By Cindy Sutter
This article was originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera.
When Swati Miller’s mother died suddenly three years ago, the then-Californian found herself awash in grief.
“It just destroyed me on every level,” she says. “It was not just loss. It was also trauma. Dealing with the level of trauma compounds the grief process.”
What Miller was experiencing was more than just deep sadness.
“The grief process has affected me physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” she says.
One of the hardest and most shocking things was that the grief took away her most effective life coping mechanism: movement.
“Physically, my body completely changed. It was something I couldn’t have been prepared for,” says Miller, who was 35. “I’m a dancer. I’m an artist. I’m a mover. I couldn’t even move anymore.”
The inability to move came as Miller was in a movement-centered master’s program in California.
“I was not feeling safe physically,” she says, explaining the experience of being overwhelmed: “I might get flooded with tears, start to go into stories and remember … places that really increased the trauma of my loss. I found myself avoiding movement of all kinds.”
Miller relocated to Boulder in August and found the Grief Support Network, a local non-profit started by yoga instructor Wendy Stern, after her 9-month-old son, Noah, died.
Stern’s group offered support and resources. And something else: an emphasis on the physical aspects of grief and the healing power of movement through yoga. The marriage of the two was born from Stern’s own experience.
“(It was) so powerful for me to have my yoga practice as a personal sanctuary,” Stern says. “It was a safe place I could go to … to be with all the big feelings, pain, love, joy … one place I could show up and be with my own self.”
But that practice wasn’t necessarily the peaceful picture that might be painting itself in your head.
Stern would set the timer, roll out the mat and let the grief out.
“Some days I would do yoga, stretch and breathe,” she says. “Some days I would throw an epic tantrum, kind of scream on the mat.”
When the specified time was over, no matter what the practice had brought that day, she rolled up her mat and walked away.
“It served a very specific function,” she says of her yoga practice in those early days. “It was a container to let go and fall apart. I needed to do it over and over … to begin to move through it. It showed me how much of my grief and pain actually lived in the personal body.”
Stern, whose nonprofit has sponsored support groups and put together a network o
therapists and practitioners who help with grief, has now started a new program that in some ways mimics her own experience. It is a nine-month program with classes once or twice a week, as well as meditation, journaling and nutrition support. The program costs $150 a month or $1,350; an option with one yoga class a week is somewhat less expensive. Stern hopes to raise money to support those who are unable to pay the full price through a Kirtan fundraiser on Thursday.
Stern says she has been influenced by several different yoga styles, but the one that she taps most is Phoenix Rising.
“I’m using a lot of language to stay very connected with what’s happening in the body. It’s not about being perfect,” she says. “It’s what people are experiencing and exploring, noticing in their p
stures, the physicality and also the emotions that come up, the connection to a higher purpose, the deeper parts of ourselves. This style of yoga helps.”
The group that started Tuesday will contain about 10 people, as will a new group that will start in September. While anyone is welcome, Stern says the group would probably be most effective for a person in their first year or so of loss, perhaps a few months after the loss has occurred. Too soon, and the person may not quite be ready for it.
Stern emphasizes that the class is not just a place to vent sad feelings, although cathartic release is a part of the class and part of the healing process, she says.
“It’s also inspiration from the collective, the themes of the classes and teaching that
llows you to be present with sadness,” she says. “It also gives you this spark of hope that there is a pathway out of the darkness and into the light.”
In the body, anger and fear are “sticky and hard to move,” Stern says. But grief is different. “Grief moves in waves. It flows like water. It can move through us easily if we let it.”
Avery Oatman, 26, has been working with Stern after her father died from pancreatic cancer in August. She has struggled with the suddenness of his death three months after diagnosis, the fact that few people her age have similar losses and the profound sadness of missing him in her life.
Therapy has helped, as has yoga in a different way
“To get up and move to do yoga is extremely powerful,” she says. “It helps integrate the inner body sense of extreme grief with a kind of outer expression.”
The sadness is still there.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get up in the morning,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m going to be in tears all day.”
Even in her grief yoga class, which helps, there’s the ironic realization that she wouldn’t be there if her father hadn’t died.
Yet, she says, “I’m always left feeling a sense that this is such a universal thing. It helps to shift things …”
It can also bring a different sense of self.
“I feel like I get caught up in my mind, my emotions, missing him,” she says. “Through the movement, I can feel, ‘Yet, I’m still here. The world is moving quickly. It can move through me. It can’t be so awful forever.'”
Stern says yoga connects her to her body and helps her find pleasure there.
“I remember how powerful it was when I was grieving to have a place where I could access some pleasure,” she says.
Still, Stern says, yoga is not like a magic pill.
“It’s an ongoing process. The yoga opens the door, but the work is for each person to do,” she says. “Yoga gives you this very direct connection to your heart, to your spirit. It gets you really engaged with yourself. The personal growth work — that’s a life’s journey. The yoga’s a tool on the way. There’s no quick fix.”