Alex Sharry on Moving Through Grief

How to Use Yoga and Meditation to Deal With Grief

With Alex Sharry, Sky Ting Yoga Teacher

Whether grieving the death of a loved one, a lost job or a changed friendship, our initial response to grief is often to push it away. Grief is a painful slog that reminds us of whatever it is we have lost; studies have shown that it changes our brains and bodies. But the only way to move through grief, besides time (which we don’t seem to have all that much control over), is to experience it.

That’s why so many people turn to yoga in times of duress, said Alex Sharry, a Sky Ting yoga teacher. “People often get into yoga because something happened: there's a life crisis, there's a spin out, there's an injury,” she said. “Something, whether it's physical or emotional, wallops them and they turn to yoga for solace.” In those times, yoga can become a safe haven. It can help us face what we are feeling on the mat, examine how our grief has manifested in our bodies, and can even help us build a supportive community.

“Yoga shows up at the right time,” Alex said. Here are some of her suggestions for how to bring yoga and meditation into conversation with grief.

Why might we turn to yoga when experiencing grief?

In our daily, non-yoga lives, we develop a lot of compensatory skills that aid in the process of avoiding the full experience of grief. But when you are on your mat, whether it's through meditation practice or asana movement or breath practice, there's kind of nowhere else to be but in that moment. Whatever you’ve been avoiding, you can’t avoid there. When you're in a really emotionally high-pitched time of your life, it’s spectacular to drop into that presence, because often we realize that the thing we tried to cover up isn’t a symptom we can avoid, but something we can work through.

How do I start? Do I have to go to a yoga studio?

No. Especially when you’re grieving, getting to the studio can feel impossible. So be kind to yourself: do a little five-minute thing on your mat, or check out some of the options on Sky Ting TV. Especially in times when you’re feeling the most despair, practicing at home can allow you to work through your feelings in a private space that’s also a bit easier to access than the studio.

At the same time, grief can be really isolating. So if you can muster it, it can be really comforting to get to the studio and be surrounded by others. It’s safe to assume that everyone in class has gone through something that jostled them, or is in some process of their own. No matter how good they look or how put-together they seem, when people start talking you realize that everyone is trying their best to cope.. That’s one of the virtues of a communal experience like a yoga class. 

Where does grief show up in the body?

Grief doesn’t live as an entity in the body, but is expressed symbolically in the lungs. So opening up your lungs is a great place to begin. If you are grieving, the second you go into class, you will start breathing differently. For a lot of people, that can make the sensations more acute because it starts moving stuff out of the storage space of the lungs. When the body is feeling slumped, sad, or sticky you want to take any chance you can to move the lungs forward and start pumping them and working them.

Recommended Sky Ting TV Class: Open Your Mind and Lungs With Alex Sharry

What kinds of poses can help us deal with grief on the mat?

Do a little bit of everything. A series that addresses grief might start by opening yourself up and letting you feel bigger, bolder and more capacious. Then I’d spend a lot of time in calming poses that slow you down and make you more reflective and insulated. Finally, some soothing breath practices at the end can make you feel safe, balanced and held.

Here are a few you might try:

    • Cat and Cow: You’re not only going to be undulating your spine, but you're going to be upping the function of your breath. You're going to be in a dialogue with your nervous system.
    • Supported Backbends: Cobra, supported bridge, or chair: All of these will help you open up across your chest.
  • Hands Above the Head: Urdhva Hastasana, or raised hands pose, helps you open up the lungs. So does the more intense King of the Mountain, which might make you sweat but you feel amazing after.
    • Forward Fold: This can help calm you down after a lot of opening up. You can soften a forward fold by bringing in blocks and support around you, like scaffolding. 
    • Supported Frog: This is sort of like a child’s pose with a ton of blocks and blankets so that you can be the Jell-O in the Jell-O mold. You’ll lie face-down on a bolster with your head on a block.

    What kinds of breath work can help with grief?

    Even if you’re not moving, just sitting there and focusing on your breath can help you stay with any and all sensation that you’re having in your body. You don’t even need a teacher for this! No matter what, breath work connects you to the moment and it has the power to soothe your soul.  A couple options for getting started:

    • Equal parts breath: Start small, and breathe in for four counts and out for four counts. Then you can add breath retention: Inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four. It really starts to feel meditative and soothes the nervous system.
    • Alternate-nostril breathing: Position your thumb and pinkie over your two nostrils. Plug your right nostril and inhale through your left, then plug your left nostril and exhale through your right. Then inhale through the right, and swap the plug again, and exhale through your left. This kind of cross-referencing, and pulling apart of the corners, makes you feel really spacious inside.

    What can the practice of yoga teach us about grief?

    Yoga teaches us to mediate Great Nature and Personal Nature and reminds us that we are a part of a larger process. No matter how agitating a yoga class is, it ends. And everything ends, including grief – yoga can help us plug into that universal principle. It’s in the cosmic fabric: There’s no such thing as winter lasting forever. After winter, spring is guaranteed to come. The same is true for your internal seasons.

    For more theory and fun, check out some of Alex’s Katonah classes on Sky Ting TV.