Before and After Loss: A Neurologist's Perspective on Loss, Grief and Our Brain by Lisa M. Shulman, MD
"I expected grief to be unbearable sadness, but it wasn't that at all. It was profound instability." (preface, page xi)
The above is the quote that starts this book. I read it. Stopped. Read it again. I can relate to that, I thought.
I actually thought that many times throughout this book - which is what I liked the most. I saw myself in the pages. That, combined with the science she describes, helped me understand my own experience of grief and trauma in a much deeper way. Not only that, this book is a rabbit hole of quotable quotes and excellent references. The bibliography is pages long...a gold mine for a book worm like myself.
Lisa Shulman is a Neurologist, and this book is a memoir of her own experience with grief before her husband died, and after, as the title indicates. Her personal experience is combined with her knowledge of how the brain works to organize our reality...and in the case of grief, how it it becomes disorganized and damaged after a loss. The neurology of grief.
Lisa writes about her life with Bill (her husband) when he was sick and dying. The one thing that struck me was how their intimacy with each other was a barrier throughout his illness. "We're stumbling because we care to deeply for each other" (page 6). I found it heartbreaking to look into such an intense and personal time in their life and relationship...but, as Lisa writes later in the book, the trauma and disorientation of loss is based not only in the biology of sorrow, but the biology of intimacy. Our brains are wired a certain way because of our relationships and intimate bonds. Reading about Lisa's life with Bill before his death helps to illustrate this point in the "After" section of the book.
There is something about how Lisa Shulman writes. It is surprising - she captures perfectly, states, emotions and thoughts that I've had, but a) haven't been able to put into words, or b) hesitant to talk about for fear of...I dunno...judgement maybe? For example, her disdain for condolence cards (I remember feeling this way) and her desire to be more a part of "the other side" with Bill, than the side of the living (yep, I've felt this too). In her words:
Condolences: Hundreds were received - all unwelcome. "I'm moved when I sense the grief of others, but i envy how they touch down in my world and return to theirs. Condolences don't begin to fill the canyon of loss" (page 42).
After his death: "I continue to live with Bill, in an inner world where, from moment to moment, i’m conscious of his response to the day’s events, to how my life unfolds. He continues to guide me. I was his muse; now he is mine" (page 46).
*As I write this, I'm finding it hard to limit myself to just one example of a piece that "hit home" for me...*
She captures a lot of the nuances of the grief experience that are irrational, heart centered and spirit based very clearly and wholly.
Hence, when Lisa shifts from writing about her personal experience of grief, to one more of science and reflection on the neurology of loss I got tense. I was worried that this beautiful piece of writing was turning cold...rational...cerebral. But, in the end, it didn't at all - she was able to still be both - rational and irrational. Head and heart. Mystical and scientific. She still used her personal experience to illustrate her points, but she refers to many studies, outcomes, and sciencey things, like the neuroplasticity of the brain. The overall effect works. I was fascinated by the science that explains so much of what I experienced personally with grief. Everything from dreams to mindfulness to post-traumatic stress.
I've learnt over the years that I don't need proof of anything beyond my own personal experience when it comes to grief, but it really was reassuring to understand some of the biology and neurology behind grief.
“[G]rief is a manifestation of neurologic trauma, and is evidence of injury to brain regions that regulate emotions. Grieving is a healthy protective response. It’s an evolutionary adaptation to promote survival in the face of emotional trauma, one where the injury goes undetected since daily function is preserved.” (pg 142)
I found the end of the book very hopeful. She writes extensively on the science of emotional restoration and healing - from meditation to medication. She illustrates how a heightened nervous system post trauma can be tamed by periods of meditation, and warm companionship, where a healthy outcome is self-exploration and growth. She believes in both mindfulness as a way to immerse oneself in witnessing their grief, but also periods of distraction which give much needed rest.
"Since grief and loss cannot be avoided, how can we manage stress to increase our potential for growth and reduce the risk of maladaptation? Encourage the protective benefits of stress and avoid the harmful effects. Right balance of periods of distraction with periods of mindful meditation where we recall our difficulties." (page 100)
Do you know the phrase, "don't tell me how much you know, until I know how much you care"?
Well, by the end of this book I truly believe that Lisa Shulman doesn't only know about how the brain changes after a death, but she cares.
“As i walk the line between my own experience of bereavement and my background in neuroscience, I confess my “scientist hat” doesn't’ always fit quite as snugly as usual. Instead, this hat is cocked to one side, leaving room for special moments that defy explanation and bring comfort” pg 101.
In summary, this is another book I'd like to add to my shelf permanently (the copy I read was from the public library). It's a book I'd refer to again and again....and, of course, to tackle that bibliography :)
It's October, the month of Canadian Thanksgiving, and messages of gratitude are inescapable. I came across an article online that was titled "Go From Grumpy to Grateful in 5 seconds!!" It irritated me.
I'm irritated by the simplicity and instantaneous of it. Especially in October, when the bereaved are staring Thanksgiving in the face, wondering about how to navigate this "holiday" of gratitude, togetherness and abundance, when life has been irrevocably changed by something as uncontrollable and in-suppressible as death and grief.
Grumpy to grateful in 5 seconds
The premise is that changing your language from "I have to" to "I get to" creates more gratitude. For example, changing the statement "I have to go to work today," to "I get to go to work today" does make me feel more grateful for the fact that I have a job I love. I do find that it shifts my perspective in a positive way, and I'm not denying that this could be beneficial. But, with grief, I'm not so sure it's a helpful strategy. Especially in the early days and months after a loss.
I think back to the first Thanksgiving after Cam died. I could have said, "I get to go to our family dinner," but the only person I was looking for in that crowded room was him. I could have said, "I got to have him in my life" instead of "I have to live without him," but NO...at that time, the amount of instinctual protest I felt over his death screamed without end "I HAVE TO LIVE WITHOUT HIM IN MY LIFE." Gratefulness felt trite, empty and impossible.
In the past, wrote a blog post about this experience, and outlined some ways to make gratitude more accessible while grieving (you can read it here)...but this week, I was reminded by a grieving friend that sometimes, gratitude just isn't there. Period.
It got me thinking...
This divisive mindset of grumpy or grateful, or sad or happy, sorrow or joy, isn't helpful. It doesn't capture the complexity of human emotion, nor does it promote understanding the parts of ourselves that are so obviously calling out for attention and compassion.
What is wrong with feeling grumpy instead of grateful? I think it's an appropriate way to feel if someone you love has just died, and Thanksgiving is approaching. Just because it's October, doesn't mean your grief vanishes and is replaced by gratitude in 5 seconds!
If you find yourself unable to feel grateful this Thanksgiving, try releasing the struggle to feel something you don't feel. Don't engage in a discordant battle with yourself. What if you gave yourself permission to just feel what you feel?
Invite the sorrow to sit beside you at the table, so it doesn't have to struggle or compete for your attention. When there is no battle inside, you can listen to yourself and your needs with more clarity. What do you really need to feel more peace/balance/support/recognized/acknowledged/heard etcetera?
The integration of grief requires authentic expression of your experience. Especially the hard stuff. And, it also requires safe people and places for you to explore your grief and changed self. May your Thanksgiving plans include some of these people and places....
With time, no timeline, and from a place of true integration of your loss(es) and grief, gratefulness may spontaneously arise. And, because you'll have been practiced at paying attention to all aspects of life (the beauty and the pain), it's presence and your awareness of it will be even deeper.
I'd love to know your thoughts on this:
What is Thanksgiving like for you this year? And, what has gratitude/gratefulness been like in your experience of loss?
Wishing you moments of peace this weekend.
And a Free Video for You!
This summer, I created a poll on instagram to ask you about your experiences with savasana: Do you practice it? What's the easiest part about it? The hardest? Did it change after your loss?
I got lots of replies. Here is a summary.
Do you practice it? Yes and No. Some practice it regularly. Some did and don't any more. Some don't. The reasons for not include: not having the time (even though you know it helps, it's hard to make the time for it), and being fearful of what will come up during the pose (primarily emotion). For the ones that do, repeated and consistent practice was helpful in releasing chronically held tension. However, even with this knowledge, maintaining a regular practice of savasana was a challenge.
What's the easiest? Some reported a feeling of relaxation: "Sinking into the earth," while other reported other things like crying or sleeping.
The hardest part? Almost everyone reported the swelling of emotion or the activity in the mind being the hardest part about the pose. Finding the courage to do it was another. A couple of people mentioned the name - Corpse Pose - being disturbing enough that it was a barrier to their practice...and when the name corpse pose was used by a teacher loosely during a class, the practice became triggering, unsettling and unsafe.
Did the practice of savasana change after loss? With this question I was hoping to glean information around the effect that grief had on one's ability to relax. For most, it did change after loss - in the ways mentioned above. For some, they had never practiced it before, so post-loss it was a new experience.
What have I noticed as a grief-sensitive yoga teacher?
In my experience, teaching yoga as a supportive practice for grief, I've noticed how important savasana and relaxation are to living with loss. So important in fact, that I weave the essesnce of savasana into the entire class. The relaxation of effort that one finds in savasana isn't only present in the last 3, 5 or 10 minutes of class, but it is part of the entire experience of yoga asana and mindfulness throughout, especially when it comes to coping with difficult states of mind and emotion.
To me, savasana is an orientation to yoga. An emotional stance towards your practice. This pose embodies the nature and purpose of the entire practice.
And yet, when I go to "regular" yoga classes, savasana is skimmed over, or worse, skipped completely. If it's not, the guidance is around relaxing the body, with less advice on dealing with mental tension, and usually NO advice on how to deal with emotional release during the pose...which is a very a common experience of those grieving. And so, this important pose - one that embodies the heart of yoga, and is exceptionally helpful to those experiencing ongoing states of suffering - becomes one that is avoided and misunderstood.
That is why I created this video. I believe that savasana should be taught and practiced with the same depth of technique as headstand or a fancy arm balancing pose. I believe that the teaching of it should include, not only the body, but information about how to consciously relax the mind, as well as the emotions. And it's not simply "letting go" (a phrase that in its popularity has seemed to lose any real meaning). It's more about becoming deeply aware of your states of mind and emotions, and from there, working wisely with them.
So, I hope you enjoy this video.
The first 10 minutes are a preamble about why savasana is hard. I recommend you listen to it and take some time to reflect on how our modern and western view of relaxation has shaped your experience and ability to relax.
For the practice, you will need a couple of blankets - one rolled up for behind your knees (or a bolster) and one folded for your head (or a small pillow). It may also be nice to have a blanket to cover up with.
If you want to explore some of the topics I mention in this video, I have numerous blog posts on the subject:
I had an exceptionally emotional week last week for a number of reasons, and had an upsurging of raw grief by the end. I was done. Exhausted. Mentally, physicaly and emotionally. I was sleepy in the car and anxious to get home, have a hot shower and crawl into bed. Which I did. But once I was lying down, self talk that resisted rest started to bubble up.
While my legs felt like lead, and they literally sunk into the mattress, my mind started to come up with all-the-things I could be doing - stuff like: dishes, sweeping the floor, this blog post. When my legs didn't respond to that call to action, my mind started getting dramatic: "If you don't get up now, you may never get out of bed again." Has this happened to you?
"If I start crying now, I may never stop."
"If I rest now, I may never stop."
What is this?!
Dramatic Sandy was worried I'd lay there forever and never get up again. Wise Sandy piped up with a reality check: "You'll be out of bed in 20 minutes to pee." I had to giggle at this internal dialogue. Myself cutting myself some slack to both rest, and give myself the space to do so. Sure enough, I was out of bed later that night (a couple of times), and I did, in fact, get out of bed the next day.
Why do we do this? Why do we mentally resist rest when our bodies so deeply need it?
I have a few theories...
First, we live in a society that values efficiency and productivity. We hold an unusual status symbol: being busy. It's as though being busy equates with being needed...indespensable...valued...respected by the capitalist machine that makes the world go 'round.
We see this in our view of the body as well. The body as a machine. We become practiced at ignoring our instincts to stop - we work when we are sick, we take medicine to get rid of the sore throat and congestion so we can continue on as normal. We adhere to the only-a-few-days-off-after-a-death-rule, returning to work right after the funeral and before the reality of the death has even sunk in. We are always reachable by text, email, messenger or phone, and responses are expected quickly. We push ourselves, without taking care of ourselves. My car gets an oil change more frequently that I take time off work, for goodness sake.
Second, this addiction to busyness has become a coping mechanism. If I'm busy, I'm distracted. I don't have time or space to feel. Which, at some times, can be helpful. Other times, not so much.
Third, our own personal self-talk and beliefs around rest (which have perhaps been contaminated by points one and two above).
I noticed my self-talk/thought while I was lying in bed last week wondering if I'd ever get out. It went something like this: "If I succumb to my fatigue, I've given up." And "my need to rest is proof that things are as bad as they seem, and I can't handle it."
Look at the language I've used in the previous statements: succumb, given up, rest means things are bad, I can't handle it. The language I've chosen, highlights my beliefs about rest...interesting. And worrisome.
(Be careful how you talk to yourself because you are listening).
I'm reminded of the yogic teachings around the constant churning and agitation of thoughts in the mind. The verse in the Yoga Sutras that reads, Yoga citta vritti nirodhah (Chapter 1, v. 2) and means "yoga is the resolution of the agitations of the mind." Judith Hanson Lasater recently described this on the Feathered Pipe Blog. She described the agitations of the mind as being continual and both conscious and unconscious. They are also the root of our lack of understanding about who we really are and what reality is.
Noticing my agitated thoughts around rest has got me wondering: How has my culture shaped my beliefs around rest? How do my beliefs about grief and suffering relate to my beliefs about rest? How is resisting rest working for me? How is my identity wrapped up in my ability/inability to rest? What is my reality?
(Yoga is the state in which the agitations of consciousness are resolved).
I've been following the Nap Ministry on Instagram for a while now. Contrary to the resistance to rest, their slogan is REST AS RESISTANCE. This is from their website:
"The Nap Ministry is a meditation on naps as resistance. It is an artistic, historical and spiritual examination on the liberating power of naps. It re imagines why rest is a form of resistance and shines a light on the issue of sleep deprivation as a justice issue. It is counter narrative to the belief that we all are not doing enough and should be doing more. We are community centered. We are focused on radical self-care."
These are some of the phrases from Nap Ministry Instagram page that have inspired me to reframe how I view rest:
I know that a very limiting factor with regards to rest and grief is being unable to sleep. Here again, we can broaden our narrow view of rest to include other things.
Rest is a huge part of integrating loss and grief.
Grief and rest cannot be "managed" simply by an act of will. It takes surrender. Letting go of the conditions that create more suffering. Letting go of the conditions and agitations of the mind that create rules that simply don't benefit. Letting go of the to dos, and shoulds, simply surrendering to what is truly needed in the moment. So often it's rest.
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.
Savasana is a pose of conscious relaxation. Although many people fall asleep while practicing savasana, that is not the aim of this pose. In Light on Pranayama, B.K.S Iyengar says, “Some call it the Eternal Now, beyond space and time. Others call it the soul becoming one with the Creator. This can be experienced in perfect savasana when the body is at rest as in deep sleep, the senses as in a dream but the intellect alert and aware.”
Savasana is a restful pose, and the outcome of it is recuperation and rejuvenation. Sleep, however is not always restful, and it's possible to even wake from sleep and not feel rejuvenated. Why is this?
Studies have been done that measure the brainwave activity of those people who practice conscious relaxation and found that alpha waves (slow brain waves) increase in intensity and frequency during the practice. Interestingly, in similar studies done on sleep, these alpha waves are not commonly found during sleep, or aren't an overarching and ever-present component of sleep. During sleep, the brainwave pattern changes depending on the depth and stage of sleep. Further, sleep can be un-restful due to insomnia, vivid and disturbing dreams, frequent waking etcetera, etcetera.
With meditation and conscious relaxation however, the brain kind of downshifts to an idle, the alpha state, where sensory input is less, awareness is internal, and the brain is in a state of non-arousal. Alpha brainwaves are the resting state of the brain, and aid in contemplation, reflection, mental coordination, calmness, mind/body integration, learning and creativity.
Practicing meditation and savasana nurture the alpha state. With regular practice, the practitioner to more easily and readily achieves the alpha state. Studies have also shown that practices that employ alpha brainwave activity may have a regulatory role on sleep, meaning that people who practice conscious relaxation and meditation, sleep more deeply and more restfully when it's time to sleep.
As I've said before, savasana isn't about sleeping...but so often, people do fall asleep in savasana. If you aren't getting enough sleep, or enough restful sleep, falling asleep in savasana would make sense. My yoga teacher used to say, "if you fall asleep, you need the sleep." So true.
Sleep obviously has it's benefits: physical recovery, cognitive organization, improved ability to concentrate and learn, memory, and mood regulation to name a few. But, as the buddhist saying goes: "If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit; but whatever you do, don't wobble" - when it's time to sleep, sleep well and when it's time to relax, relax well.
As I've mentioned before, savasana is a practice. If you find you are falling asleep, try shortening the time you are in savasana. Decrease it from 10 minutes to 5 minutes to work on developing the ability of the mind to stay focused and alert without falling asleep.
The more you can train your body to be still, and your mind to downshift and idle in a relaxed state, the more easily and often you will stimulate the relaxation response, thereby making it more accessible. Overtime, your ability to stay consciously relaxed in savasana will improve, and perhaps your ability to sleep deeply at bedtime will improve as well.
"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.
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:
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