Watch: Movement coach Dharshi Ponnampalam talks philosophy, dreams, hopes for change, and tips for self-care

Dharshi discusses her dance therapy sessions and workshops – typically frequented by women from South Asian communities – which offer the benefits of dance while doubling as a safe space for students to form friendships and find community.


Dharshi Ponnampalam: Connection and movement and community are really important, especially for people of collectivist cultures. I think we heal in community.

My name is Dharshana Ponnampalam and I was born in Sri Lanka.

At the moment I work with children and youth and I do phone and chat counseling. Outside of that, I’m doing some research on somatic practices that help with healing.

I also work with women in non-officially therapeutic context, mostly in dance and movement, which I personally find quite healing.

People kind of go between these two notions of, like, culture, culture, culture. It’s really important this is ‘no, no, let’s not mention culture’ because I don’t want them to feel like they’re different.

But neither of those things actually help you work with the individual that’s in front of you because sometimes their culture does have a significant impact on what they’re saying and sometimes it doesn’t.

And can you hold space for just that human being’s experience, you know, either way? Stigma in our communities definitely exists.

If I think about people I know in my own family who struggled with mental health, who are in Sri Lanka, I mean, it would just it would worsen their mental health for other people to know.

I also think that people want to feel better, and people find other ways. And often I think that other way is friendships and connections and safe spaces.

The reason they don’t get help is because they don’t feel safe getting help. But if there are other safe spaces where they feel like they can allow themselves to heal and allow themselves to be vulnerable without being judged, they’ll do that.

Some people find that in the context of a temple or a church. Some people find that in a hobby or in a book club. So I think there’s lots of different ways to heal.

Also with that they don’t have the experience of making a booking with the therapists. They don’t have the experience of looking up a therapist online.

Age and when they migrated, how familiar they are with the New Zealand context, who their connections are, how much connection they have already within the New Zealand context. I think those things matter.

Then you add, like, a language barrier and a cultural barrier, so it’s not just stigma that stops people from getting access, you know, then you add the prices and all of that.

It’s a lot more complicated, I think, in reality, than just stigma.

One of the things that has been really healing for me personally has been dance and exercise. For me, it helps with things like overthinking. It gets you out of your mind and into your body.

I’ve done work with women who’ve experienced family violence or domestic violence in the past, and I have women in my personal lives who’ve experienced domestic violence and family violence.

Often when we talk about domestic violence, we imagine physical abuse and it’s actually not that simple. Like, it can be emotional abuse and financial abuse, so it doesn’t have to be about the body. And I think whether it be emotional abuse or physical abuse, it’s affecting both: it’s affecting the mind and the body.

In therapy, we focus on working with just the mind and I think dance is a form that heals the body, and they have an effect on each other.

I’d like to create a safe space for women who’ve experienced domestic violence to have space in a safe community where they can feel free in their bodies and, you know, allow that to have an effect on their minds as well. We need more compassionate, safe spaces to heal.

I also think healing needs to bring in the body, especially in people from collectivist cultures that healing happens in connection, healing happens in community. And that healing might look differently to what happens in the therapy room.

But I think that’s necessary. Healing doesn’t just happen in one mode.

In an ideal world, it’s safe to ask for help.

There are people like myself working to create communities where they can feel safe and look for us, to look for safety, reach out, and hopefully the systems will also change.

We can do our best to keep pushing for those changes.