To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
I’ve been sinking into the darkness this December, really relishing in the long nights that mark the approach of solstice. At this time of year, the earth tilts so that the northern hemisphere is the furthest it can be from the sun, making the nights long, and they will get longer until the winter solstice, which is the longest night of the year. After the solstice the earth tilts back, nights get shorter and the days get longer, until the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Throughout time the winter solstice has been celebrated and ritualized for the “return of light,” with hope, warmth and comfort in its wake.
Although, this post is about the dark. It is about the time before the light returns. It is the state we are in, when the light comes; but it’s not there yet. It’s dark.
My obsession, nay intention, about sinking into darkness is in direct response to an internal longing for restfulness and reflectiveness that I get at this time of year...It’s also a counter move against the constant positive spin our culture puts on everything. As Wendell Berry said in the poem above, to know the dark, go dark. I’m going dark.
What about the mysterious? What about that which cannot be measured or quantified? We are forgetting that we are human beings, not a slew of numbers and statistics. We are losing our ability to be in relationship with the unknown, even though we spend most of our lives in this space.
Even within the modern culture of yoga, there is a skew towards focusing on positivity, and upward movement of the psyche towards betterment and progress. What happens to your practice when you are sorrowful and there is downward movement in your soul and psyche? That yoga, no longer fits. It’s not sustainable.
Heck, even the word enlightenment gets so much more positive press than endarkenment.
I first heard of this word, endarkenment, in this 12 minute video by Joan Sutherland called The Radiance of the Dark She says that the universe is made up of 96% dark matter. 96%! That leaves only 4 % light. I found that statistic staggering, in our culture that undeniably values light (literally and metaphorically).
I watched the video a few times and every time I hear something more. It’s become one of my favourites Recently, I jotted down all the words or themes that related to darkness as I watched.I also jotted down word that related to light, for comparison sake.
To explain endarkenment, I thought I’d just share my list with you.
We desperately need to change our relationship to the dark.
Understanding the dark isn’t about looking for, or turning on the light switch, it’s about forming a relationship with the dark itself. Darkness is not a mistake. Part of the human condition is suffering...not to minimize it but to encourage you/me/us/world to understand that we are equipped to benefit from the dark. To find support there. Just like a seed draws on the cool, dark, moist soil to prepare to germinate, our inner darkness can be fertile. It needs to be included as part of our healing.
Some questions for reflection...
How to the words above resonate within you?
What happens for you in the dark?
What is your particular dream?
Does your body experience endarkenment in different ways than your mind?
How can you welcome that which you exclude from your life?
What deep and dark currents can you rely on?
How can you lay back into the mystery and unknowing?
Are you willing to participate in your darkness?
ps. I'd love to hear your thoughts and reflections. Leave a comment below!
This summer, I blogged a lot about savasana, and as I was writing each post, I kept coming back to an effect of savasana that is dire medicine for the bereaved - stimulation of the relaxation response.
In order to understand the relaxation response, we must also understand the stress response. Part of your nervous system - the autonomic nervous system - governs both the stress and the relaxation response. This part of your nervous system is not under conscious control (you can't control your heart rate increase, or change in blood pressure, for example).
The sympathetic nervous system kicks into action in stressful or emergency situations. It governs the ‘fight or flight’ response, which includes reactions such as: pupil dilation, dilation of the airways to make it easier to breathe, increased blood pressure and heart rate, increased blood flow to the muscles, heightened alertness and activity in your brain to help assess situations and make important decisions. The sympathetic nervous system slows all other functions that aren’t related to survival in an emergency situation – digestion, and urine production are two examples.
The parasympathetic nervous system is calming and restoring. It helps you recover from the stress response. For this reason, it is called the ‘rest and digest’ nervous system. It slows the heart rate down, decreases blood pressure, stimulates saliva production and movement in the gut, releases bile (all systems related to digestion of food and absorption of nutrients), and eliminates waste. These processes are restorative and healing and help to build our reserves back up after being depleted by periods of stress.
This is important to be aware of and practice after the death of a loved one because you are under extreme stress for a prolonged period of time. Further, the underlying stress of bereavement, coupled situational stressors such as moments or anxiety, panic (including flashbacks), and even difficult social situations turn the fight-or-flight response up from moderate to maximum. Recognizing that, and learning ways to create relaxation will be invaluable to healing and resilience.
"Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as bird wings.” - Rumi
These two systems work in tandem to regulate the internal functions of your body. The key word to understand the healthy functioning of the nervous system is balance. A nervous system that is chronically ON is very taxing for the body and mind. A finely tuned nervous system, one that responds to emergencies when needed, but is also able to shift into a more restorative state at other times is crucial. You need both these nervous systems working together appropriately and efficiently.
One aspect of achieving balance in the nervous system is recognizing the value of both nervous system responses.
In an interesting TED Talk, Kelly McGonigal speaks about "How to Make Stress Your Friend." In this engaging talk, she describes the stress response - the pounding heart, rapid breathing and sweating - and then offers the audience this re-frame: "What if you viewed them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge?"
She goes on to describe a research study that was done at Harvard University. Basically, they taught participants that their stress response was actually helpful. That the pounding heart was preparing them for action, the faster breathing is getting more oxygen to the brain, and so on. Participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance were less stressed, less anxious, more confident, on their exam. Fascinatingly, their physiological stress response changed.
Granted, there is a HUGE difference between preparing for a test and dealing with the death of an important person in your life. Huge. This is where the art of awareness and discernment comes into play. In some cases, your stress response may be trying to serve a purpose - to prepare you to meet a challenge, or to give you burst of energy to protect yourself in some way. The stress response, however, isn't meant to be activated all the time.
This is where yoga comes in...
Although the functioning of autonomic nervous system is not under your conscious control, aspects of a yoga practice are, which have a "back-door" approach to the nervous system. Richard Faulds says, "When you do yoga - the deep breathing, the stretching, the movements that release muscle tension, the relaxed focus on being present in your body - you initiate a process that turns the fight or flight system off and the relaxation response on. That has a dramatic effect on the body. The heartbeat slows, respiration decreases, blood pressure decreases. The body seizes this chance to turn on the healing mechanisms."
In periods where your stress is prolonged and intense, developing a relaxation practice is invaluable. The quote above, says it all - yoga is a practice that balances the nervous system. The beautiful thing about yoga is that you can come at it from many different directions. Here are some ways into your parasympathetic nervous system:
Savasana, The Art and Science of Relaxation
Savasana is a Practice
Savasana: Tips and Techniques
Savasana and Sleep
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.
"First, learn to achieve the silence of the body. Then control the subtle movements of the breath. Next learn about the silence of the mind and the emotions and then of the intellect. From there proceed to learn and study about the silence of the Self. It is not until then that the ego or small self (ahamkara) of the practitioner can merge with his self (Atman). The fluctuations of the mind and the intellect cease, the 'I' or ego disappears and Savasana provides an experience of unalloyed bliss." - Light on Pranayama, page 233
I was in a class once, and at the end, the teacher announced it was time for savasana. She invited us all to stay in savasana for as long or as short as we would like, and then walked out of the room. The only direction she gave, was to be quiet as you were cleaning up your mat. Could you imagine doing this for any other pose in a yoga class? This story highlights the lack of attention given to savasana. Just like any other pose in yoga, savasana deserves attention. In this post, I'll go into more detail about how to do savasana, which then, you can continue to practice. (See my last post about how savasana is a practice).
Time and place
First learn to silence the body
Then, the senses (This is the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga - pratyahara - turning the senses inward).
Then control the subtle movements of the breath
Then the mind, emotion and intellect
Coming out of savasana
Taking it off the mat
"In correct savasana there is minimum wastage of energy and maximum recuperation. It refreshes the whole being, making one dynamic and creative. It banishes fear of death and creates fearlessness. The sadhaka experiences a state of serenity and inner oneness." page 254 (Sadhaka - A seeker, an aspirant)
Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing by B.K.S Iyengar
I ended my last post in this series on savasana with this:
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.
Practice being the key word.
Practice (verb), repeat action to improve: hone, study, discipline, habituate, iterate, polish, do again, become...
The benefits of savasana are more pronounced when you commit to it, and do it with dedication...making it a practice, not just a mechanical pose you do. Like any pose, if it is practiced you will learn more about it. Think about the first time you did downward dog, or think about the intricacies it would take to learn headstand. The care and attention taken for any yoga pose, must be present for every yoga pose. Savasana should be given the same attention.
Perhaps one of the biggest disservices we yoga teachers do to savasana is doing it without much instruction or guidance about how to BE in the pose. Often, savasana is done as a short pose at the end of a class, where it feels like an afterthought, or cool down period at the end of a workout. Even worse, some classes skip it entirely. And yet, savasana is the one pose that highlights and embodies the true heart and purpose of yoga, and therefore, arguably the most important pose.
Scholastic knowledge about the pose isn't enough - it needs to be experienced. Experienced repeatedly, under many conditions, in many frames-of-mind and body and with an air of discipline. This practice will change your experience, until it becomes more than just another pose, and develops into a way of being.
What is there to practice?
Practice being still: In savasana the body is passive and still. Ensuring the body is comfortable, balanced, and stable is a good starting point. Then, notice any fidgeting and distractions that arise in the body. Practice managing these with awareness and focus, eventually the body will be silenced (effortless stillness that expands into the mind). From there,
Practice turning the senses inward: This is the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga - pratyahara - the inward turning of the senses. Our senses are constantly stimulated. In savasana you practice softening the senses, so you are less distracted by your external environtment and more focused internally. For example, practice: closing your eyes by relaxing your eyelids over the eyeballs, keeping the ears quiet and receptive but not blocked, relaxing the jaw and resting the tongue as though you were sleeping, and relaxing the muscles and pores of the skin so the nerves held within are at rest. Soft senses mean less outer stimulation.
Practice focusing the mind: The element that makes savasana savasana and not just lying there, or sleeping, is the focus of the mind and alertness of the intellect. This takes HUGE amounts of practice because it's very normal and common for the mind to waver, race and think. In savasana, you practice focusing and concentrating the mind, learning how to bring stillness and silence to it. You are practicing cognitive awareness and flexibility.
Practice Emotional flexibility: It's common for emotion to arise in savasana. On your yoga mat is a relatively safe place to practice emotional awareness and release (instead of a room full of people at work, let's say), thereby developing emotional flexibility and resilience. Practicing on the mat, prepares you for practice off the mat, in real life when the going-gets-tough.
Practice not daydreaming or sleeping: Practice not sleeping or mentally checking out. Savasana involves engagement of the mind through focused attention and alertness. At first, daydreaming, mentally checking out, and sleeping can happen quickly. With repeated practice of maintaining alert attention, while relaxing the body, sleep will happen less frequently. Coincidentally though, the more you practice savasana, and the more your relaxation response becomes used to being activated, actual sleep at bedtime may improve.
"It is necessary to describe in great detail the technique for practicing savasana. However, a beginner need not be discouraged about mastering the details. When first learning to drive a car, he gets confused. Yet with help from an instructor he gradually learns to master the intricacies until they all become instinctive. It is the same with savasana, except that the working of the human body is more intricate than that of any car." - B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Pranayama, page 234
Savasana may be uncomfortable at first. That is a good thing. Being taken out of your comfort zone when you have the time and space to dedicate to the moment is the best way to practice. Over time, you may become more aware of thought patterns, (eg. I'm stinking' thinking again...) or you may become more aware of how you embody emotion - your "tells" or signs of when you've reached an emotional limit, and you'll be able to slide into conscious relaxation more easily. With practice, these skills strengthen, are more easily accessible, and you can begin to use the skills in a wider variety of areas.
And to clarify - the goal of practicing savasana isn't to become "good at" it. The process of practicing prepares you to cultivate a sense of conscious relaxation, inner awareness, and alertness during difficult times and challenging states of mind/emotion. What you practice on the mat, is a tool for riding the waves off the mat.
You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf. - Jon Kabat-Zinn
If you need help learning how to drive your savasana car, consider my online program options...
My online yoga programs are an excellent way to experience and practice savasana. At the end of each video in the8-week online program, there is a long savasana with instruction about focusing the mind and dealing with emotion, followed by a period of silence. In fact, I start the classes with savasana as well...and often do it in between poses too.
The Mindful Relaxation guided audio practice, can be a helpful way to practice focusing the mind.
If you need some guidance and gentle, compassionate support in your own time and space, check them out.
"By remaining motionless for some time and keeping the mind still while you are fully conscious, you learn to relax. This conscious relaxation invigorates and refreshes both body and mind. But it is much harder to keep the mind than the body still. Therefore, this apparently easy posture in one of the most difficult to master." B.K.S. Iyengar.
I started this post about savasana to be a short newsletter. Quickly, though, I realized that there is so much to this pose than it appears and my "short newsletter" has become multiple blog posts. How? You may ask. How can a pose that is 'just laying there' require so many words and explanations?
There are a few reasons for this:
I'll explore all of these reasons in this series, but I'll start with one of the primary misconceptions:
It's actually called Corpse Pose
This one may not be a misconception, but a misnomer. Calling savasana a relaxation pose is accurate, but 'relaxation' is not the direct translation of the word savasana and as such, it doesn’t really capture it’s entire meaning.
I am guilty of side-stepping this actual translation and purposefully calling it "Relaxation Pose." I do this because I am sensitive to the fact that it might be a trigger for some people in the grief support group, especially without more context about the deeper meaning of the name.
As with other aspects of grief and emotional awareness, authenticity and calling something what it actually is can be helpful. So I explored it, which is how this post came to be.
I found what B.K.S. Iyengar says about savasana in Light on Pranayama to be enlightening:
“Sava in Sanskrit means a corpse and asana a posture. Thus Savasana is a posture that simulates a dead body, and evokes the experience of remaining in a state as in death and of ending the heart-aches and the shocks that the flesh is heir to. It means relaxation, and therefore recuperation. It is not simply lying on one’s back with a vacant mind and gazing, nor does it end in snoring. It is the most difficult of yogic asanas to perfect, but it is also the most refreshing and rewarding.”
"Ending the heart-aches and shocks the the flesh is heir to."
I know that for myself, I was always oddly perplexed that I was doing 'corpse pose' when death was so front and centre in my life. The way I reconciled the name corpse pose with practicing it after a death, is that it was a practice of complete and total surrender (surrender: to cease resistant to).
I found it easy to cease resistance to the fatigue I felt in my body and to slip into the stillness and silence of savasana. Mentally surrendering to the reality that grief eradicated my life as I knew it felt congruent because so many parts of me died when Cam died. The hard part was the SURGE of emotion that would spontaneously arise, making the supposed-surrender all the more complex and at times seemingly impossible. It did not feel like 'relaxation' as suggested by the Iyengar in the quote above.
He says, "remaining in a state as in death and of ending the heart-aches and the shocks that the flesh is heir to." Before you can end the heart-aches and shocks (maybe 'live-well-with' is a better word than end?) you must experience them in a way that integrates the heart-ache and shock reality into our life. Feel it to heal it.
When Iyengar says "ending" the heart-aches and shocks" I don't think he means permanently ending. We are human after all, and of course, heart-aches and shocks will happen throughout life whether we want them to or not. I think he means that in between the surges of thought and emotions there are moments of complete and total stillness that are void of thought, emotion and suffering. It is in these moments that you can truly relax.
The practice of savasana is to cultivate the ability to stay conscious of everything that is going on within you so that you can learn how to extend those spaces of stillness a little longer each time. Becoming still in the body and witnessing the impermanence and flow of thoughts and emotions is the doorway to conscious relaxation. More broadly, savasana teaches you how to manage life's ups and downs with less reactivity and more equanimity.
Another way to look at corpse pose is seeing it as the conscious awareness of death, and how parts of you and your life "die" everyday, especially after a major loss. Savasana, as a daily (or often) practice is quite literally, the practice of dying everyday; letting go of what we can let go of (like the constant and sometimes unhelpful chatter of the mind, for example) and appreciating some of the deeper chords that link us to life (awareness of the preciousness and fragility of life and relationships).
At the end of savasana when you slowly begin to move your body and deepen your breath, you are symbolically "beginning again." This idea of continually re-opening or re-beginning is a major part of integrating your yoga practice into your life and feeling recuperated from it.
“We die a little every day and by degrees we’re reborn into different men, older men in the same clothes, with the same scars.”
Regardless of what happens in savasana - you sleep, you cry, you think your head off - doing it with awareness and the intention to practice conscious relaxation is the most important part.
I hope you've enjoyed my take on corpse pose and I'd love to hear what you think. Feel free to comment below.
Stay tuned for the next post where I will look more deeply at savasana as a practice.
Through out this post I've referenced Light on Pranyama by B.K.S Iyengar. There is a wonderful chapter in the book on savasana and I recommend it as a resource.
Another one of my favourite books which looks at relaxation in a broader, more practical "off the mat" sense is Sabbath by Wayne Muller.
"The practice of yoga, in fact, reveals that the body is in no way separate from the psychospiritual forces that animate it."
This is the book I've been waiting for.
Have you ever read a book where you didn't even know what you didn't know until you read it? Reading this book, Yoga of the Subtle Body, was like finding the last few puzzle pieces I'd been looking for...BUT, instead of completing my puzzle, it has "springboarded" me to go even deeper into my yoga practice.
The introduction starts with the question “What is the subtle body?” which is an excellent question. Indeed, what IS the subtle body?! He describes it as the fine, delicate, infinitesimally small, all-pervading psycho-spiritual force that transcends scientific rationale. (No wonder I had a hard time understanding it pre-book :) )
The neat thing about this book is that Tias unravels the complex and intricate aspects of the subtle body, while using our modern understanding of anatomy and physiology to anchor the teachings. There's more though. He weaves together wisdom from different practices, ages and disciplines including: classic Indian mythology, the chakra and nadis systems, the structural body, traditional Chinese medicine, craniosacral therapy and reflexology. He does a fantastic (and probably very hard) job at distilling and uniting all of this wisdom in one place.
Throughout the book, Tias includes gentle yoga, pranyama and meditation exercises that apply the mind-body principles he shares. These practices are not to be skimmed over, but to be slowly and deeply experienced, allowing the wisdom to absorb. He doesn't talk about asana as mechanical poses, but takes the reader much, much deeper into the felt and internal experience of the pose, and educates the reader on the vibrational, pranic and subtle aspects of the pose.
His writing is poetic and embodied - making this manual even more coveted in my opinion. As I was reading I could feel my inner body responding to his words. For example, "soak your awareness into your heartbeat the way rainwater soaks the ground after a storm," (page 185). It's in his use of language that he achieves his intention of inspiring the reader to look at their yoga practice in a new way.
“I believe that ultimately it is impossible to articulate the yogic experience in words. By articulating the body-mind connection through analogy and image (such as lifting the brain stem upward like the hood of a cobra), a direct experience of the sublte body becomes more palpabe. Metaphorical thinking allows for greater flexibility, imagination, and openness, all of which are integral to the mind in meditation.” (page 2)
I found this book very applicable to grief, because grief is a holistic experience that permeates all aspects of our being. It's impossible to outline all the ways this book could be supportive of grief, because everyone's experience is individual - but I can guarantee that there will be something that resonates with your experience. He writes about prana, the immeasurable source of life itself, as being impacted by the powerful effects of emotion (page 3). He writes about the gut and emotional distress. He describe the energy channels and meridians of the legs as being essential for grounding, which can be really helpful in the wake of loss and upheaval. One part that I found really interesting is the hand-lung-heart connection (see photo below).
This review was difficult to write because of the amount of wisdom this book imparts, however, it's suffice to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. So much so, that I'm reading it a second time. No, reading is the wrong word. I'm experiencing it in my body as I go through it again. I plan to take a really, really long time, and (quite literally) take-in, everything I can.
Resources for further exploration...
You can pick up a copy of this book on Amazon Canada by clicking the link below, or visiting your favourite bookstore.
While I was reading this book, I was concurrently doing a series on Gaia called Shapeshift: Exploring Movement & Emotions with Ashleigh Sergeant. She is a student of Tias Little's and offers a great 7 week series that guides you through some of the practices outlined in the book. It was really interesting to combine the two. Highly recommend.
I'd also recommend Tias Little's website - https://www.prajnayoga.net
You can also find him on YouTube. Just search his name in the YouTube search bar, and you'll find lots.
READING GIVES US SOME PLACE TO GO WHEN WE HAVE TO STAY WHERE WE ARE. - MASON COOLEY
We are always seeking contact with Heaven, but how many of us have made any reasonable contact with Mother Earth?” - BKS Iyengar
Today is April Fools day. It’s kind of a strange day, if you think about it. I love the family friendly shenanigans that some companies do. This morning, I got an email from Halfmoon Yoga Products, promoting a Mood Mat. This mat changes colour depending on your mood. Kind of like those hypercolor t-shirts everyone wore when I was in junior high school.
Amazed, I clicked the link, and was re-directed to a page that said, "April Fools! Sadly Mood Sensing Mat Technology is not yet available. We'll keep you posted because we think it would be pretty neat!"
No harm, no foul. I can laugh and say, “Good one, guys,” and it even feels good to be released from the tomfoolery, back into reality.
Nevertheless, with intense grief, everything can be a trigger. April Fool's included. Even though Cam died in June, not April, I remember feeling like I was the biggest April Fool who ever lived.
For many many months after, I felt like it had all been a cruel prank. One big joke. It had to be, because it couldn’t possibly be my life. I was desperate to wake up and be released from my worst nightmare. Instead, I woke up, punched in the stomach by my reality. It was no prank. It was true. Cam died. Sometimes, after 12 years, I still can’t believe it.
Shock is weird. I remember some things so vividly from those early months, and in other ways I remember nothing. It was like I was living in a dream. Which, actually I preferred because my dreams were more believable than my real life.
I dreamt that I couldn’t find Cam. We were at a movie together, and then all of a sudden he was gone. I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t tell me where he was going. I couldn’t find a phone to call him.
Then my dreams shifted and I started dreaming he broke up with me. I didn’t know why and wanted to find him or call him to make things right. In one of those dreams, I actually found a phone and called him, only to wake up as soon as he answered.
My dreams, although distressing, were more rational, believable, and fixable than my waking reality. I wanted to live in dreamland. I'd have been happy if I didn't wake up. But, I did.
In my waking life, I did my best to live where Cam was - in the mystical and spiritual planes. I read books like, Talking to Heaven: A Mediums Message of Life After Death by James Van Praagh, and We Are Their Heaven: Why the Dead Never Leave Us by Allison DuBois. I found a medium in a nearby town and went to an appointment with her (which was amazing by the way, but maybe another post all together). Connecting with Cam in the realm of spirit even seemed more possible than believing he was dead. Being near him somehow was a balm to the thought of living without him in my personal earthy hell.
In these mediumship books they describe their process of connecting to the dead as one of quieting and opening the mind, while softening the senses and developing present moment focus. So, I signed up for a meditation class.
In our first class, as the instructor guided us to settle our minds, my emotions started to overflow. Desperately, my mind inserted mundane thoughts to keep the emotional release at bay: What color throw pillows should I buy? What color should I repaint the bathroom?
Those thoughts soon burnt themselves out and I was left with the gaping void of death and hating my life. I fought back tears the entire time, and then drove home hysterical. I thought going to meditation would make me feel better and it made me feel worse. I felt let down by something that I thought would be my saving grace.
That night, I emailed my cousin Richard and his girlfriend Tammy who had established meditation practices. This was part of their response:
When we sit in meditation, what is in our truest core self will start to arise. Allow your pain to come through as tears and you will be softened by it and transformed by it. Eventually the tears will run dry, and a deep inner silence will follow. Then you will be able to meditate without the intense emotion coming up, but until then allow this process. Be with yourself. Don’t be self conscious about your emotion. What you resist persists. You have to feel it to heal it.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, this laid the foundation of my future work using meditation and yoga to live with loss. Understanding how to deal with emotion while meditating was both the keystone in my process as well as a grand paradox: you have to move toward the pain to heal it.
It seems counter intuitive to knowingly move towards such intense pain (especially when the cultural norm is to move away from pain - to hurry it, get over it, find closure, not live in the past and get back to normal), but moving towards the pain is the practice. It’s not to escape, or disconnect, or distract, but to become embodied and connect more deeply. This is the gift and the challenge of meditation.
My inner landscape of grief wasn’t as treacherous, the more I navigated the terrain. Ironically, the more I connected with my feelings of the loss of Cam, the more present he was in my life - spiritually, emotionally and cognitively. I was developing my own beliefs around his death, and how to continue living well while missing him.
I never became able to connect with Cam’s spirit in the way a medium would/could, but was more comfortable and self-assured searching for, and coming to answers to my questions within myself…but maybe this is connection to spirit…my spirit.
EASTER MORNING IN WALES
It’s not just the tincture of time that heals grief, it’s the conscious opening to our pain, in safe and supportive environments that is healing.
This is a counter-culture way to approach grief in our mourning avoidant society.
What is needed for the bereaved is a container of education and support around the benefit of feeling emotion, while embarking on a meditation and yoga practice.
If you are looking for this support and sanctuary, please consider my 8 week online Yoga for Grief Support Program.
I developed this so people who cannot attend my in-person group can still benefit from the supportive benefits of yoga and meditation. Click below to find out more.
A new session of Yoga for Grief Support started this week, and at the first class, I always take the time to define some key words: Grief, Yoga and Mourning.
Yoga - A way to form connections with yourself in your mind, body and spirit. Another definition that I like is: "Yoga is the perfect opportunity to become curious about who you are." - Jason Crandell
Grief - Our internal, natural and organic response to loss. It encompasses everything we feel and think around the loss we have experienced - including our thoughts, emotions, physical symptoms (changes in sleep patterns, loss of appetite, nausea, achiness in limbs, chest pain)
Mourning - The shared experience of grief. Grief gone public. Or, bringing grief outside yourself.
Everyone grieves, but not everyone mourns. Grief has energy - you can feel it build up inside yourself, and perhaps you can also feel the release through crying, talking, writing it out. Grief without mourning is like a pressure cooker - it builds and builds. Grief needs to move and be expressed outside yourself. This is mourning.
In order to heal grief you must mourn....finding safe places, people and way to express your grief outside yourself. "Time heals" is a myth - it's what you do with your time that heals - authentic mourning is how you begin to heal - in your own way and your own time. In this class, we will use yoga as a way to explore our grief and learn about it. The more we can learn about our inner experience of loss/grief, the more we can understand it. The more we understand it, the more compassion we have for it. The more compassion we have, the more space we have within to heal it.
What I love about yoga is that yoga,
1. Invites you inside your mind and body in the spirit of exploration and acceptance (letting things be just as they are)
2. Teaches you strategies to support yourself. This may be through poses that feel comforting in your body, or by developing skills around understanding the nature of thoughts and emotions which can build resilience.
There are many other avenues of mourning. Some people talk their grief out. Write. Dance. Sing. Pray. Create. The list goes on. How do you mourn?
I was listening to a podcast about Buddhism – which I have always found to be a complementary philosophy to yoga philosophy – especially around learning how to deal with suffering. There is something about these Eastern philosophies that I find peaceful – not because they have the answers, but because they confirm that life is made up of questions.
On this particular day I was listening to a podcast featuring Bernie Glassman. He was speaking about bearing witness and loving action.
The practice of bearing witness is to see all of the aspects of a situation
What I love about Bernie Gassman’s talks, is that he goes in with no agenda – he speaks to whatever arises in the moment. He “bears witness” to the needs of the people he is speaking with…and goes from there. He started his talk by asking if anyone had any questions that had arisen from a talk he had given the previous day; encouraging the audience by relating the power of questions in the statement, “Questions have energy and answers do not.”
Oh, how I loved this statement. Questions have energy.
Answers stop the question. Complete it. Finish it. Answers are linear. Questions carry energy with them. Questions are circular and spiral, taking you deeper.
It made me think of living with grief, and all the questions that surround such a change in life. Especially because many of these questions have no answers: We may never know how or why our loved one died, we may never know what happens to the spirit after death (if anything), we don’t know moment to moment, day to day where our emotions will take us and how we will go one living with our loss.
So many questions…so few answers.
Hearing Bernie Glassman re-phrase these mysteries in such a way made me realize that maybe the answer is the question itself. There is power in not knowing and not having the answers. Perhaps this is what keeps us moving along.
As Wendell Barry says,
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
Part of journeying through grief is appreciating that this path you are on is one that has never been traveled before, by you or by anyone. The specifics of your grief are defined by innumerable personal variables: your personality traits, the traits and life of the person who died, the circumstances of their death, intricacies of your relationship to them, etcetera, etcetera. Considering all these factors, it is suffice to say that there is no one way to grieve. There is no definitive road map, no to-do list, no checklist to refer to.
Simply being on the path creates your path. It’s the questions that guide you on your way.
How do questions like these land within you:
“What happens when someone dies?”
"Why did this happen?"
“How am I going to bring myself comfort when I feel so torn up?”
“How am I going to choose to live my life in a way that feels meaningful and true based on my experiences?”
Can you ask these questions for the sake of the questions themselves? Can you bear witness to your questions, and be comfortable with not (yet or ever) knowing the answers?
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the fourth Niyama (ethical discipline, or rule-of-conduct) is Svadhyaya, which means self-study. Ancient yogis looked inside themselves for the answers to cosmic questions, and in fact, the sutra says “Study thy self, discover the divine.”
Yoga, as a holistic system allows this self-study to take place by turning your attention inward, developing concentration and single pointed inner focus, and observing the true nature of the mind. The physical and spiritual practice of yoga cultivates discernment, awareness, self-regulation and eventually union with your big-S-Self (the true self, Atman (inner self or soul), immense Consciousness, or divine within you).
But, before that happens, it is likely that your practice of inner yoga and self-study, will turn up even more questions…especially in the face of grief. The take home point is that your process of discovery must arise from within.
This philosophy of yoga can be applied each time you do a pose. Instead of becoming complacent with sequencing and the execution of certain poses, treat each pose as though it were the first time you were doing it. Practice becoming re-acquainted with your body and your mind in each moment - opening yourself up to the process and wisdom of studying and discovering yourself with non-judgemental and compassionate attention. If a question, query, or debate arises within you, practice breathing into it. Give the question a life of it’s own, by which the answer will eventually be lived.
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke says,
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
And so, as you journey to the heart of your Self and the heart of your grief, trust in the nature of your questions to carry you forward, and backward – both of which are required as you integrate loss. This is not a sudden process - it’s a gradual process. A gradual awakening and evolution of understanding your own specific beliefs around death, life and living.
If you're interested in reading more about the Yoga Sutra's of Patanjali or more by Rilke, check out these books below:
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