For the better part of a decade, Susan Marchionna has arisen every weekday morning in her Berkeley, California, home and done a modest asana practice: a few seated stretches and a few Sun Salutations, and some additional standing poses, with occasional variations in the 20-minute routine.
What distinguishes Marchionna from countless other people who start their day with yoga is that she committed to a home practice when her husband, Lee Jacobson, was diagnosed with what turned out to be terminal cancer. "My practice was my lifeline," she says. Amid days suddenly full of medical tests, arduous treatments, and research into experimental therapies—a time marked by frustration, rage, and pain—her yoga practice saved her. "It helped me maintain my sanity and my balance," Marchionna says. On one level, her practice was physically enlivening: It awakened her senses, increased her awareness of her body, and made her feel better. But on a deeper level, yoga fortified her and gave her perspective. "In the course of Lee's illness," she recalls, "I realized that if I could stay with what was happening at any given moment, I could handle it. It's like staying with your breath in a difficult pose: In any situation, if you can breathe through it, you can handle it."
Maintaining a semblance of mindfulness as she rode out the moments of profound stress, fear, and sadness became a refuge. "When I strayed from my focus on the present—venturing off into memories of our life before Lee got sick or the possibility of his condition worsening or of him dying—that's when the grief and additional suffering began," Marchionna says. "I'd ask myself, 'What if he's not at [their son] Aron's high school graduation?' And I realized I was anticipating all these losses that hadn't happened yet. So I learned to stay in the right now. And that's where Lee was."
That's not to say that the process was easy or straightforward. Far from it. "Everybody was relying on me—Lee, the kids, the doctors, friends—and sometimes, under the weight of it all, I'd break down," she says. "But I always knew I had to come back. And I came to see that staying focused on the moment was the way to get through it."
Easing Your Suffering
Life is suffering, the Buddha says, and even if you're not given to abstractions it's easy to see that life can be hard. The added strain of a major loss can make your world unremittingly bleak.
Faced with grief, most people seek solace by drawing close to family and friends, seeing a therapist or a member of the clergy, or perhaps joining a support group. All these things bring comfort, but there are times when Eastern spiritual practices like yoga can bring healing when nothing else can.
When you're grieving, the simple fact of whatever loss you must endure is hard enough to face. Yet many of us do things that increase our suffering. We flee the moment, either by attempting to deny a reality that seems insufferably cruel or by imagining a worst-case scenario that might well never occur. We react to actual loss with fear of further loss. We convince ourselves we cannot survive the present crisis (emotionally or even physically), or that the loss is so unfathomable that we don't want to. We cling desperately to the one thing we can never have in the present moment: what is not.
It's in precisely these situations that the wisdom of the yoga tradition can be enormously helpful. Asana, breathwork, meditation—and, especially, the perspective on loss and death taught by the ancient yogis and sages of the East—can not only mitigate pain and expedite the grief process but also transform your experience of life after loss.
"We don't get to live and not lose," says Ken Druck, a grief counselor in San Diego. "If we care about anything, we're going to experience loss." An outgoing, impassioned man, Druck knows loss intimately. His elder daughter, Jenna, was killed nine years ago at age 21 in a bus accident in India while in a semester-abroad program. Druck channeled his grief into creating the nonprofit Jenna Druck Foundation (www.jennadruck.org), which offers free support services to bereaved families. Yoga is central to the foundation's work.
Two years after Jenna's death, Druck was still so emotionally wounded he was shutting down. "There were nights when I curled up into a ball on the floor, racked with pain," he says. "My shoulders were pulled in, protecting my heart and gut. And my thinking was obsessive—I was having flashbacks to the phone call telling me Jenna had been killed."
Not long after that, a friend suggested he try yoga, so Druck signed up to study with Diane Roberts, the owner of Foundation Yoga, in north San Diego County. Within the first 10 minutes of class, tears were streaming down his face. "I just let grief have its way with me," he says softly. "There was nothing to do but let it happen. I relaxed enough to breathe, and realized I'd contracted around my wound." Since then, Druck has come to value the way yoga allows grief to be expressed; today, the foundation offers yoga classes to grieving families. "Through yoga, people can learn to modulate the breath, the pain, and the obsessive thinking," he says.
Feeling Your Grief
People who've lost loved ones are often shocked to learn how brutally physical grief can be: They lose their appetite; they can't sleep; their muscles tighten with tension. The language they use reflects this, says Lyn Prashant, a grief counselor, massage therapist, and Sivananda-certified yoga teacher in San Anselmo, California. When she begins working with clients, she asks them what they feel and where they feel it. "Often they say, 'I feel like my head's in a vise,' or 'Since he's gone I feel like I have a knife in my heart.'"
Yoga allows you to probe your grief—to go into the pain, not run from it, and emerge somehow more whole and free—by focusing on your immediate physical as well as emotional experience. "The way I tell [students]," Roberts says, "is that rather than trying to 'get over it' or 'work through it,' try to integrate your grief into who you are, and into your body as well. Then class becomes an exercise in self-compassion. Yoga helps you live in your body with your emotions."
Prashant applies her combined expertise in yoga, healing touch, and counseling—she is also a certified thanatologist, or death counselor—in a process she calls "degriefing." In these sessions the physical pain of grief is first recognized and then treated with a combination of somatic therapies. She, like Roberts, helps her clients engage their grief at a level deeper than talking. "Grief is shattering to linear thought," Prashant says. And so, while she first asks her clients to talk about their grief, from there she helps them become more present and grounded in their bodies. She shows them the alternate-nostril breathwork of pranayama to promote mental clarity and calm, centered breathing. And she uses massage to unlock unresolved pain. "What we don't express, we may repress," she says. "The mind can lie, but the body can't."
Prashant's colleague Antonio Sausys, a yoga therapist also in San Anselmo, has gone even further in using yoga to assuage grief. A native of Uruguay, Sausys has studied several somatic disciplines (including Reiki, reflexology, and Swedish massage) and received extensive training in a variety of yoga lineages, including those of Larry Payne, Indra Devi, and Swami Satyananda of India's famed Bihar school of yoga. His study has led him to create sadhanas, or practices, for clients with a host of complaints, including insomnia, chronic fatigue, pain, aging—and grief.
His "Yoga for Grief Relief" sadhana consists of several elements: a short asana routine; a series of Pranayama exercises (included because "the breath is the bridge between the conscious and the unconscious, and grief is in the unconscious"); one of the six cleansing techniques called shatkarma ("six actions"), which targets the endocrine system; deep relaxation; and a closing sankalpa ("resolution") meditation.
Sausys's goal is to alter the perception and experience of grief. "In yoga," he says, "transformation is the key. And in grief, it's what needs to be done. We can't change the loss, but we can transform ourselves." Indeed, if amid the onslaught of grief you can undo the physical misery that may accompany it, the effect can be profoundly life-affirming and, yes, transformational.
Moving Toward Acceptance
Another essential (and elusive) tool for dealing with grief is understanding the all-important concept of attachment. Here too, yoga's wisdom can help.
Vairagya, or nonattachment, is a key concept in yoga. The relationship of attachment to grief is obvious, says Sausys: "We don't grieve what we're not attached to." But, he adds, the attachment that compounds grief—the clinging to what is not, what cannot be—"goes against one of yoga's primary truths: Everything changes and everything will eventually end."
Desiree Rumbaugh learned this lesson the hard way. An Anusara Yoga teacher and the co-owner of Arizona Yoga in Scottsdale, she lost her son Brandon, 20, when he and his 19-year-old girlfriend were shot to death in their sleep while camping outside Phoenix. The horror of her son's death precipitated a "deep, dark grief" during which Rumbaugh barely left her house. "I could eat, but I lost weight. I could sleep, but when morning came and I had to face another day, it took a lot of coaxing just to get me out of bed." During this time, she says, "I kept practicing yoga, because I thought that by keeping my body in shape maybe that would support my mind."
Over time, however, she came to some realizations. The first was after watching Ram Dass: Fierce Grace, the Mickey Lemle film in which an Oregon couple who had lost their young daughter read aloud a letter from Ram Dass suggesting that the girl had "finished her work on earth."
Eventually, Rumbaugh took great comfort in this notion. "I watched that DVD over and over again, in an attempt to get my brain to process the wisdom of those words. I would say I've been working on my 'perspective' for the last two years. It's really like a full-time job." Today, she says, "I try to see Brandon's life as being complete at 20 and my work [as being] to live much longer."
Another, more far-reaching realization was acceptance. "I understand that I cannot change the situation," she says. "I may always wish things were different, but that doesn't change the way they are."
Setting Yourself Free
Our culture makes it difficult to accept such hard facts. "We live as though we can deny death," Prashant says, "and only unfortunate people have to deal with it." Doctors and sick people alike view death as a failure rather than an inevitable conclusion to every life. Our litigious society wants to view death as a bad outcome to be avoided at all costs even though it happens every day, just like birth. The consensus, Marchionna notes, is that "death is something terrible, dark, and ugly."
It is certainly true that some deaths constitute grave wrongs or brutal crimes, and those can be especially hard to accept. But everyone who suffers a loss is forced at some point to confront a basic truth: Every life has an arc—however prolonged or truncated—and every soul has a path. Recognizing that truth can be liberating.
Marchionna recognized that truth at the end of a yoga class, years before her husband became ill. Lying on the floor in Savasana (Corpse Pose), she felt a deep peace. "It felt like I was dying, almost, and I thought, 'Oh-dying is OK,'" she recalls. "I realized I didn't need to fear dying; there's a beauty in it we can only imagine."
While that realization didn't lessen her struggle with Lee's illness or her grief over his death, it has stuck with her. "I miss him, and I still feel the pain of him not being around to see his kids grow up," she says, "but that's all about me and them. I can believe that he's all right." Arriving at that point of view, she's quick to add, "is a ragged process—there's no straight trajectory. I'm still faced with a very raw sense of the loss, and there's a lot of healing to be done, layers and layers of pain," even now, seven years after Lee's death. "But the point is letting the pain be there—not getting over the pain but embracing it. It belongs to you, and it's right to feel it. It's hard to stay with pain, but doing so is an essential part of being human."
Healing Resources: Books
- Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart, by Stephen Levine. The author of the classic, Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying returns with sage advice on dealing with unresolved grief through self-acceptance.
- Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping with Loss, by Sameet M. Kumar. Psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner Kumar aims to "help you grieve by using mindfulness as your guide and emotional and spiritual resilience as your goals."
- Grief counselor Prashant's "degriefing manual" is especially suitable for clergy, counselors, and health care practitioners serving bereaved clients, but lay people will also find much to help them understand and work with their grief. Also see Degriefing's list of music, books, and films at degriefing.com.
Former YJ senior editor Phil Catalfo lost his son Gabe in 1998, at age 15, after an eight-year battle with leukemia.