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Make a song and dance about relieving stress

Creative art forms such as dance, music, theatre and painting are not only calming but also enable us to access the deeper aspects of our selves

Classical dancers attest to the healing power of movement
Classical dancers attest to the healing power of movement (Unsplash/Pavan Gupta)

The zeitgeist of our times is rationality and logic. While we use our intellectual and analytical capabilities to make sense of the world, it is important not to overlook the gifts of our intuitive and emotive sides. 

The practice of the arts can be a great way to harness their inherent healing potential. Art practice helps one cultivate mindfulness, lessen anxiety, and experience a wide range of emotions, which make life and living more fulfilling. It also offers a pathway for the practitioner to process life experiences and heal through an embodied process. In an otherwise predictable and monotonous world, art offers the possibility of creating new meanings for oneself. 

Also read: Creative ideas to master the art of mindfulness

“The need for meaning and relevance in daily experience is one of the fundamental driving forces in artistic creation and engagement,” wrote psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Franklin in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

“There is an intense link between my sense of well-being and my theatre practice. Being part of a process to create something makes all the difference. The moment I’m part of a play, my energy levels go up. Connecting to that space and the people involved improves my sense of well-being,” says Aparna Gopinath, who dons many roles as an actor, director and a clown. 

Psychologists have been looking into the application of the arts in a variety of situations such as healing emotional injuries, improving self-awareness, developing capacity for self-reflection, and altering behaviours and thinking patterns. 

As a coach and facilitator, I have experienced how the arts enable a person to access parts of themselves that are otherwise held in critical judgement or pain, with compassion and curiosity, creating a context for healing. It enables one to connect both to oneself as well as to the community of practitioners, thereby creating a sense of expansiveness. 

Music and Mental Health
Indian classical music offers a very powerful possibility for reconnecting with oneself. “Many times, I sing when I feel disturbed internally. After this process, I start to feel lighter,” says Shruti Bode, a Hindustani music practitioner and faculty at the Indian Music Experience (IME), Bengaluru. “The me-time—setting up the space and feeling healthy in my body—helps me to get into a deep riyaaz space.”

Bode says a number of homemakers she teaches have told her that practising music helps them untie the knots of everyday hustle. “They are not looking for external validation in the form of certificates or posting their songs on social media. They continue to learn and practice just to sing all by themselves,” says Bode. Vidushi Rajam Shanker, an Indian classical music therapist and author of
The Healing Power of Indian Rāgās, explains how she has used ragas for therapeutic purposes. “In my workshops and retreats, I integrate practices from Indian classical music and yoga, and I have seen significant shifts in the mental health of participants when they immerse themselves in the music and connect to their body, breath and mind,” she says. 

Also reading: 5 strategies to manage stress at work and home

Rediscovering Life’s Rhythm
Movement art therapy is on the upswing in many parts of India. Engaging the whole body through mindful movements has the potential to help relieve anxiety and process difficult emotions. Many classical dance practitioners attest to its healing potential in their disciplines. 

“There was a phase when I was depressed and didn’t want to leave the house, or meet anyone. During that time, dance was my therapy. It was a meditative exercise that helped me understand my body and thoughts, and connect with my inner senses,” says Uttara Unni, an actor, author, and dancer based in Kochi. The physical movements in Bharatanatyam, Unni says, help release anger, tension and the frustration she feels.

Shreema Upadhyaya, a Bengaluru-based Bharatanatyam dancer, is of a similar view. “Being a dancer, and practising and creating art consistently, has taught me discipline, mindfulness, observation of surroundings, empathy and communication,” she says. 

Deepening Connections
Practising an art form is considered a means to free one’s mind from an unhealthy preoccupation with self-limiting beliefs, according to ancient Indian texts. It helps the individual immerse themselves in a deeper reality of love, beauty or creativity. “According to the Natyashastra, dance, drama and music can show the path to a more fulfilled life as well as to a deep spiritual development,” writes R. Sriram, a yoga therapist and student of Sri TKV Desikachar in his book, Nātya Yoga

For a society that is increasingly struggling with short attention spans, compulsive binge eating and watching, the practice of arts of any kind offers a pathway to nurture a new possibility for healthy living. “From my experience, classical dance and yoga balance the physical and mental aspects of our lives. All known forms of art have been proven to be therapeutic, letting us enjoy the beauty and aesthetic of this otherwise mundane world,” says Upadhyaya.

“Today, many people believe that to be healthy means to have a certain body type. It needn’t be so. I believe that one needs to work on their mental health as much as physical health, and the arts help us do that,” says Unni. 

This observation underscores the importance of taking up the practice of the arts as a personal discipline. When a practitioner can move beyond the goal of being a performer to becoming an explorer of the self through the arts, they can realise the ultimate goal: of being at home in oneself.

Hariprasad Varma (Founder – Zensei) is an executive coach and yoga therapist. He posts at @ZenseiHari.

Also read: Navigating mental wellness in the creative arts

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