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My work is in grief, trauma, and joy. While these may not seem a likely threesome, they are in fact deeply interwoven, and together they create a net, catching moments in our lives that inform how we see the world. As a trauma therapist, it is critical for me to be able to model vulnerability and to be versed in working with grief of the heart, confusion of the mind, and feelings of disconnection from meaning and spirit. Navigating my relationship with my dad in his last few years offered me many poignant moments to practice these very skills.
My dad and I were taking a walk just before sunset one day in 1999. He was six foot six inches tall, and I sufficiently less tall. His stride was so long, I had to take two steps to meet his one. I recalled when I was a little girl walking with my dad, just before sunset, and taking two skips with my arm reaching up high to hold my father’s hand. We both loved these walks, for very different reasons I’m sure, yet they were something that we could both count on to lift us up.
Finding joy in painful transitions
In 1999, Dad had advanced Alzheimer’s disease (AD). He and I would take our walk and he would say to me, “I know I love you honey … I just don’t know your name.” We would laugh and smile at each other.
I would say to him, “That’s OK Dad, all the sailors say that to me, no worries.” Again, we would laugh.
That is how Alzheimer’s disease can operate; the affect or feeling is still there, but the ability to put the words to it is diminished or erased. Watching my dad deconstruct was heartbreaking.
I had worked at the Institute on Aging in San Francisco as an intern in the Alzheimer’s Disease Unit in graduate school. The disease had been my focus in my post-graduate work, and when my dad finally had all other potential illnesses ruled out, we both knew it was AD. Dad had read up on dementia. He was a brilliant, New York Times-crossword-puzzle-with-pen kinda guy.
Our walks had always been our connection time, and between 1992 and 2001, he would share with me what it was like to “lose his mind.” Dad told me that his mind was like sand: holding that sand in his hands, he could sense his memories were simply falling between his fingers, unable to be caught.
The power of breath to comfort and soothe the dying
We were all there when he died. I had stayed the night in his hospice room and tried to match his breathing pattern. This was something I had learned when working at the AIDS Hospice in the 1980s, another internship back in grad school. We were taught that when someone is dying they will often breathe in a manner called “chain stoking,” with long pauses in between inhale and exhale. This is a difficult pattern to match and attempting to often brings up emotions. Yet breathing with someone is an intimate mirror, and the theory was that if someone is unconscious, they may feel supported by having their breath mirrored back to them. It was all we had in common at that moment. It was how I could stride with Dad as he died. Two steps to his one, trying to stay ahold of his hand.
After Dad died, I became completely obsessed with breath. I began to search for information on breathing techniques and found them in yoga. I started with breathing practices, then asana (poses), and finally meditation.
My studies with breathing practices and yoga led me to study Ayurveda (the medical branch of the spiritual practices of yoga). I was struck by the similarities between Western psychology and ayurvedic medicine and used these tools in my work at an urban public health clinic where I worked with many families and children who were diagnosed with Complex Trauma (C-PTSD). I developed the practice that follows so that you can use your breath and body to gently energize, de-stress, and connect to the wisdom of your heart.
See also: A Beginner’s Guide to Pranayama
A yoga sequence for grief
Savasana (Corpse Pose) with Diaphragmatic Breathing
Lie down with a sandbag (or bolster or meditation cushion) on your belly while settled in Savasana. Inhale fully through your nose, then exhale fully. This is one round. Take 9 full rounds.
If you need more low back support, lie on your back with your knees bent, the soles of your feet grounded, and place the props on your torso for more grounding. This is great for those with tendencies toward anxiety or shallow breathing).
Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breath)
Find a comfortable seat, on the ground or in a chair, putting your hands on your belly and gaze at the horizon. Keep your shoulders relaxed as your breathe in and out a few times. Now, inhale and exhale strongly through your nose, activating the movement of your diaphragm. The breath is intentional to forceful, like a bellows, to stimulate your nervous system, evacuate stagnation and cleanse your energy channels. This is a warming pranayama, and excellent support for pericardium regulation.Start with nine rounds (one round equals one inhale and exhale). Over time you could move up to 27 rounds or 54 rounds. This is an invigorating way to start your yoga practice.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), variation
Lie on your back with your heels under your knees and your arms resting by the sides of your body. On an inhale, move your arms up over your head. Simultaneously press your feet down as you lift your hips up off the ground. While your arms are over your head and your hips are lifted, hold your breath for a moment (building prana at the heart; prana vayu). Exhale out all of your breath. Hold out your exhale and move your arms and hips back to the starting position. (This pose, from Ayurvedic perspective, begins to stoke Agni). Move through this for 3-5 rounds.
Start in Tabletop. Walk your hands one handprint forward, tuck your toes, and lift your hips up and back to create an inverted V shape with your body. If your hamstrings feel tight, bend your knees. Use the same breathing technique as you worked with in the previous pose, this time adding on chin lock (jalandhara bandha) and root lock (mula bandha). To do this, inhale fully. On a full exhale, simultaneously tuck your chin slightly into your chest and draw your pelvic floor in and up to activate the locks. Hold the pose and the locks after the exhale and see if you can observe the inward and upward movement of prana at your naval center. When the call to breathe is strong, release your belly and inhale to start the next round. Take three full rounds of this pranayama while in the pose.
From Down Dog, step your right foot forward toward your hands. Spin your back heel down so your left toes point toward the top left portion of your mat. Inhale and lift your torso up. Position your arms in “goal post” or “cactus” arms on exhale by bending your elbows to a 90 degree angle. On your next inhalation draw your arms toward each other, press your palms together in front of your heart. Finally, exhale and move your arms down. Inhale and sweep your arms back up to start the breathing cycle again. Repeat this cycle 3 times, then return to Down Dog and switch sides. (This is traditional ParaYoga /Viniyoga use of Vira I to support movement of vyana vayu, and support circulation.)
Vajrasana, variation (Thunderbolt Pose)
Kneel on your mat. On an inhale, keep your head centered, gaze at the horizon, and lift your hands over your head. On an exhale, bend forward, aiming your hips toward your heels, and sweeping your arms down to behind your back. As you move, turn your head to the left, bringing your chest to your thighs and your right cheek to the floor. (You can use props here if your chest doesn’t reach your thighs or your head doesn’t reach the floor). On an inhale, lift your torso to return to the kneeling position. Repeat, this time turning your head in the opposite direction. Repeat this flow until you have moved gaze three times to each side; 6 total repetitions.
Move Tabletop, with your weight equally distributed between your hands and knees. For Cow Pose, on an inhale, curl your toes under and press into the ground with your hands, knees and feet. Lift the top of your head and tailbone to the sky, while your heart softens to the earth. On an exhale, press the tops of your feet and your palms into the ground while rounding your spine into Cat Pose. Let your gaze move toward your naval. Slowly push back to Balasana (Child’s Pose). Inhale and rise to all fours again with toes curled under, tailbone and top of your head moving toward the sky, and continuing the sequence. Move through this flow 3-5 times.
Balasana (Child’s Pose), variation
From Tabletop, inhale and lift your right arm to the right side. On and exhale, round your back and bring the right arm across the chest to the left side of the body and lay your arm on the ground. Your torso will twist, and your head will move to the left as you rest your right cheek on the ground or on a yoga prop such as a blanket. Stay for three full rounds of breath. To unwind from the twist, exhale and push your left hand into the ground, unwind your right arm, and return to Tabletop. Repeat on the other side. Take this pose twice on each side of your body.
Place a bolster at the base of your sacrum using two blocks to build a slope to support the body. This will raise your head to be above the heart. Bend your knees and place the soles of your feet together or cross your shins like we do in Sukhasana. Lie back on the bolster with your hands on your heart. If desired, cover with a blanket. If needed, place support under the sides of knees with blankets or blocks to easily release and relax.
You can also put blankets or blocks under your forearms so that your elbows can rest on the props: this can help your shoulders. Stay in this restorative posture to allow your heart to soften, release any tension, and receive support for up to 10 minutes. Diaphragmatic breathing while in this posture will support parasympathetic nervous system and vagal tone. Supporting an open heart in the yoga practice allows us an opportunity to safely surrender tender emotions and heal.
Portions of this piece were adapted from Embodied Resilience Through Yoga: 30 Mindful Essays About Finding Empowerment After Addiction, Trauma, Grief, and Loss, Llewellyn Publications, 2020.