Yoga for Managing Painful Feelings

I remember one of the most powerful things Gloria said to me during my time as a Yoga Advisor at Semperviva: “Many people come to us because they are suffering. Sometimes they are suffering physically, sometimes they are suffering emotionally. Either way, they are suffering, and it is our job to help them through that struggle.” 

For me, the statement resonated deeply. Yoga had been the friend that carried me through my heartbreak, the Godmother that supported me through my parents’ separation, and the safe, connected space within which I learned self-compassion. My mat saw more tears than sweat; during Kundalini I sometimes lost awareness of whether I was laughing or crying and each Savasana was met with a new piece of awareness. When I felt completely out of control in every area of my life, Yoga was the constant on which I could rely.

Today, clients often come to me wanting to stop their painful thoughts resulting from transitions and loss. Wanting to erase their memories of negative experiences, or shut off their anxiety. They hope I have Men In Black or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-like powers. Of course, we’ve yet to reach a point whereupon we can selectively erase memories, so until then, we may have to stick with the less-desirable route: as Robert Frost one said, “The only way out is through.”

This is not the instinctive response, however. The instinctive response is to avoid–to work, watch T.V., overbook one’s schedule, eat, or consume alcohol or drugs. But, similar to one who might be afraid of flying (like me), or snakes, avoidance will not make the discomfort associated with the fear, or the pain associated with the memory/thought go away. If I were working with a client with a phobia, we would engage in exposure therapy–systematically desensitizing the client to the object of her fear, while taking time to tune into her breath and body and ensure she feels safe throughout the process. Ultimately, by “facing” the fear, she feels more in control, creates new associations, and challenges her previously held beliefs.

The process is similar with painful thoughts and memories associated with grief and/or transitions. Distraction is necessary to get through the day, but if one distracts 24/7, well, years may go by but the pain will still remain as strong as day one. This is where yoga comes in! I often prescribe to clients “grief time”  which is half-hour periods (or whatever the client feels appropriate) during which a client who is adjusting to a loss can spend a period of time making sense of their loss, thinking about the person or change that is causing them pain, perhaps writing, listening to music, looking at photos, crying, or, you guessed it, yoga!  Yoga is a beautiful place to grieve and adjust, as it provides that safe space whereupon one can face difficult feelings while bringing attention to their breath and body, whilst feeling the interconnectedness and compassion of a class full of humans and the guidance of an instructor.

So, if you are experiencing a loss that is causing you grief, make “going through” your intention in class. Practise self-compassion as you go between focusing on your breath and experiencing the pain of your loss.  As Pema Chodron says, “sit” in those painful feelings. Like the snake that becomes less terrifying, the feelings will become less painful.

Keep in mind grief can occur during retirement or job-loss, aging, breakups, physical changes to one’s body–basically, any situation in which you are experiencing transition (even if by choice). Of course, I encourage you to seek professional counselling support in addition to yoga practice–particularly in the event of trauma and/or unexpected transitions, or if your sleep, appetite, and concentration are disrupted. In such cases, Yoga can be a powerful complement to the healing process.

Megan Bruneau (M.A, R.C.C.) is an avid yoga practitioner, former Semperviva Yoga Advisor and most impressively, a Registered Clinical Counsellor. Megan draws upon her life experience to inspire people towards healthy balanced living and has first-hand experience of the life-changing effects of yoga. See more posts by Megan at