KYOTO — With opera music playing in the background, around 30 middle-aged and elderly women perform a series of stretches led by instructor Mariko Takayasu.
“Exhale! Exhale completely,” she tells participants.
Takayasu, 44, a dance movement therapist, noted that most people do not breathe properly. “The movement of their bodies is not connected with their breathing.”
The adult education class on stretching is just one in a series of programs directed by Takayasu. She instructs people of all ages and also works at institutions for the mentally ill.
Acting in conjunction with a psychiatric doctor and a clinical psychiatrist, Takayasu takes a nonverbal approach to helping patients regain the balance required to live in normal social settings by listening to the “voices of their bodies” and engaging in “nonverbal dialogue.”
Takayasu said that an increasing number of people today suffer physical or mental damage because they fail to create a balance between mind and body and remain unable to understand the needs of their bodies.
“To protect yourself (from ruining your mental and physical health), you have to live by recognizing an axis in your body,” Takayasu said. “When the axis is stabilized, you can take on many challenges and can also manage your stress. Being able to listen to the voice of your body is the first step toward that end, and dance movement therapy helps you in the process.”
The therapy is defined as the psychotherapeutic use of movement and dance through which people can engage creatively in a process to further their emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration. It is based on the idea that body movement reflects an individual’s patterns of thinking and feeling.
While the therapy is quite new in Japan, it started in the 1940s in the United States and later spread to Europe.
Takayasu learned and practiced dance movement therapy in the U.S., where she lived for 11 years from age 16. Although she had not intended to become a dance movement therapist while majoring in psychology at Portland State University, a childhood experience laid the groundwork for an interest in the area.
Takayasu had an attack of infantile rheumatic fever when she was 6 and could not walk for about eight months. She vividly remembers the words of her doctor, who said, “Unless you sincerely think you want to walk, you cannot walk.”
This was the first time she became aware of the connection between mind and body.
Owing to her rehabilitation efforts, which included ice skating and dancing, she was able to walk and run again. She even finished first in an athletic event race at her elementary school when she was in the fifth grade.
Thinking that her individuality would be destroyed if she continued to attend a Japanese school, she transferred to an international school in Kobe in her third year of junior high school. She thought of studying psychology because she wanted to become a doctor who could understand the minds of patients, so she traveled to the U.S. at age 16.
While majoring in psychology at Portland State, she minored in dance — just because it would be easy to gain credits, she said. But she was soon attracted to dancing, and became interested in how the mind and body interact.
She conducted an experiment by pushing her body to its physical limits, dancing eight hours a day with only four hours of sleep for two years — only to find that this was hurting her body. The damage she sustained to a hip joint was so serious that her doctor said she would never be able to dance again.
“Rehabilitation was very hard,” Takayasu recalled. “I still suffer from pain and rheumatic fever when I work too hard.”
Although the damage may have been a setback to her as a dancer, it contributed to her becoming a highly skilled dance movement therapist who, through her own experiences, claims she can listen to the voice of not only her own body but also the voices of the bodies of others.
A series of therapy sessions with a Vietnam War veteran made her certain that nonverbal dialogue existed.
“While expressing something with words takes time, a body is more honest and straightforward,” she said.
In 1984, Takayasu returned to Japan, and after working as a producer and choreographer, set up her own company and started to work as a dance movement therapist and also teach students wanting to follow in her footsteps.
Of course, performing therapy in Japan required different skills. Takayasu said Japanese in general see themselves through the eyes of others.
“They are always concerned with how they are seen by others. Japanese society does not offer an environment that nurtures individuality.”
Takayasu is especially concerned about Japanese children. Although children instinctively love to dance and move their bodies freely, Japanese children become more rigid as they get older and their parents tell them to do the same as others, she said.
“Through dancing and moving their bodies, children learn various social skills to live flexibly, including how to keep an appropriate distance from others.
“For the healthy development of a child, it is also important that the father and mother have a good relationship. If the mother is satisfied with the relationship with her husband, she will not treat her child in a manner that only satisfies her own desires.”