Try Grief Yoga to release trapped emotions

Anke Neustadt

Growing up in Texas, Paul Denniston wasn’t taught how to grieve.

There were just two ways his father and mother — a Baptist minister and a teacher in a Christian school — said you dealt with the pain of loss: You held it in or you put it in God’s hands.

That might seem to cover all the bases but it ignores the toll that suppressed feelings take on our bodies — something Denniston addresses in his new book about the practice of what he calls Grief Yoga, “Healing Through Yoga: Transform Loss Into Empowerment.

“My parents felt showing sadness was a sign of weakness or a lack of faith,” he explains in a recent interview, “but all I saw was how bottling it up leads to explosive anger and depression and guilt. It was frightening to witness.”

A group of people doing yoga in a park, surrounded by large trees.

Paul Denniston leads a Grief Yoga class, a practice meant to help people come to terms with grief through movement.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez / For The Times)

On a recent afternoon in Studio City, the L.A. resident took a group through a series of poses, movements and sounds (he also uses exercises involving laughter and guttural roars to unlock trapped emotions). Dressed in loose exercise clothes, the lean 52-year-old was full of smiles and friendly encouragement as he guided the group through what he considers the four stages of healing: awareness, expression, connection and surrender.

Two women raise their arms and look up.

Paul Denniston asked Grief Yoga participants to dedicate the session to the person they were grieving. Amy Neville, front, dedicated the class to her son, Alexander, who died in 2020.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez / For The Times)

A framed photo of a young man leans on a sweater next to a yoga mat on the grass.

While practicing Grief Yoga, Amy Neville placed a photo on the ground of her son, Alexander, who died in 2020.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez / For The Times)

People grieve for many reasons, Denniston says. When a relationship or marriage ends, or we lose a job (and our sense of purpose with it), or a global pandemic robs us of our sense of connection with others, the result is a painful loss that “demands expression, and once you release it, you can open yourself to a deeper, meaningful transformation. That’s what I hope my practice and this book will help people understand.”

While he’s hardly the first to apply yoga to grief, Denniston has drawn from many types of yoga — including Hatha, Vinyasa and Kundalini — to create an integrated practice he teaches in workshops in Los Angeles and online. He also teaches the Grief Yoga practice with grief expert David Kessler all over the country.

Try the following exercises to better understand what Grief Yoga is and isn’t.

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