Healing Grief with Story and Yoga

I’ve been fascinated with fairytales lately. It had been childhood since I last delved into their fantastic images, symbols and magical journeys. I’ve rediscovered them all over again for their incredible power of healing.

Recently I worked on the Grimm’s fairytale The 12 Swans, which I renamed based on various sources I researched. I worked on this story this August with storyteller Laura Simms at her annual residency in Philo, California.

I was drawn to tell this tale of a young woman who is responsible for the fact that her 12 brothers must die because of her birth, and must restore her 12 brothers who have been enchanted and turned into swans. Her task is difficult, to spin, weave and sew 12 shirts for her brothers to break the spell, but to add to difficulty, she must not speak or laugh for 6 years and she must make everything from stinging nettles. A king falls in love with her but by trickery of the queen mother, gets the girl accused of witchcraft and dragged to the stake to be burned. She finishes the shirts just in time, sans one last sleeve and restores the brothers, breaks the spell and can finally speak and defend herself.

We are drawn to stories such as fairy tales for the symbols and images they present and how they point to our personal experience on a deep level. Mythologist Joseph Campbell said that the purpose of the symbol is for the witness to experience the transcendent within himself. The physical symbol points past itself and toward the transcendent. One then can have yoga, or union, with that divine within.

When offering a story for telling, Laura said the listener will create their own meaning from the symbols alone, rather than if this story “fits.” As a storyteller my job is not to project my own personal interpretation onto a story but allow the listener to participate in his own experience of the story and its images and make relationships to it.

Aristotle said that the soul speaks in an image. Our task is to listen deeply to the interior landscape of the body, feel it, experience it, uncover the symbols and stories and express it in order to bring a deep awareness of ourselves, undo blocks and uncover resistance and find our ultimate freedom, union of yoga with the self, that is always there, unblemished. It is through yoga, chitti vritti narodaha, by ceasing the fluctuations of the mind, that Patanjali says in the Sutras 1.2, that we can see clearly beyond the mind and perceive the soul. Only after removing this mind’s film of distraction off the shower door with the scouring power of yoga can we identify with the soul rather than the mind and achieve heaven on earth.

A member of the Shambhala community, Simms had us sit twice a day in meditation. The practice forced me to watch my mind and as she suggested, be curious about what and why I am thinking. What is the thought/story going on here? Why am I always retelling this thought/story? And then bring it back to the present. It forced me to become clear about what was really happening in front of me, as well of what is actually happening in the fairytale.

Additionally, Simms gave us little, “mail,” of tasks to do. For me, she recognized through hearing me tell my own stories that there were aspects of myself that I had repressed over the years. There was something lost that needed to be restored and grieved over. Indeed, I had much to grieve - the sudden death of my husband 2 ½ years ago, a traumatic childhood and other sorrows and losses. She had me list 12 things that I had lost and needed to restore. I spent the week picking up things off the forest floor and meandering along the Navarro River in search of lost aspects of myself. Stories arose out of that deep searching that tied back to the story and my attraction to it. How I didn’t speak until I was 4 years old, how I held my creative, expressive self back to perform the duty of a polite and dutiful corporate wife. Those stories became clear in my sitting meditation and walks.

Simms had me tell the story as if I were the mother of the grieving queen who in the story the 12 brothers were to die. Telling my story of experience and expressing my grief through the fairy tale helped me express and become clear of my grief. There was recognition and a naming. That clarity of mind sets us free, to distinguish what is real and what is a delusion of the mind. Delusions like that there were ever weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A false perception and belief can lead to unnecessary suffering and strife. Our minds are the biggest weapons of mass destructions. To give into fear, guilt, and to believe in other people’s stories imposed upon us. But if we stop and look at the story in the mind, we can get clear, name it and heal it.

The ultimate healing came through forgiveness. I forgave myself for making terrible mistakes in handling my husband’s estate or choices I made throughout my life that had hard consequences. It was a healing reclamation of my authentic self, which culminated in a forgiveness of myself repressing my true self. I mourned the loss. I made peace I did the best I could. I moved on. I have a story to tell.

The Hebrew tradition says God made humans because he likes stories. It’s as if that’s what our whole ego is, a story, offered up for God. So I practice yoga. I tell stories. I share with my family and friends. And life is beautiful.


The Twelve Swans

Work with this fairy tale much like you would do a dream. Make a list of the images and symbols that impressed you in the story. Work with the girl, the 12 brothers, the swan, etc.. What do they mean to you? What associations can you make with them? Ask questions such as, what in my life now or in the past is similar to the heroine’s experience? What misfortunes have befallen me? What difficult task have I had to perform? How am I like the Queen mother, making false accusations, internally and externally? How is my life under pressure? What lost aspect can I find of myself? What memory is now healed but lives on as a memory, a symbol, such as a swan wing?

Draw, paint, write a poem or make a personal symbol to represent your relationship and journey with the story.

Contemplate this story throughout your day and in your asana practice. Discover if certain parts of the body and chakras resonate with the story and its symbols. Let it sit in the back of your psyche composting for a while. Journal around any dreams or insights you have. Draw a symbol to represent this task and period of contemplation and work and the out come. Describe it in a few adjectives. Place it under your pillow and ask it to bring you a dream.

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