It’s time we talk about grief and sadness and loss. This year, 2020, has been full of both large and small losses for many of us… from losing the life we knew and loved to losing friendships/community/connection to the loss of our small businesses/income to the loss of loved ones. Just in our family, we have lost a grandfather, two uncles, an aunt, and our sweet pup Jedi is doing his best to fight off a very aggressive form of cancer. It’s heavy, and we’re doing the best we can, the best we know how. If you are grieving right now, know that I see you and I hold you in my heart. I invite you to join me for a restorative yoga for grief practice.
Restorative yoga is such a beautiful practice when you’re grieving. It’s an opportunity to feel held and cared for whether you’re practicing alone or in a group. It gives you time to heal, rest, and restore and it gives you time to bear witness to and acknowledge your emotions and thoughts without judgment and time to receive the teachings of your higher self, guides, and ancestors. Carve out this time to hold yourself in your heart space.
“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go”Jamie Anderson
Here is the thing, grief can’t be quantified by the type of loss. The only way your grief can be measured is by how it is felt by you. So don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve or if your grief is excessive or “not enough”. We grieve because we loved. Your grief is part of this human experience and it will help build resilience as it is expressed and resolved.
Restorative Yoga for Grief: The Practice
Today I really want to share a few yoga practices that I use when I feel the weight of grief descending. I hope that you will find the following restorative yoga for grief practice helpful. The following practice will take between 20 and 50 minutes if you follow the suggested times.
Below the infographic, you will find descriptions on how to set up your props and modifications if you don’t have props. You can use all kinds of things that you likely have around the house like blankets, couch cushions, pillows, and books. If you keep scrolling you’ll find some info about the effects of grief, a handful of tips to help you on your healing journey, and a few resources.
Five Restorative Yoga Poses for Grief
These five yoga poses can help you through the grieving process. I will explain how to do each pose in detail and offer modifications if you don’t have all of the props. If you have questions about the poses, please feel free to reach out.
Supported Child’s Pose
Props: 1 Bolster (stack of blankets or pillows will do), 1 blanket, optional sandbag or folded blanket
Child’s Pose gently grounds are energy and can help heal our first chakra, Muladhara. Muladhara Chakra, our Root Chakra, is our center of security, support and safety. After a loss, we may lose our sense of security, safety, and support, which is why I like to start a restorative practice for grief with Child’s Pose. When you’re practicing Child’s Pose think of breathing into the backside of your heart, the back of your lungs and your back body. Allow each cycle of breath to soften the armor surrounding your heart.
Place your bolster lengthwise in front of you and place your folded blanket over the top of your bolster. Bring your knees just wider than your bolster and slide the short edge of your bolster between your knees. Bring your hips back toward your heels and lower your torso down to your bolster. Rest your forearms down on either side of your bolster and bring one ear down. Halfway through your pose, bring the opposite ear down.
Hold this pose for 3-8 minutes.
Supported Reclined Bound Angle Pose
Props: 1-3 Bolsters, 1-8 Blankets, 2 blocks
This is my favorite restorative yoga pose. It helps open the front body from the groin all the way up to the throat. I, however, like this pose for how it can balance and heal the second and fourth chakras. The second chakra, Svadisthana, is our center of creativity, sensuality and sexuality. The heart chakra is our fourth chakra. In Sanskrit, its name is Anahata and it is our center of love and compassion. Anahata chakra can become blocked by grief. Salamba Supta Baddha Konasana helps heal the second and fourth heart chakras by creating space that allows for the flow of prana.
Most people don’t have access to a million props, so I’ll walk you through setting this pose up with a minimal amount of props. First, place your blocks toward the back of your mat. The one farthest away from you should be placed on its middle setting and the one closest to you should be placed on the lowest setting. You can have a couple of inches between the two blocks or they can be touching. (No blocks? You could use a couple of pillows or a stack of books instead) Then place your bolster (or pillow, cushion, a stack of blankets) on top of the blocks, so you’re essentially building a ramp. With another blanket, make a long roll that’s at least 3 feet long.
Take a seat in front of your bolster with your sacrum nice and close to the short edge of the bolster. Bring the soles of your feet to touch and wrap the blanket around your feet. It will go over the top of your feet and then wrap underneath your ankles/shins (it can also potentially support your thighs) Then release your knees out to the sides, like the pages of a book. Slowly lower your torso down onto your bolster, rest the back of your head down and release your arms by your sides. Turn the palms to face upward. This will help facilitate the release of your chest and heart space.
If your chin is jutting upward try to lengthen your cervical spine or support the back of your head and neck with another folded blanket. If you feel like you need support for your hips, slide blankets, bolsters or cushions underneath your knees and thighs.
Hold this pose for 5-10 minutes. If at any point it starts to bother your hips, lengthen your legs long.
Props: 1 Bolster
I find this restorative twist to be really soothing to my own nervous system. I’ve even been known to fall asleep in this pose. In general, twists help to balance and heal our third chakra, Manipura, and they cultivate samana vayu. Manipura Chakra is our center of will, determination and drive. If you’ve ever had the wind taken from your sails, do some twists (corework is also deeply healing for the third chakra– but that’s for another day). Samana Vayu is the air that integrates. Working with samana vayu can help us integrate, assimilate and adapt to new circumstances.
You only need a bolster for this pose. You could also use a stack of blankets or cushions again. To come into the pose, place your bolster lengthwise in front of you. Sit with your right hip close to the bolster and then bring your right thigh close to the short edge of your bolster. I like to stagger the legs, but you could also allow them to be in a more stacked position. Turn your torso toward your bolster. Lengthen your spine long and then lower your torso down. Your forearms should rest on either side of the bolster. Bring either ear down. You can always switch the direction of your gaze at any time. When you’re ready move slowly as you switch sides.
Hold the pose for 4-8 minutes on each side.
Elevated Legs Up the Wall Pose
Props: 1 bolster, optional sandbag and eye pillow
Legs Up the Wall helps balance all of our chakras because the spine is nice and long in this pose. It’s also a gentle inversion, which helps bring blood to the head and heart. I like this pose because I feel both grounded and elevated after coming out of it.
This is one of my favorite grounding poses. Bring your bolster right up next to the wall lengthwise. You could easily skip the bolster or use a folded blanket or two. To come into the pose, sit on your bolster with your left hip, then mindfully lower your torso down to the ground. Roll down onto your back and extend your legs up the wall. You can place an eye pillow over your eyes to help turn your focus inward. It’s kinda tricky to do yourself, but placing a sandbag on the soles of your feet is deeply relaxing and comforting.
Hold this pose for 2-5 minutes.
Props: 1-2 bolsters, 1-2 blankets, 1 block (as a modification)
I love a traditional shavasana, but this side-lying version is just so magically calming and soothing. It really gives that sense of being held and comforted. It’s a great pose for when you’re feeling out of sorts. I highly recommend it.
Place a folded blanket or pillow at the top of your mat. At the bottom of your mat, you can place another blanket. This will make the pose comfier for your feet and ankles, but it’s not necessary. Then lay down on your right or left side, rest your head on your pillow or folded blanket. You can place your bolster or folded blanket between your knees (like in the illustration) or keep your bottom leg straight, bend your top leg, bring the leg forward and rest your knee and shin on your bolster (my fave). If you have another bolster I like to support the top arm with it. If you don’t have a bolster you can rest your forearm on a yoga block, a pillow, or stack of blankets. Feel free to get creative.
Make sure you’re super comfy in this pose. I consider shavasana to be one of the most important yoga poses in an entire practice, whether that yoga practice is restorative or active. Take your time setting up, settle in, and then let go of the need to adjust, fidget, or monitor your surroundings.
Hold this pose for 5-15 minutes.
Restorative Yoga for Grief: Practice Letting Go in a Million Little Ways
The beautiful thing about restorative yoga is we get to practice letting go in a million little ways. By softening the muscles of our face, letting go of tension in the belly, surrendering into the support of our props, etc. Little by little, we find peace. I will be recording this practice and uploading it to my YouTube channel soon. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone else hold the container, keep track of the time, etc. And I am more than happy to do that for you.
The Physiological and Psychological Effects of Grief
I would like to speak a little to the physiological and psychological effects of grief, so if that interests you, feel free to keep reading, if it doesn’t, go ahead and stop here.
You might wonder why I’m including science in a post on restorative yoga for grief, but the way I see it, we’ve been blessed with these human bodies that allow us to experience the world so fully. Shouldn’t we know how it works? Shouldn’t we be able to recognize the signs our body and mind give us, so we can heal and not be bound by pain and dis-ease? I also understand that there is a time for learning and a time for healing (although not mutually exclusive I know in my heart that it is easier to focus on one or the other). Take what you need and leave what you don’t.
Grief in the Body
The wave of sadness that accompanies loss can make just getting through the day challenging. When I write about grief in the body my heart breaks just a little more knowing that so many of us are suffering. Grief, much like fear, elicits our body’s stress response and causes an increase in stress hormones that have a whole array of effects on the body. Under normal circumstances, the parasympathetic nervous system and sympathetic nervous system work in concert to allow us to move between “rest and digest” and “fight or flight” with ease. However, elevated stress hormones in addition to the sheer weight of grief can lead to a multitude of problems and persistent stimulation of our sympathetic nervous system.
Grief and Cardiovascular Health
This may seem obvious, but grief affects the heart and is associated with heart and cardiovascular issues like irregular heartbeat, stroke, heart attack, high blood pressure, and Broken Heart Syndrome.
Grief and the Digestive System
The functioning of our digestive system is also impacted by grief. As stress hormones shunt the blood away from the digestive organs, some of the bereaved experience diarrhea, constipation, IBS, bloating and flatulence, nausea/queasiness, lack of appetite, binge eating or emotional eating, and reflux or heartburn. It is also common to lose or gain weight while grieving.
Grief and Sleep
Grief affects our sleep too. When my sleep starts to degrade the whole cookie crumbles and I struggle to keep myself together. When I sleep too much I’m a sluggish, achy mess. Anyone else experience the same? Grief affects our sleep in a myriad of ways from insomnia to oversleeping. Sleep is supposed to be a sacred time for restoration and healing. Without proper rest fatigue sets in, our ability to focus and concentrate declines, and our motor coordination is impaired. If you or someone you know is grieving ask/offer help so the bereaved has ample time to rest. Restorative yoga and yoga nidra can both be helpful during the grieving process and beyond.
Grief and the Immune System
Even our immune system is affected by grief and the onslaught of stress hormones. Have you ever gone on a vacation after a period of being super stressed only to get sick? That’s because those pesky stress hormones have been suppressing your immune system. The same thing can happen when we’re grieving. One study found that after loss of a loved one people are more likely to experience a physical health issue and another study found that “bereaved people demonstrate higher levels of systemic inflammation, maladaptive immune cell gene expression, and lower antibody response to vaccination compared with non-bereaved controls.”
Grief and the Musculoskeletal System
And finally, grief can manifest as physical pain and fatigue. Some experience body aches, headaches and stiffness, while others experience muscle weakness, limb heaviness, and decreased coordination.
Mental Health and Grief
Grief is caused by a painful or traumatic event that impacts our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. It can be experienced as acute grief, which is experienced 6-12 months after loss and persistent grief which is experienced beyond 12 months.
Remember that everyone experiences grief differently, you may recognize some of these experiences in your own grieving process and you may not. Some people experience depression, anxiety, or nervousness. Grief might manifest as apathy over their own wellbeing– an inability to make healthy meals, to exercise, to keep their living space clean, etc. Sometimes the bereaved develop unhealthy coping mechanisms and they turn to alcohol, drugs, food and unhealthy relationships.
They may experience overwhelm and anxiety if they are having to navigate planning a funeral or execute a will. Others may experience brain fog and have trouble planning and organizing. They may have a hard time thinking and will think more slowly or be confused more frequently. And sometimes the mind gets caught in a cycle of rumination and becomes preoccupied with images, memories, and thoughts about the past and the loss.
Emotional Health and Grief
Any type of loss, in particular the loss of a loved one or pet, is devastating. The waves of sadness that accompany loss are more than just unpleasant, they can feel inescapable and overwhelming. And they can leave us feeling empty and depleted. There is no need to rush the grieving process. Again, it is an important part of being human. Give yourself the time and space to experience it. Allow it to move through you and take this time to take care of yourself and your needs. Get comfortable asking for help.
I think that while we’re talking about emotional health and grief it is a good opportunity to mention the 5 stages of grief according to grief expert Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her books On Death and Dying and On Grief and Grieving. The five stages of grief are:
- Denial and isolation
I won’t talk too much about the five stages of grief, simply because there are so many resources already available on the internet. I will say that not everyone experiences the five stages and not everyone experiences the five stages in the order listed. As I’ve said multiple times already, everyone experiences grief differently.
Grief and Traditional Chinese Medicine
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) grief and sadness are associated with the lungs. The lungs, on both a metaphorical level and physical level, bring in the new and let go of the old. Intense stress or grief can be experienced as shortness of breath, faintness, tightness in the chest or throat, and shakiness in our voice.
In TCM each organ is considered either yin or yang and it is paired with a complementary organ. In this case, the lungs are considered yin and they are paired with the large intestines which are considered yang. When the lung qi (chi) is low, one is susceptible to colds, flu, bronchitis and pneumonia. When lung qi is strong, one’s sense of smell is sharp, they breathe easily, they think clearly, communicate well, they’re open-minded, and they are able to relax and let go. If someone is having a difficult time letting go of the past or letting go of a loved one and their experience is characterized by intense sadness and grief it may indicate that their lung qi is low. Practices like yoga, qigong and tai chi along with acupuncture and traditional herbs can help elevate lung qi.
Healthy Ways to Cope With Grief
- Establish Healthy Routines
- Do your best to wake up and go to bed at the same time each day.
- Eat regularly.
- Set a gentle schedule for yourself that includes time to just be.
- Move your body every day. It doesn’t need to be anything big. Walk the dog. Walk with loved ones. Do yoga, tai chi, or qi gong.
- Eat healthy meals. Ask friends and family for help. Keep it simple.
- Reach out to friends and family for support. You don’t have to do it all yourself. Spend time with a trusted friend– preferably someone who is a good listener.
- Talk to a Professional
- Talk to a grief counselor.
- Give yourself time.
- Give yourself time to experience it all. Meet yourself with love and compassion. Be present with the way you’re feeling. Share the same love you would share with a child with yourself.
- Acupuncture and massage may help relieve tension and achiness.
- Focus on gratitude and treasure happy memories as they arise.
Resources for Grief
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Center for Grief Recovery and Therapeutic Services
Yoga for Grief with Yoga with Adrienne
- Meditation for Grief, Loss and Sadness
- Yoga Nidra Inspired by Nature with Autumn Adams
- Guided Meditation for Loss with Brett Larkin