Surrendering to Grief and Loss through Yoga

Photo by King | حسن أبوالريش

One of the most powerful lessons yoga teaches us is the art of surrender—the art of letting go. Using yoga to practice surrendering—whether it be to physical sensations or psychological challenges—can manifest powerfully beyond our mats. Knowing how to let go into the present moment can imbue our lives with transformative power, especially during times of grief or deep emotional turmoil.

Not long ago, I found myself faced with a profound test of surrender. With aging parents increasingly unable to care for themselves independently, I recently had to pack up their home—a lifetime of living and collecting—to relocate them closer to me. The exercise demanded ruthless downsizing. I was moved to tears, and at times paralyzed, forced to make decisions on each and every one of their possessions: Do they need it? Was it valuable? Why were they holding on to it in the first place?

The sobering realization that sooner than later one of them would probably pass crushed my soul.

Few things test our resolve to surrender more than death. For some people, fear of losing a loved one or facing our own mortality can be paralyzing. So unfathomable is the idea of “not being” or “not being with” that we avoid the topic at all costs. And when grief strikes by loss of a parent, partner or child, we can be overtaken by sorrow, wondering how to go on, as if their absence reveals a deep void in our souls.

If you have ever had to clear out the home of a loved one who is ill or has passed away, you have encountered that same human tendency to hold on to things that no longer serve us. We fill our closets and drawers with mementos, our basements and garages with rusty, broken items, convinced that we can’t live without them. We accumulate this ‘stuff’ over a lifetime—emotional and physical, as well as the trinkets and widgets we buy at the mall year after year. We’ll need them sooner or later, we tell ourselves.

Though perhaps not as dramatic facing the death of a loved one, letting go can also be daunting on our mats, especially during challenging postures. We often greet physical provocations by freezing up and holding our breath, severely limiting our physical, emotional and energetic strength and flexibility. We may struggle with Eka Pada Rajakapotanasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose), with hips rigid from years of storing emotional rubbish while resisting prompts to release. We approach backbends like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) with timidity, holding on to our fears and doubts rather than letting go and offering our bodies the pliability needed to open our hearts and view the world from a different perspective.

Yoga commands us to let go, to surrender. To release attachments to that which we do not need. The fifth yama, aparigraha, instructs us to release our attachment to our possessions. Aparigraha—non-coveting and non-hoarding—can also be applied to our attachments to our occupation, title and accomplishments. And it most certainly applies to our attachment to our bodies.

Yoga instructs us to endeavor to keep ourselves, our bodies and our homes, clean. Shaucha, or cleanliness, the first of the niyamas, speaks on the importance of purity in our quest to connect with our divinity. We learn soon enough that no matter how diligently we work to keep the body clean, we must do it again and again, for cleanliness is a state of impermanence. The body will become soiled again; our homes will once again need a cleaning. Such is the same of our hearts and minds.

Every time we step onto our mat, we’re offering ourselves the opportunity to welcome the practice of pratyaharaThis fifth limb of yoga means to withdraw our senses from the outer world. During a state of pratyahara, we release our clinging to the external world; we let go of the need to touch, see, hear or feel anything beyond our true essence. In this state of surrender, we are not concerned with how a pose looks, whether our hips are tight—and as if by magic—our hearts become free to open. We no longer need mementos and items of lost loved ones to feel their presence within us, and become fed by the stillness found in the center of ourselves. During pratyahara, we connect to our true essence—which is unchanging.

To some, it may sound unfathomable that a series of physical postures or breath meditations could equip one with the tools necessary to move through grief, death and deep emotional pain. But over time, and with regularity, our practice teaches us to surrender to the present moment, no matter what that moment entails—and we learn that letting go is not only possible on our mat, but in all aspects of life.