Yoga for Grief Research Paper

    Yoga for Grief & Loss 

    © Kathleen Pratt 2018 

    Introduction

     

    Grief is a universal response to loss of something important in our lives. Grief affects us emotionally, physically, psychologically, spiritually and socially. Most people think of bereavement as a cause of grief, but grief occurs in response to a multitude of losses such as natural disasters, unemployment, divorce, serious health diagnosis, and sexual assault. ‘Disenfranchised grief’ is grief that is not acknowledged by society , such as family estrangement and dementia. Bereavement is associated with excess risk of mortality, particularly in the first weeks and months after a loss. It is also related to increased physical symptoms, illness and use of medical services . Due to a variety of factors, some bereaved individuals are at risk for complicated grief, depression and stress disorders. In normal bereavement, a range of fluctuating emotions (including depression, regret, guilt and anger) and feelings of repressed or unresolved grief can take years to resolve (Philbin, 2009).

     Why Yoga for Grief? 

    Conventional Western approaches to grief have emphasized talk therapy, either individually or in a group, to come to terms with the loss. However, some people may be averse or uncomfortable to this method. Many (especially in my experience, older adults) people are not comfortable with receiving professional mental health services. Others lack the communication skills or ability or willingness to speak about their loss. Yoga offers an alternative means for people to work through their grief, in their own way, in their own time, without the pressure of having to think or process information. It literally gets them out of their heads and into their body. The practice of yoga supports self-care, integration of the loss, and feeling a continuation of relationship with deceased loved ones (Helbert, 2016). Yoga allows a grieving person to be just where they are, in contrast to society and other people who send messages (overt or covert) that a grieving person should be doing something to move through their loss more quickly or differently. The practice of tuning into one’s body, emotions, mind and breath with self-compassion creates space for grief to be transformed and moved through, moment by moment. Yoga becomes a tool to manage one’s grief; instead of avoiding the pain, to sit with it, observe and learn that it is not as frightening as we thought. Grief has been described as a ‘tsunami’ – it comes in waves, at the most unexpected moments and can knock us off our feet. At these times, when we are triggered by a memory, scent or visual reminder of the person we have lost, a grounding practice can be helpful. For example, if a song comes on the radio that makes us cry, we can go into Child’s pose, with our forehead resting on the floor, focusing on our breath, until the song is finished. If we are in a public place when a memory is triggered, we can place our feet on the floor, hands on a solid object, such as table, or take a hand mudra, such as svastika mudra, apan vayu mudra, or samputa mudra to support the heart center (Helbert, 2016).  

     Yoga Philosophy Applied to Grief 

    The Eight Paths of Yoga bring wisdom to understanding and working with grief. Yoga’s emphasis on mindfulness is particularly useful. Accepting oneself at this moment, and recognizing that we are different each time we come to the mat, can help a grieving person recognize that painful emotions will come and go. When they do come and threaten to overwhelm us, we can breathe into them; regard them as a messenger and facilitate their transience (Jnana Yoga). It is said that grief is love not wanting to let go. Regarding grief as love can lend strength to entering into one’s grief; giving oneself permission to express it and heal the heart. Grief elicits physical and energetic changes in the breath and prana (Helbert, 2016) (Bhakti Yoga). Crying, sighing, feeling like you can’t breathe, as well as external factors such as lack of exercise and fresh air can cause blockages in the chakras and energy body. These can be tended to through pranayama and visualization (Tantra Yoga). Practicing Loving Kindness meditation can be particularly helpful in both caring for self and recognizing the needs of others. As a person feels stronger, they may want to memorialize their loved one through donating their time or money to an organization, planting a tree, establishing a special fund or dedicating a park bench so that others can benefit from the memory of their loved one (Karma Yoga). An entire book could be written about the eight limbs of Raja yoga and grief! I have chosen one of Pantajali’s Sutras for a short discussion of its application to grief.   Sutra 1.30b that states “… And by mistaken views of the world that are left uncorrected, failing to reach specific levels, or not being established in them firmly” (Roach & McNally, 2005). Grief can be all-consuming and attachment to thoughts such as “What did I do to deserve this!” or “It’s not fair” or “S/he was too young to die!” can cause great suffering. If we take the perspective that certain people are entitled not to die until a certain age, or we are exempt from loss, we are ignoring the natural cycle of life. If we agonize over finding a reason for the death, we will only find guilt, shame, and/or anger and no absolute proof for any theories we come up with. Through the teachings and practice of yoga, we can gently discern and let go of those (ego) attachments that do not serve us, while keeping the love that attached us to the person who died. Michael Stone (2016) said, “When our personal and particular grief opens a window, even for a moment, onto the universal truth of impermanence, of life and loss, then through our grief, we walk with all the world” (p.11). This spiritual realization can lead to a deep sense of interconnectedness with all of life. 

     Hatha Yoga for Grief and Considerations in Designing a Yoga for Grief Program 

    If music is used, it should be both calming and emotionally stimulating. For example, Philbin (2009) suggested Shastro and Nadama’s Zen Notes . A discussion up front reviewing the purpose and intent of yoga, attending to the sensations in the body at all times, practicing ‘less is more’ and moving within one’s comfort zone and pace will help create an atmosphere of safety and acceptance. Students should be prepared for the possibility of emotional release in any of the postures, and reassured that this is natural and the body’s way of clearing blockages and restoring balance. Instruction and reminders can be given about how to respond to emotional releases by staying present with whatever feelings arise, observing and responding with compassion. Simple but clear language will help students stay safe and avoid overthinking or guessing at the teacher’s intention. Keeping the poses at a beginner’s level and offering modifications will make the program inclusive of a range of abilities, and ensure that students feel secure and successful. 

     

    It is recommended that a specialized yoga program for grief include pranayama, asana, meditation and relaxation (Philbin, 2009). Pranayama can help restore energy balance, recover a sense of control and alleviate anxiety (Sausys, 2014). Specific asanas can relieve blockages and promote the flow of life energy to transform physical and psychological symptoms of grief (Sausys, 2014). 

     Hatha Yoga Sequence for Grief 

    This practice is comprised of selected pranayama, asanas and meditation with a brief rationale for each. Asanas are grouped in posture category and are not necessarily in order for planning a sequence. I have focused primarily on the emotional and psychological benefits of each pose as applied to grief, as these are less well-known than the physical benefits. 

     Pranayama 

     Three-Part Breath/Complete Breath (Deergha swasam) in seated or reclined position: Promotes a sense of control; increases oxygen intake; brings awareness to the area where the main chakras are located (Sausys, 2014). Sausys (2014) adds that the practice of full breathing is symbolic of the commitment to the full grieving process. Stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxation response and can help with sleeping problems if practiced before bed (Helbert, 2016).  

    Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi shodhana) relieves anxiety and balances the flow of prana in the energy body (Helbert, 2016). 

     Shatkarma  

    Concentrated Gazing (Tratak) stimulates the pineal gland, resets the endocrine system, improves immunity and regulates sleep (Sausys, 2014). Sausys (2014) suggests switching the focus between a close object (thumbnail of outstretched arm) and distant object about 10 feet away. The two objects can represent the present situation and future reality; symbolizing the journey ahead. Precaution: Practitioners with glaucoma should shorten the duration of gazing and number of switches between focal points (Sausys, 2014). 

     Asanas 

    Yogic Eye Movements (Netra vyayamam): to relieve eye fatigue and strain caused by crying, lack of sleep and rubbing the eyes (Helbert, 2016). Note: I would do either Yogic eye movements or Tratak to avoid eye strain. 

     

    Forward Bends symbolize surrender and release. They help draw senses inward, promoting inner quiet and patience. Done toward the end of a practice, they can release tension and clear emotions that have been activated by backbends or standing poses. Seated forward bends can trigger deep seated fears anchored in the root chakra and pain/unmet needs in relationships anchored in the sacral chakra, as well as challenges to their personal power in the solar plexus chakra (Helbert, 2016). Students can be encouraged to maintain awareness of their experience and greet it with compassion. 

     

    Seated Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana) – The following visualization, described by Helbert (2016), can help address the experience of being invalidated by important people, which some grieving individuals experience both presently and in childhood. Prepare by imagining your inner child sitting in your lap, sending love from your heart space into the child’s heart space. As you fold, visualize embracing and soothing the child, folding love inward while validating any emotions that arise; allow love to flow to your inner child and any uncomfortable feelings to leave the body with each exhalation. Contraindications/cautions: Asthma, diarrhea, back injury 

     

    Child’s Pose (Balasana) symbolizes surrender to emotions and realities of the present moment; a rest pose in which feelings and tears can be allowed and accepted. 

     

    Standing poses are strengthening and grounding. 

    Mountain pose (Tadasana) 

    Sun Salutations (Surya namaskar): Connecting with the energy of the sun can be rejuvenating. Done slowly, can have a calming effect and serve as a moving meditation or prayer (Helbert, 2016).  

    Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana) cultivates calmness and breath awareness. Inversions embody physical and emotional surrender; help to improve confidence and overcome fear (Helbert, 2016).  A grieving person’s world has been turned upside down; and inversions encourage people to see, experience and imagine new ways of seeing ourselves and the world (Helbert, 2016). Precautions: Persons with cardiovascular issues, or certain eye problems (glaucoma, detached retina) should first consult with their physician (Helbert, 2016). 

    Goddess Pose (Utkata konasana): To connect with and balance feminine energies (Helbert, 2016). Kali asana variation involves raising the arms overhead and coming into Goddess pose opening the mouth side and shout “AHHH!” from the belly. This pose embraces the primal nature of grief (Helbert, 2016). Given the way in which society silences people who are grieving, I think the pose can help provide a catharsis for feelings that can’t be expressed publicly. Pratapana: Leg Rotations, Ankle Circles 

    Chair Pose (Utkatasana) with Eagle Arms (Garudasana): I have combined two recommended poses to accommodate beginners. This pose provides groundedness while cultivating the energy of third eye chakra in order to see beyond obstacles (represented by the crossed arms) (Helbert, 2016). Chair pose is also known as “awkward pose” and can symbolize how awkward and uncomfortable grief can feel (Helbert, 2016). Developing strength, comfort and ease in Chair pose can be a metaphor for dealing with grief and other life challenges.  Pratapana: Knee Rolls, Shoulder Rolls, Empty Coat Sleeves. Contraindications/Precautions: Low blood pressure, insomnia, headache  

    Warrior Poses (Virabhadrasana I, II, III) serve to remind us of our own power facing the challenges in life (Helbert, 2016). In the pose, one can contemplate the potential of transforming their grief from destruction to creation, from chaos to balance (Helbert, 2016). The pose helps confront fear and facilitate courage, and balances the root chakra, providing a sense of being grounded and secure in one’s own strength and power (Helbert, 2016). Pratapana: Torso Twists, Leg Swings, Elbow Circles. Contraindications/Precautions: Heart problems, high blood pressure, if shoulder injuries, keep raised arms parallel to each other; if neck injury, keep head in neutral position.   

    Tree Pose (Vrksasana) provides a sense of being grounded by supporting the root chakra (Helbert, 2016). Can imagine roots growing from your feet into the floor, through all layers of the earth until it reaches the molten core; with each inhale, draw red light with strength, stability, warmth and security upward into your roots to your root chakra, and with each exhale, allow fear, tension and stress to leave the body (Helbert, 2016). I like incorporating the mudras in Tree pose. Hands can be in Anjali mudra; transitioning to Bud (Samputa) mudra then Lotus (Padma) mudra, Vajra mudra or open; to accept the blessings of the universe (Helbert, 2016). Pratapana: Arm Circles, Mountain Pose 

    Backbends open the heart, release throat and voice; strengthens muscles and neck and back, tones the abdomen and increase circulation around the spine (Helbert, 2016). Pratapana: Symmetrical Stretch or Rock n’ Roll (reclined); extended mountain (standing)  

    Cat-Cow (Marjariasana/Bitilasana): Releases tension in the spine, neck and lower back and stimulates all of the chakras (Helbert, 2016). Moving with the breath has a calming effect. Precaution: With neck injury, keep head in line with the torso .  

    Bridge (Setu bandhasana) – Opens the hips, chest and heart areas; provides calming and grounding energy; alleviates stress, anxiety and fatigue; stimulates the thyroid (Helbert, 2016). Supported bridge using a block at the sacrum for at least one minute ‘re-sets’ the sympathetic nervous system from stressed to calm (Helbert, 2016). Physical and emotional pain and energetic imbalances occur in the sacral chakra for mothers who have experienced the death of a child as well as survivors of sexual abuse and trauma (Helbert, 2016). Supported bridge can allow this space to open; helpful to imaging white or orange light spiraling in the sacral chakra and pain and stress leaving the space on the exhale. Contraindication: Should not be practiced if neck injuries. Note: I would add the option of Waterfall Pose (Viparita Karani) as an alternative to Legs Up the Wall. Viparita karani induces relaxation; can help with sleep and allows the flow of energy to be reversed in the body (Helbert, 2016).  

    Cobra (Bhujangasana): Cultivates courage and eases anxiety (Helbert, 2016). Contraindications/precautions: back injury, carpal tunnel, headache, pregnancy  

    Spinal twists help the body release toxins and ‘wringing’ out emotions and stress that do not serve us (Helbert, 2016).  

    Lying spinal twist (Supta matsyendrasana) – relaxing and calming; maintains flexibility in the spine. Precaution: Lower back disc disease (Lasater, 2003).   

    Savasana and Meditation 

    Body scan toes to head; with each exhalation, send breath to areas where there is tension. Option to imagine the breath as light and warmth that infuses each area of the body with a warm glowing energy; bringing light to dark or scary places and releasing these on the exhale (Philbin, 2009).  

    Reading: Poem, quotation or excerpt from Yoga for Grief and Loss.  

    OM  

    Namaste 

    Conclusion

     Although yoga is not a conventional approach to treating grief symptoms, along with other mind-body interventions, it is an effective means to reduce chronic stress that can lead to inflammation-related diseases (Buric et al., 2017). This is an important consideration, given the risks to mental and physical health posed by unresolved grief. Yoga can be suitable for a wide segment of the population. It is more accessible and affordable than individual psychotherapy, and similar to mindfulness-based stress reduction practice, once learned, it can be used by an individual indefinitely to promote and maintain their well-being. 

     I sought out yoga to help me cope with stress associated with my mother’s diagnosis of advanced cancer and my efforts to care for her at a distance. Yoga helped me in ways that other things (social support, therapy, meditation alone) could not. Yoga gave me a way to calm and centre myself, deal with difficult emotions and care for my body during the two years she was ill and the aftermath of her death. I am so grateful to yoga and my teachers, and am eager to help others find their way to healing loss through yoga.  

    References

    Buric, I., Farias, M., Jong, J., Mee, C. & Brazil, I. A. (2017). What Is the molecular signature of mind–body interventions? A systematic review of gene expression changes induced by meditation and related practices. Frontiers in Immunology, 8(670), 1-17. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670

     

    Helbert, Karla. (2016). Yoga for grief and loss. London, UK: Singing Dragon. 

     

    Lasater, J. (2003). 30 essential yoga poses for beginning students and their teachers. Berkeley, CA: Rodmell Press.

     

    Philbin, K. (2009). Transpersonal integrative yoga therapy: A protocol for grief and bereavement. International Journal of Yoga Therapy. 19: 129-131.

     

    Roach, G.M. & McNally, C. (2005). The essential yoga sutra: Ancient wisdom for your yoga. New York: Three Leaves Press.

     

    Sausys, A. (2014). Yoga for grief relief: Simple practices for transforming your grieving mind and body. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

     

    Stroebe, M., Schut, H. & Stroebe, W. (2007). Health outcomes of bereavement: A review. Lancet. 370: 1960–73. 

     

    Stone, M. (June 27, 2016). Grief: An essay. Retrieved from https://michaelstoneteaching.com/grief/ 

    Current & Upcoming Events

    Contact me:

    Tel - (613) 777-5207 

    kathleen@kathleenpratt.ca

     

     

    Subscribe to the mailing list for program updates 

    * indicates required
     
         
    Email Format

    Be social

    facebook logo    Follow me on Facebook



    © 2018 Kathleen Pratt

    positive space  website logo