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.
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.
I recently started reading a book called Full Body Presence by Suzanne Scurlock-Durana. The first chapter had me hooked.
In those first few pages she wrote of something that I have known on some level, but seeing it in print made it so much more tangible.
She describes many instances when we don't trust our internal awareness - for example, feeling intense grief over a dear friend moving away but being told by people around you that your grief was not important, and shameful..."Why are you worried about it? You have many other friends, right?" Or having a creepy reaction to someone in your life and being told to stop being so silly and jumping to conclusions.
"In all these examples, your body was telling you something important, but those around you tried to convince you that what you were sensing wasn't real or valid" (page 9).
It was this lack of trust of our inner and deepest self that struck a chord within me.
She further describes how a lack of trust of our inner worlds leads us to looking for external sources to shape, define, solve, remedy our lives.
Take grief for example.
Our grief slows us down physically and mentally. We feel tired, lethargic, numb, confused, disorientated, lost and sometimes even crazy. Our emotions are all over the map. We feel so different, our lives feel foreign. We wish we could go back in time and never let go of the past.
The worst part is this: In the throngs of grief you don't know what to do. You've never lived like this before. If you don't know, and don't trust what you feel inside, you look outside yourself for the answers.
You look to a society that pushes speed, rewards efficient solutions, reveres stoicism, and demands productivity. We, as a society, don't do well with stillness, solitude, loneliness, pain, and hurt.
So here we are.
"Keep really busy," they advise.
"Don't cry. She wouldn't want you to be sad," they scold.
"You need to get back to how you were before he died," they push.
"Don't live in the past," they warn.
"Stop feeling sorry for yourself," they say.
"Quit playing the victim."
Need I go on?
We are taught to not trust our grief.
Intuiting the message, reading between the lines, understanding the subtext, we hear this:
"Whatever grief-striken energy you feel inside you is wrong. You feel the wrong things. You think the wrong things. You are doing it wrong."
What I teach in Yoga for Grief Support is this:
"Whatever grief-stricken energy you feel inside you is something to pay attention to. There is wisdom there. Let's learn, together, how to touch those wounds with compassion."
If you feel it, it's real.
If you feel it, it's important.
If you feel it, you can heal it.
Be curious about it. What is it saying? What is it's message? What is it's deepest need?
What if you believed that your internal world is telling you something very important about how you need to heal and nurture your broken heart?
Imagine, just for a second that the grief within you can be trusted - even in it's painful.
I mean, you are hurt, afterall. Let's spend some time there.
Say to it, "I will take care of you."
This is what moving towards your pain is. You must move (gently and with no rewards for speed) towards (and through) your pain to heal.
Suzanne Scurlock-Durana writes that our bodies are "incredible navigational systems that inform us constantly, from our gut instincts to our heart's deepest yearnings" (page 5).
Let's shift our relationship to our instincts and our senses from one of mistrust and doubt to reliance, and connection.
I'd love to hear your feedback on this book if/as you read it.
Please feel free to post comments under this blog.
Something very important is happening.
Anyone who ever has lost someone, or who will lose someone has to know.
That's everyone. That's me, and you and someone you know.
There are changes coming to the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
Which, to make a long story short, will make it easier for people who are grieving to be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. Basically, if you are experiencing symptoms such as sadness, altered sleep patterns and changes in appetite, for longer than two weeks (2 WEEKS?!) after the death of a loved one, you meet the criteria for depression.
2 weeks? Are we human? Or are we robots?
I recognize that the above description is over-simplified. I recognize that in some cases, people who are grieving can, and are, diagnosed with depression and prescribed medication. I also HOPE with every fiber of my being that the decision to do so is made by a clinician who has a firm grounding and understanding in what it means as a human being to experience and live through loss as a natural and normal part of life, and NOT a pathology that can be SOLVED by medication. In some cases I'm sure medication can help, but to have a 2 week limit on a human experience like grief is scary and irresponsible, in my humble opinion.
Six months after Cam's sudden and tragic death a medical professional asked me if I had a good Christmas.
I didn't. It was horrible. It was excruciating. It was hell for me and for his family.
Christmas wasn't a celebration that year. Nor the next. Nor the one after that, if the truth be known.
Next comment made (without further conversation or acknowledgment of my reality):
"You sound depressed, you need medication."
Actually, what I needed was someone to acknowledge that feeling sad after the death of my loved one was normal. That feeling a loss of joy and lightness is a natural response to devastation. That the symptoms of grief are a wise and organic response to the fact that I had something that I loved be taken from me. That not feeling like celebrating Christmas 6 months after his death was completely congruent with my life experience and that what I needed was people to sit with me there in darkness, not fix the unfixable.
Heart to heart, another human being should understand that grief is painful, messy and life changing. AND, that it is OK...more than OK, it's part of healing a grieving heart.
A hug would have been nice as well.
Ted Gup has this to say, in an article written in the NY Times called Diagnosis: Human
"I fear that being human is itself fast becoming a condition. It’s as if we are trying to contain grief, and the absolute pain of a loss like mine. We have become increasingly disassociated and estranged from the patterns of life and death, uncomfortable with the messiness of our own humanity, aging and, ultimately, mortality.
Challenge and hardship have become pathologized and monetized. Instead of enhancing our coping skills, we undermine them and seek shortcuts where there are none, eroding the resilience upon which each of us, at some point in our lives, must rely. Diagnosing grief as a part of depression runs the very real risk of delegitimizing that which is most human — the bonds of our love and attachment to one another. The new entry in the D.S.M. cannot tame grief by giving it a name or a subsection, nor render it less frightening or more manageable.
The D.S.M. would do well to recognize that a broken heart is not a medical condition, and that medication is ill-suited to repair some tears. Time does not heal all wounds, closure is a fiction, and so too is the notion that God never asks of us more than we can bear. Enduring the unbearable is sometimes exactly what life asks of us.
But there is a sweetness even to the intensity of this pain I feel. It is the thing that holds me still to my son. And yes, there is a balm even in the pain. I shall let it go when it is time, without reference to the D.S.M., and without the aid of a pill."
Well said Ted.
I feel SO passionate about being a voice speaking out for and standing up for being human. For compassion, understanding, and vulnerability in all our hurts, griefs and frailty. As Mother Teresa said, "I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love."
Let's love, people.
Of course, this is only MY opinion.
I invite you to listen to a podcast done by the BBC called Medicalising Grief. It is only available for 4 more days, so please listen soon. It is a well done, and well rounded look at the issues around the changes coming to the DSM-V and what it mean to stakeholders (drug companies...yes, interesting indeed), clinicians, you and me.
If you love someone. If you've lost someone. If you will lose someone - please listen.
Knowledge is power. Inform yourself now, so when the inevitable happens you can direct your own care and be informed about who you let into your grief to help you make decisions about your care.
When I was asked to write this guest blog, I was honored and am still very honored. As a dance/movement therapist, I was excited to share from this perspective and advocate for the body's role in grief, mourning, and healing and then I let myself become caught up in expectations about having to write from this perspective. I thought I had to write the most poetic piece but through that journey the topic of this blog blossomed: permission. A topic that may seem so benign on the outside but in reality is important. Sometimes it is the journey that we find what is already naturally onside of us. To live authentically and in the continued interest of self disclosure, my intention is to not write the perfect post but rather speak from the heart and an embodied place in support of my own journey and your journey.
The world may place many expectations on how we move through grief and bereavement. People may attempt to push someone to move on or present ideas meant to be helpful with well meaning intentions. Action is being advocated for and as a consequence a place to explore and move through one's own process is not given the space and freedom to develop. Everyone has their own way of expressing and journeying through their grief. We may feel it in our hearts, our stomachs, or our limbs. We may express our feelings through stillness, spoken words, written words, art, music, or dance. There is wisdom is what messages the body conveys about our grief and how we choose to convey our inner process. Trusting one's own process can be freeing. Our grief and healing process is our own and it is okay to go through one's own journey! Yes, I am saying that everyone has permission to be as you are in your process.I hereby give all of you permission to grieve, mourn, move, heal, and be who you are in your own process. Below I have included a blank form that you may find useful.
Peace be with all of you. Kimberlee Bow, MA, R-DMT
Kimberlee Bow obtained her Master’s in Somatic Counseling Psychology with a concentration in Dance/Movement Therapy. She obtained her R-DMT or Registered Dance/ Movement Therapist credentials by meeting the high standards that are required of the field. Dance/Movement Therapy is based on empirically supported evidence that the body, mind, and spirit are interconnected. A dance/movement therapist therefore uses movement in a psychotherapeutic manner to encourage emotional, cognitive, psychical, and social integration and growth. Dance/Movement Therapy is suited for individuals, groups, family, and couples and can be used with multiple different populations in many mental health or medical health settings. For more information please visit the American Dance Therapy Website. There, one can find more information about Dance/Movement Therapy, the organization, great resources, and access to a list of Dance/Movement Therapists in your area.
Kimberlee Bow works in Colorado in a private practice with children and families. Additionally, she brings Dance/Movement Therapy to elder groups, veterans, at-risk youth, support groups, intergenerational groups, and continues to expand her work. Her website, www.kimberleebow.com, is currently under construction, but will up soon. For more information please email Kimberlee and she will be happy to answer questions.
I've been working on making a relaxation meditation CD this summer. It has been an exercise in patience, and computer software skills, but I feel like I am finally getting somewhere with it! I hope to reveal some of it on my website this summer or early fall....
One of the tracks I am recording is a "lovingkindness" meditation, which I teach in Yoga for Grief Support, to cultivate compassion for ourselves and for others. This morning, I was reading up on compassion, and kindness, and came across this wonderful quote. I love that included in the definition of compassion is sadness. I know, in my own personal experience, there is a definite link between sorrow and compassion - one that I have actually grown to appreciate. It's this intertwining of two seemingly paradoxical emotions that reminds me not only of the amount of suffering in this world, but also the amount of love.
The quote is from A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield, and it is a quote by Chogyam Trungpa:
"When you awaken your heart, you find to your surprise that your heart is empty. You find that you are looking into outer space. What are you, who are you, where is your heart? If you really look, you won't find anything tangible or solid...If you search for the awakened heart, if you put your hand through your rib cage and feel for it, there is nothing there but tenderness. You feel sore and soft, and if you open your eyes to the rest of the world, you feel tremendous sadness. This sadness doesn't come from being mistreated. You don't feel sad because someone has insulted you or because you feel impoverished. Rather, this experience of sadness is unconditioned. It occurs because your heart is completely open, exposed. It is the pure raw heart. Even if a mosquito lands on it, you feel so touched...It is the tender heart of a warrior that has the power to heal the world."
Chogyam Trungpa calls this the 'spiritual warrior's tender heart of sadness'...which I think is a beautiful description of the love, rawness and courage it takes to live with loss and grief.
From one warrior to many warriors,
I am always open to receiving feedback from students who participate in my yoga for grief classes, as to what they found beneficial, and what things they “took home” from yoga class that have helped them live with grief.
One of the most obvious, yet most surprising, was when people told me that what they found most beneficial about the class was that it provided them with a tool they could do for themselves.
I’ve always known yoga’s power to be empowering, but to state is as “something I can do for myself,” seems somehow different….more simple, more profound, and more accessible.
Early on in my personal journey through grief, I would seek a lot of answers to my questions from sources outside myself. I wondered what everyone else believe happened after someone died before I decided on my own belief. I went to a couple of different counselors looking for answers and solutions to my grief, hoping to be told – “you just need to do ______,” as if I was doing something wrong and needed someone to tell me how to “do” it differently. Ironically, these counselors told me that what I was experiencing was normal as far as grief goes. It took a long time for me to realize that if I just listened deeply to myself, and trusted myself, I could find the answers in myself and for myself.
Henri Nouwen says, “Do not run, but be quiet and silent. Listen attentively to your own struggle. The answer to your question is hidden in your own heart.”
Even though I didn’t describe it as verbally eloquently as some of my students have, yoga gave me tools that I could use myself, for myself, whenever I needed it. I didn’t have to wait two weeks for an appointment, I could just meet myself exactly where I was in each moment and practice taking care of ME in a yogic way: I could take a deep breaths whenever I needed to. I could focus my mind on the subtle sound of ujjayi breathing during stressful situations when I thought I would “lose it.” I could rest in child’s pose when I was feeling vulnerable and fatigued. I could watch my mind react to my experiences and see myself from a non-judgmental and compassionate viewpoint.
Yoga gave me the space to be quiet and silent…to listen attentively to my own struggle…what a gift.
I suppose yoga changed my relationship with my grief. From something that needed to be conquered and something that I thought others would have the answers for, to something that was the deepest and truest part of me, that held the answers in it’s own silent, painful way. And, what yoga taught me was to surrender to my grief and my experience as my most sincere, authentic, honorable teacher on my journey.
In Yoga as Medicine by Timothy McCall, he writes: Yoga “encourages involvement in your own healing. In much of conventional medicine patients are passive recipients of care. In yoga, the essential element is not what is done to you but what you do for yourself. Yoga gives people something tangible they can do and most people start to feel better the very first time they try it. They also observe that the more they commit to the practice, the greater the benefits tend to be. This not only involves them in their own care, it gives them the message that there is hope, and hope itself can be healing – and self-perpetuating. If you believe that yoga really can help you, you are much more likely to practice everyday. And if you do that, it is much more likely to work (and not just because of the placebo effect).”
This awareness includes noticing what arises in the moment physcially, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And, just to be clear, it doesn't have to feel "good." I think there is a misconception that if you are practicing present moment awareness, or mindfulness, you should always feel peaceful, calm, encouraged and inspired. I've heard yoga students say, "I couldn't stay present because I was having too many emotions and memories." Yet, this IS being present. Noticing what is coming up for you in-the-moment is what it is all about - the good, the bad and the ugly.
The truth is that acute grief can create a host of memories, volatile emotions, anxieties and fears about the past and the future that shake up, cloud and disorder the present moment. Healing grief necessitates moving to the heart of this myriad of experiences. So how can you use the past to work with memories and trauma around the death of your loved one, continue to remember them, recognize uncertainties of the future, and synchronistically work with the present moment?
Remember, the present moment is made up of the past
"The past is in the past," or "put the past behind you" are messages that we have all heard, that have the good intention of helping us to be relieved of our pain, but in actuality, the opposite is true. The past is still alive within us, and is in the form of the present. When it comes to healing grief, it is essential to recognize the depth and breadth of your pain, which involves moving backwards into the past. Remembering your loved one(s), their life (and impact on yours), remembering and working through the circumstances of their death, and even remembering and mourning your life and how it may have changed since the death. Saying hello to all these things comes before saying goodbye.
Integrating these things with the present moment involves noticing when they arise. For example, if you are in yoga class, and you become overcome with emotion related to a memory of your loved one, staying in the present moment means staying with the emotion that arises and letting it surface, peak, and dissipate, allowing it to move through you. In this scenario, you would recognize the memory, and the emotion it evokes, and the work of staying in the present moment means taking care of the emotion and embracing it's presence, noticing how the mind gets drawn to the past, and how this past is creating your present. You work with your past in the present. Instead of running from the past and our pain we confront it and hold it as it effects our present.
Remember, the present moment has elements of the future
After the death of a loved one, your future can feel uncertain. Recognizing this and surrendering to this can be a difficult task, but if you can recognize that the cumulation of present moments will create the future the task becomes less daunting. Take care of the present moment and the future will be taken care of. Integrating the future into the present moment can be done by making conscious choices around how your want to Be in each moment. I've written about this is a previous blog post about creating and using intention. As Matthieu Ricard says, "tend to the moment; the hours, days and years will tend to themselves."
Care for your pain (embrace your suffering)
Staying present with your pain (as it arises from the past or future, in the present) allows you to deeply care for yourself. By noticing what is your truth in each moment, you can make a choice to come back to yourself (instead of running from it) and embrace your pain. This is the path to healing, self compassion, and honouring your self and your loved one. Thich Nhat Hanh recommends using the energy of mindfulness to take care of your pain by saying to it, "My suffering and my pain, I am here for you." With this care, the pain has a chance to transform from an object of suffering to an object of compassion.
Use the present moment to do the hard work of mourning
The hard work of mourning involves 6 needs as outlined by Alan Wolfelt which include: acknowledging the reality of the death, embracing the pain of the loss, remembering the person who died, developing a new self-identity, search for meaning, and receive ongoing support from others. As you can see, simply by reading these needs, they are comprised of the past (eg. remembering your loved one) and future (eg. develop new self identity). The present moment doesn't exist in isolation, nor does our grief. We would be doing ourselves a dis-service if we were to focus on ONLY the present moment as we heal. We can learn to work skillfully with our past and our future, all within the present moment. Perhaps by noticing what is your truth in the present moment, you will realize that you have to address something from the past, or spend some time remembering your loved one. In this way, our self awareness guides us on our journey - which may meander through the past, or jump to the future. Either way, being on the journey, creates the journey.
Simply, the present moment has elements of the past as well as the future, both of which are essential to be explored and nurtured as we journey through grief.
If your present moment involves a memory that sneaks out your eye and rolls down your cheek, understand that this memory is a gift from the past for the present.
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