If I have ever in my life needed the strength, fortitude, compassion, and perspective that yoga brings to me, it has been in during these last two years of my experience. I have had to (like so many others) face my grief and despair about so many things: intense polarization of our society and politics, the corruptness of government and lack of leadership, the decline of our ecosystems and democracy, the degradation of our social fabric, social isolation and racial injustice and the list goes on. There’s plenty to despair over if we are sensitive, conscious beings.
I have also dealt with intense personal loss and change, moving away from my home, the community of three decades, and my family (though we are all pretty scattered throughout the country). My professional life also changed. I left my yoga community, my teacher, my students, and clients for a new adventure in Hawaii that my husband and I had always dreamed of. That vision of paradise radically changed as a recent eruption of the Kīlauea volcano changed Hawaii’s island forever. I lived warily for the year, a short distance away from a spewing volcano, which caused local devastation just as my husband and I took possession of our new home in Hawaii. I felt unmoored and often lonely and displaced. Then, the most significant loss came last year when my much-beloved husband passed away only eight short months from the time we discovered he had aggressive stage four metastatic prostate cancer.
My point is not to go on about the difficulties I have faced, which may be no more or no less than anyone else, but to express how thoroughly shaken the foundation of my world has been and what has helped me cope with the extreme stress of all the changes. There has been little room for complacency, no rest, and business-as-usual, no comfort in the familiarity of place or person, and no certainty about what the future will be. Even my long term routine of daily asanas, breathing practice, and meditation has been disturbed. For months, all I could manage was an irregular practice of gentle restorative and yin style practice (and it was helpful). However, some days it was all I could do to get out of bed, prepare my meals, and take care of my necessities. I cut myself a lot of slack. It wasn’t the time to berate myself for lack of practice when just getting through each day took incredible energy and energy I often lacked.
My suffering was made more bearable by realizing that I was not the only one that was hurting. Part of my healing began as I started to recognize and meet other people who had experienced a spouse or child’s death and were going through a similar process as I was. This summer, I came back to California in July to complete several projects. After being here for a month, freakish lightning storms gave rise to raging wildfires that threatened my neighborhood. I was forced to evacuate my house for two weeks, during which time I stayed with a friend who had recently lost her husband to cancer. I felt like I could be of some support to her, understanding personally the depth of her heartache and the shock that she was reeling from as her world was altered irrevocably. We wailed together late at night, holding hands, letting our anguish be expressed in animal noises, primal and rending. In shared grief with my dear friend, I felt less alone. Knowing that somehow my painful experience could be useful to another was a comfort source and a way to find meaning in my loss. There was no way to control the pain I felt, but I could allow myself to feel the feelings fully (even though that often felt like drowning or terror) and saw that the tide of sorrow would eventually pass with each upheaval. I came to recognize there was whole network of grieving people throughout the planet who had lost a loved one, and I was now part of that community.
One of the tools that yoga gives us is self-examination. In observing myself, I saw a difference between the authentic emotions that were a natural result of losing my partner and the suffering created when I would tell myself a story about the loss. For example, when I would hold the thought, “I’ll never find a love like this in my life again,” I would feel particularly distraught. Even though that thought may or may not wind up being true, the fact is, we can’t know for sure what the future holds. We don’t always have the perspective to understand why events occur or how they fit into larger patterns, and none of us can infallibly predict the future. Maintaining a nonjudgemental awareness in the present moment shapes future experience, and our attention in the present moment may be the only real choice we sometimes have.
In Hatha Yoga, there is a name for where you hold your visual gaze. It’s called the drishti point, and it varies in different asanas. There is also a mental equivalent of this called Shiva Drishti, which means to look for the good in ourselves and others. We can appreciate our resiliency, the tenderness of our hearts, and resources available to us at times of difficulties as a bright light rather than our weakness, the injustice of the world, or the unreasonableness of our neighbor. Yogis know that you get more of what you focus on, and I think this underlies this approach’s rationale and efficacy. Of course, one has to be willing to give up one’s self-defeating narrative, which is often easier said than done.
Along that same line of attitude adjustments, I have found a gratitude practice very helpful. During this intense year of grief, a gratitude practice, though it may sound deceptively simple, effectively reverse my thoughts from lack to abundance. In expressing my gratitude for the blessings in my life, either by speaking or writing them, I can feel a shift take place in my body. My breath deepens and slows. I am aware of subtle internal releases. By choosing to consciously focus on the things, people, experiences, and qualities I am grateful for, I relax into a stream of well-being. It’s a bit like the glass half full or glass half empty perspective. This act of deliberate focus is an essential aspect of yoga practice. As we develop the wisdom to cultivate thoughts that bring us closer to a state of yoga and steer us away from those things that take us away from yoga, we progress in our development.
When I become anxious and fret about things over which I have no control, I squander my energy. However, yogic philosophy does not maintain that we have no responsibility in its creation because we face an uncertain future with our actions, words, and thoughts are of no consequence. Instead, the philosophy teaches us to use skillful means whenever possible, to avoid things that may be coming that will cause suffering. It is a proactive approach. In the second chapter and 16th verse of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one of the most prevalent yogic texts, he states, “heyam dukham anagatam.” Yogis can roughly translate as “pain that is coming the future is to be avoided.” We must do what we can avoid sowing seeds of future suffering. Short-sighted actions may promise immediate gain but eventually are seen to be detrimental to spiritual growth. In this last year of intensive loss and change, keeping a positive attitude, staying in the moment, and not projecting into the future have been helpful though challenging. Also, doing what I can to help and serve others even in small ways, takes me out of personal preoccupation and self-concern has been as important as getting onto the mat to practice asana and pranayama. My immediate inclination in the months following my husband’s passing was to sit in silence alone. I am sitting in solace with my feelings without changing them or figuring what comes next, acknowledging every emotion I am feeling without trying to avoid it or attaching narratives with those feelings. I learned to become more comfortable in the realm of not knowing.
Recently, a yoga student I had not seen for a long time mentioned that she thought about me. She told me that she recalls my voice in her head with a famous phrase by Pattabhi Jois, ” Practice and all is coming.” I like to add my flavor and a personal mantra of “Practice with the right attitude, and all is coming.” Mental attitude has been an essential part of my healing journey as my practice continually changes and evolves with my life circumstances.
By Joyce Anue
October 5th, 2020