Â Letting go of what you love is hard… whether it is the passing of a person or pet, a home where youâve been happy, or even something far less tangible, such as your ability to play a good, hard game of tennis (sorrow that, of course, is also about the often-painful loss of youth).
Â Unacknowledged and unaddressed grief doesnât just evaporate, however — it often turns into anxiety, depression, even illness. Though some people process feelings by talking or writing about them, many donât know what to do with the feelings of sadness, which are often overwhelming. I was intrigued when I heard about a program that uses yoga for this purpose — developed by yoga therapist Antonio Sausys and used in the “Degriefing Process,” a holistic grief-counseling program created by certified grief counselor Lyn Prashan.
Â Yoga for Grief Relief
Â After a loss, feelings of grief become imbedded not only within our psyche, but also in our physical bodies, Sausys explained. For instance, many grieving people take on a particular posture — curving the back and hanging the head down a bit, almost as though to protect the heart. “The heart chakra, in the center of the chest, is the energetic center that relates to emotional bonding,” he says — noting that this is where grief gets “processed.” Sausysâs program incorporates yoga as a tool to ths end. The goal is to bring some of the physical symptoms of grief to a conscious level of awareness — this helps people to accept the reality of their loss and to move through the pain in a way that enables them to continue with their lives. His program includes specific exercises for the muscles and functions that are related to this chakra — mainly the pectoral muscles, the mid-spine and the circulatory and breathing systems.
Â Pranayama (Breath)
Â “Notice that when youâre happy and content, your breath is slow and deep, and when you are agitated or unhappy, it becomes fast and shallow,” says Sausys. “Working with your breath is working with your life — one breath in and one breath out, what you do with your breath is what you do with your life.” Pranayama is the practice of deliberate and mindful breathing based on the belief that prana (vital life force) is held within the breath. Deepening awareness and control over your breathing helps unite your conscious and unconscious minds.
Â What to do: Begin by spending a few minutes just being aware of your breath. You donât have to control it, rather just feel it — be present to the flow, in and out, which will help you become present for whatâs happening in your life.
Â Try this: Sit in a comfortable position, keeping your spine as straight as possible. Bring the tip of your fingers to the tip of your shoulders, pulling your elbows together in front of your chest. As you inhale, bring your elbows up and then back… then, as you exhale bring them down and again back, following a fluid circular movement. This counteracts the natural tendency of the pectoral muscles to contract protectively and often quickly brings about an ability to feel more open.
Â In yoga, asanas are physical poses, each of which has a particular purpose. You can use specific asanas to address the physical manifestations of grief, including pain and the tendency to hunch over to protect your heart. His program includes specific exercises for the pectoral muscles, the mid-spine, and the circulation and breathing systems, such as shoulder stretches and backbends. If you havenât done yoga, try a class or DVD to find poses that feel good to you.
Â A series of purifying techniques called Shatkarma can help in the release of thoughts and emotions, as well as of memories of painful experiences that may have become trapped within the body and mind, says Sausys. Grief is stressful, often triggering the fight-or-flight response. Since this response is integrated through the pituitary gland, you can do a group of Shatkarma exercises for the eyes, called Tratak, to help bring balance to the pituitary gland and reduce the intensity of your feelings. For instance, gazing at a flower, candle or other beautiful object not only helps to release eye tension but can also induce cleansing tears.
Â How to do it: Light a candle. Sit in a comfortable position where you can see it at eye level and at armâs length. First relaxing your facial muscles, stare steadily at the dark part in the center of the flame for two or three minutes. Then close your eyes and focus on the image of the flame that remains… when the image fades, open your eyes and repeat the exercise.
Â Grief is stressful, Sausys says, and therefore can take a major toll on your health and well-being. A basic way to reduce your stress is to simply lie on your back on the floor, repeating to yourself as you exhale: “Relax now.” Draw out your exhalations so that they are twice as long as inhalations. While any and all relaxation methods that work for you can be helpful, Sausys suggests that a good approach is to follow a guided relaxation CD or DVD, which can help you to maintain your focus.
Â Sankalpa: Resolution
Â In the yoga tradition, Sankalpa means to bring something to resolution. To this end, Sausys recommends choosing an affirmation, voicing an intention, or saying a prayer, and repeating it over and over. “This can help focus your mind on the positive,” he says, noting that over time it becomes a symbolic way you can move your thoughts away from negative repetitive thinking toward healing.
Â An example: Formulate a statement that expresses a specific wish in a positive way and in the present tense — for instance, “tonight I sleep deeply.” (Sleep disruption is one of the most common symptoms of grief, says Sausys.)
Â Taken together and used regularly, these tools can provide the necessary framework and support to help grief-stricken individuals come to terms with their loss. It wonât go away and youâll never stop feeling the sadness — but over time it can stop feeling so painful. In the words of the Degriefing program creator, Lyn Prashant, “we never get over our grief — we only change our relationship to it. Grief is a normal human reaction not just to death, but to loss. What we must do is find a way to relate to it.”
Antonio Sausys, BA (Psychology), MA (Body-Oriented Psychotherapy), is a somatic health practitioner and yoga instructor specializing in one-on-one yoga therapy. He teaches and lectures at University of California-Berkeley, the California Institute of Integral Studies, College of Marin, and has been a faculty member at the International Yoga College and the former Honorary Secretary of the International Yoga Federation for the U.S. His Web sites are www.yogaforgriefrelief.com and www.yogatherapyconference.com.