Breathing Through Grief to Joy
A yoga teacher trainee experiences Max Strom’s breath work
Huntress by Sandra Diekmann
I have just emerged from the first of three sessions in the yearlong journey of yoga teacher training with Max Strom, author A Life Worth Breathing and There Is No App for Happiness. In one of his TED talks, Strom points out that the only people in this country who are regularly taught breathing exercises are pregnant women. Think about that: The best way to successfully manage life’s most extreme physical pain and anxiety without drugs is through breathing. Yet we don’t teach breath work to everyone as a fundamental tool for health and happiness.
Max is helping to lead the change. What I did not expect during yoga teacher training and breath work was an encounter with my own grief.
I’m a singer. In voice training, we discussed diaphragmatic breathing, with the primary focus on the belly going in and out. Max flips this concept on its head, urging us to pull the belly in. With practice, he says, this action will protect the lower back. However, when first introduced, it feels awkward.
Beyond this, he says to push the ribs outward, to the sides. Initially I find this impossible. I had read his books and done videos in preparation for this teacher training, but nothing had gotten through to the muscles that make the ribs move in and out. My ribs are locked in place.
There’s something behind this resistance, something buried within the recesses of memory and affections of the heart. Max says that memories fade with time, but they linger in the subconscious and take up residence near the heart—inside the ribs. He spends a full afternoon discussing grief. Once the ribs actually start moving to the sides with breath work, those memories—especially of grief—begin to stir. For me, it is like becoming vaguely aware of an eerie dance between grief and joy, like watching the pair do a tango on a dimly lit Parisian street.
Max points out that grief is often suppressed out of fear or embarrassment. It’s as if we have denied ourselves permission to feel it. Somehow we push that emotion away, favoring a “be strong” approach. Breath work grants us permission to feel it fully.
I am suddenly aware that I am grieving but had switched it off to move forward. Major events from the last decade return to my awareness: a massive career change, a geographic move, the passing of a dear friend and mentor. Oh, how I loved what I had! I am weeping now, feeling more fully that ache for what used to be.
That ache subsides with each succeeding breath. Buried beneath the layers of grief is an active, vibrant feeling of aliveness. Startled by this process of self-discovery, a smile emerges. My eyes brighten, spine straightens, and heart lifts. The grieving has not vanished, but has eased. It gives me hope that I will feel gratitude more and release the grief that is moving through. With each full breath, I’ll be better able to stay in the present moment.
“Wear your tears with courage,” says Max. “The only way out of grief is through it.”
For Fresh Air, Try Ocean Breathing
The ocean breathing exercise, which sounds like the ocean’s waves, enlivens the lungs and expands them, dynamically pulling in fresh air (prana) and then expelling stale air and stress (apana). It is known for calming the mind and can also be very effective for helping to process grief. Here’s how to do it:
- Stand in a comfortable spot. Look down at your feet and separate them by about three feet. Make sure they are straight. Now, as you bend your knees about six inches, lengthen your spine up toward the ceiling.
- Bring your hands to the heart center; press them together gently as if in prayer.
- Now, from here, inhale through your mouth as you move your arms straight out to the sides at shoulder height—arms open, elbows slightly bent. Pause, and then exhale them back to the heart.
- Inhale and open the arms again. Then bring your hands back to prayer position, exhaling audibly through your mouth just as if you were fogging a mirror with your warm breath. Continue the same movements with your arms as you breathe this way, making the “fogging the mirror” sound on both the inhale and the exhale. Your mouth stays open continuously and the lips should not purse together. Remember to breathe into the sides of your ribs.
- Continue for five minutes, then work up to 10. (Use a timer so you are not distracted.)
You may experience an emotional feeling or even some tears. If that happens, simply receive it as a healing experience. Afterward you’ll feel refreshed and peaceful.
—Max Strom, Adapted from A Life Worth Breathing