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 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: 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.