I lost my beautiful teenage son four years ago.
He was the love of my life, a magical soul and the most impressive human being I’ve ever come across.
Writing about my grief as a mother is not an easy task. I want to share my experience of grief, loss and especially how a practice of Pilates, among other things, has helped me navigate this thing some call a “journey,” but I call hell.
One of the multiple beautiful aspects of the Pilates method, and one of its core tenets, is the focus on the mind-body connection—something I discovered with the practice and something I continue to delve into now that I’m an instructor. This belief is not rooted in religion or spirituality (although one can, of course, bring spirituality to the practice) but rather rooted in the belief that the mind and the body cannot properly work disjointedly.
I had been familiar with this concept for many years but it truly became real for me the day my son died. The day when I experienced a complete and abrupt disconnection of my mind and my body.
For many months, I felt and lived as if my mind was a separate, floating, wandering entity, while my body was just an empty, fragmented, shattered shell following me around. It was a disturbing feeling that not only disconnected these two entities but also disconnected me from life and from being grounded, rooted, present, alive.
In addition to the mental pain, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and nightmares, to name a few of my emotional traumas, I also accumulated various physical ailments, from back surgeries to ulcers, as the pain had nowhere to go.
The pain was stuck in my body, and so was I.
The feeling of emptiness, of the ground being ripped up underneath me, became my daily life. Feeling lost and empty and looking for my son everywhere, searching for his voice and his face and his laugh, waking up, thinking I was seeing him, hearing him. “He was just here; this was just a nightmare and it will all be okay,” became part of my life.
But I think the most difficult daily moment for me was waking up and having this one-quarter of a second—which I came to both cherish and loathe, and anticipate with both hope and hellish fear—this one-quarter of a second when I woke up after three or four hours of nightly sleep.
That tiny moment when I thought, “Yes, of course, he is here, are you crazy? Of course, he is here. This is just a nightmare.”
So many thoughts can cross one’s mind in one-quarter of a second.
The worst is the quarter second that follows. When it all comes crashing back into your heart, soul and body. When you realize, again and again and again. I just screamed, howled and wanted to die. This was my life every day. Every time I woke up. Just to hold on to that quarter of a second. That minuscule moment when you think it’s okay.
One-quarter of a second. I stopped sleeping so as to not have to wake up anymore. And I stopped moving. I retreated. I rusted. I minimized. I disappeared. I stopped breathing.
Through this darkness, Pilates saved me. It mostly helped me reconnect: I have been able to progressively re-own my body and re-attach my mind to it, and vice-versa. I have been able to re-embody my own body. It also helped me to be mindful, be present, be open to growth, space and learning. And by creating space in my body, I felt I could create space in my mind. I’ve learned, and continue to learn, that everything should be integrated.
That movement is life. That proper breathing matters. That we are truly mind and body.
This is when I realized, subconsciously at first, that during the grieving journey, not enough emphasis is placed on healing the body. And while healing the mind is crucial, we should equally focus on the physical aspect of the shock.
This is why what Joseph Pilates said, “Change happens through movement and movement heals” started making complete sense to me. And that proper breathing—another tenet of Joseph’s—matters.
“Breathing is the first act of life and the last. Our very life depends on it. Since we cannot live without breathing, it is tragically deplorable to contemplate the millions and millions who have never learned to master the art of correct breathing.” ~ Joseph Pilates, in “Return to Life through Contrology,” 1945
I would like to try to be a bit more specific in what is particular to Pilates that I have found specifically helpful.
First, the apparatus gives a lot of physical feedback and helps you realize where the body is in space, whether it’s aligned or off-kilter. My go-to piece of equipment when I have an “off day” is the Reformer.
There is something extremely helpful and soothing to me in feeling that my body is “contained.” I love it when my shoulders are squared and pressed against the shoulder blocks, and I can feel my spine aligned on the carriage, my feet applying equal pressure on the foot bar, or in the springs. I feel that’s it at once reassuring and freeing. When my body is more aligned, I am freer in my movements and in my limbs.
Also, the physical cues, coupled with the imagery used in teaching the method, are not only complementary but they also directly relate to the mind-body concept. When an instructor applies fingers to a specific point of my body, I will know right away how to readjust my position. In the same vein, the imagery (one instructor used to say “You are a crocus in spring” when walking us through a specific exercise, an image that still makes me smile) helps make the physical connections.
I also had the immense gift of being part of a beautiful Pilates community, Jennifer DeLuca’s BodyTonic Gymnasium in Brooklyn, who embraced my pain and who, with compassion, patience, empathy and love, helped me feel that my mind and my body could be united again.
Just after my son’s death, Jen and BodyTonic raised funds in order for me to adopt a tree in his name in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, a park he loved. This tree has become an important part of my life.
“Keanu’s tree,” is a place where the people who love him gather. The tree is another gift I received from Pilates and the proof that this method and its worldwide community are putting in action Joseph’s words:
“The acquirement and enjoyment of physical well-being, mental calm and spiritual peace are priceless to their possessors.”
In order to heal the body, one should heal the mind too.
There is a French saying, “avoir des racines et des ailes,” which translates literally as “having roots and wings.” This is how Pilates makes me feel. And I hope that I, through Pilates, can help others going through the same journey.
Author: Yael Bizouati
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Sara Kärpänen