The soothing sound of a gong echoed through the breeze as birds sang on a sunny Wednesday evening at a small park in the east side of Pilsen. Dozens lay on the ground, eyes closed and hearts open to a way of healing that many hadn’t heard of, or didn’t know how much it would change their lives.
“We held space for our emotions, heart, soul and those we have lost. We named what has been heavy in our bodies and took our time to be vulnerable and supported,” wrote Cristina Puzio, an energy healing practitioner and the meditation instructor of the sound healing sessions, which take place at El Paseo Community Garden every week.
“Can you name what’s stirring within your heart and soul? Or name what has been heavy within your body?” she asked after dedicating that session to the victims of the July 4 Highland Park shooting and their families. “Please take time to process your emotions, thoughts and feelings. Find a healthy way to cope with your individual emotions (and) grief and with the collective’s emotions (and) grief.”
Puzio began to create spaces to offer meditation and other types of energy healing to the people in her community — Latino families and youths of color — more than five years ago when she realized that few knew about the practices and their benefits. Meditation practitioners were not accessible, due to distance, cost and language barriers.
So she began to host meditation workshops and sessions at the park, inviting others to learn of the benefits that it had to offer and teaching them to use it as a way of therapy, asking only for a donation. Meditating is a way of coping with physical and emotional pain that helps to reflect on and process life situations, heal the soul, mind and body, she said.
During 2020, the circle grew significantly. The meditation sessions would gather more than 50 people not only from Pilsen but from all over the city. The pandemic highlighted that humanity is linked through suffering, Puzio said, so meditation, for many, became a way of survival.
After losing loved ones to the COVID-19 virus, Lizeth Garza, 32, said she turned to meditation to help her deal with the grief. For the past two years, she has taken part in the meditation circle.
“Women, femmes, those who are nonbinary or people of color who are being most impacted by things going on in our world need a space of healing that are in our community,” Garza said. “It’s critical for us to be grounded and connected to this earth and in a space where we can connect with each other and heal with one another.”
After realizing the need, Puzio began to connect with other spiritual leaders, practitioners and psychotherapists that have helped to establish a network of wellness leaders who speak Spanish to offer holistic care, energy healing and alternative medicine to the people in the area at affordable prices — sometimes for free.
The initiative has been solidified as part of the park’s programming, which includes weekly meditation and sound healing, yoga, and a complimentary sanación clinic that offers reiki, cupping, massages, smoke cleanse and cranial sacral healing on the first Tuesday of every month.
Puzio, now the wellness leader at the park, said that the work has been achieved by a group of practitioners and spiritual healers who have a genuine intention to preserve and care for the community by donating their time and services. Their purpose is to make these services accessible and available to the community, to raise awareness of the importance of their benefits for mental health.
“Meditation is an untapped way of healing that is often not considered in general health and wellness,” said Teresa Moreno, a resident of McKinley Park who attends Wednesday’s circles religiously.
These alternative forms of therapy and medicine have often been deemed inaccessible to communities of color because mental health is not typically prioritized, its practice takes time and is mostly costly, said Paula Acevedo, the co-director of El Paseo Community Garden since 2015.
Others, she said, didn’t think these practices make a difference in their mental and physical health. Reiki, a Japanese form of energy healing, is now being offered at Northwestern Medicine, Puzio added.
The practice is an energy treatment with a technique called palm healing, through which energy is said to be transferred through the palms or the practitioner to the patient. It helps to treat mood disorders — anxiety or depression — and insomnia and chronic pain, among other health issues.
Since Puzio began offering her services at the park, Acevedo vowed to support the efforts because they align with the park’s mission to strengthen environmental stewardship and civic engagement while protecting equitable green space on behalf of the community.
“Many people may have thought that they didn’t belong in a room where people meditate, or they may have felt intimated,” Paula said. “We want to create a safe space for everyone.”
When Eddie Galvan, 24, learned of the program, he decided to give it a go after experiencing a lot of stress, he said.
“I tried to do it at home, but it wasn’t working, I needed something different,” Galvan said.
To preserve and expand the services, Puzio and Acevedo want to seek funding to recruit more licensed practitioners and to continue offering all the services at a low cost. The group is also seeking to create a committee that can help lead the project in the next months and coming years.