The body is a multilingual being. It speaks through its color and its temperature, the flush of recognition, the glow of love, the ash of pain, the heat of arousal, the coldness of nonconviction.... It speaks through the leaping of the heart, the falling of the spirits, the pit at the center, and rising hope.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Dance first. Think later. It's the natural order.
Have you ever thought about making art as a way of knowing? Or whether you can access the wisdom of your body? Can you do these two things together? Or do you ask immediately – what does that even mean?
Many of us think about knowledge in terms of the stuff we learnt at school or Uni. This type of knowledge might have come to us first at home, learning our letters from an adult or counting the number of stones. Some of us think about what we have learnt as we go about living our lives. What did that relationship teach us, or those months of ill-health? Some of us care most about knowledge only when we can apply it, whether fixing the broken couch or attending a rally in town (see Heron and Reason for more about this).
For me personally, the discovery of Michel Foucault’s theories about the relationships between knowledge and power transformed the way I observed and understood the world. Then, later, reading life writing, poetry and fiction written by contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait authors almost completely disrupted what I thought I knew about the country in which I was raised.
When I started my training in art therapy I was pushed to explore the knowledges available to me through a range of creative forms. I discovered that what I could express myself through the forms with which I was familiar – writing, poetry, music, dance, sewing – was fundamentally different to what was possible through less familiar forms such as performance, sand play or visual art.
I also noticed that all of these art forms spoke back to (and with) me, in various and often subtle ways, and that I would feel the world differently at the end of each exchange.
I was pushed too to go inside, to pay attention to what I felt deep within my body and to make art to express those inner sensations and feelings.
Learning from the body
The usual modes of writing, about therapy or about mental health, are from the position of the expert, with credibility granted through education or work status and experience. There are such limits on how well traditional (white / western / scientific) ways of knowing can represent experience. Yet these forms of knowledge are too often applied to all, regardless of whether it fits with our own experiences and understandings, our genders, cultures or positions in society.
Pat Ogden is more interested in the wisdom we hold within our own bodies, arguing there is no formula, or one size fits all, for healing work. She believes that the body “is not something to be fixed or changed … It is just rich with knowledge and information that can help us [in] our healing.”
As someone who believes our deepest knowing resides in ourselves, from what we have seen and experienced, I want more spaces for sharing insights drawn from the richness and pains of our own living.
Learning more about the language of my body has been one of the most empowering things I have done. I recognise that this, too, is not the same for everybody. For example, there are those of us for whom the body does not always feel safe, for whom going deeper inside can bring forward sensations we find overwhelming or distressing. Perhaps disconnection in some cases is part of our body’s wisdom, protecting us from the flooding or rush that might otherwise come. I suggest that this is a language too, and there is still plenty we can learn.
I have learnt that dancing freestyle – as though nobody is watching – helps me to set my feelings free, releasing them from the trappings of muscle and bone. Yin Yoga, in contrast, offers me a gentle peace, a reflective state in which I come closer to feeling still. For others, however, these same experiences might contain noise, sensations, memories or surrounding bodies that do not help them at all.
At Eve Studio's 5th birthday celebration, I was listening to moving testimonies from a room full of active, smiling women. They spoke of the benefits of physical activity, dance, community and meaningful social connection. Thinking about ‘what works’ so well at Eve, I reflected on what I have learnt, though formal study and some recent podcast obsessions, about the neuroscience, anatomy and physiology that may 'back' the stories the women shared.
Some learnings from neuroscience
I have learnt recently about Polyvagal theory which refers to the Vagus nerve through which information travels between our 'bodies' and our 'brains'. Scientific theories about this part of our anatomy offer a way to think about why it can be helpful to move our bodies when we are feeling emotionally numb, dissociated or shut down. It could also explain why we might not want to do this, not because we are lazy or weak, but because our bodies may be immobilised. That is, some of us ‘freeze’ in response to perceived danger, which could take the form of, for example, a tone of voice, new environment or looming deadline.
We might not even be aware that this is happening. Yet moving gently, and paying attention to our breath, may help us to shift out of it.
This science also suggests that when we are anxious it can be helpful to engage with others, with a spirit of play. While this assumes a certain level of safety to make it happen (which will depend in part on who else is involved), a positive experience of connection can help our bodies shift physically out of 'fight or flight' mode, which can in turn help us to feel safer.
Many of us already know about the benefits of physical activity, of fun and play, and of secure and safe relationships with others (whether with humans, animals, canvases, bikes or gardens). While the 'experts' in trauma are now talking about mindfulness, dance and yoga, many of us who believe these practices can help us, think this is true because we have experienced this for ourselves.
If you have tried these practices and don’t agree with this proposition, it may be because this knowledge doesn't hold true for you. My greatest learning has been in relation to ideas and experiences I can identify within my own body and the extent to which I find that knowledge practical and useful.
For example, learning about some neuroscience has helped me to better understand and manage my body’s responses. But there are parts of neuroscience that make me uncomfortable, concerned about the social and ethical implications or how these learnings are imposed across peoples, systems and cultures.
Creativity provides access to its own ways of knowing. Seely and Reason believe the ways of knowing within the body, expressed most often as gestures (sighs, blushes, movement), have much in common with those which operate through the body, mediated by the materials chosen for expression (paper, pencils, clay, singing, dancing).
As an art therapist I might ask you, is there anything you have come to know differently as you express your experience in these and other forms?
It took me a long time to explore the pleasures of visual art. I thought it required a technical capacity that seemed beyond my grasp. I agree now with Seely and Reason, that my creativity is grounded instead in a sensuous engagement with the world, and in paying attention to my perceptions and encounters.
You may have been told you are no good at ‘Art’, or that it is trivial activity from which you will not make a living. I can only encourage you to try and let this go, and experience ways of knowing that may only be possible through creative expression. I do not have space to explore here how this knowing can be practical, but I have certainly experienced this as profound, powerful.
I didn’t know when I started the image above that I was going to draw a person. I did not plan in advance to include a heart.
When I look at this picture now I know that the heart is meant to be there, and that it is a perfect expression of what it came to be.
Alisoun, of Alisoun Neville Expressive Art Therapy is a member of the Eve Wellness Co., practising in both Preston and Brunswick. In addition to her time at Eve Studio, she volunteers as an art therapist with women who are incarcerated. In her (other) day job, she c supports training and program development across health and justice services. For more about Alisoun, and to make an appointment click here.