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The winter season can be especially hard when you’ve lost a loved one. The empty chair at the dinner table makes the loss palpable, and darker days can deepen your blue mood.
But grief can strike at any time and for many reasons. It is a real and important emotion–and not one to be rushed through. Paul Denniston, founder of Grief Yoga, says there are ways to cope with loss—and your yoga practice can help. His forthcoming book, Healing Through Yoga: Transform Loss into Empowerment, explains how you can work through grief at your own pace to find strength and peace again.
What grief looks like
We expect to mourn when a loved one dies. But we may also feel grief after a divorce, after a friend “breakup,” or when a beloved pet passes. There is also the “anticipatory grief” we experience when we know that the life of a loved one is coming to the end of life, Denniston says.
Grief manifests in many different expressions and emotions. While some people feel weepy and sad, others may feel angry, anxious, or withdrawn. The feeling may also manifest as physical symptoms, including general aches and pains or trouble sleeping, according to the CDC.
Turn mourning into movement
Denniston created Grief Yoga as “a compassionate practice to move through the pain of grief and loss to reconnect back to more empowerment and love.” And science supports his effort. A 2021 research study found that activities like yoga can have physical and psychological benefits for people who are experiencing grief.
Through his work with hospice and cancer-support groups, it became clear to him how “getting into your body safely to support the vulnerable part” is vital to healing.
Healing happens in a yoga session focused on embracing the feelings of grief, Denniston says. The postures, movements, and breathing techniques allow yoga students to befriend their body and develop a relationship with the feelings of loss. The graceful yet powerful movements of asana help them access their submerged feelings.
“It’s not about physical flexibility. It’s about emotional liberation,” he says.
See also: 7 Yoga Poses to Ease Grief
How to cope with grief
No doubt, grief is devastating and difficult, but there are things you can do to find peace again. Here, Denniston shares seven ways to acknowledge, cope with, and heal your grief:
Feel your feelings.
Denniston describes mourning as a public ritual. Grief, on the other hand, is internal—the emotions are tucked away beneath the surface. “When we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, we can identify where the pain and struggle live in the body and encourage it to soften through movement and breath,” Denniston writes.
Offer yourself compassion.
Learn to be gentle with yourself in whatever you’re going through—especially if it’s a strong emotion (grief or otherwise) and even if it’s deeply uncomfortable. Grief is difficult. Finding peace is about “embracing the struggle to connect to love, gratitude, and grace.”
Set an intention.
“Dedicating your practice to the person who has died can be deeply powerful,” Denniston writes. Name the person, acknowledge how much you miss them, and reflect on them during your practice. Sit still, place your hands over your heart, close your eyes, and tune in to your breath. Connect to your heartbeat, your heartbreak, and the love you feel.
Sound out your feelings.
Use the sound of your voice to express your feelings. Denniston says sounds as simple as a sigh are powerful in releasing grief. He also touts the benefit of laughter, which “allows endorphins to release in the brain.” This can also mean finding someone to talk to—a friend, counselor, or grief support group—so you can speak the truth of your feelings.
Move the grief.
“When our hearts are broken…we don’t notice how our body constricts,” says Denniston. We may tense up or get rigid. Move those emotions via activities like yoga, dance, and walking. Journaling can also be a way of getting the feelings out of your body.
“Sometimes someone tries to express their feelings to friends and family only to discover that these people are not as safe or open as the person hoped,” he writes. It’s not uncommon for people to tell you to “just move on” or to dismiss your feelings. They may mean well but they just don’t get it. Don’t hesitate to reach out to others, but make sure they represent a safe space to release. If you don’t feel heard, find another set of ears. Grief counseling may also help.
Name what’s vital to you.
Ask yourself questions like, Who do I want to be with? and What do I want to spend my time doing? Prioritize what’s really important to your heart. Make space—guilt free—for what matters to you. Finding pleasure in life isn’t a betrayal of your loved one.
Want to give it a try? Check out Paul Denniston’s website griefyoga.com for a free 20 minute grief yoga chair class.