Facing the Painful Effects of Tragedy, One Downward Dog at a Time

This article originally appeared in Mountain Life.

“This ring has an arrow on it. It’s pointing forward to remind you to move forward in life. I hope it fits you?” Sasha Pellow, a student in my 30-day Yoga Teacher Training in Pemberton, is handing me gifts on our last day. “And this rock is a rose quartz to remind you to keep an open heart.”

She places it in my hand. Her words are piercing, given that six months prior she lost her lifelong partner to a fatal avalanche. Our ten-minute session turns into a teary eyed exchange. I had woken up tired and doubtful that morning, but felt immediately warmed (and schooled) by the kindness of her multilayered gift. So often, students like Sasha, who arrive with the most pain, are the ones who give back the most.

A typical training course registered through the Yoga Alliance includes two hundred hours of asana (the physical practice), breath work, meditation, history, philosophy, anatomy, teaching methodology and self-inquiry. There are thousands of courses offered globally and they vary in style and tradition. Most are designed for prospective teachers, but Sasha represents a student profile that is expanding each year and a reminder that the name “Teacher Training” needs an overhaul – not everyone enrolled wants to teach. Sasha is grieving; she’s using yoga to help heal the pain of her loss. And she’s not alone.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that mental health is quickly becoming one of our biggest global socioeconomic burdens. A WHO fact sheet published in April 2016 lists depression as the leading cause of disability worldwide, with an estimated 350 million people affected. In the 20 Teacher Training sessions I’ve held since 2010, approximately three quarters of the students arrive with a maelstrom of stress-related symptoms – mainly anxiety and depression. This means senior yoga teachers like me walk a trepidatious high-line over a field of holistic health still in the process of defining itself: we aren’t therapists, but the nature of the teachings requires us to responsibly hold positive space for others to heal

“I remember feeling empty,” says Andrea Hellemen, another student. “I remember not really caring if I lived or died. I felt like I had been spending so much time around suffering and death that my light was extinguished.”

Andrea was in rough shape when she arrived at my 2012 teacher training in Nicaragua. She had spent 15 months, thousands of kilometres from her home and friends, watching her mother fight and lose a battle with cancer. Andrea was the recipient of my first Passion Project scholarship, a pay-it-forward initiative I offer as a creative way to attend my programs.

“There were a lot of laughs, tears and big moments,” she says. “My heart caught up to my mind. Every morning started with deep breathing, meditation and yoga. I’m not going to lie and say life has been simple since then, but it has become simpler. I breathe more. I move more. I feel connected.”

Yoga offers a very simple but effective formula: body movement, elevated endorphins and simple teachings that counter the pressures of modern day worries like the race against time and the expectation to “have it all.” All yogic texts teach that it’s ridiculous to think that we ever reach an end point – so it’s best to relax into uncertainty rather than grasp at what we can’t control. In a relaxed state, we make better decisions..

In a contracted, fearful state, we generally make terrible decisions. One definition of Vinyasa yoga (or a flow class) is “conscious placement” or the order of things: meaning, it’s not just about how carefully you step your foot, but how kindly you are placing your thoughts, like footprints in the sand of your mental landscape. It’s the difference between walking gracefully or kicking up dirt and making an unnecessary mess. Fear-based thinking creates stress, stress is the cause for most illnesses, and fear is immediately diffused when the tools of mindfulness are practiced daily.

“Before I arrived, I was depressed and totally lost,” Sasha says. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to complete the training. But it taught me to be gentle and compassionate with myself and, most importantly, to let go. I went from being ‘the girl who lost her husband’ to being Sasha again.”

One of the ways grieving yoga students heal is through the important element of story telling. “I believe that everybody has a story,” Andrea says. “The beauty of sharing stories is that hearing someone else’s can make yours seem small. We are all on a journey and life is hard. It can break you apart, but you can re-assemble it, too.”

Yogic psychology takes storytelling a step further and asks students to transcend their subconscious stories that are mired in negativity. The teachings are interested in evolution beyond thought, not in the overindulging of past experiences, no matter how painful they may be, this is key to the why of an immersive experience. Our culture talks and thinks too much about our pain and sorrow to the point of neurosis. We are not only stuck in our heads, we are stuck in the worst parts of them.

Heidi Parker was using yoga to compliment her winters of snowboarding and manage stress. She enrolled in the Nicaraguan course “searching for a purpose,” but shortly before training was set to begin, her father drowned on a fishing trip. I was surprised to see her on the first day of training, only a day after the memorial service. “I barely made it, but I knew it would be a safe place for me to heal,” Heidi says. “A lot surfaced and I learned many tools that helped me get through each day.”

One of the concepts that resonated most with Heidi was “self-care.” It’s an expression that annoys at least one of my non-yogically inclined friends, who recently ask me with an air of annoyance, “So what is this self-care business?” (while taking an amusingly long drag of her cigarette). In a training setting, the primary teachings are based on mindfulness and self-respect, practices that dramatically reduce negative tendencies. Given the WHO’s statistics, embracing self-care is likely a necessity, not a self-indulgent act.

“I think the process [of Teacher Training] would help anyone no matter where they are at in life,” says Zac McHugh, a weightlifting and fitness coach and Pay-it-Forward scholarship recipient who attended the teacher training to assist his work with homeless and at-risk men in Squamish.

“Any time you take three weeks for introspection and to develop a deeper relationship with your body and soul, I feel like it gives you valuable tools and perspective. But it’s still up to the individual how they use those tools. There is no miracle cure.”

In a world filled with excessive options to heal or not to heal, many of us are overwhelmed. It’s not to say that grief and all of its dark cousins are instantly fixed by a month of studying yoga, but there is a light at the end, a resolve that I observe in most students who hug me goodbye, that was not there on day one.

And yes, we are all yoga teachers in one way or another. I continue to learn and be inspired by the strength and openness of students like Andrea, Zac, Heidi and Sasha. They have proven to me that there is so much more to be gained by stepping into any environment that encourages self-study and dealing with pain versus repressing it. These students emanate a force-filled conviction, it follows each of them when they walk into a room: grief transmuted into empowerment. Or as Sasha shared, “I swallowed my fear and warriored up.”

Julia McCabe has been teaching since her first training in Thailand in 2003. She has since served on the faculty of Pure Yoga Hong Kong (2005-2008), taught at Wanderlust Festivals, the Whistler Yoga Conference and currently travels internationally holding retreats and trainings. Expect simplicity and a creative approach with her background in Kinesiology, art history – and thirteen years of study in the yogic arts. She infuses tradition and modernity together in a way that is accessible to all.