Heart of the Matter: Using Yoga Therapy to cope with Grief

It wasn’t so long ago I was on the other side of the class; teaching yoga and feeling a deep connection to Patanjali’s sutras.

Heart of the Matter: Using Yoga Therapy to cope with Grief

It wasn’t so long ago I was on the other side of the class; teaching yoga and feeling a deep connection to Patanjali’s sutras. I loved yoga. I was on the other side of death then, too, and couldn’t fathom how loss would disconnect me from myself, and my practice. In the early days of grief, I didn’t believe something as simple as yoga could possibly alleviate the sting of suffering in my heart. But the hardest times to practice are often when we need it most.

My life was sliced neatly into two timelines, divided by a bookmark between before and after my Dad’s death. These are the moments that come to define us; when they happen to you, the world is clear and empty, obvious yet complicated. The rest of your life falls away, collapsing beneath a surreal weight.

Grief carries a tidal wave of complicated emotions that can leave you numb and detached from your former self. And since it demands that we re-write our story and make amendments to the future we used to imagine, yogic tools, like self-study and mindfulness, help ease the effects of trauma following devastating loss.

I avoided group classes for fear of unleashing a sadness I couldn’t contain. I needed to let go of the practice I was accustomed to, escape busy studios, and develop a daily sadhana handmade for me. Since yoga is about finding balance in all aspects of life, our practice can shift, and must be adapted to suit our changing needs. Yoga therapy provided a path back to my practice, one that was gently crafted with compassion and my unique challenges in mind.

What is Yoga Therapy?

“Yoga therapy is a holistic discipline that offers a broad range of tools useful in promoting health, supporting healing and encouraging personal transformation,” says Felicia Pavlovic, a yoga therapist and the co-director of Yoga Therapy Toronto. Also known as Yoga Cikitsa, the one-on-one therapeutic process returns to the very root of this ancient tradition. “To make healing effective and potent, we must understand and interact with students individually,” she says, explaining how this creates the space for individual histories, emotions, physical ailments and habitual patterns to be explored. Using a personalized practice that evolves along with you, the yoga therapist helps empower the student to become actively engaged in the healing process.

Always drawn to the quiet practice of yin, my troubled mind suddenly became a battlefield that I couldn’t bear to sit with. I was so tense that I needed an escape, a respite – not to immerse myself in panic-inducing poses that left too much space for my mind to wander. I needed to give my body relief from the constant hum of anxiety in order for healing to occur and the fog to lift. Meditation was out, and movement was in.

As a result, my yoga changed entirely. It took the form of reading, walking through nature, gentle asana and even consuming copious amounts of television. I realised how the simple pleasures we deny ourselves are often what’s most needed when things fall apart. And that distracting the mind can be an essential component of healing. A practice from your yoga therapist may include physical postures, psychotherapy and counseling, conscious breath regulation, meditation and visualization, sound and mantra, dietary recommendations and guided yoga nidra.

As a complementary healing modality, Pavlovic explains how private yoga therapy can alleviate physical, mental and emotional suffering through a practice that addresses the whole person. While a group class may limit you to a brief moment of physical adjustment from your teacher, yoga therapy is tailored to you and can address a range of issues from depression, diabetes and cancer to grief, insomnia and chronic pain.

During your first session, expect to have an intake assessment, where the yoga therapist will inquire about the student’s health history, current medications and treatments, and physical, mental and emotional conditions to address. Then, you will be taught a physical practice with modified poses to suit your capabilities. Other recommendations, like lifestyle adjustments or meditation and pranayama, often accompany the daily practice.

Yoga therapy differs in that its students take an active role in their recovery while the teacher directs them toward appropriate tools. “Since much of the healing happens due to the regular practice by the student,” says Pavlovic, “a key responsibility of the yoga therapist is to inspire and motivate them to maintain the practice.”

Having a detailed daily prescription gave me structure while the personalized practice was both approachable and restorative. The changes were subtle at first, but once you begin to process trauma physically, the stress that’s migrated to the body from the mind fades gradually as well.

I still feel like my life is on pause, like some days pass in slow motion. I know it takes time but that time alone does not heal our wounds. Grieving is hard work and I’m just learning how.

An opening intention for your yoga for heartbreak practice 

Try this intention, written by international yoga teacher Seane Corn

Sit tall, your hips higher than your knees. (This may require a blanket or cushion.) Gently close your eyes, bring your hands to Anjali Mudra (bring your hands together in prayer at the heart), take 5 deep breaths, and then recite this intention:

“May this practice reconnect me to my body, ground me in the here and now, and heal me from my grief. 

“I ask for clarity and for the strength to let go of any limited beliefs that keep me resistant to change and unavailable to growth.

“Instead, may I open my heart, see beyond reason, accept without condition, and love without hesitation. 

“May this practice be blessed.”

More: Poses By Benefit