"By remaining motionless for some time and keeping the mind still while you are fully conscious, you learn to relax. This conscious relaxation invigorates and refreshes both body and mind. But it is much harder to keep the mind than the body still. Therefore, this apparently easy posture in one of the most difficult to master." B.K.S. Iyengar.
I started this post about savasana to be a short newsletter. Quickly, though, I realized that there is so much to this pose than it appears and my "short newsletter" has become multiple blog posts. How? You may ask. How can a pose that is 'just laying there' require so many words and explanations?
There are a few reasons for this:
I'll explore all of these reasons in this series, but I'll start with one of the primary misconceptions:
It's actually called Corpse Pose
This one may not be a misconception, but a misnomer. Calling savasana a relaxation pose is accurate, but 'relaxation' is not the direct translation of the word savasana and as such, it doesn’t really capture it’s entire meaning.
I am guilty of side-stepping this actual translation and purposefully calling it "Relaxation Pose." I do this because I am sensitive to the fact that it might be a trigger for some people in the grief support group, especially without more context about the deeper meaning of the name.
As with other aspects of grief and emotional awareness, authenticity and calling something what it actually is can be helpful. So I explored it, which is how this post came to be.
I found what B.K.S. Iyengar says about savasana in Light on Pranayama to be enlightening:
“Sava in Sanskrit means a corpse and asana a posture. Thus Savasana is a posture that simulates a dead body, and evokes the experience of remaining in a state as in death and of ending the heart-aches and the shocks that the flesh is heir to. It means relaxation, and therefore recuperation. It is not simply lying on one’s back with a vacant mind and gazing, nor does it end in snoring. It is the most difficult of yogic asanas to perfect, but it is also the most refreshing and rewarding.”
"Ending the heart-aches and shocks the the flesh is heir to."
I know that for myself, I was always oddly perplexed that I was doing 'corpse pose' when death was so front and centre in my life. The way I reconciled the name corpse pose with practicing it after a death, is that it was a practice of complete and total surrender (surrender: to cease resistant to).
I found it easy to cease resistance to the fatigue I felt in my body and to slip into the stillness and silence of savasana. Mentally surrendering to the reality that grief eradicated my life as I knew it felt congruent because so many parts of me died when Cam died. The hard part was the SURGE of emotion that would spontaneously arise, making the supposed-surrender all the more complex and at times seemingly impossible. It did not feel like 'relaxation' as suggested by the Iyengar in the quote above.
He says, "remaining in a state as in death and of ending the heart-aches and the shocks that the flesh is heir to." Before you can end the heart-aches and shocks (maybe 'live-well-with' is a better word than end?) you must experience them in a way that integrates the heart-ache and shock reality into our life. Feel it to heal it.
When Iyengar says "ending" the heart-aches and shocks" I don't think he means permanently ending. We are human after all, and of course, heart-aches and shocks will happen throughout life whether we want them to or not. I think he means that in between the surges of thought and emotions there are moments of complete and total stillness that are void of thought, emotion and suffering. It is in these moments that you can truly relax.
The practice of savasana is to cultivate the ability to stay conscious of everything that is going on within you so that you can learn how to extend those spaces of stillness a little longer each time. Becoming still in the body and witnessing the impermanence and flow of thoughts and emotions is the doorway to conscious relaxation. More broadly, savasana teaches you how to manage life's ups and downs with less reactivity and more equanimity.
Another way to look at corpse pose is seeing it as the conscious awareness of death, and how parts of you and your life "die" everyday, especially after a major loss. Savasana, as a daily (or often) practice is quite literally, the practice of dying everyday; letting go of what we can let go of (like the constant and sometimes unhelpful chatter of the mind, for example) and appreciating some of the deeper chords that link us to life (awareness of the preciousness and fragility of life and relationships).
At the end of savasana when you slowly begin to move your body and deepen your breath, you are symbolically "beginning again." This idea of continually re-opening or re-beginning is a major part of integrating your yoga practice into your life and feeling recuperated from it.
“We die a little every day and by degrees we’re reborn into different men, older men in the same clothes, with the same scars.”
Regardless of what happens in savasana - you sleep, you cry, you think your head off - doing it with awareness and the intention to practice conscious relaxation is the most important part.
I hope you've enjoyed my take on corpse pose and I'd love to hear what you think. Feel free to comment below.
Stay tuned for the next post where I will look more deeply at savasana as a practice.
Through out this post I've referenced Light on Pranyama by B.K.S Iyengar. There is a wonderful chapter in the book on savasana and I recommend it as a resource.
Another one of my favourite books which looks at relaxation in a broader, more practical "off the mat" sense is Sabbath by Wayne Muller.
"The practice of yoga, in fact, reveals that the body is in no way separate from the psychospiritual forces that animate it."
This is the book I've been waiting for.
Have you ever read a book where you didn't even know what you didn't know until you read it? Reading this book, Yoga of the Subtle Body, was like finding the last few puzzle pieces I'd been looking for...BUT, instead of completing my puzzle, it has "springboarded" me to go even deeper into my yoga practice.
The introduction starts with the question “What is the subtle body?” which is an excellent question. Indeed, what IS the subtle body?! He describes it as the fine, delicate, infinitesimally small, all-pervading psycho-spiritual force that transcends scientific rationale. (No wonder I had a hard time understanding it pre-book :) )
The neat thing about this book is that Tias unravels the complex and intricate aspects of the subtle body, while using our modern understanding of anatomy and physiology to anchor the teachings. There's more though. He weaves together wisdom from different practices, ages and disciplines including: classic Indian mythology, the chakra and nadis systems, the structural body, traditional Chinese medicine, craniosacral therapy and reflexology. He does a fantastic (and probably very hard) job at distilling and uniting all of this wisdom in one place.
Throughout the book, Tias includes gentle yoga, pranyama and meditation exercises that apply the mind-body principles he shares. These practices are not to be skimmed over, but to be slowly and deeply experienced, allowing the wisdom to absorb. He doesn't talk about asana as mechanical poses, but takes the reader much, much deeper into the felt and internal experience of the pose, and educates the reader on the vibrational, pranic and subtle aspects of the pose.
His writing is poetic and embodied - making this manual even more coveted in my opinion. As I was reading I could feel my inner body responding to his words. For example, "soak your awareness into your heartbeat the way rainwater soaks the ground after a storm," (page 185). It's in his use of language that he achieves his intention of inspiring the reader to look at their yoga practice in a new way.
“I believe that ultimately it is impossible to articulate the yogic experience in words. By articulating the body-mind connection through analogy and image (such as lifting the brain stem upward like the hood of a cobra), a direct experience of the sublte body becomes more palpabe. Metaphorical thinking allows for greater flexibility, imagination, and openness, all of which are integral to the mind in meditation.” (page 2)
I found this book very applicable to grief, because grief is a holistic experience that permeates all aspects of our being. It's impossible to outline all the ways this book could be supportive of grief, because everyone's experience is individual - but I can guarantee that there will be something that resonates with your experience. He writes about prana, the immeasurable source of life itself, as being impacted by the powerful effects of emotion (page 3). He writes about the gut and emotional distress. He describe the energy channels and meridians of the legs as being essential for grounding, which can be really helpful in the wake of loss and upheaval. One part that I found really interesting is the hand-lung-heart connection (see photo below).
This review was difficult to write because of the amount of wisdom this book imparts, however, it's suffice to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. So much so, that I'm reading it a second time. No, reading is the wrong word. I'm experiencing it in my body as I go through it again. I plan to take a really, really long time, and (quite literally) take-in, everything I can.
Resources for further exploration...
You can pick up a copy of this book on Amazon Canada by clicking the link below, or visiting your favourite bookstore.
While I was reading this book, I was concurrently doing a series on Gaia called Shapeshift: Exploring Movement & Emotions with Ashleigh Sergeant. She is a student of Tias Little's and offers a great 7 week series that guides you through some of the practices outlined in the book. It was really interesting to combine the two. Highly recommend.
I'd also recommend Tias Little's website - https://www.prajnayoga.net
You can also find him on YouTube. Just search his name in the YouTube search bar, and you'll find lots.
READING GIVES US SOME PLACE TO GO WHEN WE HAVE TO STAY WHERE WE ARE. - MASON COOLEY
We are always seeking contact with Heaven, but how many of us have made any reasonable contact with Mother Earth?” - BKS Iyengar
Today is April Fools day. It’s kind of a strange day, if you think about it. I love the family friendly shenanigans that some companies do. This morning, I got an email from Halfmoon Yoga Products, promoting a Mood Mat. This mat changes colour depending on your mood. Kind of like those hypercolor t-shirts everyone wore when I was in junior high school.
Amazed, I clicked the link, and was re-directed to a page that said, "April Fools! Sadly Mood Sensing Mat Technology is not yet available. We'll keep you posted because we think it would be pretty neat!"
No harm, no foul. I can laugh and say, “Good one, guys,” and it even feels good to be released from the tomfoolery, back into reality.
Nevertheless, with intense grief, everything can be a trigger. April Fool's included. Even though Cam died in June, not April, I remember feeling like I was the biggest April Fool who ever lived.
For many many months after, I felt like it had all been a cruel prank. One big joke. It had to be, because it couldn’t possibly be my life. I was desperate to wake up and be released from my worst nightmare. Instead, I woke up, punched in the stomach by my reality. It was no prank. It was true. Cam died. Sometimes, after 12 years, I still can’t believe it.
Shock is weird. I remember some things so vividly from those early months, and in other ways I remember nothing. It was like I was living in a dream. Which, actually I preferred because my dreams were more believable than my real life.
I dreamt that I couldn’t find Cam. We were at a movie together, and then all of a sudden he was gone. I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t tell me where he was going. I couldn’t find a phone to call him.
Then my dreams shifted and I started dreaming he broke up with me. I didn’t know why and wanted to find him or call him to make things right. In one of those dreams, I actually found a phone and called him, only to wake up as soon as he answered.
My dreams, although distressing, were more rational, believable, and fixable than my waking reality. I wanted to live in dreamland. I'd have been happy if I didn't wake up. But, I did.
In my waking life, I did my best to live where Cam was - in the mystical and spiritual planes. I read books like, Talking to Heaven: A Mediums Message of Life After Death by James Van Praagh, and We Are Their Heaven: Why the Dead Never Leave Us by Allison DuBois. I found a medium in a nearby town and went to an appointment with her (which was amazing by the way, but maybe another post all together). Connecting with Cam in the realm of spirit even seemed more possible than believing he was dead. Being near him somehow was a balm to the thought of living without him in my personal earthy hell.
In these mediumship books they describe their process of connecting to the dead as one of quieting and opening the mind, while softening the senses and developing present moment focus. So, I signed up for a meditation class.
In our first class, as the instructor guided us to settle our minds, my emotions started to overflow. Desperately, my mind inserted mundane thoughts to keep the emotional release at bay: What color throw pillows should I buy? What color should I repaint the bathroom?
Those thoughts soon burnt themselves out and I was left with the gaping void of death and hating my life. I fought back tears the entire time, and then drove home hysterical. I thought going to meditation would make me feel better and it made me feel worse. I felt let down by something that I thought would be my saving grace.
That night, I emailed my cousin Richard and his girlfriend Tammy who had established meditation practices. This was part of their response:
When we sit in meditation, what is in our truest core self will start to arise. Allow your pain to come through as tears and you will be softened by it and transformed by it. Eventually the tears will run dry, and a deep inner silence will follow. Then you will be able to meditate without the intense emotion coming up, but until then allow this process. Be with yourself. Don’t be self conscious about your emotion. What you resist persists. You have to feel it to heal it.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, this laid the foundation of my future work using meditation and yoga to live with loss. Understanding how to deal with emotion while meditating was both the keystone in my process as well as a grand paradox: you have to move toward the pain to heal it.
It seems counter intuitive to knowingly move towards such intense pain (especially when the cultural norm is to move away from pain - to hurry it, get over it, find closure, not live in the past and get back to normal), but moving towards the pain is the practice. It’s not to escape, or disconnect, or distract, but to become embodied and connect more deeply. This is the gift and the challenge of meditation.
My inner landscape of grief wasn’t as treacherous, the more I navigated the terrain. Ironically, the more I connected with my feelings of the loss of Cam, the more present he was in my life - spiritually, emotionally and cognitively. I was developing my own beliefs around his death, and how to continue living well while missing him.
I never became able to connect with Cam’s spirit in the way a medium would/could, but was more comfortable and self-assured searching for, and coming to answers to my questions within myself…but maybe this is connection to spirit…my spirit.
EASTER MORNING IN WALES
It’s not just the tincture of time that heals grief, it’s the conscious opening to our pain, in safe and supportive environments that is healing.
This is a counter-culture way to approach grief in our mourning avoidant society.
What is needed for the bereaved is a container of education and support around the benefit of feeling emotion, while embarking on a meditation and yoga practice.
If you are looking for this support and sanctuary, please consider my 8 week online Yoga for Grief Support Program.
I developed this so people who cannot attend my in-person group can still benefit from the supportive benefits of yoga and meditation. Click below to find out more.
A new session of Yoga for Grief Support started this week, and at the first class, I always take the time to define some key words: Grief, Yoga and Mourning.
Yoga - A way to form connections with yourself in your mind, body and spirit. Another definition that I like is: "Yoga is the perfect opportunity to become curious about who you are." - Jason Crandell
Grief - Our internal, natural and organic response to loss. It encompasses everything we feel and think around the loss we have experienced - including our thoughts, emotions, physical symptoms (changes in sleep patterns, loss of appetite, nausea, achiness in limbs, chest pain)
Mourning - The shared experience of grief. Grief gone public. Or, bringing grief outside yourself.
Everyone grieves, but not everyone mourns. Grief has energy - you can feel it build up inside yourself, and perhaps you can also feel the release through crying, talking, writing it out. Grief without mourning is like a pressure cooker - it builds and builds. Grief needs to move and be expressed outside yourself. This is mourning.
In order to heal grief you must mourn....finding safe places, people and way to express your grief outside yourself. "Time heals" is a myth - it's what you do with your time that heals - authentic mourning is how you begin to heal - in your own way and your own time. In this class, we will use yoga as a way to explore our grief and learn about it. The more we can learn about our inner experience of loss/grief, the more we can understand it. The more we understand it, the more compassion we have for it. The more compassion we have, the more space we have within to heal it.
What I love about yoga is that yoga,
1. Invites you inside your mind and body in the spirit of exploration and acceptance (letting things be just as they are)
2. Teaches you strategies to support yourself. This may be through poses that feel comforting in your body, or by developing skills around understanding the nature of thoughts and emotions which can build resilience.
There are many other avenues of mourning. Some people talk their grief out. Write. Dance. Sing. Pray. Create. The list goes on. How do you mourn?
I was listening to a podcast about Buddhism – which I have always found to be a complementary philosophy to yoga philosophy – especially around learning how to deal with suffering. There is something about these Eastern philosophies that I find peaceful – not because they have the answers, but because they confirm that life is made up of questions.
On this particular day I was listening to a podcast featuring Bernie Glassman. He was speaking about bearing witness and loving action.
The practice of bearing witness is to see all of the aspects of a situation
What I love about Bernie Gassman’s talks, is that he goes in with no agenda – he speaks to whatever arises in the moment. He “bears witness” to the needs of the people he is speaking with…and goes from there. He started his talk by asking if anyone had any questions that had arisen from a talk he had given the previous day; encouraging the audience by relating the power of questions in the statement, “Questions have energy and answers do not.”
Oh, how I loved this statement. Questions have energy.
Answers stop the question. Complete it. Finish it. Answers are linear. Questions carry energy with them. Questions are circular and spiral, taking you deeper.
It made me think of living with grief, and all the questions that surround such a change in life. Especially because many of these questions have no answers: We may never know how or why our loved one died, we may never know what happens to the spirit after death (if anything), we don’t know moment to moment, day to day where our emotions will take us and how we will go one living with our loss.
So many questions…so few answers.
Hearing Bernie Glassman re-phrase these mysteries in such a way made me realize that maybe the answer is the question itself. There is power in not knowing and not having the answers. Perhaps this is what keeps us moving along.
As Wendell Barry says,
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
Part of journeying through grief is appreciating that this path you are on is one that has never been traveled before, by you or by anyone. The specifics of your grief are defined by innumerable personal variables: your personality traits, the traits and life of the person who died, the circumstances of their death, intricacies of your relationship to them, etcetera, etcetera. Considering all these factors, it is suffice to say that there is no one way to grieve. There is no definitive road map, no to-do list, no checklist to refer to.
Simply being on the path creates your path. It’s the questions that guide you on your way.
How do questions like these land within you:
“What happens when someone dies?”
"Why did this happen?"
“How am I going to bring myself comfort when I feel so torn up?”
“How am I going to choose to live my life in a way that feels meaningful and true based on my experiences?”
Can you ask these questions for the sake of the questions themselves? Can you bear witness to your questions, and be comfortable with not (yet or ever) knowing the answers?
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the fourth Niyama (ethical discipline, or rule-of-conduct) is Svadhyaya, which means self-study. Ancient yogis looked inside themselves for the answers to cosmic questions, and in fact, the sutra says “Study thy self, discover the divine.”
Yoga, as a holistic system allows this self-study to take place by turning your attention inward, developing concentration and single pointed inner focus, and observing the true nature of the mind. The physical and spiritual practice of yoga cultivates discernment, awareness, self-regulation and eventually union with your big-S-Self (the true self, Atman (inner self or soul), immense Consciousness, or divine within you).
But, before that happens, it is likely that your practice of inner yoga and self-study, will turn up even more questions…especially in the face of grief. The take home point is that your process of discovery must arise from within.
This philosophy of yoga can be applied each time you do a pose. Instead of becoming complacent with sequencing and the execution of certain poses, treat each pose as though it were the first time you were doing it. Practice becoming re-acquainted with your body and your mind in each moment - opening yourself up to the process and wisdom of studying and discovering yourself with non-judgemental and compassionate attention. If a question, query, or debate arises within you, practice breathing into it. Give the question a life of it’s own, by which the answer will eventually be lived.
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke says,
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
And so, as you journey to the heart of your Self and the heart of your grief, trust in the nature of your questions to carry you forward, and backward – both of which are required as you integrate loss. This is not a sudden process - it’s a gradual process. A gradual awakening and evolution of understanding your own specific beliefs around death, life and living.
If you're interested in reading more about the Yoga Sutra's of Patanjali or more by Rilke, check out these books below:
Recently I was driving with my 9 year old step son, Gabriel, and we were listening to my “Sandy’s Favourites” playlist on Spotify. This song came on:
“Ohhh, I love this song,” I said, as I turned up the volume. Gabriel is a musical kid – he can play the guitar and the drums. When he listens to music, he really listens. He’s recently began reading music, and often on our dog walks or drives we compose our own songs: The Mountains are Calling and I Have To Go Pee are two recent ones.
“Can you believe someone wrote this song, and is playing it on the piano?” I asked him.
I looked in the rear view mirror. He was quiet and had a look of total concentration on his face.
I wondered what his thoughts were, but didn’t press him for an answer.
We listened for a while longer, then he quietly asked, “Was he sad when he wrote it?"
“I think so,” I said. “It sounds sad, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“If he was sad when he wrote it then it’s pretty cool that he can show his sadness with music.”
“Yeah,” He said again.
I wondered how the song landed within him, and how he experienced this particular piece, knowing that for me, it often moved me to tears.
He’s a sensitive, insightful and stoic boy. Now, I’m no expert in child development, but I see him struggle to express his emotions with words. Heck, I see adults (myself included) have difficulty expressing my emotions with words. Yet somehow a three-minute piece of music can say so much.
Maybe that’s because music is inherently complex with it’s notes, melodies, tempos and pauses. Perhaps that taps into the complexities of our emotions that are too complex to adequately relate with the structure and limitations of a few words. And maybe this is true of all modes of non-verbal expression - art, dance, tears, movement, yoga - it somehow captures more; more broadly, more deeply, more wholly…more something.
These avenues of expression are multifaceted. Yoga for example, has a dual relationship with emotion. It can both reflect it and release it.
There have been many times that my mood or emotion dictates my yoga practice: a supported child’s pose, or prone savanasa to help soothe me or turn my attention inward.
Conversely a more vigorous practice reflects my inner energy, whether it was heightened from adequate rest or agitation. Both the intention and the movement of the practice aligned with my mood, and in that way was an expression of it.
There have also been times when my yoga practice released emotion. Slowing down and paying attention to myself, combined with movement, releases energy and emotion. Sometimes I feel it building, and have to intentionally let it release. Sometimes it comes out of now where and takes me by surprise. Twists seem to do it for me, or during savasana when emotion hits a rolling boil and spills over. That release is an expression of something so complex that I can’t even describe it with words.
What about you?
What has been your experience with the expression of emotion that is beyond/outside/in addition to words?
If you’re curious about exploring this more in your own personal yoga practice, consider signing up for my 8 week online yoga program: a holistic and practical program designed to use yoga in a way that supports, reflects, and moves grief.
And, if you want to explore some of the music I use, you can find it on Spotify.
Well THAT took a long time!
Last winter I signed up for an online course with Abbey Of The Arts. Within moments of registering and starting the course, I knew that the platform they used for their online experience (Ruzuku.com), would work for my vision of an online Yoga For Grief Support program. What I had spent years contemplating finally looked possible.
I bought a high-def camcorder at Costco, and a tripod from Amazon, googled tips on recording yoga videos, Garageband tutorials for audio, and Imovie for editing. I was ready.
I started filming in January. I took a couple of days off work and spend an extra long weekend at my parent's place, recording in their lovely sun room. Making these videos wouldn't be as much fun if it weren't for Ruby my not-so-helpful, helpful assistant.
I thought I'd be ready to launch the series in March...ha!
In February I took a week off work to edit the audio and video, and splice them together. I loved having a dedicated week of working on my labour-of-love interspersed with dog walks and coffee breaks.
Well into March, I was trying to figure out all the extra tid bits; linking the program to my website, integrating Paypal and a mailing list etc. Videographer turned IT Department of one.
April and May were spend editing all the written content and uploading videos...it takes quite a while to do both. Each video is around 2GB and that takes HOURS!
Long past my anticipated deadline of March, May and June were spent crossing my Ts and dotting my i's and adding little extra details like this blog post, figuring out a wavier, and insurance requirements.
Now, here we are at the end of June and I'm in the last stages of production - testing all the links and the purchase process.
Coincidentally, I'm ready to launch today, on Wednesday June 28th 2017. This wasn't consciously planned, but it worked out well because today is a very significant day.
It was Wednesday June 28 2006 that Cam's life support was turned off, and my life changed it's course forever. I'll never forget 9:25am...I looked at the clock moments after the respiratory therapist pressed "silence" on the life support machine and Cam Michael McTaggart died.
I wanted to launch this in honour of him and me. This program wouldn't be in existence without him.
To learn more about the online program, click here.
I am frequently asked about what yoga studios and classes are good. I find this a difficult question to answer because there are so many variables at play. Especially after the death of a loved one.
There are as many styles of yoga as there are teachers. Not only is each class a different intensity level, but also each teacher adds their own unique flare, communicating their own personal interpretation of how yoga has been felt or expressed their bodies, to the class.
I encourage students to find a teacher that they like. One that they “buy into.” Who’s teaching resonates. I believe there has to be a sliver of common ground, where the life experience, and the experience of yoga as the teacher has interpreted it, meets the student’s. This helps to make a yoga practice feel possible – this is something I can do - and fosters a sense of trust and safety. From this place, a teacher will challenge his/her students, but the pre-requisite for all good learning, and in this case, good mourning, is safety.
In my past life, I was a competitive mountain bike racer. Living in Edmonton, my off-season (winter) was months long. So, I took up yoga. I practiced physically challenging styles of yoga – Ashtanga and vinyasa – because I wanted to improve my physical conditioning by strengthening and stretching. These classes “met me where I was at.” They met my physical needs and my mental expectations about what I wanted my yoga to be.
After Cam died, I continued with this intense style of yoga. In the first few months it helped to balance me – I was anxious, restless and confused. It took the edge off. Still in shock, my old routine was comforting. It was something my body was good at and could do. It was something I had control of, as every other area of my life spun out of control.
As the shock wore off and I realized anew that Cam died, grief punched me in the stomach and left me on my knees. As the reality of my situation set in, I became increasingly fatigued. I didn’t have the physical energy to get out of bed, never mind a 90-minute power yoga class. I was emotional and labile. I’d burst into tears mid pose, and spend all of savasana fighting back sobs.
I wasn’t buying into, or comforted by the teachings the various teachers provided. They felt cliché: I wanted to scream, “Everything doesn’t happen for a reason,” and “Fuck positive affirmations!” None of it felt applicable to my life, and in fact, it made me feel shameful for not measuring up to par.
I felt out of place. I didn’t feel safe. Those classes were no longer a good fit for me.
I found an exceedingly gentle yoga class taught by a woman, Beth, the basement of her house. For two hours every Wednesday, we would gather. In those two hours, we would do three poses, using cushions, blocks and bolsters for support and comfort. We spent oodles of time breathing, and learning meditation.
These classes were challenging in a different way. They met me where I was at - terrified, confused and raw. The slow gentle postures allowed me to feel my body, and my emotions, which was possible because I felt safe there – as safe as I could feel with raw grief coursing through my veins. In any case, I wasn’t the only once crying in Beth’s class.
If you live in a major city, the breadth and choice of yoga classes can be over-whelming. If you’ve never done yoga before, I would suggest starting gentle, so you can learn the basics, and have an affirming experience. From there, find a teacher that you like. Try a few until you find a good fit.
Everyone’s grief experience is so individual, and everyone comes to yoga a various points in their life. If you remember to find a class to “meet you where you’re at,” you’ll find something that reflects your needs in the moment. Remember, it’s OK to experiment and change your mind…life isn’t constant: sometimes you’ll need the intensity; sometimes you’ll need the quiet. The choice is yours and the options are out there.
A good companion for grief is the book “Understanding Your Grief” by Alan Wolfelt. Although it's not a yoga book, much of Wolfelt's philosophy is very yogic, and I found it a helpful resource to blend what I was learning about grief in my life, into my yoga practice. For this book, and more recommendations, check out my bookstore.
Why do I teach yoga as a method of grief support? The easiest answer to this question is because yoga helped me after I suffered the death of my partner in 2006.
I didn't see the benefit of yoga right away, but I went to regular yoga classes - more because it was something to do than anything else. Over time, I noticed I was sleeping better, and breathing deeper. When I was calm, I felt more calm...and when I wasn't I felt more aware that I wasn't. I learnt movements, positions, stretches and breathing exercises that I could do by myself and for myself when I needed it. Rolling out my mat, sitting down, closing my eyes and taking a few conscious breaths became a ritual.
Ironically, in the stillness and quiet of the yoga studio, my grief began to bubble up and bubble over. Slowing down in yoga made me aware of everything that I had pushed down and pushed aside to simply get through my days.
I felt awkward in a room full of young, fit, bodies in fancy yoga clothes. I felt disheveled, and haggard. I sat alone on my mat before class started, annoyed at how happy everyone was. During the class, I'd burst into tears during twisting poses. I'd stifle my tears during savasana. At the end of class I'd roll up my mat and hurry out of the room, not wanting anyone of those happy people to see I had been crying. There were sometimes over 20 people in those classes, and I felt immensely alone.
I didn’t understand why I was crying. I didn't know why twists caused it. I didn’t understand why I felt so crazy all the time, and angry about happy people. I didn’t understand the black hole of emotion that opened up when I learned to meditate. And yet, in every class a yoga teacher would say or do something that felt supportive and helpful; and I wished there was a yoga class specifically designed for someone like me. Someone who was grieving.
Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” So I did. I studied yoga. I took notes and wrote down reflections after each class. I went to counseling and grief support groups. I started to learn about grief in MY body and mind.
I took my yoga teacher training. I got certificates in Bereavement Support, and Death and Grief Studies. I applied my knowledge around the therapeutic use of activity from my professional career as an Occupational Therapist.
Over time, I developed a class where grieving people could do yoga, learn the benefits, apply the wisdom and cry if they wanted to or needed to. A huge piece of the class is education about death and grief - dispelling misconceptions, and learning (re-learning) the natural, instinctive response to loss that our society has so carefully tried to avoid.
There is a prayer flag I made, hanging in my back yard, that quotes the Talmud. It sums up why I am so passionate about supporting other people who are bereaved and grieving. This flag is hanging in view of my kitchen window and when I see it I am reminded...
"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly NOW. Love mercy NOW. Walk humbly NOW. You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.”
It’s been almost a year since I wrote on this blog. For those who have subscribed to receive notifications of updates, I apologize for my absence.
I’ve lacked focus here. I’ve struggled with what to write. The topics I want to write about - yoga and grief - are so huge, that it’s overwhelming to distill it down to one coherent piece that is educational, informative and personal.
Over the past few years I’ve pursued more education and training in yoga, grief and end-of-life, and it seems that the more I learn, the harder it is to write about. One of my great Uncle’s who was a famous chemist once said, “The more I learn, the less I know.” I always wondered what he meant by that. Now I know.
I sent out a SOS to my email list, requesting feedback on what people would like to read about. I got one reply – from my friend’s husband – who simply wrote, “I would like to know why you teach what you do.”
It’s taken me a while to condense that suggestion into a direction and plan. Why do I teach what I do?
I like where this could go. It appeals to me to take it right back to the beginning. Right down to the studs. The crux of why I thought yoga would be a good support for grief, and why I created the class I did.
I’m excited about this. It’s given me a new way to communicate how yoga can support grief – from a more personal vantage point – and yet, hopefully universally enough that people can relate.
…I know I’ve said that before, but really…this time I mean it.
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