Today is the winter solstice. This evening the tilt of the earth will place our hemisphere the furthest it is from the sun, rendering it the longest night of the year. Winter solstice is also known as the beginning of winter, and the “return of light,” as from this day forward, daylight hours will become longer.
A beautiful image on today’s local paper caught my eye – of a statue of a person trumpeting at sunrise – the sky an orange glow, and the black silhoette of the person in the forground. Beneath the photo the caption was something to the effect of: The bad news? Longest night of the year. Good news? Return of the light.
Yes, it’s true – this is what solstice is. But….I personally hestitate to judge it as good or bad. It is what it is.
It’s true that the long hours of darkness can perpetuate the “winter blues” and it is a time when grief and sadness can feel extra sharp and jagged against the expectation of joy and celebration. There is no doubt that the long nights of winter create a challenge on many levels for many people. There is also no doubt that people look forward to more of daylight, and the return of the sun, as this brings a sense of hope, renew, warmth and comfort in it’s wake. It is for this reason that solstice has been celebrated and ritualized throughout history.
Metaphorically, the darkness of winter solstice reminds us of the darkness of our life, and of our experiences. Our grief, loss and suffering can become more intense when the darkness of our environment surrounds us and perpetuates a sense of isolation and withdrawal. I have heard time and time again of how difficult this time of year is, and even in my own body I feel the natural tendancy towards slowing down, turning inward and looking deeply at the core of my being. I feel more lethargic, emotional, introspective and low.
However, I strongly challenge the notion that is “bad news.” For, the light can only exist in relation to the dark…Spring can only come from winter…Day can only come from night. As Robert Ingersoll says, ”In the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.”
This is one of the great paradoxes of grief and mourning. Similarly, your pain at the death of your loved one can only extend from the depth of your love for them.
Suffering and love are two of the most true, raw, and unavoidable human experiences. They exist in relation to each other. Consequently, the task reconciling your grief and loss involves moving through the center of your grief and touching both the love and the hurt. Feeling the joy of the memory and the pain of the reality. In this way, over time, grief can be integrated it into your being.
Re-framing the experience of your grief journey (and solstice for that matter) with the words, “both/and” instead of “either/or,” we can use the darkness of winter solstice as a time to turn inward, become more reflective, and to slow down. We can hold it all – the light and the dark, love and pain, grief and joy.
We are not meant to run from the natural cycles of our lives (including joy and birth and inevitabely death and grief), nor are we meant to run from the natural cycles of the earth (sleep and wake, light and dark, changing of the seasons). By staying present and staying mindful, we learn to let our bodies vibrate with whatever our experiences bring. From this hope and light can grow. During this dark time of year, we can nurture our natural feelings towards hibernation we can find more rest in our own experience and develop a cocoon for our changed life to grow in. Can we hold the tendency towards darkness with an open palm and let it be present enough that we might see a flicker of light.
A yoga practice can reflect the cycles of the earth and the energy of the winter solstice by choosing more restorative and restful practices to conserve energy and by focusing more on meditation and breathing exercises than a strong physical practice. A Yin Yoga practice can feel especially quiet, restful and deep.
Two great articles for further reading:
Self Care for Winter Health via the Yoga Jounal
Winter Solstice Brings Messages of Hope and Renewal Amid Darkness via the Edmonton Journal
You can’t get very far without hearing about different styles or forms of yoga, from hot, power, core yoga to gentle and restorative yoga. I wanted to write about restorative yoga because it is such a wonderful style, yet virtually unknown. Restorative yoga doesn’t seem to have the same appeal to the marketing world as more aggressive styles of yoga that strengthen and tone the body – However, unlike the “hard” yoga styles, restorative yoga is a style that everyone can do, and everyone will benefit from.
Restorative yoga promotes deep and total relaxation – a state that is rare in this day and age. The physical demands of restorative yoga are low, because all the poses are done completely supported on props (cushions, bolsters, blankets), and the physical benefits are high. When the body is properly supported and the focus is relaxing into the position, it allows the physical body to open in a way that is very gentle and soft. Further, it is through the mechanism of rest that the body can heal – on a cellular level, as well as mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Restorative yoga does just what it says it does: It restores you. It is meant to be practiced when your energy reserves are low, you are under stress or fatigued. The poses are such that you can practice them when you are unwell, or recovering from illness or major life stressors.
In Yoga for Grief Support, I use restorative poses frequently. The lethargy experienced with the grief and mourning experience can be quite profound, and restorative yoga provides a way to gently approach the body and create both openness and ease.
Mountain Brook Pose
“I will let my body flow like water over the gentle cushions.” - Sappho
Below is a restorative pose that I use to open the heart, and deepen the breath. It allows us to open parts of our body that we generally protect – our throat, heart and belly. For this pose, you will need the following props: One rolled blanket, rolled pillow or rolled yoga mat for behind your knees. Two stacked folded blankets for behind your shoulder blades. One blanket or towel rolled for behind your neck.
Do not practice this pose if you have disc disease or another condition of the spine, or if you are more than 3 months pregnant.
To set up for this pose:
1. Sit at the long edge of your stacked, single fold blankets. You will lay onto these blankets so they support your shoulder blades – the center line of the blankets should be just below the lower tip of your blades. This set up should not be uncomfortable in your lower back – you want to feel as though your heart is lifted, but your shoulders can relax and your lower back is long. If you feel over arched, decrease your set up by one blanket.
2. Place the rolled blanket/pillow/yoga mat behind your knees. Have enough height that the legs feel supported.
3. Place the rolled towel/blanket behind your neck so your neck and head feel support from beneath. Your neck should feel 100% relaxed. If it does not, try decreasing the height behind your shoulder blades.
4. Place your arms out to the sides at about 90 degrees or in a comfortable position in relation to your blankets.
5. Stay here for 5 minutes. Focus on relaxing your body onto the supports, as if it were water, flowing over stones in a mountain brook. Let go of tension in the muscles of the face, jaw and throat. Notice any feelings as they arise from your heart -and simply be aware of their presence. Soften and relax your belly with each exhalation.
6. When you are ready to come out, roll to one side and pause there. In time, gently press yourself to sitting.
There is ‘energy’ in our posture – a certain je ne sais quoi about how we are standing that pronounces how we are feeling. Based on my own personal and professional experience, posture has become an obvious reflection as to the state of one’s heart. I remember a time when an acupuncturist I was seeing commented on my posture. I was sitting in a chair, slightly curled over in the chest, shoulders slumped, with my head down…a combination of punched-in-the-stomach, not having the energy to sit up, and instinctually trying to assume the fetal position. At the time, she commented that she knew I was extremely sad and traumatized. I thought she was psychic. Although, now I see what she saw – my body was saying to everyone who saw it, “I am wrought with sadness.” I didn’t have to verbalize anything. Her impression was that I was protecting my heart – and she was right.
If we can project our emotions outwardly by how we are standing or sitting, we also can project that ‘energy’ inwardly – either accentuating or perpetuating a state of mind or emotion. I’m definitely not saying it’s a bad thing, in fact, I believe our bodies have infinite wisdom and instincts to assist us on our grief journey, and that our bodies assume postures they need at the time, for whatever reason. What I hope to project, however, is the idea that we are in some control of how we use our bodies, which can affect our mind and emotion. Whether it’s within our control or outside our control, our posture can give us information about our present reality.
When my acupuncturist associated my posture with the idea of energetically protecting my heart, it made immediate sense. I was trying to curl up into a ball to comfort and protect myself. Now, I cannot generalize my experience to the entire grieving population, but as I have come to teach yoga to students who are grieving, I do see this posture more often than not. When I do, I see it as a physical expression of an emotional state – whatever that may be. Everyone’s grief experience is unique. It’s our yoga practice where we can go inside our bodies and be curious about our own experience. And, learn how we can use our bodies to transform our experience.
In yoga, we practice tadasana (mountain pose) as a classic standing posture. It is the foundation for all other standing poses. See the photo below, and notice the ‘energy’ or feeling of how the woman is standing. It’s very different than the feeling behind the other pictures depicted above.
In tadasana, we practice standing with our feet firmly planted and our legs strong. We roll our shoulders back and down, and press the crown of the head up. Symbolically, we stand in our here and now. We could even take the symbolism further and ask “what does a mountain mean to me?” and, “what qualities of a mountain can I bring into my mountain pose and my life?”
It’s important to see our physical bodies as allies in our journey through grief, by noticing the messages our bodies give us, take heed, and honour what is found. This develops compassion as we become aware of what parts of our bodies, mind and soul are in need of tender care.
We can use yoga to therapeutically explore our grief – noticing how the ‘energy’ of tadasana feels, and if it is different than the energy our commonly assumed body posture. Considering the idea that our posture influences our outward and inward energy, remember that we can choose to take tadasana anytime we want. Tadasana fosters finding stability, strength and confidence, and with that intention, we can use yoga, and the movement of our bodies to influence our mind and emotion. Tadasana can be practiced daily -wherever you are – simply standing with an expression of strength in the limbs, openness in the heart, softness in the breath and mind…and see how this transcends into daily life and off the mat.
“The energy accumulated in practice has a lot to do with my ability to get clarity about the reality of things.” – John Friend
As a long time yoga student and now a yoga instructor, I am often hearing/talking about ‘creating intention’ around a yoga practice – as a way of initiating a practice and focusing the mind. Intention can be a powerful tool to ground oneself and create a life of meaning and integrity. But, what exactly is an intention? And, how can it be used in a yoga practice, and then carried over into daily life?
In my experience, intention is often confused with goal setting. Setting a goal is an outcome orientated, future based object of a persons ambition or effort. Goals are something you work towards acheiving, with the end result being either a win/lose, positive/negative situation. Goals provide direction to your life, require planning and organizing your behaviour to achieve the objective of your goal. Goal setting is an extremely valuable skill – allowing you to envision your future world and move in a direction towards that destination. The un-yogic side of goal setting is that goals are centered around an imagined future, and the positive/negative outcome orientation around goals can create suffering. Further, goals do not guide you on how to live, they just guide you on what you want in the future, which is often volatile and out of your control.
Intention setting is different – intention is about how you choose to BE in the present moment. With an intention, it requires ever present attention to the changes and flow of your daily life. It requires constant mindfulness to respond to situations in your life in a way that is true to your deepest values, morals and ethics. It’s a committment to behave outwardly in a fashion that mirrors your inner values. By practicing “right intention” you live from a place of authenticity and unity, and from this place you can work towards your goal and create meaningful fulfilment in your life.
So, goals and intentions are intertwined. Intentions create a constant presence and mindfulness, aligning the energy of your heart with your energy of working towards your goals. Often, our goals become a little easier to reach when we act from right intention. This takes practice, awareness, and reflection. Especially when it comes to the storms we face in life, creating intention and acting from this unified core takes practice and compassion. When we lose our footing in the security of life, and stumble into confusion and despair, remembering our intentions can give us the grounding to reconnect with what is soulfully important to us. This reconnection is independent of the outcome of our goals…so when life changes and appears to fail us, we still have our intentions to allow us to find a foothold.
Yoga can provide a “practicum” in setting right intention by consistently coming back to it through out the class. If you can set the intention to “BE” every moment of a 90 minute yoga class, and non-judgementally watch the pull away from experiencing the present moment into the lure of a future oreientated striving, you can begin to understand the nature of the illusions of the mind versus the truth of the present moment.
As you move through grief, and work towards integrating your losses into your life (this would be the goal), you can approach each moment from a place of authenticity of your experience (this would be the intention). It is vital to come back to your noourishing center to remember that although you cannot control the events in your life you can use mindful intention to control how you respond – in a way that is self-supportive.
So, the next time you are in a yoga class, and the teacher invites you to create an intention, think about how you want to BE in the present moment, moment after moment. What deep value or wisdom do you you want to guide you through the ups and downs of life?
Then, when you are in a difficult pose and your mind starts to wander, or negative self talk begins to overtake you, come back to your intention. Or, if emotion arises – whether its anger or sadness, approach that emotion by remembering the intention that keeps you out of the “reaction” to the emotion and into the experience of blending your emotional release with your committment to BE with the present moment. Over time and with practice this will begin to organically guide you in all you do – on and off the yoga mat.
“The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” – Ram Dass
I follow a company on Facebook called My Yoga Online. This week they posed a question to everyone: What lessons or inspirations have you learned this week, on or off the mat?
One of the first comments spoke to me deeply, it said: “got a wonderful reminder from a fellow yogi that to be authentic to your inner wellness, you sometimes need to say ‘no’ graciously.” I just loved it. Be authentic to your inner wellness. So simple, and so difficult.
Other comments were about a need/desire to stay committed to a yoga practice, moving slowly and appreciating life, and finding balance. One woman found out this past week that her 7 year old daughter has cancer….she wrote about turning fear into strength, and turning lonliness into “alone time.”
Lessons and inspirations…where do they come from and where do they end up? Is there anything we can do to allow ourselves to be more open to being inspired? Or understanding and integrating a lesson or inspiration into our lives? I believe there is.
One of the greatest gifts yoga brings is awareness. As we begin a yoga practice, we become quiet and turn our attention inward. Our senses linking us with the external world withdraw and we become attuned to our internal processes and sensations. This creates awareness of the state of our mind, and body. We learn about the nature of our thoughts and feelings, and the sensations and imprints they leave within us. We become aware of the sensation of balance and quiet peace, even if it is only for a brief time during svasana (relaxation pose) at the end of the class. We begin to hear the subtle whispers of our authenticity – we have become more aware.
This awareness spills over into our lives off our yoga mats and into the real world. We notice inclings, and spidey senses. We feel when things aren’t right, and when they are. We can sense when we are out of balance, and when our lives are healthy and grounded. This is where our lessons and inspirations are hidden. In those times when we say, “I won’t do that again.” Or, “wow, that made me feel great.” We learn what we need, when we need it, because we are paying attention.
So, as Ram Dass says, “The quieter you become, the more you hear.” Be silent and listen.
As we live life – coping with joy and loss we open ourselves up to all sorts of lessons, inspirations, of both the good and bad variety. Yoga gives us a tool to “go inside” and integrate what we need to integrate to create authenticity of our experiences and inner wellness.
Paschimottana (seated forward bend) is a pose that encourages introspection and reflection. It mimics “turning inward” upon oneself, thereby fostering internal awareness and surrender. Some benefits include, resting and massaging the heart, soothing the adrenal glands, improving the digestive system, and calming and quietening the mind.
This pose can be done in a more supportive and restorative way, by supporting the head on cushions or on a chair.
Another type of forward bend which is less intense of a stretch for the back of the body, is childs pose.
So next time you notice something that calls your attention – really pay attention. Go inside and listen.
“Is yoga going to make all of my hardship go away? Of course not- my life is going to be hard. But without these difficulties, I would not be who I am.” – Matthew Sanford.
Matthew Sanford is a yoga teacher in Minnisota, USA. I first heard about Matthew Sanford while I was listening to a podcast on spirituality – it was a sound byte of him teaching a yoga class: “And then now, take your hands out straight, straight over you like you’re getting long, like you’re superman flying through the air. And then, even if you can’t do what I’m about to say it’s okay, cause I can’t do it either.” See, Matthew Sanford is paralyzed and wheelchair bound. He’s a yoga teacher, author, renowned public speaker, and founder of a non-profit organization that is dedicated to transforming trauma, loss and disability into hope.
I needed to know more. So I found another podcast – this one called “The Body’s Grace.” Its an interview with Krista Tippett from “On Being” and it’s Matthew’s story….and it’s truly inspiring.
At 13 years of age, he was in a car accident that killed his father and sister and left him paralyzed. He fell asleep in the car as a 13 year old walking boy, full of innocence and vigour, and woke up in a hospital from a coma with multiple fractures and paralyzed from the chest down.
He states that although his injury has a physical cause (spinal cord damage) his real disability at the core is an affliction of his mind-body connection. Specifically, he doesn’t have the same “ease” of anatomical and neurological connections from his mind to his body that a walking person would have, due to the damage in his spinal cord.
He talks about how a yoga practice gave him the tools of patience, and grace in his outlook and, smoothness and balance in his physical rehabilitation.
In his healing process, he describes how the relationship to his body changed. He had to “close the door” on the innocence and rambunctiousness of a 13 year old boy and adopt a more subtle awareness of noticing and sensing his ‘new’ body. He says, “I’ve had to pursue a lot of the subtler connections between mind and body. That’s the foundation of my yoga practice. So, what ends up happening with me is that I have to go inward and LISTEN, to levels that we all share. You have the same connections in your mind-body relationhsip that I use to do yoga, and that I use in the rest of my life…..One of the big healing things for me was to recognize that my paralyzed body didn’t stop talking to my mind, it changed its voice. It went to a more subtle whisper, that doesn’t have as much clarity. Its sweeter, its quieter, and it doesn’t as quickly react. I try to decribe it as energetic presence.”
What resonnated with me is that everyone has experiences in life where our world changes – whether its the loss of health, the loss of a love, trauma, heart break etc…when our world changes shape, we also lose our place in it – we become disorientated and disconnected. We may not have a spinal cord injury, but everyone can relate to feeling like their body and life is completely unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
What yoga can teach us is to how to reconnect with ourselves – by using the intention of the mind to explore the body. In our new, changed world, it gives us the opportunity to develop a changed relationship with our body, breath, and even mind. In times of grief, stress, and disability, it becomes harder to hear the subtle callings and quiet sweet whispers within ourselves. If we become silent and we listen and we begin (with baby steps) to form a connection between the intention we create in our mind and the sensation it brings to our body…mind-body connection. Whether you can stand on your head, or balance on your arms, or practice yoga in a wheelchair – it doesn’t matter… yoga is approaching your life with non-violence and compassion and meeting yourself exactly where you are. Perhaps, this breeds acceptance of your changed experience….and from there, even a new relationship to hope.
Incidentally, Matthew observes that as his students form a stronger mind-body connection, their compassion for themselves and for humanity increases. Once you begin to connect your mind and body in a mutually supportive way, it becomes easier to see the humanness in all situations and people.
So, in your experience, know that your mind hasn’t stopped talking to your body – it may have just changed it’s voice. Be silent and listen to the subtle whispers that are guiding your through each new moment.
Since March 2010 I have been hosting a class here in Edmonton called Yoga for Grief Support. When people hear this, the inevitable first question is, “How is that different from regular yoga?” Well, to be brief, it’s different in the focus and community.
Yoga for Grief Support was created to encourage a safe place where students could use yoga to explore and move through their grief. In any yoga class, you will explore your body and mind, and develop a connection between the two. In Yoga for Grief Support, we explore the body/mind connection and the impact our grief has on us. In order for grief to be healed, we must learn to move through our pain. Mindful movement and mindful meditation can be valuable tools in journeying through our grief, and learning tools to cope. The class tends to be quite gentle and restorative, with a strong focus on deep breathing and calming the mind. As with any bodywork, the movement, opening and releasing of the physical practice helps to relieve tension and aches and pains our bodies experience when we are under stress and grieving.
I created this class after my partner died in 2006 – it has been many years in the making, finally coming to fruition in March 2010. Yoga and meditation were, and remain, extremely valualbe in my journey through grief, and through life as I have rebuilt. It was my hope to create a safe, sacred place, where people can learn tools they can use themselves as they live with loss. There is nothing more honest, open, raw or wholeheartedly vulnerable as walking alongside people who are in their “dark night of the soul.”
From the very first session I had all students fill out a questionnaire outlining the impact Yoga for Grief had on their journey….my own informal, qualitative research study. Most of the comments centred around four main themes:
1. Body: ”better sleep, less pain,” ”awareness in which our bodies and minds react in grief,” ”feel less contracted,” “I am more embodied,” “opportunity to move stress through my body,” “conscious relaxation.”
2. Community: “powerful to be among others with similar experiences,” “being with others along this most horrible path,” “it was comfortable to be able to ‘let go’ knowing others are on a grief journey as well,” “I am not alone in my feelings.”
3. Taking time: ”take time for myself and be OK with needing it,” ”learn to pay attention to my inner self and needs,” ”class allowed grief/loss,” “a moment to slow down,” “opportunity for reflection/insight,” “time to nurture my soul.”
4. Coping: ”given me hope that I can experience grief and not get stuck in it,” “I have some control over what happens when I have grief bursts,” “grief can suspend us in limbo, but that is OK, because we can just be there with whatever is there,” “that I have to move gently through loss and grief, and not push through.”
….the number of comments were endless, and I wish I could include them all. I use all comments and feedback from students to create a class that is nurturing and healing. Most importantly, I strive to create a community, where we can grieve openly, share wisdom, and breathe deeply together.
I will update this blog weekly, so please check back for posts about life, loss and yoga.