Work your body and mind to heal your heart

It was always my grandfather's habit to retreat each afternoon to a long wooden bench he had placed among a thicket of lilac bushes, stretch out, and lie there for at least an hour. He suffered periodically from "nerves," a phrase Latvians use to cover such things as depression, all manner of phobias, and erratic behavior.

I think Grandfather couldn't handle stress, and to maintain equilibrium he found looking up at the sky and resting his eyes on the green grass or leaves highly beneficial. He would inevitably slip into a kind of trance or meditative state, which seemed to restore his body and therefore also his mind.

This prescription to look at the blue sky and green grass whenever anyone was tormented by "bad" thoughts (despair or depression) was also passed down to me. Since my husband Dave died three months ago, I have done my share of staring at Nevada's blue skies and suspending my mind on the greenness of grass. Poets, including Dave, often use green as a metaphor for everything vibrant and alive. So I think about the green ache of my heart, the dew-like freshness of pain. I contemplate Dave's death as if it were the sky itself imploding my blood, the enormity of its blueness pressing against the walls of my veins. Though the words express pain, their actual effect is its displacement.

Dave would have made a good Latvian since he, too, loved and used his body to work through both physical and psychic pain. Every morning at sunrise, as if it were a chant, he would announce, "What a beautiful day," no matter if it was cloudy, grey, and bleak or sunny and green. Sometimes he would sit on the rug in front of the fireplace and chant "Om" and tell me the vibration of the sound made his throat feel physically better. (He had had severe radiation burns on the base of his tongue). Dave also regularly strengthened his abdominal muscles by sitting with his legs raised at a 30 degree angle while he scissored his arms straight in front of his chest. He could seemingly sit in this position forever.

On occasion, he would call his friend and mentor in Oklahoma with whom he had studied bioenergetics (working with the body to relieve the anguish of the mind) years ago, asking Frank to suggest additional exercises that would free his body of tensions and rigidities. The idea is that chronic muscular tensions restrict breathing, limit movement, and reduce a person's effectiveness in dealing with life. These tensions (or body armor) exist because we have suppressed our feelings. Once we can feel, the theory goes, we can start to heal.

I, like Dave, have found physical and psychic well being in exercise. For 21 years I have regularly attended Jerry Vance's Sweat Shop fitness classes at the Carson City Community Center. When Jerry puts on the music "Rhubarb Pie" or "For the Last Time," I enter my own "Om" state. Without thought, I find myself looking in the floor length mirror facing the class. We need our mirrored images for balance, I think, and what I focus on is the area around my navel. Yes, one could say there is an element of navel gazing involved in exercise because physical activity directs us inward to the very center of our being. The gut is where "Om" originates and it is miraculous how the mind contemplates while the body knows on its own what to do and when to do it in order to stay in step with the music.

My body "melts," so to speak, when I exercise and this melting is the equivalent of crying - which is, psychologists say, especially beneficial for healing when struggling with grief. So, I guess I have been doing double duty lately, melting and weeping simultaneously.

There are other benefits to exercise, too. My mother (a physical education teacher) often pointed out that physical activity improved academic performance and vice versa. Students who knew their right from left, who could move in rhythm, maintain their balance and were coordinated were also better students than those who couldn't.

When Mother studied the body and its fitness more than 70 years ago in Latvia, almost all her exercise classes were held outdoors. The only class that was an exception was the one called "plastiques" (fundamentals of ballet), which required a pianist's accompaniment. Otherwise, everyone stood in formation on a grassy field where they breathed deeply the fragrant air and smelled the pungent earth. Their eyes drank in the blue sky, and their bones were cushioned by forgiving earth.

This is the way both Dave and I loved being in the world: our physical and spiritual selves in harmony with earth and sky. To live like this is to feel the oceans of the world rising within one's heart.

• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College.


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