Conversation with Emma Conally-Barklem - yoga teacher and writer from England
Kasia - Practising yoga really helped you go through your mom's death. I would like to find out a bit more about your experience of practising yoga through your bereavement and also your idea of setting up a yoga programme for people who are going through a loss of a loved one.
Emma – So, yoga was already integral to my life and the eight limbs of yoga is a philosophy by which I try to live and learn from. When my mum died, I was, at least for a year, in shock of what had just happened and I had all the physical manifestations such as difficulty breathing, brain fog and concentration problems. The limb which really helped me is the fourth limb of yoga, pranayama, which focuses on breath control. In those early stages of grief, I spent a lot of time just breathing in and breathing out focusing on the next moment, because grief kind of happens in waves. And the breath is also a wave so there was a connection between what I was experiencing and how I was trying to deal with it. So, by breathing I was trying to get from one moment to another and that was crucial to me. Also it is a universal thing because we all breathe. Yoga really builds on this understanding and I found these practices so comforting and I wanted to pass them on to people who are grieving. People may have crazy ideas about what yoga is but I wanted the practices to be straightforward so they can be done from a chair or bed. Anybody could do it. I particularly like the practice which is like a self hug. You basically hold yourself focusing on the breath coming in and out so you get the real sensation of that. In the grief process, there’s an intense body sensation, often called an out of body experience. So yoga is about getting back into body and breath. There is also this misconception that yoga always has to be gentle and that breath has to be gentle but actually, there’s a lot of anger that comes up in grief. So there are other breath practices which are quite explosive and are about getting things out. There is a pose called the woodchopper where you act as if you were chopping a piece of wood letting out this big exhale from the mouth, pretty loud. My focus kind of leads to the different emotions that come from grief, and how you could tailor the different practices to those. I passed my practices to Cruse bereavement groups across the North of England and people who volunteer to look after grievers to give them some tools they could use in their work.
Kasia - After a death of a loved one, we very often don't have the mental and physical strength to do anything. You have already explained how yoga can help during this difficult period but what are the benefits of doing even a 10 minute yoga session?
Emma - Even a five minute yoga session gets you in touch with your breath, because that's what yoga is. Without the breath, it is just exercise. Grievers are very good at torturing themselves about the guilt and everything else that they could have done. Yoga takes you out of the past, out of where you are going and the uncertainty of going forward without your loved one. It just brings your back into the middle of the present moment and that’s where you are with your breath. So even five minutes of having that awareness, having a sense of your body moving in time and space and connecting with your heart makes a difference. That is quite a big reset and it can happen in a matter of minutes. Yoga also connects all those things: breath, movement, mind, emotions so it is a holistic tool, which deals with the complexity of what it is to grieve. And also yoga is a huge definition. Connecting with nature is yoga, going out for a walk, noticing the sky, the plans, the animals it is also yoga.
Kasia - Breathing is yoga, as you said before, so we can practice it anytime.
Emma - Yoga for me, it's not an exercise. Exercising is great but that’s not what yoga is about. It's a path and a philosophy and for me, it was the only thing that addressed every aspect of myself together. It can help to be in the present. Imagine that I am laying in bed, I can feel the covers and I can feel the temperature. I can observe my thoughts, my emotions, and I can breathe while I'm doing that, so that I don't have to be at the mercy of them. There's a little distance between me and these really strong emotions that I'm feeling at the moment and yoga creates that space with breathing.
Kasia - Having this five minute session can give you a pause from what you're going through, from your pain and overwhelming emotions.
Emma - Yeah, cause it's relentless, isn't it? So it kind of gives you a timeout from that intensity.
Kasia - When we spoke last time, you said then an online grief community really helped you to go through your mother's death? Would you be able to tell me more about it?
Emma - I just think it's simply another form of community. It helped me in a way that people on there knew and articulated how I was feeling. I was feeling quite lonely and was making judgments thinking that maybe I should be over this by now or that I should be stronger than this. All these things that we are told in what I think is a grief illiterate society such as moving on, coping and being strong. Your real strength is to be able to sit with your feelings and honour them. Those feelings are so intense at first, that it can be a scary thing to do. So when the pandemic hit and the business disappeared I thought that maybe this is the way to connect with my existing students. So I went on Instagram and was just blown away by the great grief communities that were on there, their knowledge, their understanding, their anger about how terrible society is at dealing with a grief narrative. And they were so brutally honest about it. There are so many people who are uncomfortable with conversations about grief, death and loss. They are uncomfortable if you cry or if you express these emotions. People mean well and try to comfort you and some people may find these words comforting but I did not find when they say ‘Your mother would not want you to be sad’ or ‘Heaven gained another angel’ very helpful. More helpful would have been people not trying to fix things and instead saying whatever you are feeling, it’s okay The other dismissive statements can make you feel like you are failing in some way. And it is really about their comfort not yours. So the online grief community really supports grievers, they have done their research, and it is based on their personal experience.
Kasia - Your mum passed away three years ago and I imagine you are not the same person now. You are acting as a grief activist, you're doing your best to improve the lives of people who are grieving because you know how hard this experience was for you. I believe that you don’t hear this question very often, but I would like to ask you how you are really doing after these 3 intense years?
Emma - I think I've only really started to deal with it now. Before because of the pandemic I was forced to stop. I was forced to stop travelling and working. I feel I'm doing better in facing it but I'm doing worse than before as the reality of her absence has finally hit me now. I am further away from the last time I saw her and it is actually more difficult because this is my reality and it is how it is going to be from now. I feel that it’s still the most painful thing that I have ever been through.
Kasia - Thank you very much for sharing this with me. I wanted to ask you this question to show that many people won’t be ok after a year or so. For many people it may seem that 3 years have already passed so you must be doing alright. You are a grief activist, are active on social media, work for a charity which supports people who are going through bereavement so it must mean that you are now over it. I wanted to show by this question that grief is a long and individual process with so many emotions involved.
Emma - Huge emotions. Emotions which hijack you and come out of nowhere. I think it's really important to have people around you who support this because being around a griever, particularly during the lockdown, is very difficult. If you don’t receive support from family and friends, you should go wider - online community, counselling. Use as many things as you need to go through it. This is all part of mental health. I think grief is a really natural process. It's just people underestimate it, or simply don't talk about how this completely rearranges your life. And you have to carve out a new existence. The more people talk and normalise that, the less stigma is attached to it.
Kasia - I agree. The more we talk about it, the more comfortable we feel with our emotions.
Emma - Because there are uncomfortable emotions out there. But it's really important for those emotions to come out in a healthy way. I think it’s difficult for me because what I am going through feels like a life sentence. So when I talk with other grievers who lost their parents 15 years ago I sometimes wonder: Is this what I am going to feel like in 15 years? I was surprised that it hit me again after three years because I thought I’d been through the worst, and this is also an uncomfortable thing to say right now cause you are 16 months in. But I think that people who are in their early stages need to hear that because it's important to find the tools that are going to help from the start because it's going to be a lifelong process.
Kasia - You are completely right. Being aware of how I can feel in a few months or years comforts me because I know that there is something I can do for myself to go through it, in a gentle way.
Emma - Knowing the things you can do to help yourself, and having people around you who understand what you feel is a half of the battle really. I still feel overwhelmed by it at times, and I know I'm a different person. There are people who would want the old me back, but that’s not going to happen. It is important to deal with the reality of the new situation and yoga may help with it as it is kind of a journey into self acceptance. It is not easy but I also think that there’s a good part of grief. There are things like this, our conversation and many people trying to help. I also love the dark humour of some of the grievers around this topic. Once I was joking with them about all the animals we thought our loved ones were, it was really funny. So in this misery, there’s hope, joy and an indication of the great love that you felt. If you had not felt this great love, then you wouldn’t have grief.
Kasia - Do you think that your cultural background or your religion, if you have any, shaped the way you experienced your mom's death? Do you think that it had any impact on the way you have been going through it?
Emma - I'm mixed race. My mom was Caucasian from Yorkshire and my dad is Jamaican. In Jamaica grief culture is very open. After the death of a loved one, the body is brought home for some period of time and there’s about three weeks of drinking, dancing, eating, lots of crying and lots of conversation about the person. People drop in and out, they don’t have to be invited as the Jamaican culture is very laid back. There's this real outpouring care community. It is where it gets complicated for me because my dad came to England, when he was very young so he was kind of transplanted out of that culture. His response has been very in keeping with the British response or the European response: We don't talk about it or We don't go there. So I wonder had I been in Jamaica, would it have been a very different experience? Religion wise, I was raised Christian and I believe in the afterlife. Yoga is not a religion, it’s a philosophy. You can be a Christian Yogi and Muslim Yogi. I don’t like the labels around religions because they have a lot of similarities. They just use a different language describing the same constructs. So in terms of Christianity, I think we can turn to spirituality. I would always think that the energy continues, it never dies, it can only transform. But at the same time there's a conflict. I was thinking to myself, am I deluding myself that she’s around me? But on the other hand, if it can comfort you, there is nothing wrong with that. We are never going to have the answers to the universe so I prefer to believe that she is around and the energy just continues.
Kasia - You wrote a memoir about your mother called You Can't Hug a Butterfly: Love, Loss, Grief and Yoga. I am curious about the story behind the title.
Emma - The summer when my mum died, I was surrounded by white, cabbage butterflies. For some reason, in the natural world, there were a lot of these butterflies around. So while I was going through that visceral pain, at the same time I was surrounded by beauty and these butterflies came to kind of represent my mum to me. And because they came to represent her, I became very aware that we miss our animal mother or the animal father. We miss their smell, their voice, and them hugging us. This brings frustration and sadness because you can see as many butterflies as you want but you still cannot hug your mum. So that’s where the title came from. Although the butterflies comforted me, I couldn't hug them. I think this is the reality of grief. No matter how much you believe in the afterlife, you have to deal with this physical loss, the animal that you've lost and this is tough.
Photo by @zbalanceinlife