Yoga: A Treatment for Grief?
The practice may help people heal from the inside and out when coping with loss.
By Anna Medaris Miller Jan. 7, 2015, at 10:51 a.m.
Abby Saloma was physically and mentally crushed from caring for her mother, who was dying from ovarian cancer. To make things worse, the then 27-year-old was hours away from the District of Columbia yoga studio that had helped her cope with her mom’s diagnosis.
So Saloma did the only thing she could think to do: She called the one yoga teacher in her hometown near Reading, Pennsylvania, she knew of – and begged. “I am desperate for a yoga practice,” Saloma told the woman, who led her in a private session in the loft of a barn. “It was just such a powerful, powerful experience,” Saloma says.
Now, more than 10 years after that session and the death of her mom, Saloma has become a certified yoga instructor and has led a yoga workshop specifically for people who are dealing with grief. Another “healing workshop” is in the works for March.
“The premise of it is, in our society, we really push death under the rug – we’re terrified to talk about it,” says Saloma, whose workshops include journaling, guided meditation, and poses aimed at opening the heart and hips. “Yoga allows us to be present with it, and I believe that being present with it allows us to live a fuller, more awakened life.”
New Thinking on Grief
Research has shown that mind-body practices including yoga and meditation can help reduce symptoms of various conditions such as depression, anxiety, negative mood, fatigue, and stress.
But mental health experts are beginning to recognize the power the practices can also have on people coping with grief, which used to be viewed as a largely psychological experience, says Kait Philbin, a psychologist and a certified yoga teacher in Redwood City, California.
“It used to be that [therapists] just thought that all you had to do was look at the mind, but they’re realizing that there’s a complicated relationship going on between the body and mind,” Philbin says. Her research has shown that a six-week yoga therapy program for grief and bereavement significantly improved participants’ vitality (a measure of appetite, energy level, sleep, relaxation, and body stiffness) and positive states (the ability to get good rest, concentrate, and be intimate).
The theory of grief, too, as a five-stage process including denial, anger, and acceptance, is also shifting. Today, professionals are more likely to endorse the perspective that everyone experiences grief differently, says Heather Stang, a yoga therapist and meditation instructor in Frederick, Maryland, and author of “Mindfulness & Grief.” “There’s no right or wrong way for grieving, [and] there’s no right or wrong way to practice yoga for grief,” she says.
In her eight-week yoga for grief course, Stang first leads breathing exercises to help participants relax, since “the bereaved body is so wound up and so stressed out,” she says. Stang then guides students through protective poses like child’s pose, as well as lengthening movements, and gives them time to journal and share their experiences with one another.
She also uses her background in thanatology – the scientific study of death, dying, and bereavement – to educate participants about death and normalize their experiences. “We have to not make grief a disease – it’s not a disease,” she says. “It’s as natural as birth and death itself.”
Why Does It Work?
When Antonio Sausys’s mother died from a stroke when he was 20, the physical manifestation of grief was striking: After two and a half years of ignoring his pain, he discovered his breastbone had popped out.
“What my mind could hide, my body showed with pristine clarity: I had a broken heart,” says Sausys, a yoga instructor in San Anselmo, California, who went on to earn a master’s degree in body-oriented psychotherapy and to publish “Yoga for Grief Relief.”
“If the body is left out [of grief treatment], it becomes a very important source of expression of the pain, and it easily falls in deep dysfunction,” Sausys says.
Indeed, grief often presents itself physically – in stomach pain and fatigue for Saloma, in headaches, and a loss of appetite in others. “We hold grief, we hold pain, we hold stress – we hold that in our bodies,” Saloma says.
That’s one of the reasons why yoga and its myriad physical benefits – from lowered blood pressure to improved strength and balance – can be an effective way to manage the pain of grief.
“When you’re grieving, there’s a defense mechanism that kicks in to protect yourself – you kind of go into survival mode,” Saloma says. “And by really opening your heart, you’re able to express some of that vulnerability and let some of that out and be more present with it.”
Some of yoga’s benefits for people coping with grief might also be achieved through other forms of physical activity like running, says Robert Neimeyer, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis and editor of the journal Death Studies. In one of his studies comparing the effects of yoga, running, and group therapy on people with depression – some of whom were grieving – he and colleagues found that both yoga and running had superior long-term benefits compared to group therapy.
His more recent research tested an intervention for grief that encourages people to reflect on the idea that nothing is permanent and to create a new “self-narrative” in light of their loss. He and a colleague found that the intervention – which included poetry reading and storytelling, as well as meditation and slow physical movement – was effective in reducing grief-related pain. It’s not a stretch to see why yoga, especially types that foster mindfulness through meditation, might do the same, Neimeyer says.
“This [intervention] is not a panacea,” he says, “but it can be perhaps a less anguished perspective that helps us find some meaning or sense in our suffering.”