I didn't always do yoga. In fact, it wasn't until I was in my 20s that I discovered it. Since then, I have tried many different styles and formats and while some have been a better fit for me than others, in general I've found it to be a very healing and restorative type of exercise - perfect for times of serious stress and anxiety such as after the death of my much-loved animal friends. If you've never given yoga a try, but find yourself in the middle of pet loss, it might be the perfect time to see if it's a movement style that would bring healing to you.
Yoga Can Aid in Working Through Grief Over the Loss of a Pet
Death is not a popular topic of discussion in our society. It’s uncomfortable and painful, so people tend to avoid the subject. Unfortunately, avoidance is no way to work through an issue. Yoga is the opposite. It allows people to be present with their thoughts and feelings – including those pertaining to grief and pet loss.
The practice of yoga is 6,000 years old. With so much time to evolve, it’s no wonder the practice has branched off into different areas over the years. There’s hot yoga, laughter yoga, and even naked yoga. Most types of yoga can support your healing efforts after traumas of all sorts.
First, it's useful to remember how grief works. Though historically grief has been described as Kubler-Ross' five-phase process (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), mental health professionals now see mourning as a process that varies by individual. There is no right or wrong way to work through the anguish of pet loss.
Second, consider the fact that studies are now showing yoga to promote higher levels of mental wellbeing. For example, one study from the Boston University School of Medicine found that yoga helps the brain battle depression. Participants in the research took three classes per week, resulting in higher levels of GABA (a brain chemical that minimizes anxiety and improves mood). It has also been shown to assist the circulatory and breathing systems, as well as the release of physical discomfort – particularly in the chest or mid-back. No matter how unique the experience of bereavement, yoga may provide relief.
Many mental health professionals have started to look further into the concept of yoga as a healing practice. These experts even cite it as a valuable coping mechanism. They recognize that recovery from emotional hardship does not simply exist in the mind. There is a delicate relationship with the body, and acknowledging and nurturing that connection is optimal for self-care.
For these reasons, yoga therapy programs designed specifically for bereavement are now on the rise. Those who participate in such classes have reportedly experienced improved vitality by the end of six weeks. This includes better appetite, sharper concentration, higher energy levels, deeper sleep, and more.
How the Yogic Philosophy Fits with Pet Loss Healing
From the yogic perspective, suffering is the result of attachment. Therefore, detachment is needed to recover. Detachment is not a matter of being uncaring or unloving, however. It is merely a matter of acceptance. It’s the realization that everything comes to an end. Once this universal rule is embraced, it’s possible to love purely without the interference of desperate attachment. With the awareness of the transience of our existence, it’s easier to truly enjoy someone or something during life.
When we become attached to our pets, they become parts of our identities. When we lose our companions, it feels like we lose parts of ourselves. We persevere nonetheless, albeit in an unfamiliar way. The most effective route to settling into a changed life is to turn the pain of grief into a conscious sense of self-awareness. Yogis facilitate the process by teaching body movement, breathing exercises, relaxation, mental reprogramming, cleansing techniques, and meditation.
In a standard eight-week yoga course (tailored to the grieving process), yogis begin with breathing. They understand that the act of mourning causes tremendous stress and tension on the body, and respond to it by guiding people though protective poses, such as the child’s pose. They also cover lengthening movements, followed by time for journaling and discussing the experiences.
Remember that grief manifests in physical ways, from fatigue and stomach pain to headaches and poor appetite. Yoga poses give the body a chance to express pain. If the bereaved doesn’t take the opportunity to work out these kinks, the recovery process has the potential to slip into dysfunction. Some other exercises – like running – also help people face these physiological vulnerabilities. Research from the University of Memphis compared the impact of group therapy, running, and yoga on depression (in some cases due to grief). The results were that running and yoga yielded more long-term benefits than group therapy.
Another study assessed grief interventions that explore the lack of permanency in life and assist the aggrieved in developing new ways of being. The treatments involved slow physical movement, storytelling, poetry reading, and meditation. They were all shown to relieve pain associated with grief. With these points in mind, it makes sense that people struggling with pet loss find comfort and well-being in the mindfulness of yoga.
Types of Yoga and Their Relationships to Good Physical and Mental Health
There’s no shortage of scientific evidence that yoga eases the effects of cancer, heart disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and more. For example, research from the Yale University School of Medicine revealed that individuals who practice yoga lowered pulse, blood pressure, and chances of heart disease. These benefits are likely due to the fact that yoga helps relieve stress.
In addition to these benefits, it’s been shown that yoga boosts endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance. Some types can even be used as forms of cardio exercise. The type of yoga that best counteracts the symptoms of grief varies from one individual to the next. It depends on the person mourning, the nature of his or her grief, as well as personal preference. So explore some options (check out this book for an even more indepth look at the options: Yoga for Grief Relief) and see which ones sounds like a good fit for you:
Sometimes laughter truly is the best medicine. This branch of yoga combines laughing with all the other benefits of the practice. As participants do their breathing exercises, the yogi tries to make them laugh through childlike silliness. Even if people don’t feel like laughing – such as during periods of mourning – being encouraged to do so brings inner joy. Indeed, laughter lowers cortisol (the stress hormone) levels and releases endorphins (happy hormones). In the process, immune systems get stronger, blood flow improves, oxygen intake increases, and body cells are invigorated. Lauhging yoga has also been used with positive outcomes in cancer wards, senior centres, big businesses, and even prisons.
This is also known as furniture yoga, because it requires the use of props. People use incline boards, straps, blocks, harnesses, and blankets to find their ideal positions. A study from Canada’s University of Alberta focused on women facing breast cancer. They benefitted greatly from Iyengar yoga, reporting less fatigue, improved physical well-being, better self-image, and enhanced quality of life overall. Research participants also noted that it helped them feel less depression and stress - In other words, this type of yoga may also be very healing for individuals coping with the loss of pets.
Think of AcroYoga is the fusion of circus art and gymnastics. It’s a young branch of yoga, and it certainly challenges gravity. It involves Thai massage, partner acrobatics, and therapeutic flying. Practitioners tone their bodies, and loosen them as well. The positions, such as the folded leaf (hanging upside-down by the feet of another person), allow the body to open without straining. It’s especially helpful for people who have back problems – a common symptom of grief.
Doing yoga sans clothes may not offer unique benefits above and beyond those of more traditional forms of yoga. It does have its mental health perks, however. It encourages body acceptance, for instance, and challenges people’s experiences of vulnerability. Of course, there are strict guidelines in terms of hygiene and conduct.
Ashtanga yoga is quite rigorous. It’s best for those who are physically fit, because it involves back bends, back and forth between seated and standing poses, along with inversions (during which the head is held below the heart). The repetition and intensity are consistent, so there isn’t much time for breathers. Muscle density and athleticism increase through long-term practice of this type of yoga.
Bikram yoga (or hot yoga)
Bikram yoga is also known as hot yoga. It is typically practiced in 90-minute sessions, at temperatures nearing 105 degrees and 60-percent humidity. Positions - of which there are generally 26 per session - are performed twice each. These poses are challenging, so participants boost their endurance and stamina while burning from 350 to 600 calories per session. As the heat warms the muscles, they become more flexible. It’s perfect for strengthening immunity and combating inflammation, joint injuries, and arthritis.
This is a new blend of yoga and kickboxing, and it puts the body through a vigorous workout. It isn’t just kicking, either. It also involves fighting stances, punches, and bending yoga poses. Students complete a set of exercises, and then strike positions that work the muscle groups they just challenged. The poses enhance the impact of the set. It’s gaining in popularity among senior groups (who do the exercises while seated) and in school physical education programs. In some cases, one-hour classes burn from 800 to 1,200 calories.
So if you're someone who works out negative emotions through intense exercise, why not try ashtanga or hot yoga? If you need emotional acceptance to get through your grief, look at naked or laughter yoga. Regardless of the style you choose, yoga has a lot to offer. Among other things, it connects the mind and body to the benefit of both. With this centuries-old practice in their toolboxes, facing the pain of your pet loss will become easier as you find ways to achieve acceptance and peace as you grieve. Namaste.
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Health Disclaimer: I’m passionate about wellbeing and health but I’m not a medical professional, nor am I a licensed therapist. Any content you read on this site is intended for inspiration and for information only – by not means am I providing medical advice. Please consult your certified professional for personalized recommendations on the mental health or physical health ideas I write about.