Finding a Path through Grief

Yoga and Grief book cover

I wanted to share a new yoga resource with you. Gloria Drayer, a wonderful yoga teacher and friend, has co-written a book entitled, Yoga and Grief, a compassionate journey toward healing. This book is an insightful guide, explaining different yoga techniques and how they can support you as you experience and move through loss.

One of the first things I noticed about the book was the gentle, comforting language used. Nowhere do we hear what we must do to assuage our grief. Everywhere we are encouraged to use what works for us, to respect our own needs, to allow ourselves what time we need to heal, despite outside pressure to move on.

Most likely, the writers’ own experience and wisdom has guided their supportive tone. Both Gloria and Kathleen came to write this book out of their own experiences of loss: Gloria as she cared for her mother in her last year of life and Kathleen as she faced a major health crisis in her own life. Both talk about using the techniques of yoga described in this book to help them through their own journeys.

The writers explain that the suffering of loss unbalances our entire system. By using techniques of yoga we can rebalance the energy of our bodies and minds to find, over time, a sense of calm and peace.

This book is remarkable in its breadth, clarity, and accessibility. Strategies offered include breathing techniques, gentle yoga postures, meditation, chant, and the use of ritual. For each of these techniques, several options are offered for their use. For example, in the chapter on yoga postures, there is a practice that can be done in a chair, another done standing, another on the floor, a longer practice, as well as suggestions for rest, so that anyone can find something appropriate.

In each chapter, the writers explain the benefits of each technique and offer easy to follow instructions to perform it. To help follow instructions for yoga postures and breathing practices, clear black and white photos supplement the instructions, which are written accurately and simply. To support learning of the chant and meditation, Gloria has recordings of the chants and guided meditations given in the book on her two websites.

I highly recommend Yoga and Grief, a compassionate journey toward healing, whether you are dealing with grief right now or not. We all experience losses in our lives, be it the loss of a loved one, the death of a pet, the loss of health, the loss of a relationship, or a job or home, and most of us help others close to us with their losses. To understand the techniques of yoga and how they can support us can be invaluable when we need help. Gloria and Kathleen have created a remarkable resource. It is a gift to those needing a path through grief.

Visit or to learn how to order the printed book or e-book edition of Yoga and Grief, a compassionate journey toward healing.

Reflections on Attachment

Lillian the catCan we ever really live detached from what we love deeply?

I asked myself this question this last Tuesday after having put to sleep my dear, beloved cat Lillian. Lillian, a stray who found us, was 19 years old and had survived asthma so serious she was in oxygen, a brain tumor, food allergies, and irritable bowel. As she struggled to breathe from what was the malady that did her in – a tumor in her sinuses, my husband I struggled to face what we needed to do so her suffering did not go on. That meant letting go. And that is when I realized how attached I was to Lillian.

Her health issues had meant giving her medicine morning and night, a shot of B-12 periodically, vitamin supplements, special food and innumerable trips to the veterinarian. Her habit was to sit with her front paws, chest, and head on my lap each evening as I sat in a chair in front of the woodstove. She was loved by guests upon whose lap she insinuated herself, and by the staff and doctor at the veterinary hospital who cared for her over the years. They had even name two tortoise shell stray kittens Lilly and Ann after Lillian, who was herself a tortoise shell.

Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra writes about those things that cause us suffering. Raga or attachment is one of the most powerful. When we experience something pleasureable, it is natural that we want to repeat the experience. When we cannot repeat the experience and we suffer loss, then raga has been activated.

With loss comes grief, which may be subtle or profound depending upon the degree of attachment. Grief unbalances us, affecting us at all levels of our system – physical, mental, emotional, energetic, and spiritual.

On his website,, Antonio Sausys talks about detachment (vairagya) as being critical to releasing suffering or grief. He explains that detachment is not a cold, unloving concept. Rather, it is based on “the acceptance that everything [in our material world] is impermanent.” He maintains that this acceptance can allow us to love more deeply and appreciate more fully that which we know will not be with us forever.

We develop detachment through our yoga practice (abhyasa), which encourages to see ourselves more clearly through self-observation (svadhyaya) and to focus on our own inner light of awareness (purusa). Over time, focusing on this inner light, which is eternal, leads to less attachment to what is impermanent.

While I knew my Lillian kitty wasn’t going to live forever, and though I know intellectually that everything changes and there is no permanence in our material world, letting go of her was and is painful. In answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this reflection, I don’t know if we can ever live detached from what we love deeply. I don’t know if I can.

Finding acceptance of impermanence and detachment will continue to be a practice for me.


Yoga is the goal; Yoga is the path…

Yoga is the goal, Yoga is the pathIf you had asked me what yoga was after my first year of taking weekly classes, most likely I would have said it was doing special poses so you felt good, relaxed and stronger, and were healthier. Later, after I had started reading a little about yoga, I might have added something like, “finding your true self” (whatever that was).

Even though my understanding was very limited at that time, I was getting the idea of yoga – yoga meant we were achieving something and yoga was how we got there.

In the beginning of the most important text on yoga, The Yoga Sutra, we learn that the state of yoga is what is to be achieved. While the translations vary slightly, they are all about the quieting of the movements (vrittis) of the mind (chitta) so we can see ourselves and all our relationships, choices, and actions with absolute clarity. But this is not easy.

The mind is in motion most of the time, moving from thought to thought. This is true for all of us. Our attention may be totally focused on our yoga practice or a project or an instrument we are playing. Then we smell coffee or bread baking, the dog starts barking, a childhood memory pops up, or an unpleasant conversation is remembered, and our mind deserts our yoga practice, the project, or the music. It almost seems as if the mind’s job is rumination as it falls into it so naturally, making us feel anxious and a bit crazed when thoughts start racing like squirrels in the attic. Then the state of yoga is far off in the distance.

Yet, Patanjali, compiler of the Yoga Sutra does not leave us with this difficult goal of yoga, an unruly mind, and no directions. He gives us a path. And the path is the activity of yoga.

In the first sutra of the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali offers the path of kriya yoga. The three components of kriya yoga help us to deal with mental and emotional afflictions keeping us stuck and suffering, as well as helping us to arrive at the state of yoga.

  • The practice of postures and breathwork is often connected with the first component – tapas, or fire, heat, the goal of which is purification of our system to create positive change.
  • The second component is svadhyaya or self-observation. We practice svadhyaya as we observe ourselves in postures, pranayama, meditation, in relationships. We study major texts, such as the Yoga Sutra, the Bible, or other important works, using them as mirrors to gain clarity about who we are.
  • The third component of kriya yoga is isvara pranidhana, recognizing a power greater than ourselves to which we surrender the fruits of our actions.

Each of the practices comprising kriya yoga apply to the eight limbs of yoga, which Patanjali describes later in this chapter: ethical principles (yamas), attitudes toward ourselves (niyamas), postures (asana), breathing practices (pranayama), tuning out sensory input (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), total and complete attention without sense of ego. This last is called samadhi, which is the state of yoga.

By applying tapas, svadhyaya, isvara pranidhana as we practice the tools given us in the eight limbs, we have a path. It is certainly not an easy or smooth path. But, it is a path, nevertheless, that with patient and consistent practice over time can quiet the movements of the mind so our vision becomes clear.


Surviving the Klesas

Yoga class imageMy last five blogs focused on the klesas or afflictions. Knowing what they are, being able to recognize them in our lives, and having tools to deal with them are key to a sense of peace in our lives. My certainty about this comes not just from the teachings I have received, but also from my own experience.

Recently, for example, two of the klesas, raga (attachment) and abhinivesa (fear), have created unhappiness in my own life. When I looked in the mirror, I expected to see myself as I looked 10 or even 20 years ago and felt a sense of disquietude as I tried making my outsides match my mental image of myself. Along with the attachment to a past reality, I experienced fear about the changes occurring as I aged. I kept having the feeling something was wrong. And, it was. What was wrong was the avidya (misapprehension) I was having about where I was in my life.

Yoga teaches that within each one of us there is something that does not change and has the ability to see clearly. This is called purusa or the seer. When our mind is clouded with erroneous thoughts and attitudes, that is, with avidya such as my misunderstanding of my stage of life, purusa cannot shine forth. We have no clarity, and so are prone to act in ways bringing about unhappiness or suffering.

The state of yoga is about coming to clarity so purusa shines forth and there is no avidya, asmita, raga, dvesa, or abhinivesa. Our practice of yoga helps us to develop awareness. With awareness we can recognize when the klesas are active. Then we can be extra vigilant and take action so they do not loom large, causing distress. The possibility of one of the klesas emerging is always within us. Our job is to be able to recognize them when they are acorns, so they don’t grow to be oaks.

In The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar maintains “the recognition and conquest of avidya and its effects is the only ladder by which we can climb upward.” He explains that we climb this ladder using the tools of kriya yoga – the yoga of action. Patanjali describes three aspects of kriya yoga in Yoga Sutra II.1.

The first is tapas, which comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “to heat” or “to cleanse.” We create this cleansing through the discipline of our yoga practice.

The second aspect of kriya yoga is svadhyaya or self-observation, self-study. Our work in a yoga practice can help us develop this skill as we constantly ask ourselves how our postures, our breath work, our chanting, visualization, and meditation are affecting us. We also can study important texts, such as the Yoga Sutra, the Bible, or Koran, that can offer us a mirror for ourselves. Through self-observation we come to know ourselves and see ourselves in our relationships.

Isvara pranidhana, the last aspect of kriya yoga – the yoga of action – focuses on the quality of our actions. We can never know for certain the outcome of any action we take. By focusing on the action itself, rather than the outcome, we have a better chance of being clear about what we are doing. Once we complete the action, then we must let go and observe the results.

In the case of my avidya regarding stage of life, I was fortunate that my yoga teacher helped me to see where I was stuck and offered a practice to help me move toward acceptance and a positive vision of what lay ahead.

The teachings in the Yoga Sutra on the klesas help us to understand and recognize the causes of much of our suffering. Our work with kriya yoga develops awareness so we can see the avidya causing our distress. Then, yoga offers many strategies so we may move away from the unhappiness avidya creates toward a clearer, more positive vision of life.


What Causes Suffering?
Part Four

Image for 11.11.13 blogWhen I taught English Composition, students would come to me now and then to tell me they couldn’t write, or they hated writing. Their aversion to the course sometimes led them to avoid taking the class or dropping out or giving up, convinced they would fail no matter what. This decision had serious consequences. Without passing the required English classes, they could not receive an Associate Degree or transfer to a four year college.

Often these students had struggled in English class in high school. The difficulty they had experienced and the sense of failure they felt caused pain, anger, and frustration for them. Fearing a repetition of this same discomfort in college, they had an aversion to English class and writing.

If you recall the last blog on “What Causes Suffering”, you may remember that extreme desire for something – raga – cases suffering as we intensely wish to re-experience a previous enjoyed pleasurable experience.

Aversion, called dvesa in the Yoga Sutra, is the other side of this coin. When we are caught up with dvesa, we are trying to avoid an experience that had caused us discomfort or pain in the past. This makes sense in many ways as the fear acts a protective mechanism to keep us from emotional pain.

When we experience an event or trauma creating a strong emotional response, such as anger, resentment, disgust, or fear, our consciousness is negatively affected. It is imprinted, creating what is known as a samskara. That samskara leads us to react almost without thinking. So the student with the painful experience with high school English is not thinking about how his college English experience may help him to succeed, or the support he might find, or how he may be adversely affected by dropping out. He sees the experience of college English through the glasses of his previous experience and feels fear of another bout of pain and failure. Fear keeps him from seeing the reality and possibility of the present.

While primarily the student will feel the negative consequences of avoiding college English, dvesa can manifest in ways that have far-reaching consequences. Hatred and xenophobia are extreme manifestations of dvesa, serving as the source of some anti-social and violent behavior around us. Additionally, it is important to remember that hatred and xenophobia as aspects of dvesa are both fear-driven, resulting from previous suffering.

Developing our ability to observe ourselves, svadhyaya, can help us to identify when we are experiencing dvesa. Practicing self-observation, we can notice when a feeling of aversion arises and begin asking ourselves why we are feeling as we do? What in our past may be triggering the feelings? Asking ourselves these questions can create a space between the experience and an automatic negative response. In that space we may find freedom from the bonds of our samskara so we are able to choose how we might respond.


What Causes Suffering?
Part Three

Letting GoIt is hard to give up a dream. But that is what my husband and I had to do. It started with our visits to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We enjoyed the landscape, the climate, the ambiance and everything about it. We decided to move there. It even became more of an obsession once our good friends moved there. We even had the house designed for the property we wanted, which would have made us neighbors of our friends. But it all fell through when we saw the cost and the reality that retirement was still a way off. Two more pieces of property became possibilities and both of those fell through for various reasons.

The dream was out of our reach. We had to let it go, and it was painful.

Describing the causes of suffering, the Yoga Sutra identifies raga as the desire to re-experience a pleasurable experience. The desire can be as simple as wanting a cup of coffee or as complex as an obsession with a relationship. Or it can be a house situated in a place to which many positive, pleasurable experiences are attached.

If we feel pain and discomfort when we cannot fulfill a desire, that is a sure sign that we are experiencing raga. It comes about because we have formed an attachment as a result of our previous enjoyable experiences. We want to re-experience the pleasure.
In our case, the underlying belief was that our house in Santa Fe would allow us to enjoy every day the pleasure we had experienced in our visits. Of course, had we moved, we would soon have had to face the reality that we wouldn’t be living in the pleasure zone constantly. Sometimes getting what we desire can cause suffering as well when the past pleasurable experience diminishes. Think about the experience of someone addicted to alcohol or drugs.

While we most often think of attachment in relation to material things – food, sex, honors, drugs, achievement, travel, relationships – it can also be in relation to the spiritual as well. Imagine someone so attached to the teachings of a guru that he leaves his family and his job to live on an ashram.

A problem with living in a state of raga is that takes away our ability to experience things as they are. We don’t live in the present because the desire that is created is foremost in our mind. In my mind, my life would begin when we bought our house in Santa Fe and moved. Until then, my life was on hold.

Something shifted, however. I accepted that I was not going to be moving, and I would have to build a life where I am now. That shift created detachment from the dream of a life in Santa Fe.

The Yoga Sutra suggests we practice kriya yoga to deal with any of the klesas or afflictions, such as raga. Kriya yoga offers tools to help us move toward positive change, and in doing so our attachment or raga diminishes. We will explore the concept of kriya yoga in a later post. In the meantime, notice if any excessive attachments cause you discomfort or pain.


What Causes Suffering?
Part Two

Empty roadCheck out last week’s blog –
What Causes Suffering? pt.1

This morning as I dressed to meet my friend for coffee, my husband plugged in the vacuum and started vacuuming the upstairs rugs. “Lucky,” so many of my friends would say. Instead of feeling lucky, however, I felt guilty.

“I will do that,” I told him. “You don’t have to.”
“When will you have time?” he responded. “I don’t mind.”

I realized he was right, but even as I sit and write this, I still feel disappointed I had not taken care of the vacuuming, especially as my husband does many chores to maintain our home.

The unease I feel comes from two sources. The first, the comparisons I make with other women who are far more attentive housekeepers than I. They maintain homes appearing orderly, vacuumed, and elegantly decorated. While my unease as a housekeeper does not qualify as “suffering,” my thinking leads me to feel “inadequate” when the subject of housekeeping comes up. I start to think about the bathroom needing cleaning, the rug needing vacuuming, or the cobwebs to be dusted from the top kitchen shelf.

But, on the positive side, I am able to recognize my thinking and assumptions as avidya (lack of understanding, misapprehension), and specifically as that branch of avidya called asmita. Asmita or ego can also be described as “I-am-ness.” When asmita rules the mind we have a distorted view of ourselves. We think we are better than others or not as good – superior or inferior, both of which are avidya.

In our own lives, each of us has a set of descriptions we use when asked about our background. “I am a mother.” “I am a doctor.” “I am a yoga student.” “I am a diabetic.” “I am a Methodist.” “I am an American.” “I am a homeless person.” “I am a wife, a husband, a child, a father, a teacher, a heart patient, a loser, a success” and on and on. This is “I-am-ness.”

These identities we take on are what our minds tells us we are, or what we are taught we are. We identify with what each of these means to us. And because there are values assigned to identities within our culture, labels of superior and inferior may be assigned to individuals either by others or themselves.

That was the second source of my unease when my husband plugged in the vacuum. “Wife” is an identity I take on. Because of my upbringing, there are certain standards I associate with it, like “wife does vacuuming.”

At the core of the problem of “I-am-ness” is this: When we believe these identities constitute who we are, we are blind to our higher consciousness, known as purusa. This higher consciousness, the unchanging light of awareness, lies within each one of us. There is no superior or inferior. But when our “I-am-ness” gets in the way, it blocks our ability to recognize who we truly are and, instead, leads us down another road to suffering.