Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Storytelling With Hands

Natya Dhrami Foundation for Performing Arts. Copyright with Eswar Avidi.


Exploring Non-Western art forms–like Indian classical dance–can diversify our understanding of the cultural and spiritual roles that body parts can play in healing.

I wasn’t sure how to greet the patients. Handshakes had become health hazards during the pandemic, and a vocal introduction would have disrupted the tranquility in the room. I sat down in an open seat next to the hospital chaplain, waiting for her to begin the session. This was my first time attending the psychiatry floor’s spirituality group; the purpose of many psychiatry groups is to provide mental and physical skill-building techniques while establishing a sense of community in an inpatient setting. The spirituality group wasn’t an isolated treatment or intervention for the psychiatric patients, but it gave some patients an opportunity for peace, unity, and reflection, which are rarely encountered in the restless hospital environment. Unfortunately, providing patients with these opportunities seemed rather impossible today; masked and distanced, the patients had restricted means of exploring the mental and physical connections to improve their health.  


I met the hospital chaplain months ago at an event about the spiritual importance of the human hand. It was there that I shared with her that I was a Bharatanatyam dancer. Bharatanatyam, an ancient Indian classical form of dance, has a unique interpretation of the human body–it divides the human anatomy into “major limbs” and “minor limbs” based on what functions they serve in performance. The “major limbs” provide structure and movement, while the “minor limbs” express mood and aid in nonverbal communication. Only one part of the human body falls into both categories: the hands. The hands fulfill practical needs of dance, such as movement, but also share emotions through gestures.  


As a Bharatanatyam dancer, I use my hands to tell stories. By adopting different hand gestures, or “mudras,” I depict characters, environments, and emotions from mythological texts and songs and visually narrate them to audiences. Each mudra embodies a different meaning, and each hand position conveys an important posture for the dance. Therefore, in Bharatanatyam, the hands play an essential role in communicating with the audience. They deliver a story from a dancer to a viewer in a manner that requires neither contact nor verbalization.  


If contextualized within the theory of Bharatanatyam, the hands may be powerful tools that can provide patients with mental and physical stimulation. I tried to apply this perspective on hands in the psychiatry spirituality group. With guidance from the chaplain, I instructed the patients to join me in creating the Hakini mudra, a hand gesture used in Indian Classical Dance and yoga that symbolizes stillness and concentration. First, we placed our hands in front of our chests, with the palms facing each other. Then, we spread the fingers apart and gently joined each fingertip with its anatomical counterpart, creating a sphere in space. I watched as the patients closed their eyes and focused on balancing the pressure between each fingertip, stabilizing the mudra in the center of the body, all while breathing to establish focus.  


Five minutes went by. The community was engaged in one personal yet unifying task. Not a word was said. Five minutes of a structured, meditative technique that required nothing but one’s own hands. The very hands that were limited in their ability to extend in physical support of another during the pandemic. Those same hands now joined together to create support for oneself. 


Many forms of non-Western performing arts have centuries worth of theory about the human body, and this anatomical theory does not always align with Western medicine. But by exploring these art forms, we invite new perspectives into Western medicine, diversifying our understanding of the cultural, spiritual, and functional roles of various parts of our body. We develop new ideas to guide patients in Western clinical settings, while also acknowledging identities that Western medicine often fails to serve. Certainly, the risk of appropriation exists and this emphasizes the need for clinicians to directly research and participate in the non-Western arts so that any application in medicine is done carefully and with cultural humility. 




This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.