A bridge between the conscious and the unconscious

A bridge between the conscious and the unconscious

For Ding Jie, exploring the relationship between a mover and a witness, being seen and seeing is a mind-cure.

“Each of us chooses two four-character Chinese idioms that contain body parts, then act two of them, anything that comes to your mind. Then, we will use our body movements to express the idiom in front of your witness,” Ding, an authentic movement instructor, explained how the exercise has to be carried out.

This is the start of an authentic movement therapy session. Despite how simple the exercise sounds, it is awkward for many to move their body in front of a complete stranger.

“This exercise is really a foretaste. The words we choose can represent our inner and subconscious state. Whether we are seen or not seen by other participants, it’s a precious interaction, just like those memories we collect when we grow up. Each of those little interactions shape who we are,” Ding interprets.

The simple exercise can show us how words connect movements, and how movements can reach beyond words, she adds.

A bridge between the conscious and the unconscious

Ding Jie (center) explains the authentic movement exercise to participants.

Despite the fact that authentic movement was developed by dance therapist Mary Starks Whitehouse in the United States in the 1950s, it only emerged in China about a decade ago.

Ding works at the Shanghai Qigong Research Institute. Having tried out many methods to improve the mental and physical health of both herself and her students, she found that integrating dance movement therapy with traditional Chinese health-preserving movement training is a gateway to opening people’s heart.

Participants in her classes are encouraged to learn tai chi or other traditional Chinese exercise, for they provide different insights into bodily coordination, and it helps learners become more perceptive about their emotional and sensory changes.

A bridge between the conscious and the unconscious

Ding Jie is an authentic movement instructor working at the Shanghai Qigong Research Institute.

“Before we speak, we use movements to express our emotions and desires. About 65 to 80 percent of human communication is actually non-verbal,” Ding points out.

The natural development of movements for humans, basically from birth to 7 years old, is crucial for social interaction and personality development. Those repeated movements will become our being that we operate from, she explains.

A bridge between the conscious and the unconscious

A group session held in May 2021

Authentic movement is still a new form of psychotherapy in China. Ding tries to avoid using the term “dance therapy” for her course, for it might give people the impression that it requires the participant to be a professional dancer or their movements should be highly coordinated. But it’s actually not the case.

Through movements, you will find out your struggles, patterns and modes. Traumatic experience may pop up again and be transformed. Movements are an outer manifestation of your whole being; it is a language being spoken all the time, Ding summarized.

A bridge between the conscious and the unconscious

The seemingly sedentary classes can actually be quite demanding.

Joan Wittig, Ding’s teacher, who is also the program chief of Inspirees Institute’s authentic movement course, said that dance/movement therapy is a process-driven psychotherapy, which uses dance and movements to facilitate the student’s healing, and personal growth.

Combined with modern psychotherapy, it has roots in ancient healing as well as spiritual, and cultural activities. And it aims to connect the participants with their desires, emotions and experience, using movements as a medium.

However, authentic movement does have a therapeutic effect on people with mental disorders.

“Authentic movement practice has helped me stop taking medicine for my chronic insomnia.”

Curing long-lasting sleep disorder

Christine Fantin, a Frenchwoman, is taking courses at the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Having been told by a friend in France that the qigong practice might help alleviate her sleeping disorder, Fantin decided to come to China and give it a try.

To her amazement, just 15 minutes into her first trial lesson, with breathing exercise and slow movements, she felt grounded. “I was like a tree with roots growing, linking myself and everyone else,” she recalled.

It was then that Fantin came across Ding’s authentic movement course at the same institute. This was very unlike the psychologists Fantin used to visit in France, where they just focused on what went wrong in her life and talked a lot about her problems, which made her even more obsessed with sleep problems.

“We can lie about and hide our problems with words. But with movements, your body language and unconscious postures reveal how you really feel in the moments, no matter whether you feel anxious or arrogant inside,” she said. Besides, it was very easy for Fantin to trust Ding and be open to her.

Other activities they did in the session included drawing, playing like kids, and sometimes even imagining a little house that was supposed to be their inner world and then describe it to other participants.

A bridge between the conscious and the unconscious

Frenchwoman Christine Fantin has benefited from qigong and authentic movement, which cured her of insomnia.

According to Fantin’s interpretation, the little houses were like their inner selves. How they built the house and explained it to others could also help recreate the relationship they have outside the therapy session. For example, if it’s a strong house with windows and doors closed, it might mean the owner is pretty protective of him or herself.

But there was another reason that made her go back again: The therapy cured her of insomnia.

In one of the lessons, the participants were asked to dance at will. Fantin found she actually had a lot of strength and energy. She suddenly realized that she had stopped taking sleeping pills.

Wondering what she could do with it, she decided to get a degree in TCM, and studied at the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 2019.

Reconnecting emotions to stage play

Shen Yanjie is an amateur theater actress. She had trouble bringing fitting emotions on to the stage.

It was after attending a few authentic movement lessons that she realized that her physical movement didn’t quite match with what she was trying to express.

One of the classes that had a deep impact on Shen was when they were asked to throw a ball of yarn, using every bit of space in the room, to leave the trail on the ground. Just like Shen’s life trail, the yarn intersected with each other, symbolizing that life itself is full of repeated experiences and patterns.

“Growth and life itself are full of repeated experiences, but we grow in a spiral, upwards. Each time when we experience something similar, we get different lessons out of it,” Shen said.

A bridge between the conscious and the unconscious

Just like an intersected yarn, life itself is full of repeated experiences and patterns.

A bridge between the conscious and the unconscious

Shen Yanjie (left) and another participant do a relationship exercise. The palm-pushing represents connecting with others and pushing back when one is pressured, symbolizing boundaries building in a relationship.

A magic power to connect people

For Baobao, a girl in her 20s, authentic movement feels more like completing a circle.

The greater meaning of life is to be seen by completing the circles, she said.

In the unchoreographed dance sessions, there’s no judgement, everyone just dances to the music at will.

“Dance and movements have a magical power to connect people, linking the most secretive parts of strangers. Even though the participants may come from different countries and speak different languages, but the connection makes us see each other,” Baobao noted.

A bridge between the conscious and the unconscious

Ding’s tips on how to improve overall body and mental health

City dwellers are constantly exposed to loads of stimulants, whether it’s noise, pollution, or the constant information we get from social media.

“The first thing we should do is to regain our awareness at all levels, including sensations, emotions, imaginations, memories, associations and thoughts,” said Ding.

1. We can nourish and pay attention to our sensations first. For example, before getting out of bed in the morning, we could take a few minutes tracing the contour of our physical body by touching.

2. We can try changing the usual temperature when taking a shower, going to a natural place and smelling different things.

3. Take a moment to notice what feelings we have when we look at pictures or videos from old times.

4. At the day’s end, we can try to recall what emotional experience we have had during the day. What people or event triggered our strong emotions? How our body reacted to such people and event?

We grow stronger with each experience. Some of them need to be remembered and shared, and some need to be forgotten and forgiven. Our individual experience is a little part of the whole human existence. If we keep repeating this process enough times, we will eventually influence more people around us in a good way, Ding said.

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