of the numerous schools that flourished in these days under the general umbrella of the Theosophic Movement.

In 1911, Elsa Gindler came across the book of Hedwig Kallmeyer on harmonizing gymnastics. Kallmeyer was a German gymnastic teacher who had studied with Geneviève Stebbins in New York and Calisthenics in England (von Steinaecker, 2000, p. 165). Gindler wrote to her sister that in Kallmeyer’s book she found the Alpha and Omega of all beautiful movements (Ludwig, 2002, p. 18) and she started to study in the “SSeminar für Harmonische Gymnastik” (school for harmonizing gymnastics) of Hedwig Kallmeyer in the little village of Steglitz which later became part of Berlin.

At that time Berlin was the “social laboratorium of work on the body” (Geuter, 2000, p. 105). In Steglitz the first association of the German youth movement had been founded in 1901, the so-called group of Wandervogel. Many reform movements were fashionable then. In 1900 Isadora Duncan had created expressive dance in Berlin; in 1904 she founded a “rhythm school”; and in 1914, Mary Wigman first appeared in public with expressive dance in Berlin. In 1905, the first “reform dresses” for women were created, made of linen and without a corset. Various “˜life reform’ movements contained and helped to create a new relationship to the body. Also in 1901, the first German “Light-Air-Swimming-Bath” opened in Berlin in which visitors went swimming without bathing suits. Young people aimed to free their body from the stiffness of Wilhelminian (Victorian) society and from the constraints of industrialization. Whilst the electrical tram conquered Berlin in the last two decades of the 19th century, these people wanted to live in the natural surroundings of fields and woods, which then still separated Berlin from Steglitz (Geuter, 2004).

In the context of the “˜life reform’ movements, some gymnastic teachers started to plead for new forms of gymnastics, the so-called “reform gymnastic”. They were against traditional gymnastics, which used apparatus and pieces of sports equipment, and were executed with the teacher counting for everyone in a given rhythm (von Steinaecker, 2000). The aim of this gymnastic was mainly athletic, physiotherapeutic and orthopedic. People were required to execute their movements and posture in a precise way, and this practice is still followed in many orthopedic hospitals and clinics today. “˜Reform’ gymnastics proposed a different approach where the voice of the teacher and external bio-mechanical reasoning was replaced by developing an awareness of the student’s inner rhythms and of the requirements of his organism. Hedwig Kallmeyer and Elsa Gindler were part of this movement.

Gindler, as a young woman, was supposedly diagnosed with tuberculosis, but was unable to afford staying in a sanatorium (Franzen, 1995, p. 4; Fromm, 1991, p. 107; von Steinaecker, 2000, p. 160). She worked by herself to heal, whilst letting the “˜ill’ lobe of her lung rest and changing the pattern of her breathing in the healthy one (Selver, 1991, p. 73). Gindler’s tuberculosis however has not been verified in her personal documents, noted only as an unknown severe illness (Ludwig, 2002, p. 17 & 76). In order to discover the possibilities for regeneration and health, she gave her complete attention to what was happening within herself at every moment, in every activity, during the entire day. Devoted student, colleague and friend Elfriede Hengstenberg explained, “She found that in this practice she came into a state where she was no longer disturbed by her own thoughts and worries. And she came to experience – consciously experience – that calm in the physical field (Gelassenheit) is equivalent to trust in the psychic field. This was her discovery, and it became basic to all subsequent research” (Hengstenberg, 1985). In her notes for a course in 1954, Gindler herself expressed it this way: “To give oneself over under a mental aspect means to be able to trust” (Ludwig, 2002, p. 172; [our translation: the original was "Sich überlassen können bedeutet im psychischen Aspekt Vertrauen können.."]).

In 1917, Elsa Gindler opened her own school called “Seminar für Harmonische Körperausbildung”. The translation for this is “school for harmonizing body formation”, but the German word “Ausbildung” in this context means formation as well as training. Gindler never gave a name to her work.  Later it was said that she had called it “work on the human being”  (Arbeit am Menschen). Sophie Ludwig, however, who had been closest to her over decades, writes that Gindler had been against that term and never used it. Gindler had said that this term reminded her of the work of a sculptor (Ludwig, 2002, p. 183).  Her German followers, up to present times, simply call it “the work.”. Gindler also refused to systemize what she taught, as she wanted her students to open up to their own experiences. In her only published article, “Gymnastics for the working person”, (1926), Gindler states that: “the purpose of my work is not to learn certain movements but to reach concentration” (Gindler, 1991, p. 48).

She did not teach specific exercises as she wanted her students to become aware of what happens when they move and sense themselves consciously from inside, and to find out how they can move with less effort (Ehrenfried, 1991, p. 34). “Our pupils should not learn an exercise but by exercise try to enhance their intelligence”, Gindler noted (1991, p. 50). Gindler felt the fixed set of common movements for everyone was a narrowness of approach. She wanted freedom for people to explore independently and develop individually a way to experience themselves and learn from their own somatic behaviour in all of life’s situations. She wanted to help people to discover, through practice, ways of becoming aware of what was happening in one’s own person. In her classes, she did not teach “techniques”. She helped pupils to discover ways of practicing which fitted best his or her particular set of issues. Students should create their own movement experiments and make their personal experiences (“erfahrbereit werden”) (Franzen, 1995). The natural activities of everyday life were the material for her classes. Gindler’s focus was “tasten”; in English we would say, “sensing our way,” or “feeling what happens inside movements,” or “exploring what impressions are activated by movement.” This implied working on how movement and consciousness could resonate with each other. It seems what Elsa Gindler was looking for was to use movement that could help a person to improve the coordination between mind, breathing, relaxation, gesture, posture and muscular tone (Weaver, 2006). Heinrich Jacoby wrote that she aimed at “a wakeful relation to the regulating and regenerating processes of one’s own body” (Ludwig, 2002, p. 54). But she never saw her work as therapy (ibid, p. 159).

By 1913, Gindler had developed her way of working with breathing, relaxation, and tension (Gindler, 1991, p. 51). Attention to the breath was basic: “For her, breathing was a teacher: simply being attentive to it is a way of learning how things are with one, of learning what needs to change for fuller functioning – for more reactivity in breathing and thus in the whole person. She did not teach others what they ‘ought’ to be, but only to find out how they were” (Roche, 1978). There is a wonderful sentence from Gindler’s personal notebooks that is hard to translate: “Ermitteln, was einem beim Probieren widerfährt” – “To find out what befalls you by trying”: this is an inner process of discovery.

In 1925, Elsa Gindler met pedagogue and musician Heinrich Jacoby. After studying with each other, they collaborated in the development of what is now sometimes termed as the Jacoby-Gindler work (Jacoby, 1983). Jacoby had a great interest in psychoanalysis, and, through him, Gindler became interested in psychoanalysis too. She even recommended that those who wanted to teach her method should go through some psychoanalysis (Ehrenfried, 1991, p. 35).  At the same time in a talk at the general assembly of the German Gymnastic Association in 1931, she criticized psychoanalysts for not dealing with the body, not even their own (Ludwig, 2002, p. 102). In this talk she said: “It would be a fascinating task to show the psychotherapist by our practical experiences what he can gain for understanding his own task by consciously exploring his own body” (ibid.). But in her own work, Gindler never tried to combine psychotherapeutic work with the emotions with her work on the awareness of the body.

She respected the pauses between the in-breath and the out-breath. In her 1926 analysis of breathing, she showed how important it is to let one’s breathing go beyond the breathing effort made by the larger bronchi, so that the “small lung vesicles” can also fill and empty, not just the large bronchi. This implies allowing a space in the pauses during which these finer breathing activities have time to complete the cycle. If this pause is not respected, deep breathing can lead to a feeling of constriction, mostly in the sternum.

In the early days of body psychotherapy, several schools (bioenergetics, primal scream, rebirthing, etc.) used breathing techniques that generated the constrictions described by Gindler. These often led to various forms of re-traumatization. Instead of curing the patient’s trauma, the “˜breathing therapy’ sometimes created a situation whereby the patients relived their trauma in a way that they could not emotionally digest, thus actually strengthening the trauma. These forms of deep breathing, developed mostly in the 1970s, were manifestly ignorant of some of the finer breathing work proposed by Gindler.

Gindler and Reich

The contacts between Wilhelm Reich and Elsa Gindler’s work are mostly indirect, but important for Reich’s approach. When Reich came to Berlin in 1930, he was welcomed by Otto Fenichel, who had been his best friend since their university days in Vienna  (C. Fenichel, 1981; Sharaf, 1983). The history of these contacts seems to have started with Klara Nathansohn, who later married Fenichel, and became known as Clare Nathanson Fenichel. She had begun studying with Gindler in 1915 and went to her classes two times a week until 1917 (C. Fenichel, 1991, 29 ff; Loukes, 2006).  From 1917 to 1918 she took part in a training course for future teachers with Gindler. Clare Nathanson also ran a nursery school for a while but, after she married Otto Fenichel, she gave it up and went back to studying with Gindler. She later practised as a teacher in Gindler’s work for a long time in America, whilst in exile during and after the 2nd World War.

Otto Fenichel had come to Berlin in autumn 1922 (Mühlleitner, 2008, p. 127).  He met Clare Nathanson in January 1924 (ibid., p. 143) who brought him to some of Gindler’s classes. Otto Fenichel took his first Gindler course in 1925. Fenichel was fascinated by Gindler’s work because, after only a few hours of course work, his headaches ceased (ibid, p. 147). In 1927, he gave a talk at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society on “Psychoanalytic Reflections on the Working Principles of Gymnastics” (ibid.). He then introduced Clare to his groups from the Psychoanalytic Institute, where she talked about Gindler’s work (C. Fenichel, 1981).

By 1928, Otto Fenichel had integrated some of this knowledge into an article on Organ libidinization accompanying the defence against drives (O. Fenichel, 1928). This article was also inspired by his work in the psychoanalytic child seminar, where paediatricians and child psychologists talked of the close links between motoricity, affects and cognitive development. Here, Fenichel already discusses the possible links between the psychodynamic defence systems, chronic muscular tensions, both hyper- and hypo-tonus, and restricted breathing. This analysis was written to confirm Freud’s idea that “the ego is, first and foremost a bodily ego” (Freud, 1923, p. 26). Taking into account Otto Fenichel’s experiences with Gindler’s work, it can be claimed that he was the first psychoanalyst who paid close attention to the body as it was affected by body techniques such as gymnastics, but Fenichel never intended to integrate bodywork with psychoanalysis.

When Wilhelm Reich and his family arrived in Berlin in 1930, they often met with the Fenichels. Annie (Reich’s wife) worked with Clare Fenichel and Eva (Reich’s daughter) went to a “˜Gindler school’. Eva Reich recalls liking the school very much because they got to crawl under, around and over all sorts of things, and she had a very good time. She said that she loved the ways she was encouraged to use her body and be active and creative (E. Reich, 2001).

Eva Reich reported that she remembered being a child and going on hikes in the woods with her mother and father and their best friends, Otto and Clare Fenichel. Her father would keep asking them about the Gindler classes that they took. He would say, “Now tell me, what is it that you do?” (E. Reich, 1984). When talking to Judyth Weaver over the years, Eva Reich clearly stated how she felt that her father and his work were influenced by Gindler’s work. She has stated several times that she does not think her father would have begun to work with the body, and especially the breath, if he had not been influenced by the Gindler method through so many of her students.

Another student of Gindler was Elsa Lindenberg, with whom Reich started an affair in Berlin in 1931/2. Lindenberg was a dancer and choreographer, originally from the prestigious Berlin Opera. At the opera she worked with the famous Austrian choreographer, Rudolf von Laban (Laban, 1920, 1950), who had become director of ballet in 1930 and is still regularly quoted by those who study nonverbal behaviour (Birdwhistell, 1970; Rosenfeld; 1982; La Barre, 2001) because of his system of notation of body movements. Laban’s work still has an important impact on dance-movement psychotherapy (Payne, 2006). In 1933, Elsa Lindenberg followed Reich when he left Berlin for Denmark, and later she went with him to Norway in 1934/5. Although this impression is based on indirect evidence, she is probably the person who taught Reich most of what he knew about working with the body. Later, in Oslo, she worked as a choreographer and after the war she developed a form of dance therapy that is still taught in Norway.

Reich never worked with Elsa Gindler or any of her students, other than Lindenberg. However, he acquired at least a “vicarious” connection with Gindler’s work through his friends. What is clear is that the input of Elsa Lindenberg’s dance and movement expertise played a central role in Reich’s development of working out his bodily-oriented psychotherapy method that he called Character-Analytic Vegetotherapy, and particularly on his concept of “˜orgastic reflex’ (M. Heller, 2007a, 2007b).

When Reich came to know Gindler’s special approach to the body via Lindenberg there was a broader experimental atmosphere of bodywork and body experiences in Berlin. Through Lindenberg he must have come to know expressive dance. This may have led him to emphasizing emotional expression that Gindler never did.  In Berlin, Johannes Heinrich Schultz, the founder of “Autogenic Training”, a relaxation method that is very wide spread in Europe, studied yoga before he developed his method, which he first called “concentrative self relaxation” (Geuter, 2004, p. 175). Schultz also taught the method of turning one’s awareness inside, as Gindler did.

Another important influence in this area was Edmund Jacobson (1934 & 1967). Jacobson had been trained at Harvard by William James and Walter B. Cannon and then created a psychophysiology laboratory in Chicago University, where he studied the physiological impact of his relaxation method. The increasingly important number of European practitioners who used his method also integrated Cannon’s notion of homeostasis, which integrates emotions and instincts in general physiological regulation systems. Jacobson’s relaxation methods were popular among the Fenichel’s and Reich’s pupils in Norway (e.g., Trygve Braatøy and Nic Waal) who also learned from other body techniques. Jacobson’s approach also influenced Reich’s Vegetotherapy and Gerda Boyesen’s Biodynamic Psychology.


Somatic Work and Psychotherapy in Gindler’s and Reich’s time

It is during the time Reich lived in Berlin (1930-1933) that he first described the ways resistance is stored in the body, and attempted to include working with the body in the Character Analysis (Reich, 1933) he had developed in Vienna. At the same time there were also other attempts at combining psychotherapy and bodywork. In 1931, the 6th congress of the “Common Medical Society for Psychotherapy” met in the German town of Dresden. Its general topic was “treating the soul from the body.” The famous psychiatrist, Ernst Kretschmer, was the chair of this congress. Psychoanalyst Gustav R. Heyer spoke on “Treating the Psyche starting from the Body” (“Die Behandlung des Seelischen vom Körper aus”) and suggested to include gymnastics, sports, breath work, and massage into psychotherapeutic treatment (Geuter, 2000a, p. 62). Other speakers claimed to see psychic as well as somatic phenomena as functions of the entire organism. One speaker went so far as to state that a combined body-mind-therapy would be the future of psychotherapy (ibid. p. 63). Georg Groddeck gave a presentation on “Massage and Psychotherapy” (Groddeck, 1977), which is, according to George Downing, one of his finest papers (Downing, 1996, p. 362).

At this conference psychotherapist Lucy Heyer also pointed out the relevance of von Laban’s movement analysis for psychotherapeutic work. “Psychological gymnastics” would have the task of bringing life energy back to the body (Geuter, 2000a, p. 63).  It has been stated that Lucy Heyer had also been a student of Gindler (Mayland, 1995, p. 63), but, as Gindler never left Berlin, and Lucy Heyer never lived in Berlin, it seems to be very unlikely. It could be that she took part in courses that Gindler gave outside Berlin, e.g. on the island of Sylt in the North Sea, but there is no confirmation from autobiographical statements of Heyer, nor from people staying with her together in a Gindler class, nor from any written records.

Lucy Heyer directed a school for rhythm in Munich in 1922, after studying Greek and Latin.  In 1930 she moved to Zurich  and started psychotherapeutic training (Kindler, 1982). She was the wife of psychotherapist Gustav Heyer, but separated from him in 1933.  Consequently she did not follow Heyer to Berlin in 1939, where he joined the central psychotherapeutic training institute of the Nazi period, the so-called Göring Institute, where in 1940 he also gave courses in breathing therapy (Cocks, 1997). From 1932 to 1945, Lucy Heyer practiced in Munich as a psychotherapist (Geuter, 2000a, p. 63).   After the war, she became known in Germany for a book on psychotherapy and breath training (Heyer-Grote, 1970).

The interactions between the people we have named were numerous. Gindler’s student Lore Perls had done eurhythmy (following Rudolf Steiner) and expressive dance from her 8th year of life (Sreckovic, 1999, p. 23). In his Berlin period, Fritz Perls was fascinated by the dancers, Gret Palucca and Mary Wigman (ibid, p. 29). In Berlin, he was also analysed by Reich, whilst Lore received supervision from Fenichel. Perls later took the concept of organismic self-regulation from Reich, and his focus on awareness from Gindler and Selver. In 1944, Perls spoke of “Concentration therapy” (ibid., p. 108). Gestalt therapy historian Milan Sreckovic writes: “The concept of awareness in Gestalt therapy is based to an essential extent on the work of Charlotte Selver, a student of Elsa Gindler and Heinrich Jacoby” (1999, p. 116). Perls himself wrote in 1947 in a letter to Lore about working with Selver, “Finally I found for what I have been looking for all over the years and what I did not find at any other school. Now this corroborates and underpins my entire theory”. And also in 1947: “Here is the method which not only accomplishes what I was striving after by concentration exercises, but which is subtle and in contrast to stress (very different from what Reich is currently doing by forcefully solving the tensions of the patient)” (ibid; our translation from German).

In Oslo, Elsa Lindenberg had psychotherapeutic sessions with Otto Fenichel, and deepened her knowledge of Gindler’s work with Clare Fenichel. Most of those who participated in the early forms of body psychotherapy (Trygve Braatøy, Ola Raknes and Nic Waal) had been trained by Otto Fenichel and Wilhelm Reich (Boadella, 1976; Braatøy, 1954; Raknes, 1970; Reich, 1994). When Annie and Wilhelm Reich separated, Annie joined Otto Fenichel’s group of Marxist psychoanalysts in Prague. Lindenberg returned to study with Gindler after the war.

The general trend followed by the Fenichels and Gindler, was to consider gymnastics and psychotherapy as two different types of approaches, which could not be used simultaneously in one session. However they would recommend to their pupils also to work in the other discipline. This clear separation was followed by Charlotte Selver, by Fenichel’s pupils, and also by Erich Fromm, who sent patients to work in parallel on the body with Selver. It also holds for the work of Moshe Feldenkrais who had studied with Jacoby, Gindler’s close associate, and with Gindler’s student Lotte Kristeller (see diagram). The same is true for the Norwegian psychiatrist, Trygve Braatøy (1954). When he became head of Oslo’s psychiatric hospital, he asked the physiotherapist Aadel Bülow-Hansen to develop a form of bodywork that could be used in parallel with Braatøy’s psychoanalytic body psychotherapy (Thornquist & Bunkan, 1991).

It is mostly Wilhelm Reich who explored ways of combining bodywork and psychotherapy into a single treatment. He began working on the muscle tensions and the breathing of his patients in Berlin, and presented this work entitled “Psychic contact and vegetative currents” at the 1934 Psychoanalytic Congress in Luzern. When he created his Vegetotherapy work, that he really only started to practice in Oslo, he did not present his approach as a form of psychotherapy, but as a new way of working with the organism – taken as a global entity. Reich thus attempted to explore the mechanisms that connect a) Gindler’s notion of body, breathing and mind, and b) Freud’s notion of a mind capable of influencing organismic regulation systems. This led him beyond psychotherapy, and even Gindler’s gymnastics, to find ways of exploring the organism, as defined by Cannon and Jacobson. Reich’s new methods of Vegetotherapy were attempts to work directly on the vegetative and emotional mechanisms that connect mind, behavior, body and metabolism.

The option of using body and mind in two parallel processes is still being developed today. We can therefore distinguish methods that combine the body and psychotherapy as parallel processes with ‘organismic’ approaches that tend to combine these dimensions with the assumption that they are functionally inseparable (Heller, 2008). For example, Gerda Boyesen (1985) presented her Biodynamic Psychology in the 1970s as a synthesis of Reich’s and Braatøy’s body psychotherapy work and Bülow-Hansen’s physiotherapy.


It seems abundantly clear that the test of time shows that Elsa Gindler has had a significant influence, albeit somewhat indirect, on “the body in psychotherapy” through a number of different channels. We have seen that sensory awareness, vegetotherapy, concentrative movement therapy, and dance movement therapy, all owe something significant in their development to Gindler’s pioneering work in body and breath awareness. Gindler’s experiential approach to promote awareness also fitted in to the later developments of Gestalt Therapy and Humanistic Psychology, in which Fritz and Lore Perls were quite central. Concentrative Movement Therapy also follows Gindler’s experiential approach in that it offers the patient/client suggestions or experiments, rather than techniques known to be effective by the therapist in advance. Gindler’s approach also coined certain ways of working psychotherapeutically and had a subtle influence on more recent concepts in psychotherapy. George Downing (1996, pp. 361 & 381), for instance, came to learn bodywork from Magda Proskauer who had studied with Heinrich Jacoby in Berlin. Rudolf Maaser, with others, has developed a body psychotherapy for working with psychosomatic patients, which is almost completely Gindlerian (Maaser et al., 1994, pp. 68ff. & 81ff.) but Gindler is never mentioned.  He has based this approach on psychoanalytic theory. The German psychotherapist Norbert Klingenberg (2000) nowadays combines Feldenkrais body education and behavioural therapy into “body-behaviour-therapy” – another impact of Gindler’s work in the long run.

Various forms of psychotherapy and other practices have at times, included – and continue to include – this form of awareness work. For instance, in his mindfulness-based stress reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn (2005) uses a method called “body scan” that Gindler had worked with over decades with generations of students (see Ludwig, 2002, p. 146). The recent trend for the inclusion of what is called “mindfulness” practice into Cognitive Behavioural Therapy thus indicates, perhaps, an underlying necessity to include – into all effective therapy work – something of this sort of simple, deep centering within the body, that Gindler developed, that can also be found in several Eastern disciplines and from which many therapeutic disciplines are now benefiting.

Ultimately, Reich’s exploration of the vegetative and emotional connection between movement and mind was an essential step in the foundation of Body Psychotherapy, because it has, since then, become manifest for many psychotherapists and psychologists that mind and emotions can only be usefully approached as a part of the global individual system. This acceptance is not directly influenced by Reich, but by a stream of research that began with Cannon’s formulations, and has been renewed today by research on psychiatric drugs and in neuroscience.

Once Reich had shown how one could work on the organism as a source of behaviour and feelings, some of his pupils felt the need to reintegrate some Vegetotherapy techniques in the realm of psychotherapy. In New York, Alexander Lowen felt the need to become more specific on body and psychotherapeutic techniques (1958). He relied at first on his own training in gymnastics and calisthenics, then on Fenichel’s psychoanalysis and Reich’s Vegetotherapy and “˜Orgonomy’, to present a form of Reichian Body Psychotherapy that, with John Pierrakos, he called “˜Bioenergetic Analysis’. His argument was that Reich showed that organismic regulations activated mental, emotional, bodily and behavioural dynamics; but that patients like himself also needed to work on the impact of mind, emotions, body and behaviour on the organism. Some of Reich’s patients, like Myron Sharaf, needed to have psychoanalysis after having worked with Reich, in order to integrate the psychological material that had been unleashed by Reich in his organismic dynamics. He was not the only one. Bioenergetic Analysis can thus be presented as the first form of Reichian body psychotherapy. People trained in Bioenergetics later integrated other forms of bodywork and psychotherapy.

This stance influenced other colleagues who were going in the same direction in a more implicit way, particularly in Oslo, where Elsa Lindenberg, and in California at Esalen, where Charlotte Selver had a central impact. In Oslo and California, other psychotherapeutic approaches, such as Jung’s analysis and Perl’s Gestalt therapy were also included in the discussion.  Similarly, other approaches also participated in the emergence of body psychotherapy, but the association between body-mind techniques, “˜Vegetotherapy’, and other psychotherapeutic models first came up in Berlin around 1930, when psychoanalysts Otto Fenichel and Wilhelm Reich met  the work of Rudolf von Laban, Elsa Gindler and their pupils. Starting from this encounter Wilhelm Reich developed his synthesis in approaching the entire organism.


Notes on Contributors

Ulfried Geuter: Ph.D. in psychology, University Lecturer for body psychotherapy in Marburg, former research in the history of psychology, Psychoanalyst, Body Psychotherapist, trainer for body psychotherapy in psychotherapy programs; he has a private practice in Berlin. Various publications on the history of psychology and on body psychotherapy. E-mail: u.geuter@gmx.de

Michael C. Heller: Doctor in psychology of Duisburg University (Dr. phil. and sports), psychotherapist. He was trained in Piagetian cognitive and developmental experimental psychology, and in Biodynamic Psychology. His carrier, publications and presentations combine his research in nonverbal communication, in the Laboratory of Affects and Communication (L.A.C.) of the Geneva Psychiatric University Institutions (I.U.P.G.), and his clinical research in body psychotherapy. He has published two books: The Flesh of the Soul (Peter Lang), and a French manual on Body psychotherapies: Psychothérapies corporelles (De Boeck). E-mail: massensh@bluewin.ch

Judyth O. Weaver: Ph.D. in Reichian Psychology; studied with Charlotte Selver since 1968; teaches Sensory Awareness; certified as a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, in Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, and in Prenatal and Birth Therapy; Rosen Method practitioner and teacher; master teacher in T’ai Chi Ch’uan; professor at California Institute for Integral Studies for 25 years; is co-founder of Santa Barbara Graduate Institute and creator of its Somatic Psychology doctoral program; she has a private practice in Mill Valley, California and Seattle, Washington. E-mail: judyth@judythweaver.com



Birdwhistell, R. (1970). Kinesics in Context. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Boadella, D. (1976). In the Wake of Reich. London: Conventure.

Boadella, D. (1990). Somatic psychotherapy: its roots and traditions. Energy and Character, 21, 1, pp. 2-26.

Boyesen, G. (1985).  Entre psyché et soma. Introduction à la psychologie biodynamique. Paris: Payot.

Braatøy, T. (1954). Fundamentals of psychoanalytic technique. A fresh appraisal of the methods of psychotherapy. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Cannon, W. B. (1932). The wisdom of the body. New York: Norton.

Clarkson, P. & Mackewn, J. (1993). Fritz Perls. London: Sage.

Cocks, G. (1997). Psychotherapy in the Third Reich: The  Göring Institute. (2nd Ed.) New Brunswick & London: Transaction Publishers.

Cohn, R. (1984). Ein Ansatz zur Psychosomatischen Analyse. In H. Stolze (ed.), Die Konzentrative Bewegungstherapie. Grundlagen und Erfahrungen. Berlin: Mensch und Leben, pp. 248-259.

Downing, G. (1996). Körper und Wort in der Psychotherapie. Munich: Koesel.

Ehrenfried, L. (1991). Körperliche Erziehung zum seelischen Gleichgewicht. In P. Zeitler (ed.), Erinnerungen an Elsa Gindler. Munich: Uni-Druck, pp.34-37.

Fenichel, C. N. (1981). From the Early Years of the Gindler Work. In Charlotte Selver Foundation Bulletin: Elsa Gindler, 1885-1961, Vol. II, No. 10,  pp. 4-9.

Fenichel, C. N. (1991). Auszüge aus Korrespondenz und Interviews mit Mary Alice Roche und Richard Lowe. In P. Zeitler (ed.), Erinnerungen an Elsa Gindler. Munich: Uni-Druck, pp. 29-31.

Fenichel, O. (1928). Organ libidinization accompanying the defense against drives. In O. Fenichel, The collected papers of Otto Fenichel. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., pp. 248-259.

Franzen, G.M. (1995). Werden Sie wieder reagierbereit! Elsa Gindler (1885-1961) und ihre Arbeit. Gestalttherapie, 9 (2), pp. 3-19.

Freud, S. (1923). The Ego and the Id. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XIX. London: Vintage, 2001.

Fromm, E. (1991). Die Kunst des Zuhörens (5. Nachlassband). Weinheim: Beltz.

Geuter, U. (2000). Wege zum Körper. Zur Geschichte und Theorie des körperbezogenen Ansatzes in der Psychotherapie. Energie und Charakter, 22, pp.103-126.

Geuter, U. (2000a). Historischer Abriss zur Entwicklung der körperorientierten Psychotherapie. In F. Röhricht, Körperorientierte Psychotherapie psychischer Störungen.  Göttingen: Hogrefe, pp. 53-74

Geuter, U. (2004). Die Anfänge der Körperpsychotherapie in Berlin. In T. Müller (ed.), Psychotherapie und Körperarbeit in Berlin. Geschichte und Praktiken der Etablierung. Husum: Matthiesen Verlag, pp. 167-181.

Gindler, E. (1926/1991). Die Gymnastik des Berufsmenschen. Gymnastik, 1, pp. 82-89; (reprinted in P. Zeitler (ed.), Erinnerungen an Elsa Gindler. Munich: Uni-Druck, pp. 48-57.).

Groddeck, G. (1977). The meaning of mental illness. London: Hogarth Press.

Hanish, O.Z.A. (1902). The power of breath. Los Angeles: Mazdaznan Press (1970).

Heller, G. F. (1983). From Dance to Psychotherapy. Sensory Awareness Foundation Bulletin, 11, pp. 3-8.

Heller, M. (2007a) .The golden age of body psychotherapy in Oslo I: From gymnastics to psychoanalysis. Journal of Body, Movement & Dance in Psychotherapy, Vol .2, No. 1, pp. 5-16.

Heller, M. (2007b). The golden age of body psychotherapy in Oslo II: From vegetotherapy to nonverbal communication. Journal of Body, Movement & Dance in Psychotherapy, Vol.2, No. 2, pp. 81-94.

Heller, M. (2008). Psychothérapies corporelles. Fondements et méthodes. Louvain: De Boeck.

Hengstenberg, E. (1985). Her Teacher – Elsa Gindler. Charlotte Selver Foundation Bulletin: Elfriede Hengstenberg – Her Life and Work, Vol. 12., pp. 11-13.

Heyer-Grote, L. (1970). Atemschulung als Element der Psychotherapie. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Jacobson, E. (1934). You Must Relax. Columbus: MacGraw-Hill, 1962.

Jacobson, E. (1967). Biology of emotions. Springfield: Charles Thomas.

Jacoby, H. (1983). Jenseits von ‘Begabt’ und ‘Unbegabt’. Zweckmäßige Fragestellung und zweckmäßiges Verhalten – Schlüssel für die Entfaltung des Menschen. Hamburg: Christians.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Coming to our Senses. New York: Hyperion.

Kindler, N. (1982). G. R. Heyer in Deutschland. In D. Eicke (ed.), Tiefenpsychologie. Vol. 4: Individualpsychologie und Analytische Psychologie. Weinheim, Basel: Beltz, pp. 310-330.

Laban, R. v. (1920). Die Welt des Tänzers. Stuttgart: Seifert,

Laban, R. v. (1950). The mastery of movement. London: Macdonald and Evans.

La Barre, F. (2001). On moving and being moved. Nonverbal behaviour in clinical practice. Hillsdale, New Jersey: The analytic press.

Loukes, R. (2006). “˜Concentration’ and Awareness in psychophysical training: the practice of Elsa Gindler. New Theatre Quarterly, 22, pp. 387-400.

Lowen, A. (1958). Language of the body. New York : Collier books, 1973 .

Lowen, A. (1975). Bioenergetics. New York : Coward, Mc Cann & Geoghegan, Inc..

Ludwig, S. (2002). Elsa Gindler – von ihrem Leben und Wirken. “˜Wahrnehmen, was wir empfinden’. Hamburg: Hans Christians.

Maaser, R.; Besuden, F.; Bleichner, F. &Schütz, R. (1994).Theorie und Methode der körperbezogenen Psychotherapie. Ein Leitfaden für die klinische Praxis. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

Mayland, E. (1995). The Rosen Method (Excerpts). In D.H. Johnson (ed.), Bone, Breath & Gesture. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, pp. 53-64.

Mühlleitner, E. (2008). Ich – Fenichel. Das Leben eines Psychoanalytikers im 20. Jahrhundert. Wien: Paul Zsolnay.

Payne, H. (2006). Tracking the web of interconnectivity. Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy, 1, 1, pp. 7-16.

Raknes, O. (1970). Wilhelm Reich and Orgonomy. London: Penguin.

Reich, W. (1933). Charakteranalyse. Copenhagen: SexPol. (1972) Character Analysis (3rd ed.) New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Reich, W. (1994). Beyond Psychology. Letters and journals, 1934-1939. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Reich, E. (1984). Personal communication with Judyth Weaver.

Reich, E. (2001). Personal communication with Judyth Weaver.

Roche,  M.A. (1978). Foreword in: Charlotte Selver Foundation Bulletin.

Elsa Gindler, 1885-1961,  Number 10, Vol. I., pp. 2-5.

Rosenfeld, H.M. (1982). Measurement of body motion and orientation. In Scherer R. K. & Ekman P. (eds.), Handbook of methods in nonverbal behavior research. Cambridge & Paris: Cambridge University Press & Editons de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, pp. 199- 286.

Sambucy, A. de; Sambucy, M. de & Laubry, J.J. (1973). Pour comprendre le yoga et les lois brahmaniques. Paris: Editions Dangles.

Selver, C. (1991). Ausschnitte aus Seminaraufnahmen. In P. Zeitler (ed.), Erinnerungen an Elsa Gindler: 69-79. Munich: Uni-Druck.

Sreckovic, M. (1999). Geschichte und Entwicklung der Gestalttherapie. In Fuhr, R., Sreckovic, M. & Gremmler-Fuhr, M. (eds.), Handbuch der Gestalttherapie: Göttingen, Bern, Toronto & Seattle: Hogrefe, pp. 15-178.

Steinaecker, K. von (2000). Luftsprünge. Anfänge moderner Körpertherapie. München, Jena: Urban & Fischer.

Thornquist, E., & Bunkan, B. (1991). What is psychomotor therapy? Oslo: Norwegian University Press.

Weaver, J.O. (2006). The Influence of Elsa Gindler – Ancestor Of Sensory Awareness. (Internet article: retrieved 29/05/09: http://www.judythweaver.com/the-influence-of-elsa-gindler-ancestor-of-sensory-awareness/)

Zeitler, P. (ed.) (1991). Erinnerungen an Elsa Gindler. Berichte, Briefe, Gespräche mit Schülern. Munich: Uni-Druck.

Zundel, E. (1991). Ruth Cohn: Themenzentrierte Interaktion. In E. & R. Zundel (eds.), Leitfiguren der Psychotherapie. Leben und Werk. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, pp. 66-82.