Dealing with Grief

My dad died a month ago. Grief is a mysterious process, and one to which I am no stranger.  I lost my mother when I was 6, which pretty much defined my life. In fact, I have spent the majority of my life pretending that this actually never happened to me as a way to deal with that grief. Super healthy, right? But with my dad dying, it is different. He and I were estranged for much of my adult years, mainly because I chose to disconnect myself from the abusive person he married (and chose to remain with) right after my mother died. When you live in an abusive situation as a child, you think that it is normal.  If you’re smart, like I was, you learn how to “handle” your abuser so that you are her target as little as possible. You basically figure out what makes them angry, and then spend most of your time preventing a blowup. As a child, however, you believe that your parent (my father) is going to protect you. It is devastating when they don’t. Despite the betrayal I felt from my father, I still loved him. He himself was a victim of abuse and never learned quite how to free himself from it. He tried a few times but always went back. I think that perhaps there is a sick comfort from being in an abusive relationship because it confirms the false belief that you are not worthy of love. In no way, however, am I excusing his abandonment of me. Despite being estranged, I held out hope that he would, one day, come back to me. He never did so, and, as my counselor pointed out to me, it’s like I am grieving him twice.

Grieving my dad is different than my mother. When my mother died, I was expected to simply move on and act like she never existed in order to please my new step-parent. No counseling was provided. No talk of my mother in a positive light took place. In fact, my stepmother would often tell me how much better of a mother she was than my own mother. I know--totally fucked up, right? During this grieving process, however, I actually have the tools of yoga and meditation to help me through. I am in relationship, thankfully, in which my partner doesn’t judge me for crying when I need to and gives space for the quiet that I enter into when I feel sad. My children have both been incredibly supportive, even though their grandfather ghosted them, too.

One area in which my dad did not abandon me was anything that had to do with physical exercise. He actually got a degree in physical education but never taught. He became a police officer instead. When I was in junior high, I played for the tennis team, so my dad would go play with me pretty much any time I asked. And I was not a great tennis player. In high school, I trained for cross country and he would sometimes run with me. I was a slow and steady runner. I remember running with him and when I got to the point where I’d want to walk, he’d say stuff like, “Just run up to that tree,” and then when we were almost to the tree, he’d say, “Let’s run to that light post up there,” and so on until we finished the two miles. One of the sweetest times with my dad was when I ran a half marathon in my thirties. He got up at 3 a.m. to drive me to Disney, which is where the event was. My husband and kids met up with him later, and I’d get to see them at different points during the run. For the rest of the weekend, my dad called me, “My daughter, the athlete.” It was one of the few times in my life in which he and I had space as a father and daughter.

I took a week off of work when my dad passed. I cried during my morning meditations, and still do when I need to. I went to hot power yoga and yin daily that week. Yin is a restorative form of yoga that is extremely gentle and meditative. It is the kind of yoga that I bring friends to when they are taking their first yoga class ever. For me, one of the best parts about yin is that it is a great place to cry. You can lie in legs-up-the-wall pose, throw a towel over your face, and just feel the emotional/mental release.  And yin offers a quiet, gentle space in which you feel safe and not alone. I think loneliness is a dangerous part of grief because it is so easy to isolate yourself as you deal with the pain. Don’t isolate. Find a yoga class you can attend.

I am not “fixed” because of yoga and meditation. My grief remains. But I have been able to enter into the process of grieving rather than avoid it because of what yoga and meditation do for me: allowing me to honor who I am right here, right now. How do you deal with grief?  I’d love to hear ways in which we can support one another in this process.

Creating Space

Let me begin with thanking those of you who read my first blog entry and offered your support and comments. I am so excited for those of you who are choosing to get on your mat!  Please keep sharing your practice with this community; supporting and uplifting one another is my purpose for this blog. Now, let’s talk some yoga.

One of the many amazing aspects of yoga practice is that you actually begin to create space in your body, at a cellular level, in which you wring out old toxins and open up your body for something new, something better, something healthier, something that honors you. During yoga teacher training, we would repeat certain phrases during specific sequences of the practice. One of them was, “Create space for something new.” I felt like an idiot at times, thinking, “Why the fuck am I saying this over and over?” As the training progressed, the sequences came together and this phrase fit in seamlessly as a cue with specific poses (asanas).

But creating space goes beyond the physical body. Through my practice I am learning to create space not only within myself, but outside of myself, too. For example, allowing people around me to have space for their words and/or feelings...really listening instead of trying to “fix” their situation with my words. I struggle, however, with giving space to anger and grief. For me, I feel as if these two emotions often disguise one another, especially since it sometimes feels safer to be angry rather than sad. Both of these intense emotions often frighten me, especially if it is from those whom I hold closest to my heart. I would (and sometimes still do) either walk away, try to shut it down, or avoid it. I recognize that the habits I used to deal with my own anger and grief were to either smother them or release them in unhealthy and sometimes destructive ways.

Not surprisingly, depriving myself or others the space for strong emotions such as anger and grief has, at times, had a derogatory effect on my relationships. Why would I continue to do this--hurt myself and those I love? I didn’t do it intentionally. I did it because I lacked healthy tools to deal with life.  Yoga is teaching me how to create space for my own emotions and the emotions of others when I am off of my mat. But this is no easy task. In fact, sometimes it fucking sucks, feeling anger and pain that I have stored for so long within myself...worried that these intense emotions will swallow me whole.

For me, an essential tool in creating space is my breath. I think that I may have spent the majority of my life literally holding my breath. I am still learning how to fully breathe...allowing for complete inhales and complete exhales in my daily life. Yoga practice and mediation have been my greatest teachers in learning how to breathe. Don’t worry...I’ll address my love/hate relationship with meditation in a future post.

Donna Farhi is a renowned yoga teacher and author. I studied her work during my training and here is what she has to say about breath: “When we hold the breath and try to control life or stop changes from happening, we are saying that we do not want to be moved. In those moments our desire for certainty has become much stronger than our desire to be dynamically alive. Breathing freely is a courageous act” (Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit, p.30).

Damn. Go back and re-read that quote if you skimmed through it. Not breathing fully is actually an attempt at control--at least for me it is. Breathing freely is an act of bravery. Giving space to my emotions/words and honoring others with the same space is a totally new way of living for me, and it is not always pleasant. Sometimes it can by downright terrifying. However, becoming conscious of the fact that I don’t have to control everything in order to keep those around me and myself safe/happy/sad/angry is allowing me...space...even freedom. Life is fucking life whether or not I delude myself with being “in charge” or “in control.”

I am grateful that yoga is teaching me how to breathe and “create space for something new.” Please share your thoughts on how you make space for yourself in the comments below because this is a process for me, and I’d love to hear about your experiences. Namaste, my peeps. Get on your mat, breathe, and create space for something new in your life.

My Yoga Beginnings

Hello. This is my first foray into blogging, so be gentle. My purpose for this blog is to create a community in which readers can share their experiences with, well, life, which can be both joyful and really fucking difficult. I am a middle-aged mother of two amazing young adults and have been blessed with a husband who has stood by me for the past twenty-three years.

That being said, let's get real.  

I have suffered from pretty severe anxiety my entire life, as well as depression in my late teens and postpartum depression after the birth of my second child. I have tried various coping tools, some healthy and some not so healthy. At some point I realized that exercise is my best tool for coping with both anxiety and depression. Now, I'm not one of those women who is a size 2 and eats clean every day--I try to but it doesn't always happen. I'm a real mom who deals with the challenges of working full-time (except for summers, which I have off due to my teaching schedule), raising her family, staying married, and figuring out how to keep my sanity in this thing called life.

I initially used exercise as a way to control my weight and still eat like shit. Food was definitely a way that I coped with anxiety. I mostly did aerobics (remember The Jane Fonda workout and step aerobics?), light jogging and walking. That worked until my mid-thirties, when my body and metabolism were like, "Hey. You may want to consider doing some things a bit differently because you can't keep this up and stay at a healthy weight."  So, I turned to running, training for a 1/2 marathon and doing 5ks. My kids were fairly young at the time, and my three days a week of training were a way that I could release stress as I attempted to balance teaching, motherhood, marriage, etc.

I started to incorporate yoga into my training, as I began suffering from shin splints and later ankle and hip issues. I didn't practice at a studio because I thought I was too fat and not "good" at yoga. I used Yoga Download and downloaded a few gentle hatha practices on my Ipod (yes, I am dating myself). My kids used to groan when they heard the intro music as we listened to my Ipod in the car: "Mom! Please change it to actual music!"

I eventually had to give up running, as my body and orthopedist were both telling me that I needed to find exercise that was a bit gentler on my joints. So, I increased my yoga practice to three to four times per week rather than two. And I noticed some differences in both my body and my mental health. It wasn't perfect or a magic fix but it definitely helped me cope with my anxiety better. I also continued to use walking as my main form of exercise.

Skip ahead to about a year ago when I experienced a trauma that brought me to my knees.  I had no fucking clue how I was going to survive. I was numb and terrified. I felt so alone. Two of my girlfriends both sent me the same article on how yoga helps with trauma. So, I went to a yoga studio where another girlfriend taught, Warrior Oneand began to practice there. I immediately noticed that the studio had no mirrors, which kept me from looking at myself, telling myself horrible things about my body, and prevented me from comparing myself to others.

I was not in great physical shape. I could not hold chaturanga. I would get to class early and set up my mat in the back of the studio. I rarely spoke to anyone. I struggled to keep up in classes but the teachers at my studio are amazing.  And in the midst of my crippling emotional pain, this was the ONLY thing that was getting me through. I usually went to class feeling my strongest emotion at the time, anger, because I was afraid I would fall apart at the seams if I let myself start to feel the pain underneath all of that anger. I cried during every class, but I left feeling maybe a smidge of strength each time I stepped off of my mat.

My girlfriend, who had recommended Warrior One to me, began encouraging me to apply for the yoga teacher training program there. I actually laughed at her. With every excuse I gave, she gave a counter-reason as to how this program would change my life. So, I applied, was accepted and began a 10 month journey that would change my life forever.

I know everyone’s life circumstances may not permit them to practice at a studio or participate in a yoga teacher training program. And yoga is not going to make my problems disappear or my life perfect. But yoga has become an essential tool for me in naviagting my life. Here is what I want to say to you: get a mat, find a studio or google a yoga workout, and comment in my blog about your journey.  As my teacher Carol  said last night, “Yoga begins when you leave your mat and go into the world.” Yoga is teaching me how to actually live rather than react to life. But, I’ll talk about that more later.