On a warm Wednesday afternoon, in the shade of an old oak tree, the sound of percussion can be heard across the hilltop in Washington Park. Lillie Williams, an African dance instructor with 20 years of experience, sits patiently with drummer William Whitten on a nearby bench as members of her class arrive from Chihamba.
Chihamba, which means “a time of healing,” is a West African dance company with classes that have been a popular offering of the Charlottesville Women’s Initiative for the past five years. After months of virtual classes, Lillie can’t wait to return to teaching in person, hoping that classes can continue in Washington Park throughout the summer.
The Women’s Initiative, an organization that provides counseling, social support and education programs to all women in the Charlottesville community, also offers specific programs to marginalized groups. The organization offers initiatives such as LGBTQ affirmation programs and programs for women of color. The Sister Circle is an offer for the mind and body for black women and women of color, and this is the program in which Chihamba is offered.
The organization takes a holistic approach to healing with an emphasis on mental and physical health. In addition to one-on-one counseling, they offer social activities including a knitting circle and fitness classes such as yoga and chihamba.
As a Registered Therapist with the Women’s Initiative and co-coordinator of The Sister Circle, Shelly Wood understands the importance of physical and mental health. She is also a member of Chihamba and participates in Sister Circle programs.
“It helped me a lot,” says Shelly. “It’s one of the things I look forward to on Wednesday nights. Even when I’m tired I know when I leave I feel better when I leave.
Many equate movement and exercise with weight loss and fitness, but movement also has mental health benefits. The increase in endorphins caused by physical activity decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety. Additionally, activities that increase heart rate stimulate neurohormones such as norepinephrine which improve the body’s ability to respond to stress. Cardiovascular exercise creates new brain cells, improves brain performance, and helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, which results in quality sleep, studies show.
“I think people think mental health is separate from physical health and that everything is actually related,” says Shelly. “When we move our body, we release all of these good hormones and it improves our mood. It has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression and help people cope better with stress. All of these things are related. ”
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