What is Bedside Yoga?
Bedside Yoga began in 2003 or thereabouts. I had been offering “Life after Loss – Healing into Wholeness” groups for a couple of years when my co-facilitator said to me, “You know, if we are going to offer support for those in bereavement, we should offer support to people who are dying.” The idea had not occurred to me – it would be outside of our regular studio and would not really be an “outreach” program – where would I find people who were at end of life “congregating,” as I had always taught my student therapists in their marketing efforts.
Someone directed me to the Bailey Boushay House, a 33 bed facility in Seattle that had originally been built for people living and dying with AIDS, but that now, thankfully could not fill the beds with those patients and had opened up to other diagnoses of critical and terminal illnesses.
I went with one of my students interns to pitch the idea of Bedside Yoga to the volunteer coordinator and was that he was willing to give us a chance to see what sort of a program we could develop, largely – he told us – because of my background as a speech pathologist in hospital settings. We were able to explain our idea of “yoga,” not as a set of exercises but as a holistic tradition that included contemplative practices, self-reflection, and the gift of simply “being with,” as well as various practices including movement, breath, meditation, visualization and mantra, among others.
More than anything else, we were able to convey that what we wanted to do was offer the “state of yoga,” a state of connection, of ease, of total presence and spaciousness in a place where many people were not feeling any of those things, but needed to feel them all now more than ever.
We began the program within a couple of weeks, and it is still on-going to this day. One of the woman we worked with hhad been suffering with ALS for some time and had been one of our most consistent “students” during her illness. We would go in and brush her hair, talk to her, paint her nails, listen to her stories of an incredibly colorful life, and help her gently stretch and move her body as her illness progressed. When she was finally ready to die, she invited four of us volunteers to be present in her room as she passed, along with a large group of friends and family. That morning, she asked to be dressed in her favorite dress and for friends to do her hair and nails. Once she felt beautiful, she did some gentle stretches with us before climbing into her bed, ready for her scheduled death. Soon after, people began to fill the room, including a Tibetan monk who came to chant from the Book of the Dead. As she began to transition, we all began to sing a song from the musical “Rent” – her mother had printed out the words for all of us. We stood all around her, each one of us with one hand on the person in front of us, all the way up to her family who had their hands on her – each of us transmitting and receiving the energy of love and connection – the state of yoga – as she took her final breath. Right at that moment, a guitar player began to sing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and we all sang as we left the room one by one, some lingering longer with family.
In that moment, I knew this was work I wanted to do, this was a precious space I wanted to return to again and again, guiding and honoring a person’s life and death as an intimately spiritual experience.
But there were others that were not quite as easy or beautiful. Some time later, I was asked by the Bailey Boushay House to come to the side of a woman who was dying alone and in fear. I walked into her room, feeling the unease of not knowing her and of being alone with her. What could I possibly do? But I recalled my practice, I set my intention, I found the place in my being that was continuous with hers. I put my hands on her body, her head, her knees, as she began to slow her breath and quiet. She died within the hour of me leaving, and I have no idea where she went or what happened next.
Again I said to myself, this is my work.
Following those experiences, and still building the program at Bailey, I began to get invitations to come to people’s homes or hospital rooms and to be a presence in the experience of end of life. With my good friend’s mom, I would stretch her and talk to her, and when she fell asleep, I would offer gentle Thai yoga techniques to my friend who was her exhausted 24 hour caregiver. With my young neighbor’s 23 year old girlfriend, who he actually married in the hospice chapel, I simply sat with her, helping her with gentle movement and stretching, talked to her about dying and fear and life and love and regret and reconciliation. She died just a few hours after my last visit with her, telling her boyfriend that those times were some of the most peaceful and comfortable she had experienced in her end of life care.
My heart kept saying yes, and the universe kept echoing that, and I continued to do the work, to practice, study and learn all I could.
I had already been following Ram Dass’ teachings and was inspired with his dedication to sitting with people who were dying. When I went on my first personal retreat with Ram Dass and I told him where my heart was leading me he just smiled – like he always did – and said,
“Connect your soul to theirs Molly. Meet them there. This is precious work and you can do it.”
With my teacher’s blessing, I felt even more committed to honing this skill, this capacity that we all have to simply be present, to be real, to be pure and to meet others at their soul.
Everything changed for me when my sister, my best friend, was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 55. I was suddenly thrust into a new set of skills and needs and information, and developed a new understanding of what grieving really feels like, what care-giving really feels like, and what being with someone on the end of life journey feels like. I continued to do the work I knew with Erin, gentle stretching, visualizations, Thai yoga, developing practices for her to work with all of her levels of being – physical, mental, energetic, witness and spiritual – as described in the Upanishads, but I also began to see all of the other necessary work that had been outside of my purview until then. I made her feeding calendars, lists of foods that she could eat, scheduled visits, read to her, vetted books for her, made her altars, called her banks, handled the closing of her school, and ultimately was the executor of her estate. I also got to care for her in the days leading up to her death, and kept her body at home, drawing heavily from Mirabai Starr’s descriptions of the rituals around her own daughter’s death from her book “Caravan of No Despair.” I got to anoint her body, and to put her in the ground with my own hands, covering her with leaves and dirt and a bird’s nest one of her Forest Kindergarten students had given to her, “to compost with her.”
As I do with every personal challenge I face, I was able to soothe myself at times by telling myself that all of this would make me a much better person, teacher, friend or therapist to someone else in the same situation. I learned what things people say that are helpful, and what’s hard. I learned that keeping a person’s space tidy is sometimes the best thing we can do for them. I learned how to talk to a person I loved to the core of my being about their own death and about my feelings about losing them. I learned that everyone grieves so differently and that we can learn to not personalize or assign motive or judgement to a grieving person’s reactions. The learning was endless, and at times it felt like the disease and the grieving were too.
I advertised my first Bedside Yoga retreat before Erin died, and she would often tell me how happy she was that I was offering it, and how important the work was and how much it was needed. She was so proud and encouraging, and would talk to me directly about some of her experiences, saying, “Teach that on your retreat.” Erin died just less than two months before the retreat, and I was unsure if I would be able to actually do it. But I kept thinking about my life trajectory and how all of those roads had led me here. I did the retreat and found not only compassionate and deeply invested students, many of whom were in bereavement themselves, but also a profound healing and integration of my own early grief.
I have finally made this my primary focus for teaching and sharing. Now being able to add in the depth of teachings from Christian Mysticism, I feel more grounded in the mystical aspect of death, and the mysterious aspects of grief and how spiritual practices can provide a soothing balm for a broken heart.
I have been teaching short Bedside Yoga workshops at many conferences around the country and offered three training retreats, which I plan to continue twice yearly, in the spring and winter, in the mountains of Eastern Washington and the warm shores of Mexico.
The more I teach, the more I am asked, “What exactly is Bedside Yoga?” Is it the same as a “Death Doula?” “Do I need to be a yoga teacher to practice?” So have finally tried to describe more fully what this work, and these retreats entail.
First, the International End of Life Doula Association offers weekend long trainings. While of course they offer follow up training and the expectation of self-study, a weekend could never be enough to dive into the heart of this work. My recommendation is always that interested people take both trainings, but that they take Bedside Yoga first as it will ground them in contemplative practice and provide the tools they need for self-study, self-care, and solid spiritual foundation – irrespective of the faith they practice or if they practice a faith at all. Dying is by definition an undeniably spiritual experience, both for the person who is at end of life and the people surrounding them.
The INELDA trainings also provide some focus on common issues in death and dying, meaning and legacy work and some overview of personal, legal and medical issues. The Bedside Yoga training also addresses each of these topics, building on personal experience, information shared by past participants who are doctors, hospice nurses and chaplains, and the collective wisdom of the group. While the INELDA trainings are typically held at conference centers, the Bedside Yoga trainings are always offered in spaces that are lush with nature and deep connection to the natural world, places that invite a contemplative stance, and places that allow the student to have plenty of time away from learning, “information” and stimulation to allow for a truly restorative experience to integrate the work.
So what does a Bedside Yoga retreat look like? Do you have to “know” or “do” yoga? The answer is no. The focus in Bedside Yoga is on the mystical and contemplative aspects of yoga, and especially how they inform and support the work of the practitioner. Any movement or other practices typically associated with western yoga will be taught to the participants, giving them another skill set to offer. For chaplains and clinicians, it will invite them into the world of touch, movement and yoga as a mystic tradition – one of the first we know of. For yoga “people,” the training will invite them into the knowledge stream of the many practicalities of supporting people – and the entire system within which they live – at this stage of their journey.
The Bedside Yoga retreats always begin with a group dinner of fresh, wholesome food. The next morning begins the five day (25 hour) training (Mexico) or the seven day (45 hour) training (Washington State) in which we will practice gentle movement, develop vignettes and imagine what our roles will be, learn basic Thai Yoga to offer to anyone within the system of the person at end of life, explore legacy work, meaning, what questions to ask, what other things we might do while offering ourselves in this work. We will focus heavily on ritual and our connection to the natural world, while doing a variety of exercises designed to develop our own wisdom presence and contemplative stance. We will share stories of our own experiences, especially around beautiful deaths we have had the honor to be a part of, and to reflect on ones that perhaps could have had a more intentional element. We will end the retreats with a fire ritual and stay connected through a closed Facebook group to keep ourselves connected to the work and to each other.
Finally, I was speaking with a clinician recently who was interested but stated, “I”m so curious but I just don’t do that work.” My first response was, “Yet. You don’t do it yet.” But we all will and if we have this kind of training we will be better prepared to attend to any death, especially of those we love. But my second response surprised even me. “The contemplative and foundational work we learn and practice in these retreats is really the work we need to serve all of our clients and patients, whether it is a person in depression, someone going through divorce, the parents of a child with a severe disability, or a young person with autism, all the people we touch will benefit from our ability to simply be with the essential discomfort of death and dying. In the end, this work, and these retreats are for anyone and everyone, whether as the person in service or as someone we are serving.
Please check out these articles and interviews for an even more rounded understanding of what this work, and what these retreats look like.
Audio interview with Michelle Cassandra Johnson
Audio interview with Leslie Krongold
Written interview with Accessible Yoga
Written interview with International Journal of Yoga Therapy
Written interview with Yoga Chicago
Written interview with Integral Magazine
Personal essay on attending a death at Bailey Boushay House
Join me for an upcoming training.