Allies for When Grief Strikes
In the last few weeks I’ve started writing at least five different blog posts, one of which I fully intended on releasing today, but I have something on my mind that feels very important to share. This may not be my most eloquent piece of writing as I am truly having a difficult time gathering the right words, but I promise to try my best.
I do not mean to be pessimistic, but it seems that with every passing day we are confronted with an even more heartbreaking headline – states are stripping people with a uterus of their rights, climate catastrophe is imminent, violence in all of its forms seems to permeate every aspect of our modern existence and it is completely overwhelming. I cannot open my news tab on my phone or scroll on social media without experiencing a visceral reaction in my nervous system – anger, sadness, frustration, anxiety, and most of all…grief.
Grief for those who do not understand the complexities and intersectionality of public policy and people’s lives. Grief for those suffering injustices due to systematic oppression and emotional, political, & interpersonal violence on a daily basis for simply existing. Grief for policy not extending its value for life to those already living, to families at the border, to animals dying as we destroy their habitats, to wild plants and ecosystems needing our help, to the oceans destroyed by the richest few. I am wading deep in the dark muddy waters of grief and I am overwhelmed. I imagine you are too.
We weren’t meant to live like this… in this frozen state of nervous system overload. Furthermore, we weren’t meant to live in a world that is so far removed from its relationship to nature – who sees it as only something to exploit for our gain. And because our modern world has adopted this idea of separation between the natural world and ourselves, because we have distorted our view of the sacred relationship between us and nature, we extend our exploitative ideals to all living things, including people. Our very system of value and exchange is built upon the fundamental concept of exploiting people’s creativity and work for monetary benefit. Why have we reduced such a complex and beautiful world to something so destructive and toxic?
I grieve for this. I grieve for those who do not do the work to step outside of their conditioned belief systems and challenge their worldview. I grieve for what will be lost by our ignorance, the people who will die, the species that will become extinct, and especially for those who do not see the harm they cause. I grieve for them the most – I wish they could experience the beauty and fulfillment found through living in relationship with our natural world.
Stored Grief in the body
A long time ago I was introduced to the concept of grief being stored in the body by my yoga teacher. At the time I was going through my first heartbreak and was completely overcome with life-shattering grief which had me crying at a moments notice, constantly depressed, and lifeless in so many ways. In hindsight it was a bit dramatic, but in that year of post-breakup healing my grief was extremely real, powerful, and defeating. The only thing I could really do for myself during that time was go to yoga class. It became my safe space – my practice became my therapy.
But in those classes all I wanted to do was forward bends and lay in child’s pose on a bolster. I’m grateful that my teacher pushed me out of this cycle. As we fold forward in postures, we guard our heart, protecting it deep in our chest as our backs face the world. We do this every day as we hunch over our computers, look down at our phones, and keep our shoulders curved in. It’s no wonder that our world is so disconnected from its heart these days.
My teacher gave me one prescription during this time in my life: backbends. I remember her guiding me through a deep backbend practice and sharing the concept of our lungs storing grief. That the emotion of grief has a way of settling deep into our lungs, embedding itself in the soft tissue there, and making it harder and harder for us to breathe with ease. I believe this association with grief and the lungs is derived from Traditional Chinese Medicine but I would also say that anyone who has been enthralled by the overwhelming sensation of grief has felt that tightness in their chest too, like they were drowning from a completely and utter lack of oxygen itself.
As my teacher placed me in a very deep backbend, I burst into tears. My intercostal muscles began to expand and my breath capacity grew. Air was being plunged into my lungs at a rate I hadn’t experienced in months and all of that oxygen was breaking things up that were held deep within – including all of the grief. All of my feelings washed over me in that moment. Truthfully it felt like I was dying, but then that faded a bit. I felt release.
Backbends help to reverse our modern posture of hunching forward by correcting the curvature of the spine. There are two primary weak points in the spine, one in the thoracic area and another in the lumbar, that tend to protrude out of alignment and curve posteriorly. As our spine comes out of alignment, our heart center also shifts inward which energetically can lead to detachment, feeling closed off, and emotional stagnation among other things. But backbends bring our hearts front and center again so that we may lead from this place of emotional awareness, from our highest and truest selves.
Breathwork for Grief
If you are deep in the waters of grief, take a moment to explore your breath and connect with your lungs. Sit in a comfortable, supported position so that you may keep your back straight and take a deep breath in. As you reach your full breath capacity, do you feel a sense of tightness? Like you know your lungs could expand further but somehow you just can’t in that moment? Exhale. Take a deep breath again. Focus on the feeling of your lungs expanding and your diaphragm contracting and moving downward as you do so. Allow your belly to become soft on this inhalation and if it helps, close your eyes. Exhaling, feel your breath move back up and out of your body. Continue to do this for a few minutes and notice the feelings that come up. Do not analyze them in the moment, just notice them as they arise and float by on the gentle flow of your breath. You may feel all sorts of different emotions during this practice but try to continue to focus on just your breath.
After a few minutes bring your breathing back to normal, open your eyes, and take note of how you feel. What came up during your meditation practice? What feelings were released and which need to be processed? How do your lungs feel now after offering them deeper expansion and breath? When I do this practice I feel an immediate sense of release, groundedness, and relaxation.
The breath is very powerful and simply attuning ourselves back to its gentle rhythm can help us to bring our nervous system back into parasympathetic mode and descend out of stress, anxiety, and worry. If you’d like to take this practice deeper, you may add in a light backbend by rolling a blanket into a small bolster and laying on top of it. You can also use a yoga bolster if you have one as pictured in the photo here. You don’t need these props though, connecting to the breath is powerful work on its own.
To go even deeper, consider working with a qualified yoga teacher on cultivating a backbend practice to help you move through your emotions and cultivate greater strength in the spine. There’s something to be said about having a strong backbone, after all. I am not actively teaching, but the yoga teacher in me has to say it…some backbends are very intense and shouldn’t be practiced without the guidance of a professional who can make sure your spine is safe. Also, never twist after doing backbends.
If you are also experiencing deep grief, please don’t tackle the healing process alone. There are incredible therapists who can guide and support you through grief, trauma, loss, and more. Please reach out to someone if you are struggling. Here are some hotline resources if you need help now.
Herbal Allies for Grief
I didn’t really expect to go so deeply into my own journey through grief and how yoga helped with the process…it seems that this blog post sort of wrote itself. My initial intention was to share a few herbs for grief so here are a few!
Since we know that grief can find its way into our lungs, expectorant herbs and respiratory system aids are true allies here. One of my favorite herbs for grief is Osha root.
Osha – Ligusticum spp.
Before I dive into the medicine of Osha, I just want to say that many species of this plant are endangered and we need to honor and respect this extremely potent and sacred plant. Please do not purchase or harvest this plant in extractive ways. If you are able, please only support ethical wild-crafters if you are seeking the well-known Rocky Mountain Osha, or search for the more abundant varieties.
Osha Root is a VERY powerful herb. Just a whiff of it will tell you so much about its properties. It has a very complex and extremely aromatic flavor profile and is also slightly acrid/bitter. When tasting it, you can instantly feel the volatile oils creep up the back of your throat into your sinuses. These qualities clue us in to Osha's medicinal actions as an expectorant, antispasmodic, carminative and its warming action – Osha is quite stimulating and is most often associated with the respiratory system, but it is also helpful for the digestive system, circulation, and more. It's also a strong antiviral/antibacterial herb which is good to know!
When considering Osha for grief, understand that this herb has long been used to strengthen the lungs and bring things up and out. In my experience, Osha has a way of helping us to face what we are holding in, compartmentalizing, and forcing down into the pit of our chest. It sort of forces us to confront the muck which can be difficult, but I find is really wonderful for folks who may be holding on to stored grief or past pain. That said, it’s not entirely gentle persay, I definitely cry a lot when I imbibe it, though I definitely feel like it nurtures in its own way.
Other Herbs to Consider
If you’re looking for a slightly more gentle lung herb to experiment with here, try Mullein! Dear grandmother Mullein has a reputation for making “that which has hardened soft again” – I find her a much more gentle herb for processing emotional grief as compared to Osha. Of course, herbs for the heart are very indicated for grief as well. Rose would be my primary go-to here but you may also reach for plants like Linden, Hawthorn, Lemon Balm, Holy Basil, Motherwort, and Monarda or Sweet Leaf which I especially like for the person who struggles to process their emotions and it quick to anger. When it comes to energetic support, I really like Mimosa Flower Essence, Wild Rose Flower Essence, and Foxglove Flower Essence – all three can be found in our shop.
An Herbal Tea to Nurture the Heart
As I’ve been writing this blog post I have been drinking a tea to support my heart space as I navigate this difficult grief. I thought I’d share the recipe with you! This herbal brew makes about two cups of tea. You can also make more of this recipe if you like – just strain the final brew and keep it in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to three days.
1 tbsp Hawthorn Berries
1 tbsp Rosehips
2 tsp Linden
2 tsp Rose Petals
1 tsp Rose Infused Honey per cup
Measure 2.5 cups of water and add to a pot with hawthorn berries and rosehips. Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil, then lower it to a simmer. Simmer covered for 15-20 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and add in the linden and rose petals. Steep for 10 minutes, strain, add honey, and imbibe! Perhaps brew this tea before doing that breathwork we spoke about earlier.
Stay safe, strong, and sane folks. We’re in this together.
Sending you all the love,