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Ways of Seeing: Grieving through tragedy with yoga

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Posted on December 27, 2012 |
By Joanna Colwell



Practicing Yoga While Grieving a Tragedy

On the Saturday after the Sandy Hook shootings, I taught two silent yoga classes. I demonstrated the posture, the students watched me and then held the pose until they heard me ring a bell. At the sound of the bell, they watched me demonstrate the next pose. I looked around the room at these dedicated yoga students, each processing their grief in different ways. We were practicing yoga, breathing together, some of us crying.

I chose to hold class this way because silence seemed like the only possible response to this unspeakable horror. When we practice yoga, we open our hearts. Physiologically, we stretch the tissue surrounding the heart and lungs. We relax the diaphragm and allow it to move freely. We observe our breath, and practice softening ourselves in the face of difficulty. We release tension from the areas where it accumulates: the jaw, the forehead, the belly.

When we open our hearts, some of the barriers between ourselves and others dissolve. I feel like I am those parents who brought their kids to school, expecting to see them at the end of the day. I am guessing most parents and grandparents, most people, feel this in the pits of our bellies, that we are that community, where this tragedy occurred. What do we do with this grief? I find myself doing “normal things” like cooking, tidying the house, practicing yoga, interspersed with bouts of sobbing. I have had to be careful how much media I take in.

One of my teachers tells a story about a murderous, thieving man who was stalking the Buddha in a forest. The Buddha appeared to be walking at an extremely slow pace, and the villain was confident that he’d be able to overtake him. But no matter how fast he walked, and then ran, he could never catch up with the Awakened One, who still seemed to be proceeding at a snail’s pace. At last, in utter frustration, the murderer screamed out, “STOP!”

At which point the Buddha turned around, and calmly and forcefully replied, “YOU are the one who must stop. You must stop killing, lying, harming. You must train your mind to stop generating harmful thoughts which become harmful speech and harmful actions.” The legend says that at that moment, the would-be assailant fell at the feet at the Buddha, weeping. He became one of the Buddha’s most dedicated disciples, and went on to help many others attain liberation.

My deepest prayer is that we, as a society, can attain this kind of redemption. Can we take a hard look at our own tendencies for violence? Can we look at the ways we violate the sanctity of life with our endless wars, cruel and unusual prisons, and insane lack of gun regulation? Can we stand up for the kind of world we want to live in, where children know they are safe, whether they live in rural New England or the inner city?

At home in Vermont, looking at the fire in our woodstove, and watching the flames transform oak to ash, I pray for my own grief to be transformed into compassion and right action. The most recent polls suggest that the tide may finally be turning on gun control. May each of us have the courage to take some steps towards healing our world.

Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury’s Marble Works District. She lives in East Middlebury with her husband, daughter, father-in-law, and two cats. Joanna would like to encourage readers to take action for saner gun laws in the United States.

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