Processing Grief with Yoga
Today is the one year anniversary of my mother’s death, which happens to be the day after Mother’s Day this year. It has been a rough week and a rough year. Charlene suggested that I write about it and how yoga helped me cope with the loss. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it. But I have decided to give it a go. I am certainly not some great philosopher or even a yoga expert. I am just a normal guy who does yoga (and teaches it now, which I still struggle to believe sometimes). I am sure there are millions of people more articulate than me and more qualified to talk about the subject. So I can only really write from my experience, but I will do my best to throw out some insight and perspective on what I have gone through. Offering some examples of how yoga ‘works’ and how it has helped me in a real way, without too much hippy dippy stuff. I hope it helps someone else. So prepare for a bit of a ramble. My mum died a couple of weeks before I was due to start my yoga teacher training. It was a complete shock. The funeral was the day before the course was due to start, and I was up the next morning for a week long intensive start to an 8 month course. It was pretty brutal. It was tough to keep it together. But going through with it and following my dream is what my mum would have wanted. It was quite an intense experience of dealing with the loss and such a life changing event. While at the same time immersing myself fully into yoga, practice and theory. I find it difficult to think of another way it could have been though. In a way, having that environment to be in. Safe. Surrounded by other yogis and having the support. Working through the grief in that space. Emotionally, mentally and physically. It was concentrated and therapeutic and probably the best place for me. Like some kind of yoga rehab. The first thing that comes to mind thinking about how yoga making you feel better when you are depressed or anxious, is the release of the endorphins. The body’s feel good hormones and natural painkillers and antidepressants. It is quite an immediate and tangible benefit that you can attach to. It is less abstract than the more philosophical and psychological stuff. You can get these chemicals from any number of sports. But what makes yoga special is how simple and accessible it is. You just need a bit of space, a mat, a body, and to breathe. It’s not as much of a to-do as other sporting activities and you can do it on your own. It’s a great help if you are feeling too down and can barely manage to get out of bed. With yoga you can make it as easy or as challenging as you like and you can fit it around how you are feeling that day or that moment. It is very versatile. Even if all you can bring yourself to do is just sit and breathe for 10 minutes. That is half the battle. Yoga is a simple thing that you can do to feel a bit better. It’s not about perfection and isn’t a magic cure but it definitely helps. There is solace to be taken in the repetition as well. The familiarity of practising a sequence of movement you know, enjoying the flow and the muscle memory. It feels like home. Or like watching your favourite film. You know how it ends, but it is still comforting and relaxing. That ‘flow state’ is like meditation and it can be reached in sports as well. It can even be experienced in activities like playing a musical instrument, knitting or sewing. It is a feeling that is familiar to most of us I think, even if we aren’t aware. It can bypass some negative thought processes in a subtle way. I do think there is something unique about yoga that connects you to that state in a more practical and noticeable way. It explains and reveals itself to you quite slowly and directly. Yoga has always been a great refuge for me in times of stress, anxiety or depression. Dealing with loss was no exception. It helps take my mind off things, but also focus on the things that matter. It isn’t all magic and mysticism. It’s just moving and breathing at the end of the day, and connects us to a simpler more natural way of being. It is pretty mundane, but this mundane stuff can still be a revelation. It changes the way I react to things, thoughts and feelings, people and situations. It takes a lot of time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It isn’t like one day my mind is a mess and then a year later it is clear and pure. It’s always a mess. I do my best. Things will happen to mess it up again, but I get better at dealing with it and reacting better and more appropriately. Listening to what my mind and body are doing and saying. Noticing the spinning mind and the physiological chemical reactions in my body. It’s lots of little changes that take place over a long period of time when doing yoga. I recognise and tune into it. It gives a good grounded base to figure things out in life I think. I struggle to think how I would have reacted to the grief if I hadn’t discovered yoga, going on 9 years ago. Looking back I used to drink a lot, and was pretty self-destructive. I have grown and changed so much since then and I shudder to think how I would have handled things if I was still that person. It’s not like yoga makes me a perfect yoga robot that is programmed to behave in the most appropriate way. Like some spiritual supreme being. We are still human. Grief is awful. I still act inappropriately. I still get upset and depressed. I am still paranoid and anxious about stuff. Just less so and in a different, perhaps healthier way. It’s not just about taking my mind off things and clearing my mind out of garbage. It’s about giving my mind a healthy space to work. Time to breathe. I don’t mull things over as much. Accepting that there will be garbage and trying not to attach to it. I learn to enjoy the quiet times in my brain when I can just ‘switch off’. But other times it is more like tuning in, quieting some voices so others can be heard. Listening to my intuition. The waves of the mind all thrashing about is not very helpful. Slowing the tide and calming the storm, things can come to the surface. Thoughts and feelings that were deep down and maybe hidden before, hidden in plain sight. Sometimes this is painful but other times is is positive. Sometimes being depressed can be a perfectly natural way to feel. Anxiety can be a helpful thing, sometimes it protects us and keeps us safe. Yoga helps me react to things in a more intuitive way. There is an old analogy about the mind being like the surface of water. The stiller the surface is, the easier it is to see the bottom. While also being easier to see things reflected back at you. I think it is a powerful image. It’s not about having a perfect clear mind. Nobody has that. But getting a bit of a better connection to how my mind works and what it is doing is really valuable and changes the way I react to my own thoughts and fears. It’s a state that comes naturally to us but often has a lot of things in the way. I kind of liken it to feeling like a cat in a window or a cow in a field. You know. It’s an innate feeling that I can tap into as a human being and an animal. A nurturing way to let my body heal and my mind figure things out better. Charlene often talks about what a miracle it is that you exist at all. Not just in a mystical spiritual way, but also in a everyday kind of existence. Your heart beats to keep you alive and your lungs relentlessly process oxygen so you can keep going. Your body is an amazing complex machine and yoga lets you connect to that in a deep and intimate way. It is a valuable source of calm and strength when you are low and everything seems against you, to appreciate that gift that you and everyone else has. It is not just something you feel on the mat, it all filters through to your daily life as well. This way yoga makes you appreciative of your body and mind. It makes you thankful for your health and what you have, as well as the loved ones around you. The past, future and present moment. I remember the first day of my teacher training. I was in pieces really and vaguely holding it together. Charlene opened the morning’s practice with a little speech about giving thanks for all the the people in your life that have helped you get to this point. Thinking about the steps you have taken, opportunities you have had, and how lucky you have been. In that moment it was like she was speaking directly to me and I had a little cry. Being a big tough guy I held it in and (secretly) cried again on and off during the practice. The people I was training with in the room were so compassionate and supportive. Yoga is innately about appreciation and compassion. During times of grief the others around you, friends and family members can be a support, but you are also a support for them. The yoga community and the feeling of having that space to unravel everything in was invaluable. The this yoga studio is so warm and welcoming. Peaceful and chilled. Students have described it as an oasis of calm. I think that is an important thing to have and has been a great comfort to me. Everyone brings their energy to the practice. It is important to not feel like you are alone. You most definitely are not! You get the immense feeling that everyone is in the same boat, you know. It is the human condition. One of the reasons I became a yoga teacher was that I wanted to pass on some of my experiences and spread the benefits of yoga. The other week a student told me that their partner had died a few months ago. They had been struggling and were really appreciative of being able to come to the studio. They told me how the yoga had helped them feel better. I knew exactly how they felt. I told them about my mum and it was very cathartic and validating to connect with that person and feel like I had been helping them. Sometimes coming to teach at the studio is the highlight of my day. Even though I do yoga at home, and becoming a teacher has changed my practice and my perspective of it, it is also lovely to come to someone else's class. Even just to get me out of the house for a bit. I think it is really helpful to have a safe space to come to with other like minded people. I once said to Charlene that it is like having someone cook a delicious meal for you. Sure you can make the meal yourself at home, but having someone make it for you makes it taste that bit better. You appreciate it in a different way and feel their effort and intention in the class. So thanks to everyone that is a part of it and coming to class. You are vital ingredients. You are helping me, and other people in ways you don’t know just by turning up and making yoga happen in a place and it is awesome. Hopefully it is helping you too. Though if it weren’t you probably wouldn’t be coming!
For more support dealing with grief, please contact the Samaritans.