Wellness guide around the neighborhood

By Kathy Henderson

It’s March, and according to media reports, this is the time when New Year’s resolutions earnestly made to improve fitness and mental health start flagging.

The good news is the Bugle’s circulation territory of St. Anthony Park, Como Park, Falcon Heights and Lauderdale teams with ways to improve one’s health and well-being, They’re enjoyable ways you may already be doing or could be easily incorporate into your life. What’s more, they are all backed by science-and research.

One disclaimer: The Bugle’s wellness guide is for general interest and does not provide medical advice. Individual reactions, be it to song, nature or art, may vary. What may generally prove positive to improving health and well-being is not necessarily universal.

Community Sing

Colorful Nordic sweaters and heavy L.L. Bean parkas were the fashion statement on a rare frigid January evening as around 75 people filled the seats in the community room at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church for the monthly community sing, led by popular singer/songwriter Ann Reed and well-known Twin Cities pianist Dan Chouinard.

Fueled by coffee and cookies, the singers were having fun. Smiles were exchanged, bodies bounced in their seats, shoulders rhythmically shifted, hands clapped and boots stomped to songs reflecting the season.

What most people probably didn’t realize is that along with having fun, being part of a community sing was contributing to their physical health and emotional well-being.

“I don’t know the physical and psychological stuff, but I do know how I feel,” Reed said. “Even if I am having a bad day, once I start singing, it makes me feel better.”

Chouinard also acknowledged his personal experience of community singing and well-being.

“I see the way people are when singing together and how I experience it,” he said. “People pay attention to one another when they sing together. … They are open-­hearted and joyful. When I play around people, that’s the happiest thing I get to do as a musician.” he added.

To get the low-down on the health and well-being benefits from community singing, there’s no better local source than Jenzie Silverman, an instructor at the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing and a member of the Medical Musician Initiative Board.

Silverman enumerated several health benefits from singing:

“First, singing (or any kind of active music-making) stimulates the entire brain, and is associated with positive changes in brain activity and, as a result, in the body.

“Secondly, when you have these positive changes occurring in a group of people making music together, their brain activity actually syncs up or entrains — so, with all music-makers’ brains working in harmony like that, the positive effects of music are multiplied.

“Related to that, making music with others leads to an uptick in oxytocin production, also known as the “love and trust” hormone, since it is released anytime we feel a meaningful positive connection with others. That accounts for the feeling of bonding we have when we sing with others.

“Additionally, when a group sings songs that are important to everyone participating (e.g. folk songs, patriotic songs, religious hymns, Christmas carols, Beatles songs), the sense of collective identity that results adds to the sense of bonding and belonging.

“And of course, singing songs you enjoy in community with others is an excellent antidote to loneliness, since it promotes a sense of belonging and enjoyment.

“So overall, singing in community has profound positive effects on our bodies, minds, spirits and social relationships.”

If you want to be part of the monthly Community Sing, but are unable to get to St. Matthew’s at 7 p.m. on the third Monday of the month (March 18), you can still sing along with the crowd or catch up later via Reed’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/@54areed/streams.

When their monthly songs are determined, Chouinard posts the lyrics on his website at danchouinard.com/calendar.

Recharge with nature

Whether looking to Western scientific knowledge, Indigenous environment and cultural knowledge or a collaborative blend (two-eyed seeing), few will dispute that being in nature, as well as viewing nature, benefits one’s physical, emotional and even spiritual health and well-being.

The long list of attributes includes: physical activity, kinship land connection, a sense of awe, sensory experiences, healthy aging, socialization and engaging with community, increased life satisfaction, decreased stress, anger and fear, and reduced blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension.

When it comes to connecting with nature, Bugle land is known for its tree-lined streets, garden enthusiasts and proximity to the landscaped grounds and gardens of the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus. There are also various local parks, from Como Park with its zoo and conservatory to Lauderdale’s Skyview Park.

Further, this area has some unique nature connections not found elsewhere in the city. They include the U’s agricultural fields, the Bell Museum’s dioramas and Gibbs Farm with its farmstead, heritage apple orchard, restored tall-grass prairie and Dakota medi­cine garden and crop area.

Another unique but often overlooked connection to nature can be found on the U’s St. Paul campus in the College of Biological Sciences Conservatory and Botanical Collection.

Open to the public weekdays only since late last fall, this conservatory is tucked inside the Plant Growth Facilities West Building, 1534 Gortner Ave. Look for the large green wall sculpture, Synthesis by Jodi Reeb, and the welcome signboard by the entrance door.

It is a compact space with winding pathways through four rooms, each reflecting distinctive, unique and rare plants from specific geographic floristic regions with high plant biodiversity.

“Each room is called a biome with different temperature, light and water,” curator Jared Rubinstein explained.

As one follows the path from one biome to another, it’s an experience of Antarctic Forest (New Zealand, Tasmania, and Chile); New Caledonia (the warm, humid, tropical South Pacific island); Mediterranean Scrubland of the Western Cape region of South Africa and the southwestern corner of Australia (definitely not the Mediterranean of vacation cruise lines); and Diverse Desserts, which, Rubinstein said, contains the largest collection of Somali plants collected under glass in the region. Look closely in this section to find plants that could be easily mistaken for rocks!

Although the Conservatory is a teaching resource, the signage in each biome is self-explanatory so you don’t have to be in the company of a professor to learn which biome each room represents and the names of the plants located there.

As the Conservatory’s biomes in January contained flowering plants, towering greenery, assorted cactus, natural light, fragrant scents, and benches for seating, Rubinstein was asked if he thought people could seek out the Conservatory as a recharge room. Following an enthusiastic yes reply, he immediately added with a laugh that he really didn’t know the official definition of what architecturally makes up a recharge room. (Basically, a multi-sensory, nature-filled, immersive environment that reduces stress and anxiety and builds resilience.)

Do not expect this learning environment to replicate the Como Park Conservatory. Students may be watering the plants in the morning, so pathways and benches could be wet. There is very limited metered parking along Gortner Avenue and the Gortner Avenue Parking Ramp is three blocks away.

Abundant art benefits

Just as Bugle readers may benefit from living in an area with so many opportunities to connect with nature, they’ve also hit a potential home run when it comes to art, some of it even connecting art with nature.

For example, art and nature come together at the Bell Museum beyond the dioramas, as the exhibit “Moments of Memory: Minnesota Landscapes Painted from Life” continues through May 26. Meanwhile the U’s “Introduction to Drawing” students escaped their West Bank classrooms to sketch at the U’s Conservatory in January and the Bell Museum in February.

The Art Loft at boreal Gifts and Goods, 2276 Como Ave., features different artists each month. Its March artists are Kathy Daniels and Mark Hakomaki.

In her artist statement Daniels says she draws “what I know and love, trees or more precisely, parts of the tree — leaves, the bark (especially the bark), the root system as well as the over story, and the ever expansive tree environment.”

Hakomaki’s cows and sheep that boldly look out at you from their canvas pastures are a delight, but don’t let them deter you from exploring his works of flowers, landscapes and urban scenes.

The Lawson Art Gallery in the U’s St. Paul Student Center hosts assorted artists in solo or team shows throughout the year. The gallery attendant said that each March the Student Unions & Activities’ Art and Culture team puts out a call to artists to apply to have their work displayed at any of the U’s three gallery spaces during the next school year. March 8 is the deadline for 2024-25.

Attending a community sing at St. Matthew’s? Don’t overlook the artwork lining the walls in the community room there.

Head outdoors to view the Creative Enterprise Zone’s dramatic murals that can be found on various building in south St. Anthony Park. A CEZ mural map and artist statements are available online at https://www.creativeenterprisezone.org.

And don’t be surprised if readers already have June 1 marked as opening day for the popular St. Anthony Park Arts Festival. Artist application deadline is March 1.

Registration filled fast for adult watercolor art classes that were launched in February at the St. Anthony Park Library, with more classes scheduled for March.

Students in Luther Seminary’s Mindful Sketching Club combine art and faith each week. “The club started in the fall of 2022, after I gave a presentation to our Luther Seminary community about the role of art in our spiritual life,” said Steve Thomason, associate professor of Spiritual Formation and Discipleship.

“Our practice is simple,” he explained. “We read a scripture (usually the Psalm from the daily lectionary) and then sit in silence for 15 to 20 minutes to draw. We spend the last few minutes sharing our drawings and experience of the process for any who want to share.”

Thomason also has a YouTube video that provides easy-to-follow instructions for anyone interested in trying the various sketching techniques that the students may be using https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0PYp8w4Vjw.

Healing impacts

The science studies related to engagement with art — creating and viewing — abound with evidence of its healing assets. A small sample includes pleasure-related responses and overall positivity, aesthetic appreciation, wonder, awe, happiness, optimism, contentment, relaxation, distraction, social bonding and preservation of culture and personal identity,

Studies also report that art can open one up to new viewpoints, challenge current thinking, confront fears, raise awareness, unite people and causes, and stimulate problem-solving and insight.

Physically, researchers say, art can positively affect breathing, heart rate, brainwaves, posture and muscle tension. Another off-quoted 2016 study by researchers at Drexel University, Philadelphia, champions that spending 45 minutes creating art — no matter the skill level, no matter the art materials used — can reduce stress-related hormones.

However, positivity isn’t guaranteed. Art, presented in any medium, can also be tricky because it’s so individualized and feelings are so complex.

Respecting personal preferences and interpretations, Lawson Art Gallery posts “Welcome Patrons. The exhibition can contain images that may cause strong reactions.” 

Kathy Henderson lives in St. Paul and is a Bugle freelance writer.

Photo Credit: Jared Rubinstein, curator of University of Minnesota Conservatory & Botanical Garden. Photo by Kathy Henderson.

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