Yoga and Grief

Holidays are characterized by relationships: those closest to us, those we haven’t seen or connected with in a while, and those we miss terribly. While the warm, comforting feelings can often win out and keep the season positive, for many of us, the experience of losing a particular relationship can overwhelm the celebratory nature of the holidays and bring grief into sharper focus.

No matter how hard we try, the death of a loved one or the loss of a relationship can drag us downward, down into depression and the physical symptoms of depression. Like any other physical injury, grief’s best healer is time and rest. An intentional yoga practice can guide us on the path of grief processing, physical well-being, and ultimately a fulfilling life beyond grief.

It’s no secret that stress and depression have physical effects on the body. Once the grief begins to take its toll, stress hormones kick in and exacerbate the feelings of anxiety, sadness, and helplessness. Our focus turns inward, and we lose the desire to be active, which in turn tenses up muscles, tightens joints, and contributes to the overall physical feeling of dis-ease.

How in the world can a few minutes a day of focused breathing, stretching, and balancing possibly assuage the depth of grief we feel? Well, think about your responses to the stress: crying causes differentiation in your breathing pattern, often resulting in inflammation, exhaustion, and tension. Fear and anxiety also inhibit the natural flow of breath as well as cause muscular tension. Physical exhaustion occurs regularly throughout the grief process, and leaves us feeling like we simply don’t have the energy for even the smallest task, let alone nurturing existing relationships. A few minutes of yoga can help re-regulate our breathing, loosen and lengthen muscles, and move our grieving focus elsewhere. And even a little bit of that will help us gently on our path through grief.

The primary effect yoga has on grief is to turn the inward focus into a positive one. While grieving, our inward focus is on loss and pain. Yoga transforms that focus, even if just for a few minutes, into one of intention, well-being, and connectedness. Bringing grief to the yoga mat helps us engage the grief, experience it safely, and to eventually to move somewhere else. A restorative yoga practice can help us feel supported, and nurtured, while at the same time taking our focus off grief and pain and placing it gently around our own souls.

There are many poses helpful in a restorative practice, several specifically helpful for grief. Often beginning with curled or closed postures is helpful, because it helps us feel protected and safe. Moving into more open postures helps us progress out of fear and anxiety and the need for protection into trust and preparedness. However you begin or end your practice, simply bringing mindfulness to the mat is the first step. Where you go after that, and at what speed, is entirely up to you.