Lately, single mother Santy Gray has been enjoying mini dance parties with her five-year-old son first thing in the morning. This is a new practice for them—Gray said she used to feel annoyed that he needed to dance at 7 a.m. before getting dressed and ready for the day.
However, her perspective shifted after attending a class last month hosted by the newly opened Chico Body-Wise Collective. The event, part of the Art of Play series, encouraged attendees to express themselves through creative movement exercises—mimicking animals, objects in the room and natural elements, for example—all followed by reflective discussion and journaling.
Gray said the experience “opened up another avenue or way for me to process how I feel.”
“I can check in with my body,” she continued. “There’s a deeper understanding with what your body is trying to communicate, and if your body doesn’t feel safe or seen—or maybe too seen in certain environments—you can listen to your body and protect yourself based on that.”
She has since applied this to daily life with her son.
“After this workshop, I was like, ‘You should absolutely be breakdancing,’” she said. “We wake up, we move our bodies. … It just feels so good.”
The Art of Play series, which continues this month, is just one of the collective’s offerings (see info at the bottom of this feature), which include one-on-one sessions, group gatherings and community events focused on subjects such as mindfulness, meditation, bodywork (e.g., massage, acupressure therapy), community building and art.
Chico Body-Wise founders Brae Onnah Sisk, Emma Schutz Fort and Christine Mascareñas are aiming to provide a safe space for self-reflection and -expression through somatic movement activities, which place an emphasis on helping individuals learn how to be aware of their body sensations and what they are feeling.
Mascareñas said that somatic practices create a connection to discernment and intuition, “which is really what guides us in healing ourselves” and overcoming toxic patterns.
Self-exploration can certainly be painful, but it can also be playful and joyful, Sisk added. All of Chico Body-Wise’s offerings are focused on integrative embodiment work that acknowledges and explores the intimate connection between the body and mind.
At the collective’s grand opening in late January, attendees were invited to share their thoughts on the organization’s location (1430 Esplanade, Ste. 17A). They wrote words and phrases on a white board such as the joy den; sanctuary; refuge; retreat; the halls of healing.
For the founders, this was wonderful to behold. They put a lot of care into creating a “confidential space where people can show up, let down their guard and try new things,” Schutz Fort said; a space where “people feel at home” and connect with one another, Sisk added.
Sisk, a biologist and certified massage therapist, has been dreaming of forming such a collective since at least 2016, but experienced road blocks in finding an ideal location and collaborators who shared her vision. Then, in 2021, Sisk and Schutz Fort, longtime friends, discussed their shared drive to do this kind of work in the community. At the time, Schutz Fort, who has a master’s in psychology, was working as a school counselor and had a desire to become an independent practitioner.
Similarly, Mascareñas, a licensed social worker, had been working in the public sector and wanted to move to private practice—she met Sisk and Schutz Fort through her brother, and the trio felt a kinship instantly, Mascareñas said.
“We got really honest and open,” she said. “That’s been our journey; it’s been really synergistic, with a lot of care … a lot of love.”
Since opening, the collective has launched several recurring events and featured classes at various price levels, including some free or donation-based and sliding-scale price points (see info at the bottom of this feature). Each of them also offers individual sessions based on their specific specialties.
Every Thursday, Schutz Fort hosts a Mindfulness Sampler Class, sharing tools for grounding, connecting with the senses, nervous system support, and body awareness. During a recent class, she asked attendees to shake their arms and bounce. This is one way to ease the nervous system and release tension and stress, she said.
Sisk, in addition to co-facilitating the Art of Play Series with Schutz Fort, also offers Vital Chi Movement Meditation on Tuesdays. These classes combine the five-element theory of classical Chinese Medicine, somatic movement education and moving meditation practices based in qigong (an ancient Chinese healing art involving meditation, controlled breathing, and movement exercises).
Mascareñas’ offerings include tarot readings and individual sessions focused on intuition and embodiment. Later this year she plans to offer a Moon Circle class for women focused on reflective conversation and releasing shame and self-doubt; and Sensual Movement class that supports self-esteem and combats harmful objectification of women’s bodies.
Witnessing as healing
The group is working to gain nonprofit status for Chico Body-Wise and apply for grant funding to expand their offerings into more rural areas of the county. The founders also spoke of launching an equity fund to subsidize or cover costs for low-income individuals and members of marginalized communities (e.g., LGBTQ and BIPOC). They are interested in partnering with other local organizations offering different perspectives on ways of connecting with the land, one another and what is needed to be well, Sisk said.
In everything that they do, witnessing and listening to people expressing themselves, their feelings and what they have been through is a core value of Chico Body-Wise, the founders said. The community is still experiencing “extreme isolation” in the wake of the pandemic and several natural disasters, Mascareñas said. “People want to be witnessed, seen [and] understood,” she said. “They really can thrive with safe witnessing.”
Schutz Fort added that society can be oppressive and a significant contributor to the human struggle, especially for marginalized groups. Chico Body-Wise’s goal is to validate those experiences and the toll it takes on mental health.
“We don’t say we have all the answers,” she said. “[We ask], What’s your own internal wisdom?”
Chico Body-Wise’s community building groups, such as the Community Council talking and listening circle (held every other Thursday, 7-9 p.m.) and Trans Adjacent Group (held every other Wednesday, 5:30-6:30 p.m. beginning March 8), aim to create a safe space for people to talk about their lives and experiences.
These gatherings help people rebuild a sense of belonging, Sisk said. There isn’t a good template for grieving within western, white supremacist culture, she said, and many feelings are considered “taboo” or “off-limits.” But grief needs to be witnessed—even grief that arises from positive changes.
“It’s these subtleties in the complexity of human experience we’re trying to make room for,” Sisk said. “This is about filling a gap, interrupting the cycles of disconnection.”
What Chico Body-Wise is offering, Gray said, is “really exciting for Chico,” and she’s looking forward to attending more classes.
“[With the] Camp Fire, COVID [and] the murder of George Floyd, we’ve seen bodies go through things for years, and it can feel like we are at the whim of environmental factors or the human condition,” she said, “and to reclaim some of that is body wise.”
Chico Body-Wise Collective
1430 Esplanade, Suite 17A
March 7, 7-9 p.m.: Community Council talking/listening circle (held every other Tues.)
March 12, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.: Community Clinic with mini sessions, $25-$40
March 18, 1-4 p.m., Art of Play Series: “The Poetic Body: Playing in the Human Wilderness,” 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., $50 (sliding scale), held at Yoga Center of Chico (250 Vallombrosa Ave., Ste. 150)
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