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We’ve all either said it or held ourselves back from saying it so as not to be “that guy”—you know the one—have you tried yoga?
It’s an easy question, an almost automated response, and we mean well when we ask it.
And if you have ever grieved a loss, you know the sting of disconnection that happens when someone hurries to help fix it.
It is January 2018, three months after my 28th birthday and a brief visit to rehab. I go to yoga every day. I am three months sober. I have a therapist and a therapy group that meets every week. I’m eating relatively clean. I am running almost every day, but I don’t go too far because I still don’t know much about routes in the city I’ve been living in for eight months.
The TV downstairs has been on for 37 consecutive hours. And the most challenging thing I do every day (and sometimes, don’t) is getting out of bed.
At the time, everything I did was steeped heavily in grief. It had been five months since my dad had died, and the only other people I knew in my new city were my mom and a few of the nurses, doctors, and staff who had worked alongside my dad. It was not an ideal climate for navigating new friendships. And with a recently-relapsed criminal background and not a single contact in town, I had trouble finding a place to work.
Most of my conversations with potential new friends went like this:
Are you from C-Ville?
Nope! I just moved here, actually.
That’s great! For work?
Nope. What do you—
Oh! What brought you here, then?
If we got into any of the details, I perceived an uncomfortable shift.
And then, if they asked how things were going and I answered honestly (because it is a quite squirmy feeling to try and “no worries!” your way out of an obvious and deeply sad feeling), this is how they’d often respond:
“Yeah, that’s really hard. So, you’re, like, going to stay in town?” Or, “So, what are you doing now?”
I asked myself those questions every day. I was teetering uncomfortably between this feeling of urgency to live—something I hadn’t been able to forget since the extended experience of watching someone lose their own life—and this feeling that I needed to sleep for, say, 11 years.
While it is one thing to be patient and trust the process, it’s an entirely different thing to try and generate the energy to keep putting one foot in front of the other when hibernation is calling your name so sweetly.
I did my best to softly open up when I felt like I could, to slowly introduce more of my predicament in conversations where I felt like I might actually get some solid insight. I’d make light of what was going on—a challenging strategy when there are only a few ways to say:
“I just lost one of the most important people in my life.”
“I am having a hard time finding a job here and I’ve run through my savings.”
“It’s been difficult to build any relationships here, and I’m not sure how to make friends as a 20-something with no job.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
Soon, I was drowning in technically good advice. And the piece I heard most was: “Have you tried yoga?”
Even a year before, I’d already been practicing for a few years, shuffling around some of the studios in my last city from time to time as I learned about different disciplines. At the time, I would have told you it was really my thing.
Retrospectively, I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing, and I was too stiff and uncomfortable to approach an instructor and ask for help. Were my shoulders supposed to hurt in downward dog? When am I actually supposed to inhale while doing cat/cow? What does it mean if my hips don’t square in warrior one?
In every class, I’d felt my passive frustration swelling; it didn’t occur to me that these were subjective questions in every movement I took—I was too busy struggling to find focus in the poses being called. The movements went pose to pose, start to finish. And all of these questions were still tumbling through my practice when, in the summer of 2017, I came to try out my third studio in Charlottesville.
At the time, I didn’t have the bandwidth to purposefully engage with this warm community that, by a month in, had already started to look out for me in ways I couldn’t see. I’d begun to feel more prepared to sit with physical challenges and discomfort but had not yet met a space where I could sit with my hurt heart for too long—caring for a dying person held me in a state of suspended animation, and I thought I could wait out the storm.
But I cried in every savasana, which was new to me, and eventually started sneaking out of class just before we lay down in order to avoid having to stifle the embarrassingly heavy sobs that avalanched out of my chest. One day, I ran into an instructor while hiding in the locker room, one by whom I was intimidated—she was all dry humor and poise. Without hesitation, she wrapped me in a hug. She wouldn’t let me apologize between sobs. “Everybody cries in savasana. It’s great. It’s release. Let it happen.”
I was still going through the motions of what I thought would help me, without really understanding what I needed or the weight of that brand of sad. Slowly, I got more comfortable sitting with the things that poured out of my heart—and at the same time, slid further into that place of depression that doesn’t grant you the energy to fully lift yourself out.
In sitting with the things that had hurt for so long, I began to notice what was happening in the “Have you tried yoga?” question I kept getting: a lot of us are really uncomfortable sitting with another person in their hurt.
I had wandered into this studio a few days a week, thinking myself relatively imperceptible. It was a surprise when, for the first time, instructors and staff remembered my name. And for the first time in my practice, there was room for me to make my own decisions on my mat. It was never as important for me to get the perfect pose as it was to navigate my own alignment. I was encouraged to do this by way of tuning in to my own body rather than trying to stack up to the person next to me.
The physical practice asks you to look your discomfort in the eye and hold its gaze. Over time, encouraged by persistent invitations to acknowledge and explore what challenged me, I felt more and more comfortable with the physical depth that I found on my mat.
And by the spring of 2018, I found treatment for depression and became better acquainted with the darkest parts of myself without telling them off. I had never cared to make another person feel comfortable with my grief, particularly after feeling the dismissal of people problem-solving with good intentions. Now, I began to invite them in—here, grab a seat. Yes, it does suck. And it’s a little easier with you here to bear witness. Thanks for showing up.
There isn’t something perfect we can say to dissolve someone’s sorrow. What I’ve learned instead is that we often do have the capacity to keep them company in that space, though it may feel unsteady at first.
I won’t ask you if you have thought about trying Whole 30, or if you’ve tried a vinyasa class. Instead, I’d ask, I’d love it if you came to yoga with me. What are you doing tomorrow?