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Understanding movement therapy

Our bodies are the container of our experiences; they hold memories, emotions and express themselves. Listening to our bodies can help us understand our issues better

In our most emotional or vulnerable times, it is a song that stirs intense emotions in us, or dance that expresses the depth of our emotions. We perceive the world through our senses, and we use the arts in our daily life. Art-based therapies are non-threatening, co-created processes that help us deal with our illnesses and challenges.

Movement therapy, or dance therapy, uses movement to help a person deal with an illness (physical or mental), a disability, or life challenges that keep them from functioning fully. The aim of movement therapy is to enhance the person’s cognitive, physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

A session of movement therapy, which could include various activities ranging from stretching to unstructured dancing, encourages people to express their own feelings, thoughts and ideas through body movement, in a safe atmosphere.

Personal movement knowledge

All of us are born with a sense of movement, and our bodies have their own unique language. Some of us lose touch with this sense of movement due to lack of use, illness, disabilities, or blocks with how we perceive ourselves. The movement therapist’s role is to help the person tap into this sense of movement and express themselves, particularly thoughts or issues that may have been repressed.

“I would say that the process is parallel to psychotherapy, where you go into a session and clarify your mind through words. Similarly, movement therapy uses body language to communicate what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, what it is that’s troubling us, what it is that we lack and that we want to have, what it is that we want to reach out to, what it is that we want to search within,” says Tripura Kashyap, movement therapist and co-founder, Creative Movement Association of India.

How does movement therapy help a person with mental illness?

Therapists say that while movement therapy does not cure mental illness, it can make a person more functional. People who are on psychiatric medication may feel lethargic, or notice that their responses to situations have changed. Movement therapy offers a complementary intervention to medication, much like physiotherapy does to people with physical problems. By offering an intervention that is embodied and sensorial, it encourages expression, helps the person address their challenges, and enables them to live with them. It also helps them connect with their own selves and move beyond the label that may be thrust upon them by their illness.

Is movement therapy only for those with illness?

Anyone who wishes to connect with their body and understand themselves better can benefit from movement therapy. Today, movement therapy is being used with different populations, across age groups and diagnostic categories. Movement therapy can help a person deal with minor and major dysfunctions, and enhance their sense of wellbeing. Movement is also used as a powerful metaphor for the way the client wishes to reconstruct their life; it helps a person overcome their own limiting perceptions of who they are and what they are capable of.

A trained therapist will be able to customize the session to meet the needs of a specific client or group. The therapist does an assessment or evaluation of the client’s needs to identify their challenges or issues, and then designs the activities that can help the client resolve them. If a person lacks attention span, the therapist may use rhythm to focus attention. For instance, while working with clients who need to improve their social skills, the therapist may plan activities that involve interaction – passing the ball making eye contact, mirroring and shadowing each other.

“Any therapy is not only for people with problems, but also for those of us who see ourselves as normal – because if you look at it that way, no one is really normal. We all have issues of one kind or the other. Every time I do an experiential workshop, I am amazed at the kind of issues that come up with people: relationship problems, trust issues, not being able to let go of certain emotions, anger, fear, anxiety – so many problems that we assume are with people who are mentally ill. Art-based therapies, especially movement, are something that nearly everyone needs,” says Kashyap.  

How a movement therapy session works

Many of us have inhibitions about our bodies; some of us don’t like to dance in public because we believe we have two left feet. Every movement therapy session is designed keeping the clients’ challenges in mind. Each movement therapy session has four aspects:

  1. Warm-up or movement building through games and activities, which helps participants tune into the session and get comfortable with movements. Props such as balloons may be used to help the person get comfortable and begin expressing themselves.
  2. Theme development in which the client’s or the group’s specific needs are addressed. For example, for clients with disability, the theme development may be geared towards meeting goals of body coordination and motor development. The therapist then creates activities that help the person explore their body coordination and improve it.
  3. Cool-down phase which uses breath and movement to help the person wind down.
  4. Verbal processing or closure, in which the person or group does a debrief with the therapist about the session. The therapist and the client may discuss possibilities for integration: how can the client take back what they experienced during the workshop and use it in their daily life?

But I have two left feet! Dance is not for me!

A movement therapy session is not exclusively for dancers, nor is it a dance class. A dance class focuses on style, form and technique. Movement therapy, on the other hand, does not focus on technique, form or style. No participant is assessed on how they execute the steps, or how they look when they are dancing. There is no pressure on achieving a pre-decided outcome. During a movement therapy session, a person is encouraged to share what is happening within them.

Unlike in a dance class, participants at a movement therapy session are not expected to begin dancing the moment the music begins. The therapist guides them through a variety of movement activities, giving the body several movement experiences until the body is at ease and begins to express itself. The therapist only offers movement ideas, and the movement is led by the client. The pace builds up slowly, with each person deciding what pace they are comfortable with, and how much they would like to stretch themselves. "It's an ideology that is rooted in non-judgement. The therapist neither scores nor assesses your creation. The focus is on the process itself, and not the outcome," emphasizes Gitanjali Sarangan, art based therapy practitioner, Snehadhaara Foundation, Bangalore.

Can I try movement therapy in a one-off session?

Yes, you can try movement therapy in a one-off session. Many dance therapists offer experiential workshops of one or two days’ duration. Alternatively, you could also choose to work with a therapist over a longer period of time.

How do I choose a therapist?

If you want to explore your issues using dance therapy, it is best to do some groundwork before you choose your therapist. Remember that not all trained or professional dancers can become dance therapists. A dance therapist will have specific training in dance therapy, and an understanding of how to work with people’s problems.

Here are some other factors you can keep in mind:

  • What are their qualifications? Have they trained in dance therapy?
  • Do they have a background in psychology?
  • How long have they been a therapist?
  • What populations have they worked with? Does their experience match with your needs?
  • Have they worked long-term with clients earlier? Therapists who work long-term with specific groups are more able to assess the impact of therapy.
  • Do they put you at ease?
  • Ask for a try-out session to see if you’re comfortable with their style. How does your body react to their style and approach?