Hakomi Therapy: A Somatic and Mindfulness Approach to Care

Hakomi TherapyAs therapists, we spend a great deal of time listening intently to our clients to understand their needs and the problems they face.

But what if we are missing a great deal of what they are communicating?

Hakomi therapy uses mindfulness and an awareness of the body to uncover what is unconscious and would otherwise remain hidden. Combined with a psychodynamic approach, it recognizes the importance of events in our childhood and their subsequent impact on our behavior, emotions, and feelings.

This article offers an overview of Hakomi therapy and its somatic and mindfulness approach to caring for clients, the training available, and its treatment of trauma.

Before you continue, you might like to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free. These science-based, comprehensive exercises will not only help you cultivate a sense of inner peace throughout your daily life, but also give you the tools to enhance the mindfulness of your clients, students, or employees.

What Is Hakomi Therapy?

Hakomi therapy exists – and flourishes – outside of mainstream psychotherapy. And yet, as psychotherapy increasingly turns toward tools such as mindfulness to treat mental wellbeing, it moves closer to the work of Ron Kurtz and colleagues’ over the last four decades.

Indeed, Hakomi therapists helped clients reach mindful states and observed inner reactions to what they experienced as far back as the early 1980s when Kurtz was setting up the Hakomi Institute (Weiss, Johanson, & Monda, 2015).

This article is indebted to the Institute’s work and the writing of three of their members: Halko Weiss, Greg Johanson, and Lorena Monda. Their book Hakomi Mindfulness-Centered Somatic Psychotherapy (2015) provides a comprehensive grounding in the theory, principles, and techniques. It is highly recommended for anyone interested in finding out more about this fascinating and insightful therapy.

While intuitive, Hakomi therapy requires highly skilled practitioners with a deep understanding of the techniques involved to fully realize its potential. According to the Hakomi Institute, mindfulness practice “regulates emotions, increases happiness, and inoculates against stress” and also “promotes deep psychological characterological transformation” (Weiss et al., 2015).

So, what does this mean for the client?

Hakomi therapy has the potential to reach deep into our memory and access fundamental beliefs that shape the choices we make, perceptions we have, and how we respond to life.

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.

Psychologist Carl Rogers (2016)

If we become more aware of ourselves, then we will be less automatic in our reactions. But to move beyond judgment toward understanding and integration, it is necessary to become comfortable with even the most difficult parts of who we are – even if we don’t know them yet.

How do we access such implicit knowledge?

Hakomi therapy uses body-based mindfulness to uncover emotional and somatic experiences to help clients explore their model of reality. Our body – the way we hold it and use it – can communicate our inner states more loudly than our spoken words (Weiss et al., 2015).

Indeed, 70–80% of communication occurs through (mostly unconscious) somatic signaling – how we stand, move, speak, and breathe. While the words spoken by the client are extremely valuable, so too are the nonverbal messages that surface directly from their core beliefs and model of the world.

A movement, facial expression, sigh, or hand gesture can openly communicate anger, sadness, upset, and even disgust. The therapist seeks a connection with the nonverbal, along with what is spoken.

Crucial to Hakomi is the act of making such implicitly held beliefs and somatic knowledge available to the individual; limiting beliefs can then be challenged, and new ones identified to bring improved perceptions and behavior.

And what of mindfulness?

Studying the experience (the conversation between therapist and client) in real time – as it happens – provides more than the words alone.

The client may be asked to notice their response – memories, feelings, impulses, or sensations – to a therapist’s comment or statement based on what they have observed.

For example, the therapist says, “Your needs are important.

The client may visibly respond, showing signs of upset and being uncomfortable, such as faster breathing, shifting in their seat, or becoming flushed. When something is unfamiliar or uncomfortable, it can be easier for the client to recognize the sensation rather than the underlying emotion.

Such insight can be powerful and further explored during therapy, leading to greater knowledge of habitual neural pathways formed much earlier in their lives, causing them to react in unwanted ways.

How can we transform and integrate?

Firstly, the therapist observes behavior and body signals before discussing them with the client. The therapist then asks the client to try them out again, this time observing how it makes them feel.

For example, Weiss (2015) describes a client with a tendency to look at him out of the corner of her eyes as she talks. When it was pointed out to her, she was asked to try it again, looking directly at him while she talked, and reporting how she felt. Despite explaining that she felt more vulnerable turning toward the therapist, she began to engage more openly, now facing Weiss.

Following such transformation, the integration stage attempts to find ways to weave new knowledge, learning, and behavior into the client’s lives. At this point, it can be useful to involve partners and close family members, as they have the potential (possibly unknowingly) to undercut therapy.

As the client begins to hold more firmly new, helpful life models, it is time to start to think of bringing the therapy to an end.

 

The 4 Principles of Hakomi

Mind-body holismHakomi therapy draws on a broad and diverse range of techniques, skills, and styles that fall under four foundational principles (Weiss et al., 2015).

 

Unity

While people’s psyches may be fragmented at times, there is an overriding force encouraging a move toward increasing wholeness.

Integration occurs at multiple levels and can be supported at each stage by practitioners with different skills, including movement, biochemistry, deep-tissue work, etc.

Drawing on some of the much older teachings of Buddhism, it is essential to understand that we are not separate from one another but that, equally, we are not the same.

Perceived barriers must be broken down and replaced by mutuality and loving presence.

 

Organicity

Hakomi therapy involves healing divides – splits between parts of the mind, mind and body, self and environment, and overarching transpersonal splits (beyond humankind, cosmos, spiritual experience, etc.).

Therapists treat each split on its own merits, addressing the lack of communication between sub-components, components, and systems, and encourage the individual’s natural restorative ability toward wholeness.

 

Mind–body holism

In line with research findings from cognitive science and neuroscience, Hakomi therapy recognizes the mind and body as unified rather than distinct. It is impossible to talk about thinking or behavior without considering both the mental and physical somatic aspects.

This approach aids clarity in therapy. The body reflects our inner mental–emotional life, while the brain monitors and reacts to physical events.

 

Mindfulness

When a child is momentarily out of sight in a store, parents lose all sense of mental and physical composure. They don’t notice that they have left their wallet on the counter or walked out of the store carrying something they haven’t paid for.

In the moment, cognitive, physical, and behavioral changes take hold. We feel hot, panicked, erratic. As soon as the child is found, calm is restored, thinking gains clarity, and the body again functions normally.

Life can have a significant impact on our being. Yet, through mindfulness, we can bring our thoughts under control and what is unconscious into conscious awareness, allowing the mind and body to become one.

While mindfulness is natural and should not need to be forced, it often benefits from practitioner support and feelings of safety, known in Hakomi as the embrace of nonviolence (Weiss et al., 2015).

 

Mindfulness & the Hakomi Method

Being mindful is an essential state of consciousness that means to remain present and pay attention to what is happening in the mind and body. At its most simple, it is an awareness of thoughts, emotions, breath, and body, with compassion and curiosity rather than judgment (Williams & Penman, 2016).

The attitude of mindfulness is to remain open, without acting on impulses, thoughts, or feelings. It is slower than our usual pace of thinking, more receptive, and open. Typically, it is learned through practice individually, with a therapist, or as part of group mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a crucial aspect of the Hakomi method. It can help the therapist become more aware and better at recognizing nonverbal communication while encouraging an observing state in the client. It has the power to take the individual deep into the psychic patterns that shape how they interpret the world, including those previously shut off during times of extreme stress, for example, intimacy and self-confidence.

While not expecting prolonged enlightenment, mindfulness can offer occasional deeper awareness and insight, along with the ability to objectively observe our (subjective) thoughts and feelings. It also provides a higher order understanding of mental processes and the reintegration of individual components and thinking methods.

Indeed, the practice is highly effective at unifying disparate parts of the mind, a fundamental aspect of Hakomi therapy. Rather than being one part of a toolkit (as is the case in many treatments), mindfulness is an essential and integrated part of the Hakomi process (Weiss et al., 2015).

Mindfulness experiments are frequently used for core-level learnings (acceptance, love, feeling good about oneself) and to explore a client’s need for protection and the use of defense strategies. The “illumination of one side supports the illumination of the other” (Weiss et al., 2015).

 

Exploring the Somatic and Experiential Component

Somatic MarkersOur emotional brain generates sensations, known as somatic markers, that help our decision making (Damasio, 2008).

For example, the fear of standing in front of an audience to give a speech may cause a knot in the stomach, while meeting a potential new partner leads to a warm feeling of expectation.

Typically we see rationality and the decisions we make as “emanating from the head,” but our “experience is located in the body, of which the head is only part” (Weiss et al., 2015).

The body is full of memory and meaning and becomes the path to our core unconscious. After all, research suggests that while conscious memory and associated emotions of traumatic events may not be available for recall, they are accessible somatically, at a physical level (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011).

During Hakomi therapy, the focus is on the individual becoming aware of sensations, memories, beliefs, emotions, and attitudes toward the self and the world. This is done through self-study of conscious aspects of the self and core material. Understanding such expressions of the self via the body is vital to any form of body psychotherapy (Weiss et al., 2015).

Why can’t we rely on the brain?

At times, the brain, in a very literal sense, cannot remember. During high-stress situations, the hippocampus, key to encoding memories, may not record memories in a way that can later be retrieved consciously.

However, the unconscious can be uncovered experientially. Implicit memories are brought to the surface as the client focuses on the body in the present. Through using mindfulness and sticking with the experience and memories, states of consciousness can reach awareness (Weiss et al., 2015).

 

Treating Trauma With Hakomi Therapy

In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (2015), having spent three decades working with survivors of trauma, describes the impact of trauma on the body:

Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies.

In Hakomi therapy, working with traumatized patients means focusing on the sensory experience of the body. Treatment focuses on bottom-up processing, starting with the body and its reactions and sensations, rather than the more typical, top-down approach, focusing on mental states and emotions (Ogden, Pain, & Minton, 2014).

Making sense of the trauma clients have experienced is as much about physical as intellectual comprehension.

“Mindfulness is a powerful tool in aiding the body-mind to understand and integrate traumatic experiences” and helps the client by (Weiss et al., 2015):

  1. Introducing a sense of calm and quiet

  2. Slowing the brain and body’s nervous system, providing an opportunity for the middle prefrontal cortex to form necessary connections with the hippocampus, crucial for (re)structuring memories

  3. Providing a vital opportunity for clients to hear (rather than be in) traumatic processes

Such functions are made possible through the use of mindfulness to reduce the noise and activation sufficiently and interrupt habitual patterns of trauma-based states of fear.

Crucially the highly skilled therapist can support the client as they increasingly experience (touch, taste, and feel) the trauma through their body (Weiss et al., 2015).

 

Training in Hakomi Therapy: 3 Options

Training In Hakomi TherapyThe Hakomi Institute was founded in 1981 by Ron Kurtz and is the central resource for training and information regarding Hakomi therapy.

Several training courses are offered, both online and classroom based.

Courses are changed and updated throughout the year, but here are a few representative examples:

  • (Comprehensive and Professional) Training in Hakomi Mindful Somatic Psychotherapy
    Includes theories, techniques, and approaches to treating trauma, ethical issues, and supporting clients through therapy. Held at multiple locations worldwide, including the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Japan, and Israel.

  • Hakomi Mindful Somatic Psychotherapy: An Online Primer
    Online two-session program introducing mindful Hakomi therapeutic interventions, case examples, experiential activity, practical applications, and the importance of the body in psychotherapy.

  • Hakomi Mindful Somatic Psychology: An Experiential Online Introduction
    Two online learning segments (one self-paced and the other instructor led) include the principles of Hakomi therapy, a shift into loving presence, mindfulness, and how to transform core wounding.

 

PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Tools

Our PositivePsychology.com Toolkit provides some excellent, downloadable therapy worksheets and tools that support working with clients to become more mindful.

  • The Sushi Train: Mindful Creation of Positive Thoughts – Observing, rather than being completely immersed in, thoughts is vital to the practice of mindfulness.

  • The Wheel of Awareness – This mindful practice works well in client settings. It offers an alternate view of how the mind is structured and how to cultivate a sense of awareness for the individual and the world.

  • Creating Quiet Time – Awareness is central to mindfulness. Creating times of silence is essential for clients to connect with themselves. The purpose of this tool is to find the time and location needed to fit mindfulness into a busy schedule.

  • Mindful Listening – While awareness of nonverbal messages is crucial to Hakomi therapy, it is still vital that the therapist hears what is being said. Use this exercise to become more present when someone is talking.

  • Healing Through Writing – Expressive writing can be a valuable tool for physical and mental wellbeing. Use this tool to capture your deepest thoughts and emotions and identify post-traumatic growth.

  • The Stress-Related Growth Scale – Try out this assessment to assess an individual’s perceived outcome of a stressful or traumatic event.

 

A Take-Home Message

Hakomi therapy is a fascinating approach to support the client on their path to mental wellbeing. Undoubtedly its focus on the physical aspects of being can provide insights that may otherwise be missed or poorly understood.

Mindfulness has already found its way into many aspects of physical and psychological wellness therapy. Body-oriented approaches may also add value to the therapist’s toolkit, considerably broadening the existing techniques currently available.

However, as touch is often employed during Hakomi therapy sessions alongside mindfulness, extreme caution must be taken to ensure the client and therapist’s safety and that it will help, not hinder, the healing relationship (Weiss et al., 2015). Therefore, it is vital that the therapist has a good grounding in clinical disorders and treatments.

A recent review of experiential therapies, such as Hakomi therapy, concluded that they are at least as effective at improving psychological coping as other treatments and can encourage therapist empathy (Mullings, 2017).

Why not explore Hakomi therapy as a possible tool for helping uncover unconscious thoughts and beliefs with your clients? It may reveal more than the typical dialogue-based treatment or be used alongside other techniques such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free.

If you wish to learn more, Mindfulness X© is our eight-module mindfulness training package for practitioners and contains all the materials you’ll need to not only enhance your mindfulness skills, but also learn how to deliver science-based mindfulness training to your clients, students, or employees.

  • Damasio, A. (2008). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason and the human brain. Vintage Digital.
  • Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score. Penguin.
  • Lambert, K., & Kinsley, C. H. (2011). Clinical neuroscience. Oxford University Press.
  • Mullings, B. (2017). A literature review of the evidence for the effectiveness of experiential psychotherapies. PACFA.
  • Ogden, P., Pain, C., & Minton, K. (2014). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. Nota.
  • Rogers, C. R. (2016). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Robinson.
  • Weiss, H., Johanson G., & Monda, L. (2015). Hakomi mindfulness-centered somatic psychotherapy: A comprehensive guide to theory and practice. W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2016). Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. Joosr.

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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