The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield
Releasing the grief we carry is a long, tear-filled process. Yet it follows the natural intelligence of the body and heart. Trust it, trust the unfolding. Along with meditation, some of your grief will want to be written, to be cried out, to be sung, to be danced. Let the timeless wisdom within you carry you through grief to an open heart. –Jack Kornfield, “The Wise Heart”
“The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” – Ram Dass
I follow a company on Facebook called My Yoga Online. This week they posed a question to everyone: What lessons or inspirations have you learned this week, on or off the mat?
One of the first comments spoke to me deeply, it said: “got a wonderful reminder from a fellow yogi that to be authentic to your inner wellness, you sometimes need to say ‘no’ graciously.” I just loved it. Be authentic to your inner wellness. So simple, and so difficult.
Other comments were about a need/desire to stay committed to a yoga practice, moving slowly and appreciating life, and finding balance. One woman found out this past week that her 7 year old daughter has cancer….she wrote about turning fear into strength, and turning lonliness into “alone time.”
Lessons and inspirations…where do they come from and where do they end up? Is there anything we can do to allow ourselves to be more open to being inspired? Or understanding and integrating a lesson or inspiration into our lives? I believe there is.
One of the greatest gifts yoga brings is awareness. As we begin a yoga practice, we become quiet and turn our attention inward. Our senses linking us with the external world withdraw and we become attuned to our internal processes and sensations. This creates awareness of the state of our mind, and body. We learn about the nature of our thoughts and feelings, and the sensations and imprints they leave within us. We become aware of the sensation of balance and quiet peace, even if it is only for a brief time during svasana (relaxation pose) at the end of the class. We begin to hear the subtle whispers of our authenticity – we have become more aware.
This awareness spills over into our lives off our yoga mats and into the real world. We notice inclings, and spidey senses. We feel when things aren’t right, and when they are. We can sense when we are out of balance, and when our lives are healthy and grounded. This is where our lessons and inspirations are hidden. In those times when we say, “I won’t do that again.” Or, “wow, that made me feel great.” We learn what we need, when we need it, because we are paying attention.
So, as Ram Dass says, “The quieter you become, the more you hear.” Be silent and listen.
As we live life – coping with joy and loss we open ourselves up to all sorts of lessons, inspirations, of both the good and bad variety. Yoga gives us a tool to “go inside” and integrate what we need to integrate to create authenticity of our experiences and inner wellness.
Paschimottana (seated forward bend) is a pose that encourages introspection and reflection. It mimics “turning inward” upon oneself, thereby fostering internal awareness and surrender. Some benefits include, resting and massaging the heart, soothing the adrenal glands, improving the digestive system, and calming and quietening the mind.
This pose can be done in a more supportive and restorative way, by supporting the head on cushions or on a chair.
Another type of forward bend which is less intense of a stretch for the back of the body, is childs pose.
So next time you notice something that calls your attention – really pay attention. Go inside and listen.
This is an article I wrote for the Healing Connections newsletter, on Healing Grief.
“Loss creates a barren present, as if one were sailing on a vast sea of nothingness. Those who suffer loss live suspended between a past for which they long and a future for which they hope. They want to return to the harbor of the familiar and past and recover what was lost….Or they want to sail on and discover a meaningful future that promises to bring them life again….Instead, they find themselves living in a barren present that is empty of meaning.” – Gerald L Sittser, “A Grace Disguised”
Life changes. People die. Jobs are lost. Health is lost. Relationships end. Every human knows loss, and through loss you know suffering.
When you are suffering, and in the throngs of grief, you are living in unchartered territory – the life you had and knew is no longer, and the future is yet to be. You become suspended in a state that is changed, raw, strange and volatile. The question becomes: How do you exist in this barren present and create a healing space in which you can move forward, develop new meaning in your life and integrate your loss in a healthy way?
Mindful grief is the process of courageously entering into the heart of your grief. Where you explore your pain in an open, compassionate way, and begin to recognize and respect your loss and your journey. As Carol Crandell suggests “you don’t heal from the loss of a loved one because time passes, you heal because of what you do with the time.”
Below are some ways in which you can grieve mindfully:
1. Stay open to the reality of your loss, now and continually.
By staying open to the reality of your loss, you acknowledge the inevitability of the pain of your experience, and its effect on your life. This process of gently opening your heart to your pain is the doorway to healing. This, however, is often misunderstood, because the culture around grief in our society is one of avoidance. It is thought that pain and grief must be denied and evaded. Avoiding pain actually creates direct discord between the reality of your loss, and the pressure and expectation to live life in a way that does not reflect your experience. Instead, you must move to the center of your grief where you encounter your pain to find honesty and integrity in your life. When you can stay open and notice how your loss has changed you, you can create mindful intentions and choices that are self-sustaining and appropriate for your present experience. Over time, you become whole again.
2. Explore and express your feelings of loss.
Grief brings a myriad of feelings in its wake: numbness, anger, sadness, depression, relief, and many more. Notice your feelings as they arise in your body and acknowledge their presence. As you explore your feelings, it is important to remember that everything you feel is normal; there is no feeling that should be denied or repressed. If you feel it, acknowledge it, and express it openly. The expression of emotions can be done in many forms such as talking to someone, writing in a journal, creative outlets such as art, song or dance.
3. Nurture yourself.
Be kind to yourself. Write a list of things that have brought you comfort in the past, such as sitting in the sun, taking a bath, or playing with your dog, and use your list for inspiration if you need to nurture yourself. Treat yourself with compassion, loving-kindness and patience … always. Be sure to never judge your experience – openly recognize and respond to your needs as they arise.
4. Understand that healing grief is a process and does not have an end point.
What you lose in your life stays with you, as does grief, however, it changes, becomes softer and settles. Your losses are interwoven into the story of your life – they are a part of you. To heal is to incorporate your loss into your consciousness and create a life that honors the past, yet moves forward with new and different meaning and understanding.
5. Appreciate your transition.
Never lose sight of the gains you have made, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Notice the ways you grow, and change, and be open to the new direction your life takes you. Listen to the wisdom of your inner voice, and live in a way that is congruent with the experiences of your journey.
By Sandy Ayre
Sandy Ayre is an Occupational Therapist, Certified Yoga Instructor, and has a certificate in Bereavement Support. She teaches Yoga for Grief Support at Healing Connections.
“Is yoga going to make all of my hardship go away? Of course not- my life is going to be hard. But without these difficulties, I would not be who I am.” – Matthew Sanford.
Matthew Sanford is a yoga teacher in Minnisota, USA. I first heard about Matthew Sanford while I was listening to a podcast on spirituality – it was a sound byte of him teaching a yoga class: “And then now, take your hands out straight, straight over you like you’re getting long, like you’re superman flying through the air. And then, even if you can’t do what I’m about to say it’s okay, cause I can’t do it either.” See, Matthew Sanford is paralyzed and wheelchair bound. He’s a yoga teacher, author, renowned public speaker, and founder of a non-profit organization that is dedicated to transforming trauma, loss and disability into hope.
I needed to know more. So I found another podcast – this one called “The Body’s Grace.” Its an interview with Krista Tippett from “On Being” and it’s Matthew’s story….and it’s truly inspiring.
At 13 years of age, he was in a car accident that killed his father and sister and left him paralyzed. He fell asleep in the car as a 13 year old walking boy, full of innocence and vigour, and woke up in a hospital from a coma with multiple fractures and paralyzed from the chest down.
He states that although his injury has a physical cause (spinal cord damage) his real disability at the core is an affliction of his mind-body connection. Specifically, he doesn’t have the same “ease” of anatomical and neurological connections from his mind to his body that a walking person would have, due to the damage in his spinal cord.
He talks about how a yoga practice gave him the tools of patience, and grace in his outlook and, smoothness and balance in his physical rehabilitation.
In his healing process, he describes how the relationship to his body changed. He had to “close the door” on the innocence and rambunctiousness of a 13 year old boy and adopt a more subtle awareness of noticing and sensing his ‘new’ body. He says, “I’ve had to pursue a lot of the subtler connections between mind and body. That’s the foundation of my yoga practice. So, what ends up happening with me is that I have to go inward and LISTEN, to levels that we all share. You have the same connections in your mind-body relationhsip that I use to do yoga, and that I use in the rest of my life…..One of the big healing things for me was to recognize that my paralyzed body didn’t stop talking to my mind, it changed its voice. It went to a more subtle whisper, that doesn’t have as much clarity. Its sweeter, its quieter, and it doesn’t as quickly react. I try to decribe it as energetic presence.”
What resonnated with me is that everyone has experiences in life where our world changes – whether its the loss of health, the loss of a love, trauma, heart break etc…when our world changes shape, we also lose our place in it – we become disorientated and disconnected. We may not have a spinal cord injury, but everyone can relate to feeling like their body and life is completely unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
What yoga can teach us is to how to reconnect with ourselves – by using the intention of the mind to explore the body. In our new, changed world, it gives us the opportunity to develop a changed relationship with our body, breath, and even mind. In times of grief, stress, and disability, it becomes harder to hear the subtle callings and quiet sweet whispers within ourselves. If we become silent and we listen and we begin (with baby steps) to form a connection between the intention we create in our mind and the sensation it brings to our body…mind-body connection. Whether you can stand on your head, or balance on your arms, or practice yoga in a wheelchair – it doesn’t matter… yoga is approaching your life with non-violence and compassion and meeting yourself exactly where you are. Perhaps, this breeds acceptance of your changed experience….and from there, even a new relationship to hope.
Incidentally, Matthew observes that as his students form a stronger mind-body connection, their compassion for themselves and for humanity increases. Once you begin to connect your mind and body in a mutually supportive way, it becomes easier to see the humanness in all situations and people.
So, in your experience, know that your mind hasn’t stopped talking to your body – it may have just changed it’s voice. Be silent and listen to the subtle whispers that are guiding your through each new moment.
Creating A Community
Since March 2010 I have been hosting a class here in Edmonton called Yoga for Grief Support. When people hear this, the inevitable first question is, “How is that different from regular yoga?” Well, to be brief, it’s different in the focus and community.
Yoga for Grief Support was created to encourage a safe place where students could use yoga to explore and move through their grief. In any yoga class, you will explore your body and mind, and develop a connection between the two. In Yoga for Grief Support, we explore the body/mind connection and the impact our grief has on us. In order for grief to be healed, we must learn to move through our pain. Mindful movement and mindful meditation can be valuable tools in journeying through our grief, and learning tools to cope. The class tends to be quite gentle and restorative, with a strong focus on deep breathing and calming the mind. As with any bodywork, the movement, opening and releasing of the physical practice helps to relieve tension and aches and pains our bodies experience when we are under stress and grieving.
I created this class after my partner died in 2006 – it has been many years in the making, finally coming to fruition in March 2010. Yoga and meditation were, and remain, extremely valualbe in my journey through grief, and through life as I have rebuilt. It was my hope to create a safe, sacred place, where people can learn tools they can use themselves as they live with loss. There is nothing more honest, open, raw or wholeheartedly vulnerable as walking alongside people who are in their “dark night of the soul.”
From the very first session I had all students fill out a questionnaire outlining the impact Yoga for Grief had on their journey….my own informal, qualitative research study. Most of the comments centred around four main themes:
1. Body: ”better sleep, less pain,” ”awareness in which our bodies and minds react in grief,” ”feel less contracted,” “I am more embodied,” “opportunity to move stress through my body,” “conscious relaxation.”
2. Community: “powerful to be among others with similar experiences,” “being with others along this most horrible path,” “it was comfortable to be able to ‘let go’ knowing others are on a grief journey as well,” “I am not alone in my feelings.”
3. Taking time: ”take time for myself and be OK with needing it,” ”learn to pay attention to my inner self and needs,” ”class allowed grief/loss,” “a moment to slow down,” “opportunity for reflection/insight,” “time to nurture my soul.”
4. Coping: ”given me hope that I can experience grief and not get stuck in it,” “I have some control over what happens when I have grief bursts,” “grief can suspend us in limbo, but that is OK, because we can just be there with whatever is there,” “that I have to move gently through loss and grief, and not push through.”
….the number of comments were endless, and I wish I could include them all. I use all comments and feedback from students to create a class that is nurturing and healing. Most importantly, I strive to create a community, where we can grieve openly, share wisdom, and breathe deeply together.
I will update this blog weekly, so please check back for posts about life, loss and yoga.