Movement is Healing

Four months after brother died, I had a six-pack. Not the beverage kind, the abdominal kind.

My dad and my brother both had died that year I turned 40. It was a year of heavy things. In addition to the crash course in death, I was running my own business and caring for three intense children. I was trying to show up for my husband, to be a friend to my friends, and also grapple with my own mortality.

I did what every reasonable, middle-aged, working professional and mother of three would do in this situation: joined the circus.

My specialty was aerial arts: sling, split panel silks, and some flying trapeze. Aerial is equal parts yoga, dance, acrobatics, and brute strength. Such movement is healing.

Finding a Good Fit

Aerial was a casual hobby that I started about two years before my dad died. When I moved to Minneapolis, I needed to take up an indoor sport because it turns out that I didn’t love the experience of running in two-degree weather.

I ended up at an aerial yoga class. I’m a yoga teacher and I’ve been doing yoga for many years, so I thought, “Hey, this is a new take on something I already love. Sounds fantastic.” I started practicing regularly, and I realized that it’s a good fit for my body type and for how my brain works.

I went a little deeper and did a teacher training program. I went to Texas and did another teacher training program in how to use aerial to support kids on the autism spectrum or who have ADHD.

It wasn’t until my dad died that I felt like I needed aerial. I felt an urgency—like I needed to move and spin and lift and train in order to survive. I needed it like I needed to breathe. Some days I trained for three hours a day: lifting weights in the morning, training with an aerial instructor, and then maybe practicing on my own for another hour. I sprinkled my weeks with traditional yoga and running to balance out my exercise routine.

Movement Can Counter Grief

I can’t express how grateful I am that aerial was in my life during the season of death and grief. In the midst of emotional heaviness, I needed something light and playful. I needed something that would take my mind off of loss. I needed to literally fly around in the sky to keep myself from being fully immersed in the sad, heavy coldness of death. Coping was possible because I had some thing in my life that provided a counterbalance to all of the emotional weight that I was carrying.

The time of grief may seem like a strange time to join the circus. But it is also the perfect time. It was so much more than a hobby—it was a healing practice and hands down the most important protector of my mental health during the years of intense grief.

When I am moving as an aerialist, I am using a different set of neurological skills, different cells, then I use when I’m working as a psychologist or when I’m writing or speaking. I’m thinking about spatial reasoning, about physics, about how not to fall. My body’s innate proprioception is activated.

Build New Brain Connections

It is so, so good for all of our brains to diversify and built new neuronal connections. Activities like dancing, that require us to memorize steps or to watch a motion and then practice that motion, build our kinesthetic intelligence which is a part of us somewhat stunted in most of our sedentary adult lives. Movement is one of the best protections against the cognitive decline that’s commonly associated with aging.

And now I’ve come to know that movement is one of the most powerful healing tools.

We need a diversified brain if one set of circuitry within our brains gets fatigued or the connections between the neurons start to fray, or if we are flooded with the imbalanced neurological activation commonly associated with trauma and grief. Having a lifelong hobby or even a series of different kinds of hobbies is helpful in cultivating a robust brain that is able to stay healthy and strong while also digesting the tremendous weight of loss.

Movement is Healing

And play. I can’t overstate the psychological necessity of play, especially when you’re in the midst of grief. Aerial is the one place where I have a break from sadness. There’s no emotional complexity. There are no triggers. It is a different experience, a different existence, a true break from the tasks and challenges in grief life.

Aerial is also a deep study in the reality that nothings stays the same. When I am learning a new trick on the sling, I feel myself growing. I feel myself changing. I watch it, try it, practice it five times. Get feedback from a teacher. If it’s a simple trick, in the course of 10-15 minutes, I’ve accomplished it. Woohoo! Get to check that off my list. That’s a great little dopamine rush for a brain that is in the midst of a years-long slog of active grief. The dopamine hits are few and far between in my land-based life and my brain is thirsty for simple accomplishments and a feedback loop of success.

It will take me years to learn how to live through Christmas without my dad and brother. But I can learn a new trapeze trick in a weekend.

Visit Shelly Walling’s website: Sherry Walling, PhD

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Sherry Walling

Dr. Sherry Walling helps high achieving people navigate painful and complex experiences. She is a clinical psychologist, podcaster, author, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate. Her book, Touching Two Worlds (Sounds True, 2022) is part memoir, part reflection on her years as a trauma psychologist. Dr. Walling explores grief in the aftermath of losing her father to cancer and brother to suicide. Her Tedx talk, Why a Grieving Psychologist Joined the Circus, advocates for the role of expressive movement in working through grief. Dr. Walling is an expert in trauma, stress and burnout and her research has been published in academic journals such as the Journal of Traumatic Stress. Dr. Walling is graduate of the University of California, Davis and Fuller School of Psychology. She has a PhD in clinical psychology and master’s degrees in both psychology and theology. She completed research fellowships at Yale University School of Medicine and the National Center for PTSD in Boston. She’s held teaching appointments 5 academic institutions including the University of California, San Francisco, and Boston University School of Medicine. Sherry and her husband, Rob, reside in Minneapolis with their children. She teaches yoga classes, loves to paddleboard, and has been known to occasionally perform as a circus aerialist.

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