The Body and the Mind:
Hakomi helps clients heal with mindfulness

— By Cindy Sutter, Camera Staff Writer,
Boulder Daily Camera
, June 21, 2004

As Wyoming National Guard Service Officer Shellie Franklin was studying for her master's degree in counseling, she had one of life's "eureka" moments.

Researching alternative therapies for a class project, she came upon Hakomi, a body-centered psychotherapy that was started in Boulder by therapist Ron Kurtz in the mid-1970s.

This fits me, she thought.

"It had more of the spiritual aspect," she says. "It seemed like it provided more tools to really begin to understand."

The spiritual component is the eastern concept of mindfulness. In Hakomi, it is combined with western therapeutic techniques to achieve what Hakomi therapists say is a better understanding of a person's core belief systems that govern everyday behavior and feelings.

Says Franklin, who arranges educational opportunities for guardsman and counsels families of those who have been deployed: "It allows me to be with people on a different level."

Hakomi is a Hopi Indian word that means "How do you stand in relation to many realms" or in more modern language "Who are you?"

In therapy, clients learn to achieve mindfulness, which Hakomi therapist and trainer Jaci Hull defines as "the ability to view the self in an open way so that you're able to see all of the self. One of the things we're trying to get across," she says, "is that people stay unhappy when they're unable to be mindful about their lives."

How do clients achieve or even understand mindfulness?
Hakomi adherents believe the body is a window to the mind. While any therapist pays attention to a client's body language, it is particularly emphasized in Hakomi, where therapists are taught to "track" minute movements and postures.

After observing a particular posture or movement, Hakomi therapists then involve the client in their careful observation, asking him to focus on what his body is doing.

Franklin gives this example: "People usually hold stress in their shoulders," she says.

During therapy she might say to a client, "I notice your shoulders are moving a lot. Could we move into mindfulness and study what's going on?"

For a first-timer, she would introduce the concept of mindfulness by asking the client to close his eyes and focus on his shoulders. "Is there some sensation that you notice? Is there a color? Does it have words?"
Franklin says becoming aware of the body is a powerful tool.

"The body is telling a story the same as your mouth is telling a story. The body has more information, but you may not have access to it until you look at what the body is doing," she says.

Focusing in this way can sometimes lead to unexpected breakthroughs.
Hull's first encounter with Hakomi was as an undergraduate psychology student in Boston.

"I started to have panic attacks. I was going to evening student clinics, running all over Boston," she says.

A friend in Connecticut told her about a Hakomi therapy session there, and she went.

"The first thing, I sat down and said, 'I can't breathe.' I was terrified ... I didn't know what the tightness was."

The therapist asked if he could "hold the tension." He put his hand on her chest right below her neck and gently pressed to match the way her body felt.

"I took the first deep breath I'd taken in four months," Hull says. "I kept breathing and I started to cry. I was not expressing the grief I had for my father, who had died three years before. I tried to hold the grief in."
Hull's experience is an example of the way touch is sometimes used in Hakomi. Although the therapy is body-centered, it is not related to massage or other relaxation techniques.

Rather a therapist might offer to "hold" a feeling or tension in a client's body, as in Hull's case.

"What happens usually is that underlying feeling (the client) held back can be expressed," Hull says. "It creates safety, so the body doesn't have to worry about that. ... The body having expressed the feeling has reached more neutral place."

A maxim among Hakomi therapists is: "The issues are in the tissues," Hull says.

Touch is also used to comfort, perhaps holding a client's hand or patting him or her gently on the back.

Safety is a key component of Hakomi, and any touching is with the client's permission.

Similarly, mindfulness or focusing on a part of the body is geared to the client's comfort level. Sometimes a client may resist entering a mindful state. "That just means it's not safe enough for them," Franklin says. "We need to attend to the relationship more, to talk more and see what feels comfortable." Franklin says creating a safe feeling is particularly important in her work, since service members may be fearful that talking about problems could hurt their careers.

A key tenet of Hakomi is creating a nonjudgmental environment for the client. Therapists call the principle nonviolence, meaning that the therapist never confronts or pushes a client but rather creates a healing environment in which client and therapist work together. Hakomi theory says that such an environment allows the client's path toward balance to unfold naturally as part of the therapy, a principle therapists call organicity.

While such principles might sound abstract and difficult to grasp, the emphasis on the body keeps the therapy grounded in the specific.
Carmen Cool, a Boulder psychotherapist who specializes in eating and weight-related concerns, has found Hakomi useful in her practice, although she also uses other therapeutic techniques.

The nonjudgmental component is a "perfect way to work with someone's relationship with their body and size," she says. "The use of mindfulness can help someone recognize when I'm hungry and when I'm full."
Cool says the therapy helps people become aware of their experience. It also can make Hakomi faster than conventional talk therapy, Hull says.

"Hakomi therapists are trained to understand unconscious belief systems that come out of childhood and to understand how a child strategizes to survive psychologically," she says. The client has a deeper participation in the therapy, because it is done in mindfulness, she says.

"The client is really having an experience of himself, both their strategy and their recovery."

To practice Hakomi, therapists must be certified during an 18-month training course in which students meet five days every four to six weeks. The study changes you, therapists say.

Franklin says with Hakomi you learn to be nonjudgmental at a deeper level.

"When you go through the training (with others), you go through some changes. You get so deep with those people." she says. "Where in the beginning you thought no way you're going to like someone, by the end you begin to understand what's so unique and rare about that individual."

Franklin's coworkers have noticed a difference in her since she's been studying Hakomi.

"There's a change in the calmness that sort of surrounds her," says Corey Loghry, plans and actions chief in charge of military personnel, in the Cheyenne office of the Wyoming National Guard. "Some people you're around and they're sort of frantic, you end up leaving sort of frantic. She (Franklin) used to have that frantic tendency, since she was juggling so many projects," says Loghry, who has worked with her for 11 years.

Now, "people I see seek her out in a work environment. It's almost like taking a couple of deep breaths by being around her."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Cindy Sutter at (303) 473-1335 or