'Kelas Tidur' is now wide awake: How sound and movement facilitate mental healing

'Kelas Tidur' is now wide awake: How sound and movement facilitate mental healing

How do science and the arts cross boundaries for the greater good? We talk to the co-founders of The Healing Art Project to find out more.

By Tan David

For Dr Kamal Sabran and Hilyati Ramli, lecturers in the School of the Arts of Universiti Sains
Malaysia (USM), it started with a simple question: what can they, as artists, do to help the
community around them? The answer led to them co-founding The Healing Art Project
(THAP)—a cross-collaborative research project utilising art forms as a tool for healing—with a
few other researchers from the school.

Currently ongoing as a series of virtual sessions, each THAP session comprises Dr Kamal and other musicians creating a live soundscape with electronic and traditional musical instruments while Hilyati guides participants through movements and breathing exercises. This heady combination of sound and motion creates a soothing and potentially healing effect on participants.

Creating live soundscapes with electronic and traditional musical instruments.

The project started life as Kelas Tidur, in which Dr Kamal and Hilyati, against convention, invited their students to literally take a nap as Dr Kamal played a curated soundscape to aid a better state of relaxation. ‘From our own observations and interviews, mental stress is one of the major health issues facing our students and students from other faculties. From there, we devised the project as an experimental artform to try to tackle this problem,’ said Hilyati.

The ‘classes’ were so well-received that subsequent classes attracted students from other faculties and even the public. Dr Kamal added, ‘It was never our intention to get funding or widespread attention… However, we saw the potential for this project to grow into something bigger and more structured to reach out and help more students.’

Dr Kamal Sabran in action during a recent session.

Armed with positive feedback and data collected from the sessions, the project was presented to USM’s management for a small grant to further research the link between arts and healing. ‘The school, seeing how positively impactful the classes were for the students, approved a grant and supported the project wholeheartedly,’ said Dr Kamal. With the grant, the project was restructured for more credence and sustainability, and there is now a full team of manager, performers, and crew that coordinate and conduct every session. More importantly for Dr Kamal, the project is now capable of adopting a more scientific and systematic approach to research the links between movement, sound, and mental health.

Overcoming scepticism

‘When this project started, there was a lot of scepticism about what we do as we were deemed to be not “science-y”,’ said Dr Kamal. ‘I was even called a “bomoh” because of the project’s perceived quirkiness and unconventional nature!’ However, with extensive support from the university, including the science faculties and a research team led by Dr Ismail Lasa from the Institute for Public Health, the project team now carries out in-depth study, interviews, and surveys to gather more detailed and specific data on the effects of the sessions on the participants and their stress levels. Indeed, a research paper and publication are currently in the works to present their findings about the efficacy of arts as healing. Beyond that, Dr Kamal also mentioned the possibility of sharing this trove of data with other researchers to facilitate further development into the study of mental health.

Hilyati Ramli guiding participants through movements and breathing exercises.

Initial scepticism was not the only obstacle the pioneer project has had to contend with. Hilyati was faced with a different set of challenges regarding movement, ‘How do I find the link between different sets of bodily movements and their effect on mental stress as such data is currently very limited?’ The only way forward was by gathering detailed feedback from each session’s participants and adjusting the movement module accordingly. For instance, in initial sessions, the movement section consisted of improv movements followed by breathing exercises. However, after the team studied participant responses, the current module focuses almost entirely on breathing and channelling energy via movements repurposed from other practices such as yoga.

Arts as intervention

For the project’s conceiver, The Healing Art Project has almost limitless possibilities. ‘This is art as intervention, and it is not something new. Our traditional arts have always been focused on healing rather than as pure entertainment,’ explained Dr Kamal. According to Dr A. S. Hardy Safii, one of the researchers involved in the project, music, movement, and mantras are significant elements that are present in traditional healing performances such as main puteri (also known as Main Teri) and kuda kepang; these rituals have been observed to stimulate the production of healing hormones such as dopamine and serotonin within the participants.

In a sense, THAP is a re-adaption of the ancient culture of performances in the region such as Mak Yong and Main Teri, where movements serve primarily as a conduit for mental energy and healing. Dr Kamal’s research over the years has led him to discover that Asian musical instruments were designed and built with healing as a focus too. ‘Our traditional musical instruments such as gambus and pi pa produce healing sound vibrations that sooth listeners and bring them to a state of calm,’ he added.

Dr Kamal and Mhd Sany combine modern electronic music with traditional Malay instruments such as the rebab to design a healing soundscape for listeners

By combining the healing aspects of various art forms, Dr Kamal envisions its application going beyond mental stress. THAP has garnered attention from NGOs interested to adopt and redesign the program for the elderly with mental issues such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, indicating the project’s long-term sustainability due to its purposeful nature and efficacy. Over 90 percent of participants recorded a positive effect physical or mentally—a working testament of how the arts, with the right mindset and support, can be a tool to benefit and assist the society in which they exist.

The Healing Art Project is currently ongoing until 28 November via live streaming. Check out https://www.facebook.com/arthealthusm for more info and the streaming schedule.

Watch our Sesi Seni video for an up-close conversation with the team behind the project.

All photos courtesy of The Healing Art Project and Buddha Beat.

Tan David is a Penang-based festival programmer and head of Teh Beng Club (TBC).