Today we’re excited to launch our six-part video series shining a critical spotlight on Asian mental health. You can check out our first video below, which features movement coach Dharshana ‘Dharshi’ Ponnampalam.
Dharshi’s work in the mental health space challenges us to reconsider what ‘therapy’ looks like, where it happens, and who does it. Her dance therapy sessions and workshops – typically frequented by women from South Asian communities – offer the benefits of dance while doubling as a safe space for students to form friendships and find community. For many, these kinds of spaces arguably offer a more holistic and accessible alternative to the therapy room.
In this interview with Asian Mental Health project lead Mehwish Mughal, Dharshi discusses her philosophy, dreams, hopes for change and tips for self-care.
How did you arrive in the mental health space?
Like many of us, I was raised in an environment where emotions were rarely, if ever, discussed openly. There were many lessons taught explicitly, but also many implicitly: about what is okay and not okay, safe and unsafe, what is likely to lead to approval in the world and what is not. You then add factors like generational trauma, adverse childhood events, ‘natural’ temperaments and so forth – things often not in our control – and that further complicates our inner world.
I guess a part of me grew aware of this and curious. I noticed patterns – thoughts, emotions, reactions, triggers, and behaviours – in myself and others that I didn’t understand fully and wanted to know more. I felt like, surely this amount of suffering wasn’t necessary … so what is actually going on?
My curiosity took me in to various spaces; initially, into psychology at university, then counselling, and now into somatic practices and mindfulness. The more I experience and learn, the more I realise I still need to learn and how incredibly big the gap between knowledge and application is. Once I started to notice shifts in myself, somewhere along the way I started wanting to at least begin to share the little I know and help play some part in reducing another’s suffering – but not because I ‘have all the answers’, far from it. I just believe that bridging that gap and having others on the same path makes it less daunting.
I’m aware of the benefits of movement, including dance. However, those benefits are often described in scientific ways and focus on benefits to individuals rather than communities – for instance, I’ve read a lot about how exercise strengthens the immune system, alleviates stress, is helpful in the formation of neural connections, etc. You move beyond this to reflect on spiritual wellbeing and mind-body connections. Tell us a bit more about this.
Exercise and dance have always been a big part of my life. When I was about six, I convinced some friends that we should perform for a school show, and we would meet at my home and practice. I was so content. I guess that little girl is still there and it’s all she ever wants to do.
Since I was little, I’ve struggled to sit still, and this didn’t change until probably three-to-five years ago when I first tried the traditional idea of ‘meditation’. Sitting still, cushions around, dimmed lights and all, it felt so impossible – my thoughts were anywhere but ‘here’, and I was aching to move. In fact, for this reason and a plethora of others, I was prescribed ADHD medication.
My relationship with movement started crossing over into mental health and spirituality for me when I realised that dance was my meditation. The sound of feet hitting the ground, the music. I could focus on my breath while dancing. I started to understand the concept of controlled attention. I realised in a way I was meditating when I was dancing. Through my teenage years and my 20s, much of the information I had come across on the body and the mind treated them as somewhat separate things with the occasional sidenote about how they could influence each other. Nowadays there is much more established research on mind-body connections.
Learning more about mental health and the healing power of somatic practices in recent years led me to start my dance sessions. They are my way of connecting mental wellbeing to body-related practices. So far, the classes have acted as pilots and the intention is to continue tweaking and improving them with each set of sessions as I add to my own learning.
I was fortunate to have the chance to talk to one of your dance workshop attendees. They described the experience as wholesome; the focus was on reflection as well as movement.
I have many stories to share! I remember one girl was really shy when she joined my class. Initially, she did not want to move her body in certain ways or be in any videos or photos. She would always stand at the back. After just a few sessions, she started to open up to taking part in videos and photos and became more comfortable with some of the movements that she avoided.
Another was dealing with a lot of relationship issues and so for her, the dance class offered an escape, a place to reconnect and clear her thoughts. One girl, she had recently moved to Aotearoa and was finding it very hard to connect with people. She was able to make friendships in the dance room. To me, this is what I love about dance, and why I do what I do.
You have embraced mindfulness as a concept. I myself am a bit cautious in using the term because of how carelessly it is often used, but I understand that your philosophy on it is different?
I don’t mind the word mindfulness, except that with any new ‘hype’ in this world of information and misinformation, it’s hard to know how one intends or interprets these words. I have found the techniques and concepts involved in mindfulness immensely useful in my life and wish to share them regardless of the terminology. It is great to have abundant research supporting it and a term that people recognise.
However, how this is shared and the intentions for it are important; we should be mindful of the context in which it is being shared. If people have trauma, for example, we need to be mindful of one’s capacity to be in that mental space and actually feel safe, and also that we are not trying to give them rose-tinted glasses or encourage them to use these techniques to ‘be okay’ with things that are not. It is a shame that this has been the case in some spaces and, consequently, has made people justifiably sceptical of facilitators/practitioners and the practice itself.
You have also done quite a bit of work with survivors of family violence. Could you tell us about your work? What have you learnt?
As one would expect, a lot of the pain people experience in these situations is created through (dis)connection. However, I would argue that for many this experience began in childhood and even well before they were born – I believe that the trauma stemming from the systemic issues and oppressive structures which their ancestors, especially mothers, lived through gets passed down in various ways, psychologically and physiologically. The family environments and societies they were born into then also have an additional impact.
In my mind, this explains the trends around survivors returning to unsafe situations and how long it takes to heal on deeper levels. It isn’t as simple as taking them out of that one unsafe space; it requires putting together all the building blocks of safety and helping them unlearn layers of ‘lessons’ that no longer serve them and learn new ones at their pace. The community was and is important in this process: since much of our pain often relates to disconnection and loss of safety, much of our healing will also be in building safe connections and restoring a sense of community.
What do you think needs to change so that we can support our communities better?
I think support is seeing what the barriers are and removing them, not simply labelling the barriers or the people. If people feel support isn’t accessible, we should be asking, “Why is that? What do they need? What does ‘access’ look like to them? What does ‘support’ look like through their lens?
Accessible programmes and spaces run by and for members of our communities are useful – for some whose pain has been caused by members of the same community, they may (at least temporarily) feel safer seeking support in other spaces and that’s okay too.
On a grassroots level, I think it’s important for people to not feel alone in these experiences, so explicit and open support among members of our communities is important. I wouldn’t necessarily ask people to ‘come out and share’ their experiences with mental health if they don’t feel safe to do so, that takes trust and bravery. But we can all start by creating spaces where people can feel safe to be honest and vulnerable. This could start at a dinner table, in social groups, in church groups, wherever it feels appropriate.
Your work, while rewarding, must also be very draining. How do you take care of yourself? What tips would your share with others in this space?
One of the biggest lessons in my journey has been that self-care is a day-to-day thing. It’s all the small, seemingly mundane and often invisible things that help prevent that degree of overwhelm…and allow us to bounce back if and when we do reach that stage. My self-care includes exercise, dancing, being mindful about what I read/listen to/eat/drink, and who I spend time with. It also involves scheduling things, meditating, sleeping, getting sunshine and being in nature, journalling, managing my self-talk, etc. It’s a lot of small intentional habits. But I want to note that I have had many privileges that have given me access to knowledge, money, and time to cultivate my self-care. This is the result of over a decade of learning and self-reflection. One reason I do this work is to use that knowledge and experience to simplify the process for others.
If someone is just starting out, I recommend first checking: is the ‘self-care’ you want actually motivated by society or others? Are you using it as a temporary escape to avoid changing or confronting a situation that is hurting you, or to temporarily escape from difficult emotions? What does this work mean for you?
Checking-in allows you to change course if you don’t like your answer – I feel the word ‘self-care’ is often used to refer to temporary fixes and that’s not how I interpret or use the word. For me, personally, self-care is cultivating the best relationship I can with myself and everything that goes into that cultivation. I think a good self-care routine, therefore, is personalised, practical, realistic, and, importantly, flexible.
I think a good place to start is to reflect on what we want to achieve and how we want to feel, then look at what you are already doing and, firstly, celebrate that. Then ask yourself: do I need something new, or just more/less of this? Then, what is one more activity I can add this week that will have the biggest impact on my wellbeing? Starting small and keeping it simple generally increases the odds that we are able to follow through and stick it out.
If you had to summarise your work and its importance, what would you want readers to know?
I think in the absolute depths of pain, it’s easy to feel or believe that no one hurts like us, that we are broken and need fixing, and maybe someone else has all the answers. I want people to know they are not alone, and they are not broken. My work is about creating spaces that exude the values of compassion, connection, and creativity – where people feel safe to be open and vulnerable, cared for, and free to play and have fun. I want wom*n to leave with a feeling of being supported and less alone in their experiences, and to feel more confident to look inward or face the world.