Yoga and Grief: How Yoga Supports My Grieving Process by Holly Austin

When my father first passed away when I was ten years old, I was told (by many) that one day I would eventually be “OK” again. One of the first things I ever learned about grief was that it is a process.

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Like any process, there are stages or steps, which, when completed, means that one has reached a particular end. And so, as a ten-year-old girl, I assumed that at that end of the grieving process the griever no longer grieves; he or she just lives, most likely resuming life as it was before the loss.

As the days and months since my father’s death passed by, I began anticipating the day that would be the ultimate end of my own grieving process. On this day, I would completely understand why my father passed away since (I believed then that) everything happens for a reason. I would no longer feel sad, frustrated, or angry about the death of my father. Or at least the heaviness and weight of my grief would be lighter? This day would most likely occur sometime after high school, college, and maybe one or two full-time jobs. Or maybe after I was married and started my own family. I would (somehow) be able to explain the reason for my father’s death… and most likely comprehend other happenings of the universe. This idea of ensuing understanding kept me going – it empowered me to study and get good grades, get into a competitive university, and find a steady full-time job. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think that understanding would come easily. I expected it would come with hard work and patience.

But then I found yoga.

While studying abroad in Florence, Italy during my junior year of college, I decided to join my first yoga studio. Growing up as an athlete, I was always intrigued by new ways to challenge my body. The idea of doing a cool handstand or an extreme, twisty, bendy pose was thrilling. I was elated when I discovered this tiny, intimate studio located right along the Arno River. During that Fall semester, I woke up every morning, walked across the street to grab a cappuccino, strolled past the Duomo, and then tip-toed my way across the Ponte Vecchio as the rest of the city slept in. I couldn’t have dreamt up a more splendid setting or circumstance - the location was beautiful and rich in history, and I had plenty of time to go to yoga, because, as we all know, not a ton of actual studying happens while “studying abroad”.

During the first few yoga classes I attended, I was empowered with an incredible sense of control over my mind and body. The instructor’s words drew me into the present moment. I realized I had nearly complete control over the movement of my body. I placed one hand here and one foot there, engaged this muscle and relaxed that one, internally rotated this leg and externally rotated the other. It was all up to me. I made it happen. I engaged. Or, I disengaged. Most importantly, there was always action available. Choosing to pause, rest, or take a child’s pose was also considered action. With each action, I ultimately created my own, unique experience.

I quickly found myself perceiving this sense of control off the yoga mat, in my everyday life. From small things, like deciding to schedule time for a run, to big things, like choosing to engage in a difficult conversation with a family member. I had the control to engage or disengage in all action.

But, what if I got injured and wasn’t able to go for that run? And what if I lost someone else like I lost my father? My childhood desire to know “why” things happen the way they do suddenly kicked in again. I felt control-less and helpless. I felt action-less. What’s the point of working towards some outcome if a sudden happening outside of my control changes it all? However, this question-and-answer argument with God didn’t get me anywhere. I realized that I am not the only force or energy that exists in the universe.

The world is always going, always moving. Things are always happening. No matter what I do, say, write, read, yell, scream, make or create, things are going to keep happening. There is no rhyme or reason to these happenings. Nevertheless, the world is not something to escape from or overcome. After leaving Florence at the end of the semester, I had a burning desire for more action, not to withdraw from it. I wanted to see what I could do or create with more action, on and off the mat. Yoga helped me realize that the small actions that are available now/today are cumulative. One action after another creates that thing that I am working towards. And so, I quickly enrolled in a 200 HR Teacher Training program after graduation.

There are many other things I strive for and hope to achieve - to have a life full of love, simplicity, grand gestures and fluidity. But I know that big and little things will happen along the way that will challenge and maybe even change my course. I know that life will also be full of complexity, detail, and structure.

My father is no longer physically with me, but I have incredibly vivid memories of him taking me to get ice cream on summer nights, or letting me (illegally) drive the golf cart at our country club. I make these memories meaningful by writing them down and sharing them with friends and family. I bring these memories with me everywhere – even to the yoga studio … especially to the yoga studio.

Yoga has provided the space and the structure for me to continuously process my grief, hold close the memories I have of my father, and finally, move forward towards action, not away from it.