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Try Yoga for Grief (Even If You're Not a Yoga Person)

Getty Images / Dougal Waters

The people at this yoga class have one thing in common: They are all mourning loved ones.

Before Courtney Miller begins teaching today’s yoga class, she tells us a story. It’s about her sister, who died two and a half years ago of esophageal cancer. Just 34 and a mother of two, she left behind devastated loved ones who were not prepared to lose her – including Courtney.

Lisa “Lee” Brunie, Courtney’s co-teacher, follows suit. Her composure breaks as she tells us about her young daughter who died a year ago this month. Courtney notes Lee’s tears and assures us that this yoga class is a safe space to cry, to let out whatever emotions we might feel as we make our way through an hour’s worth of poses and breathing exercises.

Courtney and Lee share their stories for a reason: to let us know just how qualified they are to lead us today. This class isn’t like any other yoga class. We’re attending Shine Light Yoga for Grief, and the large studio is filled with people who have one thing in common: They are all mourning loved ones.

Are you grieving the loss of a loved one? Find comfort in one of our grief support groups.

“I just kept getting on my mat,” Courtney tells me when I talk to her before class, explaining how she turned to yoga to help her deal with her grief. The owner of Shine Light Health, she’s been doing yoga for 12 years and teaching for eight, so the calming practice was a natural outlet when she needed help.

“It’s about being present,” Courtney says. “It’s about coming back to my breath. It’s about quieting down that monkey mind that we all have that runs endlessly with the what ifs, and the whys, and the what nexts, and all the questions that run through your head after a traumatic experience. Yoga helps to settle that.”

Courtney already knew about yoga when loss hit her life, but you don’t have to be an instructor with years of experience to benefit from yoga for grief. Courtney tailors her yoga for grief class to be accessible to everyone, from yoga lovers to those who have never set foot in a yoga studio before.

There are people attending today who brought their own mats and are running through some poses on their own before we start – they are clearly experienced with yoga. And there are others who take advantage of the loaner mats offered by the studio and have no idea what to expect. They may have never been to a yoga class before, and they probably don’t consider themselves “yoga people.” But they showed up, ready to try something new to help with their grief, and that’s a huge and positive step.

To make the class suitable for all levels, Courtney chooses gentle and basic poses to lead us through, though that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily easy. Some of the yoga newcomers in the class struggle with poses that ask them to balance on one foot or stretch an aching back. That’s why Courtney makes it absolutely clear that everyone should only do what they feel capable of doing. Not being able to achieve what the person next to you can achieve doesn’t make you bad at yoga – it just makes you an individual whose body is different from the one next to you. Courtney offers multiple options for the more difficult poses, suggesting, for example, that instead of fully balancing on one foot, we can place a hand on the wall or keep the toes of the other foot on the ground.

These modifications are useful for those who are brand new to yoga, but even those with long experience can’t always do the most challenging version of a pose. That’s okay – in fact, it’s one of the most important takeaways of yoga for grief. “Yoga helps bring an acceptance that you are exactly where you are,” Courtney says. “In our yoga practice, if you can’t do a move, you modify it. You make it work for you. You do whatever it is you can do in that day and that moment.”

“That’s a really powerful lesson I often take away from yoga,” she continues. “It’s just accepting exactly where you are in your grief journey. There’s no judgment. There’s no ‘I should be doing this’ or ‘I should be feeling this way.’ On your yoga mat, you just meet yourself where you are. In this grieving journey, you just meet yourself where you are, and you know that every feeling, every emotion that you have is okay, is valid. On each and every new day you feel what you can feel, and you do what you can do.”

In yoga for grief, then, the poses are not so much the focus of the class. We’re not here to challenge our bodies like participants in an advanced yoga flow class would. Instead, we’re “focusing on that mind-body connection, the breath work, and the meditative side, to help people find some peace. We’re really slowing it down and keeping it simple and doing some little meditations, some restorative poses, with the emphasis on how it can help your grieving journey.”

Although everyone experiences bereavement and grief differently, that doesn't mean that you have to do it alone. Join one of our grief support groups.

After sharing their own grief stories with us, Courtney and Lee talk to us about breath, walking us through a slowed-down breathing pattern that almost magically calms both mind and body down. Research shows that taking steady, deep breaths is a powerful stress reliever, and this translates directly to the usefulness of yoga in addressing grief. Grief isn’t just a psychological state. It can absolutely affect our bodies and health, too. We tense up; we experience stress; we get sick; we lose our appetites. Grief can make our blood pressure rise and increase our risk of heart attack and stroke.

As a gentle, low-impact exercise, yoga is a natural foil to those physical effects of grief. Moving our bodies helps us both in the short term – we let go of those tense postures we’re holding – and in the long term, as we improve our strength and flexibility and give ourselves a fighting chance against illness. With yoga’s dual focus on motion and breath, it’s a healthy way to fight the stressful effects of loss.

Sitting around the yoga studio on our mats, we visibly relax as we find our way into the deep breathing pattern Courtney and Lee teach us. We maintain this pattern as we proceed through poses that both feel good, offering relaxing stretches and building strength, and serve targeted purposes in relieving grief.

Take that balance pose, when we stand on one foot. It’s called Tree Pose, and Courtney asks us to do it for a very relevant reason: “When we’re standing on one foot, we’re finding balance in times of instability. That transfers over to the grief journey, where this is a very unstable time and we can work to find stability within that instability.”

At another moment in the class, we lie on our backs with rolled blankets under our spines. Our shoulders drop to the floor on either side of the blanket, stretching our muscles and undoing the inwardly-hunched posture many of us unconsciously adopt when we’re under stress. Courtney calls this pose a heart opener. “After a loss, it’s really easy to kind of shut down and close in. Opening that heart back up helps you find compassion, not only for yourself, but for people around you and for people who are also grieving that same loss or a different loss.”

Later, we lie on our backs minus the blankets. We let our knees drop to the side while keeping our shoulders square on the floor, twisting our spines to one side and then, slowly, to the other. “It’s like wringing out a towel,” Courtney says. “Wringing out the toxins, wringing out the negative energy, the stuck energy that’s within our body. Because we carry our emotions within our bodies, simple movements like twists can help get those things unstuck and get us moving again.”

Shine Light Yoga for Grief is a new offering, a partnership between Shine Light Health, Genesis Health System Grief Support, and the Davenport School of Yoga, where the class is held. Courtney and Lee have donated their time, and the school its space, to make the class entirely free of charge for participants. This week’s three classes were a trial balloon, the first ever offered by the partnership as they tested the waters to see if there was local interest.

As it turned out, the response was huge, and the room was nearly full on Wednesday and entirely full on Monday. Yoga for grief just makes sense to Courtney, and the community agrees. She’s making plans to turn the trial balloon into a regular monthly class.

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Not every area has the same offering, but if a yoga studio near you has a Gentle Yoga class, it can serve a similar purpose as Shine Light Yoga for Grief. But even in areas where a yoga class focused specifically on grief might be available, Courtney knows that people who are grieving might not be ready to step out of their comfort zone. Grievers who have never set foot in a yoga studio before might balk at the idea of showing up for a class. But the studio is an entirely optional facet of yoga – it can be done at home, even by a beginner, thanks to the many free resources available online.

Courtney suggests googling “gentle yoga” or “restorative yoga” to find some simple, calming poses that are perfect for addressing grief. Videos on YouTube and other streaming services, or even images of poses, can help walk you through an at-home practice. And at home, you can easily tailor yoga to be exactly what you need. “It doesn’t have to be what you think of as a ‘yoga class,’” Courtney says. “You don’t have to roll out a mat; you don’t have to do an hour of yoga. Any little bit helps. You could do five or 10 minutes a day.”

And if your grief has so engulfed you that you struggle to get out of bed, yoga can still help, Courtney notes. “I remember some days,” she says, “when I didn’t even want to get out of bed – I definitely didn’t want to do yoga. But you can still do really simple things. You can do yoga lying in bed. You can lie on your back, close your eyes, bring your awareness to your breath, and work to quiet the mind and do some simple deep breathing. You can roll around on your back – I’ve done 20 minutes of yoga just hugging one knee in to the chest and then the other, and doing a twist, and opening the hips and then taking the legs in the air.

“You can make it up,” she continues. “It doesn’t have to be a proper class; you don’t have to follow certain rules. That’s the great thing about yoga. As long as you’re putting forth the effort to be conscious, to be mindful of your breath, and finding some sort of movement that works for you, you’ll see the benefit in it.”

Today’s class ends as most yoga classes end, with savasana, a pose in which you simply lie entirely on your back, keeping your awareness on your breath. Courtney turns the lights down and Lee reads a simple but powerful meditation on grief to us while we are in savasana, speaking slowly with long pauses between sentences. It would be easy to lose oneself entirely in the relaxing pose and Lee’s soothing voice.

But the class has to end eventually, and when it does, Courtney encourages us all to stop and say hi to her on the way out – she’s giving out hugs, too. A few stop to chat, but a number of the class members leave after offering Courtney quick thanks. Shine Light Yoga for Grief has been a loving and positive experience, but for many, it’s brought out emotions that they may need to go home and sit with for a while on their own.

That’s part of the point. Yoga can’t erase grief – nothing can. But it can give you tools to cope and to focus your thoughts. Its effects can last long after the class is done, both in feelings of physical well-being and in the mental clarity it offers.

“Yoga has helped me connect with myself,” Courtney explains. “This process of grief is going to change me, but I understand that I have that strength within myself to influence how it changes me. To put a positive spin on it. I’m trying to focus on how I can turn my sadness into something beautiful, where I can share this with others. Of course grief is going to change you, but finding that connection with yourself helps you to influence how.”