When grief arises, the whole world can become a devastation. A great loss may also take with it our own sense of purpose. We may feel abandoned. We may lose faith.A grieving heart doesn’t only hurt. Mentally, it saps us of clarity. We forget things. We feel distracted. Our mood may swing between sadness and irritability, causing us to make choices in our behavior that may numb the heart but not heal it. Intoxication may appeal. So might a review of the past actions that leaves us paralyzed as to choice in the present.
Using yoga tools in response to grief will help us find the perspective to understand not only the grief but the loss that precedes it. Loss is the event; the resulting grief is our process of restoring balance to the tipped scales. We can address the symptoms of grief—the physical and emotional pain, the confusion, sorrow, irritation—with special practices that help the heart. They will enrich our sense of peace, courage, faith. As we do, our enhanced relationship with peace, courage and faith will guide us to understand loss itself. Life is always in flux. Change is a constant. As we develop personal peace, courage and faith, the scales will not shift so abruptly as life comes and goes around and within us.
So we use the tools to strengthen the heart.
A strong heart is a peaceful one. It also offers us the courage to acknowledge the sorrow of loss, to integrate the power of it, and to allow it to transform into a sweet faith—in our abilities, in our insight, in our access to deeper wisdom. This access is the reward of grief; the door will open for us and we can step into compassion for those who suffer as we have and forgiveness of those who may cause it.
And it isn’t just our spiritual hearts that are strengthened in these practices.
The anatomical and physiological dimensions of grief will help you understand why loss can hit us so hard.
When we encounter loss, the primal limbic brain perceives the loss as a threat to our own survival. It orders up a resistance—and the nervous system prioritizes protection and self-preservation. You’ve probably heard the term ‘fight or flight.’ This is the primary function of the sympathetic nervous system. It responds to the brain’s perception of threat by creating physiological responses like increasing heart rate, enlarging bronchial passages, channeling blood flow to big movement muscles, opening the pupils, overriding circadian rhythms and slowing metabolism to ensure energetic resources are directed toward a fight or an escape.
As you can imagine, we don’t want to stay in this state for long. It’s stressful. Our digestion gets screwy, our sleep doesn’t come, our blood pressure soars and we don’t do all that social engagement stuff that humans, with their language and love, can be quite good at! Stress is meant for acute situations; depleting energy quickly, it’s not made for the long haul.
But this is what grief can manifest in us, physiologically. Anatomically and physiologically, grief looks very much like a chronic stress state. And because so many of us move through each day in a state of stress—constantly perceiving threat and risk and challenge—the arising of grief, for whatever reason, further tightens an already taut wire.
When loss complicates stress, the brain will seek greater protective measures, and these may result in seclusion, high anxiety, cognitive fog, indecision, distraction and anger. When these issues become chronic, we can become depressed with a distorted sense of self that is looking for any way to take control. Our hearts—physically and emotionally—may ache.
Welcome, yoga practices. If we’re lucky, we learn some techniques to reclaim our nervous system from a chronic stress state. If we’re disciplined, we remember to use them when stress arises.
Here’s how they work. One of the greatest gifts of yoga over the millennia is that it recognizes that a stressed person isn’t going to sit still easily. We don’t simply surrender to calm if we’re used to fighting for control. Meditation is awesome but inaccessible to someone who doesn’t know how to settle in for to rest.
Old school yogis (and some contemporary ones too) understood that our interaction with the world around us is not a one-way street. We aren’t made to simply react and react and react. Eventually, it wears us out. If we learn to understand the circumstances around us, we can respond appropriately. We can breathe in such a way that we indicate to the nervous system that it’s okay to rest. With consistent deep breathing, our heart is toned and soothed. With a good, long exhale, our nervous system understands that we’re safe. Thus, we open up a boulevard of experience in which we can send signals through our body to our brain as readily as the environment around us. We begin to see that impermanence is a constant but something about us isn’t.
So we find ways to calibrate our energy. We work with our energy. Maybe we do strong asana. Maybe we do soothing breathing. Maybe we rest on our bellies. Or chant. Or meditate. We find methods that restore us to balance.
In the case of grief, we strengthen the heart. We restore ourselves to joy. Joy, as you can imagine, strengthens the heart. She’s the sister of grief. She knows how to settle her down. It doesn’t mean that we push the heart or demand that we release all of our sadness. It simply means that we provide energy to the space at our heart so that the experience of grief has room to breathe. Practices like brahmari—a sweet hum on exhale—serve this purpose. When the heart gains a bit of space, the experiences that are gripped around it—of misunderstood loss, or unresolved grief—begin to soften. That’s when they begin to transform. They don’t go away; they integrate. They lead us to the wisdom of compassion and understanding. To an appreciation of all the comings and goings of life. To joy.