Grief is a healthy and natural response to loss and it’s something we all have to move through at some point in life. Grief can refer to the emotional pain of losing someone as well as the physical response which can include things like trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, extreme fatigue, and aches in the body. Yoga and meditation are excellent techniques to process feelings of grief. They both provide the necessary conditions for the nervous system to self-regulate, cultivating overall balance. Not only does yoga help with the physical effects of grief but it also provides a safe space to move through difficult emotions and practice acceptance which can be an essential aid for those dealing with loss.
The experience of grief differs greatly from person to person and there is no right or wrong way to process it. Yoga and meditation are helpful tools for anyone to explore when feelings of grief, sadness, and sorrow become overwhelming. There are many facets of these ancient Eastern practices that both new and experienced practitioners can draw upon while in a state of grieving.
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Impermanence and non-attachment
Research from The University of Memphis found that an intervention informed by Buddhist philosophy, including meditation, slow movement, and story-telling helped to reduce pain related to grief. The group was supported in reflecting “on the natural conditions of impermanence and limitation in a compassionate environment in which they were encouraged to cultivate a new self-narrative in the wake of loss.”
Similarly to the Buddhist perspective of death as a natural part of the ever-changing cycles we all have to move through, Yoga philosophy teaches us that nothing is permanent.
Vairagya is a Sanskrit term referring to non-attachment. It is discussed in the Yoga Sutras as being a core principle of yoga alongside abhyasa which is “to practice.” Of course, letting go of attachment–whether it is to fear, aversion, emotions or people–is so much easier said than done. This is why it is a practice to begin to accept the impermanent nature of life.
However, it is one thing enquiring into these philosophies which can help to support us through difficult times and it is another thing entirely using spiritual concepts as a way to bypass emotions and avoid feeling.
Embodiment over emotional by-passing
Non-attachment doesn’t mean shutting out emotions, rather it is accepting the full force of emotional pain with the understanding that it will eventually change. Of course, an emotion may come, go then resurface again 1000 times but the point is that emotions are in a constant moving process. Trying to block out emotional pain is an entirely understandable reaction to any kind of trauma, grief, and heartbreak but the body remembers and it will resurface.
This is why practices like yoga that involve embodiment can really help in supporting us to move through such devastating experiences. Rather than blocking out the emotions and numbing, yoga class offers a safe space to process difficult emotions.
It provides an opportunity to face grief and find ways to move through it, however painful it is. Attending a regular yoga class whilst grieving can also help to be part of a supportive community as well as support you to stand on your own two feet and realize how resilient you can be.
Yoga Poses for Processing Grief and Sadness
While all yoga poses will help with the healing of grief, there are several that are recommended to incorporate due to their profound ability to processing, integrate and balance feelings of sorrow, sadness and loss. Work on holding these poses with deep breathing and mindful awareness. The following nine yoga poses are recommended to open the heart center to help process and integrate grief and sadness:
- Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
- Balasana (Child’s Pose)
- Half Camel (Ardha Ustrasana)
- Half Circle (Ardha Mandalasana)
- Extended Dog Pose (Utthita Svanasana)
- Extended One-Legged Pigeon (Utthita Eka Pada Kapotasana)
- Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
- Fish (Matsyasana)
- Reclined Bound Angle (Supta Baddha Konasana)
Meditation for healing grief
Regular meditation practice will cultivate and develop the witness consciousness to allow you to be fully present with strong emotions. Specific types of meditation can be more helpful to process, integrate and balance feelings of sorrow, sadness, and loss. Slowly build up the time that you practice these meditations, and if possible practice them daily. The following three meditations are recommended to strengthen the heart and mind to help heal grief and sorrow:
Community support through yoga for grief
In the North of England, a charity was set up in memory of my cousin, Hannah Whitley, who lost her life aged 23 in December 2017. Her mum, Nicki, found yoga and meditation to be a way to deal with her grief. As it was such a vital coping mechanism for her, she decided to launch the Hannah Whitley Foundation to support others who are grieving and keep Hannah’s spirit alive through providing free yoga classes to those who are grieving.
Nicki said “At times over the past few months the hours spent on my yoga mat have been my only solace and I want to be able to offer others who can’t afford it this lifeline. You don’t know how powerful yoga can be until you try it, so our aim is to give everyone the opportunity to do just that.”
The community created has gone on to support many different people through their own loss, showing how there are alternatives to other coping strategies such as alcohol, drugs or going down a self-destructive path.
A pilot program Yoga for the Grieving Heart in Pennsylvania, USA, is also using yoga to help those who are dealing with loss. Sumner, the Yoga instructor for this program says “A person in pain can detach, and become numb to the world around them. We invite all emotions, good, bad and ugly, to process in a nurturing place.”
These kinds of support groups address the issue of unexpressed grief which can lead a person to being stuck in protection mode. This can be a defensive and lonely place to be so it’s essential to have safe spaces to allow our feelings.
The physical benefits of yoga such as improved balance, increased strength and flexibility can play an integral role in supporting a person through the emotional turmoil of grief. It is often the case that people find the physical embodiment of balance or strength that they experience on the mat can be carried off the mat into everyday life, as well as the relaxation elements. What’s more, yoga teaches us to self-soothe, to stay present and to take care of ourselves which can be a lifeline when in a process as difficult as grief.