Yoga and Grief
Sep 04, 2014 02:22AM
Getting up the mojo to find your mat can be daunting on many days, but it ismission impossible in the midst of grieving the death of a loved one.
There is no way to know how long grief will stay or when it will return. Just as often, grief shows up without warning. Grief is often unresolvedbecause we aren’t able to attend to it fully in the aftermath of death. We immerse ourselves in the practicalities, or throw ourselves into whatever it takes to survive the loss. We neither feel safe nor give ourselves sufficient space and time to grieve.
I was 13 when my father died suddenly. Two years later, my mother committed suicide. My inner fighter won out over the mourner in me. This wasn’t bad; fighting saved me from the many roads I could have taken—foster care or dropping out or deeper pits of depressions. I could barely fess up to, let alone manage, the range of emotions I experienced—rage, exhaustion, disbelief, pessimism and perhaps the hardest—relief.
By my mid-20s, it wasn’t grief exactly that brought me to my mat. Grief was obscured under more pressing concerns—cycles of insomnia, weekly migraines, and bouts of back pain so intense I couldn’t lift my legs high enough to pull pants over them until an hour after getting out of bed.
The effects of yoga weren’t immediate. Like a slow-release vitamin, a consistent yoga practice eased my physical symptoms. In retrospect, I see that yoga also curbed my psycho-spiritual load of impulsive, obsessive and self-sabotaging behavior. That in turn led me to learn who I was, beyond the loss I had experienced and indeed, helped me, after years of practice, to be grateful for grief’s teaching.
As a yoga therapist, I’m trained to look at the multidimensional nature of people I work with. That means that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all-grief-relief yoga practice, nor one place in the body where grief is stored. While grief is individually experienced, there are ways to shape a yoga practice to support along the way.
Make space. Spaciousness is a necessary prerequisite for acceptance. Yoga teaches spaciousness through slowing down our breath and movement and being open to whatever comes up in our practice. The same way a cloud accepts everything underneath it, accepting the absolute experience of grief is what allows us to heal.
Start with awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn modified a Burmese meditation practice of “sweeping” to the Western body and developed the body scan, practiced by bringing awareness into each part of your body. Getting out of the head and into the body can help build a deeper intimacy with oneself and be key in unlocking habitual patterns.
Less is more. Some people need to charge up their exercise during crises to channel excess energy. Experiment with also doing less physically strenuous styles, such as restorative and yin, which can help you access the relaxation response.
Bridge over troubled water.Add a few minutes of breath work, the bridge between the conscious and unconscious. The breath can be a wonderful guide in staying in the body, with difficult emotions, rather than disassociating or following obsessive thoughts. Try three-part breath, alternative nostril breathing or just a gentle extension of the exhale.
Massage yourself. Learn to roll around on tennis balls on the floor to release muscular contracture.
Keep your heart open. To counterbalance the “shlumping”forward tendency that comes with depression, add in gentle chest openers, such as lying on the floor with a block between your shoulderblades.
Strengthen your core. At the same time, cultivate a safe space inside by fortifying the core muscles of the abdominals, side waist and low back. Visualize a Gerber Daisy—letting the core be like a stem—strong, supplying nutrientswith the heart an open bloom.
Balance your nervous system. Forward folds are especially calming for the nervous system.
Change your mind. Theyogic concept of grief is that it represents feelingsof being separate from Source. Consider integrating meditation—such as yoga nidra, which works at the subconscious level to bring about powerful shifts in belief.
Relax when you can. Carmen Calatayud, a hospice bereavement counselor, took up yoga again in 2007 when she was balancing full-time work with managing her mother’s bills and hospital and nursing home stays during an extended illness. “My caffeine-fueled, sleep-deprived body absolutely ached with pain and I cursed my teacher under my breath for the first few months, it hurt so bad.” She stayed with it, eventually practicing two and then three times a week “and lived for savansana.”
Savasana, ironically, is Sanskrit for corpse pose. Traditionally, it’s one of the last poses in a yoga class: one lies on the floor, unmoving and plays dead for 5-10 minutes. For those dealing with grief, savasana can be helpful in realizing that death isn’t necessarily the worst thing that can happen to those we love, but a natural progression of the life cycle.
Yael Flusberg is a yoga therapist and Reiki master teacher at the GW Center for Integrative Medicine. See ad, page 2.