Good Grief

Ok this post will have nothing to do with Charlie Brown or the Peanuts gang. But I will note that my mom always told me I was a bit of a Lucy. I guess that means that you can give me a nickel next time you see me for this bit of thought.

My Grandma Mishler on my wedding day. She was a genius and wore slip-on shoes and wrinkle-free fabric.

My Grandma Mishler on my wedding day. She was a genius and wore slip-on shoes and wrinkle-free fabric.

Today is the sixth anniversary of my grandmother Margaret’s passing. It is very fitting that near this anniversary I have focused intention setting in my classes around loss. This is a topic I have wanted to approach for weeks but I wasn’t able to find the right way in. I read about grief trying to understand what universal truth there is in the experience of it. This week, I was given some guidance on how to hold space for my students so they could reflect on loss in a safe way.

I want to back the train up for a moment. There is another reason why it is so fitting that I share this lesson on the anniversary of my grandmother passing — her dying was what first brought me to yoga. I wasn’t looking for anything from yoga other than a way to distract myself from the reality that my last living grandparent was dying. I didn’t know that it would entirely change my life over the course of the next six years.

Margaret Mishler was an amazing woman who was my first example of feminism in action. She was a working mother (and grandmother) who taught her daughters and granddaughters they could do anything. Her laugh filled the room. Her stories were incredible. I wish I had known her better during her time with us on Earth.

When she was diagnosed with liver cancer she knew that it would be her end. I lived in Wisconsin at the time and wasn’t often able to visit her in Michigan during those last months. But I learned that through my yoga practice, I could offer her my strength and could connect to her that way. This is partially the reason I was so drawn to a powerful practice; I needed all the strength I could muster for this mission.

The final time I saw her was on her “last good day” a term that is familiar to folks in the cancer community. She was up and telling us about her trip to a Detroit Tigers (or her boys as she called them) game. I know it was the power of my practice that allowed her to be present with me during that visit. I know this practice can connect, support, heal, and serve us in mysterious ways.

Back to the original purpose of this post…

Camel pose, a mega heart-opener. For some folks, this pose might make them feel as though their heart is breaking open. For me, I feel a buzzy and loving sensation.

Camel pose, a mega heart-opener. For some folks, this pose might make them feel as though their heart is breaking open. For me, I feel a buzzy and loving sensation.

I wanted to share with my students a way to understand grief through their yoga practice. A teacher of mine explained that the way to approach this topic was not from the “we’re all going to die some day” angle. It is much better to invite my students to cherish the memories they have while mourning that new memories cannot be made. If you can do these things in parallel, you can grieve in a very healthy way.

In my reading, I came across C.S. Lewis’ book “A Grief Observed” chronicling his experience losing his wife. In the very beginning he likens the feeling of grief to that of fear. I thought about how we hold fear in our bodies and where that could hide as tension and pain. Then I came across the words of Thich Nhat Hanh,

 “Enlightenment is when the wave realizes it is the ocean.”

These pieces became the building blocks of my teaching. I focused on a sequence that would target the areas in our bodies where we hold fear and grief. And I used the imagery of water to help students think about those they lost as simply in a new state of being.

I was feeling very self-conscious sharing a topic so heavy with my students. I generally have a more lighthearted style. But instead of feeling push back from students, I was greeted with welcoming ears. Someone even thanked me for approaching such a brave topic. The holidays can be a time when the festivities serve as a reminder of who is no longer with us which is another reason it was the right time to share this intention. I am not sure anyone had the same life altering connection with their practice that I had 6 years ago, but maybe they could offer someone they love a bit of strength and power too.

Practicing What Does Not Come Easily

I have written before about how headstand is my least favorite pose. I am not confident in my balance in the pose. I have fear about falling. And I don’t practice it consistently enough to change my feelings toward the pose.

Knowing this information, imagine my shock when someone told me that I made going into a tripod headstand look easy. Offended is not the right word, but I was shocked at the very least to hear this. Nothing about headstand comes easily to me. I teach the tripod prep in my classes because that is the variation I am most comfortable demonstrating. But I wouldn’t call it easy for me.

I have practiced the tripod variation over and over again. I have fallen doing it. I have cricked my neck doing it. And then I would do it again. When you add the talking required while teaching the pose you have my living nightmare. But I know it is a pose with many, many benefits and one where students enjoy the challenge. So I have worked at becoming competent in demoing how to build up to the pose. I guess this is how it has come to look easy. And if it is easy, then it is time I do something new in my practice.

I am even less comfortable doing the supported or “basket” version of the pose with the forearms down. I like having my hands grounded on the mat in the tripod shape because it gives me a greater sense of control. But our teachers always say that the poses we like the least are the ones we should practice the most. These poses address the physical and energetic imbalances in our body. I mentioned liking the sense of control I have in tripod but this control is just an illusion. It is a comfort I have given myself. None of us really have control over the circumstances in our lives. We can only make the best decisions for ourselves based on those circumstances.

So, I am choosing to practice the variation of the pose that I dislike. I know it will bring a bit of freshness into my personal practice. It will teach me a lot about myself and how I deal with things that are difficult. Maybe someday a student will tell me that I make it look easy. Then it will be on to the next challenge.

The Things that Scare Us

Fear is such an interesting thing. I still remember the first time I saw a clown and a deep-rooted, instinctual fear took over my body. It was at a farmer's market. My mother was buying Michigan blueberries (Michiganders will understand the distinction is important). And I ran to hide behind my mother's maxi skirted legs. While I have outgrown my fear of clowns in some ways (I still hold the belief clowning is an odd life choice), the feeling I experienced on that day is as real to me sitting here typing as it was in the moment. 

I was discussing the fear of different poses with a male student last night. He shared with me that working on splits is his greatest yoga fear. This statement made me pause for a beat. He explained that when he is in the pose, it feels like there could be a moment of no return, like he is constantly riding the edge of injury. I can understand and respect this feeling. I am far from the full expression of Hanumanasana (splits) and depending on the day my hamstrings feel like a rubber band about to break. But I don't get that fight or flight feeling in the pit of my stomach. 

No. The pose that gives me that sinking feeling is headstand. Sirsasana (headstand) has been my asana nemesis for years now. Some weeks I am intent on conquering it. Some weeks I am fine with it never being a part of my practice. I make all sorts of excuses. "I am really bottom heavy so inverting is hard for me." "I have to be really warm to stack my hips over my shoulders." "I slept on my neck weird so it isn't feeling it today." Oh, I have used them all. But none of these excuses are valid. It is fear that keeps me out of the pose. My fear of looking silly in a class. My fear of hurting myself. My fear of falling loudly, my body betraying me, and feeling like a heavy sack of potatoes. 

Now that same student I was speaking with loves inversions. In fact, he was practicing handstands with great control later in the class. It made me think about the intention that I offered my class the previous week, reflecting on how in the class each individual is experiencing the pose differently, but we still try to create a collective consciousness among us. This requires compassion and understanding for the other on the mat next to you. And a healthy dose of self-compassion as well. 

For those of you who might share my fear of headstand, I am sharing my best efforts at the pose (Alex's photography talent make it look a little better). It is far from perfect. It is far from complete. But if I can try it, I promise you can too! Even if you just start with the building blocks of placing your head below you heart. Hmm... head below heart I wonder if that has a philosophical meaning in yoga? Oh wait, it does. You are creating a shape that represents compassion (heart over the head). Alright, enough of my writing. Get practicing!