The wing of my heart – my journey of discovering unattended grief in the physical body
My story begins in a seated pose; my head stacked over shoulders stacked over hips, calm and unsuspecting of the ghost in my left shoulder. You see, I’d been on retreat in Maui now for several days. I’d truly arrived, my soul had caught up with my body and I found myself steeped in the practice of morning meditation.
I’ve always been a sporadic meditator only glimpsing the magic everyone spoke of on occasion and really only ready for a sit after wringing out the “yayas” with asana. This retreat was different, meditation was first. We were guided by true Tantric masters. Sally Kempton facilitated our meditations and then we were led through the yoga practice with my favorite teacher Sianna Sherman.
On this particular morning as the tropical breeze blew through the room, I felt particularly comfortable in my body. We established our connection to our root, our connection to our crown and to our breath. We began to cultivate opposition sensation through memories allowing our mind to pass back and forth between two opposing memories until they became one sensation. For example, we brought our awareness to our mind and remembered a time we felt most smart, most together and then a time we we felt most lost and most stupid and passed back and forth between the two memories until they became one sensation. It’s a profound practice.
Well, we get to the heart chakra and we are instructed to remember a time when we felt most in love and then a time when we felt most unloved. For me, both of these memories were of my marriage that ended two and a half years ago. I began to feel overwhelmed with emotion, panicked in fact. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to run out of the room and claw at my chest. Tears fell down without hesitation and my breathing was loud and erratic. Every pore of my being felt raw and unnerved. Fight or flight, my old standby reaction, was in full effect. But this time I stayed with it. I steadied my breath the best I could, letting memories grip me and trusting the release would come. Slowly as the opposing memories became one sensation, I felt the strongest desire to say “I’m sorry!” I’m sorry to my ex-husband, to myself, for the promises broken, the vows we couldn’t keep. “I’m sorry.” Miraculously as that sensation passed, all that remained was absolute forgiveness. Forgiveness of any blame I placed on myself and on him, pure and profound forgiveness.
Phew, let me tell you after coming out of that meditation I was spent. Words could not do justice to how incredible and exhausting this experience was for me. We shared with one other person in the group of nearly fifty and I was so grateful to have a sweet and maternal, seasoned meditator to be my share partner that morning. I could barely speak of my experience with any coherence but she still seemed to understand and support my process.
Then it was time for yoga practice. “Are you kidding me? No way. I couldn’t possibly do a challenging practice now. I need a nap!”~~ Run, hide, sleep, avoid, don’t feel, don’t show up, it’s self care, you need rest.~~ So I told my best friend Tracy, who I convinced to go on the retreat with me, “I think I’m gonna skip class and rest.” “Alright, if you say so…” Tracy said with a knowing look that she always gives me whenever she gently calls me on my bullshit. This is why she’s my BFF after all. She’s usually right (and I don’t say that about many people, trust me) but she never pushes her opinion on me, rather she gives me a nudge to look at if that is really what I feel I need. She is the best kind of teacher. She walked on to the class and I soon hurried after her.
It didn’t take long for the magic of yoga to be present maybe two surya namaskara and I felt better. The truth was my resistance was completely drained out of me. I reveled in the role of the student guided by Sianna’s familiar voice and deep wisdom. I felt a sense of homecoming and was quickly absorbed in the practice and I all but forgot the emotional upheaval I had just experienced. Yoga is so amazing that way how we can truly surrender to the practice and feel held in community. Why did I think I should have skipped class again?
So we near the end of practice and it’s time for backbends. I hadn’t been practicing deep backbends since my shoulder injury I had been struggling with for about two years. It was diagnosed as rotator cuff tendinitis and my practice had changed to support recovery. I practiced more stability and less expansion in my asanas and urdva danurasana (full backbend) was mostly eliminated from my practice as it seemed to aggravate my symptoms. We were given some options, one of which was urdva d on a partner’s ankles. I’m very familiar with this and have taught it many times. I can get anyone into this pose and they are always amazed at how good it feels. Often, the student doesn’t think it’s possible and when I support them in this partner pose incredible breakthroughs happen. I know this. But this time it’s me struggling with the “I can’t do it” and Tracy, God love her, isn’t reaching under my shoulder blades and lifting me up like I do to the student. Why? Because she knows I am strong enough and need to get there on my own. Dammit. There she goes being right again. So I lift up into the pose with minimal struggle and Tracy is adjusting my triceps in towards my midline when I feel this serious pain in my left shoulder. Oh shit, I think, I’ve done it now! I tell her it hurts. She said “you’re ok” in that same way she does, total love but not ready to give up on the process. I took another breath or two and came down. And my shoulder pain has been gone ever since. It’s been a month now and I get little twinges from the tight muscles but none of the pain that had plagued me daily for nearly two years.
Now, it’s taken me a while to actually assimilate what happened on that day in late October. The lessons are profound. On a physical level, it was the perfect storm. We were hot, sweaty and had been led through a brilliant sequence of postures to prep us for backbending. I believe my left shoulder was slightly dislocated and when Tracy, an amazing yoga teacher well versed in the art of adjusting, held my arms as I went up, my left shoulder popped back in. I was lucky. I went toward my sensation of pain and released it. On a physical level, I would never tell a student to move toward pain. It’s a slippery slope and frankly, I think the result could have easily gone the other way. But what I am suggesting is our physical manifestation of pain and injury always has an emotional component.
I recognize that until that morning, I had never grieved the loss of my marriage. There was good reason for this. My dad died at the same time my marriage was ending. I couldn’t handle both. I grieved my father. It was the right choice at the time. I stuffed away the loss of my marriage and chalked up my lack of sadness as having gotten over it during the marriage, it was falling apart for years and I was better off without him. I am happier now and I don’t regret my divorce but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t deep grief left unattended.
Our shoulders are known by some as the wings of the heart chakra. My left shoulder, the broken wing of my broken heart. It makes so much sense now. How could I have not seen it sooner? Was it because I was too busy to sit with grief? I had to hold myself together for my sons, for my career. And it takes more than time to truly show up for our hard emotions, it takes great courage. This is why going on a yoga retreat is so vital; we set intentional space to be held, safe and supported so we can fully show up as our authentic and broken-open selves. We allow ourselves the “retreat” from daily responsibility to become the heroine in our own story courageously journeying into the fires of our own hearts.
On this retreat we chanted the mantra Swaha daily, which means “complete offering.” We learned of purification rituals where devotes throw offerings to a raging fire while chanting Swaha over and over again. I offer these words as tribute to the fires of my heart and to the teachings that have brought me to a place of knowing and willingness to continue my journey of awareness. I thank the gods for the sisterhood and heart tribe I feel holding me as I devote myself to self discovery. Swaha Swaha Swaha.