At 27-years-old, I lost my mother to lung cancer. When she was just weeks from passing, and at her worst, a friend tried to comfort me by saying “chin up.” I knew he was trying to help—but literally moving my chin upward was the last thing I (or my body) wanted to do.
When we are in grief, the body naturally wants to cave in. There is a heaviness. As Michelle Obama said of her father’s death in her recent book Becoming, “It hurts to live after someone has died.” If someone you love is near death, it hurts to live before they have died, too.
Yet people frequently offer that type of chin-up advice, encouraging us to “keep our head up” or “hold our head high” when we are going through tough times. Yet is that really what someone who is grieving needs? Or is that someone else’s own discomfort in the face of our sadness? When we suffer loss, people often do not know what to say. What if instead of trying to make each other feel better in the face of loss and deep grief, we gave ourselves permission to hang our heads for a little while?
Grief has no guidebook—no straight line to follow. Grief is the soul’s way of mourning a person, place, or thing of time past. It comes in waves and is rarely predictable. One minute you are balled up on the couch crying pools of tears, the next you are laughing, the next you are numb. Because of this, the kindest thing we can do for ourselves when experiencing grief is to allow it to be there and give ourselves time to heal.
In yoga, we practice a lot of sequences that open the heart. Rarely do we hear teachers encourage us to close our hearts. However, after a significant loss, this may be the most healing thing to do. Whenever I have experienced an important death, I can’t even practice the most passive backbends. The body’s desire to curl inward is an evolutionary response to stress and trauma—a way to protect the vital organs.
I have also come to believe that our impulse to fold in when grieving is a way to keep the pieces of the heart together after it breaks.
If all you do is unroll your mat and rest in Child’s Pose today, great. If you feel like moving a bit more, here is a sequence to help you close your heart so it can heal.
A Yoga Sequence for Grief
Balasana (Child’s Pose) Flow
Few poses are as comforting as Child’s Pose. This posture encapsulates what the body organically wants to do when we are under duress: curl in. Come onto your shins with the tops of the feet on the floor. Bring your big toes together and spread your knees apart. Shift your hips back toward your heels and reach your arms in front of you. Rest your forehead on a block to give your brain a rest, too. It is helpful to be on your fingertips to keep space in your neck and shoulders. Stay here as long as you like.
Sarah Ezrin is a yoga teacher in San Francisco. Learn more at sarahezrinyoga.com.