Your Inner Radiance Can't Be Destroyed: A Grief Interview with Yogi Laura Ahrens
After a deep loss, often the last thing we want to do is move our bodies around. Wallowing flat on the floor can definitely sound much more appealing, but, exercise is not only excellent for our physical health but also for our mental and emotional health too.
I was thrilled to chat with the inspiring Laura Ahrens, who is a yoga teacher and teacher of teachers in Boston, MA. She is the owner, director, and lead trainer of The New School of Yogic Arts, a 200-hour yoga teacher training school, and leads public classes in the Boston area as well as retreats both locally and internationally (like her upcoming Reconnection Retreat to Nicaragua!) . She is currently in her 500 hour Yoga Therapy training with Sarahjoy Marsh at the DAYA Foundation and took a break from her busy teaching and training schedule to share with us how yoga can be used to actually feel - not hide - our grief (and don't worry, there's a super great flat-on-the-floor pose, wallowing optional!).
First, what is your own definition of yoga?
Yoga, to me, is a consciousness practice and way of living that connects us to present moment awareness, clarity of insight, and self-realization. Our commitment to this practice dovetails into our relationships with self, other, and environment.
How can yoga be used for healing?
Yoga can be used for healing when we use it to create space between stimulus and reaction so that we might be able to choose how we respond to our own thoughts, to others, and to the world around us. Yoga can be used for healing when we start to still the incessant narration, storytelling, projecting, ruminating, judging, and planning of the mind. As we start to lift the veil of our own thoughts-- even just slightly-- off of present moment awareness, we can be with the possibilities beyond our own mental conditioning. There is an understanding of layers of our existence in the yogic tradition called Koshas, which essentially translates to “sheaths”, in which it is recognized that we have an inner radiance that cannot be destroyed by circumstance. The mind layer oftentimes prevents our recognition of this boundlessness and truth, much like a layer of dust or film over a lens makes it harder to see clearly. The busier the mind, the more obscure the lens, the harder to see. When we use the yoga practice to slow and steady the mind or to calibrate the thoughts so they are useful and more in alignment with reality beyond our conditioned mind layer, we can transcend our patterns or our pain and meet the possibility for change and transformation.
What is yoga therapy?
I understand Yoga therapy to be an application of yoga and yogic practices that is used for healing of mind, body, and spirit. I understand a yoga therapist to be someone who uses the philosophical and physical practices of yoga to help in the healing process of their students and clients. To me, Yoga Therapy is the intersection of the traditions of practice and modern science to be applied to the student or client to benefit their well being, to help them create new patterns and pathways, and to help them to come to presence, their inherent wholeness, and freedom.
There are many different kinds of yoga, and it can be a bit daunting for someone new to yoga to know where to start. Is there a style of yoga you recommend for beginners?
I recommend that new practitioners start with beginner’s or fundamentals classes. This is not style specific, but gives an overall background of the practice so that moving forward in any style(s) can have a solid foundation to land on. In a class that is intentionally foundational, beginners can learn names and alignment of poses in an environment specifically geared towards those who aren’t familiar with yoga or are in their first few classes. Since beginner and fundamentals classes are most often populated by those who are mostly unfamiliar with yoga, it can be an unintimidating place to come have a first experience with yoga and continue to grow a practice.
Is there a style of yoga you recommend for those in grief?
I believe that different styles of yoga resonate with different practitioners, and choosing a way of practicing is personal to a practitioner’s constitution, circumstances, life experiences, and physicality. A good style of yoga to practice is always the one that you are actually going to practice. When we are in grief, it can oftentimes be very difficult to move through the activities of our lives, or even to just get out of bed in the morning. Choose a style that feels respectful of who you are and what you need as a person. For instance, if upbeat music and fast paced instruction seems like a disregard of your deep and challenging feelings, perhaps consider taking a slow flow or a practice like Iyengar or Forrest Yoga, which are slower paced and practiced without music. Many studios and meditation centers also offer dharma talks, in which the teacher speaks to particular aspects of yogic philosophy. The teachings may be comforting, and become a refuge in your healing process or offer a helpful way of seeing the world. Many studios also offer meditation classes, or you can seek out a dedicated meditation centers in which you can find some stillness in your own mind and heart with the support of a teacher and a community.
What is your favorite grounding pose, for someone who needs to reconnect to the earth?
If I could only practice 5 poses for the rest of my life, I would choose dolphin pose, bridge pose, plank pose, chair pose, and savasana (corpse pose, relaxation). I find these postures to be incredibly grounding and both to the support of the earth and to my own inner stores of support and strength.
Do you have any mantras you recommend for someone experiencing grief?
For those experiencing grief, it’s important to acknowledge and honor the feelings that accompany the experiences of loss. Mantra can sometimes be misused in an attempt to transcend the physical experience, push it aside, or to bypass the pain and sorrow. I’d prefer to recommend a mindfulness meditation as an opportunity for those grieving to tune in and to give their feelings respect and attention needed in order to heal. Sit or lie down comfortably and breathe slowly but without exertion. Notice the physical sensations of filling the lungs and expanding the ribs and of exhaling, emptying, and deflating. Notice the tension and tightness in the face at the corners of the eyes, between the eyebrows, around the mouth, in the jaw, and in the tongue to consciously allow for release and relaxation. As you breathe deeply, notice the thoughts in the mind, acknowledge them, and return to the depth of breath. As feelings and thoughts arise, notice and acknowledge them, and continue to come back to the physical experience of feeling the breath in the body.
Grief can often make people extra fragile. what are some things someone in grief should look for when searching for a safe and nurturing teacher or studio?
It’s challenging to tell what a teacher or class will be like before attending it. It may be helpful to read the teacher bios, or to call the studio and to ask about which classes and teachers might be helpful during your time of grieving. On the website for the International Association of Yoga Therapists, www.iayt.org you can search for a yoga therapist to take public class or private sessions with.
Grief is commonly talked about in emotional stages (which can often come in cycles), and each stage can require very different forms of self care. Can you recommend poses to help with these stages?
It’s important to note that these postures are not recommended to mitigate or change a certain state. We are not using the yoga practice to cure our present reality or push away our circumstances. Healing comes from embodiment and being awake to our present moment experiences, so these postures are here to support the process of intimacy with reality. It may not always be comfortable, and in the process of grieving it may be excruciating to have a relationship with unveiled reality. The hard but rewarding work of the practice of yoga is to be willing to be in it.
Denial: Forearm Plank
The mind can be anywhere: on Mars, in conversation with one we have never met, or in the year 1821. Postural yoga and pranayama (breathing practices) can help us inhabit the present moment. This is a strong pose that wakes up the core and requires us to be conscious of our breathing. This posture may support ability to come home to this moment through the undeniable presence of the body in strong sensation.
Start on the forearms. Option to interlace the hands for support or keep the arms parallel with palms down. To modify, set your knees down on the ground. Fire the legs by pressing them up towards the ceiling. Pull the pubic bone towards the navel to activate the low belly. Breathe deeply through the rib cage and relax the jaw and tongue.
Anger: Alternate Nostril Breathing
Someone who is angry is often called “hot headed”. Perhaps you remember as a child being told to take deep breaths and count to ten after a particular conflict or situation that made you mad. Attention to breath can help us to make sense of our reactivity by chilling out our brains, slowing down our thinking, and adding space between stimulus and response. The specificity of alternate nostril breathing coupled with the physiological shift associated with intentional breath will help create a brain state more conducive to clarity and presence.
Alternate nostril breathing starts and ends on the left side, which is the nostril associated with our more lunar, receptive, and passive aspects of being. Fold the first two fingers of the right hand down to the palm. The thumb will always press against the right nostril, the ring finger and pinky the left nostril. Inhale through the left nostril while the thumb blocks the right. Hold both nostrils briefly, and suspend the breath with the lungs full. Continue to block the left nostril and exhale through the right. Once you’re empty of breath, inhale through the right side. Suspend, and hold full while blocking both nostrils. Exhale through the left while blocking the right nostril with the thumb. That is one round. Continue for a few minutes or as long as you like!
Photos by Cameron Ciccone
Bargaining: Pigeon Pose
A part of bargaining is grasping at what we thought should have been or what we think should be. There is an aversion to the present moment, and an attempt to change present moment reality. Pigeon pose is a posture of surrender that asks us to let go of gripping in order to eventually (through patience, time, and healing) open to what’s possible beyond past realities. When we are grieving we have lost something truly dear to us, so surrender can be good medicine in letting us temporarily lay down the heaviness of grappling with a new reality without what or whom we loved.
Start from downward facing dog or swing a leg around from table top. Place your shin towards the top of the mat, with the foot as close to the pelvis as necessary or as parallel to the top of the mat as flexibility allows. Set the pelvis on a bolster or rolled up blanket so that there’s evenness across both hips and they’re equidistant from the ground. Option to stay upright or fold forward, resting the head down on the floor, hands, or some other support. Relax the head, neck, jaw, and tongue.
Depression: Downward Facing Dog on the Wall
There are many stages of this difficult posture, so you can practice whichever step your abilities and energy level allow for on any given day. Practicing any step of the pose builds and leads towards the subsequent step. Going upside down can change our perspective and create a biochemical shift that may lift our mood. It can help to momentarily lift the fog of depression to show us that there’s still a light that never goes out, regardless of whether we can always see it.
Come to a table shape on hands and knees with the feet bridging the wall and the floor. Place the ball of the foot on the ground and the heel on the wall, so the foot is wedged in. With the knees under the hips and the hands under the shoulders while the torso is lengthened out the body will likely be in an orientation for the next poses to be an appropriate distance from the wall. Pull the front ribs in like they’re laces on a shoe to connect to your center. Push the floor away to activate the arms.
Keep the prior activations and lift the knees away from the floor and pike the hips up towards the wall. Spread the upper back wide by breathing deeply into the shoulder blades and hugging the upper arm bones together to stabilize the shoulders and clear some space around the neck.
Keep the prior engagements and step one foot at a time up to the height of your hips. Push the wall away with your feet and legs. The hips will shift more towards the center of the room. Keep pulling the ribs together, broadening the upper back, and hugging the upper arms together. Breathe deeply and relax the neck and jaw.
Photos by Cameron Ciccone
Acceptance: Supported Savasana
Savasana is a posture of acceptance. One of my teachers, I can’t remember who, told me that rather than “letting go” in savasana, to “let it be”. Letting go can sometimes seem like something we need to do; It like hacking with a machete going through cleansing and austerities. Rather than actively changing or creating circumstances, in savasana we let everything be to soften the barriers between the grasping/aversive mind state and the present moment, whether or not we would have chosen it. Support your savasana to add more softness and increase the potential for the body to relax down into the ground.
Option to take savasana directly against the ground, perhaps with a blanket over the pelvis for added warmth and grounding. There are so many ways to take rest that are supportive and can enhance the experience of relaxation and help to quiet the body and mind. In the savasana depicted, place a block underneath your shoulder blades and one under your head. Both blocks can be the same height, or you can place the block underneath your head at a higher height than the one under your shoulder blades for added support for the neck, or lower than the one under your shoulder blades to let the throat open. Roll a blanket under the knees for support for the lower back.
What resources do you recommend for those interested in learning more about yoga therapy?
Sarahjoy Marsh is an incredibly skillful, learned, and compassionate yoga therapist. Her book Hunger, Hope & Healing is in many ways specific to eating disorders, but her wisdom is applicable to those in all sorts of struggles and much of the content is universal. She also has a blog at www.sarahjoyyoga.com/yogajoy-blog/.
Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach are meditation and dharma teachers and also are psychotherapists. Their wisdom acknowledges the challenges of life and the power of yoga simultaneously. Jack Kornfield’s book A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times can be particularly pertinent for those in grief and on their healing path. Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield each have numerable books and their own podcasts, all of which are incredibly potent resources for meditation and the healing that can come from a meditation and mindfulness practice.
How has yoga personally helpful to you through grief, loss, or heart aches?
Forrest Yoga and Yin Yoga have been incredibly healing to my heart, mind, body, and spirit during times of grief, loss, and heartache. Both practices have room for introspection, growth, and are slow enough so that I could really be with what I was experiencing and not need to push it aside or to wallow in it. They were a container for my difficulty and my healing to coexist and alchemize so I could move forward. I’ve also found Buddhist meditation and mindfulness to be incredibly helpful. When I am in a painful place, I take refuge in the philosophy of the practice of yoga. In my better moments, it can reconnect me to my inner knowing and to seeing my painful experiences as potentially productive on my path of growth and understanding of myself and others.
Join Laura at the Reconnection Retreat to Nicaragua January 12-17, 2018.