The Body as Memory

Anshuma Kshetrapal

The relationship between the body and the mind is one of the core concerns and fundamental principles of drama and movement therapy. Using these art forms as modalities, therapists aim to work obliquely or indirectly with the client’s mind and body. The underlying idea behind movement or drama based therapeutic work is that no experience is sans body, i.e. there is nothing that the person experiences which the body does not. Traditional models of talk therapy can and do work effectively in verbally processing an experience but don’t always concern themselves with the psychophysical aspect of the experience and therefore, drama and movement therapy may be used to fill this gap.

Calling this therapeutic practice oblique refers not just to the non-confrontational aspect of the art forms or modalities but also to the unconscious (Freud, 1923) nature of the work itself. When immersed in spontaneous play, role-play, enactment or other movement based work, the body may reveal unconscious struggles, stuck’ness’, patterns and such, that emerge either from memories that have been repressed (ibid, p103) or from psychological material that is consciously unacceptable and therefore resisted (Hervey, 2000).

Just as in our minds, we also carry our pasts in our bodies. Past experiences are ingrained in our bodies as memories. Body memory is key for the individual to learn and perfect actions such as grasping, throwing, bending etc., as a child, to be able to perform them unconsciously as an adult. But our bodies also hold memory in the form of movements, gestures or positions that remind us of specific events from our past. Theatre theoretician Jerzy Grotowski (1968) described this phenomenon and ventured that ‘the body not only has memory but also is memory’ (Magnat, 2013).

“Our bodies contain our life stories just as they contain bones, muscle, organs, nerves and blood” (Halprin, 2002). Thus, our psyches, our inner world of feelings, emotions, dreams, imagination and the ineffable that we call mind, soul or spirit are inextricably linked with our tangible, physical selves.

Body memory can be classified into ‘procedural, situational, intercorporeal, incorporative and traumatic memory’ (Fuchs, 2012). Most often the therapeutic dyad concentrates on work revolving around traumatic memory. Put simply, a traumatic memory or a memory associated with traumatic experience is described as a memory that remains displaced and may emerge in bodily symptoms without an explicit connection between the present moment and the past experience.

“Trauma is a psychophysical experience, even when the traumatic event causes no direct bodily harm.” (Rothschild, 2000, p. 5) Some common bodily symptoms that may occur during traumatic or stressful situations are the quickening of breath and heart rate, anxiety that translates into clammy palms, trembling, shivering or shaking etc. The body may even recall the exact position or exhibit recollection of the event as a sensory reaction to a particular sight, sound or smell.

Working with movement, touch and sound is a key module of Drama and Movement Therapy (Sesame). Designed first by Marian R. Lindkvist as a ‘format of working with multi-disabled children and young adults’ (Lindkvist, 1998, P.95), this method encourages non-verbal ways of working with the body movements using touch and sound. It is used in sessions to create a safe space that encourages a dulling of cognitive functions and an exploration of body movement, led only by feelings and emotion, creating a conducive environment for the conscious ego (Freud, 1923) to blunt in a way that invites intuitive, primal moments of movement. In this way, movement can work with body memory. Such a dulling of primary cognitive, conscious sensations may trigger a recollection of traumatic memories.

Case Vignette – Susan, 29 yrs

   As part of my work with Ashiana, an organisation in London, UK, which offers specialist support to women and girls, affected by domestic violence or forced marriage, I conducted weekly drama therapy intervention sessions for the women who had sought asylum. One of my clients Susan (name changed), was a 29 year old woman who had been in psychoanalysis for 7 years because of her traumatic past, would keep comparing the drama therapy session to her prior talk therapy sessions and lamenting that she was losing faith in therapy because even after years of analysis and self-awareness work, she still suffered from insomnia, anxiety, mood swings and an eating disorder.

In our ninth session together, I introduced the idea of exploring an inner guardian, a protector that forms a part of our persona (Jung, 1995) to shelter our vulnerabilities. I invited her to give that guardian a form using movement, gesture and sound. At first, strong and defensive with large strides across the room, her guardian became meeker and meeker, the longer she stayed with it. Her movements mellowed and slowly she crumbled to the floor. She began to rub the floor vigorously and kept repeating ‘Fire’ as the friction of the floor and her hand made her palms red and warm. Soon, she sat up and exclaimed, “My guardian failed me. He almost burnt me alive. How could I forget?”

She began to cry and shake and later in verbal processing recalled a previously repressed memory of being threatened with being burnt alive by her ex-partner.

She spoke extensively in the following sessions about her difficulty with touch and the difficulty she faced with embodiment (Jones, 2007). She spoke of how before this ‘breakthrough moment’; she was convinced she knew better, empowered by her cognitive awareness and not able to look at her self as a victim or a survivor that still had scars of the trauma within her body.

Creative processes such as drama, movement or indeed any other art form help us explore the relationship between psyche and soma (Jones, 2007) and give physical, tangible form to our inner worlds. Therefore art and rituals involving art forms have been an integral part of healing rituals around the world, since ancient times. In my understanding, Sesame’s module of movement with touch and sound is an attempt to access this relationship, our repertoire of life experiences, through non-verbal movement, which is a primary language of the body, capable of activating ‘deep feelings and memories’ (Halprin, 2002).

One of the most difficult sessions in our work together was when Susan was to return to the therapy room for her tenth session. She said it was because that space had gotten associated with her flashback and subsequent feelings. But there was an existing rapport even as her persona dropped away to reveal vulnerability. It was the moments of eye contact, reassurance and physical touch that had contained her overwhelming experience.

“Unless the body knows there are inner loving arms strong enough to contain it, however fierce or broken it may be, it will hang on to its own rigidity in order to survive.” (Woodman, 1985, p. 59)

Our work continued to explore trust, safety and boundaries. This breakdown allowed us an insight into her own trauma, albeit in the safety of the session. This spoke volumes to me about the importance of spending time in the beginning to build trust and comfort and establish a working alliance in the sessions before starting any movement oriented work so as to be able to hold and contain any difficult feelings that may arise unexpectedly because the body is memory.


The presented essay is a small vignette of a larger research conducted on women who have undergone domestic abuse. The full research encompasses the details of individual experience such as cultural factors, superego ideals and personality traits of the victim and ways in which each minute detail informs the therapeutic intervention. It is an attempt to explore how post-traumatic stress may be embodied in survivors of physical violence and how the oblique approach of drama and movement therapy could be used to work with body memory, dissociation and the psychological and emotional trauma in victims of said violence.



Freud, S., (1923) The Ego and The Id. Translated by James Strachey 1990 New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

Halprin, D. (2002) The expressive body in life, art and therapy: working with movement, metaphor and meaning. London: Jessica Kingsley

Hervey, L.W. (2000) Artistic Enquiry in Dance/Movement Therap 2000 Illinois: Thomas Books

Jones P., (2007). Drama as Therapy Volume 1: Theory, Practice and Research. 2 Edition. Routledge.

Jung, C.G., 1995, Memories, dreams, reflections. London: Fontana.

Koch C.S., Fuchs T., Summa M. and Muller C., (2012). Body Memory, Metaphor and Movement (Advances in Consciousness Research). Reprint Edition. John Benjamins Publishing Company

Lindkvist, M.R. (1998) Bring white beads when you call on the healer. Louisiana USA: Rivendell House.

Magnat V.,, (2013). Grotowski, Women, and Contemporary Performance: Meetings with Remarkable Women (Routledge Advances in Theatre & Performance Studies). 1 Edition. Routledge

Rothschild, B. (2000) The body remembers : the psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment. New York ; London: Norton.

Woodman M., (1985). The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation (Studies in Jungian Psychology By Jungian Analysts). 1 Edition. Inner City Books

Anshuma Kshetrapal





Anshuma is a practicing Drama and Movement psychotherapist and a registered member of BADth (British Association of Dramatherapists). She is also an advisory board member for the Creative Movement Therapy Association of India (CMTAI) and has taught in the CMTAI Delhi course. Having over 8 years of experience as a trauma counselor, Anshuma has worked with adult mental health clients with a range of presenting difficulties in specialized Hospitals, hospices and nursing homes in Delhi, Bangalore and London. She has an eclectic approach to drama and movement therapy in which she uses drama techniques, movement exercises, dream work, myths, fairytales, talk therapy as well as visual art to work with the nexus of the body and psyche. In her endeavour to spread awareness about the use of the arts for therapy, she founded The Color of Grey Cells, to conduct workshops for therapists and clients alike.


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