“A mountain keeps an echo deep inside itself. That’s how I hold your voice.”
Even as I type these words, the fingers feel the fatigue of grief in them. They pause as my brain fades into silence and I freeze over the keyboard like a printing press coming to a halt. The mind wafts ghostly sensory memories over the memory’s eye, and I see his face and hear his voice merely days before his physical decline. In a nanosecond I remember the long train ride, the smell of his room in the dim New England afternoon light. His tears, the fear in his eyes, the softness of my hands as they reached to care for him. And then a swift frame-by-frame film of every memory of him that I have, captured in the mystery of his death. In this pause of remembering, the Witness—the Watcher—sees, and waits. And then, like running out of air after being under water, I surface, and the words flow once more over the stillness of this grief.
No universal description of how grief comes upon us, passes through us, or drags us along exists. Indeed, there is no good reason here in this message to create one, for in many ways the uniqueness of our attachments cannot—and perhaps should not—be generalized. There is good reason, however, to accept that we are not alone, and that acceptance is a spine that supports our humanness in this experience.
Amidst the unsettling haziness of this heartache, the muscle memory of daily yoga practice has brought me to the mat, and asana offers a seat upon which to safely grieve. In accepting that we are not alone we may find solace in this system of postures that invite human bodies to move with breath, experience the lifeforce that sustains us, and bond with a universal serenity that transcends the body. In finding this solace, we may come to understand how the practice of yoga can accompany and hold space for us in the midst of great loss.
If one is able to move to the mat, one may find that the physical and emotional manifestations of grief find themselves in conversation there. Breath, as always, is the thread. Inhale the weight of the arms up, then exhale to release the weight as the body folds in sun salutation. Inhale and exhale to chaturanga as the breath steadies the body in strength, maybe even all of the way down to the Earth. Inhale as the chest rises, and awaken for a moment in cobra or upward-facing dog, then exhale as the body reaches and lets go in downward dog. Pain, heaviness, lightheadedness, or stiffness entangle with sadness, anger, confusion, trauma, relief, fear. The ethereal and the grit of the body weave into one another, fight, separate, and melt in the movement from asana to asana.
We owe ourselves the simplicity and the challenge of listening to the breath in our grief—it is a gift of self-nurturing. We may be tempted to feel guilty for trying to settle our minds on something so essential, though lost in loss. We may worry that we’ve forgotten about the loss when we have a moment of pure focus on the breath, and we may rush back to the suffering. Remember, though, that in practice we can be infused by shared purpose, and that peace of mind is unselfish. We can remember that the body’s efforts to find balance with exertion and ease is a portal to stillness in the mind, and that in finding stillness we find a shared peace.
Requiring courage is the knowledge that we may not predict what accompanies the stillness, and so a quiet mind can be a scary place. Fears may think themselves more fearfully, and sadness may want to fill up all of the space that stillness has to offer. Thus, practice may seem like a horribly unpeaceful idea when we are held tightly in the arms of grief, and it may seem easier to numb the pain or to remain frozen in disbelief.
One foot, then another: roll mat, feel feet, listen. Let the breath take the weight of worry as you listen to it journeying through the body. Let tears come, let the thoughts present themselves and depart, let anger wrench its way in, and listen to the breath lead each movement of the body. Soften into the practice.
It’s okay to do that.
And when our practice concludes in Savasana, where we lie recumbent and exposed, what do we do then? What if stillness is a haunted space of regret, or of replaying how we lost what we lost? What if that surrender feels like fullness of pain and the grief overwhelms us in this vulnerable position, lying prostrate on the floor? Why will we not be swallowed into the Earth? How will we get up? Why would we bother?
Loss has its own stillness, and that is the sharpest edge of it—the stillness of loss is the foreverness of ending. It seems monstrous in its eeriness and insane in its ability to evade our understanding; it cuts through the noise of day-to-day and grips the heart and belly. And yet, again, we owe it to ourselves to find out whether we can tunnel through it to something deeper and different, something clarifying and undisturbed.
In grief, our practice proposes a simple question: can it be possible that the excruciating pain of loss lends to us its stillness so that we may learn how to be still?
Rebecca Ingalls, Ph.D., MSN, CNM, WHNP-BC, is a certified nurse-midwife, women’s health nurse practitioner, and yogi. She is a mother of two, and she has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for 11 years. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.