One year ago I was blessed with the most amazing gift I could ask for: a week of incredible memories with my grandma before she suddenly passed away. As I learned through practice, yoga has a lot to offer one moving through grief. Ultimately, it was my yoga practice that enabled me to replace grief with gratitude for the amazing life Grams lived and shared with me.
Last Thanksgiving, Grams, my partner and I, rented a beachfront cottage in the Florida Keys. No large gathering, no turkey, no crazy shopping—just us, books, and sunshine. Grams and I had taken many trips together since I was ten and they have always been relaxing times for us to retreat.
During this trip I was uninhibited in asking about her life. I wanted to hear each life story again and previously taboo subjects. I listened in awe as she recounted the animals she’d rescued from mistreatment—my favorite was when she snuck a neighbor’s horse into her basement because their son threw rocks at it each day. I was mesmerized by her experience as a Russian translator during the Cold War. Who would have known! And I sat humbled as she recalled life growing up in a Catholic orphanage. She and her sisters had been sent there during the Depression. The only Christmas gift she received during her childhood was an umbrella; she was beaten with that umbrella as punishment for letting her sister join her near the front of the dinner line. I cried with her as she described the loss of my Grandfather. A train struck his car when he was driving home for Thanksgiving forty years ago. Back then there were no crossing bars to forewarn drivers when a train was coming. Grams took on the railway station in an effort to hold them accountable for erecting crossing bars to prevent future tragedies. A single mom with three kids in those days didn’t have much of a chance—but she took on the challenge because she knew it was the right thing to do.
We laughed our way through good memories too—our road trips across 17 states and the characters we met along the way. For one of her birthdays we toured vineyards in Portugal and missed a train because we were goofing off in a chocolate wine tasting. But everything worked out because, at almost 80 years old, Grams learned enough Portuguese to elicit smiles from every stranger on the street. People gravitated towards her. She was the light in any gathering and could captivate any audience with good conversation.
Grams endured a fair amount of hardships in her life. But her life was full of love and she lived each moment to its fullest. She took nothing for granted and was never hung up in the past. That’s yoga in action—being present. She never let me get caught up in the past either. As a teenager I wanted her to listen to my woes, but instead I got tough love as she taught me to move on. “You got to focus on the now, girl. What happened is over.”
Yoga was an important part of our Thanksgiving week. Grams was recovering from her second knee replacement and I was determined to keep her active. For the past five years I’d given her various programs with photos and written instructions. These were becoming too difficult to use and I (foolishly) brought the DVD Yoga for Seniors. One look at the cover and she asked, offended, “Are you implying I’m old like those ladies?! They’re so old. Ha! I’m doing just fine—teach me headstands!” I convinced her the DVD was my top choice since it had relaxing chair sequence and she couldn’t bear weight. She agreed and we shared an amazing few practices. We wove in our own elements for relaxation, such as breathing techniques. I remember how diligent she was in counting her breathes, and she quickly picked up the traditional yoga techniques for counting (moving one’s right thumb up and along the four fingers).
Our week was perfect: sunny days reading on the beach, new adventures snorkeling, relaxing evenings playing cards, and long nights of heart-to-heart talks. No one ever imagines losing a loved one—but three days after I left her she had a heart attack while napping. It was surreal. My family kept asking if she had looked sick during our trip or if anything seemed wrong. No, she didn’t, and all seemed right. Grams was her usual charming, upbeat self. I was too stunned and heartbroken to ask anything further about her death.
Yoga and working through grief
Grief touches on every aspect of a person – how we feel, eat, sleep, breathe, think, stand, walk. I oscillated between mourning, withdrawal, depression, and anger. My yoga practice became a refuge—a place to soothe my heart when I could have otherwise been consumed by grief. This process taught me that Yoga has a tremendous amount of insight on managing grief: embracing the impermanence of life, detachment, and the ability to be present with ourselves.
Yoga is traditionally defined as the stilling of the changing states of the mind (Yoga Sutra I.2). The end goal is union with the Self—our innermost light—which is known in Sanskrit as purusa. The Yoga Sutra-s provide us with two fundamental tools to support this journey: abhyasa andvairagyam, a sustained practice and detachment from all that is impermanent in the world. Abhyasa cultivates steadiness—of the physical body, the mind, and the emotions. As I stumbled through reactions to Grams’ death my practice brought me back to steadiness.
Pranayama (breathing) techniques helped me regroup when I felt overwhelmed with sadness. Meditation enabled me to visualize light filling the void from her absence—a technique that enabled me to be with my grief without being consumed by it.Asana (the postures) were a way to move through sorrow. I noticed that the energy of specific postures shifted after Grams’ death. It had taken me years to properly learn sirsasana (headstand), and even then I wasn’t consistently steady for a prolonged period of time. Suddenly I floated into the posture as if an external force stabilized me and kept me suspended in space and time.
Different postures in yoga draw attention to various cakra-s (energetic points in the body). Sirsasana is the only asana where the primary focus is on the sahasrara cakra, the seventh cakra that symbolizes a person’s entire energetic state and suffering from or acceptance of life’s journey. Opening sahasrara is said to enable one to connect with the heavens while being grounded on earth. Yoga was never religious for me, but this link exemplifies how yoga enabled me to both feel at peace with Grams’ passing but also present in my own life.
One cannot foster abhyasa without vairagyam. Detachment in yoga is often misunderstood as withdrawal and isolation. It is the opposite. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the ancient Indian texts that discusses yoga, sheds light on this and notes that detachment isn’t giving up joy or families. Instead it’s recognizing and relinquishing our attachment to the successes and failures of our actions—noting that we should do what’s right because it’s the right thing to. This attachment, as well as our inclination to identify with our bodies and material objects, prevents us from truly connecting with ourselves and others.
Paramount to vairagyam is the acceptance that nothing is permanent in our lives. Everything, except that innermost light, is in a constant state of change: the seasons, our health, our thoughts, our intentions. The purpose of this philosophy is to recognize what is permanent so we can direct our attention to the present moment.
The Bhagavad Gita offers guidance on how to practice detachment: by dedicating one’s actions to a higher cause. This doesn’t mean a religious offering. I began devoting each yoga practice towards something I was grateful for in memory of Grams—our numerous adventures, the support she’d given me throughout the years, and so forth. For me, practicing detachment meant acknowledging and releasing my grief. Yoga enabled me to move through its various cycles and, through practice, my feelings of gratitude outweighed my grief.
The Bhagavad Gita tells us “This perfect state untouched by suffering is called yoga.” Eventually, there came a point after Grams’ passing when I was able to practice yoga and feel uplifted—and carry that state into the rest of my day. There are days when sadness will resurface, and I again turn to dedicating my practice to gratitude for the amazing life she lived.
It is a tremendous honor that my article on sharing yoga with Syrians won "Yoga Article of the Year" in Seattle Yoga News. Endless gratitude to everyone who was part of and supported this inspiring project.