Paul Denniston is the Founder and Creator of Grief Yoga, which focuses on the importance of using movement, breath and sound to flow with grief, anger and anxiety in order to access more love, empowerment, liberation and joy.
IN THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT THINGS LIKE:
- The different forms of yoga used in Grief Yoga to bring about healing and transformation.
- The four steps used in Grief Yoga to channel and release anger, anxiety and unresolved grief.
- Grief Yoga leads to transformative healing by focusing more on emotional liberation than physical flexibility.
- Laughter lifts a person’s vibration.
SOME QUESTIONS IRENE ASKS PAUL:
- Does Grief Yoga help anticipatory grief?
- Can Grief Yoga also help and empower grieving children?
- What is a heart touch massage that you offer to the dying?
Listen to the podcast here
Paul Denniston: Founder And Creator Of Grief Yoga
I’ve become familiar with an extraordinary organization that no one in our audience would ever want to belong to, but it is a very important and needed support group to know about. Helping Parents Heal is an incredible nonprofit dedicated to assisting bereaved parents to become shining light parents by providing support and resources to aid in the healing process.
I’m very honored to be able to introduce our esteemed audience to one of the uplifting and gifted presenters and healers who will be at the Helping Parents Heal Conference in Charleston, South Carolina. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to know that the Helping Parents Heal Conference, which was scheduled for April 2020, has been postponed due to the Coronavirus.
My interview is with Paul Denniston, who will be a keynote speaker at the Helping Parents Heal Conference. Paul is the Founder and Creator of Grief Yoga, which focuses on the importance of using movement, breath, and sound to flow with grief, anger, and anxiety in order to access more love, empowerment, liberation, and joy.
Paul, welcome to the show. I am passionate about yoga’s health and relaxation benefits. I have no doubt that many of our audience are going to want to learn about Grief Yoga, which is a combination of many forms of yoga movement and breath techniques. I’m especially eager to hear how Grief Yoga helps students to process grief and use it as a tool for transformative healing. Let’s begin our interview with this question. Please fill us in on your background, what inspired you to create Grief Yoga, and why Grief Yoga was your way to create meaning in your deceased sister’s honor.
Thank you, Irene. It’s such an honor to be with you. I would love to share with you a little bit of my path. I’m originally from Texas. I grew up in a very religious background. My daddy was a preacher. My momma was a Christian school teacher. I grew up with not being taught how to be sad or angry. If anything, those were considered ungodly emotions or maybe a lack of faith. If I was feeling sad, they would either say, “Go and pray it away,” or they would try to avoid sadness completely and say, “Come from a place of action and doing.”
What I tended to do was I would isolate a bit. I would hide away from everybody, especially being a boy growing up in Texas. It’s hard to show that vulnerability because it appeared weak. I would watch and observe how my parents would deal with these challenging emotions like sadness and anger. I saw how my mom didn’t attend her mother’s funeral. She felt so much regret after that. I would see how my father would bottle his anger up. It would boil inside of him, it would explode, it would be scary, and it would hurt other people and be scary to the family.
I would do the same thing. I would try to repress all my sadness, and then I would get moments of anger because I was bullied as a kid. I would let it explode and it would hurt other people. I saw how these challenging emotions, and I was scared of them. I then moved forward later. As I went into a yoga class, I saw that all of that suppressed sadness and anger. Instead of trying to run away from it, I allowed myself to be with it and I allowed myself to flow with it. It gave me this powerful release in the class that I became deeply aware of how much I was holding onto in my body. My body was so tight with stress and anxiety.
As I became a yoga teacher, I developed this type of practice that brought a mind-body approach to take whatever the struggle is and to help to move it through. I do this for myself to help heal a little bit of that inner child within who didn’t know how to be sad or cry. A lot of this practice is also devoted to my sister who passed away from cancer. Her name is Ella. A lot of the times before I begin one of my practices, I’ll say her name out loud and I’ll devote the practice to her.
During the final stages of her life, when she was sitting in her bed with so much pain and even sometimes anger about, “God, why have you left me? I thought you were going to help me or heal me,” I would do exercises that I would normally do in a grief yoga class that helped her to channel and move some of the pain through. It’s what I’ve put together in love and devotion to my sister and again for that inner child within. It’s to create a mind-body ritual to allow us to take whatever the pain and the struggle is using movement, breath, and sound. To use it as fuel to help to open us up to more love, devotion, and grace.
I have a couple of questions for you from what you just said. It sounds like your sister was a blessing that served as a doorway to what you’re doing. How did your parents handle your going into yoga? I would imagine that this way of being must have been part of your journey. Did it enlighten them, or did they remain fixed and say, “He’s crazy over there?”
I am a little crazy, but aren’t we all a little bit here? I do want to say, yes, I believe that here’s the truth. Would I rather have my sister around? Absolutely, but I also see how her life has now moved into more of a spiritual purpose for me as an angel in my life. Within my mom and dad, I had to help them to see that their fear was that yoga, first off, was a religion, and they were afraid that I might be praying to a false God or something like that.
When I told my mom, I said, “Yoga’s not a religion, but the intention is to bring harmony within the mind and body to lift the spirit. Whatever your faith and your belief is, bring it in. You can say this is a body prayer to Jesus.” In that way, I met her where she was within her faith. She was like, “Okay, I can do that.” I also recognize that as I work with people, sometimes I’m working with people who don’t believe in an afterlife. In that situation, I say, “This is going to be an embodiment practice to help you to release struggle and to bring you more peace. That’s the intention here.”
That was a doorway for you also because you have to work with so many people and their needs. That all worked perfectly for you.
I meet them where they’re at, to just say, let’s take a look at the pain in the struggle. I think I do that again because I was never taught to acknowledge it. I’m like, “If we take a moment to move and release the pain in the struggle, it actually can open us up. You can create a new doorway that can lead to more purpose, but we have to create the space to allow the pain that lives within us. We have to move it through.
I’ve also learned from all the interviews I’m doing my work that when you repress a lot of emotions, sometimes that turns your body into sickness, ill-health, and all that kind of thing. It’s so important to release these things.
Bitterness, disease, cancer. It’s so much suppressed. The body remembers pain and trauma. If we don’t feel the feelings fully, it gets stuck in there and we carry these issues in our tissues. It’s about allowing it to move through. That’s the important thing. Movement can be done in many different ways. I approach something that blends yoga and movement, but people do it in different ways. I know a friend of mine who does it with kickboxing. I know a person who does a vigorous dance. Someone will take a jog. Whatever your movement and expression are, it’s perfect.
As long as you’re getting it out. I’ve got to ask you. This is amazing to me. You have taught brief yoga to over 5,000 therapists, counselors, and healthcare professionals around the world. Plus, you teach workshops all over the United States. Can you please briefly explain the different types of yoga you blend to bring about healing and transformation? Are all the professionals you train required to already have an active yoga practice of their own? There may be a few potential brief yoga therapists tuning in to us.
What I blend and I’ve become certified in teaching hatha yoga, vinyasa, and restorative yin yoga. I’m a Kundalini yoga teacher, I’m a laughter yoga teacher, and I’ve learned a modality called “Let Your Yoga Dance,” which is about chakra movement. Any type of dance that we can bring into our life, I’m all for it. It takes what is energy points and chakras and finds ways to move with it.
What I did within it is I was a choreographer back in the day and a movement teacher for actors to help them see how they can become more expressive and find a deeper connection within themselves and to other people. Within it, I was like, “I’m going to create a movement-embodied practice that blends all of these forms of yoga that creates a practice that’s not so much about physical flexibility.” I’m not trying to make you into a little pretzel. I’m trying to create emotional liberation using movement, breath, and sound to empower and open the heart up.
The thing that impresses me about this is some people have trouble articulating their feelings because they’ve never learned to do that. Through movement, even if they’re not articulating it verbally, they’re still releasing it.
The way that I handle that is because, yes, you’re right, we can’t sometimes articulate the heartbreak, the guilt, the trauma, or the shame. What I do within the practice is bring in sound. If we can’t say it in words, sometimes I’m using the vibration of my voice and sound to take whatever the struggle and the pain is. I don’t have to have the words. I’m just moving it through. It’s an example of how I’m using sound, and then I will incorporate movement to say, “Let’s go for this specific thing of anger, regret, hurt, or anxiety using the movement and the sound to move it through.”
What types of grief does Grief Yoga address? Is it also effective for a feeling of loss due to a divorce or for what we’re many of us are going through with being sequestered due to the virus and all? Does Grief Yoga help with all of that?
Yes. I believe that if we choose to love in this lifetime, we will grieve. Grief comes in so many different ways. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one or a loss of a pet, it could be the loss of a job. You could be going through grief from physical injuries and you feeling like, “I’m not able to move the way that I was.” Even with my sister, she had physical injuries that she couldn’t move the way that she could anymore. You can lose your house. Whatever loss is in change, that is what grief is. If you choose not to grieve in this lifetime, then you’re not going to love, and I choose that I want to love.
Grief looks in so many different ways. You can grieve for the ideal parent that you thought you wanted to have. You can grieve for the loss of a pet. It’s whatever makes you sad. It is endless. It is a natural human emotion that we all experience and go through. The thing is that if you allow yourself to share your sadness or to be with your sadness, it allows you to see we’re all struggling, we’re all in pain, and it’s okay. I think the normal thing is we’re going to want to try to push it away, or nobody wants to see it, or we want to avoid it. The only way to get out of the pain is to move through it and to be with it in a compassionate and loving kindness way.
When you get to a yoga studio and someone is helping you with a process like Grief Yoga, you’re being received with love and understanding, which is wonderful. It’s not like the outside world is like, “Get over it already,” or whatever those kinds of messages are.
The heart of what yoga is about is about compassion. I believe that’s the important thing that we need to experience grief and loss. We need to be compassionate and kind to ourselves.
Paul, please share how Grief Yoga helped you to find recovery from alcohol, drugs, and the loss of your stepson through addiction.
When I spent so many decades trying to run away from grief, anxiety, or anger, one of the things that I did was I went into addiction. Alcohol, drugs, sex or anything that I could try to help to numb the pain. What it did is it kept me more from a place of disconnection when deeply what I was wanting was I was wanting connection, but I was going to sources that weren’t providing that.
As I came forward within my grief yoga practice, I had to take a deep look at myself, some of my wounds, and some of the ways that I was trying to avoid my grief. I thought to myself, “If I’m going to be authentic in this practice and help others, I got to do this work on myself. What I did was I went into a place of recovery and I looked at the deep places of sadness, shame, or guilt and having to make amends to people that I loved and cared about.
What it did was it allowed me to look at the shadow aspect of the thing that was hard for me to look at. Instead, I allowed myself to be present with it and see how other people would struggle. My stepson, David Jr., dealt with drugs and he also couldn’t deal with pain. He was bullied as a kid, as was I. I also witnessed how he went into a place of recovery. He kept going back. He was helping others and he was sponsoring.
He had an incident where he had a bad incident with his girlfriend and they broke up. He had a relapse, and then he went back to using what he had before, his body couldn’t take it, and he died. In that space, our family is still recovering and still grieving over that deeply. I recognize that even though I might have had a place where I’ve recovered from it, it’s still, for me, one day at a time. There are a lot of people out there who are struggling. We got to be kind to ourselves.
You’ve had some tough losses, as many other people, but you found a wonderful way to work with them and give yourself a release, which is terrific. How exactly does Grief Yoga channel and release anger, anxiety, unresolved grief, and all of the other myriad emotions? Talk to us about how you employ these modalities because it’s not exactly like your typical yoga.
What I do within a grief yoga class is a four-step process. The first step is awareness. It’s about getting aware of your breath, your present moment, and where you hold the pain in your body. As you become aware of that, even if you choose to devote your practice to a loved one and say their name out loud, I begin to slowly move the body and start to use the breath and start to warm up the spine.
That then allows us to come to the next step, which is about expression. Expression then uses movement, breath, and sound to take intentions behind movements and say, “Here’s what we’re going to do to release the anger. Here’s what we’re going to do to release and move through regrets or the fear or the hurt. This movement and exercise is gearing towards that.”
With expression, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to take the pain and use it as fuel to move it through, which would lead us to the next step, which is about connection. A lot of the time, within grief and loss, we’re coming from a place of disconnection and separation. Within a connection, it’s flowing meditations that connect more towards grace, gratitude, and love. Within a connection, if it’s in a grief yoga class, I find there are three ways to connect. There’s a connection to self. There’s a connection and experiential things with other people in the class. There’s a spiritual connection.
That is about helping to fill us up, finally leading us into a place of surrender. That’s where you are releasing and letting go, not of the love, but letting go of the pain that are restorative postures that can help you to ground down and come to a place of more peace. That’s the four-step process that I take people through within the movement class.
Let me repeat this. The first step is awareness of where the pain is in your body. The second is the expression of using movement to release emotions. The third is connection instead of disconnection. The fourth is letting go of the pain.
Do you do this all in one session?
Are they typically hour-long sessions?
It can be. I can condense it down to twenty minutes. It can also be an hour. It can be an hour and a half. It all depends. I have online classes that are twenty minutes where you can get a boost of it or you can go for longer experiences for an hour and a half.
Besides training all these people to do this, you also have online classes. If a person can’t get to someone you’ve trained who’s teaching this, they can do this through your site.
I do this as a grief yoga teacher training for yoga teachers who have gone through a 200-hour certified training. Also, I do a thing called grief movement training that’s geared and that’s online training specifically for therapists, counselors, or healthcare professionals looking to create breakthroughs within their community and clients using a mind-body-spirit approach for transformative healing.
You answered how at least transformative healing is by focusing more on emotional liberation than physical flexibility, which you’ve spoken to. Can you also tell us how you incorporate laughter yoga into this modality? Is that part of this whole presentation that you also do? That’s cool.
It’s a fine line between laughter and tears. One of the things that I do that can be part of the connection is to bring laughter exercises to help lift the spirit. Laughter yoga is this unconventional thing where you do an exercise and you use laughter to help to move things through. I have people connect to whatever they’re going through and feeling, but just using laughter as a tool.
I’ll tell you something interesting. At the same time that my sister, Ella, was dying and my stepson was in so much pain, there was so much grief that I was holding onto. Yet there were times when I couldn’t even move it through. What I would do sometimes is I’m going to use laughter as a tool. I’m going to laugh about this upcoming loss that is coming. I would laugh about the death of my sister, which was so hard for me.
What happened by doing it was, all of a sudden, as I did it, it would break me into a place of tears. I would have that release that I was looking for. I’d be like, “I needed to have it to move through here.” It’s interesting, too, because the body can’t tell if laughter is real or fake. Yet there are so many health benefits that come with laughter.
The endorphins are being released from the brain. Also, because I do workshops with spiritual mediums and stuff, we’ll use laughter to lift their vibration. Within that, then sometimes they have deeper connections with loved ones because their vibration is in a higher place. First, though, within my practice, I’m like, “I don’t want to sugarcoat things. I want to address the pain. I want to move that through.” Also, the intention is to lift the spirit. I think laughter’s an important thing, just as it’s important for us to experience and be with sadness or to release anger. Happiness is our birthright too. We need to find times to let joy breathe.
It’s finding joy in life, which is exactly what this show is about. I could not agree with you more. Let me ask you. While you’re doing your laughter yoga, they’re simulating laughing. They don’t have to come up with a great joke or anything.
No, it’s not about jokes or humor. It’s about an exercise. Take, for instance, I have this one where it’s like laughing gas. Bring your hands up to your nose and you pretend like it’s inhaling laughing gas. You release it, let it go, and laugh. It’s little exercises like that. I’ll even tell people, “Whatever you’re feeling, I want you to feel that, but just use laughter. If you’re angry, use it to move it through.” It’s a sense of movement, breath, and sound. Even though within pain, I’m doing things like exhaling. Also, that’s within laughter. It’s movement, breath, and sound that helps to liberate and open ourselves up.
I would imagine a lot of us being in our homes right now, sequestered and using some laughter yoga to release. People must be feeling grief. They call that anticipatory grief. I’m sure about what’s going to be for me and what’s going on. I’m struggling with this. I would imagine this is a good tool for people to use right now.
Yeah, for sure. I believe we need to have as many tools as possible. Going with anticipatory grief, we’re in unchartered territory right now and there can be so much fear of like, “I don’t know when this is going to end. What is going to happen with my work and my money? I’m afraid of getting the virus. I’m afraid of loved ones dying.”
The important thing that happens within yoga, in general, is that it helps us get present right here, right now. I’m okay, everything is good, everything is safe. I might be going through some feelings that I need to get in touch with, but it’s about focusing on being present. I think that’s a little bit of what yoga will do in this moving meditation. To get present to the here and now and be with what is.
It’s interesting that you call yoga a moving meditation because, through yoga, you don’t necessarily have to sit down, be quiet, and get to a space. It’s a form of meditation to be in yoga. Correct?
It is a meditation. It is a moving meditation. You’re focusing on the breath, but you’re moving the body. A moving meditation also could be taking a walk outside and observing your breath. The thing with meditation is observing your breath. You can do that in whatever way that is, but it’s about bringing attention to the breath and the sensations within the body. Some people are feeling within meditation like, “I can’t meditate. My mind is always racing.” That’s the intention. That’s what we want to do with meditation. We want to try to quiet the mind by deepening the breath and getting into the body.
One of the things for me to help me with meditation if my mind is racing and I’m having a hard time is I’ll focus on the words body, breath. Sometimes I’ll even place my hand on a part of my body that I want to connect to. Maybe there’s pain there or “Can you bring it back into the body?” That’s one of the things that happens with anticipatory grief or anxiety. We’re all stuck up in the head. What we want to do is we want to ground ourselves down. There’s so much wisdom in the body, so it’s about grounding down.
Grief Yoga, can this also be used for children?
The kids are feeling all these emotions, then mom and dad are doing their thing. How can it be used for children? Their attention spans are shorter and all that kind of thing.
Kids love this, too, because they don’t have the words to talk about whatever their fear is about or their anger. These techniques and exercises use movement, breath, and sound, kids will love this. Even the laughter stuff too. I must say, this yoga is a different type of yoga because there’s even an influence of martial arts within it, too. There’s powerful breath and there are movements that release things too. Kids love it. Sometimes teenagers might be a little bit insecure because they might be afraid that they might look a little silly and stuff like that. Once they start to experience and do it, they’re like, “This feels good.”
It then becomes cool.
Part of what I’m doing within this practice is to empower them. There’s a lot of stuff that I do that connects them to their fire, because grief is exhausting. It’s about tapping into your fire to move the pain through. It’s a strong focus on empowering that person. Even empowering it, as I go through a class to say, “Whenever you need to take a break, even though all of us might be doing our own thing and doing this stuff, if you take a break, breathe, and rest, then that is perfect.” It’s empowering them to do whatever is right to connect to their intuition and their inner teacher to help them move forward.
This is a little on the side, but I’m fascinated by the fact that you do something called heart touch massage to help the dying. Could you tell us about that? I’ve never heard of that before.
Heart touch massage is a compassionate practice for those in hospice or for those in the last stages of their life where you gently lay your hands on a person and connect to their breath. As you gently massage the person, you perhaps get curious. If I’m massaging their hands, maybe it’s like, “I wonder how many people these hands have touched.” If I’m massaging their feet, I go, “I wonder where all of these feet have traveled to.” It’s a moment of appreciation. That goes beyond words. It’s a loving, kindness and compassionate touch. It’s a very gentle massage, but it’s so sacred. In those times, they’re people who are in pain. They’re wanting that connection.
When I was massaging my sister in her final days, she was looking for any way to find a connection or to distract her from some of the pain. As someone who cares for them, it was a place for me to say, “I don’t know how to help you, but maybe this is going to help you here.” A big thing for me that I had to do is, as I did it, I was coming from a place of an empath. Sometimes what would happen is I would be like a sponge and I almost would take on their pain.
For a learning experience, what I learned is that it was important for me not to take on their pain but to come from more and find the balance of where it was from being an empath to being compassionate. To say, “I can sit with your pain, I can touch your pain, I can hold your hand, but it doesn’t mean I have to take that on. I’ve got enough pain, but I can sit with yours and I can be with it. When I walk away, I’m not going to take your pain with me.”
Find the balance of where it was from being an empath, being compassionate to say, I can sit with your pain. I can touch your pain, I can hold your hand, but it doesn't mean I have to take that on. Click To Tweet
It’s a beautiful form of detachment, but that’s a detachment with love.
Do you also work with hospice?
You must have an important message about the importance of healing to share with our audience.
Healing comes in so many different ways and I think we have to process what healing is. I’ll speak from my personal experience. What healing was for me was to create a practice like Grief Yoga that helps to heal my inner child. To help him say that sadness is okay or it’s okay to channel anger. What was healing for me was to be able to address the fears that perhaps my parents had about religion. To say, “It’s okay. I’m not trying to take away your belief, but here’s a way that you can look at it that can help.”
Physical healing for me as I dealt with injuries was about sometimes it’s okay to pause, slow down, and let the body recover in its natural way. Healing is also about helping others. It helps me to get out of my space and it helps me to see that there are other people that are hurting and struggling. Is there a way that I can help somebody else? For me, that’s healing.
You are a beautiful human being. Thank you, Paul.
I’m just mirroring you, Irene.
Thank you for that. I know our audiences all want to connect with you now. Tell them how. They want to find out more about you. They want to find out about the practice. Go for it.
I’m GriefYoga.com. I have a lot of stuff on there. Check it out. There are lots of even free classes. There’s a free Grief Yoga Chair Class that I love and it takes you through the process I just talked about. Check out that. If you’re a yoga teacher, there’s a place where you can check out the Grief Yoga Teacher Training. If you’re a therapist or you hold space for bereavement groups or have a healing community, you feel like, “I’d love to learn some of these movements,” there’s Grief Movement Training that I do online. GriefYoga.com, check me out. There are lots of stuff there.
You’ve got it all covered. I love that you also do a Grief Yoga Chair Class because some people can’t get on and off that map, but it’s still available to them the way they can.
I love chair yoga. I got people that are in their 80s who’ve never done yoga before, who will try this, and they’re like, “I love this.”
What is Paul Dennison’s tip for finding joy in life?
I’ll do many different things. Sometimes I’m like, “I’m going to take a dance break and I’ll play a little song. I’ll put a little Taylor Swift on and I’ll shake it off. For me, finding joy in my life is I’ve got a dog. I will go and I will hug it or I will play with it. Finding joy for me is connecting and reaching out to a friend who makes me laugh and laugh with them. One more thing, this goes back to my little child within. My child within loves to color. What I do is I bring my little coloring book out. I have markers and I’ll color a mandala and stuff. That brings me joy too.
I think a lot of people now are going to go online and get a coloring book. We’re already practicing laughter yoga.
We’re doing it right now.
I am so much looking forward to hearing your keynote speech at the Helping Parents Heal Conference and giving you a hug when I see you there when we’re allowed to shorten the distance between our spaces again. Thank you for creating Grief Yoga, which helps people who are grieving losses to heal and transform. Thank you from my heart for our very interesting and enlightening interview. Make sure to follow us and like us on social at @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Thanks again for joining us. As I always like to say, to be continued, many blessings, and bye for now.