The Path to Inner Growth Begins in the Body

An Exploration of Body Mapping with Annette Schwalbe

August - Annette Schwalbe

Change lives in us and around us as life’s relentless path carries us along through the numerous experiences and biological transitions punctuating our existence. We are never quite the same person as we were yesterday. And yet, although change is our constant companion, there are times in everyone’s life when we feel stuck, unable to move forward, having outgrown our old skin, blindly fumbling along and oblivious to where we’re heading. What if everything we needed to know lay deep inside the body? What if the keys to unlocking our growth were always there, if only we paused to listen to our body? Despite the physical body working a hundred per cent of the time to keep us alive and well, it is often the last place we look. 

The body, and the wisdom it contains, lies at the heart of a creative therapeutic technique known as Body Mapping whose purpose is to help people understand themselves better and renew their perspective on life. The psychotherapist Annette Schwalbe, a practitioner at The Practice Rooms in Bath, is an experienced facilitator and has been offering Body Mapping workshops and trainings as part of her work for over 10 years, not just in the United Kingdom and Germany but also in other countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Pakistan and the USA. 

According to Annette Schwalbe, mapping one’s body is a very ancient human practice, but its use for therapy and participatory research via a more formal methodology occurred only recently in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and its legacy in South Africa. The body mapping approach was developed in 2002 by psychologist Jonathan Morgan at Cape Town University and artist Jane Solomon in collaboration with the Banbani Women’s Group, a group of women living with HIV/Aids in the Khayelitsha township. “The creation of their body maps allowed the women to explore and depict their own physical and social existence, the ‘flesh and blood’ of living with HIV.  At a time when life prolonging treatment was just becoming available and stigma attached to HIV/Aids was rife body mapping became a ground breaking way to find the path away from isolation and imminent death towards one’s own life force and a meaningful place in society. The inherent process of ‘rebirth’ is still at the core of how I practice body mapping today. “

Since 2002, Body Mapping has developed into a form of art and narrative therapy for gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves, our bodies, and the world we live in.  It is used by psychotherapists, artists and researchers across the globe with people of all ages, abilities, gender and backgrounds.  Annette’s own path has taken her from working for five years with women, men and children living with HIV/Aids in Kenya to further developing body mapping as a feminine and collective approach to embodiment here in the UK.  Much of her work nowadays is with other therapists who wish to deepen their own connection with their bodies and mark important transitions in their personal and professional lives.   

Annette’s body mapping workshops take place in a studio over two consecutive days, usually over a weekend, and result in a life-size depiction of one’s identity. The process includes body and movement meditations, visualisation exercises, drawing, painting, ritual, group discussion and reflection. Annette provides each participant with a 2 x 1m canvas, big enough to lie on and to draw an outline of his or her body. By the end of the workshop, each participant will have created a body map, a form of self portrait which symbolically marks different places and experiences within.  It works as a translation of one’s existence stretching from the past, through the present, and into the future: “The body is in the present, yet also contains the past and the seeds of the future. It is a landscape whose territory we are the only ones to be able to chart. Its exploration and depiction can help guide us into the future.”

To help participants feel centred in the present, Annette likes to work with nature and incorporates a seasonal theme into her workshops.  In preparation, participants are asked to think about the theme and to be mindful of their bodily feelings and perceptions. They are also asked to bring with them something that resonates with the theme that they could use as a starting point; this could be an object, a poem, a thought… The seasonal theme is also reflected in the range of art materials provided which, in addition to the usual ones one would expect, also include seasonal materials from the natural world, such as pebbles, petals, or the juice of root vegetables, or fabrics reflecting the time of year.

Body Mapping - Stir it up - Ruth LoveThe workshop begins with some movement and participants are then asked to share what they have brought and, by association, what the theme means to them. This is soon followed by the first of a series of body meditations. Annette takes great care in preparing the studio space with a range of soft surfaces to make it feel harmonious and conducive both to the body meditations and the ensuing visual expressions. For the body meditations, I encourage everyone to feel as comfortable as possible. They don’t have to be in a rigid posture and indeed people will rarely stay completely still. What matters is for them to keep a note of how the body feels. I ask them to drop deeply into it as if it were landscape they could explore. Ultimately, what I ask of each person is to go to a place that calls for their attention through sensations like tightness, warmth, tingling etc. or through an absence of sensation, a sense of emptiness.”

Body mapping involves listening deeply to one’s core and challenges one to be honest. The body doesn’t lie, and listening to it can reveal more about one’s situation than imaginable. A body map will always carry elements from the past, but these are inherently in the present as they emerge through the body meditations and the images arising therein. It’s all about allowing to the surface those experiences that might have been held in the body for lack of awareness, opportunity or safety to process. Unresolved trauma as well as untapped potential can find its way step by step through colour, texture, shape and symbol onto the body map.  Here it is externalised and contained and can be processed to find the best way forward. Consequently, body mapping is very supportive of one’s engagement at a time of change: “There will come a moment when you can gently speak to your body and ask it what posture it needs to face the future. The body will speak to you symbolically and show you the position and the perspective it needs for the seeds of inner growth to be sown, and for the future to emerge.”

After each body meditation, Annette invites participants to stay with the experience, hold off any analysing and go straight into the production of a visual expression. The first round involves only a small sheet of paper and dry materials, so as not to overwhelm people not used to working with art materials; but as the participants’ confidence grows, Annette encourages them to explore the whole range of alternatives available, such as paint, fabrics, and natural materials according to what resonates with the energy in their bodies. It is only after they have produced a spontaneous creative expression that talking and sharing begins.

There are many opportunities to practice on paper before moving on to canvas, and there comes a time when the participants will feel very confident and ready to create their body map. This is a crucial moment, because it involves physically lying on the canvas, establishing one’s body shape and, with the help of the other participants, tracing the outline of one’s map. Annette regards it as a peak experience and approaches it with great care, compassion and respect: “Finding one’s way onto a blank piece of canvas and taking one’s shape to be marked evokes something really primal. I approach this determining moment with great care and through a ritual that is co-created by the group. This ‘coming into shape’ on a yet unchartered ground carries echoes with our original coming into a human body, our incarnation, our birth.  It is a very delicate process. It allows a new beginning. However your original beginning as a human has been, at this moment in the workshop you have choices and you can come into the body in a way that feels right for you now.” The underlying idea is that by listening to the body’s cues and finding the right position, each person will find the posture and perspective she or he desperately needs. Indeed, the life-size portrait is not just an expression of one’s inner landscape, but a way of orientating oneself and of finding one’s path, thus fulfilling the literal meaning of ‘map’.

Another significant aspect of body mapping workshops is the communal spirit that develops within the group. This feels most poignant when a participant has the outline of his or her body drawn with the help of the others.  Having been on a deep emotional journey together, the others will feel compelled to act protectively, both as witnesses and midwives to the birth of a new being.  Annette explains that she makes the process as safe as possible and gives participants a lot of choice as to how to come onto the map, or how they may want to come into contact with the canvas. The outline is also a demarcation between the individual and the external world, which can include the immediate social and geographical environment or the world at large. Some people will immediately want to focus on the inner territory, whereas others will spend a lot of time on the outside before they start to reach within.

In Annette’s experience, it is perfectly normal and even necessary for the process to involve a mixture of strong and conflicting emotions, both painful and empowering: “I expect a little crisis to happen in the process. The grit needs to come into it for it to be truly transformative.” However, she adds that her approach in dealing with these crucial ingredients has evolved since she started body mapping 10 years ago: “At the beginning I used to ask people to develop two symbols to work with: one for strength, and one for difficulty. It was a way of balancing the two and bringing them into relationship on the body map. Now, I simply trust in the process, knowing these will come up naturally as part of the transformative process. Working with small groups means that I can allow people to work at their own pace and have the time to check in regularly with each person to ensure the two aspects balance. It is important not to get carried away by one of the aspects; they both need to feature within the map.” The workshop culminates on a high note as the participants are given the chance to present their body map to the group. Having explored their inner landscape and charted its territory, they are now the specialists, the experts, the only ones with the inside story. This is where narrative and the visual come together in an empowering and moving finale as the participants begin to share their story from a place of self-knowledge, celebration and hope.

Body Mapping - Emma ScottBody Mapping is a technique that can be used in very diverse settings and populations, as Annette Schwalbe’s rich experience testifies. Over the years, she has worked in three continents with a wide variety of demographic groups including children with learning disabilities, victims of rape and abuse, LGBTI communities, as well as underground artists in places of political turmoil. Through working in different parts of the world, Annette has come to notice differences in people’s choice of colour themes, in their familiarity with particular parts of the body, and in the type of symbols that emerge, many of which will be culturally biased. However, regardless of their cultural origins, Annette encourages people to pay attention to their own individual symbolic associations and to develop their personal iconography. I actively try to go beyond and sometimes even undermine the cultural systems of analysis and interpretation of the body. The whole point is to trust one’s inner knowing even if this is at odds with the prevalent social norms.” In her view, this is particularly relevant for women as they are rarely invited to discover their body wholeheartedly and to explore it in their own individual way.   Body mapping gives them the space and the freedom to re-appropriate themselves of their body, away from the culturally biased views that commoditise, shame or, at best, medicalise women’s bodies. Helping women free themselves from such pervasive influences is a major aspect of her practice as a psychotherapist, and many of Annette’s workshops will be for women only: As a woman, it means a lot to me to empower other women.”

 At the close of my interview, I was curious to know what people did with their life-size portraits and asked Annette what she could tell me about their after-life: Some will proudly hang their portrait in their living room or bedroom, some will roll it up and come back to it for reflection from time to time, some will use it as a prayer mat, and some will put it away and come back to it years later to retransform it. The image unfolds its meaning over time, and as one changes, one’s understanding of it changes too.” The process therefore never really ends, but leads to a dynamic, open space for reflection: open to continuing dialogues with one’s self-portrait, open to inner growth and new perspectives, open to ever new beginning and new departures.

Article produced by Nadia Sajadi-Rosen on behalf of The Practice Rooms – April, 2016


Practical information

Annette runs her workshops in small groups of up to 8 participants. No previous experience is required and there is no need for any artistic talent.  Workshops take place over a weekend at the Dojo in Bath (off Walcott Street) throughout the year. The next one Summer Intensive: ‘Coming to Full Bloom’ – is on the 11th & 12th of June and for women only. Places are still available. Workshops can be attended as a one-off experience, but Annette always offers follow-up sessions in which participants can either continue working on the same canvas or create a completely new one.  Former participants can also apply for the year-long Body Mapping Mentorship which allows therapists to integrate body mapping into their own work.  To find out more information please visit:

Participant Testimonials

“Annette’s holds a safe and unique space for the deep work of coming to know yourself more clearly in an embodied way. My body map experience was profound, yet so simple in the act of marking a canvas; and still the work’s significance continues to resonate in me as I bring my knowledge as a physiotherapist more confidently into the world through teaching and publishing.”

“Personally, I found the process very therapeutic and nurturing. Professionally as a psychotherapist, it has deepened my understanding of the creative process and has helped me work with images and different kinds of art materials.” 

“In the midst of 3 years of treatment for Cancer that left me disabled Annette offered me the opportunity to work on a body map.  Her gentle questioning and movement meditations gave rise to life-giving images that sustained me through gruelling treatments and revealed themselves on my body map.  It covers a 5 year period of my life and contains intimate and deeply poignant, personal symbols that held me through a transformative process.  I think of it as a living prayer as it continues to speak back to me and stir ever deepening truths about my life.”

“The body mapping process has helped me to honour and regard myself.  As an artist, it has given me more confidence and fundamentally transformed the way that I work.”


Annette’s website also includes a gallery with pictures from a collective exhibition in Bristol last year entitled Seasons of a Woman. The exhibition crowned a year-long cycle that saw 12 women step forward, one by one, and month after month, to reveal their personal body maps and stories of renewal. You can visit the gallery and read the accompanying narratives to these 12 body maps by clicking on the following link:

About Annette Schwalbe

Annette SchwalbeAnnette trained as a dance & movement psychotherapist at the Laban Centre London and since 1998 has been working in private, educational, health and creative arts settings. These include NHS psychiatric wards and special needs schools in the UK, women rights organisations in Pakistan, and a home for homeless pregnant girls in Kenya. She has set up and run a graduate training course in Dance Movement Therapy at Makerere University in Uganda, and co-founded Art2Be, an association of artists and creative therapists who work globally with people experiencing discrimination in their society. Her career as a body mapping artist, therapist and trainer started in 2004 in Kenya where she worked and lived with her husband and two children for 5 years.  Since her return to the UK in 2009 she has been focusing on her private practice as therapist and supervisor for body centred and creative arts therapist. The ongoing development of body mapping as a comprehensive approach to embodiment remains at the heart of her work.  


Perspectives, Spring 2016 – Links to other articles in this issue

Cyndy WalkerArt Therapy: An Empowering Path to Self-Development 

An interview with the art psychotherapist Cyndy Walker on the nature and the advantages of art therapy. 

Read more…

Kirsty WickThe Genesis of ‘Birthgently’

TPR spoke to the hypnobirthing specialist Kirsty Wick about the complexities of childbirth and her multifaceted approach to helping expectant mothers prepare for the event.

Read more…

Dawn MacHaleThe Power Of Creative Writing For Therapeutic Purposes

Dawn McHale discusses the benefits of creative writing both as a technique for self-development and as a means of complementing therapy.

Read more…

R60mr6kLn2do3qTGbj8mu2SD9_3fIQuNSUpyPOl6sVoHealing Helps Us To Explore Our Full Potential

The healer and shamanic practitioner Hannah Pearson explores the links between wellbeing and self-development. 

Read more…

feather-1422467-640x480The Poetry Corner   

Morwenna Lewis has chosen a poem for this issue of Perspectives and explains its special significance to her. 

Read more…

ReflexologyForFertility-1New Books

‘Reflexology for Fertility: A Comprehensive Practitioner’s Guide to Natural and Assisted Conception’. Written by Barbara Scott; diagrams by Harriet Combes.

Read more…