Before and After Loss: A Neurologist's Perspective on Loss, Grief and Our Brain by Lisa M. Shulman, MD
"I expected grief to be unbearable sadness, but it wasn't that at all. It was profound instability." (preface, page xi)
The above is the quote that starts this book. I read it. Stopped. Read it again. I can relate to that, I thought.
I actually thought that many times throughout this book - which is what I liked the most. I saw myself in the pages. That, combined with the science she describes, helped me understand my own experience of grief and trauma in a much deeper way. Not only that, this book is a rabbit hole of quotable quotes and excellent references. The bibliography is pages long...a gold mine for a book worm like myself.
Lisa Shulman is a Neurologist, and this book is a memoir of her own experience with grief before her husband died, and after, as the title indicates. Her personal experience is combined with her knowledge of how the brain works to organize our reality...and in the case of grief, how it it becomes disorganized and damaged after a loss. The neurology of grief.
Lisa writes about her life with Bill (her husband) when he was sick and dying. The one thing that struck me was how their intimacy with each other was a barrier throughout his illness. "We're stumbling because we care to deeply for each other" (page 6). I found it heartbreaking to look into such an intense and personal time in their life and relationship...but, as Lisa writes later in the book, the trauma and disorientation of loss is based not only in the biology of sorrow, but the biology of intimacy. Our brains are wired a certain way because of our relationships and intimate bonds. Reading about Lisa's life with Bill before his death helps to illustrate this point in the "After" section of the book.
There is something about how Lisa Shulman writes. It is surprising - she captures perfectly, states, emotions and thoughts that I've had, but a) haven't been able to put into words, or b) hesitant to talk about for fear of...I dunno...judgement maybe? For example, her disdain for condolence cards (I remember feeling this way) and her desire to be more a part of "the other side" with Bill, than the side of the living (yep, I've felt this too). In her words:
Condolences: Hundreds were received - all unwelcome. "I'm moved when I sense the grief of others, but i envy how they touch down in my world and return to theirs. Condolences don't begin to fill the canyon of loss" (page 42).
After his death: "I continue to live with Bill, in an inner world where, from moment to moment, i’m conscious of his response to the day’s events, to how my life unfolds. He continues to guide me. I was his muse; now he is mine" (page 46).
*As I write this, I'm finding it hard to limit myself to just one example of a piece that "hit home" for me...*
She captures a lot of the nuances of the grief experience that are irrational, heart centered and spirit based very clearly and wholly.
Hence, when Lisa shifts from writing about her personal experience of grief, to one more of science and reflection on the neurology of loss I got tense. I was worried that this beautiful piece of writing was turning cold...rational...cerebral. But, in the end, it didn't at all - she was able to still be both - rational and irrational. Head and heart. Mystical and scientific. She still used her personal experience to illustrate her points, but she refers to many studies, outcomes, and sciencey things, like the neuroplasticity of the brain. The overall effect works. I was fascinated by the science that explains so much of what I experienced personally with grief. Everything from dreams to mindfulness to post-traumatic stress.
I've learnt over the years that I don't need proof of anything beyond my own personal experience when it comes to grief, but it really was reassuring to understand some of the biology and neurology behind grief.
“[G]rief is a manifestation of neurologic trauma, and is evidence of injury to brain regions that regulate emotions. Grieving is a healthy protective response. It’s an evolutionary adaptation to promote survival in the face of emotional trauma, one where the injury goes undetected since daily function is preserved.” (pg 142)
I found the end of the book very hopeful. She writes extensively on the science of emotional restoration and healing - from meditation to medication. She illustrates how a heightened nervous system post trauma can be tamed by periods of meditation, and warm companionship, where a healthy outcome is self-exploration and growth. She believes in both mindfulness as a way to immerse oneself in witnessing their grief, but also periods of distraction which give much needed rest.
"Since grief and loss cannot be avoided, how can we manage stress to increase our potential for growth and reduce the risk of maladaptation? Encourage the protective benefits of stress and avoid the harmful effects. Right balance of periods of distraction with periods of mindful meditation where we recall our difficulties." (page 100)
Do you know the phrase, "don't tell me how much you know, until I know how much you care"?
Well, by the end of this book I truly believe that Lisa Shulman doesn't only know about how the brain changes after a death, but she cares.
“As i walk the line between my own experience of bereavement and my background in neuroscience, I confess my “scientist hat” doesn't’ always fit quite as snugly as usual. Instead, this hat is cocked to one side, leaving room for special moments that defy explanation and bring comfort” pg 101.
In summary, this is another book I'd like to add to my shelf permanently (the copy I read was from the public library). It's a book I'd refer to again and again....and, of course, to tackle that bibliography :)
It's October, the month of Canadian Thanksgiving, and messages of gratitude are inescapable. I came across an article online that was titled "Go From Grumpy to Grateful in 5 seconds!!" It irritated me.
I'm irritated by the simplicity and instantaneous of it. Especially in October, when the bereaved are staring Thanksgiving in the face, wondering about how to navigate this "holiday" of gratitude, togetherness and abundance, when life has been irrevocably changed by something as uncontrollable and in-suppressible as death and grief.
Grumpy to grateful in 5 seconds
The premise is that changing your language from "I have to" to "I get to" creates more gratitude. For example, changing the statement "I have to go to work today," to "I get to go to work today" does make me feel more grateful for the fact that I have a job I love. I do find that it shifts my perspective in a positive way, and I'm not denying that this could be beneficial. But, with grief, I'm not so sure it's a helpful strategy. Especially in the early days and months after a loss.
I think back to the first Thanksgiving after Cam died. I could have said, "I get to go to our family dinner," but the only person I was looking for in that crowded room was him. I could have said, "I got to have him in my life" instead of "I have to live without him," but NO...at that time, the amount of instinctual protest I felt over his death screamed without end "I HAVE TO LIVE WITHOUT HIM IN MY LIFE." Gratefulness felt trite, empty and impossible.
In the past, wrote a blog post about this experience, and outlined some ways to make gratitude more accessible while grieving (you can read it here)...but this week, I was reminded by a grieving friend that sometimes, gratitude just isn't there. Period.
It got me thinking...
This divisive mindset of grumpy or grateful, or sad or happy, sorrow or joy, isn't helpful. It doesn't capture the complexity of human emotion, nor does it promote understanding the parts of ourselves that are so obviously calling out for attention and compassion.
What is wrong with feeling grumpy instead of grateful? I think it's an appropriate way to feel if someone you love has just died, and Thanksgiving is approaching. Just because it's October, doesn't mean your grief vanishes and is replaced by gratitude in 5 seconds!
If you find yourself unable to feel grateful this Thanksgiving, try releasing the struggle to feel something you don't feel. Don't engage in a discordant battle with yourself. What if you gave yourself permission to just feel what you feel?
Invite the sorrow to sit beside you at the table, so it doesn't have to struggle or compete for your attention. When there is no battle inside, you can listen to yourself and your needs with more clarity. What do you really need to feel more peace/balance/support/recognized/acknowledged/heard etcetera?
The integration of grief requires authentic expression of your experience. Especially the hard stuff. And, it also requires safe people and places for you to explore your grief and changed self. May your Thanksgiving plans include some of these people and places....
With time, no timeline, and from a place of true integration of your loss(es) and grief, gratefulness may spontaneously arise. And, because you'll have been practiced at paying attention to all aspects of life (the beauty and the pain), it's presence and your awareness of it will be even deeper.
I'd love to know your thoughts on this:
What is Thanksgiving like for you this year? And, what has gratitude/gratefulness been like in your experience of loss?
Wishing you moments of peace this weekend.
And a Free Video for You!
This summer, I created a poll on instagram to ask you about your experiences with savasana: Do you practice it? What's the easiest part about it? The hardest? Did it change after your loss?
I got lots of replies. Here is a summary.
Do you practice it? Yes and No. Some practice it regularly. Some did and don't any more. Some don't. The reasons for not include: not having the time (even though you know it helps, it's hard to make the time for it), and being fearful of what will come up during the pose (primarily emotion). For the ones that do, repeated and consistent practice was helpful in releasing chronically held tension. However, even with this knowledge, maintaining a regular practice of savasana was a challenge.
What's the easiest? Some reported a feeling of relaxation: "Sinking into the earth," while other reported other things like crying or sleeping.
The hardest part? Almost everyone reported the swelling of emotion or the activity in the mind being the hardest part about the pose. Finding the courage to do it was another. A couple of people mentioned the name - Corpse Pose - being disturbing enough that it was a barrier to their practice...and when the name corpse pose was used by a teacher loosely during a class, the practice became triggering, unsettling and unsafe.
Did the practice of savasana change after loss? With this question I was hoping to glean information around the effect that grief had on one's ability to relax. For most, it did change after loss - in the ways mentioned above. For some, they had never practiced it before, so post-loss it was a new experience.
What have I noticed as a grief-sensitive yoga teacher?
In my experience, teaching yoga as a supportive practice for grief, I've noticed how important savasana and relaxation are to living with loss. So important in fact, that I weave the essesnce of savasana into the entire class. The relaxation of effort that one finds in savasana isn't only present in the last 3, 5 or 10 minutes of class, but it is part of the entire experience of yoga asana and mindfulness throughout, especially when it comes to coping with difficult states of mind and emotion.
To me, savasana is an orientation to yoga. An emotional stance towards your practice. This pose embodies the nature and purpose of the entire practice.
And yet, when I go to "regular" yoga classes, savasana is skimmed over, or worse, skipped completely. If it's not, the guidance is around relaxing the body, with less advice on dealing with mental tension, and usually NO advice on how to deal with emotional release during the pose...which is a very a common experience of those grieving. And so, this important pose - one that embodies the heart of yoga, and is exceptionally helpful to those experiencing ongoing states of suffering - becomes one that is avoided and misunderstood.
That is why I created this video. I believe that savasana should be taught and practiced with the same depth of technique as headstand or a fancy arm balancing pose. I believe that the teaching of it should include, not only the body, but information about how to consciously relax the mind, as well as the emotions. And it's not simply "letting go" (a phrase that in its popularity has seemed to lose any real meaning). It's more about becoming deeply aware of your states of mind and emotions, and from there, working wisely with them.
So, I hope you enjoy this video.
The first 10 minutes are a preamble about why savasana is hard. I recommend you listen to it and take some time to reflect on how our modern and western view of relaxation has shaped your experience and ability to relax.
For the practice, you will need a couple of blankets - one rolled up for behind your knees (or a bolster) and one folded for your head (or a small pillow). It may also be nice to have a blanket to cover up with.
If you want to explore some of the topics I mention in this video, I have numerous blog posts on the subject:
I had an exceptionally emotional week last week for a number of reasons, and had an upsurging of raw grief by the end. I was done. Exhausted. Mentally, physicaly and emotionally. I was sleepy in the car and anxious to get home, have a hot shower and crawl into bed. Which I did. But once I was lying down, self talk that resisted rest started to bubble up.
While my legs felt like lead, and they literally sunk into the mattress, my mind started to come up with all-the-things I could be doing - stuff like: dishes, sweeping the floor, this blog post. When my legs didn't respond to that call to action, my mind started getting dramatic: "If you don't get up now, you may never get out of bed again." Has this happened to you?
"If I start crying now, I may never stop."
"If I rest now, I may never stop."
What is this?!
Dramatic Sandy was worried I'd lay there forever and never get up again. Wise Sandy piped up with a reality check: "You'll be out of bed in 20 minutes to pee." I had to giggle at this internal dialogue. Myself cutting myself some slack to both rest, and give myself the space to do so. Sure enough, I was out of bed later that night (a couple of times), and I did, in fact, get out of bed the next day.
Why do we do this? Why do we mentally resist rest when our bodies so deeply need it?
I have a few theories...
First, we live in a society that values efficiency and productivity. We hold an unusual status symbol: being busy. It's as though being busy equates with being needed...indespensable...valued...respected by the capitalist machine that makes the world go 'round.
We see this in our view of the body as well. The body as a machine. We become practiced at ignoring our instincts to stop - we work when we are sick, we take medicine to get rid of the sore throat and congestion so we can continue on as normal. We adhere to the only-a-few-days-off-after-a-death-rule, returning to work right after the funeral and before the reality of the death has even sunk in. We are always reachable by text, email, messenger or phone, and responses are expected quickly. We push ourselves, without taking care of ourselves. My car gets an oil change more frequently that I take time off work, for goodness sake.
Second, this addiction to busyness has become a coping mechanism. If I'm busy, I'm distracted. I don't have time or space to feel. Which, at some times, can be helpful. Other times, not so much.
Third, our own personal self-talk and beliefs around rest (which have perhaps been contaminated by points one and two above).
I noticed my self-talk/thought while I was lying in bed last week wondering if I'd ever get out. It went something like this: "If I succumb to my fatigue, I've given up." And "my need to rest is proof that things are as bad as they seem, and I can't handle it."
Look at the language I've used in the previous statements: succumb, given up, rest means things are bad, I can't handle it. The language I've chosen, highlights my beliefs about rest...interesting. And worrisome.
(Be careful how you talk to yourself because you are listening).
I'm reminded of the yogic teachings around the constant churning and agitation of thoughts in the mind. The verse in the Yoga Sutras that reads, Yoga citta vritti nirodhah (Chapter 1, v. 2) and means "yoga is the resolution of the agitations of the mind." Judith Hanson Lasater recently described this on the Feathered Pipe Blog. She described the agitations of the mind as being continual and both conscious and unconscious. They are also the root of our lack of understanding about who we really are and what reality is.
Noticing my agitated thoughts around rest has got me wondering: How has my culture shaped my beliefs around rest? How do my beliefs about grief and suffering relate to my beliefs about rest? How is resisting rest working for me? How is my identity wrapped up in my ability/inability to rest? What is my reality?
(Yoga is the state in which the agitations of consciousness are resolved).
I've been following the Nap Ministry on Instagram for a while now. Contrary to the resistance to rest, their slogan is REST AS RESISTANCE. This is from their website:
"The Nap Ministry is a meditation on naps as resistance. It is an artistic, historical and spiritual examination on the liberating power of naps. It re imagines why rest is a form of resistance and shines a light on the issue of sleep deprivation as a justice issue. It is counter narrative to the belief that we all are not doing enough and should be doing more. We are community centered. We are focused on radical self-care."
These are some of the phrases from Nap Ministry Instagram page that have inspired me to reframe how I view rest:
I know that a very limiting factor with regards to rest and grief is being unable to sleep. Here again, we can broaden our narrow view of rest to include other things.
Rest is a huge part of integrating loss and grief.
Grief and rest cannot be "managed" simply by an act of will. It takes surrender. Letting go of the conditions that create more suffering. Letting go of the conditions and agitations of the mind that create rules that simply don't benefit. Letting go of the to dos, and shoulds, simply surrendering to what is truly needed in the moment. So often it's rest.
Kate Inglis is a Canadian author - not that that really matters, except for the fact that somehow, because we live in the same country, I feel more akin to her. Although, having said that, the more probable reason I feel this way is that she has written a deeply personal book about grief, that resonated with my heart.
I don’t think my little book review will do it as much justice as some of the reviews on her website or on Amazon, but I will share what I really liked about it.
This memoir is about Kate’s experience when her twin boys were born prematurely. One survived, one did not. Notes for the Everlost is a poetic, raw, and moving account of the trauma and grief of her heart wrenching loss.
One of the things I enjoyed the most about this book is Kate’s writing style. She uses creative images, metaphors and explanations to capture aspects of grief that are exceedingly difficult to express with words. She weaves the harsh reality of loss through a layer of lyrical and melodic expression; not in a way that dampens the raw feelings of grief, but in a way that makes it even more powerful. Her words appease the rational and intellectual mind while speaking directly to the abstract and transcendent heart. And, it works. Grief, afterall, is an experience of the heart.
This memoir is immensely honest about the depth of pain in grief. Reading it brought back memories of my own grief - and it invoked fear within me. Fear of “it” happening again. Fear of feeling the shock and impossibility of loss again. This, though, was buffered by an undercurrent of hope that ran through the text. Kate has masterfully crafted the book in this way - somehow capturing wholeness in brokenness. As I was reading, I knew that if (no, when) it happens again, I will survive it and cope.
Some other aspects of the book that I found really helpful were:
The trauma of the healthcare settings: Kate captures the chasm of life saving - in the cold, clinical silos of healthcare - with life ending, and the resultant grief and trauma. I think this is an aspect of healthcare that goes largely unnoticed but is a HUGE dimension of grief - the effects of complicated, complex and emotional medical decisions that people deal with long after they leave the hospital.
The misconceptions of grief: Kate dispels the misconceptions of grief the run rampant in our society. She understands how our society mis-handles grief and she writes about her experience in navigating this.
She gives practical strategies for dealing with jerks. Perhaps they are well meaning jerks, but, under the pressure of grief, this practical advice is invaluable.
She includes the spiritual wrestling and rumbling. The mysterious. The unseen. Loved that.
And, lastly, the book ends with a number of pages where Kate writes her reflections year after year. Whereas many grief books only tackle the first year, Kate writes about how her grief was:
each year for 10 years! I’ve always struggled with how to understand and explain how “healing grief” feels after so long...and she captures the spiral* of it perfectly.
In summary, if you love reading, poetic and detailed images, and memoirs about grief, I'd recommend this book. I think people who have suffered the death of a baby would find it especially resonate, due to the commonality of experience. Having said that though, I thoroughly enjoyed it even though I don't fit that description - I think there is enough universality in the specifics of Kate's story that many people would connect with.
Buy Notes for the Everlost: A Field Guide to Grief here:
Maybe this is why we read, and why in moments of darkness we return to books: to find words for what we already know.
*Spiral: A quote by Ashley Davis Bush from the book: Hope and Healing for Transcending Loss
“Grief is like a spiral. You feel like you are going around in circles and coming back to the same material. But in fact, your grief is always in motion. This means that you come back to what seems like old feelings at a slightly different place on the path. You are changing, integrating, grieving, moving deeper, moving higher, always along the turns of this grief spiral. Be patient with yourself in the process.”
It was in 1637 that Descartes wrote the phrase je pense, donc je suis, which translates into “I think, therefore I am.”
I can’t help but wonder if this is where we went off track. Granted, Rene Descartes was a philosopher so this phrase has more depth than what I'll write about here...but is this where, to quote Robert Frost, two roads diverged in a yellow wood? Where we started to overvalue the mind and cognition and under value the body and emotion?
There was another philosopher back then, who took the opposite stance to Descartes. His name was Spinoza. Instead of seeing the mind as a reasoning machine and separate from the body as Descartes did, Spinoza thought the body and mind were one continuous being, where thoughts and feelings are foremost in the body, not the mind. “For his beliefs, Spinoza was vilified and -- for extended periods -- ignored. Descartes, on the other hand, was immortalized as a visionary. His rationalist doctrine shaped the course of modern philosophy and became part of the cultural bedrock” (1). (There is a great NY Times article about this here).
Fast forward 382 years and we live in a world where are overly cerebral. We value science, logic, rationality. We need statistics, and evidence. Productivity and objectivity is a marker of success. We are basically floating heads, walking around, detached from our bodies, disconnected from feeling. We are disembodied. Dissociated.
I think, therefore I am, is a concept that yogis have been addressing for years.
"Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah" meaning:
In other words, the true nature and purpose of yoga is to stop the constant chattering, and churning of thoughts in the mind. The yogi channels the power of the mind, the mind does not hold reign over the yogi. The method to do this is multifaceted and robust...and perhaps a topic for a different post.
I probably don’t even need to write this obvious fact, but I will: We aren’t just a bunch of heads walking around. Our heads are literally attached to our bodies...(insert cheeky emoji here).
In any-case, a more apt phrase worth adopting may be: I feel, therefore I am.
During her experience with cancer she would chant: "I feel, therefore I am."
I think grief is similar. For me it was anyway. There was something so visceral and unignorable about how grief showed up in my body. It wasn’t a mountain bike race I could push through...it was complete surrender to a force within myself, and much greater than myself (or my mind, maybe?). Grief forced me into communion with my body. My body and my emotions had more power than my mind...but the hard part was releasing my mind from trying to do it all, and to let my body and emotions guide me.
It turns out that Spinoza was right; “Feeling, it turns out, is not the enemy of reason, but, as Spinoza saw it, an indispensable accomplice,” (1) and scientists are just starting to understand it now.
In Finland scientists have mapped where more than 1000 participants felt 100 different emotions in their bodies. They compiled the results to create “bodily sensation maps.” What they found was that: “even those feelings you think are all in your head still create sensations in the rest of your body." As co-author Riitta Hari put it, "We have obtained solid evidence that shows the body is involved in all types of cognitive and emotional functions. In other words, the human mind is strongly embodied."” (3)
I find it so striking; the areas that light up and the areas that don’t. Our bodies speak to us constantly, through sensation, and lack thereof.
We try to think our way through our losses but we can’t. We have the entire rest of our body that is trying to communicate with us... we have to FEEL. Our minds have to understand that we feel. They have to unite.
Yoga is one way to do this. The practice unites the body and the mind - to be mutually respectful allies. In Yoga for Grief Support, I teach about the mind - give strategies to tame it...and explore the language of the body.
If you want to learn more about the classes and groups I run, you can visit my website by clicking the links below:
In person groups in Edmonton
1. Emily Eakin, 2003. I Feel, Therefore I am. New York Times. Retrieved from:
https://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/19/books/i-feel-therefore-i-am.html on December 4 2018
2. Krista Tippet,2016. Becoming Wise. Retrieved from:
https://onbeing.org/programs/feel-therefore-eve-ensler/ on December 4th 2018
3. Lauri Nummenmaa, Rita Hari, Jari K. Hietanen, and Enrico Glerean, 2018. Maps of Subjective Feelings. Retrieved from:
http://www.pnas.org/content/115/37/9198 December 5th 2018
Feel, Feel, Feel...
This guest post was written by Amy Ebeid
On June 23, 2018, I lost my breath. One minute I was driving my two boys (8 and 6) to go see the newest Star Wars movie for their first week of summer vacation…and then a phone call…and then I was gasping for air and sobbing hysterically. My mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer on June 23. She had an annoying cough for 6 weeks and some dizziness and then suddenly our lives completely changed. She was 69 at the time of diagnosis. The week before…we had been planning our usual weekends at the beach, discussing the boys’ schedules, gossiping about the news, and ordering matching flip-flops. It disappeared in that moment on June 23. My beautiful, non-smoking, non-drinking, only organic eating mother had over 100 nodules in her lungs and suddenly I also couldn’t breathe.
The tightness in my chest and the shortness of breath (obviously massive anxiety) continued as my family fell apart and we began to try and process this diagnosis. I took my children to swim team practice and ignored their swimming as I googled words and phrases like “metastatic”, “pulmonary nodules”, “adenocarcinoma”, and “brain mets” on my phone. I blocked out the laughter at the pool and held my breath as I obsessively looked up every single statistic and research and treatment and prognosis for lung cancer that I could find. I held my breath throughout the day and ordered my eyes to stay dry as I made my boys breakfast while simultaneously texting my mom and my dad and my brother to determine the next doctor appointment, the plan of attack, any new symptoms, and on and on. I went through all the motions of motherhood, while telling my mom that she could beat this disease, and through it all…I couldn’t breathe.
My kids would go to sleep at night, my role of mother would end, and the tightness in my chest would explode. I would sob to my husband, to my friends, to my brother, and to my parents. You know this kind of cry. The ugly, hysterical, loud, frantic, unable to breathe cry. I cried as the reality that my life would never ever be the same punched me in the stomach. My husband would rub my back and remind me to breathe mainly because I sounded like I was hyperventilating. And I just didn’t know how. I didn’t know how to breathe in a world where I would lose my mother to lung cancer.
See...my mother was my best friend. I called her multiple times during the day, sent her funny memes and articles, watched my children absolutely adore her, planned for her and my dad to visit, and sat by her side on her porch at the oceanfront in Virginia Beach, where they lived. There was no future that didn’t include her. She was my rock. My person. Our matriarch. I knew what a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer meant and I couldn’t accept it. I was suffocating at the idea that eventually I would have to figure out who I was without my mother.
I held my breath for the first initial weeks. I love running, but whenever I tried to run, by myself or with friends, I still couldn’t breathe and would feel like I was having a panic attack. I knew I needed exercise, so I reluctantly went to my yoga studio during the first week of July. Something quiet felt appealing. Yoga has been a part of my life since 2000. I even went through teacher training, completed my 200 hours, and taught yoga to children. It has always been a quiet form of exercise and an occasional way to calm my worries. On that particular day in July, I hid in the back corner versus my usual front and center spot. And then something amazing slowly began to happen. As my body began to flow with the music through Sun Salutation A and B…I began to breathe. I listened to the instructor’s cues of “inhale” and “exhale” and air suddenly began to move through my body. Tears mixed with my sweat as I began to cry, but I kept breathing. Slow and steady. I placed my hands on my stomach during Savasana and felt the air rise and fall. And suddenly I knew what my own treatment would need to be during my mother’s fight with lung cancer. I needed yoga to help me find my air and learn to breathe again.
I went to yoga almost every single day that summer and continued my practice into the fall. During that time, my mother completed brain radiation and began chemotherapy. In September of 2018, she suddenly went into respiratory failure and was subsequently hospitalized. I continued going to yoga when I was home and if I was in the hospital with her…I remembered my practice and found a way to sit with my hands on my stomach and tell myself “Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.” I sat with my mom and held her hand then called my kids and listened to their stories about their day. I went to lunch with my dad and sobbed in the car with him and then face timed my boys and laughed about their new Lego creations. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. I watched my mom’s chest rise and fall with the help of a high flow oxygen machine and matched it with my own breath. Inhale. Exhale. And on and on.
We take it for granted. The inhale and exhale of our breath. Breathing helps you stay present. It’s how we relax our minds, lower our stress hormones, and center and ground ourselves. I couldn’t function in those early weeks of June because I forgot to breathe. I either sobbed and gasped for air or I was so desperate to not fall apart that I clamped my lips together and just shut off. My daily yoga practice was the greatest gift I found during my mom’s battle with lung cancer. It helped me survive. It helped me still be me. It helped me still connect to my kids and be their mother. It helped me even smile and laugh with friends occasionally or forget for a brief small second that I was losing the most important person in my life. And on October 23, 2018, I sat with my mom and my family in the hospital room she had been in since September, holding her hand as hard as I could, and as I cried and silently told myself ‘Inhale exhale”…I watched my mom take her last breath.
It’s been almost 3 months since I lost my mom. And grief is the hardest, most painful emotion that I have had to learn to carry. It hits in the most unexpected times and I feel gutted all over again. I miss my mom more than I ever imagined I could miss a person. And still every day…I pack my bag and walk into my studio and practice yoga. My instructors know about my loss and I speak to them openly and honestly about my sadness. No pretending or faking. Yoga helps me be present. I move through my heartbreak and loss by helping my body relax and let go of its pain. I let go of my survival mode and allow myself vulnerability and to just be where I am. And at the end of each class, I lie still during Savasana and talk to my mom in my head. Inhale Exhale. Hi mom. I’m finding my way. Inhale Exhale. I miss you so much. Inhale Exhale. You were truly the best. Inhale Exhale. Maybe I will be ok.
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
I’ve been sinking into the darkness this December, really relishing in the long nights that mark the approach of solstice. At this time of year, the earth tilts so that the northern hemisphere is the furthest it can be from the sun, making the nights long, and they will get longer until the winter solstice, which is the longest night of the year. After the solstice the earth tilts back, nights get shorter and the days get longer, until the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Throughout time the winter solstice has been celebrated and ritualized for the “return of light,” with hope, warmth and comfort in its wake.
Although, this post is about the dark. It is about the time before the light returns. It is the state we are in, when the light comes; but it’s not there yet. It’s dark.
My obsession, nay intention, about sinking into darkness is in direct response to an internal longing for restfulness and reflectiveness that I get at this time of year...It’s also a counter move against the constant positive spin our culture puts on everything. As Wendell Berry said in the poem above, to know the dark, go dark. I’m going dark.
What about the mysterious? What about that which cannot be measured or quantified? We are forgetting that we are human beings, not a slew of numbers and statistics. We are losing our ability to be in relationship with the unknown, even though we spend most of our lives in this space.
Even within the modern culture of yoga, there is a skew towards focusing on positivity, and upward movement of the psyche towards betterment and progress. What happens to your practice when you are sorrowful and there is downward movement in your soul and psyche? That yoga, no longer fits. It’s not sustainable.
Heck, even the word enlightenment gets so much more positive press than endarkenment.
I first heard of this word, endarkenment, in this 12 minute video by Joan Sutherland called The Radiance of the Dark She says that the universe is made up of 96% dark matter. 96%! That leaves only 4 % light. I found that statistic staggering, in our culture that undeniably values light (literally and metaphorically).
I watched the video a few times and every time I hear something more. It’s become one of my favourites Recently, I jotted down all the words or themes that related to darkness as I watched.I also jotted down word that related to light, for comparison sake.
To explain endarkenment, I thought I’d just share my list with you.
We desperately need to change our relationship to the dark.
Understanding the dark isn’t about looking for, or turning on the light switch, it’s about forming a relationship with the dark itself. Darkness is not a mistake. Part of the human condition is suffering...not to minimize it but to encourage you/me/us/world to understand that we are equipped to benefit from the dark. To find support there. Just like a seed draws on the cool, dark, moist soil to prepare to germinate, our inner darkness can be fertile. It needs to be included as part of our healing.
Some questions for reflection...
How to the words above resonate within you?
What happens for you in the dark?
What is your particular dream?
Does your body experience endarkenment in different ways than your mind?
How can you welcome that which you exclude from your life?
What deep and dark currents can you rely on?
How can you lay back into the mystery and unknowing?
Are you willing to participate in your darkness?
ps. I'd love to hear your thoughts and reflections. Leave a comment below!
This summer, I blogged a lot about savasana, and as I was writing each post, I kept coming back to an effect of savasana that is dire medicine for the bereaved - stimulation of the relaxation response.
In order to understand the relaxation response, we must also understand the stress response. Part of your nervous system - the autonomic nervous system - governs both the stress and the relaxation response. This part of your nervous system is not under conscious control (you can't control your heart rate increase, or change in blood pressure, for example).
The sympathetic nervous system kicks into action in stressful or emergency situations. It governs the ‘fight or flight’ response, which includes reactions such as: pupil dilation, dilation of the airways to make it easier to breathe, increased blood pressure and heart rate, increased blood flow to the muscles, heightened alertness and activity in your brain to help assess situations and make important decisions. The sympathetic nervous system slows all other functions that aren’t related to survival in an emergency situation – digestion, and urine production are two examples.
The parasympathetic nervous system is calming and restoring. It helps you recover from the stress response. For this reason, it is called the ‘rest and digest’ nervous system. It slows the heart rate down, decreases blood pressure, stimulates saliva production and movement in the gut, releases bile (all systems related to digestion of food and absorption of nutrients), and eliminates waste. These processes are restorative and healing and help to build our reserves back up after being depleted by periods of stress.
This is important to be aware of and practice after the death of a loved one because you are under extreme stress for a prolonged period of time. Further, the underlying stress of bereavement, coupled situational stressors such as moments or anxiety, panic (including flashbacks), and even difficult social situations turn the fight-or-flight response up from moderate to maximum. Recognizing that, and learning ways to create relaxation will be invaluable to healing and resilience.
"Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as bird wings.” - Rumi
These two systems work in tandem to regulate the internal functions of your body. The key word to understand the healthy functioning of the nervous system is balance. A nervous system that is chronically ON is very taxing for the body and mind. A finely tuned nervous system, one that responds to emergencies when needed, but is also able to shift into a more restorative state at other times is crucial. You need both these nervous systems working together appropriately and efficiently.
One aspect of achieving balance in the nervous system is recognizing the value of both nervous system responses.
In an interesting TED Talk, Kelly McGonigal speaks about "How to Make Stress Your Friend." In this engaging talk, she describes the stress response - the pounding heart, rapid breathing and sweating - and then offers the audience this re-frame: "What if you viewed them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge?"
She goes on to describe a research study that was done at Harvard University. Basically, they taught participants that their stress response was actually helpful. That the pounding heart was preparing them for action, the faster breathing is getting more oxygen to the brain, and so on. Participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance were less stressed, less anxious, more confident, on their exam. Fascinatingly, their physiological stress response changed.
Granted, there is a HUGE difference between preparing for a test and dealing with the death of an important person in your life. Huge. This is where the art of awareness and discernment comes into play. In some cases, your stress response may be trying to serve a purpose - to prepare you to meet a challenge, or to give you burst of energy to protect yourself in some way. The stress response, however, isn't meant to be activated all the time.
This is where yoga comes in...
Although the functioning of autonomic nervous system is not under your conscious control, aspects of a yoga practice are, which have a "back-door" approach to the nervous system. Richard Faulds says, "When you do yoga - the deep breathing, the stretching, the movements that release muscle tension, the relaxed focus on being present in your body - you initiate a process that turns the fight or flight system off and the relaxation response on. That has a dramatic effect on the body. The heartbeat slows, respiration decreases, blood pressure decreases. The body seizes this chance to turn on the healing mechanisms."
In periods where your stress is prolonged and intense, developing a relaxation practice is invaluable. The quote above, says it all - yoga is a practice that balances the nervous system. The beautiful thing about yoga is that you can come at it from many different directions. Here are some ways into your parasympathetic nervous system:
Savasana, The Art and Science of Relaxation
Savasana is a Practice
Savasana: Tips and Techniques
Savasana and Sleep
Savasana is a pose of conscious relaxation. Although many people fall asleep while practicing savasana, that is not the aim of this pose. In Light on Pranayama, B.K.S Iyengar says, “Some call it the Eternal Now, beyond space and time. Others call it the soul becoming one with the Creator. This can be experienced in perfect savasana when the body is at rest as in deep sleep, the senses as in a dream but the intellect alert and aware.”
Savasana is a restful pose, and the outcome of it is recuperation and rejuvenation. Sleep, however is not always restful, and it's possible to even wake from sleep and not feel rejuvenated. Why is this?
Studies have been done that measure the brainwave activity of those people who practice conscious relaxation and found that alpha waves (slow brain waves) increase in intensity and frequency during the practice. Interestingly, in similar studies done on sleep, these alpha waves are not commonly found during sleep, or aren't an overarching and ever-present component of sleep. During sleep, the brainwave pattern changes depending on the depth and stage of sleep. Further, sleep can be un-restful due to insomnia, vivid and disturbing dreams, frequent waking etcetera, etcetera.
With meditation and conscious relaxation however, the brain kind of downshifts to an idle, the alpha state, where sensory input is less, awareness is internal, and the brain is in a state of non-arousal. Alpha brainwaves are the resting state of the brain, and aid in contemplation, reflection, mental coordination, calmness, mind/body integration, learning and creativity.
Practicing meditation and savasana nurture the alpha state. With regular practice, the practitioner to more easily and readily achieves the alpha state. Studies have also shown that practices that employ alpha brainwave activity may have a regulatory role on sleep, meaning that people who practice conscious relaxation and meditation, sleep more deeply and more restfully when it's time to sleep.
As I've said before, savasana isn't about sleeping...but so often, people do fall asleep in savasana. If you aren't getting enough sleep, or enough restful sleep, falling asleep in savasana would make sense. My yoga teacher used to say, "if you fall asleep, you need the sleep." So true.
Sleep obviously has it's benefits: physical recovery, cognitive organization, improved ability to concentrate and learn, memory, and mood regulation to name a few. But, as the buddhist saying goes: "If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit; but whatever you do, don't wobble" - when it's time to sleep, sleep well and when it's time to relax, relax well.
As I've mentioned before, savasana is a practice. If you find you are falling asleep, try shortening the time you are in savasana. Decrease it from 10 minutes to 5 minutes to work on developing the ability of the mind to stay focused and alert without falling asleep.
The more you can train your body to be still, and your mind to downshift and idle in a relaxed state, the more easily and often you will stimulate the relaxation response, thereby making it more accessible. Overtime, your ability to stay consciously relaxed in savasana will improve, and perhaps your ability to sleep deeply at bedtime will improve as well.
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