Pilates

Pilates Helped Me Make Space for Grief—and Believe in My Strength Again—as a Young Widow

Photo: Getty Images/Javier Sanz

Rising Cairn is a popular image in the grief community. The 4,000-pound stone sculpture created by artist Celeste Roberge is a hollowed-out person filled with heavy stones. The figure is crouched over, as if in anguish. As if the weight they’re carrying brought them to their knees.

That’s what grief did to me the day I signed my 40-year-old husband’s hospice papers. After 20 months of trying to hold my family together while an aggressive brain cancer stole my husband’s mind and body, I walked into my home and sank to the floor, like the sculpture come to life.

I was now a single mother and young widow. Eventually, I got up and carried on. But my hips ached, a physical manifestation of my sorrow, and I didn’t stand quite as tall. The weight of grief was too heavy. It threatened to drag me back down.

When I returned to the Pilates studio after his death, my first moment lying on the reformer made me aware of how tight and uneven I felt in my back, shoulders, and hips.

This tightness and unevenness wasn’t a surprise. In my 10 years as a Pilates practitioner and my new role as a Pilates teacher-in-training, I was aware that we’re all tight and uneven somewhere—that’s just a consequence of living our lives. Still, I hadn’t even noticed the places where I was out of whack. Grief had disconnected me from my body. The first press out on the reformer for footwork brought awareness back to my physicality. The second helped me breathe into the places that had been trampled by the physical effects of grief.

Throughout the session, I focused on the placement of my pinky fingers, the connection between my spine and the reformer, the space between my shoulders and ears. In Pilates, precision is important, and focus is crucial. Paying close attention to the movements consumed my mental bandwidth. For the hour of my practice, I was forced into my body, the feel of my breath and muscles. The chance to entirely step away from the grief made it feel a little less heavy when it flooded back. That was a gift.

As I returned to the Pilates studio week after week, my grief continued to enter the studio beside me. Like the first time, it disappeared as my thoughts turned to my body. As the focus on my body became more natural, it became easier to feel where I was in space, an ability I’d lost, but needed for inversion exercises. I’d come to see that grief had made me feel unmoored, but on the mat or the reformer, I was able to once again feel where I was. It was grounding.

The more I practiced, the more I began to build strength, and my relationship with the word “strong” changed. Since my husband died, I’d cringed whenever I was described as “strong.” The person calling me “strong” either couldn’t see the truth, which made me feel invisible, or they didn’t want to, which felt like a dismissal. The word made me feel othered. Except in the Pilates studio. Strong was measurable. It was achievable with effort. It became easier to finish the series of five, to lower my legs to eye level during the hundred, to complete the mat and reformer repertoire (or at least as much as was appropriate for my body that day.) It was energizing to hear the word “strong” and believe it.

There was a moment a few months after I returned to the Pilates studio when someone commented that I looked taller. Thanks to the focus Pilates has on the small posture muscles, I probably was. But in that moment, I also realized I was no longer dragging something heavy beside me.

The grief wasn’t gone—grief never disappears—but Pilates had helped make space in my body for grief. Which sounds terrible. But grief needs to be integrated, and accepted, or else it becomes an anchor preventing you from moving forward, keeping you from rising up.

Recently, the Rising Cairn sculpture came across my social media feed. Instead of scrolling by this time, I read an interview with the artist, who supports the grief interpretation of her work, but sees it slightly differently. To her, it’s an ascent: “I imagine her in the process of rising up from her crouching position…when she is ready,” she said.

Thanks to the way Pilates supported me through my earliest grief, I can’t help but see that now, too.

Tags: Pilates

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