Recently I experienced a devastating loss and in thinking about the reactions I’ve had, a quote from CS Lewis really hit home: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”
It happened right at the moment I was helping design a Yoga program for the Bereavement Support group at my local hospice. The timing of this heartfelt loss gave me the opportunity to really witness the processes of healing through the lens of Yoga.
The cause of grief could be the death of a loved one, but also could be caused by losing a job, a romantic partner, a beloved pet, or even detoxing from a bad habit. Any time something stops or disappears, or someone in our lives moves on or passes away, the void left is space for reaction. That space could be filled with denial, confusion, numbness or anger, despair, and deep sadness in varying degrees of magnitude.
The emotions that come can be intense, and this has a tremendous impact on all of the systems of the body. Our nervous system becomes out of balance and our fight-flight responses take over. Our breathing is impaired, our immune system is compromised, and our mental faculties are diminished, while we find ways to process what has happened.
We may be left asking ourselves a thousand whys and hows. The hailstorm of thoughts cycle again and again. Then we beat ourselves up for feeling like we can’t manage our emotions, and for not being “over it” yet. Thus, another layer of hailstones beat down as negative thoughts.
Self Care NOW!
Even though we may feel the need to lose ourselves in activity and busy-ness in order to escape the emotional turmoil, Self-care is of paramount importance at this time. Another common reaction is feeling lethargic and too depressed to do anything, but our Yoga mat is a trusted companion providing a safe space as we deal with loss. The practice can help accelerate our processing and healing of the physical and emotional impact of grief through movement of the body and quieting of the mind.
While we are releasing tension in the body through the movements and poses, we are also moving awareness and bringing energy and prana (life force) to the areas that feel dull, or stuck. This results in the movement of the energy of emotions that can be trapped in our tissues and a sense of lightness and openness results. Many times these emotions come out through sighs, tears, and words we can express in our Yoga journal.
Healing Through Poses and Breath
Restorative and Gentle Yoga postures that are very helpful include forward bends, such as child’s pose, and standing forward folds with wide legs and knees bent. These poses compress the belly somewhat and give us a sense that we are protected in a cocoon. We come into ourselves with these poses and things become quieter in our inner landscape as we focus on the breath.
Watch the Healing Yoga Webisode Extra below to learn how different breaths and movements can help to manage grief.
Side bends lying over a bolster are helpful because we open the side ribs and release the diaphragm, our main breathing muscle. This helps us open up more lung capacity, and the lungs are a key area where we tend to hold the energy of grief, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. We are also opening up energy that may be stuck in the abdomen and low back. There is an enormous amount of emotional energy in the belly, and supported twists are also excellent poses to help us “wring out” stuck feelings. We use the breath to anchor our awareness and we see how the breath is bringing new life to different areas of the body.
Gentle and supported backbends and heart openers create expansion of the heart and lungs, which creates more space to bring more prana and life force into our bodies. Backbends and heart openers have a wonderful effect of giving us more energy and help lift up our spirits.
Inversions such as Viparita Kirani, putting our legs up the wall or on a chair is excellent for calming the nervous system. This is my go to pose when I’m feeling overwhelmed by upsetting emotions.
If you are experiencing low energy levels, it’s important to respect that and rest. Let your inner instinct tell you when it’s time to pick up the pace and engage more challenging physical activities to energize you.
Other Helpful Practices
- Give yourself a time and a safe space to have a good old fashioned ugly-cry! Play with Lions Pose to release pent up energy and discomfort around the face, jaws, and neck.
- Journal all of your expressions of emotions very honestly and without judgment.
- Sit in meditation for a few minutes, watching the breath, catching thoughts, looking at them with a bit of perspective and distance… Remembering that we are not our thoughts… we are the people thinking those thoughts… and seeing how thoughts are always changing.
- Feel the feelings fully that we are feeling – name them and let them go.
- Go out for a walk through nature, slow your breaths down and watch them intently.
- Treat all of your feelings with compassion and loving kindness. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes this as treating the emotion as if it were a precious baby crying. We hold the baby, comforting the baby, just being present until things settle.
- Find a Laughter Yoga class in your neighborhood or look online. There are so many physical and emotional benefits to this kind of yoga, and it truly works!
Loss and grief are universal, and allows us to demonstrate compassion in a tender way that might not be felt under different circumstances. Connect with your local Hospital or Hospice and learn about Bereavement groups, and enjoy the company of others who really understand what you are going through.
What I appreciate about the grieving process, is that it is a wonderful reminder to be in the present moment and recognize the beauty and joy that is available right now, because none of us knows how many more “nows” we are going to get! The challenge is to keep a “practice” of making the effort to accept the loss and reach out for the goodness and joy that life offers us every day!
I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out,
“It tastes sweet does it not?”
“You’ve caught me,” grief answered, “and you’ve ruined my business.
How can I sell sorrow when you know it’s a blessing?”
– Deborah Devine
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