How Yoga Helps Us Navigate Life Transitions

In yoga, we say that you don’t get injured IN a pose, you get injured on your way in or out of it. Mindlessly entering into a headstand, moving too quickly from chaturanga to upward facing dog, flopping into a forward fold without engaging your core or quadriceps - this is how we get hurt. We check out during the transitions.

This is much like life. We humans don’t like life transitions much – they are uncomfortable, tenuous, frightening, and often painful. There is a moment (or a series of moments) much like in our yoga practice, where we don’t want to deal with the unknown or the trickiness of getting from point A to point B, we’d rather just bypass the entire transition experience and get to where we are going. It is programmed into our evolution that change is something to be suspicious of because it involves confronting the unknown. This coming face-to-face with uncertainty shakes us to our core, because we don’t know how to prepare and we don’t know what tools to pack on our journey.

I see several clients in my private practice who are in the process of grieving the loss of a loved one, and what I often hear (especially in the beginning stages) is, “I just want to be done with this”. Grief is a complex issue that does not necessarily have an end point, or a point B, where everything feels normal again. Rushing through the grief process robs us of the richness and complexity of truly feeling our pain, sadness and despair. It hardens our pain, often turning it into depression or anxiety, which in turn increases our suffering. In an effort to deny our pain, we actually end up increasing it. As psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan writes, “A grief deferred is a grief prolonged”.  Grief is one of the most natural processes human beings can experience, because it is universal – we all, at some point, will lose someone or something we love dearly.

Denying our discomfort and/or rushing through it, much like rushing into a yoga pose without paying attention to alignment, breath and sensation in our body (all of which can feel superfluous and annoying), can lead to injury.

Here are some ways that the ancient wisdom of yoga can aid our journey through major life transitions:

1. Breathe

Sounds simple, right? In a yoga class, it is our breath that tempers the speed at which we move between poses. When we focus on our breath, we are more likely to stay present during the in-between stages. During big life transitions, we can slow ourselves down and gain perspective (as well as stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system, aka the “rest and digest” response) simply by tuning into our breath and remembering to stay present.

2. Turn Inward

Interoception, that is, sensing the body from the inside out, is a profoundly helpful skill when moving through life transitions. Feeling into our internal world, which is always rich, vibrant and alive, helps us sense where we feel stress and tension in our bodies so that we are able to ease some of that stress on our own. Mindfulness meditation, yoga and iRest Yoga Nidra are all ways of increasing interoception.

3. Surrender

The final pose in every yoga class is Savasana. In Savasana, we are instructed to lay still on the floor with our eyes closed from anywhere from three to 20 minutes (depending on the class, sometimes longer). In Savasana, you are awake yet still, in a state that evokes surrender and letting go. Surrender can be the last thing we want when we are facing the void of the unknown – what if I am swallowed by my discomfort/fear/pain/longing? The irony is that by surrendering to our experience, allowing the feelings to arise and take shape, we are not swallowed by it – we are transformed by it.

If you are in the midst of a major life transition, I highly recommend trying some kind of embodied, meditative practice. Staying present and attuning to your body is powerful medicine during difficult times, and reminds us that in the midst of transition, if we slow down and turn inward, we don’t have to get hurt.