Yoga therapy for grief in homicide survivors: Part 1—Finding ease in the storm through breath and awareness
By Nazaahah Amin
I have practiced yoga therapy in my hometown of Baltimore City for nearly 10 years. Within that time span the city has seen over 2,700 homicides, most in lower income communities that already experience socioeconomic disparities and a lack of healthful resources.
Although there’s much systemic work to be done to change those deplorable statistics, in my work I use evidence-based yoga therapy practices to support the healing process of survivors—those left behind after a homicide—and even to bring them some ease. My group yoga therapy sessions*, which are predominantly for women, are held at Baltimore City Public Schools and community organizations. When women show up in my workshops and discuss their stressors, worries, and fears, we often learn that someone in the group has lost a close loved one to violence.
Homicide survivors experience a gamut of emotions that might include anger (at the initial murder), confusion (as to why their loved one was taken), sadness (about the absence of their loved one), and grief with all of its usual stages. This grief shows up in their lives in myriad ways but often results in depression, anxiety, withdrawal, lack of motivation, and productivity. Many of the survivors in my groups are mothers who have a difficult time parenting their remaining children. If the victim was a parent themselves, the survivor may have a new role as a solo caregiver. Then there are the added stresses of dealing with police and navigating the legal system.
Following are a few ways in which I use yoga therapeutically with homicide survivors. (The second of this two-part series will explore the healing benefits of community and movement.)
Grief from traumatic experiences can cause an energetic contraction in the breath, an effect that may worsen anxiety or exacerbate existing respiratory problems such as asthma or COPD. One way we encourage free breathing in yoga is through a practice of “three-part breath,” sometimes known as dirga breath.
Brief how-to: Gently draw the inhale into the low abdomen, ribs, and upper lungs (near the collarbones). Exhale in the reverse direction: collarbones, ribs, belly.
This practice utilizes full diaphragmatic breathing, which shifts the nervous system toward the parasympathetic—the body’s rest-and-digest responses—potentially also reducing anxious thought patterns over time.
Grief and trauma live in our bodies and may show up as muscle tension, pressure, weakness, or fatigue. When homicide survivors are trying to manage their daily duties on top of grief, they may experience great physical discomfort but be so deeply entrenched in survival mode that they can’t specifically locate the tension or pain. When survivors are able to downregulate the fight-or-flight responses of their sympathetic nervous systems, they can begin to develop body awareness. This greater awareness enables them not only to pinpoint physical pain but also to begin to identify ways of caring for themselves. One way to build this awareness is through a body scan.
Brief how-to: Begin in a comfortable position, seated or lying down. Notice the parts of the body touching the surface (chair, floor, bed), then bring awareness to rest on each part of the body in turn, simply noticing what is present, without judgment or a need to change what you find. One sequence to try: head, right eye, left eye, nose, jaw, neck, collarbone, etc.—all the way down to the soles of the feet and the toes.
If you are experiencing grief from a homicide or a loss, look for a yoga therapist in your area, particularly one who specializes in trauma. We will explore additional therapeutic practices in Part 2.
Nazaahah Amin, MS, C-IAYT, E-RYT 200, owner of Ama Wellness, provides yoga therapy sessions in individual and group settings. Ms. Amin facilitates therapeutic yoga workshops for African-American women in Baltimore City Public Schools and in private practice in West Baltimore.
*Small-group yoga therapy sessions include people who have a similar condition, symptom(s), or life circumstance. The yoga therapist completes an individual intake and assessment as well as goal setting with each client.