Using Movement-Based Expressive Art Therapy with Brain Injury Survivors- Sophia Ali

Sophia Ali


Movement-based Expressive Arts Therapy Facilitator

Expressive Self-Care

“The entire repertoire of our life experiences can be accessed and activated from the body in movement…every part and function of the body can also be understood as metaphors for the expression of our being.” -Daria Halprin

Being in the process, I feel the power of movement-based expressive art therapy. The words, the images, the non-judgmental process leading me into the world of imagination, enlighten my inner soul, pulling me out to reach for my resources and incorporate movement, drawing, writing and/or music to feed my soul. One of the most important lessons I have learned from my training in movement-based expressive art therapy is that in our creativity lies passion and hope, that uses individual’s senses and awareness to support and creatively process the inner and outer world. My personal life story towards self-care is a live example of change and transformation I experienced. Trusting the process has taught me so much about my emotions, myself and my life, building resources to address life’s challenges and grow closer to live artfully.

Working as an intern for two months with Adults with Traumatic Brain Injury at Schurig Center for Brain Injury Recovery, California, USA, I got an insight of the present moment. I felt inspired each day interacting with the clients. For most of them, their life after brain injury is to learn to re-engage themselves in new ways. In brief, traumatic brain injury (TBI) is caused by an external blow, penetration or jolt to the brain. Common causes of TBI are falls, car accidents, assaults, gunshot wounds, and sports-related impacts. The Schurig center offers an array of post-acute rehabilitative and supportive services for survivors of brain injuries and their families. The program runs for four days a week, a range of therapeutic classes and modalities are used in large and small group formats to support cognitive, social, psychological and physical well-being, including life skills, expressive arts, brain health and wellness, support groups, therapeutic gardening, adaptive yoga, and mindfulness.

For this project client’s meet thrice a week for 1-hour expressive art therapy group session. My intention is to promote a sense of grounding, strength, safety, and hope. The flow of the session followed the approach of movement-based expressive art therapy utilising different art forms to support clients to connect to themselves and to invite their emotions to be felt and expressed in a healthy and contained way. A session combines one or more of the following: drawing, movement, and writing. Each session begins with breath-focused, sensory-awareness movement exercise followed by a drawing exploration using the reflective question to enter into the state of imagination. At the end of the exploration, the client’s give a title from the voice of the drawing and share their experiences with one another.

I work with them using the Tamalpa Life/Art Process, originated by the American dancer Anna Halprin and her daughter Daria Halprin, a master in the field of expressive art therapy. This intermodal approach is based on a view of the body and movement. The body holds our entire life experience. It is through the body that we explore the relationship between the physical, emotional and mental levels of experience and expression. This work introduces an approach that enlivens dialogue between body and imagination, and life experiences and art making.

At the centre, the way I approach emotions is to work with “Life/Art questions”, a way to bring focus to life themes, patterns and possibilities for change. I pose reflective questions to provide clients with a creative space to reflect on themes in challenging and inspiring ways. In a group setting, my intention is to create a safe environment for the people and invite them to feel safe. This builds the foundation for deeper therapy work. Through breath focused meditation, moments of pausing, visualisation, movement connected with physical, emotional and mental level of awareness to arrive into space and reduce tension in the nervous system. The movement helps the client to connect to their emotions and creatively work with what is present in that moment supported by the container of the art. Using different art mediums enables the clients to expand their wings of imagination and dive deeper into the process of exploration. Each medium speaks with a particular resonance to our physical, emotional and mental levels of being. Movement engages the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic senses, and resonates deeply with body sensations and feelings. Drawing after movement exploration helps the client to engage visual sense, and resonates with body, emotions, and mind. Writing involves the auditory and visual senses connecting imagination, memory and thought to describe with words from an experience. The medium of movement, drawing, and dialogue serve one another in many creative ways by embracing personal life stories.

Working with this intermodal approach gave me an insight into the language of the self that speaks in the images of movement, drawing, and writing. To work with brain injury survivors, I focused on subtle movement keeping the physical condition of each client in my mind and working with emotions using facial expression as a gateway to enter one’s emotion. The body parts I propose to work with the clients, for example, the movement works with ribcage and spine. The emotions can be worked out by working with various life themes, for instance, I worked with the theme of ribcage as taking in and letting out, the theme of spine as carrying on my back and leaving behind. This encourages a powerful metaphoric interplay between the actual and imaginal worlds.

Jenny (name changed), a woman in her forties, participated in the group sessions I facilitated. After a few rapport-building sessions, I propose to work on the spine body part. The movement exploration was about extending and collapsing of the spine and bringing the awareness of physical body, felt sensations and present mental state of mind as a medium of working through. Having completed her drawing, she sought my support to writing down her thoughts. She reported that she felt grateful to talk about the guilt she was holding back for several years. The process helped her to recognise the forgotten feelings and supported her to express it into words.

By distancing themselves from their life situations and getting involved in art-making with their personal material, clients can engage in a deep healing process. Exploring life themes through movement, drawing, and writing, many of the clients reported that they felt motivated and powerful sharing deep connected challenges they are currently facing. The power of expressive arts made them discover their own artistic creations and experience art as a light of hope that shines their path.

I want to extend my deepest appreciation to the Schurig Center for Brain Injury Recovery staff and team, who have trusted and supported me to bring my knowledge and ideas into the sessions.

In closing, I offer my self-reflection poem,

Entering the space,

Meeting new face,

My lips automatically welcome the smile,

I hear my name all the time,

In different forms and shape,

I feel valued, welcomed, grateful,

To enter the place,

The place that gave me insight,

An insight of being present,

Present for myself and others,

Nothing is permanent,

Nothing is certain,

Anything can happen,

Tomorrow is uncertain.


Halprin Daria, The Expressive Body in Life, Art and Therapy. Working with Movement, Metaphors and Meaning, Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 2003.

“Brain Injury Information Handbook.” Schurig Center for Brain Injury Recovery, Retrieved from

Sophia Ali, Tamalpa graduate in Movement-Based Expressive Arts Therapy from Tamalpa Institute (California, USA). An MA in Clinical Psychology from Amity University (Noida, India) and certification in creative movement therapy from Creative Movement Therapy Association of India (Bangalore, India).

Her thesis work on “Dance Therapy as a Treatment Modality for Autistic Children in Social Interaction” was selected and published in the International Journal of Indian Psychology. She has worked with brain injury survivors at “Schurig Center for brain injury and recovery”, California, USA. She has also worked with children with learning difficulties, ADHD, social difficulties and other additional needs. She has also worked with organisations such as Roar Wellness Rehabilitation Centre, Fortis Escorts Heart Institute, Asha Hai- Inclusive School, Pallavanjali – Inclusive School, Donate An hour- Doar NGO, The Shri Ram Early Years, Amity International School, Aman Biradri (Dil Se Campaign) and Mind Track Psychiatry Centre.

Currently she is working on building awareness towards expressive self-care. Her journey started by witnessing her own process and feeling the power of healing and transformation that this work carries. She started sharing and offering her creative writing, art making, movement reflection, intentionally on different social media platforms, keeping physical, emotional and mental awareness in mind.

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