Yoga and Grief
Anyone who has experienced a significant loss knows that one’s body and mind are profoundly affected by it. The normal and natural reaction of grieving simply happens. And it is painful. The pain can be physical, with aching head, neck, chest, and back being common symtoms. The pain can be emotional, such as anger, despondency, sadness, fear, and confusion. Some common reactions are hard to categorize, like the low energy, apathy, difficulty eating and sleeping, difficulty with focus and memory, and numbing fatigue. The body is sent into a stress response, which can make one more vulnerable to becoming ill. As is true in the face of any pain, we frequently contract around it, creating areas of tension in the body that become more painful, or simply numb. Or we organize around the pain. Either way, the pain of grief can easily become the center of our lives at least for a time.
In addition, grief triggers old loss, so we may find ourselves grieving for more than one loss. And all of this occurs in a cultural surround that does not give much permission or safe space for grieving. While it is helpful, important even, to eat well, exercise, get adequate sleep, nurture oneself, and receive understanding, non-judgmental support, that can be easier said than done. Yoga and meditation can be very helpful in this welter of confusion and pain. Yoga is a mind/body/spirit practice, so it is uniquely positioned to help on all those levels. The physical practice (asana), breathing practice, meditation, and spiritual understandings of yoga cannot make grieving go away, but they can help us change our relationship to our grief.
The physical practice of asana invites the practitioner to focus inwardly, noticing body sensations, thoughts, images, and feelings. Keeping attention focused on the experience of the pose helps students see that they focus instead of being at the mercy of their thoughts and feelings. Asana practice helps the student find and release areas of tension, the tension of grief held in the tissues of the body, thus reducing pain. Breathing exercises help bring the mind-body connection into awareness, calm the stress response, and create stillness. The practice of deep relaxation helps integrate experience and bring new awareness into focus. Through the combination of practices, students learn to suspend judgment and step back and observe. This can create greater awareness of how we are responding to our grief.
In the process of trying to hide, deny, or manage our grief, we can inadvertently do things that increase our suffering. We flee our ‘in the moment’ experience by either shutting down our awareness or entertaining worse images of the future out of fear of future losses. We desperately try to believe that we can have ease by escaping our present experience, which can never work. It is only by being in our present experience that we can change our relationship to it. Ken Druck, a grief counselor and yoga practitioner says, “Through yoga, people can learn to modulate the breath, the pain, and the obsessive thinking.” Diane Roberts of Foundation Yoga says: “… I tell students…that rather than trying to ‘get over it’ or ‘work through it’, try to integrate your grief into who you are … Yoga helps you live in your body with your emotions.”
Yoga teaches that everything changes, including what is me and mine. When we think about it, it is obvious that this is true. Yoga also gives us a way to get in touch with our essence, that which does not change. Learning to sit or stand with this touchstone gives us a way to weather the storms of grief. Asana practice, breathing practice, and meditation, give us glimpses of this deep stillness.
To find a yoga class or teacher that can help you when you are grieving, you may need to look around and try things out. A class situation and/or teacher who can provide safe space is enormously helpful because it is possible that the practice of yoga may unlock areas of the body and release emotions or thoughts. You may want to cry, or to stop and reflect or write in a journal. A safe space can help you feel free to do so.
Sometimes when one is feeling lethargic or anxious it can be helpful to do some strong poses to help one get back into one’s body and connected to life energy. Sometimes one needs more gentle movement or nourishing poses. A sensitive teacher can help facilitate what one needs. If there is a yoga class for grief near you, that is ideal. If not, a class that feels safe to you and allows you to do what you need to can be a very good alternative. It is also possible to arrange private lessons with a teacher.
Yoga is often thought of as a practice that helps you feel good, but feeling good is not really the point. Being aware of what is real for us in the moment is closer to yoga’s aim. Being in the moment takes us closer to our essence, and acceptance of what is takes us closer to peace. Sometimes that takes us into pain that we would like to avoid, but as is usually true, the shortest way is through. Yoga teaches us that clinging to pleasure and avoiding pain keeps us trapped. Accepting, breathing, being with what is, helps us come to the point where we can let go and allow a new view to arise.
“He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sunrise.” –William Blake