By: Deirdre Turner, CYT, Guest Blogger
When my sister’s life was taken by homicide, I found myself in an anguished state of grief and shock; solid ground had been removed from underneath my feet and I was falling, endlessly it seemed, into a dark chasm from which there seemed to be no escape. I attended my first yoga class shortly afterwards. During the guided relaxation at the end of class, for just a few moments, a deep knowing came over me. A knowing that I would survive this loss. A knowing that a higher power, while grieving with me, was also carrying me, as I faced life without my closest sibling.
For many months following my loss, the only moment I felt at peace was during the minute or so of narrated relaxation. The experience was so profound, it sparked in me a desire to become a yoga teacher so I could gift this sense of peace to others. Eighteen months later, I received my yoga certification, and have since shared yoga with hundreds of students. While I abhor the violent loss that led me to teach, I do find genuine fulfillment in sharing yoga with others. In this blog post, I’ll give a very basic physiological explanation of why yoga can help with grief and loss, followed by a few simple yoga activities to try.
Only recently, is science catching up with what yoga has claimed for centuries – our minds and bodies are inseparable. Due to this interconnection, emotions, such as sadness and fear, can live in the body. The fight/flight/freeze response, originating in a part of the brain called the amygdala, is activated by traumatic loss. This response can remain activated unless steps are taken to calm the overactive amygdala and return the mind and body to a balanced state – a state where one experiences feelings of safety and security. How do we calm the overactive amygdala?
I’ll present three types of yogic practices — without the yoga jargon — that can help: physical position, breathwork, and meditation. None of these practices require flexibility, agility, or even the ability to ambulate. They require no special equipment and can be done by anyone, anywhere.
Positioning the body in a forward bending position, meaning the abdomen is moving towards the thighs, stimulates the relaxation response of the para-sympathetic nervous system. This can help calm and counter the fight/flight/freeze response.
Options include the following:
- Sitting on a piece of furniture or on the floor (legs in any comfortable position), lean forward from the hips, not waist. Supporting the chest, with pillows or blankets on top of the legs, can be helpful.
- Standing, hinge 90 degrees at the hips, not waist, place folded arms on a counter or piece of furniture of appropriate height, and rest forehead on arms. Alternatively, hinge 90 degrees at the hips, with arms extended, and place hands on wall or back of chair. Another standing option is to hinge at the hips allowing the torso to hang towards the floor. In this option the arms dangle and the back of the neck is relaxed.
- Reclined in a supine (lying on back) position on floor, bed, or bench, draw the knees in towards the chest. Alternatively, one can lie on the floor or bed and rest extended legs against a wall, creating a 90-degree angle between torso and legs.
These positions will have a greater effect the longer they are held, and the more frequently they are practiced, though holding for even thirty seconds is not without benefit. If time permits, I suggest a minimum of two minutes.
Breath is closely linked with our emotional state. For this reason, breathwork, though subtle, can have a powerful effect on returning the body and mind to a state of balance. Slow, diaphragmatic (abdominal) breathing stimulates the relaxation response, oxygenates body tissues, and focuses our awareness on the task at hand, keeping us present.
While there are many breathing techniques in yoga I will present only basic deep breathing here, with progressions.
* Avoid straining. If lightheadedness or dizziness is experienced, stop immediately, and return the breath to normal.
- Basic deep breathing consists of breathing deeply, slowly, and comfortably through the nose, while sitting with the spine lengthened. Upon inhalation the abdomen should expand, followed by the chest. Both should relax upon exhalation. One can place a hand on the abdomen if unsure of movement. Don’t get discouraged if the abdomen doesn’t move; it can take practice before the abdominal muscles learn to relax. I encourage practicing with closed eyes. Deep breathing may be practiced in a reclined or standing position, if preferred.
- Add-on slight constriction of the throat to slow the breath. This technique is better explained in person. It consists, however, of slightly contracting the muscles of the throat, so that upon both inhalation and exhalation, movement of the breath is felt along the back of the throat and there may be a slight sound – such as the sound of a gentle wave. Some describe this as a Darth Vader breath, but keep in mind the noise is slight, and there should be no straining.*
- Add-on retention of the breath, only if it seems comfortable and natural. After inhalation, hold the breath for one or several seconds before exhalation. Progress slowly and gently, noting cautions for breathwork given above.*
Mystery and apprehension often surround the subject of meditation, perhaps due to the attention given to transcendental meditation. Transcendental meditation, while not without benefit, is only one of many types of meditation, and I will not be addressing it here. I hope to dispel the mystery, and present a few types of meditation, or mindfulness practices, that can be helpful. Meditation or mindfulness practices, stimulate activity in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. Increased activity in the prefrontal cortex diminishes activity in the amygdala, thereby calming the fight/flight/freeze response. During these practices, if soft instrumental background music is helpful, don’t hesitate to use it. Since I’ve already introduced breathwork, the first meditation technique I’ll offer is one done in conjunction with slow, deep breathing.
- Affirming breathwork involves choosing two separate words, or very short phrases. One should represent a quality you want to acquire or increase and one should represent the opposite, i.e., joy/grief, safety/fear. When inhaling one should imagine inhaling the desired quality. When exhaling one should imagine the opposite quality leaving the body/mind. I suggest practicing with the eyes closed, and for several minutes, though as little as one minute can be beneficial.
- Focused affirmation consists of sitting comfortably, eyes closed, and silently repeating a positive word or phrase of your choosing, i.e., I am held, I am safe, I am loved. This practice could be done in a reclined position if preferred. Again, I suggest practicing for several minutes with the eyes closed.
- Being present offers a wonderful reset and refresh for the nervous system. The practice is simple, though not always easy. It consists of sitting, lying, or standing wherever you are, closing the eyes, and noticing what you experience through the physical senses. Take your time experiencing through each of the senses. Notice not only the obvious, but also the subtle. What do you hear?… Birds chirping, traffic roaring? What do you smell?… Perfume or after-shave, wet pavement? What do you taste?… Onions from lunch, hint of mouthwash? What do you feel?… Breeze against skin, firm chair underneath bottom? Lastly, open your eyes and truly absorb what you see. Look around and notice everything within your vision. If time and circumstance won’t allow a full session of this activity, one can still practice a mini session when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Simply stop whatever you are doing and briefly notice your sensory input to acquire a sense of being physically and mentally present in your surroundings. This mindfulness practice can lead to feelings of being present in our bodies and in our lives — something trauma can take from us.
While grief is a shared human emotion, each person’s grief is unique. If you are grieving, I encourage you to try some of the practices I’ve listed. Emotions may come up during your practice; don’t fear that occurrence.
If emotions seem overwhelming you have the choice to stop the practice and distract yourself, or to sit with the unpleasant emotion as part of the healing process. Grief does need to be processed in order for us to return to a state of health, however, your process will be unique to you. There is no single method of processing grief that shines as a model for all to follow. Above all, avoid judging yourself; be kind, nurturing, and patient with yourself.
You are integrating your loss into your life, and that takes time.