How yoga helps when grieving.

I lost my father in late October 2022. My father and I had our differences, but I think we managed to reconcile and let go towards the end. On my part, especially during the difficult initial hospitalisation period, many things helped me survive the day.

Earlier in the year, I was brought to read quite a lot of insight from eastern philosophy that I cultivated in daily practice and thought (see blog post here). The philosophy and wisdom helped me see very sticky patches through.

Strong support from family and friends helped a lot as well, from my father’s hospitalisation period all the way to sorting out and managing the estate matters, even after the interment of ashes.

But of course, quite importantly, are the tools and wisdom I cultivated over the years through yoga that pulled me through.

Before we begin on how yoga helps though, just be aware that grieving is an ongoing affair. Grieving is different for everyone, as much as we are all different people to begin with. Allow yourself to grieve, Be patient with yourself. I don’t believe we ever stop grieving, really. We just learn to manage grieve better over time.

So let’s look at some ways that yoga helps us to manage grief better.

Bringing us back to the present.

Yoga’s goal is to help us end suffering so that we can move towards being more compassionate and perhaps even more enlightened during our period of manifestation (i.e. in this life). The way yoga does this is by calling us to be present to the moment at hand.

Atha yoga anushasanam

1:1 Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Translated simply, it means “Now, the teachings of yoga”.

It is no surprise that the very first word in the Yoga Sutras is ‘now’. For us, it is a call for us to remember that yoga practice comes from and leads us back to the this moment – now.

How does yoga do this?

During yoga practice, whether sitting or through asana movement, or even while we cook, take a walk, or sit with ourselves or someone else in their grief – we are called to be present. Our thoughts are focused on now.

  • What am I doing? I am cutting vegetables.
  • What am I doing? I am practising sun salutes.
  • What am I doing? I am observing my grief.

Ask yourself investigative questions (see blog post here) to bring yourself to present – even in grief. Or ground yourself so you may you experience the now more fully (see blog post here).

How does experiencing the present moment help our grieving?

Bringing ourselves back to the present moment gives us distance from our grieving. Rather than being a part of us, our grief becomes a friend, sitting beside us, sometimes closer and sometimes further. When grief comes very close, perhaps threatening to engulf us, we can connect with our breath, or connect with our body, then look at our grief and say with more clarity, ‘How are you today?’

It is important for us to have this space separate from our grief. We are more than our grief, and we are more than the loss(es) we have experienced. This distance from our grief doesn’t make it any less ours, but it does help us observe (or ‘witness’) our grief with better perspective.

The way most modern yoga practitioners experience the present moment – the now – is to experience the body or the breath, or both. This focus helps us to see how grief actually affects us physically.

When my father was hospitalised, I noticed almost a sharp tension around my eyes. Sometimes we lose sight of the physical pain that our emotional pain brings to us. And sometimes catering to the physical pain can help alleviate the emotional pain that grief brings us.

Healing through movement.

Whether you want to believe it or not, our body stores memories and emotions. More and more research has shown that our body, especially the fascia of our muscles (both smooth and skeletal) store emotions. This may explain why many practitioners experience intense emotions when they practise yoga on the mat.

In fact, once I got so annoyed with a yoga teacher because he asked me to express ustrasana (camel pose), and I had such rage against him just because he asked me to do the yoga pose. In hindsight, there really was no cause for the anger, and I have absolutely no idea why I was so angry, but once it was released, there was a sweetness.

While some of us may think this is ‘new’ or ‘revolutionary’, while others may view it with scepticism, this theory was up and about in the early 20th century. Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian psychoanalyst, described a concept he called “body armour”. He suggests how mental conflicts are expressed in the body – through muscular or nervous tension. Reich’s view is that we shield ourselves with this ‘armour’ to avoid experiencing negative feelings.

In yoga, we deal with the gross body through movement, asana and breath work. But we also work with the subtle body, or energetic body, through those same modalities – I am talking about the chakras here (see blog posts here on the chakras).

As a yoga teacher and practitioner, I find the chakras an invaluable tool to determine emotional and physical deficits or imbalances, and integrate practices to help find equilibrium in the body (and therefore emotions and mind) and therefore also in life.

Stay tuned for more on the chakras and how they help us make friends with our grief.

Yoga For Grief

and related breath work

Check out my LIVE classes on the Insight Timer app, where I usually hold LIVE virtual classes on Yoga For Grief.

There are also guided meditations and pranayama for you to listen to.

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Changing our relationship with death.

When it comes to contemporary teachings of Abrahamic religions (let’s face it, they get the most media space), then death is very abrupt. Dare I even say, two-dimensional. The opposite of life is death.

In yoga philosophy (more to the point in Buddhist wisdom), there really is no opposites, and death is not the opposite of life. In fact, we experience death in every moment. Millions (or billions?) of cells die in our body every moment. But if they didn’t die, new cells couldn’t be born.

The ‘me’ in every moment dies to make way for the ‘me’ in the next moment. If you think about it, the person you were in the morning when you woke up isn’t the same person as it is when you go to bed. We experience death all the time.

Death is the continuation of life. The realities of death may not be what we know, but that doesn’t mean death equals a full stop. Perhaps Mary Elizabeth Frye’s poem, “Do not stand at my grave and weep” expresses what I believe yoga (and Buddhism) takes death to be:

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Mary Elizabeth Frye, “Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep”.

So much came together to create us, and we will go towards so much else when our physical manifestation ends. Whether you believe the life of your loved one continues through other natural elements, or lives on in your heart and memories, or both, there is room to allow us to live in their physical absence.

Let me know what you think of this approach to death.

Acceptance and attachment.

Acceptance – considered one of the ‘stages’ of grief (which are in fact not linear stages) – is integral in any yoga practice. Acceptance, for example, that traffic is heavy and no matter how much we rant, it won’t change our travel time, is very much a part of yoga practice.

We cannot change our loss, no matter how much it hurts us, or angers us, or aggrieves us. It just is. Just as the sun rises and sets, the moon affecting the tides, our loss just is, and that fact is waiting for us to be accepted.

In the yoga sutras, we are called to practise ‘satya’ or truth. This means being truthful to ourselves as well.

Related to this somewhat is how yoga guides its practitioners away from suffering. And what is grief if not suffering? In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there are the ‘Five Spokes on the Wheel of Suffering’,, which are:

  1. ignorance of the truth
  2. egoism
  3. attachment
  4. aversion, and
  5. fear of death.

Attachment is usually a cause (or the cause) of our grief. There is nothing bad about this. I am quite attached to a lot of things and people (and my pets!). But since. we know that nothing is ever permanent, our suffering (or grief) is ensured as soon as we find ourselves having an attachment to someone or something.

As human beings living in this life on this planet, having attachments is necessary for our security, stability and quality of life. Yet, there is the universal truth that all things come to an end. This answers the ‘why?’ some grievers may ask.

Understanding that nothing is permanent, helps us come to an acceptance, and perhaps build a better relationship with death, with endings and with loss.

The way forward.

As mentioned earlier, I am not an expert in grieving or loss. However, I have experienced loss, and I have the tools that I have. I seek answers the way you do, and I also seek tools and methods and stories that may help me, and also help me to help you.

Everyone grieves differently, so some (or all) of the tools and methods I put forward may not help you. But there is no harm in trying.

In the next few weeks / months, I hope to talk more about loss and grieving, and tools from yoga and other modalities I have been exposed to that may help you (and us all!).

Contact me if you would like to talk. Take good care of yourself in the meantime.

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