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.”
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.
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.