Tina Bexson explores the use of ‘Art Therapy’

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ART THERAPY by Tina Bexson

I’m quizzing Art Therapist Vicky Barber in her living room before I enter her studio and take the plunge with a spot of art therapy.

I want to know how it works but most of all I want to know what I can gain from it.

She tells me that the act of creating an image will allow me to visualise then express emotion, which needs releasing. Any blocked energy, especially of the creative kind, can also be released. Most importantly, she says ‘it provides a safe place to explore your emotions and behaviour with a view to finding new ways forward. It can actually be used to promote life-enhancing change.’

Vicky’s clients have found relief from stress, anxiety, communication problems (both written and verbal) and they have even used art therapy as another way of addressing non-psychological issues. One woman had big financial problems. ‘She earned lots of money but she was always spending. She painted and created and it was like looking at the problem from a different perspective, she came up with a solution herself and went back to see her bank manager.’
A team from a leading advertising agency also used her services to help them work more effectively together especially in terms of how they communicated with each other. ‘When they had meeting to help launch a product they would rely on words as a means of explanation. I helped them devise a way of being as fluid with imaging as they were with words.’
‘Looking at things from a different angle means you can often come up with very different and quite unique solutions’, she says.

Then she asks me what I hope I will gain from the session. I say that I hope it will be relaxing, and bring about some release of emotion without me having to talk about it. My ‘problem’ you could say, is that I find talking about my feelings self-indulgent and wimpy!

Vicky says that the strength of art therapy is that you don’t need language at all. ‘You can be as articulate as you like but there are times when we lose the ability to talk, and that’s when art therapy can come into its own. You are ‘talking’ in a different way. It’s very spontaneous, you can never predict what will happen.’

Okay, but what if you’re no good at art? “That’s irrelevant. The Art is just a tool, a means to an end to externalise what is internal. You’re not being judged by what you might create.”

Remembering the mess I used to make at school in art classes, I’m very glad about that.

We climb the stairs to her studio. It’s a treasure trove filled with watercolours, crayons, poster paints, sequins, clay, felt, beads, beans, leaves, and little plastic toys. ‘I need a variety of materials, to go with peoples changing moods’, says Vicky.

For their first session she always begins in a directive way by giving her clients a focus. She asks me to think about my name. What does it mean? Do I like it? What memories do I have of it? Do people change my name at different times? What would I like to be called? ‘Think about it and get into that space so its with you when you create an image’, she instructs.

Umm. I stand poised with a paintbrush in front of an enormous piece of blank paper and think – a lot. A few minutes later Vicky encourages me to use anything I like in the room. ‘Choose your materials, there are no restrictions and you can make as much mess as you like. This is the place to let your feelings go’, she explains from her stool in the corner. Then she sits back and observes my actions throughout the session.

First off I reach for the paints and decide to paint a thick black border. Good that feels better. Then I draw the cross section of a human head and divide it into four sections. I’ll paint four different things associated with my name in each I think. But what? I think of my name, I was christened Christina, which I believe means daughter of Christ. I’m atheist and anyway I’ve always called myself Tina.

But for some reason I begin by painting Joan of Arc burning on a massive bonfire that I make from crushing up bits of twig and leaves. I love primary colours and opt for deep reds, greens, blue and black. She has great flames of fire coming out of her eyes and is shredding black tears onto a white face. I stick down two plastic flying dinosaur things in the sky.

In the square above Joan I paint a long flowing river which ends up cutting through the middle of the page into the bottom right hand corner. I think of childhood days riding in the country and surround it with fields of horses. Then it gets a bit gloomy again and I attempt to paint a winding staircase spiralling upwards towards a triangular room – it’s a recurring dream and I haven’t a clue what its got to do with my name. But it goes a bit wrong so I turn it into a bright multi-coloured snake, my biggest fear in childhood! The triangle at the top becomes its face and a forked tongue flicks out from the mouth. Facing the tongue and on either side of it I place a plastic Ninja child wielding a sword. And then drag a plane horizontally through the wet paint in the middle of it.

I’m starting to feel quite childlike myself and can’t help grinning at the image in front of me. Art Therapy is all about getting back to how we were as children, when there was no division between images and words.

The forty minutes is up. Almost every available space is covered with paint, sequins, material or plastic animals and people. I’ve painted all the gaps between the black border and the head with deep green. I’m very relieved. The overall feeling is definitely one of catharsis. Vicky gets up from her stool and comes over to have a closer look. ‘A lot has happened here, much more than you expected it to.’ That’s true. ‘I noticed you filled up all the space quite animatedly.’

I didn’t start off that way, for the first ten minutes or so I didn’t think I’d have enough ideas to create much at all. Vicky explains that most people are like that when they come to art therapy. ‘When you began the task the logical side of you linked with the left side of your brain was saying ‘oh this is just a silly exercise’. But once you got into the process the right side of the brain took over and your creative juices flowed out. When you allow that to happen it can be wonderful.’

It did feel good to rely on visual expression rather than words. In fact art therapy can be very good for people less skilled in image making than they are in language since worlds can be used to mask true feelings rather than express them. I’ve always remembered the playwright Harold Pinter saying that the most significant things about us can be found in what we don’t say rather than in what we do say.

Vicky asks me to try and explain what emotions came up whilst I painted what I did. I relay some of the reasoning behind the things I painted, and she reflects and makes some interesting comments, though she is careful not to make too meaningful an interpretation, as this is not part of art therapy. However I found her observations useful in that they illuminated some fears and things I perhaps didn’t want to admit to.

‘It’s very profound’, she says of the image. ‘you cut the neck off the head, and painted in the dripping blood, its scary.’
‘And all the different things you painted were contained in someway: first the black border, the cross section of the head, then the way you divided the head into compartments.’ I think it could be an indication that I’m a control freak but Vicky goes further, ‘It’s as though you didn’t want anything ‘spilling’ out unnecessarily. You want to keep it all contained and you don’t want to give too much away.’
True, but who does?!

I tell her that I’m sure I only painted Joan of Arc because I had seen the Luc Besson film a few weeks previously, but she says ‘why choose the image of her burning?’

‘You may be dismissive, but look at what’s come out. Things that were fearful and meaningful to you as a child. But what’s positive is that you do acknowledge the nice things, the river, the horses, and they are important to hold onto.’ I make a mental note to do so.

She asks if I ever climbed the ‘winding staircase’ in my dreams (I did) and when I describe the dream, she says ‘so beautiful, but so totally dangerous.’

‘If you want to you can explore more, you can explore why you keep having a recurring dream, or why you feel in a certain way. Exploring will never erase your memories but it will lessen the blows. Though you may never be ready to explore things because going to some places within ourselves is too much.’
She also says that when people work in this way, ‘lots of things come out, you can’t stop it, you paint the stuff you don’t want to look at consciously, that’s the magic of art therapy’.

I don’t think I want to look too deeply at anything at the moment consciously or unconsciously, but I’m sure I will do some art therapy of one form or another again soon. It was hardly relaxing but it was certainly inspirational.

© Tina Bexson

Tai Chi Retreat



Tai Chi Retreat by Tina Bexson – Your Life Magazine

As the sun goes down in rural Hertfordshire, twenty people are wielding wooden sabres in an intricate non-contact sequence of jumping, stepping, hacking and cutting. It looks like some beautiful choreographed dance sequence with everyone in perfect unison, or may be it’s more like a crazed group of axe wielding maniacs trying to avoid the rabbit holes. I’m not sure, because I’m one of the wielders, but hopefully we look a little graceful as well as potentially martial. The weapons are then placed aside and we gather in a circle to end the session with the more calming movements of the ‘form’, while a cluster of on-looking monks sigh with relief.

We are on a Tai Chi retreat at the idyllic location of the All Saint’s Pastoral Centre in London Colney. During five days we will get the whole experience of this ancient Chinese martial art, health and exercise system: the history and philosophy, tai chi form, tai chi ruler, weaponry, chi kung, and the more sedentary study of meditation.

For me the retreat has been the piece de la resistance of taking Tai Chi lessons for the last ten months. I took the plunge into a more holistic form of activity partly because I wanted some balance to my usual antics of leaping around in an adrenaline fuelled manner whether at work or play. The calming effects have been uniquely surprising, but gradual and subtle, which leads me to believe they are genuine and long lasting.

The majority of my fellow Tai Chi people whose ages range from 27 to 77, have been at it for years and just watching these aficionados execute the Tai Chi form is an inspiration and revelation in itself. It includes moving backwards and sideways, twisting and turning, kicking and spinning, but all are achieved with a combination of fluidity, strength and grace.

The Chinese have practised special therapeutic exercises based on the observation of animals for centuries. During the Middle Ages they began mixing these with the techniques of kicking, punching and striking. In the 13th century the effect was further influenced by a Taoist monk, Chang San Feng who noticed the intricate side stepping and enfolding of a crane and the twisting and recoiling of a snake as they engaged in combat. When they added the medical knowledge of the energy structure of the body, the result became what is known as ‘Tai Chi Ch’uan’ (ch’uan can loosely be translated as ‘fighting). Since in more recent times there has been a renewed interest in the original principles of energy flow, today many people in the West are drawn to Tai Chi to explore its healing qualities. But Tai Chi is applied for both health and martial skills and both rely on the same energy pattern.

There are many different forms of Tai Chi, but we are practising the Cheng Man-ch’ing style of the Yang Short Form. Professor Cheng helped spread Tai Chi in the West during the last century by shortening the traditional ‘form’ into an eight minute sequence of 37 movements. Glyn Williams our charismatic teacher, who began practising in 1981, primarily recommends this style for its beneficial effects on all round health which include improved posture, blood and lymph fluid circulation, strengthening of bones, and the alleviation of conditions such as eczema, asthma, and arthritis. the movements are done softly and slowly, as though moving in water.

Tai Chi is an ‘internal’ martial art so we are minimising the amount of muscular effort and maximising the use of the mind to release ‘Chi’ (energy) via the body’s meridians. “The gradual building up of energy will release endorphins, relieve stress and so have a calming effect on the mind as well as your body”, explains Glyn. we don’t engage in full-contact Tai Chi, though Glyn is willing to show the martial applications for those interested. It is also useful to be aware when practicing the form that everyone of the movements has a martial application no matter how subtle this may appear.

This process of internalising the physical movements will only occur over time and with a lot of practise and patience. The retreat is a great way to get a kick-start on the practise front, but it helps enormously if you are relatively relaxed first. So at 6:30 every morning we gather in the tranquil Tower Room with our cushions and blankets for a two hour session of meditation and stretching exercises. Whilst listening to Glyn’s soft dulcet tones occasionally punctuated by sporadic bouts of snoring (only from the men), most of us are able to relax. Not finding meditation comes naturally, I usually fail miserably and start dreaming of doing the sabre or wait for the mid morning sessions of Chi Kung which I find much more conducive to relaxation. These are either gentle moving exercises with the feet firmly on the ground or standing and holding various postures for ten or fifteen minutes. The tai chi ruler or wand is sometimes used too. This is a sculptured wooden object used in slow rotational exercises that synchronise breath with movement.

The benefits of Chi Kung include the increased circulation of energy and it is especially powerful for self-healing. The standing generates a soaring feeling of heat in my blood, whilst simultaneously calming my mind. I have no desire to analyse or de-mystify the effects, only to be still and silent. My subsequent reactions are less self-conscious and more instinctual, and this is the time I want to start practising Tai Chi.

Wading through an eclectic pile of videos to absorb the various attributes of Tai Chi masters’ gives us a chance to rest our well worked bodies, and bloated stomachs after an enormous NUTRICIOUS lunch, but not for long. We are then asked to do the ‘form’ holding an image, which emphasises a specific aspect of what we have seen. This is surprisingly effective. Their softness is calming, while the passion and intent of the more martially inclined masters’ is contagious. It helps to imagine an opponent as you execute the moves, and this is one thing I have no trouble with. I also like the idea that the internalisation of physical responses will only come gradually, almost as though you are slowly training the subconscious.

Glyn is at hand to illustrate exactly which part of our imaginary opponent’s body each strike, punch, kick and push would be aimed at for those of us curious about the martial side. He is an expert at not only answering any question, but also answering any question with a demonstration if he thinks it’s necessary to show how something could work in practice, as some of us find out when he pushes us across the room with a powerful force that feels impossibly gentle. This shows us how much more effective you can be when you relax and sink. I get the impression it would take me more than a few decades to replicate.

The penetrative effects of Glyn’s favourite mantra: ‘only think when you have to, the rest of the time enjoy yourself’, are most noticeable when we all have a weapon in our hands, especially when someone suggests we imagine chopping heads off. In addition to the chopping, cutting and hacking movements of the sabre, we are instructed in the use of striking, blocking and poking with the staff, and slicing with the sword. There’s something uniquely satisfying about wielding one around in the open air, though our teacher is keen to point out that we must be relaxed to absorb the weight and project our chi through to its tip. He also says that our sense of balance and how we are as people will affect how efficiently we wield the weapons about.

The practice of push hands is central to the martial aspect of Tai Chi. This is based on the harmony of Yin and Yang, the two complementary forces of yielding and pushing. It’s performed with a partner and the aim is to neutralise your opponent’s use of force before applying a countering force of your own.
As with the form your overall goal is to be powerful without being hard or tense, and it makes you only too aware of your flaws in trying to be so. The general principles of give and take transcend into your everyday life too. “With Tai chi you become more sensitive so you learn more about your interactions with other people,” says Glyn. “You begin to see how your personal Yin and Yang balances in your work and your private life as well as in push hands.”

Despite the early starts the energetic atmosphere sustains us until the end of each day which is usually at 10:30pm, though the fanatics sometimes continue well into the night. Thankfully none are of the deadly serious ‘sandals and beards brigade’. A few are more than partial to a drop of whiskey as the grand master Cheng Man-ch’ing was himself. And on the last night the high spirits whether alcohol induced or of the more organic kind, enhance the hilarity as we watch those dramatic fighting scenes from the classic Bruce Lee movies.

If like me you are a relative beginner you can’t fail to be motivated by the wealth of experience on a retreat. As Glyn reminds us, concentrated practising in a large group means your own energy is amplified, and information is more easily retained since you are learning in beautiful peaceful surroundings without the distractions of home and work.

But it was the opportunity to live ‘Tai Chi way’, of living each moment as it comes, that most people cherished, including Lindsey Robertson, an IT customer services manager from London. “You can still live your daily working life in a Tai chi way too, but if you have no practise of doing that in the right surroundings then it is harder to do. Now I know that if I relax and visualise doing a Tai Chi form, I can stand on crowded tube when it stops in the tunnel in the sweltering heat and not get angry and upset.”

I can’t say I’m as tuned into living the Tai Chi way quite yet, but give me another year or so. In the meantime, I hope I continue to be less likely to ignite at the drop of a hat, appreciate the sustaining effects of gradual energy build up rather than the usual adrenaline rush, and fall asleep to images of past and present Tai chi masters competing for space inside my dreams.

© Tina Bexson

UK Tai Chi Association on 0141 810 3482 / http://www.taichiunion.com

Glyn Williams teaches classes for both beginners and advanced students at the City Literary Institute in London (0207 831 7831). He also takes private lessons. For information contact Glyn on 07956 318794.

The Tai Chi retreats are organised by Red Dragon Retreats. For information on the next retreat contact Stephanie Hayman on 01304 362 563 or email sa.hayman@virgin.net