Good Grief. What’s yoga got to do with it?

by Moya McGinn Mathews, E-RYT 500, YACEP

Say the word, “grief,” to yourself. Say it out loud. Listen to the word. Do you notice thoughts, feelings, sensations, vibrations,  or memories of emotions when you hear yourself pronounce the word, “grief?” Is there a lump in your throat, a heaviness in your chest, an emptiness in your gut, or the subtle memory of these or other sensations?

Grief is part of being human.   We’re all going to die and everyone we love is going to die.  Life is change, change includes loss, and grief will touch us all. Whether the loss of a loved one, the loss of a pet, the loss of a job, a home, health, or income, the loss of security or friends, body image, or sense of self worth, the loss of a role we once played for others, or the loss of a relationship – transition and loss can leave a residue of grief in our being.  Grief can also lead to tremendous personal growth and transformation; it can be a “guru.”

It’s difficult for me to identify the precise and memorable moment of my personal “initiation” into the process of growth and transformation called, “grief.” I’m sure I experienced it already as a young child, around the age of seven, when my family moved from my beloved home in Dubuque, Iowa, to a new city.  I remember feeling sad, afraid, distressed, and anxious as I anticipated and lived through the transition. That combination of emotional and psychological experiences could have been called, “grief.”

Looking back, I see that in my youth and early adulthood, I sustained other losses that created grief experiences: my sister moved away to go to college when I was about 13, our family dog died not long after, my brother had a significant psychotic break and was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder when I was 15, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died when I was 21. My first marriage ended in divorce, which brought intense grief combined with feelings of guilt, remorse and shame.   This list of experiences constitutes a part of my, “personal loss inventory.”

The inventory grew exponentially more intense and memorable one sunny Thursday in April, 2000.  That morning, my second husband and I said our usual goodbyes as he headed off to work.  Sometime that afternoon he laid his head down on his desk and died. “Cardiomyopathy,” the coroner reported.  That’s a long, fancy word for dead.  In an instant, I became a widow and single mom –  again.

I felt stunned, disillusioned, lost, dumbfounded, bewildered, unglued … You name it, I felt it. I ached not only in my own grief, but also in my helplessness to alleviate the grief and sorrow of my eleven-year-old son.  It seemed a nearly unbearable powerlessness. Chronic tension and stress gradually became my mode of operating; my nervous system must have been in fight, flight, and freeze overdrive.

I discovered a yoga class in the smelly basement of my gym.  The teacher was authentic and I, the student, was willing.  I remember standing on my mat in warrior 2, my arms stretched wide open, my heart exposed and vulnerable, feeling powerful and steady, strong on my own two feet.   I thought to myself, “I don’t know what this is, but I know I need to do it.”  Prophetic intuition.

Many years later, daily yoga practice and study helps me continue to learn to surrender to the uncomfortable reality of things I cannot change, and to courageously move forward through challenges and difficulties.  Yoga’s rich tradition provides tools to do that gradually, gently, compassionately.   I continue to learn to stand with an open heart, receptive and ready to face the unknown without fear.  This, for me, is the heart of yoga.   That’s what yoga’s got to do with it.

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