How My Yoga Practice Got Me Through the Holidays

How often have you heard the importance of continuing your practice when life gets chaotic? As we head into this holiday season, I’ve been reflecting on this time last year. Life was upside down for me late 2017, and I truly believe had it not been for my practice, my path would have looked much different.

My son died in August 2017. Last year was the year of 1sts – and everyone (and I do mean everyone – my extended family, my friends, people I’d see at the grocery store, church or any other time I’m out and about) told me the holidays are the hardest. I wouldn’t consider myself new to grief. Both my parents have passed and I’ve had to come to terms with the holiday traditions you treasure not being the same without the ones you love. And yet, losing a son? This is somewhat different. Shouldn’t I be taking him to see Santa? How do I watch the Wanamaker light show without seeing the wonder in his eyes? Is he really not here to sing Christmas carols with me?

I knew I needed support so I turned to multiple healing modalities –acupuncture, talk therapy, somatic healing. And I prioritized getting on my mat. It may appear from the outside that it’s easier for me to do so – I own a yoga studio, so literally my commute is the few steps down the hall. But all the other barriers are there, including knowing that once I’m on my mat, “stuff” may come up.

And oh my, did stuff come up. Sure, there were times when I kept my practice at the physical level. I would focus more on my breath, the physical aspects of each posture. But those days I gave myself permission to truly drop in to my experience, this is where the healing could creep in.

If you’re seeking some healing this season, I’ll share a few of my truths, in the hope that it might allow you to find some peace.

  • Find a safe space where you can show up as you are. I can’t stress this enough. There is incredible healing in practicing in community, so it’s worth taking the time to find a studio where the culture meets your needs. Finding somewhere to unroll your mat where you’re permitted to have your own experience is vital. As my teacher, Matthew Sanford, says, “if the conditions of safety aren’t met, you can’t practice yoga.”
  • Focus on the present moment. Big emotions such as grief takes so much energy, and often bring us into the past or future. Focus on just this breath, focus your gaze, pay attention to this moment in time.
  • Take what you need from the practice. I really enjoy practices that include a spiritual element. Know that every reading, poem or talk may not resonate with you. Take what does, leave the rest behind.
  • Modify your asana practice based on what your physical, mental and emotional bodies need that day. There were days I headed to a vinyasa practice, even though my body felt depleted, but I felt a strong connection with the teacher and sought their comforting presence. Some days my vinyasa was cat/cow, some days I did only two poses – seated meditation and savasana.
  • Consider how touch will impact your nervous system. In the past, I’ve loved physical adjustments. This past year, however, physical touch was challenging for me. Check if your studio has a policy on use of touch. At Yoga Home, we use permission stones; I could place the stone on my mat when I welcomed touch and remove it from my mat when touch was not welcome. If your studio doesn’t have a policy, know that it’s ok to express your preference to your teacher.
  • Know your boundaries and be ok asking others to respect them.   I believe people are inherently good. And sometimes their efforts to provide comfort may feel challenging. On a day where I needed space, I would be mindful about where I set up my mat (closer to a back corner), grab an eye sachet and drop into reclined butterfly pose. I’d linger in savasana, waiting for the room clear before rising. These are fairly strong non-verbal cues that helped communicate I wasn’t up for conversation.
  • Give yourself permission to drop in. The mind knows when it needs to be in protective mode and when it can allow the heart space to take over. Much of the above was crafted from a protective space. On days where you’re open to dropping in more fully, consider setting up in heart bench. Bring a hand to heart, hand to belly and breathe deeply into both. Let yourself feel into every aspect of the practice. As the mind strays to the one you love (I don’t think I’ve had a practice yet where I’ve not thought of my son), allow yourself to be curious about why they came to you in that moment. What was the prior physical sensation and when did you first notice you shifted from being present to thinking of them? And then, invite your mind back on your mat.

I’m not going to say any of this was easy. My year of firsts held many tearful practices, physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. And yet, there were also moments of clarity, joy and peace.   As the world continues to spin and the holiday “noise” takes over, I’ll be returning to my mat as often as I can. Apparently the second year of grief is no bargain either. Give yourself the gift of your practice this season. Let it be the anchor you need to help you navigate the holidays with a little more grace and ease.

Kerri Hanlon is co-founder and creator of the Adaptive Yoga Program at Yoga Home in Conshohocken, a Best of Philly Yoga Studio.  She is a contributor to CBSPhilly and shares her experiences about living with and grieving a child with disabilities so others know they’re not alone.  Her practices are available through Yoga Home’s online studio.

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