LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Expressive Arts Therapy ft. Avantika Malhautra

Throughout our journey in Season 2, we’ve introduced ourselves to and explored various alternative means of therapy that can aid our mental health and help us express ourselves better.

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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie. 

Today we’re talking to Avantika Malhautra, a psychologist and registered Expressive Arts Therapist. She’s the founder of Soul Canvas – Art for Wellness, and a faculty member at the Dance Movement Therapy training courses with the Creative Movement Therapy Association of India and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Hey, Avantika!

Avantika- Hi, Valerie.

Valerie-  Thank you for being here. 

Avantika- Thank you for having me.

Valerie- As mentioned earlier, we’ve had people with backgrounds in different modalities of alternative therapy introduce us to art, dance, music, writing, narrative therapy and much more. How does Expressive Arts Therapy differ from these forms?

Avantika-  Expressive Arts Therapy is really an inter-modal process which means that you’re moving between different art forms within a particular session. With each of those intermodal transfers from one art form to another, there is an exploration of another layer and depth that is revealed in that process of using the arts for self-expression. It really taps into this multi-sensory approach. Some of us might notice that we are more visual, we think and perceive the world more visually, for some of us it’s more based on sound and auditory sensations, for some of us it’s about touch and feel and the kinesthetics of it. 

Expressive Arts Therapy includes all of those different art modalities because when it was founded in the 1970s by Paolo Knill and Shaun McNiff, and then others who came along on the journey, they were all artists from different fields. They were musicians, visual artists, but realising that there were overlaps between the artforms itself, they included sight, sound, voice, movement, breath, gestures, dialogue and writing. All these different forms came into the process and that’s when they realised that it’s hard to separate them and that there’s a lot of value in bringing in these different forms together and tapping into all these different sensory mediums in order to facilitate individuals to release, express, share, have insights, and all of this in the context of growth, transformation, healing and even social change. 

Valerie-  Right. You told us that it’s a way of bringing different art forms together for purposes like healing, sharing, expressing and releasing our emotions, in a way. What kind of mental distress has Expressive Arts Therapy been able to help with?

Avantika- It’s all kinds of mental health issues that one can explore through Expressive Arts Therapy. The basis is really creating a safe therapeutic facilitated environment with a trained Expressive Arts Therapist and if we look at the kind of reasons that people might come for therapy, it’s going to range from stress to anxiety, depression, working with trauma, maybe exploring relationship dynamics, conflicts, decision making. 

So it’s really the whole range all the way to exploring grief or eating disorders or body image, gender and sexuality because if you look at all of these mental health issues, they live in our bodies and we experience the world through our bodies. The memories and experiences that contribute to some of these issues are related so the mind and body can’t really be separated, it’s one. That integrated approach can really help you look at all of these mental health issues. It’s really not different from Talk Therapy in the sense of the benefits that one can have and the reasons why you might go for Expressive Arts Therapy. 

Valerie-  Avantika, what got you interested in Expressive Arts Therapy as opposed to Talk Therapy? What’s a form that you resonate with the most?

Avantika-  Personally for me, it’s really my love for the arts. Right from my schooling years as long as I can remember, I’ve seen singing and speaking in public, creating art as a child and moving onto college, I was engaged with dramatics and in my teenage years, I used to really dabble with oil pastels and poetry and those were really the spaces where I came alive.

Valerie- So you’ve really done a little bit of everything then!

Avantika- Yeah, pretty much! I’m definitely one of those and I can’t say that I’ve specialized in any one but of course, I have my preferences. What I can remember is that I was a shy, nerdy but also a very social child growing up and the school I went to really put a lot of emphasis on extracurriculars and the arts, and that was just amazing for my own personal growth and development and it brought a certain aliveness and confidence in me. So of course, it was the love with the arts and engaging with the arts throughout my life, along with having studied psychology and falling in love with the subject. 

Being someone who wanted to help and support others, it led me to taking this path and quit a more conventional safe corporate life. That’s what really brought me here and I’ve never looked back. I think it’s been one of the best decisions, to do something you love for work. In my work personally, I use visual art and writing and poetry. I’m most comfortable working with these languages of the arts and writing. When it comes to choosing to attend workshops for myself, I think movement and drama seem to really bring out different sides of me that are very revealing and it helps me explore my edge in those spaces. 

Valerie-  That’s nice! You said that Expressive Arts Therapy is an intermodal form of therapy. You have a little bit of all of the alternative forms working together, right?

Avantika- Yes, you may have two or more in a given session. 

Valerie-  Is it easier for someone who doesn’t have a preference for one specific form to do Expressive Arts Therapy where they can maybe understand what they’re more inclined to, as opposed to starting with one specific form?

Avantika- I think the way we approach it in therapy is firstly to help the individuals feel at ease with the materials and with the modalities. It’s a very gentle bringing in and helping them express through just basic sound or gesture, it could be really small movements, it could be painting to music for instance, or just getting comfortable with the different modalities. For that, it doesn’t really require you to have any kind of skill in it. The only thing that’s really needed is a level of interest and curiosity to want to explore through the arts. 

You might ask the individual if they’ve had any previous experience with the arts and if they have a particular preference when it comes to a certain modality. If you look at it at a really basic level, it’s about playing, it’s about shaping, it’s about creating and experimenting in the realm of a particular theme that’s being explored in therapy, which is linked to what the person came in for and the issue they might be bringing in. 

In that play, it’s not about skills or about how beautiful the art is or how well you’re moving your body, it’s more about connecting with yourself through this language and through this being the medium, and that is possible when there is a non-judgemental space, when there’s no sense of right and wrong, and it’s really the job of the therapist to bring the person into it very gradually and smoothly. There’s a whole system and method to it in order to ease the client into the process. So at that point, it really doesn’t matter whether they’ve had experience or not with a particular art form.

Valerie-  Following up on that, when you talk about the job of the therapist, how do you, as an Expressive Arts Therapist, group together various forms of these creative therapies for each client to know what they’ll resonate with best and help people understand what they’re feeling through the process?

Avantika- It’s a good question! If I were to take you through a session for instance, every session has a particular flow. The client might come in and in the beginning, you would engage in some amount of talk to understand what brings them here, what it is that they’re looking to work with or explore, and then the session moves into a warm-up. This warm-up could be to ground and sense into the current moment, it might be to move into music and really coming into your body, it may be painting to music. These are all different ideas as to how one might warm-up to the space, the materials and coming into the present. 

From that warm-up, you lead them to an immersive experience with the arts. This could be a movement exercise or a visual arts experience and really staying with the art itself, staying at the surface of the work, looking at the quality, textures, colours, and what feelings are emerging from that, what sensations it’s bringing up. It’s woven around a theme which is explored in depth. We may move from visualizing to painting to writing, within this process.

Valerie- So when you say “theme”, what exactly do you mean?

Avantika- By theme, I mean that we might be exploring say boundaries for instance, and the theme could be that or the theme could be experiencing grief and expressing what that feels like through paper or clay or collage. The theme would be the topic of exploration, it could be exploring different paths and having to decide which one to take. It could be about staying in a relationship or leaving it, it could be about a career. It’s any question or intention that’s being held or a particular issue that the person is dealing with that could be more long term or long standing. 

You might explore a particular theme over many sessions and as the theme develops, you’re exploring the art and the art is what you’re shaping and creating, and you’re staying with it at the surface level. At this point, you’re really engaging the left brain, which is the creative, emotional side of you and not bringing any rational mind thinking into it. The arts really take you into a different world, an imaginary play space where you are constructing and deconstructing and transforming things through the medium of the arts, through the props and through working with the body. 

After this, you step back and observe the process. Everything that just happened, looking at it and saying what was that like? Was there something that stood out? Was there a particular moment in that movement or a part of a picture that really seems to attract you or surprise you, and what is this opening up to? It’s more of this reflective space, from where you transition into bridging that into asking how this now has meaning for you in your life? 

We circle back to the original conflict or distress that the person came in with, and then we look at what insight is emerging from this process. Then typically, the session ends with that sharing and debrief so talk therapy is also a big part of Expressive Arts Therapy. Then we might end with a closing ritual at the end of the session. 

Valerie-  Right. It sounds like a very comprehensive process where you talk about what you want to explore and then through art, you express yourself and then at the end of it, you have something to take away and learn from, so that you can help transform your life.

Avantika-  Absolutely. The beauty is that when you’re working with the arts, it gives you an opportunity to move away from that rational thinking mind and really tune into your body, where you’re tuning into the more subconscious layers and tapping into a wisdom or a truth that is inherent within you.

Valerie-  Looking back at all the episodes we’ve had so far, we’ve understood that therapy for mental health goes far beyond conventional talk therapy, and that people can express themselves and their emotions through various modalities. Keeping this in mind, where could people go from here? How do you envision the future of alternative therapy?

Avantika- I think that alternative therapies are becoming extremely relevant and very very valuable in our present time, especially when we’re moving so fast in our minds, sometimes our body is not at the same pace and it’s so important to pause and step back and actually bring those two together in alignment. I think there’s an openness now more than ever before, to even higher creative or expressive arts therapists as part of teams of counsellors in schools and NGOs and even in hospitals as a part of mental health departments.

It’s really exciting to see that slowly and steadily there are job opportunities that are opening up, there are many more training programs in India itself, and this physical-emotional health connection is becoming undeniably important. If someone is experiencing persistent headaches, body pain or indigestion, it certainly has some roots that are connected to their emotions, beliefs and ways of thinking, and we can’t run away from that. 

With all the awareness that’s there and thanks to podcasts like yours, there’s now a possibility of seeking therapy and seeking it through different creative and alternative ways and very slowing, the stigma around seeking help in a country like India is starting to dissolve or at least there are healthier narratives that are coming to the surface. Being part of the community of therapists working in this field, all of us dream for it to become mainstream and also to have an equal respect and value for the arts and the science, which comes together in this whole umbrella of Creative Arts Therapy. I’m really hopeful!

Valerie- I think you summed it up really beautifully when you said that it’s so important to keep your mind and your body in sync because they may move at a different pace and when you take about alternative therapy, you talk about how you can use your body more and actually just take a step back and understand yourself better. You explained to us the motive of alternative therapy and you take these little steps towards trying to shatter that stigma around seeking help and seeking alternative therapy as a means of therapy.

Avantika- Absolutely.

Valerie- Avantika, thank you so much for talking to us today and spreading light on what Expressive Arts Therapy is. When we spoke about different alternative means of therapy, it’s only fitting to end our series on Expressive Arts Therapy which basically brings all of these forms together in different ways. You spoke to us about the importance of alternative therapy, knowing that we can understand our bodies so much better. Hopefully it’ll help bring awareness to people about what alternative therapy is and help bring it into something that’s more mainstream and sought by people without that stigma of what it is or what it’s like.

Avantika- Absolutely, You summed it up beautifully and I think it’s just important for people to know that no problem is big or small and that there’s absolutely no shame in seeking support and there are so many ways in which you could seek it. Thank you so much for these really insightful questions. It really got me thinking and reconnecting with my own journey in this field. 

Valerie-  It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much, Avantika

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