Yoga is not a religion. There is no religious doctrine or dogma practiced in yoga. However, yoga may be practiced in some religions. Yoga means union. We grieving parents need union and connection because we feel broken into a million pieces. Generally speaking, yoga is a physical practice that connects our body, mind and spirit into an integrated whole person. Yoga consists of physical exercises (asanas) to release muscle tension, breathing techniques (pranayama) to calm the stress response, and meditation for deep relaxation. This entire practice of yoga helps promote mind, body and spirit healing.
In the early 1980’s, I explored yoga for stress relief following my father’s death, when my son was 6 weeks old and I was enrolled in graduate school. It was a great stress reliever that took me through some very stressful times in my life. I have continued to be involved with yoga through the years. Since that time, research has documented that yoga increases strength, flexibility, and balance; enhances immune function; lowers blood sugar and cholesterol levels; and improves psychological well-being. One of yoga’s most prominent effects is stress reduction.
Yoga is a vast discipline consisting of many types and variations, i.e. Hatha, Kundalini, Iyengar, and more recently Hot Yoga (Bikran). Each one has characteristic asanas, mantras, chants, and props all designed to heal the whole person.
Yoga is amazing—even if practiced only once or twice a week, will produce tremendous benefits. More practice produces more benefits. I suggest starting with two or three times a week, for 20-30 minutes. Even 5-10 minutes a day is beneficial. As a word of caution, you are unlikely to notice any big difference right away. The effects tend to be more subtle, but they will come.
Here is a brief overview of how yoga works in grief:
- First the breath, essential to yoga practice, is critically important during grief because we unconsciously hold our breath and/or take fast shallow breaths. The slow deep breathing of yoga extinguishes the fight or flight response and calms the body and mind.
- The poses (asanas) provide gentle stretching which helps us feel where the tension and tightness are located, release it, and increase flexibility and strength.
- Mindful meditation helps us stay in the present—rather than dwelling on past regrets of “I wish I had,” or “If only.” It also stops us from worrying about the future, of which we have no control. Living in the present moment makes us aware of our pain and sparks compassion to soothe our pain.
These three processes work together to enable us to identify and cope with what we are feeling and experiencing in our grief. This process slowly facilitates healing grief.
Here are a few simple poses designed to calm your nerves, relax your body, open your chest, nurture your being, and subsequently restore and heal your broken heart.
- Find a quiet place free from distractions. Silence your cell phone and give yourself permission to take 5-10 minutes just for yourself. Wear comfortable clothing.
- Sit comfortably in a chair with arms and hands resting comfortably in your lap (or lie on the floor, on your back, legs stretched out and relaxed and arms gently beside and away from the body.
- Gently close your eyes and inhale deeply and exhale.
- Set a goal (intention) for yourself, i.e. To feel better, to get away for a few minutes, or to just relax.
Begin with the breath, which is an essential part of yoga practice. Slow deep breathing can also be practiced separately, whenever we feel overwhelmed or angry.
First, focus on the three part yogic breath.
- Begin with the belly breath segment. Place both hands on the abdomen, just below the belly button with fingertips touching. Contract and relax the abdominal muscles. Inhale and relax your belly by pushing forward with your belly muscles (your hands should be pushed forward). Exhale and contract the belly muscles, pushing in with your hand to help your body get the idea. Repeat.
- The second part is rib expansion. Place your hands on the lower part of the ribcage with fingertips touching. When you breathe in you feel your rib cage expand. Your fingers will separate as you expand your ribcage on inhalation and come together on exhalation.
- The third part involves the lungs where you feel the air rise to open the upper chest.
Put it all together and intentionally inhale filling the belly, then the rib area and finally upper chest. Exhale slowly. Repeat.
1. Anjali Mudra (hands in prayer position at the chest) is a great centering pose to prepare for your practice. Sit cross-legged in easy pose or legs outstretched. Close your eyes. Take 3-5 slow deep yogic breaths (described above).
2. Sphinx Pose Lie on your stomach with your elbows under your shoulders. Press your elbows into the floor as you press your heart forward towards your hands. Inhale and exhale slowly for 5 to 10 breaths. Then exhale and slowly release your belly and head back to the floor. Turn your head to one side, relax and lie quietly for 3-5 breaths.
3. Child Pose (Balasana) Kneel on the floor and sit back on your heels. Rest your forehead on the floor or a block. Curl into a ball with arms and hands on either side and relax into the posture. Breathe slowly and deeply for 5-10 breaths.
4. Cow Pose (Bitilasana) Position on all fours with hands and knees in a tabletop position, head in a neutral position and eyes looking at the floor. Inhale while you lift your sit bones and chest toward the ceiling, allowing your belly to sink toward the floor. Lift your head to look straight forward. This pose is usually paired with Cat Pose (below) on the exhale. Exhale, coming back to neutral “tabletop” position on your hands and knees. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
5. Cat Pose (Marjaryasana) Position on all fours and head in neutral position. Inhale deeply, then exhale, round your spine toward the ceiling, making sure to keep your shoulders and knees in position. Release your head toward the floor, but don’t force your chin to your chest. Inhale, back to neutral “tabletop” position on your hands and knees. Or convert back to Cow Pose above.
6. Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)
It can be done with a rolled up blanket under the hips or not. Keep the neck in a natural extension of the spine and open the arms to the side. Inhale slowly and deeply and exhale slowly and deeply. Stay in this pose for 10-15 breaths and longer if desired.
7. Shavasana, also called Corpse Pose, is restorative. Lie on your back with your feet and legs slightly apart. Put your arms at your side and slightly away from the body with your palms facing upward and fingers slightly curled. Close your eyes, relax. This is the traditional closing to most yoga practices. Relax here for at least 5 minutes, more if you have the time.
End with shavasana, the corpse pose, which is where all of the previous poses get integrated. This is a basic minimum to get started with a yoga practice to help you feel better during grief. After completing a few rounds of practice, you will find you are more calm and relaxed for short periods. The longer you spend in practice the longer you will feel calm.
I encourage you to explore yoga further. It is best learned from an experienced yoga instructor. Yoga classes can be found through your local YMCA, community association, or county adult education, parks and recreation departments. Videos can be found on local TV stations and the Internet. Visit the www.yogajournalmag.com and google yoga classes to find a class in your city. Namaste (I salute the divine in you).