Downward-facing dog. Upward-facing dog. Two-legged dog. Three-legged dog. Flip your dog. Heck, even puppy pose. I never realized how many dogs there are in yoga until I had to say goodbye to my dog recently. She was just one month shy of her 15th birthday, and we had been together since she was 8 weeks old. I was devastated — not only emotionally but physically as well.
Almost immediately after Amica took her final breath — at home, with our faces pressed together and one of her veterinarians guiding the way — I felt grief arrive, unpack its bags and show my energy the door. It settled deep in my muscles and made every part of me ache. Even the smallest of tasks became impossible. After dragging my vacuum cleaner up a flight of stairs, scraping up the strength to plug it in — much less push it — was too much to ask.
I feared that I could become couch-bound, and that wasn’t going to make me feel better. What I needed was to find my way to my place of comfort, my yoga mat — the same mat on which Amica would do her own version of down dog when I practiced at home. Being on my mat would ease not only my emotional pain but my physical pain as well.
We hear so much about yoga’s healing powers for stress, but not as often for grief, which is a different animal, so to speak. The two sometimes overlap, but grief is the result of a psychological trauma, not a bad day at the office. We tend to carry stress in our shoulders and backs, but grief does not discriminate. It wants the entire body, and it takes prisoners.
My body felt as though it were on lockdown when I returned to yoga the day after my loss. My teacher, a close friend, knew what had happened and what the doctor was calling for: a calm, relaxing and restorative (as opposed to energizing) class. A dimly lit room. A focus on gentle asanas that open the heart chakras and the hips, which is where so many memories and emotions are stored. A reason to remember to breathe. A way to find solace and accept the loss.
In many ways, I felt like a beginner. A beginner with the weight of sorrow tethered to each ankle and wrist. Poses that had been second nature were not going to happen, and that was okay. My body — which was running on too little food and sleep — was making no mistake about what it was and wasn’t going to do, and I had no option but to listen. It was telling me that I should go easy on myself, that it was not a time to challenge or push. My flow on the mat may have been off, but as I began to unlock, there was no stopping my tears. Good thing that, unlike baseball, there is crying in yoga. I made my way through the sequences, becoming a little looser and a little more free with each pose. And during final relaxation, I began to sense that peace would find me. “I can handle this,” I thought. “Because I don’t have a choice.”
Robert Frost wrote that “the best way out is always through,” and I believe that’s true for just about everyone, even though no two losses are alike, and the way we deal with our anguish is deeply personal. Sometimes the pain is mercifully fleeting. Other times, we know from the start that it will never leave and that we must make room for it. Our minds may try to run and hide, but our bodies will always give us up. And that is why I will continue to return to my mat — in darkness as well as light — until I am doing downward dog with Amica again someday.