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Yoga: Relief for Grief

It’s been eight years since my son Ian took his life. One month after his death began my introduction to how breathwork and yoga would be so integral to my healing journey and my new mission in life. In those early days, weeks, and months, I felt unable to breathe. It felt as if a cloud was sitting in my chest – a dark, grey cloud blocking all of my energy, breath, and emotion. 

When I joined the Alliance of Hope forum four weeks after Ian died, one of the first posts welcoming me read something like this: “Drink lots of water, rest as much as you can, and consider doing this breath exercise: Inhale to a count of 3 and exhale to a count of 4, repeating as many times as you need to feel better.” 

I was so thankful and amazed that something so simple could be so healing. Four months later, I started to take yoga classes at a studio close to my home. I went every day that I could. I loved the quiet and anonymity. I found myself craving the physical movements, quiet meditation, and breathing techniques and I noticed over time that the dark, grey cloud was slowly dissipating. 

Yoga and Its Impact on Grief

Yoga has been around for more than 5,000 years and started in India. The word yoga means union or yoke – bringing the mind, body, and breath together as one. Maybe you are thinking of yoga as those crazy poses shown on Instagram and Facebook but that’s not what it’s all about. Although the yoga of today in the West focuses more on the physical practice, the elements of meditation and breathing are just as important.  

Dr. Timothy McCall, a physician, author, and yoga therapist, compiled a list of 117 conditions helped by yoga, many of which are related to grief (such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and stress). I noticed right away that by practicing various breathing techniques in my yoga class or at home, I felt less anxious and more physically relaxed. 

In her book, Yoga for Grief and Loss, Karla Helbert notes, “Grief impacts every aspect of our being. It affects us physically, mentally, cognitively, emotionally, spiritually and philosophically, in every aspect of body, mind, and spirit. The practice of yoga addresses self-care, helps to integrate the experience of loss, and supports feelings of connection and relationship with loved ones who have died.” I found that the more I was able to fully breathe, the more I could relax and let go of my emotions. Yoga helped me move through my grief. The cloud near my heart slowly shrank as I continued my practice.

What Type of Yoga Works Best?

There are many styles of yoga today like Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Restorative, Laughing Yoga, and Yin, and all incorporate various aspects of meditation, physical movement, and breathwork. There is no “one size fits all.” You may be drawn to a more rigorous physical practice or maybe meditation is best for you at this time during your grief journey. My practice evolved over time. I liked the physical movements and poses because that got me out of my head and focused on breathing with each movement. Gradually I came to crave the meditative aspects which helped me go deeper into my soul. 

If you are early in your grief, you may see benefits from simple breathing techniques. Try box breath, a seemingly simple yet powerful technique to reduce stress and anxiety.   

  • inhale to a count of 4,
  • hold the breath for a count of 4,
  • exhale to a count of 4,
  • hold the breath for a count of 4.

Another technique is this 5-minute breath awareness that you can download from my website.

Here are some other resources you may find helpful:

Yoga is just one tool to help you find relief from grief, but it is one that I use every day. As I continued to integrate my loss and grief into my life, I found new purpose and a mission as a yoga teacher helping others find the healing powers of yoga. May you find peace and comfort on your journey and may yoga be one of the tools you can use to help you heal.