Several mornings a week, and lunches and afternoons I leave my practice rooms in The City, Hampstead and Central London and go to meet someone at the entrance to a park in London. Regents Park, Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath are my alternative offices. I offer walking therapy and therapy in practice rooms, I believe there is a place for both. This article talks about why, and it’s written from both my and my clients perspective. Below is a quote from one of my more reluctant clients….he’s pretty direct, which is why when I read this it made me laugh out loud.
“I resisted therapy for many years because I hated thinking of myself as ‘ill’ or ‘unwell’—and rightly so, because I’m not. But the choreography of traditional therapy doesn’t help. All it takes is one look at the plastic flowers* and the box of tissues and you half expect to be told that the tests came back and you have cancer. This isn’t exactly reassuring when you’re already uncertain about yourself in all sorts of other ways. But what I’ve discovered is that when you’re doing a decent clip around Regent’s Park or the Serpentine, it’s impossible to feel anything except healthy. There’s no circling the block or avoiding catching anyone’s eye on the stairs: everything is open, public and emphatically not pathological. And better yet, the flowers are real.”
*For the record I don’t have plastic flowers in my practice rooms, but I have seen some!
On crisp winter mornings, when the early sun highlights the Cityscape at the top of Parliament Hill, I can be found walking and talking with my clients, we look like and might well be two friends. In the summer we might meet in t shirts or shirts at lunchtime or the early evening. Interestingly my clients are diverse and eclectic, often needing a break from really senior and demanding work and in many cases our work has moved from initial sessions in my therapy rooms to walking therapy. What I notice is many of these clients never want to go back. It’s about the relationship and it’s about them.
“From my perspective, the reason walking therapy is more beneficial for me is that it allows me to think and talk to a flow and a rhythm. I find the intensity and directness of therapy within closed walls to be somewhat suffocating at times, with the focus constantly on you and your thoughts. With walking, the environment softens and it allows you a free and open stream of conversation and thought.”
I knew from my foundation year training as a psychotherapist that I wanted to take my practice outside as well as inside. It’s part of who I am, but it’s not only that, so much has been written about the fact for some it can feel easier to share, to talk openly when side by side, walking, sitting in a car.
A fundamental ingredient to therapy is authenticity and to really understand what it was like for a client doing walking therapy, I became the client, moving my own therapy outside and writing up the results for my dissertation. This experience challenged lots of my own views, and revealed unexpected results that have helped in my work. Initially I walked very quickly and we never sat down, but on the third session I slowed, I made a little more space. The story of where I was emotionally and how I felt was left on benches, in the avenue of trees, on the incline of the hill, I learned more about myself, I’m something called a tactile kinesthetic learner, I learn on the move and by doing. The space outside aided the therapy and my ability to process the learnings. Importantly it also gave me a gift that was limited in my life a feeling of liberty, space, freedom.
Now that gift is something I share with clients. Sometimes when people come to work with me, there’s an energy that I feel means the work may find a natural home outside, or a client will ask to try working outside, sometimes a practice room is a more natural home, it’s so personal.
Outside the seasons hold the phases of my client’s story, we can remember the moment when we stopped and sat on a bench and talked about something that mattered, or the weeks and weeks of feeling stuck, or the moments when someone came back to life. The memories of our sessions are in the senses and the body, it’s visceral and visual, as well as emotional. I can tell the mood often by the pace and the distance covered varies completely from person to person. The elements contribute a lot, the energy, the body and mind working together, the luxury of space to be somewhere green with a big vista, rather than in an office. Sometimes when it’s pouring with rain (it’s surprisingly rare) or there’s a lot of emotion we move inside, but the thing I notice so often is that once our work has moved outside people rarely want to return inside.
Ultimately wherever we meet geographically as well as emotionally is defined by my client. As one of my clients said to me “oh god you aren’t just going to work outside are you?”. It’s not for everyone. That’s the beauty of the work, it’s never the same.