Finding Yoga in the Stillness of Loss

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“A mountain keeps an echo deep inside itself. That’s how I hold your voice.”
—Rumi

 

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?

 

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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.

Power in the Practice of Yoga

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I think about how we define yoga.

I think about what it means to say, “I do yoga.”

I think about it because I feel a conviction about re-choosing it before every practice in order to practice purposefully. And, more and more, I feel obligated to find authenticity in my practice and in myself.

 

Defining Yoga

If you open Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, you will find these words in Sutra 1.2: “Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah.” While the Sanskrit may seem complex, it actually helps us to define what yoga is.

There are several ways of translating this phrase, and yoga scholars toil over translating it precisely. Here is one way that I particularly like: “The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga” (Satchidananda, 2007, 3). In other words, through yoga we learn to manage stillness in the mind.

But achieving this stillness is no simple task.

Here in this post, I want to cast a light on yoga that illuminates its connection to power. Power has many meanings, but, simply, it is the ability to manage thought and behavior. Specifically, I want to discuss how, in mastering the fluctuations of the mind, we are facilitating and strengthening a flow of power within us.

To clarify, I am not referring to powerful control over others; rather, I am referring to the mastery of one’s own mind.

Why is it useful to have this discussion of yoga’s relationship to power? It is useful first because power is both elusive and necessary: it is difficult to define, and yet it is a force that we all need in order to move freely and kindly in our worlds. Secondly, it is useful because yoga may not only help us to recognize the presence of power that exists already—for it is often the realization that power is even present at all that is a first step in channeling it—but it may also help us to strengthen it in our lives.

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Power imagined

As an idea, power may be known to us by the dream of what we could do with it, or by how we feel “without” it. We may believe that power will help us to rise above or push through the difficulties of anxiety, chronic illness, conflict, unhappiness, or pain. In so doing, we may believe that it will bring us the energy, strength, motivation, or courage to negotiate those difficulties.

On the other hand, and rather than reaching for the dream of power, we may find ourselves feeling a deficit of power: downtrodden, weak, frightened, at the mercy of something else. In all of these aspects, we are right about how we imagine power.  For each of us as individuals, purposeful and nurturing power is both needed and deserved.

 

Power and protection

A few years ago, a friend asked me how I could possibly commit to practicing first thing in the morning every day. She said, “I would much rather just let my day unfold, to see what happens.” To her, I responded: “That is why I practice. I want to prepare myself for what might unfold.”

Before I began my journey with yoga, I had adapted over decades to awakening in fear and compulsion. It was a ritualistic stress inoculation that I developed as a small child in a stormy, inappropriate grown-up environment. My power took the form of a clenched-hearted surveillance: what could possibly happen today that I won’t expect? What mistakes might I make? How might I upset someone else, or become upset because of someone else? Whom might I disappoint? What if I become hungry? Or tired? Or confused? What if my world is unsafe today? My unending anxiety was a power-draining illness. It presented in my little body with physical symptoms, and it stayed up all night in my dreams.

Of course, we can get used to almost anything, and this form of power stayed with me for many years as if it were my own skin. To be sure, it consistently felt much more like prison than power.

 

Power re-imagined

As many do, I stumbled into yoga. And the shift was immediately palpable. Through yoga, I felt a quieting in the mind. Some days subtle, some days profound. Each day a relief. But also a fear: would this relief take away my power as I had known it? Would I become vulnerable without it? Could I even survive?

“The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” As Pattabhi Jois said, “Do your practice, and all is coming.” Over years, and with dedication to practice (a daily leap of faith), my power has been transformed. Indeed, it was a kind of power that gave strength to the vigilant fear-noise, the angst-ridden fluctuations of mind that aimed to protect me from what might happen. But the quieting of the mind has freed a dynamic flow of power that is composed of:

~the endurance I have always had and the fortitude I have built,

~the spirit I was born with and the wisdom I have developed, and

~the dream of self-love that has stayed with me and the realization of worth that has emerged over time.

In practice, power feels like breath, balance, courage, calm, strength, love, patience, acceptance. In my life off the mat, power is a graceful presence that weaves together the mind, body, and spirit into something not needful, but rather abundant and authentic.

In as much as it is these things, it is also—always—the relief of that hypervigilance that I remember viscerally. Sometimes it feels like floating in the absence of anxiety. And it takes some time to realize that the floating is not vulnerability, but power.

 

Power manifested in practice

Yoga allows us to sense power in multiple forms. Maybe it manifests itself as the audible, palpable release of breath through discomfort, whether it be in the physical body or deep within the emotional or spiritual realm. Perhaps, while we struggle with feeling overtaken by chronic illness, our practice reveals to us a power to maintain strength or comfort or even resilience in the body.

At other times, power manifests as a kind of will, as in a challenging pose: the body wrestles with fear or memory, but the will convinces the fear to abate. Sometimes, power manifests as a peaceful overthrowing of accumulating anxiety: the storm of anxiety rages, but peace floods in and reigns over it with calm.

Or, the presence of power can be as simple (and as challenging) as finding the strength to pull oneself out of bed, into the uncertainty of the day, and onto the mat. To be sure, many days of early morning Ashtanga practice have begun that way for me: on those days, it is enough just to find the ability to push through the morning melancholy and aching desire to hide from myself, in order to find my feet standing in Samasthitihi. Sometimes, I don’t know quite how I got there at the top of my mat, other than to trust that I must have transitioned from bed to mat by a gentle power that I have cultivated over time.

All the while on this journey, the memories of transformation remain steadfast and continue to accumulate. Perhaps they do for you, too. This presence of power—still fleeting—can itself be a reminder of the difficulties we have experienced, and might still be experiencing. Why didn’t I discover yoga as a child? Where was this power when I needed it? And worst of all: what if this power goes away? Although the anxiety is painful to remember, painful to process, yoga is there for us to take its shape in the body and find the breath.

And as we transform, we can hold our memories with some warmth when we consider the wise words of Richard Freeman, who has said, “Yoga ruins your life.”

It does. It ruins it beautifully.

 

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Rebecca Ingalls, Ph.D., BSN, RN, is a former Associate Professor of English, and is now a registered nurse and a nurse-midwifery student. She is a mother of two, and she has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for nine years. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.