Understanding the Power of Dance and Movement in Therapy; Interview with Francine Lee Mirro-Finer

…enlivened. And that is the word I like so much with dancing, it enlivens you.

L: Francine, you’ve been a psychodynamic therapist and dance movement therapist for over 40 years. Where did your interest for the embodied healing arts begin?

F: I think it’s kind of cute…I’ll answer you in three steps. The first was like many young girls, when I was almost 8 years old, I told my mom I wanted to go to dance school and of course I wanted to study ballet there. When I went to the school, the lady told me that she didn’t think that I had the body of a dancer and so I think I cried for three weeks. It was so painful to be rejected on that level. So I was sitting at a table and thinking ‘’What else…?’’ and then I thought ‘’Maybe I should tap dance.’’. So that’s how it started, and tap dancing led to modern dancing and then, when I was a teenager, I will never forget this, I saw a woman dancing flamenco and there was something about the way… the straightness but also the way she was stamping. So I went and I studied flamenco and later on I danced Lindy Hop; it was very popular when I was growing up. So that was how I got involved with dance and what I remember is going into the dance class and not being particularly happy and would always come out enlivened.

And that is the word I like so much with dancing, it enlivens you.

L: Right, so that’s where the interest began.

F: So I just danced all the time. When I was in high school, I did and was in charge of all the school dances. But then what happened is that I decided to become a political scientist and the reason for that was that I worked in the civil rights movement. When the integration law was passed, I saw the hatred that was around, especially towards the young black children. What it led to is that I started to do dance activities with these children inside the school, after-school ‘dance-ins’. Dancing with them enlivened my dance because there was something about the way they moved that hadn’t been taken away from them yet.

L: Yes.

F: Then I started to work in politics and I realized that people brought a lot of their neuroses and their psychological problems into politics. So therefore I felt it was much better for me to be a psychologist.

L: Right.

F: Then I studied to be a therapist and I liked psychodynamics better than psychology because though I took a lot of courses in psychology, it was too intellectual. I like the dynamic of how you develop a relationship with the client in therapy.

L: For those of us who don’t really know what psychodynamic therapy is, can you give us a short explanation?

F: Yes, it is when the therapist and the client have a dialogue with each other; where the therapist involves themselves. You can give some personal examples and say that what the client is saying reverberates very much with you. You don’t just sit and take notes, you interact.

Then, after I moved to Sweden in the 1980’s, I took a course in Gestalt therapy, and what I liked about the Gestalt therapy was that it brought in the body much more. We worked on chairs and did role-playing.

L: So why and where did you chose to study dance movement therapy?

Then, my old university in New York, they called me up and said that they wanted to do a dance movement therapy masters in ‘Norden’ and said that if I could help them fix it, I could get it for free. Since I had three small children and could only work halftime, the thought of taking this education and then getting it for free was fantastic. So I helped set it up in Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. I studied here and was able to do my internship here as well. What was great was that we were in the dance college in Stockholm for 12 years. Unfortunately they kicked us out because it didn’t generate enough money but we still have the Dance Movement Therapy Association here in Sweden.

L: What populations have you’ve worked with over the last four decades?

F: When I started to work with dance movement therapy, I worked a lot with bodily issues; I worked a lot with incest, eating disorders and children with birth traumas. I also worked with highly stressed professionals in Sweden and musicians.

At the moment I am working a lot with couples, which is more shorter term therapy since I am not sure when I will retire. But I really enjoy working with couples because then you see how ‘un-attuned’ they are to each other.

L: Why is working with dance movement therapy different than more conventional psychotherapy or talk therapy?

F: Well one of the things that is beautiful is to see someone talk about something that they are experiencing and then to be able to dance with them. When they sit down again, they have a whole new way to see it.

L: It changes their perspective.

F: Totally. But the most fun is the transition of getting up from the stool onto the floor and when I chose to dance with a person or not. Working with the body can also reveals another part of oneself that a person doesn’t stay in touch with.

L: How can working with the body and movement help with trauma?

F: What happens is, you can see by the way a person moves, where they are keeping the trauma in their body. With trauma, as I have seen with a victim of incest from a very young age, is that with the therapy, she could slowly claim her body back again and get rid of her feelings of shame. The problem is often that the person wasn’t seen, heard or supported by their family or direct environment. That’s why I also work with the family as a whole.

L: So you also look at trauma from a systemic point of view.

F: I think that’s very important.

L: It’s a powerful tool the body. Can you give us a concrete example as to how you use the body and movement in therapy to assist the healing/self-discovery process?

F: When I worked with incest, the abuse ‘stayed’ in their bodies, but they eventually got well and ‘got back’ their bodies after a few years and started to have relationships and families of their own. I even started to assist in the births of their children. It was wonderful.

L: It sounds like you developed a special relationship with your clients.

F: Yes.

L: Do you think anyone can benefit from dance movement therapy?

F: I would say the answer is no and the reason is that it’s one thing if the person choses to come to me but if they don’t choose, then what is my way in? In the last 30 years, no one has come who isn’t willing to use their body.

L: There is a growing interest and need to work in embodied ways. Are there any other modalities or tools that you use in your dance movement therapy sessions?

Yes for example, I’ve used these ankle weights, which gave the clients a whole new way of feeling grounded. With some people I want to get them to see their own body in movement, so either we record the dance or I ask them to draw on a big sheet of paper on the wall right after dancing. This gets them to see the ‘moving body’. With the video, they can reflect on how they feel about watching themselves dance. I just love that.

L: I guess it could be a bit uncomfortable or confrontational.

F: Yes. Then sometimes I join them at some point in the dance. After we discuss about what changed in their dancing when they got a partner and when their partner was a therapist. How did they adapt to this situation.

Then, depending on age groups, I can use several dance styles and techniques. I worked a lot with flamenco and teenage girls for example. I’ve worked with women dancing tango by themselves. When a woman is pregnant, I use belly dancing.

L: Is there a message you would like to convey to the world about yourself and the work you have managed to remain so passionate about for over 40 years?

F: The biggest difference after 5-6 years of working in this field is that I’ve learned how to be present and not be absorbed by whatever the other person was bringing into the therapy – not to let it take over me. It’s an art to really feel what the other person is feeling but never to loose the feeling that you exist too.

Funny thing is, I danced and made drawings last weekend with a friend and what was mirrored back to me by her was really interesting, she said: ‘’You in that moment are dancing. You are the universe and you have birds flying all around you and taking your message out into the world.’’ So I just started to cry. It’s so deep and rewarding to do this work.

L: So profound. Thank you for continuing to spread your wings and for sharing your work with the world!

Interview with Christine Varnavas – What is TRE® & Why Do We Need It?

Christine Varnavas – Wellness Coach & Educator

Once we understand this, it’s magic

L: Christine, can you tell us a little bit about your background in the world of fitness, health and wellness?

C: I would be happy to. I have about 35 years of background in teaching group fitness classes. I started out when I was in college and my first memory of seeing a group fitness class was looking out the window across the street (this story is in my book), and I remember seeing women ‘grapevining’ back and forth, you could hear the base and they were laughing and I was like ”What is that?? I need that!’’ Because they were having so much fun and I knew ‘’I so needed that’’. The next day I was across the street taking the class. Fast forward, I started teaching and I was absolutely hooked. It was the ‘feel-good’ of the year and as somebody who always felt bad due to childhood trauma, feeling physically good…music, movement, fun and laughter – It was an absolute win! That’s how I started teaching and I never looked back. I started teaching floor aerobics, I taught hip hop, step classes – for many years. I loved the choreography, laughter and the connection with women. In the last ten years, I only taught spinning and Yoga simultaneously because for me that was the perfect combination of Yin and Yang.

L: Right. And how did you learn about TRE®?

C: Interesting story, my mother is the one who shared it with me after she took a class. And the interesting thing about that is that she will readily tell you that she thought that most of her life she was a ‘floating-around head without a body’. She has no body-awareness because she is an academic and she lives in her head. The fact that she was introducing me to this body-based class that she took was pretty amazing and ironic at the same time. After she took the class, she called me and she said ‘’I just did this thing, it’s amazing and it’s going to be great for you and for your clients, so, there’s a training coming up and I’m paying for it and you’re going.’’ I said ‘’Oh, what is it called?”

L: Wow, well this brings me to my next question; can you sum up what TRE® actually is?

C: Absolutely. So the letters stand for Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises and it’s a series of movements, exercises that Dr. David Berceli created as a result of spending most of his professional life in the Middle East and Africa doing trauma work and what he noticed was that when he was working with individuals for example in a bomb shelter, the bomb would go off and the adults would all duck for cover, which is a very natural response. However, in a similar situation with children on his lap, they did not duck, they shook and vibrated and he thought that that was very intriguing and wanted to understand why. He knew he had seen animals do that so there was a similar correlation. But why and what was the benefit of it? Fast forward, he went to a massage school to study the body. He was a social worker with his doctorate and he didn’t have a lot of experience working with the body. He learned how to activate and replicate the shaking mechanism, which ultimately is the body’s healing mechanism because it is a completion of the stress cycle; it’s very natural and normal. It feels like a massage from the inside out and it’s great for anxiety, sleep, depression, and other things. As weird as it can look, it also feels just as amazing.

L: And from practicing TRE® in the last ten years or so, what kind of effect has it had on you personally?

C: My top three answers are, one, it’s made me a better mom because I’m a single mom and that of course is stressful. It keeps me more calm in stressful situations; I don’t get overwhelmed as easily. My startle response is way down. I’m more comfortable in my body and because I am more comfortable in my body, there’s more joy and there’s more happy. There are many more but those are my top three.

L: Nice! And what does TRE® have to offer that is different from Yoga, Pilates or any of the other body-based practices out there?

C: I would say; that makes me think of a slide I use in the first training in module of the TRE® practitioner program where I use my personal example of how it benefited me – the iceberg theory. On that slide, I show the tip of the iceberg and then under the iceberg, there’s all the other things, lurking; that what you don’t see. I put my spin on that by saying that the top of the iceberg is how I managed my symptoms for many many years because I do have PTSD. I managed my symptoms; my anxiety, my depression, my ‘stuff,’ my reactivity and high startle response with Yoga, Pilates, Spinning, walking, hiking, biking… but none of those things got to the root of my ‘stuff’ until I started practicing TRE®. The tremor mechanism is the body’s natural response, whereas Yoga and Pilates is something we are doing to our bodies. But the body is designed to do this shaking- It’s natural. So I believe that the healing quality is actually quicker, deeper and richer.

L: It’s like from the inside-out rather than the outside-in.

C: Exactly.

L: And who would you say TRE® is for?

C: I would say that TRE® is for everybody. Everybody and anybody because we are hardwired to be able to do this – it’s in our bodies. We’ve been cultured out of it to stop the shaking because it looks weird and makes people uncomfortable. Everyone can benefit from it and has the possibility to access it but that requires education of course.

L: What population groups do you focus on?

C: My main population I work with are women. I work with a lot of moms, a lot of mental health professionals and women who like you, are health and wellness professionals, who have a movement practice and history. Those are my three main populations.

L: And how do you think that unresolved or unhealed trauma manifests in our everyday lives?

C: I think it’s kind of like that deep inner itch that you know is there but you just can’t scratch it. And you think if I could just get in there and scratch that itch and make whatever that ‘uncomfortableness’ go away…I talk about this in my book; I call it trauma drama.

That unresolved trauma in our bodies shows up in so many ways. It shows up in our elevated startle response, in our anxiety, which affects everyone around us (neuroception). It increases our likelihood to have anxiety and depression and auto-immune diseases. High stress in the system can cause auto-immune disease. There’s a lot of research out there now that talks about how unresolved trauma and stress in our system, because it always keeps us in that steady stream of fight or flight or high functioning freeze that we talk about. That is exhausting for the system and at a certain point, the system says ‘’I’m out’’ – It shuts down or it implodes and that has a negative impact on everybody around us.

L: Yes absolutely.

C: We do pick up on each other’s stuff, unintentionally.

L: Yes. Do you believe that we can all heal from our past traumas?

C: Oh absolutely. It doesn’t happen over night and it’s a slow non-linear process, kind of like two steps forward and five steps back. I think we have to have that ‘play’ because it’s within that back and forth that we have those ’ahas’ and ’oh now I get it, now I understand!’ moments. For me, once I understood how trauma worked from a neuro-physiological standpoint and that what was still stuck in me that was not serving me well…the little me that was wounded would show up and behave in strange ways. It helps to explain things that we think, say and do that make us behave in certain ways which is directly related to what our bodies are carrying. Once we understand this, it’s magic.

L: Yes I get that!

C: But it’s that mix of feelings of ’ah’ and the ’oh my god’ and the ’AHAS’… And we need all of those – the healing happens in the in-between spaces.

L: Yeah. And from this past decade of working with TRE® and also training individuals to become providers of this method, what is your biggest either take away or ‘aha’ that you would like to share?

C: There are many. I think that the biggest one is; it’s a daily reminder that women are taught to take care of everybody else but themselves. And we’ve been doing that since the dawn of time! It’s time to shift that paradigm. We have to take care of ourselves first because we need to love on ourselves so that we can love on the world. And if we collectively as women start flipping that paradigm, think of the profound impact that would have on the world.

L: Mmm. I agree.

C: And another big thing is that I firmly believe that we have to, all of us, we have to do our work in this body on this planet right now so that we stop that cycle of generational trauma. One of my mantras is ‘’do good work do my work, do no harm.” As women especially, I think if we ban together and take that mantra to work and do our own work in healing, the trajectory for the healing of this planet is massive. I think we have to do it – It’s time.

L: Yes. Thank you so much for sharing your story and experience with TRE® and I hope more people like you will keep spreading the message.

Find out more about Christine and her work on her website: https://christinevarnavas.com/

Interview with Atira Tan- CEO and Founder of Art to Healing

Creating Hope and Transforming Trauma


My message for people who do feel the heartbreak is that the heartbreak is there to teach us something. It is there because it is a human response to something that is painful. When we embrace the power of choice; we can use our lives and the energy that we have to give back to making the world a better place.

-Atira Tan

Atira, I learned about you and your organization Art to Healing while listening to a podcast with Jenna Ward from the School of Embodied Arts and I was deeply moved by your work. You spoke about your trip to Cambodia and witnessing the after effects of war, poverty and even mothers prostituting their own daughters for as little as 3-4 $ to tourists. You said that in that moment you had two choices: feel sad and let this experience fade or cancel your trip around the world to stay in Cambodia where you set up Art to Healing. Can you speak to your experience of having your heart break open and what the process of leading with the heart was like?

There is a lot of suffering going on in the world right now. As human beings, when we touch into suffering, we all have the choice of how to follow that energy of heartbreak, and to transform it into love in action.

In the culture and how we are raised in the Western world, we are conditioned to be overwhelmed and turn away. From a trauma perspective, most of us can move into a freeze response where we feel hopeless and helpless.

In my experience, a lot of factors came into the choices that I made.

The first point of influence for me happened when I was in a war torn country, seeing what was happening, the first thing that I realized was how incredibly privileged my life was.

I’ve been through my own traumas and suffering but I’ve always had food on the table; I’ve had an education and thus, a certain freedom in my choices.

In witnessing what was happening in other parts of the world, especially to these girls and women in Asia, I realized how privileged I was and there was a huge desire to pass it on to women and girls who aren’t as privileged as I am.

Knowing that we have choice and agency in how to respond is key. The direction of our world is mostly centered on self-absorption and self-protection. As a culture and society, the tendency is to focus mostly on our own suffering; our pain and how to heal ourselves, which is also very important.

However, what I learned in that process of choosing to follow the energy of my heart and the energy of wanting to be of service has been a huge, beautiful, reciprocal interchange of love and compassion and energy.

My message for people who do feel the heartbreak is that the heartbreak is there to teach us something. It is there because it is a human response to something that is painful. When we embrace the power of choice; we can use our lives and the energy that we have to give back to making the world a better place.

It’s possible and it’s an extremely rewarding and reciprocal endeavor. It’s a beautiful and rewarding path.

One of the biggest challenges you face in your work is the cultural conditioning being passed down in Asia that being born a woman is second rate to a man. Many girls believe that they have to suffer in this life to pay off their karmic debt of being born a woman. As it is one of your deepest passions to empower and heal women and girls globally from the inside out, in your experience, what happens to individuals, groups and communities when we start to harness the power and strength of women?

The world could change if we could change the paradigm, including in Asia, which is very masculine and patriarchal. If you go into the villages or communities in Asia, women are really the heart and the fire of the community because they are the ones who care for and look out for the health and well-being of the village, tribe or community.

The patriarchal matrix that conditions women to believe that they are less than men, is what I see, blocks the love, care and nurturing which allows for the community to blossom.

Even in our Western culture, which is still in the paradigm of oppression such as patriarchy, we are living in a very ‘’mechanical’’ model. The focus is masculine; it’s about getting things done, its goal driven and highlights the mental/mind aspect of life, rather than the process and being heart driven.

The more we can bring in the feminine qualities of looking after the community, putting the well-being of the people and communities at the forefront, instead of goals and all these different cultural conditionings such as that women are second rate to men, the more change we could create in the world.

Women could actually be leaders and be supported to being leaders in their communities.

Atira, you speak to the fact that healing trauma needs to happen on all levels: the body, heart and mind. In your more than 15 years of clinical experience and your research on the benefits of art therapy, somatic therapies, yoga, mindfulness and ritual in trauma recovery and sexual abuse, can you explain to us why this holistic approach so important?

As human beings, we are whole. Again, bringing it back to the structures of the world, when we live in a patriarchal society, we live in a very fragmented society. Everything is split; even our model of trauma is split.

If you look at the trauma model responses such as fight, flight, fawning, freeze, even that is fragmented. Even in the trauma world, our pioneers are white privileged western men.

When we come back to a more feminine paradigm, we look at human beings as whole. In our wholeness, we are not just a body, mind and heart. We are also the soul, the spirit, our environment, our culture, and our conditioning. We are all of these things.

When we look at healing trauma, the way I look at it is not just symptom based. From a mechanical model, looking at the DSM-5 or the clinical way (that does have its place in mental health), it’s still a very fractured model where we are treating symptoms instead of treating the person.

When we look at trauma, we are looking at a part of a person that has split off because the pain and suffering that they have been through is just too much to bear.  So this experience will affect them on all levels, that makes us human. 

The body, our nervous system, our feelings, emotions, our thoughts, our beliefs, our conditioning, what we think about ourselves, all of that makes up who we are. As therapists and custodians of caring for the world, we need to take all the aspects of self which makes us whole and understand how the body connects to the heart, the heart connects to the mind, environment connects to how we feel about ourselves and really understand that on a bigger scale.

Looking at human beings and who we are on this planet, our eco-system, and our climate; that is how we need to move forward in this conversation.

Like many Western people who are unaware to the gravity of human trafficking, when I learned that the industry generates an estimated 32 billion dollars a year by exploiting millions of women and children, I couldn’t help but to feel angry and outraged. What would you say to someone who feels helpless to make a difference?

I think that outrage is normal and a very important human response and when you look at it from a trauma perspective, I would say that outrage and anger and frustration is normal and part of the fighting response. Inside of ourselves we are sympathetically activated to actually make a difference and make a change. So for people who do feel frustrated or angry, I would invite them to use this rage to do something productive. In the nervous system, it’s what mobilizes us to make change and protect, if not ourselves than the people that we care about. If we care about these women and girls that are being subject to harm, I would invite people to use this rage; instead of being afraid of it, use it and channel it into something that is productive, into something that can actually make the world a better place instead of going back into feeling helpless and hopeless, which is actually what these girls are feeling. This is also where our own individual healing of our trauma and knowing these fight, flight, freeze responses in ourselves can be so helpful in healing the planet. If we are comfortable as human beings with being angry or being scared or sad and allowing ourselves to go into the heart break and transforming it into something that’s actually of love and service, this is the beauty and richness that can come of a path of service. For me, I felt deeply saddened, I was deeply heartbroken, and I still go through phases where I am still extremely heart broken and angry. There are a lot of things in the world that pains me but I allow myself to go into that heartbreak and transform the helplessness and hopelessness into something that is productive and can be a catalyst of change for this planet. I think that that’s where most people are stuck in if you ask me. I mentor many people with such a beautiful heart and they want to make a difference in the world but they don’t know their emotions and they don’t know how to move from feeling heartbreak into transforming that into power. So that is what I would encourage people to do. Instead of running away from your own feelings of heartbreak, stay with it, use it as a process of transformation for yourself and within that process of transformation, you can actually transform the world. Given the circumstances that we live in: the war happening in Europe, Covid, climate change, we as human beings need to step up to learn about ourselves and how to transform these emotions of hopelessness, helplessness, grief and rage into something that is powerful, something that is righteous. Not just for ourselves but for the rest of the world.

Do you believe that we all have the potential to heal or are some of us just are ‘’damaged’’, ‘’broken’’?

Absolutely, 1000%, I believe that we all have the potential to heal.

Atira, your story is the proof that one person can make a tremendous difference in this world. How can we better support Art to Healing, and contribute to your mission of healing and creating a world free from sex slavery?

The best way that people can help is to donate to our cause. With the pandemic, it’s hard times now so funding has been severely cut.

If anyone would like to support the work that we do, please donate or monthly donation to our organization.

Secondly, we are running an art fundraiser now that shares stories of women and women who have been sexually abused and how they have recovered. If people would like to help, they can also go to the art fundraiser and purchase a painting.

The third way would be to volunteer within in our organization. Not working on the ground with survivors, that’s not what we need, because we do have a huge team of therapists working with us, but more within administration, on our board, helping us with the organizational duties and structures.

Go to www.arttohealing.org to donate or purchase a painting.

I want to tell you that you have a gift for seeing at once a person’s pain but also their strength… what do you wish to say to every child and woman if they were listening right now?

I would love to share that I believe that everybody has the power to heal themselves with the right resources.

My encouragement to women and girls that might be suffering is to give them hope that healing is always possible and to reach out for help to the right people if they need because they don’t need to suffer alone.

Where people find more information about your organization and how to donate?

These two places:

www.arttohealing.org or @arttohealing

For listening to the wisdom of your heart, for having the courage to take the path of compassion and service despite overwhelming circumstances and challenges, for continuing to spread hope, for helping the world heal and for empowering those without a voice, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

3 Biggest Lessons I Learned From my Internship as a Dance Movement Therapist at The Women’s Center in Stockholm

After months of searching for a placement, I was overjoyed when I found out that I would be able to carry out my internship at the Women’s Center in Stockholm – to me it was like a far-away unrealistic dream that I never thought would come true. I’ve known for a while now that a big part of mission on this planet is to be of service to, help heal and uplift women. That being said, it is true that I know very little about what it’s like to be a woman that is denied her basic rights, and I don’t belong to any marginalized group. I am a white Western woman with double citizenship and I understand that I carry that privilege wherever I go, more so now than ever before. I’ve also come to realize that these handed down ‘’advantages’’ give me the opportunity to use my gifts and resources for the betterment of my life and those of others.  However, the image of what a woman is supposed to be, endure, look like and behave that was passed down to me as a child was deeply broken.  I come from a place where it is normal for women to sacrifice everything, whether that be health, the body, their integrity, their own happiness, dreams, and even safety. I was sensitized at a young age by my mother’s deep-seated interest for women’s rights; ironically she was suffering from decades of physical and psychological abuse and self-neglect herself. In a way, you could say that witnessing her lifetime of hardships and struggles while she tried to meet our needs is what continues to motivate me everyday. Growing up in North America, a woman is supposed to be able to do it all without ever asking for help; get a higher education, cook and clean, raise a family, take care of sick members of the family, have a career, make money, look fit and certainly not ask for help because she got this. This super-woman-motto (or ego) may have given us a kind of independence but if you ask me, it means nothing if it leaves us empty and burned out. Throughout the years, I’ve worked in several schools, dozens of studios, meeting and teaching hundreds of women from teenagers to the elderly and I see that so many of us haven’t managed to escape the plague of martyrdom or perfectionism. To add to it, many women and people are feeling disconnected, isolated and anxious. I’ve recognized, even before beginning my internship, that there is not only immense power in women gathering with each other to learn and share but more of a need for this age-old tradition than ever before. Everywhere I go, women are seeking for support and connection – it’s encoded in our DNA. This is nothing new, women have been gathering and building communities for hundreds of centuries, sharing and passing on wisdom, traditions, medicine, and much more. Though we didn’t practice any ‘’woowoo’’ rituals around the fire, the Women’s Center in Stockholm offered us the space to meet, exchange stories, hopes, dreams and sorrows, to dance, celebrate and laugh together. Throughout this time at the Women’s Center, I learned a great deal about myself, about this population and why dance and movement is such an important part of community and healing. There is no way I could summarize everything I learned here but I wanted to share at least 3 powerful lessons that I want to take with me and would like to share with you.

Kvinnocenter i Akalla (Women’s Center in Akalla)

First, let me introduce this very special place. I undertook this 3-month adventure at the Women’s center in Stockholm, which is a division of the Salvation Army; a Christian based organization involved in many social and charitable projects. The center is located in a segregated area of Stockholm and has existed for over twenty-five years in order to serve a very vulnerable population: asylum seeking women and their families. At this very home-like center, women from all over the world meet several times a week to learn Swedish and Swedish culture, gain a sense of community, to pray, participate in group activities and events and seek out counseling and legal advice. It was made clear by the staff members that every ethnicity, culture and religion was accepted. It is a sacred space, to some, the only space, where they can finally relax, feel welcomed and safe. The Salvation Army is also well-known for its music, its bands, choirs as well as other creative expressions like dance and drama springing from the movement, so it wasn’t such a surprise that they were open receiving their first dance movement therapist in the making, me!

Weekly food drive organized by the Women’s Center.

How Can Dance Therapy Help?

The goal was to carry out group and private sessions in dance movement therapy to assist the women in coping and dealing with stress, anxiety, depression and trauma. Honestly, I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to deliver. Many of these women are fleeing and still dealing with unimaginable circumstances and trauma; some juggling families, multiple responsibilities, and loss while facing the continuous precariousness of their future. How could dancing possibly help with any of that? Somehow, I had to keep faith that I had something to offer, even if it was just a platform of expression. Some of the women were just arriving, barely understanding a word of Swedish or English, while others could speak more fluently. That’s when I realized the advantage of working on the bodily level; the body is our primary vessel of expression, continuously painting a portrait of whom we are, where we come from and how we think, feel and see the world. Many past traumas and patterns are held in the body until we become aware – or embodied. With dance and movement, we can express and release emotions, tension, stress and our deepest wounds. I used my body to communicate and show compassion. Empathic mirroring of another person’s movements, posture, and affect is at the heart of a dance movement therapist’s work and helps others to feel seen.

Lesson 1: It Takes a Village

At the Salvation Army, they say ‘’soup, song and gathering’’, underlining the importance of addressing practical needs, artistic expression and the power of community. Healing is a long-term process, especially when there are multiple deep-rooted traumas involved. Every person on site, whether it was a volunteer, a teacher or the counselor, played an important role in contributing. This isn’t a place where one just puts on their blinders and ‘’gets the job done’’. One has to be as fluid and adaptable as possible to the most pressing needs in the moment. I was amazed at the level of kindness and generosity the workers showed the women and me. Some distributed food and supplies with enthusiasm and others helped translate the myriad of languages being spoken. The staff would often cheer loudly when they would see someone walk through the doors for the first time in a long time. Group activities were always put at the forefront, whether it was excursions, putting together meals, events, and distributing food to those in need.

I distinctly remember one woman who always had a sad smile on. She loved to dance even though she had a lot of aches and pain in her body. At times she would ‘’fly away’’ in her movements; opening up her arms and chest towards the sky, as though she was floating away from all her worries. She told me that we, the people at the center, were like a family to her and this is why she keeps coming back.

There is a lot of wisdom in the Salvation Army’s saying ‘’soup, song and gathering’’. Healing is a complex long-term project that requires basic needs being met alongside community; the proximity of a group that accepts and supports you in several ways. Once trust has been developed, your community can uplift and empower you, even in your darkest moments. Essentially, even when you feel out of place, they are telling you belong here.

Lesson 2: Here and Now Is the Place to Be

As a teacher, I had to learn to structure literally everything from A-Z; but a lesson-plan can’t replace the ability to read a room. At the Women’s Center, I never knew whom would show up that particular day and in what state the women would be. The sessions that were the most successful were actually those where I had the courage to let go of my need to control and just listen. I listened outwards and let it resonate inwards. In fact it was more the women who were guiding me in my suggestions for different movements, themes and activities. At times, I had the feeling that I had no idea what I was doing and yet something was unfolding by itself! One day, we were trying out some Flamenco inspired steps while seated on a chair. I could feel that the women were getting tired of intensively following the complex patterns. Instead, I switched tracks and suggested that we take turns letting the rhythm take over, let it guide the body to do whatever it wanted as we past a scarf around. What came forth was rapid, intense, silly and spontaneous characters. I still remember how hard I laughed that day. What they and I needed that day wasn’t to abide by a rigid plan, it was to let go and luckily, that’s exactly what we did.

Lesson 3: Compassion Is Key to Understanding

Every woman who came to the center had a story – many were tragic, some filled with hope and aspirations. Many mothers, wives, others alone, risked their lives for the possibility to live freely or for a better future for themselves and their family. At times, it could be overwhelming to hear and speak about such different realities than what I have known my whole life. I, like many others, forget that we sometimes live in a bubble, far away from unthinkable poverty and/or injustice. When we do see it, it’s through a washed up one-sided lens, which leads to so many misconceptions. What saddened me the most was actually hearing how some of the women were being treated, sometimes even exploited here in Sweden. The goal isn’t to make you feel guilty or overwhelmed. As an empathic person, I know this all to well. It’s impossible and honestly not constructive to keep track of everything going on in the world but we can be sensitive towards those suffering, even if we don’t completely understand. I truly believe that a person in distress or pain, whether emotional, physical or psychological, can only start to heal when they feel seen. To do that, we have to put aside our judgments and be willing to listen and truly see. We can offer something that is completely free to all people we encounter, especially when they seem, look, speak and act differently than we do: compassion. One woman who used to come to the center was working as a janitor and used to be a human rights lawyer in her country until she was threatened multiple times and had to escape. Every human has his or her own history, experiences, set of personal resources, values, skills and talents. When we put aside our flawed beliefs and open our hearts to others, even when we fear ‘’them’’, we start to transform their and our pain.

There is so much more I could share about this once in a lifetime experience I shared with so many amazing women at the Center but I hope that I could give you a glimpse into the potential of dance movement therapy and how it can empower even some of the most vulnerable groups in our society. Dance is an incredible tool that helps us to express our true selves, desires, feelings, pain and dreams. Getting to know someone on the bodily level requires trust and vulnerability and I feel privileged to have experienced this kind of honest relationship with so many. There is something incredibly powerful about being in a room with people of all ages, beliefs, origins, languages, and religions moving together. You don’t need to be a proficient mover, just a human!

Health is Also What We Wear – Interview with Celia Ingesson Founder of Greeningline

Celia Ingesson; Photography: Jörgen Brennicke

We buy and treat or clothes as A Take Out. We buy a top because it’s as cheap and then throw it away and we don’t even think twice about it. The problem is that we wear it on our skin, which is our biggest organ. If people really think about it, it’s no surprise that we have cancer, allergies and other forms of deices. Our panties are made of the same petroleum-based-materials as a take out coffee mug. And then there are several more layers of toxins added like color and anti-bacterial finishes. Every add-on, is a next layer of plastic, another hazardous chemical

Celia, you’ve had a long, successful and exciting career as a design executive and trend forecaster. What attracted you to this field in the first place?

I started as a teenager; I’ve always been attracted to beauty, creating and building something. I’ve been fortunate to have music, dance, and drawing in my life as a child. I started to create my own clothes and basic patterns at a young age. I even used natural colors; playing around with tea, coffee and vegetables. I also knitted. For me, it was all about creating something unique, since I couldn’t really find what I was looking for. I’ve always had my own style and I knew my body quite well; there were parts I wanted to cover up, and parts that I wanted to show off. I also have my parents to thank. My father was an architect; but he ended up working with industrial paint and I was surrounded by colors. Although there were a lot of artists in the family, having a solid economic background was prioritized and my parents didn’t think I couldn’t support myself if I went into fashion. I spent my-life-in-fashion proving that it can bring both independence and stability, but it’s a demanding business. Freedom has always been a huge thing for me…

What have been some of the greatest achievements and challenges in your career in fashion?

The greatest success and challenge was working for H&M when they really became the giant they are today from 1989 until 18 years later. It was a big achievement; I was a part of the restructure to gain control over the supply chain. In other words, knowing where the materials and garments were actually being produced and have direct contact with the manufacturers. It was a much smaller team back then and we travelled globally. Most designs were created on the factory floors, interacting directly with pattern makers, garment workers and owners; that was really special and something I’m very grateful for. I’ve seen and dealt with the good, bad and ugly. It made me realize how one decision you make far away in an office can affect what is really going in these countries and how much power you have as a creative over someone else’s life. Especially with a big company, how much you can actually change; that’s the really frustrating part for me today. I can only improve a small part of the supply chain as Greeningline quantities are small, but I try to share my knowledge and have an impact through raising awareness among end consumers as well as the industry with talks, what I write and with interviews.  

So what would you say was the greatest achievement in the first stage of your career?

All that I’ve learned and seen by traveling and living all over Asia, North America and Europe. I recognized that my strength is to interact and connect with “the real people” working in the industry; teaching and learning from them to create the best possible products. They are really the backbone of the industry. I’m glad my work hasn’t been like for so many designers, sitting in a beautiful office just drawing creations and selecting materials without really knowing where they end up or the workers situation, from raw material to end product – I do it! I try to create the best situation together with the people in the factories, both the textile and garment factories.  That’s where my passion lies; it’s all about collaboration.

How has having a nomad lifestyle and traveling to so many countries impacted your worldview?

It made me like a chameleon. I learned how to gather a lot of experiences and people; like a tribe of friends and like-minded people; how to be independent, street smart; sometimes it’s very dangerous, especially to be a woman traveling alone. I had to learn early on how to take care of myself; read a room or situation quickly. I also think it’s given me a much more global perspective. It bothers me how divided we’ve become. We don’t value togetherness, solidarity. And we don’t have legislation requirements on a global scale. We really need to have a much more global perspective, not an individualistic one. I see myself as a global citizen. I’ve been blessed to see the world with all the good and bad it has shown me.

What part has health and wellness played in your hectic work and traveling life? How were you able to find balance?

Enormously. It really taught me from an early age that you have to take care of both your mental and physical health. I was very fortunate to start in my twenties with breathwork and yoga. It wasn’t trendy then. I was in India at the time. But it started already with my upbringing when my family became vegetarian to cure me from allergies, and my father exercised himself back to health from a bad disease. We had a Sauna and an exercise room. I learnt that it was important to take care of yourself. At the time, it was regarded as something really strange, so I was somewhat of an outsider. I figured that I could just add to that and be more unique instead. My travels allowed me to explore the world of health and wellness; everything from Ayurveda medicine in India to Eastern medicine in China, acupuncture, astrology, etc. You name it and I’ve tried it by the time I was 25! It was something I always did when I was abroad. Never something I searched for in Sweden. Here we have a lot of norms, I think that’s why I wanted to travel. Being abroad allowed me to explore and shine my light in a way I don’t think I could have done if I’ve stayed in one place…

What lead you to transition to founding your company Greeningline, which focuses on authentic sustainability, plant based color and materials?

I’ve always focused on natural materials. I think it has to do with being brought up in Sweden. I am very thankful for that. We lived near nature and did a lot of outdoor activities. My parents were always very focused on quality. They never used polyester and synthetic. My father worked daily with chemicals and he knew what synthetics and plastics were and how toxic they are. He also got an aggressive form of cancer quite early, which was of course related to his work. We were not held in the dark, we were very aware.  I also had allergies and asthma as a child. For me it was important to have as clean and natural materials as possible. Even as a designer for H&M, I focused on higher-quality-garments and more natural materials. I was actually able to introduce them to fine linen from France and wools from Italy. I still had to make polyester but I always made sure I had a bigger part of the collection in natural materials. That ended up selling very well. I always wanted to prove to myself and the leadership, that the end consumer knows what’s good for her (and the earth), and is willing to pay a little bit more to feel better. I think we instinctively feel better when we wear natural materials.

Unfortunately in this industry, I’ve seen so many horrible things like child labor, horrific working conditions. Much closer than we think, even in Europe and right outside New York. It’s difficult not to be affected by it. I wanted to create change as an industry insider and sustainability changemaker. Most companies all over the world are lead by men, but the factory workers are women. I felt extremely frustrated about it from a very young age and now with decades of knowledge I’m ready to voice my frustration, and provide an alternative for people who wants to be part of the change…

Greeningline hoodie collection; Photography: Jörgen Brennicke

So the clothing industry is actually still a very patriarchal based system.

Extremely. As a woman you were always commented on your looks and they take any opportunity to touch you or dismiss your opinions.

Would you say that that was your main motivation to start Greeningline or was it a combination of everything?

It was a combination of everything. It has been about going back to my own roots, the story I want to tell and the change I want to be a part of. While working as an advisor for different fashion brands, I tried to implement more sustainable  values, especially on textiles, less hazardous chemicals and better factory conditions. I always got the same response: that its too expensive, and that they don’t have the time or resources. The thing is that these are companies with enormous margins. It really comes down to a choice. After many years of struggle with my conscious, I felt I had to be a part of the sustainable movement and overhauled my carrier. I went back to what I loved doing, creating in as clean and healthy textiles as possible, modernizing ancient technics for the modern woman and working as close as possible to the people making the clothes. Creating products that are made to last; that is part of my life purpose as well as bringing awareness to how dirty the fashion industry really is. I want to show that it’s possible to clean up the business. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely possible. I knew that with my consciousness and knowledge, I couldn’t just avoid doing it. The question was; where is my voice? Where is my personal power? Where is the collective power?

I was trying to get my voice heard in these giant patriarchal organizations. They wanted me to say nice and fluffy things about colors and agree with them. I want to be free and have a voice, if I don’t speak up for people who might not be able to, who will?

What is your main mission?

It’s not really about the clothes, it’s about education. Educating myself, and educating others. It’s about teaching and mentoring for all the people I come across. Part of that is through social media and my website. I also have a service side of the business that offers advice on sustainability. That’s where my expertise lies.

Do you have a long term goal?

Yes, Greening You; teaching people to make better choices. I hosted seminars in Yoga studios for example (pre-Corona). The idea is to talk about sustainability and what we can do. One of the most sustainable things you can do is actually to continue to wear and take better care of what you already own. Also learning how to do laundry to preserve the quality of the clothes; what to buy when you need to and where to sell things to generate income and of course recycle! It’s about the complete sustainable cycle. I love helping women feel better about them selves; I’m a multi-creative and have worked as a celebrity stylist. Helping my clients finding the right workout or health practitioner as well as the perfect wardrobe/ style. It’s amazing to see how much someone can flourish not just from an elevated look but also from a better overall health. It’s not about weight but rather preventative care. This also comes from working in an industry that would like you to be dangerously thin, something that I struggled with a lot; the image of the perfect woman.  I want to see people healthy, the best version of them. Even I struggle everyday with the pressure of staying young. Now when I’m older, suddenly you disappear. It’s very frustrating to be disregarded because of your age. People sometimes just walk straight into you; they don’t even see you. I have a lot of bells and whistles: gloves, shades, heels – it shouldn’t be hard to miss. So what happens to a woman who hasn’t been in fashion all her life? It’s like we don’t have our place once we can’t bring children into the world? It’s a privilege to grow old, when will our society start appreciating knowledge and age, (again). It should be an asset…?


It is estimated that clothing production has approximately tripled in the last 15 years and that a garbage truck full of clothes is burned or landfilled every second. Can you tell us what ‘’fast fashion’’ means and why the clothing industry is a threat for the future of our planet?

Unfortunately it’s not just the fast fashion, it’s also the athleticwear. There is a direct link between the global increase of about 35-40% of athletic wear and the increase in petroleum-based-materials such as polyester, nylon, polyamide, etc.

That industry is based on over 60% only synthetic materials. Sadly this is the reality for many of the clothing giants like H&M and Zara, including the children’s clothing, which is terrifying. Ironically, we are not supposed to fly, use cars to avoid using oil but we are happy to wear it on our skin…

The most important thing you can do is to buy a guppy washbag/ a micro plastic filter for synthetics! This will make sure that the particles do not end up in your water stream, which eventually makes its way back into your body.

So how are all of these petroleum-based products in clothes affecting the health of our planet?

All these materials aren’t biodegradable; most of them can’t even be burned. They become massive landfills full on non-biodegradable clothes.  We will have particles of clothes lying around for hundreds of years. And perhaps you have heard of micro polluting? Every time we wash synthetics, up to 700 000 micro particles are released into the water. The thing is –  the older the garment, the weaker the material and the more micro plastics gets released. You can combine that with the plastic packaging. Most of the time these fabrics are colored, (dyed and treated) with a number of hazardous chemicals, which are usually released directly into the water streams in countries with no or little legislations (as soon as a country develops too many laws, big companies move away). Soon there isn’t any earth left to destroy.

Unfortunately, I have myself bought many of these kinds of athletic clothes. What can I do about it now?

The most important thing you can do is to buy a guppy washbag/ a micro plastic filter for synthetics! This will make sure that the particles do not end up in your water stream, which eventually makes its way back into your body.

We often don’t even think twice about the impact that our clothes have on the planet, yet after agriculture and big oil, the clothing industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. What is your greatest concern if we don’t start to change our way of thinking around the clothing industry?

Climate change will propel even faster, it’s already affecting us in enormous ways all over the world. In some countries I’ve been to, I’ve seen complete cities destroyed; it’s impossible to breathe, you can’t even go outside and people have to live and go to work there. I think it’s terrifying and it’s just around the corner from where we are. I wouldn’t want others to have to experience or see what I’ve seen. I don’t want that on my conscious. The question is: what are you communicating to your loved ones and the world with the clothes you are wearing? Is your look more important than your health and the future of this planet?

Those are important questions to ask us…

I’ve come to understand that the well being of our planet is closely linked with our health. Today it’s known that half of the world’s clothing is made of polyester. How does the use of these toxic plastics and chemicals affect us directly?

It’s very clearly linked to allergies, eczema, but also to cancer. There are even several links to fertility. Much research is being done on the subject and there are so many alarming statistics. Often, the end consumer doesn’t really want to hear it and take it in, but this is affecting all of us and especially the workers.

It’s very scary but I think we need to know the truth.

Can you tell us a few types of fabrics and fibers we should we look for in our clothing?

Definitely. Tencel is regarded as one of the most sustainable materials; it’s man made out of the eucalyptus tree, which is fast growing all over the world so there is no deforestation. It has fantastic properties such as being antibacterial and wicking, (draws moisture away from the body). It’s therefore actually good for you to wear as long as you don’t add chemicals to the material in the coloring process – so to be sustainable buy plantbased colors…

Another material would be organic cotton. These crops tend to be smaller scale and they use rotation crop with other vegetables, which brings up and distributes the water. I also love linen and wool if you can get it recycled. Wool has a very long fiber, which is very good to work with and can be just as beautiful the second time around. I just started to work with bamboo, which also has the natural, antibacterial properties. It’s fast growing but I am a little hesitant towards how sustainable the material is depending on the manufacturing…  

What else can we start to do to reduce the toxic load on our bodies and planet?

Knowing how to wash is essential. If you avoid synthetics, you actually don’t have to wash as often or as warm. In fact you don’t really need to wash anything over 30 degrees. Also, using an organic liquid to wash, not powder. Never use softeners because they are very bad for the fibers and for the planet. If you buy a good quality garment and air them out after wearing, you could save a lot of energy and the garment. Often when clothing start to smell bad it’s because of the synthetics, remember its plastic.

I take care of all of my clothes the same way I would a cashmere sweater. One way to keep quality garments longer is to go for those that are a little more fluid and loose so they don’t get as much friction; I’m a big fan of layers and volume, it shows of a beautiful material…

For me sustainability is much more than the clothes – it’s a sustainable lifestyle. Yes –  I’ve done juicing, I’ve been to several life altering health retreats, and I’ve done a lot of alternative practices but for me its focusing on overall mindfulness and I trying to practice it daily. Even though it’s challenging at times, trying to have a more positive outlook and marvel at the small stuff…

As I started to read about the impact of the clothing industry on human welfare, I felt incredibly saddened, especially the impact on women and children. Around 75 million people are making our clothes today, and 80 percent of apparel is made by young women. In Bangladesh, they make only about $96 per month, which isn’t enough to meet basic needs. How can we be a part of the change?

Another aspect is these women never even get to see their children… Usually the grandparents bring them up. They work in horrible conditions and the average age span is around 42. It’s unthinkable to us. The problem is the overall business model needs to change, and it all starts with You as consumer, we have the power to change the industry with our wallets; so educate yourselves and make better decisions as we all contribute to better or worse…

Some people might try to argue that these people would otherwise not have a job…what do you think?

I don’t know if that’s true. We could improve the workers conditions just by making clothes cost what they use to. The industry has brought it down so much by disregarding their value. Clothes are seen as something you just throw away instead of something you invest in. And we have enormous over production, things that never get sold. Overproduction one of the dirties truths about the industry…

Do you think that we the consumers can be part of the change needed?

Investment firms and we as consumers are the ones who can create change. Let’s be honest, the industry doesn’t care. What we can do is stop buying, demonstrate, stand up, educate ourselves and make green investments if you are fortunate enough to have money.

Although women (and children) are often the ones being exploited, I feel strongly that we are also the ones to initiate change towards a better world.

Most of the people trying to speak up and change the industry are women in my age group because we’ve seen “the dark side”. Women are the nurturers, whether they are mothers or not. They look for ways to look after each other, mentor and educate. Somehow we are closer to Earth. I think we are experience a shift currently towards a more feminine energy.  Covid has been a wakeup call for us all but it’s also been Mother Earth telling us that it’s enough. We can’t leave it up to each country to decide; we must have global laws and legislations towards highly dangerous and toxic methods that affect us on a global scale.

Celia Ingesson; Photography: Jörgen Brennicke.

It seems that there is a huge disconnect.

If we don’t value other humans or animals we cannot be surprised that there are terrible consequences.

It can be frustrating but when we feel that way I feel it helps to take action in whatever small way we can.

Absolutely. Just having this conversation and having one more person reading this is worth it. It’s about the domino effect and grass-root-movements.

Often I tend to think that sustainable, ethical clothes or products are for those who can afford it. How can we encourage the sustainable industry to grow?

I think most of us can buy much less and think about what you already have in your wardrobe, and take better care of your clothes, make them last. You might even have a lot of money there and have things you can sell. Nowadays there are a lot of places you can sell and generate income. It’s also about how I look at a garment; if I buy a sustainable garment and value it, I will likely take better care of it and will probably make it last much longer. In the long run, it’s about being accountable and the old saying less is more…

Every time you open your wallet, you are a making a political decision that will affect a lot of other people’s lives as well as the climate / earth.

It’s kind of an investment in your own health.

Absolutely, our skin is our biggest organ, so start with what you wear the closest and the most. Everything you wear is absorbed through the skin into the body and organs. You can start by looking at what you are sleeping in and your underwear, then your leisure and activewear. I think we’ve become more aware of what we eat, but for the clothes, we still have a way to go. For most people I speak to during my talks, they are completely chocked.

Is there anything new and exciting or on the rising for Greening Line?

I’m trying to encourage people to wear linen all-year-around, it’s really one of the healthiest, sustainable and lasting materials that gets even more beautiful over time. In the Western world, it’s something people usually wear it in the summer. However it’s one of the best leisure, meditation, soft yoga materials you can use! Look for natural linen, without chemical colors. It’s such a beautiful material that can last a lifetime…

Is there anything else you would like to communicate to the readers?

Every time you open your wallet, you are a making a political decision that will affect a lot of other people’s lives as well as the climate / earth. Try to do it in a way that is better, sustainable and conscious. Educate yourself and educate the world and make a difference with everything you buy, (or don’t buy)…

That’s very powerful.

Who is your target client and audience?

I think it’s the same consumer no matter where she is located although she is probably more concerned if she lives in Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong or LA for example. She’s probably more aware of the facts, sustainability and her own health. In Sweden, there is still a lot of progress to be made but we are headed in the right direction and we have the trailblazer Greta to be thankful for!

Thank you for your insight and your courage and for being a changemaker for sustainable clothing, in Sweden and globally.

Greeningline; Photography: Jörgen Brennicke

Learn more about What is so unique about Greeningline and what you can do to help make better choices for yourself and the planet here:


How Dance Movement Therapy Helped Me To Find Home

With my own authentic movements, I feel more like myself; I am free from the chains of the past. I feel the humanity inside of myself and I feel my connection to my human family.

Some people would describe home as a place that is surrounded by the people and/or the things that they love. Home holds lifelong memories; it paints a significant part of our identity portrait and if we are lucky, serves as a source of safety and belonging. This is a sensitive subject for me, especially because I have been eagerly searching for a sense of home and belonging since my childhood – that is until now.

As a child I was living what many people would call the dream; we had a big waterfront brick house with a huge lawn, a garden and even our own mini beach! However, into my early teen years, my family’s struggle with mental illness and finances would spiral out of control and we would be forced to leave the one place I called home. Thereafter, the family split up. A few years later when my mother lost her battle to cancer, I felt even more lost and alone. I was left to navigate life more or less on my own and I never felt like I was on solid ground again. In my unconscious mind, I was always waiting for tragedy to strike again and preparing for my next move. Throughout my adult years, I moved over a dozen of times from place to place, at times without even unpacking. My quest to find my family/tribe and learn more about the family history led me to travel all over the world and change continents. I learned that the family on my father’s side was forced to leave their country, religion, language and culture just to survive persecution. Interestingly, none of this was mentioned to me growing up, which gave me insight into how the loss of home and identity continues to impact following generations.

At 30, I decided to take a huge leap and despite several setbacks, move to Sweden. Though it has been one of the biggest stepping-stones of my personal and professional life, after a few years, something still wasn’t quite right. I still wasn’t ‘’fitting in’’. Finally, in 2020, I moved to Germany to pursue my dream of getting my Masters in Dance/Movement Therapy. And then, finally, after years of searching something just ‘’clicked’’. I felt more grounded than ever; I was exactly at the right time and place. It wasn’t about the location itself but perhaps the fact that I had had the courage to follow my own path. Everything seemed to fall into place and I felt a sense of presence and inner peace that I’ve never felt before in my life. I suppose you could say that my way home was in fact a multi-layered plunge towards my own purpose, into the body and inner world. I believe that you can too follow your own path and find that sense of belonging you might be yearning for.

How Did We Get So Far Away From Home in The First Place?

Our body doesn’t just carry our mind and our physical parts; it is the culmination of our past and present experiences and memories. When given the chance, the body mirrors back to us the most ‘’naked’’ version of ourselves. The body is a gold mine of wisdom and when we become aware of this, we start to co-habitate more harmoniously with our true selves; we feel less lost and disconnected from the world. This goes beyond where you came from, your appearance, sex, status, education or the expectations that were projected onto you. If we are never in our bodies, then we cannot access all of these parts, which leaves us feeling separate or ‘’un-whole’’. When we don’t know how to or cannot be in our bodies, there is a constant itching feeling of unease or self-betrayal. Ironically, we’ve been conditioned to do everything and anything possible to escape the body; to look for the next quick fix, especially when we are feeling off. Whether it’s food, alcohol, drugs, social media, co-dependent relationships, obsessively working out or even workholism; we aren’t lacking in ways to numb or distract ourselves. Trauma, which comes to all of us sooner or later, can also lead to disassociation from our bodies. Though it can be a necessary coping mechanism, it also brings us further and further away from our own sensations, feelings, reality and ourselves. The idea then is that the more we allow ourselves to come back ‘’home’’ to our bodies, the more we can feel a sense of acceptance and belonging. In the beginning though, it can be like opening Pandora’s box; releasing a lifetime of unresolved or stored wounds, trauma and memories is never an easy process. However, I believe that the rewards are much much greater.

Coming Back Home

Recently, I experienced an important shift; I no longer feel as though I am searching for that specific place, job or person to feel a sense of value or belonging. I no longer think of myself as a ‘’lost orphan’’. I started to understand the meaning of feeling whole without all the things I was taught were the most important growing up. It might actually be that not having most of those things forced me to search elsewhere. Dance/Movement therapy played an important part for me in working authentically with the body; I was able to go ‘’all in’’. I took the time to listen and acknowledge what was still stored in my body and what needed to be expressed, no matter how illogical, unacceptable or aesthetically pleasing. In being fully present and empathetic towards myself, I was able to process many of the past memories and stored emotions in a non-verbal way. Sometimes what comes out is unexpected, strange or chaotic, but it’s truly after the storm that I felt a sense of acceptance and peace. It may sound simple, but we have all been in some way or another conditioned to control our own inner impulses. Think about it, how easy is it for you to just start dancing freely in a public place? It takes overcoming the initial fear of judgment, of loosing control and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. It usually doesn’t happen right away; it’s like unpeeling all the layers of an onion to get to its core.  My biggest ‘’aha’’ this year was when I realized that when I connect with my body and release that which I no longer need to hold onto, I immediately feel more grounded and calm. With my own authentic movements, I feel more like myself; I am free from the chains of the past. I feel the humanity inside of myself and I feel my connection to my human family.

Taking the time to be in your body can empower you and strengthen your sense of belonging. If you have the chance to try Dance/Movement therapy with a qualified body therapist, I invite you to take a chance. It might just change the course of your life!

Teaching Yoga in Prison – Interview With Natalia Pedroza Roldán

There is always light in the darkness; people are really willing to develop their best potential if you give them a chance

Natalia, you studied psychology for 3 years and then specialized in humanistic psychology for another 2 years, when did your interest for the human mind, behaviour and development begin?

It started around 2004, after graduating high school. I did my final project on the mental health impact of 9/11. At the time, I didn’t want to study psychology – I thought it was stupid! I applied instead to a program in Anthropology in Colombia but I was thinking at the time about moving to France and studying French. I really wanted to see the world so I chose France. I love languages and it opened up a whole new world for me in terms of different cultures but I wasn’t really satisfied and I couldn’t see myself being an interpreter or translator. I didn’t really feel like I was helping people in the way I had imagined.  I had a lot of doubt during that period but it really made me who I am today. So finally, I decided to return to Colombia and start all over. I knew this time I wanted to work in service to people. Sometimes people are going through really difficult things alone. I really wanted to be that person to help them. I experienced going through many challenges on my own when I lived in Europe. I knew I would probably be the oldest person in my second bachelor but I knew I had to go through with it. 

What made you drawn to the humanistic approach in particular?

Just knowing that people have the potential to be what they want, they have the freedom to change what they want. Change is really triggered if you want it to from within; not because someone else told you to.  I also believe in human potential. In humanistic psychology there isn’t the same distance between the therapist and client; it’s so important for them to know that you are on the same level as them.

How did you get started with Yoga and teaching? 

A few years after I returned to Colombia, I started with Yoga, which completely changed my life. Honestly, I was really a couch potato all my life. I never liked moving before and would make any excuse not to! It was a friend who suggested it to me for stress relief and there was a free class, so I tried it. I still remember; it was a Monday at noon and it was really hot in Colombia.  At the time, I was still smoking a pack of cigarettes every day. After that class, everything changed; I stopped smoking, got out of a toxic relationship and I started taking care of myself. I saw the difference right away and I needed to share it with everybody else. I mean, I used to drink so much coca cola everyday, I had never even tasted a fruit growing up – and I come from Colombia! Yoga really taught me how to feel my body and understand its needs. When I started eating fruits and less meat, I couldn’t believe the difference. I couldn’t believe what I had been missing out on my whole life. Today I am so grateful for my body. If I hadn’t made the change, I don’t know where I would be today.

So when did you decide to become a Yoga teacher?

I started doing Yoga every day and I was studying humanistic psychology at the same time. Then I started an internship in HR in a big pharmaceutical company in Colombia. It was horrible – I cried everyday for a year. At the time I was doing Yoga every single day to cope. That is really what kept me sane and I realized that I would never be able to work an office job. Still, I was grateful because I had just enough money to do my first Yoga teacher training. My teachers were part of the Hare Krishnas and I moved to their Ashram for a month. That same year, I was writing my thesis on meditation. I had no idea how but with the knowledge and experience I gained, I knew that I needed to do something with it. 

Did you already know from the start that you wanted to work in a correctional facility setting? How did this come together for you?

When I was writing my thesis, I came into contact with people working in prison. And then one day, I decided to send them a job application.  My boss told me about a project they were starting in 6 months in Cali, which is the city where I lived. It scared me a lot but something inside was telling me that I should do it even if everyone around me was telling me not to.

Wow. That is brave that you listened to your intuition.

What kind of preparation (mental, psychological, emotional) is needed to be able to teach in such a particular setting? What tools really helped you?

Well, humanistic psychology for sure. Also, the fact that I had done therapy myself and had been a consistent yoga practitioner.  That I had gone through personal transformation in my own life. One of the most important things was the belief that people are good – sometimes they are confused and they do bad things, but it’s mostly because they have to. I could not see any evil in them.

Now that you’ve had experience working with inmates, do you think that there are misconceptions about them in society?

I think that many of us live in a bubble and it’s easier not to see what is happening, especially in Colombia. It’s easy for people who are wealthy and educated to just look the other way. You can actually be separated in the same village and not even see how bad the poverty is on the other side. It’s easier to just go about your everyday life. We need to be grateful for all the privileges we have and one of the biggest ones we have is education. The education these people have access to is not good quality, which perpetuates the poverty cycle. When you have to struggle just to fulfil basic needs and survive… Think about where you live now, even if it is small, you have everything you need. In those areas, the streets are not paved; they live in shanty houses. Sometimes they have to work in different neighbourhoods; often the mothers’ work as maids for the wealthy and of course there are feelings of resentment because they didn’t even have the possibility to overcome their own circumstances. The physical context as well; you are constantly scared, there are a lot of gangs and they might try to recruit you and if you say no, you could get killed. It’s a cycle; it might even be a family obligation if your father is a member of a gang.  It’s difficult to get out when there is no support or even more importantly, role models. Crime is a way of life; it’s normalized in a way. How can you make a decision if you don’t know any other way? This is their world.

So basically, they are just like you and me.

Yes they just grew up in a different environment.

For someone else thinking about teaching Yoga in prison, could you walk us through a typical class?

The first thing that you have to do is to gain their trust – it’s very difficult. I always felt respected; I never felt threatened or afraid. As a woman working with male prisoners, I had to be strong – but not like a dictator.  I always think that movement and speaking are related; I used a lot of both. I was teaching them about their bodies because they were lacking basic knowledge. Some of them were fathers but they didn’t know how a child is created. Just reassuring them that many things are normal, especially when it comes to emotions. Many of them think it’s a bad thing to feel sad for example instead of accepting it as a part of being human. That’s when you see addictions as well, because you are trying to avoid feeling.  There was a lot of dialogue, body awareness, teaching them about mindfulness, meditation and Asanas. You have to sense what the group needs that day. You can’t show up with a preset structure.

What was the response in the beginning when you were first developing a bond with them?

They were curious, I read a lot to them, which they liked and I was surprised. I was also trying to listen to them; I was open to any question they had. The trust was gained little by little. I mean at first they thought it was a woman’s thing. They didn’t understand why they were doing it. I told them that most Yogis were men; I showed them posters and they became interested knowing that it could actually challenge them and make them stronger. 

A lot of people have the misconception that Yoga is just about stretching…

In the end they started to get engaged, even suggesting to try different postures. We even got their families involved. Sometimes they would come and practice with us depending on the inmate’s conduct.

Did you only work with men?

I also had a small group of girls; I would say it was even maybe a little more difficult. It can be complicated…especially between each other.

It has been said that there is a cycle of trauma that pervades the prison environment. How can Yoga or perhaps other forms of therapy help to break the cycle?

Just being aware of what is happening in your body will help. When you don’t know what is happening inside of you then you are just fighting your own feelings. There is also the trauma response; there is all this adrenaline and hormones that are released and over time accumulate and make you sick. Just moving can help you release these hormones and find balance. Another important part is speaking out; understanding what happened to you, where you come from and that you are not the trauma. You have the power to change but it’s a process. The main thing is body awareness.

So you think processing trauma stems from body awareness?

It’s a way to process memories stored in the body that you’re not able to speak out – it’s a feeling what the trauma is making you feel. Moving will help you to process it and give it another meaning. 

This might be true not only for personal healing but also for the collective healing

I do believe that. Trauma is sometimes kept within 7 generations. You might not even know why you have a certain feeling about men for example because your ancestors were victims of trauma like rape. All the healing you do will affect the next generation. Even if you don’t have kids, it will still have an impact. 

Is there a specific story of courage, transformation or breakthrough you were able to witness while teaching in prison and could share with us? 

Yes there are many but I can think of one in particular when they had chickenpox and they were in quarantine for 2 months in their cells; basically there are two bunk beds for 4 people, a toilet in between and one person sleeping on the floor. On top of that there were a lot of conflicts, they were treating one another badly. They wanted to stop the program but I had gotten chicken pox when I was a child so I decided to go there anyway. I had to give the classes in the bathrooms for those months. Just the smell…And only the healthy ones could participate. They were not even allowed to see their families. The guards were also angry and treating them badly. I kept teaching though, and sometimes those in the cells would listen and even join during the chanting or mantras. At the end of those weeks, they thanked me for coming everyday. They said it kept them sane, it helped them manage conflict and even more importantly it helped them to be able to sleep. 

That is a beautiful story of human resilience and kindness.

I think that when you have a higher purpose, somehow it gives you the strength to surmount incredible difficulties.

I know it isn’t for everyone but if you love what you do…

So who is this work for do you think? 

People who are very aware of themselves, of their bodies, who have gone through a process and who have knowledge in psychology and Yoga.

Do you have any advice for someone interested in teaching Yoga or other movement or art therapies in prison?

Any profession where you are working with people, you need to go through your own process. You need to confront your darkness and your light as well. In that way you can help other people meet their darkness and their light. If you haven’t gone through that, you can’t help someone else do it. If you are going there to judge, then you should not go there. Especially towards people who are different from you, who have a completely different life experience than you do. You need to be aware of your privileges and have gratitude for what you have. 

I am sure what you experienced was incredibly meaningful. What are the biggest lessons you learned from working with inmates?

It was impressive the way they shared everything. Families would sometimes bring food but instead of keeping it for themselves; they would share it with every single person in the room. Even sharing a piece of mango with me… That was a beautiful lesson. They shared even when they had nothing. 

If you treat people well, they will treat you well back. If you just listen to the human being in front of you, they will feel validated. Acknowledge the person in front of you.

On a personal level, there is more to people than what they did. They are humans just like us. I feel that Yoga and therapy really heals. Self-awareness is necessary and education is the best tool. That is what is going to keep people from the streets, break the cycle of poverty and corruption. There is always light in the darkness; people are really willing to develop their best potential if you give them a chance. They just need the tools and guidance.

You are tremendously courageous. What do you hope to share with the world through your work, teaching and with your current studies in Dance Movement Therapy?

I would rather call myself a movement therapist and help people find their light and help them heal. I’m not the perfect person, I have my flaws of course. If I picture myself in ten years, I hope I can still work with vulnerable populations. In one way, the Corona pandemic has enabled us to use more tools to connect with others all around the world. I hope to use these tools to open up to an international audience. I’m not sure how but I think that if you are on the right path, things just start to show up. A good inspiration for me is Marianne Eberhart. I would really like to work with trauma and addiction, especially because I think that they are connected. I also believe that everyone has some kind of trauma in their background.

Thank you so much for giving a voice to those who do not have one and for your continuous contribution to this world.

How Movement Awareness Makes You Healthier and Happier

As our lives continue to unfold, one thing is for sure; you can always come back to the body. The more you give your body a voice, the louder and clearer that voice becomes.

On one of my first days of university, our professor asked us to write down why we had chosen dance education as our vocation. I was only nineteen at the time and to be honest, this question puzzled me because I had never really thought about my choice – I just knew I had to. My inner guidance was certain that this was my path, even if logically it made little sense; I had very little formal dance training and certainly did not have the typical body of a dancer. That day, I wrote down something that I will never forget: ‘’dance is a form of awareness and if all people had access to dance knowledge, they could become aware of themselves, their bodies, emotions, others and then world around them’’.  When I look back now many years later, I recognize that this may seem utopic – but that had actually been my experience. Therefore, I had a mission and a duty to transmit this knowledge. Though dance has surely been one big piece of the puzzle for me, it certainly isn’t the only path to creating change.

Over the years, I have come to understand that the body isn’t just a machine carrying our muscles, organs, bones and brain- the body is also the seat of our inner wisdom.  Our body speaks to us continuously, guiding us towards this intrinsic intelligence if we take the time to listen and become conscious. Wisdom is different than knowledge in that it is innate; it goes beyond the logical mind. We are born with this inner ‘’knowing’’ of what is right for us. Our body delivers this truth to us in subtle ways such as through a ‘’gut feeling’’, an unwanted headache, pain or even immediate relief when plans get suddenly canceled. Yet, in a world that focuses on appearances and material possessions over spiritual growth as well as intellectual abilities over emotional or body intelligence, we begin to distance ourselves from this wisdom. Many of us are living on autopilot, losing sight of what we truly want and need. Our body is our compass, but most of us are just too busy, rushing through life and tuning out. Often, we wait until we burn out or breakdown before realizing that a certain habit, job, education program, relationship or workout no longer works for us. Think about it – how often do you check in with your body? Without body awareness, we can get lost. Awareness is vital, and not just to reach higher degrees of physical performance but for even deeper reasons than I initially thought. Here is why and how you can use your body to create more awareness and access the wealth of your own inner wisdom.

Why You Need Movement Awareness

The way we move and carry ourselves is largely unconscious and has been shaped by the values, family, culture and institutions we were raised in.In fact, we acquire throughout our development something called ‘’implicit memory’’; where our body learns to perform actions so that we don’t need to actively think of them. It allows us to do several things at once like move, speak and think. These patterns of movement have been programmed to help us develop skills and deal with everyday tasks while unburdening our attention to the abundance of possible details. Thomas Fuchs, a well-known phenomenologist, states that we are continuously re-enacting what we learned through  ‘’body performances’’.  In a sense, our bodies are the sum of our living past. Habitual patterns can reflect many aspects of our personality or occupation. Even how we interact with others; the way we stand, angle ourselves, cross our arms, avoid or engage in eye contact are mostly automated. Even though we pay little attention to our body language, most experts would agree that over 70% of communication is non-verbal. So without even being aware of it, our body is painting a portrait of who we are, how we think and how we relate to the outside world. Though these unconscious processes are necessary to function, there is a dark side to it. With a loss of awareness, we develop ‘’bad habits’’ that lead us to dysfunctional movement, thinking and feeling patterns as well as social interactions that don’t serve us very well. We all have our patterns – for better or worse.

The Good News

Insight into your own patterns of movement allows you to become familiar with your habits, supporting change towards body, mind and emotion integration.In that sense, you begin to feel more harmonious and whole. That being said, it would be impossible and frankly exhausting to be continuously aware of every inch of our bodies at every moment. Several movement methods such as Feldenkrais are based on increasing awareness of bodily sensations so that the brain can make new decisions on how to move. In Yoga, the goal is to go beyond your conditioning to find your truest nature. Pilates allows you to work more efficiently with the whole body while improving muscular balance and posture. Whatever method you choose, this is the key: only once you become aware of a pattern, can you begin to change it. Movement awareness gives you the power to change dysfunctional patterns and express the most authentic version of yourself. It brings you back to the present – not the You that was programmed decades ago.

How do I Access Movement Awareness Right Now?

The first step is to stop what you are doing right now and tap into sensations or bodily feelings (really, try it!). When we are in a thinking mode, we often cut off other ‘’parts’’ of ourselves like sensations. Ever been so concentrated on a task that you stop seeing or hearing what is going on around you? You can understand it as thinking being the exertion mode and sensing as a way for the body to recuperate. We need this work and rest cycle to maintain balance. Many of us are just living in our heads – we literally have thousands of thoughts everyday! But if we never tune into our sensing mechanisms, we become disconnected and never get to the recuperation part of the cycle. By connecting our feeling, sensing and thinking selves, we start to feel more whole, peaceful and connected. Here is how you can do this; as you are sitting here and reading this, ask yourself how you feel in this moment? Is your body holding any tension? How are you positioned? How are you breathing? Are you cold, warm? We are often unaware of the signals that our body is sending us – and yet our body has a built in capacity to monitor and make adjustments. Once you have checked in, you simply need to sense what your body needs to do right now to feel more comfortable. You might instinctively feel a need to yawn, shrug your shoulders, shake your hands, stretch your arms or get up from your chair. Self touch, like touching your face or hair is a way for us humans to self soothe if we have been in a thinking mode or stressed out for too long. The adjustment of our position helps us to connect to ourselves and self-assess. Self-monitoring is a vital part of self-care, especially important to our well being. The best part is that you can begin to practice right here and now in your seat! Essentially, it just needs to be something that feels good right now – no explanation needed. It isn’t something that you ‘’should do’’- it’s what your body is telling you. If it isn’t working and thoughts keep racing through your mind, you can start by taking a few deep breaths and focusing of the exhale; this helps us to calm the mind and access the sensing part of ourselves. Sometimes you need to be in a space away from regular daily stressors, which is when signing up for a mindful movement class can be helpful. Bottom line, the more you practice self-assessment, the easier it becomes and the happier the body and the mind will be. It’s that simple!

Awareness is an ongoing process of continuing education about yourself and the communication with yourself. What you need now will likely change tomorrow as we continue to evolve. As our lives continue to unfold, one thing is for sure; you can always come back to the body. The more you give your body a voice, the louder and clearer that voice becomes. This inner knowing or intuition is your compass and the seat of your power.  The more you listen, the better able you will be to take care of your body, mind and spirit. You will better be able to discern what movement, person, situation, job, relationship is good for you. Even more, you will begin to feel centered and grounded. I believe that becoming a conscious mover is necessary to live an awakened life – and who wants to spend their life sleep walking?

I really do hope this helps on your journey to healing and happiness.

All my love,

Lena B.

Interview with Kimberly ; How to Rebalance the Body and Mind with Traditional Chinese Medicine Principles, Food Therapy, Yoga and Qi Gong

Find Kimberly on her website: qifoodtherapy.com

Eating or living for balance, and making small adjustments to get back into balance. I want to empower people through awareness.

Kimberly, you are a Wellness Coach, a Macrobiotic counselor, a Traditional Chinese Therapy and Food Energetics teacher, an Emotional Anatomy consultant, a yoga instructor and a Sound healer. Can you tell us where and when you developed your passion for the world of health, wellness and nutrition?

It started when I was living in China. I always enjoyed food, not healthy or non-healthy, just food in itself.  I never understood why people would diet, not eat, not enjoy cooking or things like that. While I was there, I became interested in Chinese medicine but very much so on the food side of things. I started experimenting based on what my doctor and mentor were telling me my condition was. At the time, I was what they called a ‘’hot and damp constitution’’. So I experimented with foods and teas to cool my body temperature down. That got me started on the health and wellness side of things and the effects of food on my body. That was around 2005. I started self-experimenting on different fruits and vegetables and changing diets. In China, there is all this information available, a wide variety of vegetables and super foods there. I was just working a corporate job at the time. Slowly, I got more interested in food and nutrition, that is, Western nutrition. It was and still is very hard to learn Chinese medicine there in English. I started reading nutrition books and then did a course and became a Health Coach. It was a good mix between Western nutrition and seeing the holistic side of Chinese medicine, which is quite different. That really started off my journey in food and wellness. I was also rebalancing my body with massage, acupuncture and all the modalities available there. 

Is it common to use these healing modalities in China?

Yes it’s traditionally how people would heal; through prevention and rebalancing the body rather than waiting until you get sick and then going to the doctor. That is what is happening now over there as well with Western medicine coming in. It’s very different to Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, which is all about prevention. Innately though, I think a lot of people in China and Asia know how to use food, teas or holistic ways to heal and rebalance the body. 

When did you get into Yoga?

Hmm well, I’ve always enjoyed moving, like in school for example. I’m not very tall or ‘’athletic’’ but I’ve always been active. I remember somehow getting into the girl basketball team but then I saw these people dancing around. It turns out it was step aerobics and so I switched to that the next week. I love being in a group setting and the social aspect of it. That was my introduction to aerobics and fitness. It’s really important for me even now, like if I’ve been really busy and not moved that much, I feel it in my whole body, even with my emotions and stress levels. I love anything from walking, to dancing and swimming. Yoga came in a little later. I did tend to gravitate towards more the Yang style of Yoga; sweaty and really feeling it. I was also really interested in martial arts, so I also did karate. Then in 2012, I tried Yin Yoga and actually hated it. I thought it was horrible; all I could think about was: ‘’why is this so slow?? I’m in pain, I can’t move and I am frustrated’’. But at the end, I felt amazing and I realized that that is actually what I need, not all these fast paced hot and power yoga and dance classes. I realized that I really needed to slow down. A lot of people don’t like Yin Yoga, especially those who need it the most. I was just thinking how this is what the world needs; It’s become a really important part of my work. This was also flowing into my love for Chinese medicine and everything that goes with it. Yin Yoga includes the 5 elements. Anything that includes the 5 elements is just so interesting to me. The 5 Elements are the foundations of Chinese Medicine philosopy; the Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water elements are found in nature all around us and reflect our inner body and holistic health too. 

In the last 10 years, I’ve definitely been enjoying the slower movement. I also came across Yoga Nidra and it’s really that next level of slowness and stillness, which was again really hard at first. It’s all about balance really. A lot of us spend our lives busy, stressed out and moving at a fast pace and then we do Tai Chi when we are 80, but really we should do slow things at all stages of life! Too much Yin can of course be bad for you because then you would become lazy and slow but I find most people need this slowing down for sure.

Your previous brand was actually called Yin Lifetstyle, where the concept was to introduce more Yin into people’s lives through Yin Yoga, Qi Gong and food therapy. Could you help us clarify the concept of Yin and Yang and why this balance is so important?

I was so out of balance, I was so Yang. The concept is duality; so like black and white, night and day, sun and moon, hot and cold. It can be extreme but more importantly, what it means is that we need a little bit of both to make all the beautiful things in between. It’s about balance and balancing everything in life. It’s about wellness practices that provide that balance.  Again, it’s not just do Yin things, but at the time I noticed that there was too much stress and fast pace things like cross fit. There’s nothing wrong with it unless if that’s all people do; they go from their stressful jobs to their high intensity training and eat foods that are dense and heavy. Then they wake up, take stimulants like caffeine and do it all over again. Yin Lifestyle was a concept to offer people a slower pace of thinking, living, breathing and eating. It’s like I’m trying to offer something that people don’t know they need yet. There’s been a huge growth though in Yin Yoga, Yoga Nidra and Qi Gong. More and more people are getting trained in it through workshops, retreats and teacher trainings. The funny thing is that they are not new styles; they are old wisdoms coming back, which is very exciting for Chinese medicine. 

I have now transitioned and am incorporating all my passions in one with Qi Food Therapy website and platform, focusing on the food, food energetics and holistic approach to nutrition and lifestyle. 

What are some of the benefits you have seen in clients when they introduce more Yin into their lives?

So if I stick with food and maybe a practice like Yin Yoga; a lot of them go through the day calmer and they appreciate that time for themselves a lot more. With regular practice they see the benefits of being able to breathe better, to sleep better and being less reactive. Often, people will feel more centered, focused and less forgetful. A lot of people are scattered, rushing and living in their heads. Just by slowing down the nervous system, they can function a better, especially moms, office people and those who are the busiest in our society. They are usually the ones who see the biggest results. What follows also is better digestion; a lot of people suffering from digestive issues. It’s not that one food or Yin Yoga will cure it all but with that holistic approach, the body is better capable of chewing, digesting and resting. The funny thing is that people often didn’t know how much they would love it. And it’s the smallest things make biggest difference; whether it’s breakfast, adding grains or meditation. It usually takes time but sometimes they can feel the effects just after one session or after a week or two of practice. The body wants to be happy and balanced but we just keep pushing it.

You also co-founded a plant-based nutrition cooking studio and health food store in Shanghai, which was the only one of its kind in China for many years. What was your vision when you started the project?

I don’t know that we had a vision. It seemed like a good idea to us! At the time, I was working in a bank. It was the end of this Shanghai World Expo and two of my friends and I wanted to do our own thing so they were like ‘’quit your job!’’ and so I did. We started with a consulting job for two years. Then I started to teach cooking classes with some other health coaches and food experts.  At the time, you couldn’t buy things like quinoa and brown rice easily. People wanted the tools and ingredients. We literally started with Ikea shelves; it was a tiny little shop. Eventually we moved into a bigger shop that had eco products and took it over.  My vision has always been about food education, teaching people about food choices. Nutrition is part of it but at its core, it has always been food therapy; using food therapeutically to balance the body, mind and spirit. Food energetics is part of it as well; what is the energy behind food, how we grow it, cook it and eat it, it is transformative. People were not really ready for that back then. Now there are different retailers that started selling nuts, seeds, grains, supplements and protein powders, most of them online. We had an actual physical space, which was very important to connect with people, have cooking classes and allow people to see the foods, touch them and taste them. The company was called Sprout Lifestyle and the tag line was Growing Healthy Habits. The idea was to plant seeds in people’s minds and show them small steps that they could take to change their food habits. It was a holistic place; we had all sorts of events, workshops and yoga classes. The vision itself was to spread healthy food and education.

What an incredible and ambitious endeavor. 

It was amazing but it was a lot of work!

You were a pioneer in the field of plant-based nutrition in China. What is your biggest take-away from running a health food store and event business?

Well it was a success in terms of community and social impact, but less so financially. So I think the biggest takeaway from that is being more business smart. I mean what I got out of that was very rewarding and a lot of the information I was teaching there has led me to this point now where I can and want to create programs and relevant modern content. It was a great way to practice and train or coach other people. Another take away would be to keep going even if it is hard. For example the biggest challenge at the time was that I had to learn nutrition in another language on the job. 

It sounds like a rich learning experience with a lot of hurdles!

Yes and I am not done. I will be going back to Asia and I feel that there will be a round two to do. It will be around food therapy and food energy. There is still a lot of groundwork in nutrition to do. They don’t really learn about it there but because they innately know a little about Chinese medicine, when we teach things there that are related to the five elements they pick it up fast. 

Looking at the nutrition side of things, in recent years, food therapy and medical diet therapy of traditional Chinese medicine have been increasingly applied in clinical nutrition therapy. What are some of the therapeutic effects of applying TCM principles to our diets?

Well we see food as fuel in Western nutrition where as in TCM and oriental health care (traditional) it isn’t really seen that way; nutrition is more functional and for enjoyment. It’s knowing what foods are for what season and knowing what foods help you with a particular condition. For example, if you want to sleep better, have more energy, for period pain or any specific health imbalance. Innately the people there knew this. Probably all great grandmas in the world knew this and somewhere along the way, we got disconnected with our food, the environment and the seasons. Food was used for nourishment, therapeutic and functional purposes. Even the vocabulary between Western nutrition and TCM is very different; Western nutrition breaks everything down, like macro and micronutrients. TCM is more holistic, and uses food to tonify, nourish, cultivate and boost different organs for example. Traditionally, even with these herbal preparations, if you go way back in time, they knew that this bark and flower were good for a cough. That’s the connection that we’ve lost; it isn’t just scientific.  So instead of waking up and thinking what do I want, we can actually take the time to listen to the body, which is one of the best kinds of therapy. 

Coming back to your question, using food as medicine would probably be the best answer. So seeing daily foods as an opportunity to stay healthy and rebalance. Then there is a layer of when you’re sick. In the West if you are sick you eat chicken soup or take vitamin C. In my opinion, it’s quite limited. In TCM, they will tell you to take a certain herb or reduce this kind of food. They will be very specific as to how to rebalance the condition in a more holistic way. You don’t need to go buy medication, everything is natural. All simple, daily foods have a function that can help you whether it is a fruit or a grain. There are also a lot more foods, ingredients and food categories in Asia, especially the vegetables, herbs and seasonings. So if you had a specific condition you would use those to help rebalance.

From my understanding of TCM, the five internal organs: heart, liver, spleen, lung and kidneys are connected to the five flavors of food: spicy, sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Can you give us an example as to how the organs are connected to different tastes? 

What you described is the five elements, which applies to pretty much everything. In the West we have four seasons but in TCM there are five because they include a fifth season, which is late summer, where we need more calm and certain organs need attending to. These are related to the five elements in nature, which are Fire, Metal, Water, Air and Earth. Then there are many layers on top of these elements and flavor is one of them. It’s not so much that they separated the flavors, but that they correlated a flavor with an element. So it isn’t just necessarily a flavor for a specific organ, ideally we learn how to balance them all in cooking. There is definitely a certain correlation, for example: sour for the liver in the spring. Which makes sense; so including more lemons, citrus, and vinegars. It helps that organ but it also helps that element and season as well. Eating spicy food in the summer doesn’t just help the heart organ, it helps that whole fire element so that it has this energy of heat, ‘’upwardness’’ and we sweat more to release heat. So it’s more of an energetic quality that a flavor brings. Lemons for the liver is the most direct example; it does help that organ but in the bigger picture, it’s that whole season, that part of that cycle. Also, each organ has a pair. For example heart and small intestine, liver and gallbladder, lungs and the large intestine, kidneys and urinary bladder, stomach and spleen, so it’s actually 10 organs and if one is out of balance, the other one usually is too. If we take it further, those five elements represent five emotional states. It’s a fascinating, multi layered concept, which is why I love it so much. 

If we go back to flavors though, all good chefs will make a dish that has all five elements, at least a little. A good curry traditionally would have all flavors; the sweetness would come for example with the carrots or sweet vegetables (i’m not talking about adding sugar). People who are eating a lot of junk food probably don’t have the taste buds to appreciate the different flavors. Thai people have amazing flavor palates. It’s so simple but there is a lot going on in a curry. I believe all traditional food cultures have that too whether it’s Italian, Greek, French, etc. But modern day eating is often over simplified with too much sugar or salt.

So what happens when we eat too much or to little of one of these flavors?

So it’s important to know that there are massive differences between sugars; like refined white sugar and coconut sugar. But that aside, too much of anything creates an imbalance. Say too much of the healthy sweet or salty flavor, will affect the one on the other end, in front or behind it and the organs associated to it. So with diabetes for example, it’s an earth element health issue, including the spleen, pancreas and stomach that isn’t functioning well.  We would then look at that element and change the quality of the sugar and the sweets, using different ingredients and strengthening that organ. Too much salt on the other hand will impact the kidneys and that element which is a water element. The approach would be to rebalance that element; which is a bundle of flavors, foods, organs and as you mentioned, emotions.  With the example of sugar, the sweet flavor is associated with the stomach and the spleen, which when is not in balance, the biggest issue is worry and anxiety – which is a lot of people! The thing is when people quit sugar, it should be about removing the refined sugars out of your life like the ones in soft drinks and cookies. We still need all five elements and if you remove one, you will crave it because you need it. It’s more about changing the quality and the variety of the sweet flavor. So just adding in more pumpkin, carrots, roots, fruits (but maybe low glycemic fruits) and switching the sweeteners you have at home makes a huge difference. Sweetness is a good thing in balance! The imbalance can be that the organ is not functioning properly, there is too much anxiety in your life and you need to work on that.  It will also affect another element at the same time on different levels; for example seasonally. If you don’t look after the liver and gallbladder in the Spring, it will affect the next season and it will affect the liver next year. 

We live in a world of cycles, seasons and we are very out of tune with that. If you drink too much, eat a lot of fatty, oily foods now you might compromise your liver when it’s supposed to be at its best and healthiest. That might hit you later. People might do a once a year detox, which in the Spring is a great time to do it but how you eat the rest of the time matters just as much, if not more. 

Traditional Medicine also considers foods various properties, including warm, hot, cold and cool. Why is it important to understand the ‘’temperature’’ energy of foods? How do they affect the body?

I would say that everything we’ve discussed so far about the elements is like at an introduction level. To dive into the temperature would be at the second or third level, it’s not as vital but definitely interesting. It’s more about the quality of food as well as the temperature. An obvious example in Chinese Medicine would be lamb; it’s a very warming meat. Eating it in winter is a good idea. Eating watermelon, cucumber or mint in summer is really good to cool the body down. It’s not about putting it in the refrigerator, it’s the food itself in nature, the way it is grown in nature to help us manage the heat outside. Nature intended these foods to help us rebalance. This is how we use to eat – seasonally. By doing so, you don’t need to worry about your spleen or liver; if sprouts and greens grow in the Spring we should eat more of those foods. The problem in the modern world is that things are available all year round; we’re eating bananas and spinach all year round and often too much of it. We are out of sync. Then you can look at the qualitative nature of the foods and the best way to understand it is to experience it. So on a hot day, try having peppermint tea. In TCM they definitely have this idea of hot and cold which is hard to wrap our heads around it because part of it is the actual temperature but a bigger part of it is this inherent quality of the food. You can definitely look at a list of hot/cold foods but it’s really when you’ve experienced eating a food in a certain season that you can remember the effect of it. So now that it is Spring, eat loads of sprouts, leafs, green vegetables; there is that upward, cleansing energy that makes you feel amazing.

Even the colors of foods can guide us to choose the right foods to treat a condition. Can you give us an example?

Again, it’s more about rebalancing the elements. Each of the five elements has a predominant color, it doesn’t mean you eat only green foods in Spring, it means you eat more of them. Red is the fire in summer season, so like watermelon, chilies, red quinoa and red rice. Late summer is an orangey/earthy brown color, so ingredients like pumpkin, sweet potatoes and carrots. Autumn is silver or white, like daikon (Chinese/Korean radish) and lotus root. In winter the color is a dark blue, brown or purple, like kidney beans, mushrooms and sea vegetables. I would eat those at different times of the year as well but the basis is color variety balance. 

I know you are particularly a fan of the word dampness, what does this mean and how do we know if we have too much of it in our bodies?

Each element has an external weather condition that harms that organ system.  In TCM it’s called the six evils. Dampness in the unpleasant condition of the Earth element and I talk about because I experienced it a lot. The moisture, humidity and wetness outside creates dampness in the body. You can think of it as mold in a house, or like a steam room. It means excess moisture is being held in the body. The most common example in the West would be Edema; swelling of the ankles, sometimes diarrhea, or some bloating and digestive issues because the Spleen and digestive system are not happy. 

So how do we remove the excess dampness in the body?

There are many ways to alleviate that. First of all, you can check your external conditions, if your living in the middle of rice fields or in a humid tropical place, there is water all around you. Your constitution is important too. If you are suffering because of foods, you have to look at the ones that are making it worse, as well as those that help to alleviate that condition. For example, there are foods that make you pee more; helping the spleen and bladder work more efficiently. Some people don’t have this problem at all. For most people, I get really tired, my legs get heavy, I have tummy issues and it’s purely because of my constitution. 

I love this topic so much I have a whole e-book about it on my website, covering some theory and a variety of recipes and ingredients for people to try preparing at home. 

Who can determine our constitutional patterns? How does this help us find our own best diet?

One way would be seeing a Chinese doctor, even if you are not sick, just for a diagnosis and general observation. Through that process, they can see what elements you may be more dominant in and of course tell you any conditions you have, and the organs you are more susceptible to have an imbalance in. That’s probably the best way. If it seems that you have absolutely no health issues, then you can do an online test. They will ask about different things like your sleep, bowel movements, the color of your face and then you can get an assessment. Is it accurate? Usually. And it’s okay if you are healthy and just curious. The other way is called the 9 Star Ki (which means energy) and it is based on your birthday, which tells you your predominant elements. It’s not accurate to diagnose somebody but it gives a fun reading on your personality, the kinds of foods you like and how to look after yourself. I do recommend that everyone go to a TCM doctor just to have a diagnosis and maybe some acupuncture. There is always something we can rebalance.

Your training in nutrition spans from Western science, to TCM food therapy and Macrobiotics and you obviously have a passion for teaching and sharing your knowledge. What do you hope people can learn?

Mainly two things. Number one is awareness: body and health awareness. We rely a lot on external systems to tell us what to eat and how to cook. I think it’s more important that they embody it, experience it and actually see how it feels. We are very disconnected from our bodies. The second one is balance. Eating or living for balance, and making small adjustments to get back into balance. I want to empower people through awareness. Ideally, they learn about what their body needs and how to cook for themselves. It would be so much easier if we learned cooking in school! 

You have a new book published in 2019 called Chinese Superfoods. Can you give us an example of the power of one of these Superfoods?

The book is predominantly recipes because a lot of the younger generations don’t know how to cook. It’s a dying art; it’s so easy to eat out. So the superfoods in there are everyday superfoods like goji berries, tofu, vegetables – it’s really over simplified. In the West we have really fancy and expensive ingredients that you may not use. But I like foods that are practical and simple; broccoli is a superfood. It’s nutrient dense and functional for health. Chinese Yam or Sweet potato is a Superfood, and is really good for your liver Qi. All the root foods are really energizing; they’re very satisfying, nourishing because of how they are grown. Another example is leeks; which is good in Spring time and if you look at the shape of the leek and how it’s grown, it goes straight up just like asparagus with upward energy. That’s the same energy of the season, which we need. It goes back to that energetic quality and understanding that each food has an energy and a function to help us achieve more vitality. A lot of foods we eat don’t give us any energy or vitality. I’m not talking about raw or cooked though, in my opinion, cooking things can add another quality, it doesn’t mean that the food is dead. Whether you steam, roast, bake or eat a carrot raw, it’s still good for you. You might loose the vitamin C but there are many other benefits in cooking it. 

Do you have any upcoming courses/classes that we should know about?

Well an important note is my new website is www.qifoodtherapy.com. On there are 5 ebooks; one is in Chinese food medicine, one is about vegan and dairy alternatives, another one is about dampness. The website is a platform for sharing not just food and nutrition, but food therapy. There will also be e-courses coming up very soon and I also offer private sessions. The first online course is going to be on cycles, the five elements and all these different layers of it like flavors, colors and seasons. I really look forward to sharing with more people on these topics.

So many exciting things in store for you and the people that will learn from you! If you could leave us with a message today, what would that be?

It terms of food, wellness and nutrition, I would say keep an open mind and try- new foods, ingredients or cooking styles. Experiment and see for yourself, it’s not something you can learn from a book, you have to get in there and roll up your sleeves. 

Thank you so much for your time, enthusiasm and generosity!

The Unknown Reason Compassion Sets Us Free – When Science Meets Ancient Wisdom

When I decided I wanted to major in dance many years ago, my mother must have thought I was delusional. I don’t blame her; I was nearly seventeen, I had no formal training, no long-term plan, just a deep desire to move like a dancer. What I lacked in ability (and sense of reality) I made up for in sheer determination and drive. I was the whatever it takes girl. Even if I had to practice in the morning, on my lunch break and on weekends. That also meant I had to work shifts on my days off to be able to afford the extra classes. Being at the bottom became my strength because it kept me motivated, disciplined and humble. The downside to those backbreaking days is that I developed an unusually high tolerance for fatigue, overwork and physical pain. I saw the body as a machine that I could control and place demands on, no matter how unreasonable. And if the results weren’t there, all I had to do was to push harder. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a relentless hard worker, but if there is something I have learned, it’s that if we keep running on credit, it’s only a matter of time before we crash. I had to learn that lesson way too many times. Nowadays, I move not to perform but because of the freedom, connection and joy it provides for me. That is the true gift. It took a long gruelling journey of self-discovery, failures, fall-outs and breaking points to get here but I am finally finding myself at peace with how much my body and mind can deliver.

But in a world that values achievement, appearances and material over health and happiness, how can we start to accept ourselves and our limitations? How do we become ‘’unstuck’’ from our own self-destructive patterns? I know this might sound sentimental but even science is catching up to what ancient traditions have been trying to tell us for thousands of years: what we need is compassion!

So What Is Compassion and Why Is It Good for Us?

Many spiritual traditions speak of the importance of compassion. Buddha spoke of compassion thousands of years ago as part of the path to enlightenment. It is believed that compassion allows us to move away from a ‘’I’’ centered worldview to the ‘’other-centeredness’’ view which allows us to see reality more clearly and accurately. In other words, compassion is a gateway to understanding the human experience through the eyes of others. I’ve come to interpret compassion as kindness, understanding and acceptance. It is something that connects us to not only others, but also to ourselves. However, it’s more than just the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel what they feel; it’s a way of being and must be practiced. It applies to all beings and therefore it helps us understand that we are not superior to anyone, thing or animal; we are part of a whole. In Buddhism, compassion is part of the Four Immeasurables along with loving-kindness, joy and equanimity. Interestingly though, out of the four qualities, compassion is the one most closely linked to suffering because it means being able to sit with our pain, which in turn gives us the ability to free ourselves from it. Even in psychology, the definition of compassion includes a sensitivity to suffering in ourselves and others with a desire to alleviate or prevent it. Research has actually shown that we are physiologically best regulated when we feel loved, wanted, connected and loving rather than indifferent, disliking and hating – whether it is towards others or ourselves. Tania Singer’s recent neuroscience of compassion shows us that some pain-sensitive parts of the brain are activated when we empathize (or feel) with someone in pain; showing us that we are much more connected to others than we are aware of. It has been shown however that empathy activates negative emotions, which can become too overwhelming. On the other hand, if we feel compassion for someone else, different neural networks associated with affiliation and reward come into play and we feel concern, love and warmth. Thus, by actively practicing compassion, we can begin to develop a motivation to help others without getting burned out. Feel me my empathic friends?

Self-Compassion – The Key to Freedom?

Paul Gilbert, the founder of Compassion Focused Therapy found that most of his patients, many severely depressed, were relatively comfortable with being compassionate with others but receiving compassion and self-compassion was almost an impossible task. During his practice as a psychologist, he was using cognitive behavioral therapy to help his patients develop healthier thought patterns, but they would do this in a cold and robotic manner. They didn’t know how to be genuinely kind to themselves. So why is it so challenging for many of us to receive compassion? Research actually found that it might be particularly difficult for people coming from a background of violence, addiction or abuse. I have to admit, this hit home. One thing that is still difficult for me to share is that I grew up with a father with a mental illness and a violent temper. As a child, I learned to stay quiet, do as I was told and carry on. There was little space for feeling sorry for myself. Developing self-compassion has definitely been a challenge but what helped me tremendously was to surround myself with empathetic people; whether it was friends, acquaintances, or a therapist.  The uncanny thing in my experience is that if you tend to be on the masochistic side, you often attract people with a similar mindset who will tell you to suck it up when things get hard. Though I am not a fan of pity parties, if you can’t have empathy for others that is usually my cue to walk in the other direction.

So how does compassion and self-compassion set us free? The answer is something much more profound than I initially thought; by helping us access and heal our shame. In other words, those parts of us that seem to be unacceptable, disgusting and bad; whether it is past or present emotions, thoughts, actions or even trauma. Shame can keep us a hostage and a prisoner of the past.  It tells us that we don’t deserve love or kindness. It is that part of us that we don’t want to admit or reveal to others. Jung calls these darker areas of our minds the ‘’Shadow Self’’, and we all have one. The main problem with shame is that it is the most disconnecting of all emotions. It creates a barrier between us, the people we love and even ourselves. If we keep it bottled up inside, it permeates every area of our life, whether we realize it or not. Shame is like a poison we carry and hold onto inside of us that expresses itself in destructive ways like anger, depression and rage. So how do we start to mend these unforgiving ‘’truths’’? By expressing them out loud, preferably in the presence of a compassionate person, group or therapist. A big part of my personal healing has been sharing my story, which felt like a dirty little secret for decades. Though it is definitely a process with many layers, as soon as you put words to it, you start to set that part of yourself free and it no longer owns you. Self-compassion allows for the vulnerability to admit your humanness and forgive yourself. You could even start with dabbling in a journal without censorship and end with a feeling of forgiveness (I like to place my hand on my heart for that). The unfolding is often painful but the rewards are much greater than you can imagine. In my adult life, I was lucky enough to have the presence of a few kind non-judgmental souls, which helped me to realize that I am good enough as is. That is the gift of living and receiving compassion and I believe is the key to setting ourselves free.

I really do hope this helps on your journey to healing and happiness.

All my love,

Lena B.