Kaiti Rhea Countryman, an Ignacio resident, needed a place to quiet her mind and process her grief after losing several family members since 2010.
So she turned to a yoga mat.
Countryman and her classmates focused on healing during a Yoga for Grief and Loss program offered through the Grief Center of Southwest Colorado in Durango.
The six-week yoga series, which ended in March, filled each session with a therapy-focused theme, meditation, journaling and movement to help participants process their grief.
It’s the second time the grief center has organized the program, run by mental health professionals and yoga instructors. While some come to support others who are experiencing grief, many come to heal after the death of a loved one.
Countryman lost her dad in 2010, then her grandmother and her cousin.
“Mainly, it’s my dad that affects me because he died of alcoholism,” Countryman said. “He wasn’t your typical ‘get drunk all day’ alcoholic. He was a very educated man.
“It shouldn’t have happened, so it’s hard,” she said.
Like many people experiencing grief, Countryman felt its symptoms locked in her body.
Grief can show up as headaches, congestion or a collapsed sensation in the chest, said Emily Carleton, an instructor for the course. Carleton is a certified yoga teacher and licensed professional counselor candidate.
Grief symptoms are often cyclical and can appear as low energy, low self-esteem or guilt. People who are grieving might feel foggy, the need to cry or sadness about a loss (unlike the generalized sadness of depression). Often, people search for a sense of community while grieving, Carleton said.
Through focused breathing and movement, participants essentially shake loose grief sensations and move them through the body. The practice helps people relax and supports physical health needs. People seemed to feel more comfortable with the complex or painful emotions that arise during grief, she said.
The yoga sessions each lasted an hour and a half and started with breathing, meditation and intention-setting. Each week of the class has a different theme, like mindfulness in transition, building community or finding strength in inner resources. The instructors focused the guided meditation, yoga poses and class discussions to fit the theme.
For example, during a meditation in the mindfulness in transition class, instructors focused on controlled exhaling and inhaling. They asked the four participants to slowly transition between poses over three deep breaths, when it would normally take one round of breath, in order to notice physical sensations.
Combining the breath with movement brings a sense of proprioception, or kinesthesia, which means knowing where your body is in space, Carleton said.
Grief can make people disconnect from their physical health, like no longer eating or exercising, or they might be overwhelmed by physical reactions, like feeling completely lethargic. Connecting to their body helps meet physical health needs during a challenging grief process.
“It’s not your traditional ‘going to a yoga studio’ type of class,” Carleton said. “It’d be a lot different from a traditional vinyasa or flow class.”
Each class closed with a resting posture, a guided meditation and journaling. The course functions best as a small group, so there is a maximum of 10 participants.
Carleton said the instructors are tentatively planning to host a Yoga for Grief and Loss retreat in May, depending on health directives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ll talk about how we feel after class versus coming into class,” Carleton said. “Usually, people report that they feel much better, lighter, less heavy after the class.”
It’s not necessarily a grief therapy group or talk therapy class because no one is asked to share their grief process.
“Talk therapy is very important in many ways, and I think yoga could be used as a supplement for grief therapy because you don’t have to talk about it,” Carleton said. “You can feel it.”
For Countryman, adding yoga to her regular therapy helped her learn new ways to clear her mind.
“It grounded me,” Countryman said. “Rather than sitting at home and wondering ‘why?’ it’s actually a really good way to get through your anxiety and get through the grief process.”
She has several other conditions that impact her mental health, like anxiety and depression. She needed a place to move, meditate and relax when her mind “starts going crazy,” she said.
“Learning how to use your mind and lay there and not worry about anything – just clear your mind – I think that’s what helped me the most,” Countryman said.