What art offers is space – a certain breathing room for the spirit.
~ John Updike
I have been collaborating with another therapist for the past number of weeks and providing art therapy groups for veterans living in supportive housing. One of these groups is a smoking cessation group (or smoking ‘sensation’ as one of our clients calls it!) The other therapist leads the first half of the group based on a psycho-educational curriculum that includes ice breakers, basic information, and coping strategies for trying to quit smoking and manage stress. During the second part of the group I lead the clients in an art therapy experiential that is designed to compliment and build on the theme that week.
This is the first opportunity I have had to directly collaborate with another therapist in group therapy and it is a wonderful experience. As an art therapist contractor I am used to working very independently – going to different locations and running the art therapy groups on my own. This is a unique learning experience and allows us to shape the groups in a way that speaks to clients on many different levels.
One of the core foundations of smoking cessation (or trying to modify any unhealthy habit) is finding alternative coping strategies and ways to manage stress and difficult emotions. Many of us instinctively reach for something when we are trying to escape difficult emotions. It might be a cigarette, cookie, glass of wine, or the tv remote. These habits become so ingrained that they are largely unconscious actions, designed to keep the difficult feelings at bay for a while longer. Much of our group focuses on alternative ways to channel these emotions productively – through things like art, movement, and mindfulness-building skills. With this in mind, my co-therapist asked a yoga teacher who specializes in teaching simple breathing techniques to come in and co-lead two groups.
The yoga teacher explained that there are simple ways to relax through mindful breathing and that she would share some of her favorite methods. She encouraged us to sit comfortably in our chairs and to close our eyes.
Before closing my eyes, I glanced around the circle of individuals. There was the yoga teacher, the other therapist, a peer specialist, and the clients – all veterans. I was looking forward to being a participant in this part of the group. At the same time I was very curious to see if the clients would be able to tolerate sitting still, focusing on breathing, and if any of them would comment on the incense, candles or soft New Age music playing in the background. I had my doubts but was cautiously optimistic. Sitting with the feelings and sensations that can arise during meditation, yoga, and breathing practices can be intense for any of us, and almost all of these veterans struggle with symptoms related to PTSD along with other mental health and substance abuse issues.
A few minutes into the guided breathing the room was completely quiet except for the soft music and the yoga teacher’s rhythmic voice. I felt my shoulders relax as my mind grew quieter. There was a palpable feeling in the room that felt very different from the usual energy there. Glancing around the circle again I noticed that many of the client’s faces looked younger and then realized that it was because everyone’s face was relaxed instead of tense and furrowed.
An entire hour passed as she led us through breathing techniques and gentle yoga stretches, but it seemed like no time had passed at all. A few of the veterans commented on how they could have kept sitting for another hour and just breathing. I was struck by how much we craved this breathing space. It can be especially hard to find this quiet space in such a big city and many of these veterans approach daily life from a survival mentality, which makes complete sense based on their long history of traumas. We spent a few minutes talking about ways to take a breathing space – no matter how short or long it was. The yoga teacher reminded us that a breathing space could be as simple as taking three conscious breaths before responding to a person or situation. Or it could be a more formal and slightly longer practice during the day.
Art Therapy ~ Mandala Breathing Space
For my part of this group, I asked everyone to transition to the art table as quietly as possible in order to maintain the quiet energy. I encouraged each person to try and stay aware of their breathing and pay particular attention to their in and out breaths as they painted. I then handed out thick watercolor paper to each person. On each piece of paper I had pre-drawn a circle in white crayon that was barely visible. I asked everyone to use the watercolor and fill in the entire page with washes of color and any other forms or imagery. As the group painted away, each person began to see an emerging circle, that stood out under the color washes, no matter how many layers of paint were added.
acrylic on paper ~ Sara Roizen
After a few minutes all of the group members were asking about the circle and seemed to be enjoying the process of painting while the circle (mandala) remained. I explained that since crayons were made of wax, they resisted the watercolor and therefore anything drawn with a crayon would repel the watercolor away from it.
After the crayon and watercolor mandalas were finished we spent time talking about the art process and relating it back to the yoga and breathing experience. The theme of carving a breathing space out came up again and was symbolized by the crayon drawing that emerged no matter how many layers of watercolor were added over it. Clients talked about ways to create healthy boundaries in life to protect some time each day for slowing down and going inwards rather than always reaching for outer distractions. The watercolor layers were paralleled to life’s layers and all of the daily experiences that can feel like a burden at times. We discussed that the key was to remember the breathing space circle even when life seemed too complicated, because the breathing space was always there to return to. I encouraged each veteran to display their art piece in a place that could serve as a daily reminder to create that time and space.
By pre-drawing the circle in white crayon I was providing the clients with a containing space to create within and around. At times I will have the client draw the circle themselves, but in this case I wanted to create the pre-existing breathing space for the group, much like the yoga teacher had set up the chairs in a circle before the group began and set the stage with candles, incense, and music. The idea is to help clients to gradually internalize the safe breathing space for themselves and this could be explored in a future session by having the group create their own contained shapes to paint within or create circles for one another.
Any time we work within circles the structure creates a kind of ‘breathing space’ and a wonderful visual metaphor for slowing down, going inwards, and centering for a while. I can envision working outside in the garden with the veterans and creating a mandala using natural elements such as rocks, leaves, and sticks. Another idea could be to create a semi-permanent mandala breathing space if the location/facility allowed for it where clients could go any time they needed to take a few quiet minutes. This could be outside or in the corner of a quieter room with less foot traffic.
To create a portable breathing space reminder, small surfaces such as artist trading cards (wallet-sized paper) could be created during group with circles and visual reminders to pause and breathe. The group could also create bracelets (which are of course wearable circles) as a daily reminder as well.
There will be more blog posts to follow that explore my collaboration and work with veterans. Stay tuned!
acrylic on canvas ~ Sara Roizen