Often it is when we need our yoga practice the most that we neglect our time on the mat. It can feel especially difficult during times of intense emotion such as grief. When our heart is broken it is easy to feel lost, anxious, and depressed. The good news is our practice has our back. Yoga can empower, nurture, and help us heal even the most devastating loss. Rather than move away, yoga invites us to stay as close as we can to our experience and to recognize the innate intelligence (prana) in our pain. Heartbreak has a way of waking us up to the intrinsic beauty of life and the preciousness of each moment.
The past couple weeks I have been grieving the loss of my beloved cat Sampson. In my most intense moments of sadness I feel like I can’t breathe, like my heart is constricting, and I will be overwhelmed by the intensity of my pain. This state of being feels stuck, and it’s not just stuck in my mind, the grief has the potential to get stuck in my body. That’s why practicing yoga when we feel this level of emotional disturbance is so important. Asana practice and deep breathing release the associated physical tension we hold in response to our emotions, and allow the energy within them to move. Coming to my mat during this difficult time has helped me feel more grounded. It has allowed me to create some space around my grief, feel it, and move it.
The following practice has helped me release tension, feel grounded, and keep my heart open. Most of all it has connected me to the power of love. Enjoy!
“Where there is deep grief, there was great love.” -Unknown.
Connect Inward – Sit comfortably, ideally with your hips higher than your knees. Use a cushion, pillow or blanket to elevate your seat. Relax your shoulders and abdomen. Take a few deep breaths. When you’re ready bring your hands over your heart and close your eyes. As you breathe get present to what you feel. “Sad”, “tired”, “angry”, “overwhelmed”. Instead of moving away from what you feel, create space with each breath. Connect to the earth and allow what you are feeling to arise. Focus on your out breath and a sense of releasing with each exhale. After several breaths like this, set an intention for your practice. Feel free to use these words or find your own, “May this practice keep me present to all that I am feeling. May it ground me and keep me open. May I find healing through my body, and may this practice awaken me to the power of love in my life.”
Supported Heart Opening – You will need two yoga blocks for this pose. If you do not have two blocks use firm pillows. Place your first block on the lowest level so that the long end of the block is parallel with the long end of your mat. Place your second block perpendicular to the first about six inches behind it on the lowest level (higher if you need). Sit about a foot in front of the first block. Slowly lay back so that your upper back (right in between your shoulder blades) comes onto the first block. Lay your head onto the second block adjusting the height as needed so that it feels supportive. Open your arms out to the side. You can keep your knees bent with feet flat or extend your legs. Feel the support of the blocks and the support of the earth. Stay connected to that support as you take deep breaths into your chest. As you breathe feel for spaciousness around your heart. You can stay in this pose for up to 5 minutes. When you are ready to come out roll gently to your side, move your blocks off the mat, and rest on your back.
Reclined Twist – Bend your knees and place your feet on the mat. Spread your arms to the right and left of your chest like a T. Shift your hips a few inches to the right. Bring your knees to your chest and on an exhale roll your knees and feet to the left side of your mat. Relax your knees and feet on the floor while keeping your right shoulder down (place a block or blanket between the knees for added support). Keep your head neutral. Soften your abdomen and take deep breaths. Focus on moving all the breath out on the exhale to facilitate the twist. Feel for tension releasing from your spine, head, neck, and shoulders. Stay for 5-8 breaths. To come out bring your knees back to center, set your feet down and re-align your hips. Move to the second side and hold for 5-8 breaths.
Low Lunge Heart Opener – Come into this pose from table or downward dog. Step your right foot forward between your hands stacking your knee over your ankle. Place your left knee on the mat behind your left hip. Move you hips forward and down toward your right heel. On your inhale raise your torso stacking your shoulders over your hips. Start with your hands on your right thigh. When you are ready interlace your hands at your low back and lightly squeeze your shoulder blades toward your spine. As you breathe feel your connection to the earth by grounding your front foot. Lift your low belly to support your low back. As you connect to the earth feel the openness of your chest. Take deep breaths feeling for more space in your heart. Stay for 5-8 breaths. Release your hands to the mat, step back to your starting position, and prepare for the left side.
Lunge Twist – Come into this pose from table or downward dog. Step your right foot forward between your hands stacking your knee over your ankle. Stay on the ball of your back foot and keep your back knee lifted. Place your left hand on the mat under your left shoulder. On your exhale twist to your right and reach your right arm toward the ceiling directly above your right shoulder. As you breathe feel for deepening the twist on the exhale, opening and lifting your chest on the inhale. Stay for 5-8 breaths. To come out of the pose place your right hand outside your foot and step back to starting position to prepare for the second side.
Supported Child’s Pose – Intense emotions can send our nervous system into prolonged stress response which increases fatigue and exhaustion. Restorative poses help enhance the parasympathetic nervous system response (rest and digest), allowing the mind to get quiet and the body to relax and unwind. You will need a block, blanket, and bolster for this pose. Substitute with blankets and pillows as needed. Lay your blanket out on your mat to pad your knees and ankles. Put your block in front of you on the lowest level and place the bolster so the top of the bolster is supported by the block making a ramp. Bring your toes toward one another and sit toward your heels bringing your knees on either side of the bolster. Lay your abdomen, chest, and head on the bolster. Wrap your arms gently around the bolster allowing the forearms to cross underneath. As you breathe let the props completely support your body. Let go of any effort. Feel your breath in your back body, behind your heart, and in your belly. Notice your body become more receptive to your breath as you relax. Stay up to 8 minutes.
Supported Savasana – Place a folded blanket at the back of your mat to use as a pillow for your head. Sit on your mat and place a bolster under your knees so that it supports the backs of your thighs as well as your calves. If your heels don’t touch the floor put a block under each foot. Lay back bringing your head onto the blanket. Spread your arms out to the right and left with your palms up. Take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Close your eyes and relax your body. Tune-in to how you feel. Notice the affect of your practice. Rest as long as you need.
To complete your practice come back to a comfortable seated position. Fold your palms at the center of your chest and take a moment to connect back with your heart. Feel for peace and openness.