Yoga and Grief

A yogic look into the grieving process.

 The topic I’m about to talk about might be somewhat sensitive for many, but it is part of the cycle of life and it is important to talk about it. The topic is grief and the connection I found with yoga. I am going to tell you a bit about my personal story with grief and yoga so you can get where I am coming from.  

My mourning story

Three and a half years ago my father died, after 2 long years of treatments, chemo and many visits to the hospital, etc. A year after his death, I was finally able to return to India, to Mysore to practice with my teacher Sharath Jois. And for the first time, I gather the courage to ask him something during one of his conferences. I asked him: “How should we handle our practice while we are mourning?” He first thought I said “Morning” instead of ‘Mourning”, so he simply said: “You get up and practice!”  Everyone laughed; of course but I pointed out that it was mourning, as in grieving so everyone including him went quiet.  He was silent for a while and began to tell me about when his father died and that he had to travel 3 days to return to India because he was in the United States at that time. Later he told me, it is very difficult and painful when a father or mother dies because our souls are connected by a thread while we are alive and when one dies it is as if that thread breaks and that is why it is so painful. Because our souls are connected. Obviously, I ended up teary but a little relieved at the same time.He finally said regarding the yoga practice: “You do what you can” 

The grieving process

The person who is going through the loss of a loved one, goes through a very deep pain and yoga can help a lot to process all the emotions that we may be feeling during those difficult times. Unresolved emotions are trapped in our body, where they accumulate, taking all our energy and leaving us exhausted. When we chronically suppress emotions, we create toxicity in our body, mind, and heart.  Yoga works on the physical and mental at the same time: You work on self-awareness, listening to and respecting yourself. What yoga does when we are in mourning is to mobilize and reactivate the energies of the body in order to access the deepest layers of the mind and this makes us improve how we control our emotions and thus improve our overall health. With yoga, we can return to contact with our body, bringing our attention to the present, listening better to our bodies and recognizing and accepting the emotions that loss has generated in us, such as anger or depression. 

The phases of grief

I’m only going to mention the phases for general knowledge. There are 5 stages of grief that most people go through when losing a loved one and they are:1. Denial2. Anger3. Negotiation4. Depression5. Acceptance With yoga, we can distance ourselves from thoughts that are part of the stages of grief such as denial or negotiation, to observe the emotions and thoughts, to process them in order to reach the last phase that is the acceptance of the loss. 

The nervous system

Through controlled deep breathing, yoga works with the nervous system.  The nervous system has two parts:  a) The sympathetic system (it is activated when we are stressed) and  b) The parasympathetic system (that of relaxation).  Imagine them as a light switch, if one is activated the other is off. They cannot be on or off at the same time. When we are going through mourning our sympathetic system is activated, we are going through stress, sadness, anger, suffering. By taking deep breaths, as we do in our asana practice, we can activate the parasympathetic system through the diaphragm and the vagus nerve; and thus helping us to calm down. 

Dhukham (Suffering)

In the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali; dhukham(suffering) is mentioned but to understand how to end suffering according to the philosophy of yoga, we must understand what Samsara is. Samsara is the cycle of rebirth or cycle of suffering and it is linked to the theory of karma(“cause and effect” of our actions in the world, basically everything you do, ripples). The idea behind yoga is to free yourself from Samsara, end the cycles of suffering and transcend, find enlightenment or nirvana. One must use each reincarnation for insight and try to understand what is the purpose of life, and we do so while cultivating aparigraha, detachment. The way out of Samsara is detachment, aparigraha.  What a challenge, right?! … but maybe each reincarnation we can get closer and closer to fully achieving  aparigraha (detachment). For me is about impermanence and faith. We need to recognize that there is impermanence all around us, but we have a hard time understanding and accepting it. Everything, absolutely everything is destined to change, transform, mutate, evolve … But we suffer when it happens, we cry when someone we love dies; we get angry when they are gone and we are forced to move on without them. We suffer because we are attached to them.  The reality is that when we learn to accept the impermanence of everything we can find balance.  So, enjoy everything while you have it and learn to let go when it turns into something else. If you ask me, it is the most difficult job we’ll ever have, but we must have faith that in the end … we will be fine, our loved ones live within us and we will always have the practice of Ashtanga yoga to help us go through any moment in our lives. Much love,Patty

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