What Grief Taught Me About Yoga
Three years ago today I got a call saying my father was dying. He was half a world away in Jakarta, and dying. I almost didn’t answer the phone… my father never called me from Jakarta, only messaged. But I did, I answered the phone. And my father was dying. My mind raced as I tried to make sense of the information coming my way - there is nothing more they could do. “There’s no time for you to come here. He might be able to hear you… say your goodbye. We’ll let you know when he’s gone”.
This all happened in the entryway of the high-end gym where I taught yoga. People walking by to get their smoothies recoiled from my tears. This was sudden, I had phone calls to make. I had to get subs for my evening classes. I had to inform my partner. I had to inform my family.
Fifteen minutes later I was on the T on my way home and got a text saying he had passed, “I’m sorry for your loss.” My jacket was zipped all the way to the top, scarf wrapped around my quivering face, sunglasses on to spare those around me the tears spilling down my face. My partner, somehow managed to find me on the T (he has a knack for such things). He sat next to me and scooped me into his arms as I weeped.
The next several days were a blur of grief, anger, and confusion. My father was a half a world away, there was nothing I could do. I make a living teaching yoga. If I don’t teach, I don’t get paid. My father died on a Wednesday (US time, early Thursday in Jakarta), I was back teaching yoga on Saturday. While the studio owner, managers, and many teachers knew about my loss, I chose not to say anything about losing my father to my students. I am their teacher. It’s not their job to take care of me. Honestly, teaching helped. Listening to and watching my students move and breathe allowed me to be the version of myself who hadn’t just lost her father. While I was teaching I got to be the version of myself who is an adept and skillful teacher, someone who is in service of those in front of her. That is until their resting pose, Savasana. The moment I settled my class into Savasana, to be with themselves, I was forced to be with myself. To recognize and sit with my still raw, broken and wounded self. Tears freely streamed down my face.
The following week I returned back to my teacher’s class to practice. When I was focused on aligning my bones and using my muscles in an effective and efficient manner, I felt adept and skillful. I felt relief from my circumstances. I was feeling my body move and breathe, I was in the present moment. I was no longer the version of myself deep in grief. Then Savasana. The moment I settled into stillness and closed my eyes, my chest began to hurt, and tears freely streamed down my face.
The purpose of a yoga asana practice is to create a vessel that is strong and supple. A vessel that can be resilient and functional in everyday life. A vessel that eventually can be still with itself in whatever state it is in, and abide in that stillness. What I learned three years ago was that while my teaching and yoga practice gave me space and respite from my grief, it also gave me the strength to then move through my grief. To be resilient and to abide in my given circumstances.
To learn more about my father, Michael N. Heffernan - listen to a piece WBUR's Remembrance Project did on him the Spring after he died, here.
Learn to Love the Questions
When I was a freshman, or maybe a sophomore in High School, I remember being in one of my Language Arts classes with my favorite teacher, Norm Vandal. Norm was the type of teacher that lulled students into a sense of security by entertaining the class. He recounted crazy stories, like the one about the time he got stuck on his tin roof butt-naked in the middle of summer and had to figure out how to safely slide his way down before his neighbor drove by. His storytelling was so vivid and full of tension, the entire class would be in hysterics. Just when we thought we were getting away with murder by listening to a funny story during class time, he would masterfully weave his story back into a lesson. Like a chef sneaking vegetables into mac & cheese, he was teaching us without us realizing he was teaching us. He was truly masterful.
On the day in question, I cannot remember what book we were talking about, but I do remember the look in Norm’s eye when he asked for a volunteer. His eyes caught mine—he smirked knowingly. This wasn’t the first time this had happened (nor would it be the last) if I didn’t raise my hand, he would “volunteer” me anyway. So, I played along. He asked me to stand. I did. Then with a flick of his hand he said “Go.”
I puzzled… “…go?”
“Go.” He repeated.
“…” I blushed - “But… where?”
“HA! There you see?!” He bellowed gleefully. “Why didn’t you just go? Why do we need the answer—why can’t we learn to love the questions?”
At some point during his lecture that followed, I curled my way back into my seat. Despite my momentary embarrassment, for not getting it *right,* what Norm said that day stuck with me. “Learn to love the questions,” he said. “They are so much more interesting than the answers! Like balancing on one leg - questions are alive and full of possibility… answers are stagnant, finite, even boring.”
But… I liked having the answers. Up until that day, having the answers worked pretty darn well for me, I was a good student, I made good grades, I relished in having an answer and in getting that answer *right* - what was so wrong with having the answers anyway, what’s so bad about being boring?
But like many a good lesson, “learning to love the questions” kept coming back. As I grew and eventually became a yoga teacher, I found myself gravitating back to that linear way of thinking: there is a *right* way to practice and a *right* way to teach, and I wanted, even needed, to be *right.* To be the best. Now, several years and thousands of hours of teaching later, I realize that Norm was right all along. Answers, while comforting, are not only boring but inadequate. Yoga is the practice of being in the present moment, and the only truth about the present moment is that it is always changing. So we as yoga teachers and as yoga practitioners need to be willing to inquire within to keep up with that ever-changing state of being. Instead of being caught up in what is right and what is wrong, can we learn to love the questions, to embrace the questions:
* This blog post was originally written for Down Under School of Yoga as part of their Voices: Path of a Teacher Series.
Yoga Teacher based in Boston, MA. Teacher of Yoga Teachers. Committed to teaching anatomical, alignment & action based yoga asana that is rooted in mindfulness, skillfulness, & specificity.