Breathing through grief

By Gina De Roma

My mother passed away recently. The loss brought back many memories, including that of my very first experience with grief and the therapeutic benefits of yoga.

I was 7 years old when my maternal grandmother passed away. To help us deal with feelings of sadness from the loss, my mother, having recently begun to study yoga, shared a special way of breathing: She taught me to inhale slow, deep breaths through my nose and exhale them in the same fashion. If I seemed sad about my grandmother being gone, she would have me lie down next to her, pull me close, and say, “Let’s do our deep breathing.”

Photo by Laura Musikanski

It worked so well that I grew up using the technique whenever I was stressed or sad. This led me to my own study of yoga and to eventually becoming certified yoga therapist (C-IAYT).

Mom was definitely onto something: Research into pranayama (breathwork) techniques, including slow, conscious breathing, as well as others such as alternate-nostril breathing, has suggested their effectiveness for decreasing heart rate and blood pressure, reducing stress and anxiety, and regulating emotions.

Beyond breath, yoga postures have also been shown to alleviate stress, increase the relaxation response, and boost the immune system, which can be challenged during times of grief.

Each person processes grief differently, and every loss brings its own challenges—and its own transformational opportunities

When a married couple I work with each lost a parent within a few months, I was able to use pranayama, physical postures (asana), and hand gestures (mudra) to help them through the grieving process as well as the additional stresses that come with a death in the family. Although they both shared the experience of loss, each also had personal histories that affected how they would best cope with and recover from their parent’s passing. The individual focus I bring as a yoga therapist was particularly helpful during this time.

Working with a yoga therapist, as opposed to attending a general yoga class, can be vital during the grieving process. In a group class, seemingly small things—a particular music selection, a challenging asana, or even a casual reference to “corpse pose”—may bring on emotional reactions that cannot be adequately addressed in that setting. Each person processes grief differently, and every loss brings its own challenges—and its own transformational opportunities. A qualified yoga therapist can guide you in an appropriate and personal practice for this sensitive time. You can find an IAYT-certified yoga therapist here.

As I process the loss of my mother, I am uplifted and comforted by how her simple act of sharing yogic breathing with me, all those years ago, led me to become a yoga therapist and to help others find their own way to healing.

Gina De Roma, C-IAYT, E-RYT 200, CMP, KSM, has more than 19 years of experience in the healing arts. She posts regularly on The Philosopher’s Spoon Blog. Contact her via the International Association of Yoga Therapists website using their member search.