If I use words or phrases and I don’t really know what I mean, that is my definition of a fake.
I know what pain is. Grief? Not so much. During my last year of college my mother dies unexpectedly. She’s “fine” one day; dies that night. Torn from life. That abrupt. When writing a short story about my family’s experience a certain phrase roils around in my head demanding to be recorded: Our grief is still a baby, two years old, unable to express herself. That sentence in itself is unable to sustain a work of fiction. I have no idea what direction the story should take from there. Of course not. Inarticulate grief is exactly that: dumb, mute, wordless. I fake along, living life without fully inhabiting my self. What I can’t articulate I do express, running, biking. I don’t stay stuck. Despite pain, my heart doesn’t calcify, it gradually softens and expands.
Wait. What? Why would running keep my heart soft?
Isn’t being fit just a metaphor? Not really. Body metaphors are three-dimensional phrases. People who get stuck, mos def act stuck, exhibit stuck, feel stuck. When people feel stuck, they don’t run, don’t dance, don’t laugh, don’t love. Sad people, grief-stricken ones, struggle to get out of bed. Struggle to eat. Struggle to sleep. Their world feels grey. They feel tired, lethargic, disinterested, bewildered, at a loss. The less they move the less they interact. Social isolation happens passively; they don’t venture out. Actively when they push others away. Grief is not just mute, she’s deaf, she’s thick, she’s lonely. Many cultural norms: being strong for others, keeping a stiff upper lip, acting like nothing is wrong, reinforce stubborn residual feelings.
My mother’s death was not my first death experience.
In my teens my best friend dies violently, in a motorcycle accident. It’s awful abrupt. Margaret’s not just my best friend, she’s my writing partner. We have plans. Without her, I am suddenly derailed. Cut adrift. Grief-stricken. I find myself unable to focus, unable to function within the normal confines of routine expectations. I retreat from society. I solace in wearing black. I speak only when spoken to. I take a job in the country where I don’t have to dress up, clock in, or answer to much. The work is physical, not rocket science. I hide out, living two miles from the closest paved road. The care of horses, their never-ending predictable needs, restores me.
Movement, even if it’s not specifically directed toward grief abatement, effects emotions.
Pain causes stress and stress causes pain. It’s a cycle. A closed circuit. Pain is real. Stress is real. One might ask which came first, the pain or the stress? Did the deaths hurt because I was under stress? Or? Was I stressed because of the unexpected deaths? The answer is: it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if pain causes stress or if stress causes pain. The important thing to understand is that they feed each other. Pain and stress feed and nurture each other. They grow each other. Chronic pain creates ever-widening echoes of stress. Persistent stress spreads waves of pain. The relocation out of urban, south side Chicago to rural West Virginia simplifies my life. Reduces stress. As pain ebbed I process grief. The horses, bless their hearts, ask nothing and everything of me. There is no opportunity to stay still, to stay stuck.
Pain can be surfed, grief must be incorporated.
Unprocessed grief demands a channel, an outlet for the grief energy. Plenty of sad people take to bars or drinking alone. They process, albeit poorly, in drugs. In work. In keeping a stiff upper lip. In pretending nothing is wrong. The body will have her way. Ignoring grief creates stress. Ooh, and then that nasty pain cycle kicks in. Pain creates stress creates pain etc. Here’s where exercise and movement fit in: exercise creates strength and flexibility. Grief demands strength and flexibility. Strength coupled with rigidity? You’ll crack under pressure. Flexibility without stress? You’ll find yourself an easy mark, a target of manipulators. Only strength with flexibility will enable one to bend with the breezes, to navigate life’s losses.
Death is not the only category of traumatic loss.
My second divorce set me back worse than either death. Howard’s defection has greater consequences. His betrayal leads to the fracture of my hip. Fracturing my hip in 2009 ruins my life. I lose my job immediately, eventually my home, obviously my health. My world becomes very, very small. Out of that hole yoga offers an out. After all other doors metaphorically slam resoundingly shut, a kind friend suggests using yoga for physical therapy. Ok, I try. The first teacher isn’t right for me, the second is. I lose the second teacher sooner than I would like, yet persevere. I continue moving. I regain flexibility, I build strength. I get back in touch with myself. As I practice the postures sensation floods me.
All sorts of stuff comes up.
I cry. Cry, cry, cry in the privacy of my car. I mourn. I mourn Howard’s death, even if he’s not dead, actually he is. I cry for his self-inflicted brain damage. I cry over his for-shit life choices. It is not sadness but physical pain that rips through me as I cry. I mourn primary losses: the death of our partnership, the loss of my health. And the secondary losses: the loss of my social circle, my religious beliefs, my spiritual perspective, the end of innocence and romance, loss of security, loss of faith, loss of physical and personal possessions, loss of reputation, loss of income, of the dog, the house, the neighbors and any sense of home. To wade through grief successfully requires honesty and awareness. Skip stuff at your peril, grief can stalk. Grief can haunt.
In order to let go, you must know.
In order to know loss, one must experience loss. Experience doesn’t come to those who stay stuck. Sadness and grief must be traversed. Both body and mind need to progress. Mere intellectual acceptance of loss is not enough. The body incorporates loss, reestablishes, reinvents, reinvests with the right encouragement. We can end up crooked and broken from loss, reshaped, remolded, remade. Or have the bone set straight. Don’t expect a re-birth. It’s a transformation. There’s no going back. No rewind, no unwind. No fresh start. What we get at the end, if we stretch ourselves diligently, is a different life, a different perspective, a different personality, a different understanding.
What I call the new-normal.
Through all the sadness I keep practicing yoga, stretching my front body, enlarging the cavity of my heart. The practice is a positive form of stress. A self-chosen moving meditation. One day during practice I distinctly discern a trapezoid-shaped shield blocking light from my heart. It’s a disturbing, yet interesting sensation. On another occasion I find tears leaking from the outer corners of my eyes, unbidden. No one had particularly hurt my feelings. The constant act of pulling my shoulders back in cobra, up dog, and upward facing bow has unhinged me. My feelings froth forward all of their own volition. Bubbling up, or less romantically farting out. As Shrek would say, “Better in the out!” My feelings demand expression, both the beautiful ones and the for shit ones.
The new normal is more authentic than the slickly polished old normal.
Rather than give up after my yoga teacher moves away I pick up the mantle. Yes, I decide to teach. In sum here’s my teaching philosophy: you have to start. And stay the course. Of course you don’t have to start, many people never do. But that’s no way to get through it. Talking about yoga isn’t active. You have to start. Incorporating healthy choices, decreasing stress, moving through pain and grief is a multifaceted endeavor. Not everyone has the luxury of hiding out in West Virginia. Yoga is accessible. Yoga is a door – a path that goes as far as – – as far as you stay the course. Stay the course through mild discomfort. Don’t jump off at the first frustration. Don’t quit for injury. Stay the course.
Yoga is this simple: start and stay the course.
Even after you think you’ve “conquered” a pose, don’t quit. Go in for depth of understanding. Peel back layers of self. Enjoy subtle sensations. Deeper self-awareness springs from continued practice. Practice regularly. Retraining the body after a lifetime of unconscious posturing takes time. Start and stay the course. You’re going to be six years older in six years anyway. Imagine your future self as a person who has done 6 years of yoga. Isn’t that a nice image? Start and stay the course. Not just for pity’s sake. For sheer joy and euphoria come up as well. Get to know for reals. Nobody likes a poser!
Now y’all play nice.
He who does not bellow the truth when he knows the truth makes himself the accomplice of liars and forgers. -Charles Peguy, poet and essayist (7 Jan 1873-1914)