By the time I reached 18 years old, I had a fair idea of what it was to lose the things that matter.
My mum had died when I was aged two, but it was between the ages of fifteen and eighteen that I lost the most in the shortest space of time. My loving grandparents, who had been my care givers after my mum died, passed away when I was aged fifteen and seventeen. Not long after my grandad died, my dog had to be put down, and by eighteen we left the family home where I had spent my whole life. The house needed to be sold, and so I found myself by fairly unconventional means at university simply because I had nowhere else to go.
All this loss in such a short time was too much for me to comprehend. I was in survival mode. I spent the next ten years with limited means, flitting between being a free spirit, travelling in non-committal circumstances, or working crazy long hours for charities trying to “save the world.”
It wasn’t really until starting my yoga teacher training that all the pent-up anger, grief and sadness could begin to release. I started to relax my shoulders, letting go of the need to carry the weight of the world on them. I opened my heart, allowing myself to be more vulnerable in my relationships. I realised that I was stuck in a survivor mode and through Yoga Nidra and meditation I began to realise that I was more than my story, and also accept that my story is an inherent part of me.
The Danger of Carrying on As “Normal”
I feel incredibly grateful that I found yoga when I did, and I love being able to try and figure out in my classes how to share the sense of courage and surrender, peace and love, that I had uncovered. However, this doesn’t mean I’m invincible. While my life is in a good place right now, I know there are probably more challenges ahead for me, and that for a lot of my students they will be facing those challenges right now. Amongst those challenges, grief may be one of them.
Grief is a big emotion. We grieve when someone dies, when a pet goes missing, when we change jobs, or a relationship ends. Although the British culture of stiff upper lip is perhaps not as prevalent as it once was, we still have a tendency to hold onto things, to carry on as normal, and to celebrate those who do so. A recent example is the sad demise of David Bowie. I read an article which commended the way he kept the news of his illness out of the public eye, and carried on “as normal” until the end.
Although we don’t really know how “normally” Bowie was able to live his life to the end, and whilst most of us don’t have the pressure of international fame, a lot of us may feel like we are unable to show our emotions, and feel under pressure to just keep going, even if we’ve experienced a major shift in our lives. Instead, we tend to relax by doing things like surfing the net, watching TV, getting drunk, or comfort eating. It’s not that these things are bad, it’s just that they often continue to stimulate the nervous system, and can be tools of avoidance.
Yoga’s Role in Facing Grief
Yoga, when used in the right way, can calm the nervous system, bolster the immune and endocrine systems, and help us see the bigger picture. However with an overwhelming range of yoga classes out there to choose from, how do you pick the class which is going to help you cope with grief? Remember these top three tips, and you’ll sound find out just how much yoga can help.
1) Yoga is your friend
Yoga is your ally! Don’t be tempted to turn yoga into a punishing regime. It’s true that sometimes we need to push ourselves a little bit in our practice, whether that’s by finding the courage to try a new posture or actually getting up when the alarm goes off to do our daily practice, but in a world where we all live at 100 miles an hour, it’s important that yoga doesn’t become another thing on the to-do list adding to your stress and anxiety.
2) Know what you’re doing
If you’re feeling depressed, then sitting for a long time in meditation can be too challenging. Instead, moving the body through practices like sun salutations, twists or backbends can get stagnant energy moving again, and help you discover the possibilities of feeling strong, steady and easeful. On the other hand, someone with anxiety might not benefit from a fast vinyasa practice, and instead benefit more from slower forward bends, or a breathing practice like nadi shodana, which will provide a sense of balance and calm. Ask a trusted teacher if you’re not sure.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
This is one of my biggest lessons of all time, and actually, the one I think I will always be working with. We got so used to doing things on our own – being survivors – that it can be quite difficult to ask for help. Asking for help can be anything from booking in a 1-to-1 with an experienced yoga teacher to get advice on how yoga can help you right now, or simply saying yes if someone offers you a lift home rather than waiting in the rain for a bus. If your mental health problems are feeling severe, then seek advice from a GP.
Remember that we all go through these tough times at some point. No matter how much you feel it, you are not alone. Allow yourself to feel into the emotion of your experience, and above all, be kind to yourself.