Grief and Growth: How Yoga Taught Me to Face My Fears
When did I become the adult—or as my father would say, a “grown-up”?
If I am still filled with fear, am I really an adult?
Why were we all so fearful of dying?
My parents gave me life, and in their deaths they both somehow gave me peace about death, but fear is still on my shoulder, whispering in my ear—why?
These are a few of the many thoughts that went through my mind as I kissed my sweet mother, Sainted Ruthie, goodbye on New Year’s Day. As my mother took her last breath, her death seemed so natural and effortless, something of a last surrender.
“Your life and your death are all about karma,” one teacher told me.
Over the past 20 years, I have been deeply blessed for yoga and ayurveda to have found me. My karma is what allowed me to engage when they knocked upon my door. And the teachers I’ve needed to help me understand these sciences and my role in sharing them continue to show up, brushing the fear from my shoulder. My birth to my parents, Sainted Ruthie and Big Jay, was also a karma; all of us—my mother, my father, and me—warriors, with karmas associated with fear, surrender, courage, and compassion.
Years ago, I had no idea why I was exploring yoga. I couldn’t put my finger on the reason why I found the practices so interesting. When my teacher, Yogarupa Rod Stryker, asked each of us to write down the reason we were attending his first tantra yoga training session, I wrote down one word: “fear.” That word was the only one I could think of.
I had been practicing yoga daily since my father’s death. I was depressed at the time and unable to feel any kindness toward myself. I found Steve Ross on the Oxygen Channel, doing “Happy Yoga” with great rock songs in the background and fun folks rocking out in asanas. I LOVED this morning program. I would get up at 5:15 am, have a shot of espresso, and go for a five-mile run with my favorite neighbor, Miss Anita. We typically finished in about 45 minutes, and I would then come back in the house to stretch it out with Steve. When commercials came, I went to make the kids sandwiches for lunch, then returned from commercial break to join Steve in uttanasana.
After a few years of practice I went to the Himalayan Institute, a yoga retreat center in the Poconos, to study with my pal Kitty Moore and Rod Stryker, whom we had met in 2002 at a Yoga Journal Conference. I wanted to meet his teacher, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. While I could not pronounce Pandit Tigunait’s name, I liked his face and felt comfortable in his presence.
With all that space and time, I became aware of how sad I was. I had space to think about my dad. I also found that I was still filled with fear and self-doubt.
Still, upon my first visit to the Himalayan Institute, I felt uncomfortable and restless. And I felt fatigue. There was not a lot of stuff to do beyond our seminar (or so I thought anyway). With all that space and time, I became aware of how sad I was. I had space to think about my dad. I also found that I was still filled with fear and self-doubt.
In this space, this “in-between” place, I began to feel how much I was holding on to undigested feelings. Dad was gone. The only person I was sure loved me. How could I ever feel loved again? My husband didn’t love me. He barely spoke with me, and this was somewhat understandable, as I had become sharp, fiery, and intense. My grief was not expressed—rather, it was held tight at my heart, as if to keep my dad close. And I let no one touch that place.
The next year, my husband suggested we have an open relationship. “Stay married to me,” he said, “but see whomever you like.” What? I felt I had ruined the soup, and he was just trying to figure out how to “keep it all together.” I asked for a divorce. We were in pain. During our legal mediation, I had started and finished ayurvedic school. After our divorce, my ex remarried within the year. My children then grew up without their father, as he moved 2,000 miles away.
I was now practicing yoga daily, using yogic breathing techniques with clients in my clinical psychotherapy practice, and finishing up my advanced ayurvedic studies. My father was gone, and my life had been turned upside down. My mother, Sainted Ruthie, was disappointed in me. “Staying in a cold marriage is better than none at all,” she told me. For the first time though, I could accept my mother’s words, disagree, and be empathetic. Over time, mom changed her tune and supported my decision to get divorced. She was able to change, which was not easy for someone from a different generation and with a good amount of fear herself.
Sainted Ruthie is responsible for installing my sense of courage. Mom was full of fear, and she was the most reactive woman I have ever met, but also the most brave! Mom taught me to move into action—with my fear, if necessary, but to move nonetheless. She taught me how to be vulnerable and brave. That's what I needed to start my yoga and ayurvedic practice. I had to learn to let go of my attachment to “how things should be.” That was terrifying for me.
Even now, as I grieve my mother’s death, I realize that it is my acceptance of myself that allows me to be comfortable with all the change that occurs in my life. My parents taught me to surrender. My dad taught by example, by practicing it in his daily life. My mother taught me by resisting it. In her last year of life, she continually spoke about wanting to die—that her “job was done”—but the warrior in her did not know how to “lay down the sword and shield” and let go.
Holding their hands as each of my parents died, as they slowly left their bodies, taught me that death is as natural as life. Fear does not have to be part of either experience, but when it is we can move through it, and we can learn to surrender despite feeling it. Even now, I can feel that my fear and my self-doubt are what fuel my fire of attachment, my inability to be graceful and to bow to surrender. It is all a play in my mind.
The process of grief offers me time and space. It’s not so unlike my first visit to the Himalayan Institute—feeling there was “not much to do,” and wanting to get busy and avoid the undigested thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Grief opens a door. If we are brave enough to walk over the threshold—with our fear in tow, if need be—we can begin to digest the illusions our minds invent to distract us from our natural state of growth and acceptance.