At the age of 21 I was floundering following the sudden death of my mother Natalie to a heart attack and my brother Dale just five months later in a road accident. He was my only sibling. I plummeted into grief and spent the first year drowning in extreme feelings ranging from broken heartedness to anger. I grew weary trying to function day to day and knew I had to find a better way to cope.
I’d never even attempted a yoga pose before, but I was curious and clung to a feeling that yoga might be my balm. So, one winter evening I pulled on a pair of leggings, wrapped myself in a jumper and scarf, and headed to Yoga Moves in Balaclava, Melbourne. Greeted by the founder of the studio, Louise Goodvach, and given a mat, bolster, block and strap I felt welcome but daunted.
Writing this now, over a decade later and married with two beautiful sons, I remember that class as if it were yesterday. It was a calming space. Goodvach issued gentle directives in showing me how to lie back into a Reclined Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana). Feeling the stretch of my inner thighs, I connected with my breath in a way that became my tonic. After the class I walked outside and felt my spirit was soothed. In one class a huge layer of my grief and the burden of its weight lifted. That night I was given a gift: discovering the power of yoga; that when the body, mind and spirit are aligned and connected, how rested we feel.
Loss and grief are a certainty in life; the causes and how we experience them, however, are uncertain. Grief follows loss and the ripple effect is felt widely within families, schools, workplaces and even the broader community. Linda Espie, a Melbourne-based psychotherapist who has specialised in loss, grief and trauma counselling for 25 years, describes grief as, “A unique and individual response to loss as identified by the individual.”
“Whether people have an awareness or not, grief affects our whole being—physical, psychological, social, behavioural and spiritual,” she adds. While there is little research to date that specifically looks into the benefits of practicing yoga and meditation while grieving, it stands to reason that if grief affects our whole being then yoga, even in its most basic definition—union of body, mind and spirit—has much to offer those who are grieving.
Goodvach has taught yoga for 20 years, Iyengar for 10 years and now Shadow Yoga (a style founded by Natanaga Zhander). She sees grief as a range of emotions we learn to deal with. “There’s a difference between being emotional and being sensitive to what happens in life,” says Goodvach. “Emotions—joy, happiness, sadness, grief, depression—all take us off our centre; they create blockages in our body and deplete us. The practice of Shadow Yoga utilises principles of Marmasthana (junctions of vital energy found on the surface of the body), which is particularly effective in releasing blockages in the body whether they be from injury, trauma or lifestyle. For example, there are vital junctions on the soles of our feet which connect to our lungs and, as grief is an emotion associated with our lungs, by doing some simple warm-up movements you are effectively stimulating and releasing the obstruction.”
Through yoga, Goodvach has supported students grieving the death of a child, loss of health, financial loss and divorce. “Yoga gives them strength,” she explains. “They feel their body and mind have knitted together after the class. They don’t feel as lost, they feel lighter, steadier and more able to deal with what is going on.”
Espie explains the emotional expression of grief is as unique as loss itself, but common responses may include tears, sadness, anger, anxiety, guilt and depression. Behaviourally, grief can affect sleep patterns, appetite, motivation, energy, social engagement and libido. Espie says, “Spiritually, grief may bring a movement towards “a god” for some, or a shift in belief or faith, as those grieving search for answers to common questions: ‘why did this happen?’ ‘Why me?’ ”
When I was newly bereaved, my biggest question was how could I “fix” my grief? When would life go back to normal? The only book I found was On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Written in 1969, her book is probably most well known for its outline of the five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. What it didn’t tell me is that grieving is not neat and linear, not every grieving person goes through all the stages and grief is not time-limited.
“Grief is a lifelong developmental experience,” says Espie. “If your mother dies you are forever a bereaved daughter or son, over time we learn to live with our loss, accommodate it and adapt to a new way of being in the world. Significant life events such as getting married and having children or gaining a university degree can bring upsurges of grief and we may re-mourn.”
Christopher Hall, director of the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement (ACGB) in Victoria explains that 80 to 85 per cent of people manage grief with the support of family and friends. In the case of sudden or traumatic loss, when people are socially isolated or their grief is complicated or unrelenting, then individual counselling, joining a support group or finding other therapeutic ways of managing it may be necessary.
“Grief is a poorly tolerated experience in our society. It’s treated like the flu or an injury that in a short time you get over. Compared to some cultures where bereaved people wear particular clothing or visible markings that make it self-evident they are grieving and are cared for, in our culture grief is an invisible experience,” says Hall.
He explains that many of the bereaved people who come to the ACGB, come because they feel friends and family are tired of listening. It’s not uncommon for family members to protect each other from their grief. For example, Hall counselled a couple whose child died and the mother questioned whether the father was grieving at all. Through counselling she learned that he wanted to be strong for her and would cry his tears in the car to and from work.
There are positives to loss and grief though. Hall explains grief has been typically defined as something that damages us forever. “There’s a changing view that there is potential for post-traumatic growth, relearning the Self and asking: ‘who am I now in the wake of this experience?’”
Psychologist and Iyengar yoga teacher, Jenni Dall supports people to grow through their grief. Recently she found personal solace in her yoga practice after the death of her father. She says that in connecting with the memory of him, she had many moments of strong joy. “I had moments of intense pain as I confronted the fact that I wouldn’t see him again in the form that I knew him in this life, but I also feel the wonder and appreciation of having had him as my father. While there were many yoga sessions during that time in which I needed the gentle nurture of forward bends or restorative poses, and the clarification of inversions, I also remember doing standing poses outside in the open air and being very present. If you allow yourself to feel the fullness of the emotions, grief can be a wake-up call into the present and a re-valuing of what is important to you.”
For 30 years Dall has worked with people dealing with anxiety, depression, relationship issues and substance abuse, all of which she says are often interrelated with unresolved loss and grief. In her Wollongong practice, Mindwise Psychology Illawarra, Dall’s primary psychological framework is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a relatively new cognitive behavioural method that draws on ancient Buddhist approaches to the mind, as well as on modern Western psychological knowledge. She integrates ACT with yoga in her individual counselling and six-week group programs to great effect.
“There’s little room in our society for people to grieve,” she says. “They need to keep caring for a family, earning a living, and are generally required to keep busy and not express ‘too many’ emotions… Yoga gives people a place where they can—if they choose—internalise, explore and open up to the deep layers of their emotions. Within ACT there are ways to develop willingness to experience emotions. Asana work provides a richly nuanced process with which to explore experience itself.”
Dall explains that within ACT there is a concept of “dirty suffering” and “clean suffering”. The latter is the suffering that life gives us and the former is the suffering we create when we fight the clean suffering. The alternative is acceptance: allowing feelings to come and go as they will. For example, rather than dwelling on, “why or how did this happen?” Or “shouldn’t I be over this by now?” thereby creating more dirty suffering, practising asana tends to be helpful in bringing people back to the present, and can be a way of just noticing and accepting what is, on the very specific level of sensation within the tissue of the body.
Yoga is not prescriptive, Dall maintains; she tailors practice to individual needs. For instance, she used standing poses, including balancing ones, in her work with a man who was distraught with grief after losing access to his children. “The pain of his loss felt too much for him to bear and at times he was overcome with anger,” she recalls. “He had developed habits of acting on the impulses to hit out violently and he was terrified he would do it again with dire consequences. Working with externalising poses, keeping his eyes open and engaged with his surrounds, brought his attention back again and again to the moment-to-moment experience of his senses. There will be a time for him to internalise more deeply, but for now his volatile tendency to ‘lose it’, disconnect from reality and his own value system, is the layer that needs attention.”
DON’T OVERTHINK IT
Dall says that if a person is not willing to experience the emotions that are likely to be released through the healing process of yoga, these tensions are likely to manifest as chronic pain or injury in the future, as the unconscious tries to draw attention to its struggles.
I have a strong memory of the emotional tension released the first time I lay in Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose). I felt a deep sense of nurturing from Goodvach who attentively assisted me into the pose. The peacefulness and energy I felt afterwards was like magic and not something that counselling could have achieved for me.
Dr Ruth Gawler is a GP with a specialist interest in mind-body medicine, and is also a yoga and meditation teacher. For the past 11 years Dr Gawler has worked as a therapist at The Gawler Foundation facilitating healing cancer programs and retreats where part of the work is with people who are grieving the loss of their health or their partner’s health. “Yoga goes to the source without intellectualising or going to the thinking mind,” Dr Gawler says. “As soon as we talk and think, we can complicate. Meditation helps people reconnect with their body; the mindfulness connects them with the experience they are having so the body can clear the emotion through its natural processes.”
Dr Gawler says the grief process is often made more complex by the repression of feelings. “We are expected to grieve in a compact period of time and in a particular way. So when grief manifests in a different way, people are diagnosed with an illness or their grief is pathologised and medication is often recommended. Meditation and yoga open the chakras helping to facilitate emotional clearing. In rare circumstances I’m not against medication, if used judiciously in association with counselling, but it shouldn’t be a way of avoiding clearing the grief.”
Tailor-made yoga practice
Psychologist and yoga teacher Jenni Dall integrates yoga into her counselling work, tailoring a yoga practice to the needs of the individual. “While there are tendencies and trends in what people dealing with grief may need, it doesn’t necessarily require particular poses or sequences,” she says. “There are often layers upon layers of emotions, and each has its physical tensions that may need to be dealt with differently.
Dall suggests the following:
- Approach yoga with an attitude of kindness and acceptance toward yourself and your experience. A profound lesson of grief is that some things are beyond your intentionality, therefore there is nothing to “fix”.
- Bring an open, curious exploration of bodily sensations to your practice of asana and pranayama, allowing any thoughts and feelings to come and go. Notice that it is OK to have all of those experiences, whatever they may be, and whatever your mind might have to say about them.
Dr Ruth Gawler’s approach to teaching meditation is for people to begin gently, taking the focus off what the mind is doing and placing it on the breath, for example. “The therapeutic benefits of meditation are much easier to attain than the spiritual benefits,” she says. “Therapeutic benefits can come easily for beginners.”
self-care in grief
When you’re going through the stage of grief, psychotherapist Linda Espie suggests it’s important to remember:
- Grief can be a great teacher.
- Grief is a natural part of life.
- No two people grieve the same way.
- You can’t hurry love… or grief.
- We can grow through grief.
- We grieve in our own way, in our own time.
- Grief is not to be judged.
- Grief is healing.
Nikki Fisher is a freelance writer and Iyengar Yoga practitioner based on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria.