How Dance, Gestalt and Idiographic Research Contribute to Critical Health Psychology

By Natalia Braun

Illustration used with permission: Karina Braun, Autumn Brush

Truth is in the eye of the beholder .

Ruth Hubbard.

Earlier this year, there was a paper published about the research that explored the influence of dance on embodied self-awareness and well-being (Braun & Kotera, 2021). The findings of this study provided evidence for dance as a booster of health, the way for coping with and prevention of stress, depression and loneliness, and enabler of individual and community transformations. This study was conducted applying the qualitative research method of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). Often, research methods remain in the shadow when reporting about research. In this blog, I would like to shed more light on IPA that is a particularly useful method in exploring individual embodied experience with health and its impairment, and is rooted in idiography, phenomenology and hermeneutics (Smith et al., 2009).

This philosophical background is highly important for understanding the subjective lived experience and contributes to disadvantaged people especially with health issues being heard instead of being lost behind the wall of generalization and randomized controlled trials (RCT). This often happens in research of so-called evidence-based therapies that, apart from being often conducted by people far from the clinical world, excludes patients with comorbidities and thus studies patients who actually do not exist in clinical reality (McWilliams, 2013; Shedler, 2018).

Philosophy is at the heart of psychology and key to understanding human being. Let’s take a look at the philosophical background of IPA. Idiography (from Greek idios private, separate and grafein to write) concerns with the study of individuals and of the particular. It differs from the mainstream nomothetic research in psychology aimed at generalization (Braun & Kotera, 2021). Idiography is reflected in qualitative research in social sciences, and one of its examples is a case study that allows an in-depth immersion into the personal lived experience of the phenomenon.

Phenomenology (from Greek phainomenon and logos, study of something that is happening) is concerned with exploration of subjective lived experience from the perspective of the person who went through this experience (Braun & Kotera, 2021). It studies non-judgmentally the embodied being in the world. It reflects the Sartrean and Gestaltist “staying with nothingness to enter fullness” of a specific experience (Braun, 2019). Our perspective matters, and what is present for us has as rich a meaning as what is missing.

With this searching for meaning making we enter the realm of hermeneutics, which deals with interpretation of the lived experience. Researcher’s meaning making of the research participant’s meaning making is also called double hermeneutics (Braun & Kotera, 2021). My own self-awareness as a researcher is very important in distinguishing what is in the world of the research participant from what could rather be my own lens as a researcher. Reflexivity is a very important factor in this kind of research.

Who we are influences what we focus on and how we see people and phenomena. Cultivating high levels of self-awareness is particularly important in this light: a researcher who routinely engages in a reflective practice will better distinguish their lens from the lens of the research participant. In therapeutic terms, it could be linked to countertransference, when therapist transfers their reactions or feelings to their patient’s reactions. In the view of Gestalt therapy, it is impossible to be a tabula rasa as we bring who we are into the relation with others, and both transference and countertransference could work for the patient and the relational healing process by bringing them into the awareness and dialogue. Often, this awareness arouses initially subconsciously and manifests itself first in the body and its sensations. Nurturing interoceptive awareness, the awareness of one’s internal bodily sensations, is therefore critical, and it is a never-ending and very exciting process.

One way to do this is engaging in meaningful psychotherapy, at least as a patient or client. By meaningful, a kind of psychotherapy is meant that is a healing relationship and not manualized psychotherapy (McWilliams, 2011). As Polster wrote (1973), therapy is too important to be applied only to those who are considered as ill. Researchers who are also trained therapists could particularly benefit from the sharpened skills of increased self-awareness and how their selves influence their research participants and data interpretation.

The other way to develop researcher’s embodied self-awareness is engaging in relational embodiment practices such as dance. Research mentioned above showed that dance increases embodied self-awareness (Braun & Kotera, 2021).

That could be seen as an invitation to the researchers to dance and to engage in its close relative, meaningful psychotherapy. These practices along with idiographic and hermeneutic phenomenological research enhance critical thinking rather than taking for granted any judgment, generalizing or searching for a universal truth that, like the patient without psychological comorbidities, actually does not exist.

About the Author

Natalia Braun, MSc, has spent over a decade in the corporate jungles and organizational psychology prior to transitioning into clinical work. She has a Master’s in psychology, MPhil and BA in humanities, and pursued training in Gestalt and expressive arts therapies and relational psychoanalysis. Natalia is multilingual and works with individuals from all over the world in her private practice in Switzerland. She is engaged in critical psychology and research projects around the topics of mental health. Natalia is a published researcher, a longstanding journalist and member of multiple professional associations. She has been a passionate dance practitioner since over 20 years, particularly in Cuban salsa, Afro-Cuban and African dances, Rueda de Casino, etc., and these embodiment practices inform and enrich her therapeutic practice. Along with dance, she has been engaged in other performing arts like drama, playing piano and guitar or writing poems.


Braun, N. (2019). Staying with nothingness to enter fullness: leading transformation in the VUCA world. New Gestalt Voices, 4

Braun, N., & Kotera, Y. (2021). Influence of dance on embodied self-awareness and well-being: An interpretative phenomenological exploration. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health.

McWilliams, N. (2011, November 3). Psychological wellness: What has happened to our understanding of mental health? Villanova University. [Lecture recording].

McWilliams, N. (2013). Psychoanalysis and research: Some reflections and opinions. Psychoanalytic Review, 100(6), 919–945.

Polster, E., & Polster, M. (1973). Gestalt therapy integrated: Contours of theory and practice. Brunner/Mazel.

Shedler, J. (2018). Where is evidence for evidence-based therapy? Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 41(2), 319–329.

Smith, J. A., Flowers, P., & Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretative phenomenological analysis. Sage.

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