Mindful grieving and recovery through yoga

Perhaps the most consistent element of the loss and grief process is its absolute in-consistency. Anyone who has lost a loved one to death, divorce, illness or separation knows firsthand the ebb and flow of feelings, made more complicated by physical and emotional reminders of their absence.

It can be hard to know how to help ourselves when every aspect of our human form is affected by a loss, ranging from tearfulness to muscle aches and sleep disorders. And while therapy and group support can be practical ways to ease into a "new normal," many people forget that our physical and emotional needs require bolstering, too.

Enter the ancient practice of yoga, a combination of mental mindfulness and physical poses that benefit the entire mental, physical, emotional and spiritual self, especially during times of extreme stress. As we move through the various stages of life, working, raising children, and engaging with spouses and peers, every day is full of a wide range of feelings and emotions that require management. How, when, and where we choose to manage those emotions are key, says yoga therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor Margi Clifford, founder of Yoga For Mental Health in Anchorage.

"An emotionally healthy person is someone who experiences a full range of emotions," she says. "Mental health is characterized by an ability to tolerate that range in life experiences. Yoga is the 'intention to pay attention' to these emotions."

Yoga's roots have been traced to the famous Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture, in which "skillful action" is quoted as a framework for a fulfilled life in the form of physical exercises combined with a decisive mindset that, according to Clifford, makes all the difference.

Yoga instructor and Hospice of Anchorage volunteer Sandy Walters says yoga benefits the body through improved mobility, circulation, and respiration, facilitating healing after injury or illness.

"For a human body grieving, usually there is tightness in the chest, hollow-like feeling in the gut and other discomfort," Walters said. "Yogic breathing techniques along with heart opening postures can alleviate that discomfort in the body. Yoga philosophy offers words of wisdom, stability, and grounding. Mantras where you repeat a word or phrase such as 'Peace' or 'I am healing' can be so comforting. Guided meditation can help a person to stay focused in the present moment and let the healing process begin."

Margi Clifford also reiterates the benefits for the musculoskeletal system, with regular yoga practitioners reporting increased strength and better balance. For Alaskans of any age, she says, this can especially help during those winter months when ice and snow make outdoor walking potentially treacherous. Then, too, are the release of oxytocin, that amazing mood-boosting hormone that initiates our pleasure senses when we're engaging with other humans in positive ways.

Strength in numbers

When moving through the murky waters of loss, the overwhelming sense of grief can feel particularly individual, as if no one else could possibly fathom what we're experiencing. But having a cadre of peers and a common thread of practicing yoga is a social support for the entire person, Clifford said.

"We know loneliness is one of the biggest challenges to mental health, and community is the solution. Yoga is a sacred practice. It provides not only a place to acknowledge the immensity of our experience, but also to see it from another perspective. The 'paying attention' that we do in yoga helps to guide attention through the entirety of our experience. Sometimes that is past, present and future; sometimes that is mind, body and spirit; sometimes, especially in more challenging postures, it is breath, hips and feet. In this way we get to practice, within the confines of a safe, intentional and loving container, acknowledging, honoring, and continuing to be, embodied as we are, while we are."

But how often does one need to join a yoga session to receive these benefits? Turns out, it's less about quantity than quality, Clifford reflected. Using the mantra intention, she says, the foundation of yoga, that skillful action, can be practiced any time at all.

"From the way you purposefully move from sitting to standing, or getting dressed in the morning, it all helps," she said, "The more often, the better."

But for those looking to begin a sustained, regular program, she says, find a partner for accountability, then start small. Start with one pose in one class, and let the social community and movement be enjoyed.

"There is no end goal here," she said. "The process is the practice."

Exploration at your own pace

Volunteer teacher Sandy Walters also reminds new yoga students that taking a gentle or restorative yoga class at first will be most helpful.

"Try out other different styles of movement and breathwork to find the one that resonates for you. Grief can bring a different need each day. What's important is building a consistent practice with the support of the yoga instructor/therapist who can assist a person in healing."

The more our bodies become accustomed to the poses and actions, the easier it will be and the better we will feel. A structured class of 10 minutes, either online or in person, is a great place to start. Aren't sure about where to go? Ask your healthcare provider, friends, or therapist for recommendations. Key to this, Clifford also cautions, is to find a yoga teacher who makes you feel secure and confident about practicing in your current physical and mental condition.

Yoga For Mental Health is starting a new schedule of activities in January. For information, call 907-277-9642 or visit http://www.yogaformentalhealth.com.

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