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Grief Is Physical, Too

Grief Yoga is designed to help you access feelings through movement.

Key points

  • Grief has physical as well as emotional manifestations.
  • We hold our feelings in our bodies if we don't learn to release them.
  • Grief Yoga targets many different ways we may hold grief in our bodies.
Dylan Sauerwein/Unsplash
Source: Dylan Sauerwein/Unsplash

Sometimes my grief feels like a lump at the base of my throat, like something pushing up from deep within, trying to escape.

When that happens, I yell. Hard. Loud. Sometimes I yell Tom’s name, sometimes I just make noise—a sort of primal scream, setting the beast free. The howl lasts only a few seconds, but it provides some relief, shakes that lump loose. When I'm done, I take a deep breath and continue my day.

Grief is surprisingly physical. It turns up in our bodies in all kinds of ways.

For one thing, it’s exhausting. Processing our changed world demands a lot of mental resources, and we find ourselves sapped of energy, dragging around. We may have trouble sleeping, or sleep all the time. We may find ourselves unable to eat. I found that there wasn't enough sugar or carbs in the world for me when I was in my deepest pain.

Researchers are exploring ways that grief messes with our immune system. We may develop skin problems, or lose hair. Bereaved people are at an increased risk of dying in the weeks following the death; studies show that you’re at about 20 times higher risk for a heart attack within 24 hours of losing a loved one. And if you don’t have a heart attack you might think you have. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy—familiarly known as broken-heart syndrome—is chest pain and shortness of breath that feel like a heart attack. Although researchers don’t, as yet, know why it happens (and mostly to women), it’s a temporary weakening of the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, after an emotionally stressful incident. Most people recuperate within a month.

Feeling is healing

All of this is to say that we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t take the physical repercussions of grief into consideration as we work towards healing.

It was the physical side of emotion that inspired Paul Denniston to create Grief Yoga, his program and book, Healing Through Yoga: Transform Loss into Empowerment, for helping people physically release emotional pain.

Denniston grew up in a very religious family that discouraged the honest expression of emotion.

“If we were feeling sadness or anger, we were taught to turn it over to God, to pray it away,” he said in an interview. But he also saw his father bottle up emotions such as anger, until “suddenly, they would explode, and be frightening to witness."

And Denniston saw similar tendencies in himself. A bullied child, he said, “There would be times I couldn’t take it anymore and would fight back. The anger was so intense, it scared me, and it was harmful to others.”

As he got older, he turned to drugs and alcohol to numb his feelings. Then he attended his first yoga class when he was about 27 years old. “I realized that the suppressed emotions I had been trying to run away from were actually all inside me.” Yoga was revelatory.

Denniston went on to become certified to teach several yoga disciplines, including Hatha, Kundalini, and Vinyasa flow. He also worked as a movement teacher at the esteemed Stella Adler Studio for Actors. “My work was to help actors become more expressive in ways that created deeper connections within themselves and with their co-actors,” he said.

But even so, after an accident left him feeling both physically and emotionally broken, he realized, “I was still doing everything I could to numb out the feelings of sadness and anger.” And this, along with the loss of a sister and stepson, inspired what ultimately became Grief Yoga. “I learned how to adapt a practice to a person who was feeling a little broken inside, both physically and emotionally.”

Courtesy Paul Denniston
Paul Denniston
Source: Courtesy Paul Denniston

Release through breath, movement, and sound

Grief Yoga is accessible to any and all—no pretzel poses involved, and it can be done either seated in a chair or on a mat. (Denniston’s book comes with access to online Grief Yoga videos to get you started, and he has an online community called Spark that offers a free introductory class.) As with all forms of yoga, it begins with the breath. “When we breathe deeply it allows us to feel deeply,” Denniston said. “We’re not bypassing pain, we’re not going around it. We’re going through it in an empowering way, to treat it as fuel so we can release it.”

My longtime yoga practice has helped me through a variety of hard times and I found some familiar poses—downward-facing dog, cat-cow—in Grief Yoga, but this practice is less traditional yoga and more movement as metaphor.

“I adapted it to areas where we can normally get stuck: anger, regret,” Denniston explained. “Grief is as unique as our fingerprint...everybody holds grief differently. Some in their back, in their heart, it’s stuck in their throat and they’re having a hard time expressing what they want and need. It gets stuck in the head, creating sleepless nights, anticipating a future that feels hopeless, or stuck in the past. The grief can manifest in the jaw and we grind our teeth at night, or the stomach, creating digestive issues. A lot of suppressed emotions live within the hips. Sometimes people even talk about pain in their feet—their foundation has been rocked and it’s hard for them to walk and move forward.”

Sessions start with gentle movement and breathwork before things get louder and steeped in metaphor. You break chains, you throw away regrets, you lift your arms to the sky and ask why, why, WHY? (That one especially works for me once I get past feeling like Tevye kvetching to God in Fiddler on the Roof.) Then you wind down with self-nurturing—hugs and a loving kindness meditation.

Grief manifests in more ways than we could possibly have imagined prior to entering its dark tunnel, and its physical effects are perhaps most surprising to many people. Any sort of physical activity can help push you through to the other side of a grief wave, but Grief Yoga is specifically focused on helping us feel the pain, release the suffering, and gathering the emotional strength for whatever will come next in our lives.

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