There are times in our life when things get the better of us. No matter how old we get, the hardships and challenges thrown at us leave us drained. In times like these, it is important to acknowledge the message underlying such situations. It often means that we take a break and heal ourselves. As much as we focus on the physical state of our body, it does require emotional and spiritual healing.

Lalita Iyer shows us exactly how to do this. An accomplished writer, journalist and columnist, she tells us her story of rediscovery. How she enrolled herself for the Dance Movement Therapy program at Tata Institute of Social Sciences and found herself in the most beautiful ways.

 SheThePeople spoke to her, to get an insight into her journey.

The Dance Movement therapy is still new to India. What made you enrol yourself into this course?

I was at a weird phase of my life, perhaps enveloped by a sort of ennui stemming from the fact that other than writing, I had no skills. But it was deeper than that – I think I had been suffering severe mental and emotional distress in my marriage for years and although I had walked out, there was a lot of residual grief and anxiety that I had chosen not to address in trying to maintain the equanimity of being a whole mother trying to raise a whole child, and going through the motions of everyday life in doing so. And then by sheer serendipity, I learned about dance movement therapy, the things it can do, the possibilities that it could unfold and I saw it as this healing journey I owed to myself. I was willing to put myself out there, give it all I had, and surrender. To be honest, I looked at it as a one year self-care project, a journey of feeling things I had forgotten to feel, a road to be woke in my emotions again. It was time to un-numb myself and I am glad I chose this path. When I walked into TISS on the first day of my diploma program in Dance Movement Therapy, I was actually going back to school 25 years after my post-graduation and suddenly my body and mind felt alive again.

I first learned about it when I was having a chat with Damini Sahay, who did the DMT program a year before me. She was conducting some sessions in my son’s school, using movement to talk about safe spaces, self-love, etc and at the time of the conversation, she was all body (being a dancer) and I was all mind (being a writer).

When did you first learn about it and what did the preparations look like?

Dance movement therapy has emerged in recent years as an alternative or adjunct to talk therapy and its roots lie in the idea that all motion is related to emotion and vice versa. I first learned about it when I was having a chat with Damini Sahay, who did the DMT program a year before me. She was conducting some sessions in my son’s school, using movement to talk about safe spaces, self-love, etc and at the time of the conversation, she was all body (being a dancer) and I was all mind (being a writer). But it slowly struck me how they feed into each other all the time – this interconnectedness of mind and body. As a writer, I felt so much of my work depending on the mind – its agility, its fertility, its ability to constantly create – I was sure this was eroding as we all have finite resources. So that what does one turn to – why not the body? Why is it that whenever we think about the body, it is always about fitness, weight-loss etc – why is it never about emotional wellness?

dance movement therapy

Stepping into something new and following it with one year of work requires a lot of commitment. Did you face any apprehensions or second thoughts before starting the course?

My first apprehension was of course – how will I manage the schedules? Second, but more important one was – will I be able to see it for what it is – rather than dissecting what it is not.

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DMT is a post graduate diploma program, so you had to be a graduate (I was overqualified right away). But since the Centre for Lifelong Learning at TISS hosts it, there is no upper age limit. The criteria for selection was your essay or statement of purpose and of course a group interview (where they give you a brief and ask you to do a movement)

As I walked in, I realised that more than half my class would be half my age but somehow it never bothered me. I love that the young people of today are so driven by where they have to go and how they have to get there. Someone like me took a long and convoluted path – but I was richer by experience, so we were even, you could say.

What is different about the Dance Movement Therapy from regular dancing and what made you believe in its science?

The first thing we are told in this course is that this is not about dance. In fact, if you are a dancer, there will be a lot of unlearning to do, as it doesn’t believe in form and symmetry, lines, perfection and looking good. It only believes in being true to your body and we were constantly reminded that the body never lies and from the emotional and physical changes I went through in that year, I am convinced it is a truism.

Tell us about your initial days. Did you face any adjustment issues in the beginning?

First of all – I realised very quickly that I was probably the oldest in my class. I was probably older than some of my faculty members too. I had gifted this course to myself on my fiftieth birthday and I made no bones about sharing it with one and all.

We had classes every Friday and Saturday and often, in clusters of a week or ten days whenever we had visiting faculty and the commute could not have been tougher. Plus there were projects and assignments every weekend and more to submit at the end of every module. Having been a journalist, I thought rigor was something I could manage, but the course possessed us and left us depleted – in a good way.

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Dance as an art form requires complete submission, the merging of one’s self with the art. As a single parent and an accomplished writer, how difficult was it for you to start as an amateur, completely afresh?

It was easier than I thought – I think primarily because of the spectrum of students who formed my batchmates – there were dancers and choreographers of courses, fitness and yoga instructors, HR professionals, people working in the social sector, doctors, psychotherapists and even people from the corporate world. It was a very fertile, interactive ground unlike the other professions I have been in – which were more uni-dimensionally cohesive, e.g. journalism. I have always been a good starter of things, so starting was easy. The finishing of course was much harder than we all expected. But funnily enough, despite the rigor of the program, I believe it helped my writing too, as my body (and therefore my mind) now had all this new fodder. But yes, earning a living while studying did take its toll on me at times, and I often wondered why I had said yes to this and complicated my life further.

The first thing we are told in this course is that this is not about dance. In fact, if you are a dancer, there will be a lot of unlearning to do, as it doesn’t believe in form and symmetry, lines, perfection and looking good.

Tell us more about the things you were expected to do as a student and what was the experience like?

Well everything from pretending to be a box, a balloon, a rubber band, to covering every inch of space in the room to mirroring, to dancing blindfolded, to drawing our feelings on paper and then creating a movement out of it, there was so much – but what we looked forward to the most were the sharing sessions at the end of each process – and finding that we were all so connected in infinite ways and that at the end of each sessions, we were more connected to our minds and our bodies than before. It’s a great feeling to go home with, and sometimes, even if I got home at midnight after class, the feeling stayed with me and I felt no fatigue in waking up the next day and repeating the same process again – in fact we looked forward to it.

Share with us some of your most memorable moments from your time at the Dance Movement Therapy at TISS.

I will never forget the session where we were demonstrated that sometimes, you don’t even have to move to move – even if you don’t have arms and legs, or you are wheel-chair bound or paralysed, the body has so much residual memory to rely on – all it needs is impetus. I was convinced of this later in my internship while working with an assisted care facility for senior citizens – some of the inmates were in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and wheel-chair bound- but their body still stored movement – some of it was in their eyes and their smile or their shoulders- but there is no such thing as zero movement.

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Usually there is a newfound perspective that comes along with every experience. Do you think your perspective of life has changed since your time at the therapy and how?

I have a new found respect and gratitude for my body and I know that I should listen to it, and never take it for granted. I also know that emotions are better out than in and there is immense courage and bravery in being vulnerable. In fact what you think is your weakness could actually be your strength. I now know that my body never lies – and anything that it is trying to tell me – I have to listen to it – I have become mindful of my own self and the people around me, but it’s still a work in progress. You just need to keep doing the work. As adults we are so obsessed with outcomes – sometimes it’s important to just stay true to the process. It’s a small shift, but I notice it in many little things in my life.

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What are some of the outcomes from the therapy that you are the most proud of?

Well, the greatest pride is in having my ten year old son attend my convocation and tell me he was proud of me. It was a surreal moment – one that I will cherish for life.

The other is having these little conversations with people who are just curious about the things I do – the only difference is now – when I talk about DMT, there is a shift in them and they ask me if I can work with them. To inspire that degree of trust and surrender in another human being who is willing to take that leap of faith – that is something I am proud of.

Most people after a certain age lose the urge to try new things and re-construct themselves. How do you make sure to avoid that and why do you think is it important to keep experimenting?

I am the kind of person who will try anything once, so age is not a deterrent. In fact the older I get, the less shackled I feel. I think the birth of my son coincided with my brain suddenly becoming wired to newness – when you look at the world through the eyes of a child, every day is about newness. I think, growing up with my son helped me find a lot of newness in myself and I also learnt how to be fearless of outcomes and “what will people think”?

In today’s age it is difficult to focus on self-growth after exhausting yourself because of work. How do you suggest can one balance both, their professional life and at the same time personal development?

The self is work. The problem is very often, we look at work and the self as two different things. So that’s what they become — two different things on such antipodal trajectories that the twain never meet. Then we go and spend huge sums of money on therapy and life-coaching and other stuff just to tell ourselves who we really are. So the thing to always remember is that the professional is personal and vice versa. We don’t just become different human beings simply by stepping into a place of work – deep inside we are carrying all the stuff we thought we left at home and it surfaces somewhere. Self care is not an indulgence. It’s a discipline.

Do you plan to pursue dance therapy further?

Of course – there is a whole sea of humanity out there – adults and children who have a huge residue of unprocessed emotions which are lying stored in their bodies. There is a lot of work to be done and I am happy to be a vehicle for it. I was recently invited to do a series of emotional wellness workshops for 5-7 year olds at Udaan school in Himachal Pradesh in which I fused story-telling with dance movement therapy and kolam art. I feel that emotional wellness needs to be in the curriculum of every school, much more than Math or Science, else we are raising a whole generation of little humans who have all this knowledge but are incapable of dealing with emotions and when they grow up, they will take the same into their relationships and we know only too well how that turns out.

Photo credit: Gokul Dharan

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