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Feminine Self-Care for A Grieving Nation: Herbs, Embodied Writing, Movement

“But I say unto you, [joy and sorrow] are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.

Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.” ―Kahlil Gibran

The events of the last few months have been horrific- hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, nazis with tiki torches, and yet another mass shooting- this one in Las Vegas, killing almost 60 and wounding almost 500 human beings.  These events really feel like part of the general atmosphere of fear, anger, deceit and hate that’s arrived like a national cancer diagnosis this year. Certainly during the presidential campaign of 2015-2016. It appears, that this ugliness has been metastasizing for awhile now (we could say since Obama’s election, since Reagan, since slavery or the devastation of the indigenous American peoples.) But it’s reaching a crisis point.  

And we’re weary.  I watched some of my favorite comedians in tears last week begging for legislative change to end the obscene amount of unnecessary deaths in the United States from gun violence.  There’s barely a place to take a deep breath when comedians have lost, even momentarily, the ability to find humor…anywhere really.  How can we laugh at a time like this?  And yet we know we will, we must, continue to be human.

What We’re Grieving

I think we’ve reached an acceptance point – this is what is happening– and we have begun to grieve.  We are grieving for the America many of us thought we were living in, we are grieving for the stillbirth of  a new American dream that was inclusive , we are grieving the loss of so much human life, we are grieving the lack of compassionate leadership.

So what can we do? As women? As mothers, sisters, lovers, partners, wives, daughters, grandmothers, friends?  

A Call to Connection, to Presence

But we cannot shrink into angry corners and we cannot continue the hard work of fighting for justice, of raising conscious kids, of supporting equality and peace without first caring for our own needs.  Now is the time for radical self care. Now is the time to gather. Now is the time for circles and coalescing and support. We must stay present.  Our hearts are needed, our passion is needed, our humility and love. If we are going to do the work of healing, we must continue, even bravely move forward, into deeper waters of self-healing.  To create a compassionate world we must have compassion and generosity for ourselves.

Plant Medicine

In times of grief I feel drawn to certain botanical medicines.  Some herbs have a long history of heart-break help. Even the act of sharing a cup of tea can soothe frayed nerves and give the opportunity for pause, for selah, in the chaos. Here is my favorite tincture recipe:

Broken Heart Tonic

2 parts Hawthorne

1 part Valerian

1/2 part Ginger

1 part Rose

(Taken as a tincture, 2ml 3x day.  Taken as tea in the evening.)

Hawthorne :  Known for its heart friendly properties, it is a cardiac tonic.  Interestingly the heart and uterus tend to respond to similar herbs.  Hawthorne is one of them.  Soothing the heart muscle, soothing the uterine muscle.  I like to think of the uterus as having its own sort of heartbeat.   Hawthorn appears to improve the mechanics of the heart and its metabolic processes, dilate coronary arteries, and inhibit enzymes that cause vasoconstriction.  Rosemary Gladstar (famous herbalist) loves to use it for emotional pain and it combines well with Rose. May be contraindicated in pregnancy, but wonderful for pregnancy loss and fertility challenges.

Valerian: Known for its sedative effects, valerian root is commonly used in sleep aids.  I like to use valerian for its antispasmodic effects as well.  Because it is a nervine and also a cardiac tonic (and uterine tonic!) it is helpful in healing broken heartedness.  Helping to sleep if taken in large enough doses when sleep is disturbed by heartache. About 5% of people who try Valerian find it causes the opposite to happen in their bodies – stimulation.  So if you have this response, dicontinue use!

Ginger: A classic in most homes, ginger is a generally warming and stimulating herb. Helpful to digest when nerves are disrupted or nausea is present.  Increases circulation and generall enhances effects of other herbs.

Rose: Sweet sweet rose.  So easy to incorporate into healing it’s almost a cliche! Rose petals in tea, rose petals in a bath, in tincture, in an essential oil. This herb is included to sweeten the extract and to sweeten the disposition.

*Mimosa*: An herb I’m learning more about recently for its mood boosting qualities.  Often used in times of trauma and depression, taken in tincture or tea form this plant can help us get through dark times.  

Body Medicine

As a trauma informed yoga teacher, I cannot help but think about how we manifest trauma in the body and how national trauma can have a deeply personal affect and yet often be ignored. Of course it is impossible to offer specifics that would be helpful to your unique body, background and situation, but here are a few go-to basics of Trauma Informed Yoga to support your healing process:

Down dog with a block: (Ahdo mukha svanasana) Possibly the most iconic symbol of yoga poses, this simple shape of the body is available to most of us.  Hands on the ground, feet on the ground, separated as far apart as would be comfortable if you were to lower into a plank or push up and then come back into downward facing dog.  This inversion helps to send blood flow and prana (life force) down to the heart, thyroid and head.  Consider using a block (or something about the size of a yoga block) underneath of your forehead.  This support helps to diffuse depression by stimulating the pituitary gland and also decreasing the muscular effort necessary to hold the posture.  Take 5 breaths or stay as long as you’re comfortable.

Supported Child’s pose: (Balasana) This one requires bolsters, blankets, or pillows at home.  From hands and knees, separate your knees wide and bring big toes to touch, sit back towards your heels.  If your hips don’t touchdown on your heels slide a blanket or two in between for support.  Take the bolster parallel to your spine, under your torso and rest torso and head forward on the bolster, arms on either side, one cheek down.  Breath.  Stay 5 breaths- 5 minutes.

Supported Reclined Bound Angle: (Supta Bada Konasana) Turn around so that your bolster is along your back, in line with your spine.  Bring the soles of your feet together and knees wide. Recline back onto the bolster.  Depending on the size of your bolster and tension in the lower back this might bringing tightness or pain to lower back – consider tilting the bolster to an angle with a second bolster perpendicular underneath, or a block or blanket.  If your knees don’t touch down slide bocks or blankets underneath them. You can also slide blankets under your forearms and/or head. If you need more grounding take a blanket across your low belly/pelvis.

The breath is perhaps the most important piece of your yoga practice. The simplest of anchoring breaths, often used to help in the midst of acute trauma, are a belly breath, a counted breath or a breath retention patterned breath (named all kinds of things in various books).

Belly breath:   Close your eyes or rest them on a single point. Become still. Place your hands on your belly. Begin to breathe in and out of your nose.  When you inhale, feel the belly fill and press the hands upward.  When you exhale, feel the hands lower down.

Breath Retention Patterned Breath: Using the belly breath, inhale and count silently to 5, hold breath in for 5, exhale for a count of 5, hold breath out for a count of 5.  Repeat 5-10 times. Notice what you notice.  This breath is helpful for feeling panicky as it takes a great deal of concentration and also pauses the breath which forces it to be slower paced.

Soul Medicine

Through trauma we become disembodied.  We disconnect from the painful sensations felt in the body either from physical harm or emotional harm stored in the body.  I have a friend who recently told me through a therapeutic breakthrough she was able to feel her hands more – she wasn’t even aware she wasn’t feeling them fully!  

It is important to use all tools we have to become embodied.  To connect the feelings we have physically and emotionally in order to become more whole beings, operating in the freedom of control over our sensory experiences.

The practice of trauma informed yoga is my personal favorite tool for this, combined with a good therapist to help translate worldview and to give language to all the things we encounter within ourselves.  I believe that writing is another way to do that, and to help connect with the body.

You might try this exercise:

Grab some writing paper and utensil ( a journal is an ideal way to keep all the inner work you do together, but any paper will do!)  Choose a few yoga poses to practice- perhaps the ones listed above.  Determine a length of time to stay in the pose. Depending on the pose 5-10 breaths, or even 1-5 minutes can be appropriate.  Give yourself permission to come out of the pose earlier if discomfort arises that doesn’t feel like you can move with the breath.

Lie or sit completely still.  Take an inventory for 1 minute (if it helps, set a timer for yourself- there are lots of meditation timer apps!) of your breath and your body.  Notice what you notice.  Jot it down – the texture and pace of your breath, the tension points you feel, the place you feel the breath most deeply for example, and anything else that draws your attention.

Practice one of the yoga poses.  Pause, take an inventory, and jot down a few words or a few sentences about the experience for you.  Repeat after each pose.

An interesting experiment would be to try this more than once.  Repeat the same practice the next day, or later in the week, and see what you discover!

References:

The Herbal Academy Herbarium. “Hawthorn.” Retrieved October 2017 from https://herbarium.theherbalacademy.com/monographs/#/monograph/3034

Gladstar, Rosemary. (1993). Herbal Healing for Women. New York, NY: Fireside.

Clennell, Bobby. (2010). The Woman’s Yoga Book. New York, NY:

Author, F.M. (Year, Month, Date of post). Title of blog post [Blog post]. Retrieved from URL

Ullian,Naomi (2017, March). A Materia Medica for Grief. Retrieved from https://herbarium.theherbalacademy.com/2017/03/a-materia-medica-for-grief/

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