Yoga Breaths

A blast of arctic air pushes past me into the yoga studio. The sun has not yet risen, leaving those brave enough to venture out at the mercy of the ice fog and biting winds. It is January in Edmonton. The dead of winter is alive and well.

I hang up my parka, stuffing my mitts and toque into one sleeve. The snow is melting from my boots even before I pull them off. I begin to relax. This is my community. Here I can forget for just a little while what awaits me beyond these walls.

I have been coming to this space four or five times a week since January 2014. It is my refuge, my sanctuary. Here, I find peace from the ever-present reality that my son, David, is dead.

Those words still shock me. In today’s death-denying culture, “dead” is a dirty word. People say “passed on,” or “passed away,” inferring a peaceful departure from this world. But David did not go gentle into that good night. He was 27 years old when a driver struck him in a crosswalk. He was spun off his feet and propelled backwards, pinned between one tonne of metal and a concrete garbage can.

It’s only recently that I have learned to control those images somewhat. But they are always there, behind a closed door in my mind. Until they aren’t. Then I am drowning once again in a tsunami of grief.

I returned to the studio a month after David died. I was dazed, shell-shocked. I was not eating, I was barely sleeping. There was a war going on inside my head. It was as if I were picking my way through bombed-out streets littered with chunks of concrete and broken glass. Air raid sirens wailed incessantly, ambulances keened in the distance. I waited for the next explosion.

I showed my pass to Ann at the front desk and walked towards the practice space, my eyes blurred with tears. Melanie, my yoga instructor, stopped me in the doorway. She put her arms around me. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. I began to cry.

That first practice was not easy. I struggled to focus on Melanie’s instructions. I lay on my back, allowing my body to feel supported by the ground beneath. After a while I was breathing deeply and rhythmically, moving through the poses with conscious deliberation. At some point it struck me that for the first time in what seemed an eternity, I felt at peace. That glorious, brief release from suffering kept me coming back.

When all seems hopeless, when I am body-slammed by grief, when I feel myself tumbling into that dark abyss, I go to my mat.

Yoga is a constant in my life. Through good days and bad, I work my body hard to ease my bruised heart. The poses have taken on deeper meaning in the aftermath of David’s death. Sun salutations become moving meditations; planks test my endurance; warrior pose teaches me inner strength. By the end of the practice my hair is soaked and my clothing drenched in sweat. Every part of me is relaxed. Endorphins flood my body.

There are days, though, where I move through the class, tortured and haunted. On David’s birthday, on the anniversary of his death, on days when I miss him so much the pain is almost physical, I am buoyed by the kindness of my instructors and the support of others at the studio. When all seems hopeless, when I am body-slammed by grief, when I feel myself tumbling into that dark abyss, I go to my mat.

And on this sub-zero January day, four years after David died, here I am once again in this welcoming space. I pad barefoot into the practice room. Mary, a fellow yogi, smiles and calls out a cheerful good morning. Bev waves from the back of the room. Dave, a guy who does amazing headstands, sets up next to me. He nods and says hello, his South African accent a reminder of how small our world truly is.

Some of these people are now friends. They have seen me at my bleakest. Grief is hard to hide. When you come face to face with another human who is suffering, instinct is to reach out. That’s what they did. I like to think that, in return, my raw emotion gave them permission to open their souls to me. I’ve learned there are many types of heart-break and anguish. We all carry burdens within.

The studio fills quickly, an archipelago of yoga mats in a sea of tranquility. Melanie takes her place at the front and we begin.

Eyes closed, breathing deeply, I listen to the breath that surrounds me. It is the whispering of angels, the ebb and flow of the ocean, the Universe at rest. This is my community.

I envision my son lying next to me. I watch his chest rise and fall in time with my own. I see his dark curls and the stubble on his chin. He looks at peace. In this moment I am free.