Liza Toft is a licensed art therapist and certified yoga teacher working in her home office in Brooklyn, NY.
What initially drew me to art therapy?
I went to art school first to be an Illustrator. My father is an artist and had been doing Illustration when I was younger to make a living. He was the one who taught me how to draw, which was a true blessing because I was almost failing out of school! When I was in high school I enrolled in a program that allowed me to study at Minneapolis College of Art and Design for half the day. This was a total lifesaver and allowed me to put together a portfolio, which got me into SVA in NYC for college. Not knowing a lot I went into illustration, I think this was from the encouragement of my parents because I needed to make a living when I got out. My second year of school a good friend of mine recognized that what I really needed was to explore myself through art and that year I switched over to fine art. It was a struggle to let go of years of formal training and relying on skill rather than something deep that I needed to express through imagery. As I began to let loose and find the inner symbolism that emerged from my body and psyche I found that there was a very deep healing and re-balancing that took place. Years after graduating from school, painting, waitressing to make a living, getting involved in meditation and entering into therapy, I realized that my draw towards making art was more about healing than selling my work and doing the whole art gallery thing. I really had little interest in that. I decided to combine my interests and go back to school at Pratt to study art therapy.
What populations do you/have you worked with?
My first internship was at Ittelson, which is a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children. My second internship was in substance abuse and after I graduated I stayed on as a paid employee and worked in substance abuse for about three years after graduation. I later went on to working with children in a trauma unit at Lutheran Medical Center. I stuck it out for another three years until I decided what I really wanted to do was be in private practice.
How did you get to where you are today?
With a lot of courage and a leap of faith (as well as great supervision from Arthur Robbins an amazing therapist) I gave up my part-time with benefits job at the hospital and went totally into self-employment. While I was at Pratt getting my Masters Degree I started studying yoga very seriously. When I graduated from Pratt I always had dual careers one as an Art Therapist and the other as a yoga teacher. I knew down deep that there was a way to combine these two modalities, however for the first few years I dedicated most of my time absorbing myself in the art of yoga. Most of the work I was doing was teaching yoga privately. My training as a therapist I think gave me something that other teachers didn't have which was a sensitivity to the psychological and psychic material that was very present in the room. Even though I was not directly doing therapy in a traditional sense it was the foundation in which I was "teaching" from.
Although this had its benefits I knew down deep that there was another element that I could bring to my work more directly that the non-verbal psychic material of the body. Although you could have some awareness through just doing yoga, I think that people often miss the connection. I have challenged myself in the last couple years to take it to the next level and offer in my private practice a form of treatment that uses art to express what the body is trying to communicate through injury, tension, numbness and imbalance.
How would you describe your style or approach as an art therapist?
My training as a yoga teacher and in particular the type of yoga I have studied has given me a deep sense of the psychic energy people are holding in their bodies. A lot of what I am doing as a therapist is reading that energy and using either yoga, art making or both to shift energy, to hopefully bring more insight into where the conflict is beginning from how it is being expressed in peoples bodies. I know that the word energy is a little abstract or obscure and what I mean by this is that physical presence carries similar attributes to how we would look at a drawing for example, where is this persons center? This can be seen through people’s postural stance or in the way one speaks or walks across a room. I need to first feel this in my own body and then that gives me the information on where to go in the session.
What are struggles or challenges have you had to overcome in your career?
My biggest challenge has been to have the confidence and courage to move forward with my vision of combing art therapy and yoga. I have struggled for years with doubt and insecurity about how this could work. I didn't want to make either modality watered down and am very turned off by a lot of the hybrid yoga and new age stuff that is out there. It was and has been important to me to honor the depth and wisdom that is in the yoga tradition as well as art therapy. I think it is difficult and also incredibly rewarding to have a career or trade that is also your deepest passion. There is more at risk! But I can't imagine doing anything different. I am learning and growing continuously.
How do you use yoga in your practice?
Really what I said above, it is difficult for me to talk about either one of my paths separately at this point in my life and career. Yoga has trained my eye as well as my body to be sensitive to what is going on for people underneath the surface. It has helped me to awaken the intelligence and wisdom of my body and to let go of some of my own blocks that have allowed me access to my own emotions. Sometimes yoga alone as we look at our habits and tendencies and shift towards creating more balance we feel the deeper benefits on a mental/emotional and even sometimes spiritual level. I still do work with people purely in just teaching yoga; however sometimes people want to understand a little bit more in order to make lasting shifts. We need to know what the underlying psychic material is. Making images gives it form and from there deeper exploration.
What keeps you going as an art therapist? And/or where do you find inspiration?
What keeps me going is making art, however I became a mom 4yrs ago and finding time for it all is challenging! My inspiration comes from my supervisor Art Robbins. I find that I start to get burned out when I am not aware of the transference and counter transference going on in sessions. I think supervision is key to staying inspired and not burned out. I have been involved with an Art's supervision group for almost 11 years.
Do you have any special self-care techniques?
Hands down my yoga and meditation practice! As well as acupuncture and any kind of bodywork I can get! I tend to be someone who moves into her head quickly and when I spend too much time up there I get drained and dried up. Art making also helps me and now that my son is a little older I see making more art in the future.
Is there any art therapist or someone in the mental health profession alive or dead that you would like to meet, speak with or pick their brain?
Daniel Siegel, he is not an art therapist but knows and writes a lot about creativity and the brain as well as the importance of bodywork for deep healing. I think he is amazing and was fortunate to present a few years ago where he was a keynote speaker. I did not get to meet him but have been reading his book Mindsight, which I think is fascinating and so important in the field of therapy or any healing profession.
If you could work with any population or anywhere on the planet for a week or two what would you do?
It is kind of heavy, but I would love to work with children (and adults) that have been directly affected by war. I think the potential of art therapy as well as yoga to help heal the trauma of war could be very profound.
If you are interested in connecting with Liza check out her website.*
*Her website will be back up and live within the week.
Originally posted February 24, 2013