When my husband died 15 years ago, my yoga practice became a way for me to process my grief—one breath, one transition, and one asana at a time. As a result, I was better able to move through my grieving process, rather than getting stuck in it. My fragile heart did not close its shutters. Instead, it remained painfully open in the beginning—and happily open now.
For many months following my husband’s passing, tears flowed every time I practiced, in private and in public. Those tears kept things moving, preserved the flow of life through me, and over the course of much time, served to transmute that pain and loss into a way of meeting the world with an open heart.
During the course of all of our lives, we will inevitably experience grief that stops us in our tracks, both literally and metaphorically. When this happens, it can be tempting to distract ourselves instead of processing our emotions. But when we embark on a regular yoga practice, we begin to release the stuck, stagnant energy that results from unprocessed feelings. I designed this sequence to help you open your hips—a particularly potent area when it comes to unearthing and releasing stored emotions—and to help you turn your pain and grief into fearlessness and compassion.
Come to a kneeling position with your knees and feet together. Use your hands to press your inner heels into each other as you slowly lower your seat onto your heels. On an inhalation, raise your arms alongside your ears; on an exhalation, reach your right fingertips to the floor (to the outside of your right foot), and bend toward your right side. Inhale back to vertical, then exhale over to the left side. Repeat 3–5 times on each side, then place your hands in your lap, palms facing up, with your dominant hand cradling your passive hand for 5 deep breaths.
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Sit with your legs extended straight out in front of you, inner ankles touching. Flex your feet and squeeze your inner thighs together. Root down through your sitting bones to rise up through your chest and the crown of your head, focusing on lengthening your side waists while plugging your shoulders deeply into your back, curling the heads of your arm bones behind your chest. Stay here for 5 deep breaths.
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As you inhale, raise your arms alongside your ears. As you exhale, hinge from your hips to extend forward. Inhale to hinge back up with your arms alongside your ears, then exhale your hands to the floor about 8 to 10 inches behind your seat, fingers pointing toward your seat. Point your toes and press your shoulder blades into your back as you inhale and raise your seat, legs, and chest. As you do this, lengthen your tailbone toward your mat and gently raise your chin off your chest to comfortably open your throat. Repeat this sequence 3–5 times.
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Come to Child’s Pose with your arms extended forward. Ground your palms into the mat. As you inhale, hollow your abdomen; as you exhale, continue to lift your abdomen, raising your knees off the mat and extending your tailbone up toward the sky. Root the heads of your thighbones back, sending weight back through your heels. Stay for 5 breaths, then raise your right leg into the air, and begin to open your right hip while pressing your left thighbone back.
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Continue raising your right leg and begin to reach your right foot toward the floor on the left side of your mat. Focus on lifting some of your weight out of your left hand as you rotate onto the outside edge of your left foot. Lengthen the left side of your body as you lightly touch your right foot to the floor. Extend your right arm to follow the right side of your body, and turn your chest skyward to grow the expansion of your chest. Stay here for 3 breaths. Return to Downward-Facing Dog, and repeat poses 4 and 5 on the other side.
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From Down Dog, inhale to raise your right leg up, then step your right foot to the floor between your hands, stacking your knee over your ankle. Place your left knee on the mat as far back as you can, and inhale your arms up alongside your ears. As you exhale, lift your left foot off the mat, lower your arms behind you, and catch your ankle with your hands. Stay here for 3–5 breaths, then repeat on the left side. Move through a vinyasa, and finish in Down Dog.
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From Down Dog, inhale your right foot forward between your hands, and spin your left heel down to the mat so it’s at a 45-degree angle with the front of the mat. Internally rotate your left thigh, and anchor your left heel into the mat. Keep your right knee directly over your right ankle. Inhale to raise your torso to a vertical position, wrapping your front ribs and stacking your shoulders over your hips. Turn your baby fingers toward each other, extend your fingertips brightly, and look up, moving into a gentle backbend. Stay here for 5 breaths, then repeat on the other side.
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Stand at the top of your mat with your hands in Anjali Mudra (palms together in front of your heart). On an exhalation, take your left foot off the mat and tilt your torso forward, while slowly extending both legs straight, left leg parallel to the floor. Extend your sternum forward, drawing your shoulder blades down and into your back. Keep your hands in front of your heart or extend them forward. Imagine a tether between your left heel and your sternum, and make it as taut as possible as you stay here for 3–5 breaths. Then repeat on the other side.
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From Down Dog, step your right foot between your hands, stacking your knee directly over your ankle. Hug your hips in toward each other, squeezing your leg muscles into your bones and keeping your left heel pointing directly up toward the sky. On an inhalation, raise your torso up to vertical, stacking your shoulders over your hips, wrists over your shoulders. If you’d like to, gently move into a backbend, drawing your abdomen in to create equilibrium between the front and back planes of your body. Stay here for 5 breaths, return to Down Dog, then repeat on the other side.
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Create a big loop with a yoga strap and hold the buckle in your left hand, palm facing up. Hook your left foot into the loop behind you and bring your right arm up alongside your ear. On an exhalation, press the top of your left foot into the strap and away from your buttocks, working your left thigh toward parallel with the mat. Focus on anchoring your tailbone down and lifting up your heart. Your right arm can extend out in front of you, acting as a counterbalance; or, you can take hold of the strap with your right hand, which will guide your triceps toward parallel with the mat. Stay here for 5 breaths, then switch sides.
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Come to kneeling with your knees together, feet wider than hip-width apart. Press your thumbs into the back creases of your knees and then run them firmly down the center of your calves as you lower your seat between your heels. Place your hands in your lap, palms facing up, and close your eyes. Take a couple breaths here, then begin the following pranayama: Inhale in a smooth, continuous movement, and break your exhalations into 3 equal parts with a momentary pause between each exhale. Take anywhere from 12–18 rounds of this breathing pattern, ending at the bottom of an exhalation.
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Lie flat on your abdomen and place your hands under your shoulders. Curl your shoulders away from the floor, feeling your collarbones broadening, and press down into all 10 toenails. On an inhalation, slowly extend forward through your sternum as you raise your head and chest off the mat, keeping your head in line with your torso. Press your hands into the mat and isometrically move them forward to help plug your shoulders into your back and open your chest. Stay here for 5–8 breaths, then slowly lower down to the mat and rest on one cheek, arms by your side, for a couple breaths.
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Lie on your back, knees bent, and feet
hip-distance apart with your knees stacked directly over your heels. Press your back waist into the mat, and on an inhalation, slowly peel your spine off the mat, raising the heads of your thighbones skyward and lengthening your tailbone toward the backs of your knees. Interlace your fingers underneath your back, and scoop your shoulders toward each other under your chest. Keep your knees over your ankles and step into all four corners of your feet. Stay here for 5 breaths, then release your arms out from under your body, and slowly roll your spine down to the mat.
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Lie down on your back with your knees bent. Let your knees open to either side, releasing down toward the mat while the soles of your feet come together. Experiment with how far away your heels are from your pelvic floor; if you feel any discomfort or gripping in your hips or knees, place blocks or blankets underneath your thighs. Orient your chin toward your chest, lengthen your tailbone, and broaden your lower back. Close your eyes, and rest your left hand over your heart with your right hand over your lower belly. Stay here for 8–10 breaths.
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Slowly raise your knees back up and extend your legs out on the mat. Support any lower back sensitivity by placing a rolled up blanket or bolster underneath the backs of your knees. Lengthen the back of your neck, guide your shoulder blades toward each other underneath your chest, and let your arms rest a few inches out from the sides of your body, palms relaxed and opening toward the sky. Stay here for at least 5–10 minutes. Set a timer with a gentle chime so you can fully release in this final resting pose.
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