West Midlands WAY member Orla shares how yoga has transformed her life since her husband Andy died three and a half years ago – and how she is now helping other WAY members through their grief.
"When Andy was alive and well, we both had full time jobs. I was head of creative for a hair cosmetics brand. It was demanding, deadline driven and very stressful. I was very unsupported by them when my husband was dying and after he died. I felt like I had given way too much of my life to my work and walked away feeling beaten and very let down.
After Andy’s death I was lost, numb, very confused, very alone and struggling to parent our 4-year-old son as I was consumed by anger more than anything. I fell into yoga classes because those were the only ones available at the times I could go to at the gym (during school hours). I had practised yoga in the years before but only occasionally, once a week when I could. I realised how closed and stiff and unyielding my body was in my grief, and I realised how traumatised my brain was each time I practised meditation and relaxation at the end of the class.
That release of my body and my tears was soothing. I didn’t seem to be able to cry at any other time. I was in a total fog of panic 99% of the time. So having those 10 minutes of relaxation three times a week was when I managed to let go and release some of the pain, to sit with what had happened, to see it over and over in my mind and to try and ‘accept’ what had actually happened.
Eventually I decided that yoga was how I wanted to live my life going forward. I took a 250-hour teacher training class, which all happened during the very first lockdown. My introduction to Zoom, yoga teaching, learning about the anatomy – all whilst at home with a 5-year-old, who was very resistant to home schooling. During that first lockdown, yoga was my absolute refuge. It was the only thing that made sense. I was still struggling mentally with grief, with being a solo mom, with it being only the two of us at home with no other contact for months and months on end. But thank goodness I had yoga.
It took me almost a year after losing my husband to join WAY. Many counsellors had mentioned it to me but I didn’t see how it could possibly help to be in touch with other widowed people. Eventually I was so desperate to speak to anyone who could understand my pain that I finally signed up. Joining was like a breath of fresh air. Suddenly there were thousands of people there who were always connecting, always talking, always sharing practical as well as emotional support. I felt like I wasn’t going crazy anymore. It was such a relief to read others saying things that I was thinking but hadn’t dared say out loud to anyone as I thought it wasn’t normal. But everything I had felt or thought was normal. It is the most incredible support group.
Once I had qualified as a yoga teacher and had started teaching yoga (online at that stage, as we were still in lockdown), it dawned on me that maybe this is something I could share with other members in WAY too. Perhaps yoga could help them the same way it had helped me.
I was so very, very nervous on the first class I did – but an incredible 65 people turned up! And I was still learning on my feet and hadn’t quite gauged what would be the right feel for this class, but that came with a little bit of time.
The Saturday morning online yoga class is very accessible to everyone. It is all floor based (so no getting up and down) and I offer modifications to enable people to either get into a move or get deeper into a move. It is about feeling the body moving, allowing the movement, and closing your eyes and appreciating everything you can feel as you are moving.
We practise calming breathwork – great for when anxiety takes over, great for self soothing, all of which helps to ease the nervous system when it has gone into overdrive. And then there is the 30 minutes of guided meditation/Yoga Nidra. This is a chance for everyone to switch off their cameras, to get very comfortable and cosy, and let me guide the thoughts through the different layers of consciousness. Many people fall asleep – and that is absolutely fine.
Over time I thought it might be useful to stop and chat after the class – so there is usually a group and we grab a cuppa, and chat. We discuss what we have struggled with that week and also we try and find something that we have achieved or something that has brought us a little bit of joy or gratitude. I have also run a half day retreat for WAY members and am running a yoga session at the Community Fun Day in Birmingham on Saturday, 21 May.
From using my yoga practice in this way – to give some ease to those in grief – I have realised that this is now my absolute calling in life. I have never had a calling before, I simply got on with stuff without any thought and accepted whatever was thrown my way.
Losing Andy forced me to take another look at my life. His loss of life, loss of seeing his son grow, loss of so much beauty and potential made me see that I needed to treat myself and my life with more honour and to be far more conscious of my part in it.
I also needed to get myself together to be a Mum who could cope – this is still an ongoing practice but the difference in how I was in the early days is very clear.
It has been 3.5 years since Andy died. It is still hard to believe and accept. But I now move forward with purpose. I am a work in progress, but life is getting better and I do smile, laugh, and I do have purpose and am growing into this different life every day. Of course, I have bad days too, but I am better at coping with those now.
I do think I am a better person than I was before Andy died. I wish I had the tools that I have now when he was alive. Perhaps a lot of this is driven by that feeling of total helplessness when someone you love is dying and you can’t stop it, you don’t know how to best help or soothe them. I can’t help Andy now, but I hope I can help others who are going through the same struggle I was."
WAY members can join Orla’s Saturday morning yoga sessions online. Details can be found on the Events pages.