Over on the YBC Yoga Forum, I've created a little space for collaborations. A while back, I shared my own personal yoga journey story, and thought I'd reach out to see if anyone had an inspiring journey they wanted to share. This is the first of a series of YBC Reader Yoga Journeys. It's my hope that they will inspire, offer hope, and be a means to connect.
Angelina U. is 30 years old, and from Southern California. In March of 2012, she began a 30 day yoga challenge at her local yoga studio. In the middle of her challenge, her father was murdered. This is her story.
My dad was a very complicated man. He had many ups and downs and didn't make the best choices in how he lived his life. His lifestyle and choices eventually led to the events around his murder. We had a rocky relationship, but in the past couple years of his life, I began to make peace with who he was and not being able to change him. We were becoming closer friends and appreciated each other as individual adults.
For all his faults though, he was still and will always be my dad. I always loved him and always will. At his best, he was hilarious and loved to make people laugh. He joked often and did great impressions of people. My sister and I inherited that from him and he would love when we imitated other people or repeated scenes from funny movies.
My dad was intelligent, but never pursued much higher education. He was very proud of his daughters for going to college and loved to hear about what we were learning.
My dad was very passionate about family and loved to help people. He took pride in being able to help someone out who was in need. He taught us to always put family first and be there for one another.
My dad constantly told me how proud he was of me and anytime I met someone who knew him they would tell me how much my dad talked about my sisters and I. When my dad introduced me to people, he did not merely say, this is my daughter. He would say, “This is my daughter who runs marathons and has a Masters degree.” I used to think it was ridiculous at the time, but those are small things that I miss the most.
The 30 Day Yoga Challenge
I did the first 30 day yoga challenge that my yoga studio hosted in 2012. At the time, I had been doing yoga since 2008, on and off. I started going to yoga to help me with the effects running was having on my knees, ankles and back. I wanted to do the 30 day challenge to establish a more consistent practice and advance in some of my poses.
I started the challenge on March 1st and I was noticing more strength and flexibility. I was also noticing how easily yoga was fitting into each day, when I made it a priority.
The night of my father's death
I ended that evening the way I do most evenings, by reading in bed. Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” was a new release and I was immediately intrigued. I hope to hike the Pacific Crest Trail one day, so I was very excited to see a book released by a woman who had done the trail alone.
In the book, Strayed describes what it was like to lose her mother to cancer. I had just read the passage where her mother passed and was very moved by it. I thought about how painful that must be and how grateful I was to still have my parents. I soon feel asleep, but woke up having to use the restroom about an hour later. I checked my phone and saw tons of missed calls from my brother and sister. I listened to a tearful voicemail from my sister saying my dad had been shot and to call her immediately.
I started crying right away and called my sister to update me on the situation. I told her I would be right over to my dad’s house, where the police where still holding my 14 year old brother. He was the one witness to the event and had to be questioned, extensively.
My initial reaction was that I knew my dad was gone. I just knew it, even though all I was told is that he was rushed to the hospital.
My most immediate feelings were worry for my brother. Because my brother was at the house when it happened, I was most immediately fearful and worried about him. Each time I tried calling his cell phone, he would try to pick up, but the police who were questioning him would not allow him to talk with anyone. Logically, I understood why, but emotionally, I felt so helpless. I knew he was scared and traumatized. He was only 14 and all alone in this terrifying situation. I just wanted to hold him and be with him, but I could not even talk to him. It was the single most panic-filled, helpless and frustrating situation of my entire life.
I felt a deep, empty hole develop in my stomach and I felt absolutely sick with sadness, dread, worry and fear. At the same time, I also felt numb and could not wrap my head around the whole situation.
My sister and I eventually went to the hospital and I knew when we were led not to the emergency wing, but to a lower level, that we were going to where families gather, after someone has already passed. Many of my family members were already there and my Aunt told me officially, that my dad did not make it.
I just wanted to be alone with my sister and mom at this point. I needed air and we made our way outside to try to figure things out. We were still waiting for my other sister to arrive, who was attending college about 90 minutes away. We went to my mom’s house to wait for her, then we all went to the police station to wait for my brother. He was not released from questioning till almost 3 AM, and it was the biggest feeling of relief when we all four were able to hug each other at once. We are not ones to hug each other often, and I will never forget that moment when we all hugged each other tightly, leaning on one another and supporting at the same time. It set the prelude for how we would get through this….together.
Finishing the Challenge
I went home, barely slept and made my way to my mom’s house in the morning, where my family was all waiting for me. I was confronted with the stark realization that because my parents had divorced years before, I was next of kin and had some big decisions to make. My family was extremely supportive and we started arrangements that day. Around 4 PM, I realized I had completely forgotten about yoga.
I was in my mom’s kitchen, with my mom and husband and said, “Well, I guess I will have to drop out of the yoga challenge.” My mom looked at me and firmly said, “Go. You have done all you can do for today.”
I probably would not have listened to anyone else if they had this, but coming from my mom, it was powerful and gave me the permission I needed to begin healing. I was able to make it to the 5:30 class that evening and approach yoga in a way I never had before.
I thought I would feel stronger, more flexible, fit and zen. Instead I felt shattered, weak, vulnerable and shaken.
Stages of grief
I went through different stages in processing my father’s death. The very first thing I had to go through was accepting the manner in which he died. Losing someone to a violent crime is a much different type of loss. I felt extreme anxiety anytime I thought about how he died. I kept re-creating his death over and over in my head, even though I had not witnessed any of it. I started having nightmares and was avoiding sleep for fear of being pulled into the trauma all over again. I realized how unhealthy this pattern was becoming, so I began using meditation to deal with the murder. I started to fixate on the images that were making me anxious while I breathed and tried to find peace with them. I worked to be at peace and accept the way my dad had passed. I worked to release the disturbing images from my heart and mind. It took me about two months to finally stop fixating on the murder itself.
Once I moved passed that, anger moved in quickly. I am not normally angry, so this felt absolutely foreign to me and I wanted to repress these feelings when they came up. However, I knew in order to move past them, I had to be present with the feelings and accept them as part of my healing. I sat with them in meditation, validated them and slowly released them.
In the absence of anger, sadness and loss set in heavily. I finally faced that my dad was gone and the sadness swept over me until I felt like was drowning in it. I REALLY wanted to avoid these feelings, and must admit, sometimes I did. Yet, I knew in order to heal in a healthy manner, I had to sit with them and FEEL them. I was very committed to meditation during this time because it was so necessary to keep myself from flying into crying spells at random times throughout the day. I knew I had scheduled my time to sort through these feelings and that helped me keep it together during moments when I felt I would fall apart.
Yoga was my main source of coping. However, I had a very supportive network of family and friends that I could always call upon when I was having a tough day. My siblings and I get together when we need to (for my dad’s birthday or to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican tradition to honor the dead), to be together and share memories.
After the murder, and in dealing with my grief, I started to learn more about all 8 branches of yoga and take a more holistic approach to my practice.
Dhyana (meditation) and Pranayama (breath work) were really the keys to helping me find peace with the situation and deal with the roller coaster of emotions.
I also completely changed how I approached the Asana. I begin to practice Santosha (contentment) on my mat. I tried to be at peace and content even when I was in challenging poses or poses I would like to avoid. I practiced breathing through the pose and finding gratitude and strength, even in that difficult moment. This philosophy helped me off my mat and in my current situation to not think about “what if?” or “why me?” as my anxious mind is prone to do.
Yoga has changed my life and helped me to deal with grief, anxiety, stress plus many physical issues. Yoga may not be for everyone and I am not saying it is a guarantee remedy for grief, but it worked for me. Yoga is more than just a good workout for me. I try to study and embrace all 8 limbs as I approach challenging situations both on and off my mat.
It has now been just over two years since my dad’s death. I feel like I am doing well and have a healthy perspective on the loss. I will never be “over” it and am not working towards that. I work towards integrating it into my life and finding peace with that experience. I am not afraid to talk or share it, if it can help someone else. I work as a high school counselor and share about the experience with any student that I feel could benefit from it or is having a hard time dealing with another similar.
My dad was a runner when he was younger and he would give my sisters and I advice about our own running, and goals in general. He'd often say, “Eyes forward.”
By this he meant do not get distracted by looking side to side or behind you, just keep your focus on the present and your future goal.
I have used that on my mat and my Asana practice. I try to remember to practice with my current body. Not the one I had five years ago or even the one I want to have, but to be at peace and present with where I am currently.
I use that mantra also when I am dealing with a stressful or anxious situation. I try to keep myself present and not focus on what things used to be like or what I want them to be like, but to stay present with my current reality and deal with one thing at a time, as it happens.
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