Posing the Living and the Dead
Maybe death is a larger part of my life than most- you see my partner Douglas is a mortician. I often listen to him as he shares with me about his day. How he cared for twin babies who didn’t make it. How he prepared the cremated remains of a Japanese Buddhist for a bone picking ceremony. I listen as he speaks with pride of making the dead look as the living remember them. The constant presence of death in our home informs my views on yoga practice. Yoga not only prepares the practitioner to deal with their own mortality, it helps us integrate the grief of losing those we love.
In some ways, our practice is all about preparing for the moment of passing. In Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois writes that ‘yoga signifies the means to the realization of ones true nature.’ Yoga Sutra 1.2 says yogas citti vritti narodaha. This means that when the mind becomes quieter, we are more able to experience the part of ourselves that bares witness, our soul. So in effect, both lay out the purpose of yoga as an experience, in life, of what will be left when the body perishes.
The witnessing presence is very often obstructed by the minds grasping, its attachments and aversions. In a primal sense, the job of a mind is to catalogue content that may be beneficial or harmful for the body. Early in the evolutionary process, the brain of reptiles only contained enough neurons to understand when it should run from danger or when it should relax and eat. Over time, evolution gifted some beings with more and more gray matter and as a result we began to sense our own aliveness. Some of those new neurons got busy imagining our own deaths too. It is at this point that a yoga practice becomes helpful. Fear and morbidity about our own mortality, worry and sadness in anticipation of losing loved ones… these states will rob us of the possibility of contentedness in the present moment.
Through our asana practice, it is possible to cultivate a detached attention to pain. As we move into a posture and pain is there, we pause. We probe into the sensation and feel for its nature. Is it muscular, the sensation of tightness being undone? Or is it something tearing and breaking? We train ourselves respond in calm and measured ways. Grief can also be experienced in this way. Existential anxiety too. We notice how the body and mind are reacting. When thinking becomes obsessive and emotions burdensome, we can pause and move deeper into those feelings. We feel the acute physical tension gripping our necks, the pounding of our heads. We wade into the heaviness, swim into the heartache. Weep.
Yoga Sutra 1.14 says sa tu dirghakala nairantarya satkarasevito drdhabhumih, which Edwin Bryant translates as “Practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninterruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time.” If the yogis practice is as such, he or she may begin integrating the trauma more easily. Our experience on the mat may instinctively tell us that this is the time to slow our breath. To open our awareness up to the felt experience of pain and suffering, to let it have all the space it needs. To let it pass through unhindered. This is the power of abhyasa (practice), that dedication and devotion will lend our lives stability, so that even when the waters get rough we are able to continue moving forward steadily. Through practice of yoga, we come to better understand that thoughts and bodies are both transient just the same.
Practice and detachment support each other. They provide structure to help us remember that emotions and places and people alike are ephemeral. They shimmer into existence and then they shimmer out. Nothing in this physical universe is eternal. But deep in the heart of our practice is a feeling of oneness that seems clear and endless. In touching this stillness, we may become more comfortable just being with loss and life’s big unanswered questions.
Loss is inevitable, but our reaction to experience is manageable. We can direct our challenges so that they become fuel for transformation. We are preparing for our own mortality, but being mortal isn’t just accepting our mortality… it’s about experiencing our human-ness in this brief and beautiful time we have. If we approach our life experience with the vairagya (non-attachment) of our practice, then we may begin to work with sorrow and joy just the same, simply as passing phenomena of life. This dispassion allows for holding close and letting go just as easily, potentially leaving us feeling easy, free and at peace. Resting in this home, we take refuge, even if just for a moment.
And then our mind goes on madly and beautifully cataloguing content. Romanticizing the past, creating the future. Howling hysterically at loss. Falling madly in love just one more time…
Practices for Mourning
Grief is felt for many reasons, from the loss of a loved one, health issues, the end of a relationship, or passing of a pet. The following practices might help in the journey through mourning.
Be Present with your Wounds
Instinct and society may tell to you to cover up your feelings, instead try being with them fully. Staying with challenging emotions for 1 to 2 minutes may help them dissipate or become transformative. Come to a quite space and settle into stillness:
- Ask yourself how you feel
sad, tired, angry, overwhelmed
- Ask yourself where you feel it
tense neck, pounding head, sore back
- Breathe with the sensation
take 10 deep rhythmic breaths, inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of 7 to induce a calming effect on the nervous system
Movement is Healing
The following grounding and heart opening sequence might make a good companion to your established practice in times of grief.
- Sit on your mat in an easy crossed legged or kneeling position. Place the left hand on the ground and the right over the heart. Take several deep breathes feeling for the rise of the chest beneath the hand on the inhale and grounding down through the palm on the floor as you exhale
- Reach the hand from the heart up towards the ceiling, press the palm into the floor and reach through the fingertips as you look up the fingers above. Hold the stretch for a few breaths, then switch sides and repeat one and 2.
- Bring the hands behind the back, and interlace fingers. Extend arms fully, lift up through the shoulder joint, then find some side to side movement. Next drop the clasped hands to the mat, pop the chest up and let the head drop back. Take a few deep breath and then draw yourself back up to seated.
- Make your way to your knees for Ustrasana. Grief can cause the shoulders to fall in and the spine to round. Pressing the palms into the low back, feel for a lifting through the ribcage as you let the hips press forward and the head fall back.
- Childs pose. Release your hips back
- From a seated kneeling position take Eagle Arms to relieve tension and stress in neck. Extend both arms in front of you at shoulder height, with palms up. Cross right arm over the left at the elbows and then bend the arms upward. Wrap the forearms around each other and touch the right palm to the left. Lift up through the shoulder joint and look up towards the thumbs. Repeat on Other side.
- Take a seated twist. Catching the right hand on the left knee and the left hand on the floor behind you. As you inhale, grow taller. As you exhale, twist into that space.
- Lay down on your back for a bridge pose. Bring the heels close to the glutes and just a little wider than the sit bones. With an inhale lift the hips high. Interlace the hands below you. Press the hands down as you rock side to side to work the shoulders further underneath you. Hold for 5 deep breath.
- Leave your hands interlaced and gently lower yourself down so that you back and glutes press down into the arms and hands. This will create a stretch across the shoulders and chest. Take several deep breaths. Repeat 8 and 9.
- Take Rest. Move the body into Sukhasana position. Let your body become still. Observe the movements of your breath.
A practice of dominant nostril concentration can help settle a disturbed mind. Every so often the body naturally shifts which nostril is dominant in your breathing pattern. When our emotions become strong and overwhelming, mindfully changing between nostrils can shift perspectives and calm nerves. To begin, sit with the spine upright and let the hands rest in an easy way in the lap. Let the shoulders soften down and back. Bring your awareness towards the tip of the nose and feel for which nostril is more actively moving the air in and out of the body. There’s no rush, take your time to feel for the movement. It could take a minute. Once detected, feel how it’s possible to direct the movement through the opposite side. This change is managed by a subtle movement in nasal cartilage, and again, it could take a little while for the shift to happen. You can practices switching sides a few times, breathing for several minutes per side. After releasing the practice breathe normally and spend a few moments noticing how your mood may have changed.
Chant for Relief
Bring your hands to prayer, close your practice with at least one low resonant ‘om’. You could repeat the mantra up to 50 or even 100 times. Chanting is proven to have a calming, restful effect on the nervous system.