“This business of having been issued a body is deeply confusing… Bodies are so messy and disappointing. Every time I see the bumper sticker that says “We think we’re humans having spiritual experiences, but we’re really spirits having human experiences,” I (a) think it’s true and (b) want to ram the car.”
– Anne Lamott, Small Victories
It was only when I started yoga therapy that I glimpsed the grip that grief had upon my body. My physiotherapist practices manual therapy, which meant I was used to physical adjustments to my body in a treatment setting. Yoga therapy was similar, except that the corrections were extremely small, and much gentler than anything I’d experienced before. Using movement timed along with my breathing, the goal was to remind my nervous system of proper biomechanics, and slowly untangle the compensation patterns and tension deeply embedded in my tissues. But it was when Mike pointed out my anomalous breath patterns that I connected the dots between grief and my body.
“You’re using clavicular breathing – leading from your shoulders, not your belly. This mimics anxiety,” he said. “Shallow breathing patterns can increase your symptoms. Let’s practice deep breathing from your diaphragm.”
For a moment, I was shocked. I even needed help to breathe properly? It took a surprising amount of concentration to force my belly to rise and fall slowly, taking the lead over my shoulders as I inhaled and exhaled. This was a humbling discovery.
Noticing my distress, Mike added “It’s not your fault. Your nervous system has been braced against the pain for years, so unconsciously you have hiked up your shoulder blades. They’re locked high. And now your body unknowingly has created a shallow breath pattern. You can’t blame yourself. But you can, with awareness and care, undo this and retrain yourself to breathe deeply again.”
With this very basic goal, yoga therapy slowly and gently retaught rudimentary movement patterns to my nervous system. With each appointment, I lay quietly, hearing Professor Mosley’s words: “Movement is the best way to recover – even imagining movement helps.” So I placed my hands on my belly and pictured the rising and falling of my diaphragm. Attention to breath increased my awareness of the tension in my gut, and the corresponding ache in my heart. Breathing deeply reconnected me to my emotional core, even as we worked on correcting the placement and movement of my shoulder blades. Under Mike’s watchful eye, at no point did any of this subtle work create pain. Instead, the treatments induced deep relaxation, and I often felt almost drowsy.
It seemed that as I focused on retraining my nervous system, I could not avoid addressing the inner landscape of grief and turmoil. Dealing with my physical body directly connected me to the experience of loss and isolation that coloured my life. Each deep breath heightened, momentarily, the psychological pain that doctors seemed to want to medicate away. But as my body began to incrementally relax, I learned to use breath as a surfboard to ride the wave of emotion, without crashing. Breathing from my diaphragm became my very first tool to manage the heartbreak that washed over me at unexpected times and places. In line at the grocery store, when the pain in my heels began to bark. As I drove, and the ache would begin to crawl up my fingers and into my wrists and arms as I held the steering wheel. During meditation, after a yoga class (thankfully, someone had surreptitiously placed a box of tissues on the window ledge beside my chair). When I awoke in the morning, I began to notice that my mind was often agitated before the day had begun. Anxiety kept my thoughts ramped up, like a hamster on a wheel. Breathing deeply helped me to notice my inner state, to accept its presence, and then calm myself so that I could carry on.
My mind wanted to chastise the slowness of this process, but my body simply would not be rushed. There were no shortcuts – I had to face each injury, every loss and the ensuing grief, with eyes wide open. With time, the ledge I imagined myself perched on became less uncomfortable, and the inner landscape less austere. Bit by bit, breath by breath, I was nudged towards a place of acceptance, and then hopefully, healing.