The Emotional Healing Powers of Yoga

Unless you’re lucky enough to have lived a life untouched by loss, you know how physical grief can be. No matter what sort of loss you’re mourning – the death of a loved one or a cherished pet; the end of a relationship; even something as seemingly unemotional as the loss of a job – you probably find yourself having trouble sleeping, eating, and just getting through daily routines. And even if you think you’re handling your emotions, you might very well be suppressing them, hiding them deep in your physical body where they can cause problem down the line.

Yoga can help people deal with grief in a variety of ways:

1. The mind-body aspect of the practice helps reconcile the physical and emotional affects of loss.

After a particularly difficult breakup in my mid-twenties, I left my home in Chicago and spent a summer living in Los Angeles to clear my head. I’d never really mourned the loss of the aforementioned relationship, convincing myself that it was for the best and that the greatest revenge would be to carry on laughing. So it was a complete surprise when I went into a hip-opening Pigeon Pose in my yoga class and felt a sudden and overwhelming wave of emotion. Tears rolled down my face as I relaxed into the pose, and let go of two year of hurt and regret.

My experience is not uncommon – we tend to hold a lot of emotion in our muscles and joints, especially the hips and back. According to yoga instructor Katie Flinn in a report for KSEE News (Fresno, CA),

“Often yoga teachers will suggest backbends to students who are struggling with grief and depression. Its’ the physical opening to what is being felt in the present moment that teaches people how to manage their pain in a healthy and compassionate way.”

2. Yogic philosophies help mitigate grief “traps”

When you’re going through a difficult time in your life, keeping mindful, staying in the moment, and not holding on to the past can all help you move through tough transitions. Yoga teaches us to do this and more. In an article for Yoga Journal, the writer talks to Antonio Sausys, a yoga therapist who specializes in grief:

“Sausys’s goal is to alter the perception and experience of grief. ‘In yoga,’ he says, ‘transformation is the key. And in grief, it’s what needs to be done. We can’t change the loss, but we can transform ourselves.’…Vairagya, or nonattachment, is a key concept in yoga. The relationship of attachment to grief is obvious, says Sausys: ‘We don’t grieve what we’re not attached to.’ But, he adds, the attachment that compounds grief—the clinging to what is not, what cannot be—‘goes against one of yoga’s primary truths: Everything changes and everything will eventually end.’ ”

3. Exercise raises endorphins, and a yoga class gives a sense of community

Grief can easily lead to isolation and depression, and committing to a yoga class can help fight against those pitfalls. A good friend of mine found herself trapped in a vicious cycle of blame, anger and sadness after suffering a miscarriage. She worked from home and could go days without socializing with anyone except her husband (who was dealing with his own grief over their loss) unless she made a concerted effort. Months went by, and she found herself spiraling down into a deep depression.

Finally, she joined a yoga class on the advice of an infertility specialist she was seeing, in the hopes that it would help her to conceive again. The class had a surprising and welcome effect – she formed bonds with her teacher and several other regular students, whom she’d often join for tea after their yoga session. And the very act of doing something physical and “getting out of her head” gave her a sort of runner’s high that would extend into her entire day. After starting a regular, three-times-a-week practice, she began to feel whole and healed, and has since gone on to have two healthy children.

Moral of the story? Yoga has spiritual and physical benefits that can help you deal with grief, but there’s also something to be said for the camaraderie of a group practice and the simple act of exercise as a natural anti-depressant. For these reasons and more, yoga is a precious tool for anyone struggling with loss. As one yoga-practicing widow told Yoga Journal about her journey of healing from her husband’s death, “I realized that if I could stay with what was happening at any given moment, I could handle it. It’s like staying with your breath in a difficult pose: In any situation, if you can breathe through it, you can handle it.”

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