When I began practicing yoga in college, my friends would have to drag me from the library and onto the mat. As a new yogi, I felt uncomfortable in studio settings because I couldn’t manage deep binds, steady balance poses, or complicated inversions. I also felt uncomfortable in my body. I didn’t think I was “built” for yoga, because I wasn’t as thin or as graceful as other practitioners. I hated yoga and I hated how I felt whenever I practiced it. It was not an instant romance.
But looking back, I think my dislike of it had less to do with physical tension and lack of confidence, and much more to do with something that I didn’t want to feel. No matter how fast-paced each class was, we always ended by laying flat on our back in savasana. And each time I rested my body and mind, a memory would surface. This, in hindsight, was the hardest part.
Six months before I began college, I lost my closest friend to gun violence. I know now (eleven years later) that we have to feel in order to heal. But at that time, I thought that moving on was a cut-and-dry choice. Within a week of finding out that he had passed, I got a tattoo in remembrance of him. Then I made the decision to “go on” with my life, but without acknowledging that my life had changed. Only after four years of burying myself in books (feeding a type A personality), and reluctantly attending asana classes, did I begin to realize that the loss would always be present—no matter how much I tried to suppress it.
The quiet, still space that savasana cultivated made an impact on me. I gradually began to notice quiet spaces in daily life. More and more—while lying in bed, doing the dishes, or sitting in nature—I embraced the feelings that would arise, however painful. Only then did I begin to realize what healing meant (and even that I needed to heal).
Suppressing loss is a common coping mechanism. “Some losses feel too big to cope with immediately. Another loss might feel more ‘safe’ and easier to reconcile,” explains psychotherapist and ayurvedic yoga specialist Kathryn Templeton. “You might find it more accessible to touch your grief when your beloved dog dies than when a person close to you dies. As you access your grief for your beloved pet,” Templeton clarifies, “the door can open and allow you to then feel and express every other unexpressed loss.”
Suppression of grief can also rise from a lack of external support or guidance.
“We can’t always expect our loved ones to hold space for us,” Templeton explains. “They might not have known the person we lost as well as we did, or they simply did not know them in the way that we knew them.”
We never really stop missing the person we lost, we just learn how to incorporate the loss into our lives in a different way.
Suppression as a coping mechanism also arises in part from internal pressure and unrealistic time frames. We are often told, or tell ourselves, to “get over it,” and all too quickly. But the “end” of grief, according to Templeton, is largely a myth. “We never truly move on,” she states, “We never really stop missing the person we lost, we just learn how to incorporate the loss into our lives in a different way.”
By developing an internal locus of control, such as a yogic practice, she clarifies, “we can gradually begin to embrace the memory of the person we lost and thus begin the grieving process.”
The following practice was written with the intention of helping you hold space for your unique grieving process; it does involve calling the person to mind. Practice it when you are ready, and if at any point the guided savasana feels too intense, simply walk away from it.
And remember: Yoga is not a substitute for medical attention, and it is not a cure-all. If you are experiencing chronic anxiety or depression that interferes with your daily life, please consult a medical professional.
Props: a bolster and two blankets (optional)
Lie on your back, on a comfortable surface (a yoga mat or blankets).
Place a bolster under your knees and a folded blanket under your head.
Cover yourself with a blanket.
Close your eyes. Or keep them open, and soften your gaze.
Tune in to the space around you. Allow the floor to hold you, and relax the way you hold yourself.
Tune in to the space inside of you, and notice your thoughts and your emotions. Allow each thought and each emotion to come and go as they will, without trying to change them. Also allow the sounds around you to appear and then disappear.
Let your mind sink into your breathing. Focus less on the external world, less on the thoughts and emotions as they come and go, and less on the sounds in your environment.
Allow the body to grow still. The abdomen is the only part of the body moving now, rising and falling in space.
Refine your breathing. Allow it to become smooth and quiet.
Every inhalation brings a sensation of deep and abiding presence. Every exhale serves as a tiny anchor, settling you into the support beneath your body.
Let the back of your head become heavy. The backs of your shoulders become heavy. Your hips become heavy. Your heels become heavy.
Release any gripping through the hands, and allow your feet to release. There is nothing to grasp, nowhere to be but here.
You are allowed to feel safe in this moment, and to feel whatever you feel.
You are allowed to express emotion (you are allowed to cry, you are allowed to sigh).
Now, with your awareness on the breath, allow the image of the person you have lost to come to mind.
Observe each detail of their appearance.
Recall what made them stand out to you, and what you especially loved about them. Reflect on the ways they made you feel human, and the ways they expressed their own humanity toward you—all of the ways, both perfect and imperfect.
Recall a moment of joy you had with them.
Recall a moment of sadness you had with them.
Recall a mundane and seemingly inconsequential moment.
Dive into the unique elements of those remembrances: the locations of the moments, the clothes you both wore, even the temperature of the air.
Maintain a smooth and even pace of breathing if you can. If your breath becomes shaky, allow it.
Everything that happens in this moment is okay.
Continue reconnecting with the breath. Let it anchor you here, in the present.
Notice how every exhale stabilizes you, bringing you back, again and again, into the feeling of being here now—where you truly are, on this earth and in this moment.
After thinking of the person you lost for some time, return your full awareness to the breath. Rest the mind completely in the breath.
Notice the quality of the breath now. If it has become ridged or ragged, let it regain its smooth, calm, and quiet quality as time progresses. Rest, breathe, and be here for as long as you’d like.
When you’re ready, deepen your breathing, and exhale an audible sigh.
Roll over onto your side, and come to a seated position.
Rest your right palm over your heart, and your left palm on the top of the right hand. Express words of kindness and love—first to yourself, and then to the person you lost.
Return to your day, or to your evening. And return to this practice, or any other resource you may have, as often as needed.