I read a quote recently, that I had recorded in an old journal from 7 months after Cam died. I can remember, how angry this quote made me, and how it still makes me angry 5 years later. This quote was written by Doug Manning in “The Pain of Grief.”
“They were expected to be sad for a short time, then buck up, put it all behind them, and get on with life. That is how grief was done. Stoicism was the key to all healing. Stoicism meant character. Stoicism meant faith. Stoicism meant friends did not have to be involved in the uncomfortable intimacy of devastating grief.”
This quote represents a widespread misconception of grief; and, fortunately, my experience in yoga allows me to know emphatically that this is not a healthy way to process grief.
I remember in a yoga class, we were standing in Tadasana (mountain pose). The teacher put us in groups of 4. One person standing (that was me) and 3 people supporting the stander. One person was to my left, one to my right and one behind me. The supporters had their hands on my shoulders, and upper back, offering energetic and physical support. We were instructed to close our eyes, and be curious of our internal experience.
Sure enough, as the tumultuous waves of my life settled into silent, simple, supported standing, emotion began to come up and I fought like hell to keep it down. I didn’t want these people to see me breakdown and cry…I mean, I barely knew them. And, for that matter, none of them knew my story, my loss, my reason for being there. I was fighting to stay stoic. Emotionless. Strong. I was fighting for me; afraid I would be completely and helplessly consumed by sorrow, and afraid of looking incapacitated by weakness – a weakness that I felt internally in the face of my emotion.
My teacher was in front of me watching. Looking back now, I’m sure she could see my internal fight written on my face and in my posture. I remember clenching my toes, and squeezing my leg muscles as quietly as I could to stay composed. Back tense, fists clenched, palms sweating, throat closing. I swallowed to relieve some pressure.
“Don’t swallow it down, Sandy,” she said.
Damn it. She caught me. My secret was out; I was dying inside.
“Let it come up,” she coaxed.
And I did. It felt so good to feel so bad. It was such a relief to let my emotion flow out of me. It was such freedom to be supported and encouraged to not fight the internal pressure of emotion that was building up. Finally, my outward behaviour was congruent with my internal experience – I no longer had to pretend to be emotionless and stoic. I was even more surprised that when I started to cry, my supporters didn’t run away. They stayed with me and supported me. It was beautiful.
That was a pivotal moment for me, both in my yoga journey and my grief. The strong opposing visceral experiences of fighting my emotions and then flowing with them, is one that I will never forget. Where I thought I would be consumed by emotion if I let it out, I realized that letting it out was a release, and holding it in would eventually devour me.
At the start of each class, my teacher would say, “Your emotion is welcome here.” To me, that meant, I was welcome there. Me and the entirety of my experience…even the hard, painful, emotional parts.
The other thing my teacher would say, which I needed to hear was, “You’re perfect just the way you are.”
This created a template for my yoga practice. This class taught me that yoga was where I could let my guard down, and really pay attention to what I was feeling. And further, whatever I was feeling was OK because it was my experience. It doesn’t get much more pure and honest than that.
Most importantly, this experience changed my perspective. Instead of seeing stoicism as strength, I saw emotional openness and honesty as strength. It took way more courage, sturdiness and stamina to allow my emotion to come up, and to trust myself, my teacher and the people around me. It was a leap of faith that day in yoga class, and I came to realize that the only thing that will happen if I let my emotion release is that….it will release. What a blessing and testament of grace.
Yoga teaches patience and gentleness. It teaches you to open up to yourself – not only by providing a place to explore your emotion and body, but comforting ways to be supported in the process. It teaches you how to move away from the societal pressures to be stoic. It teaches you how to stay with emotion and non-judgementally watch it move through you….which it will. By really paying attention you will notice that emotions are impermanent and constantly changing. The intensity subsides if you give it an outlet…let it release, set it free.