Yogafolk v3 | Shiva, the Jewish ritual. The God, too.
When someone dies in the Jewish community, a ritual mourning period of seven days is set aside. Called sitting shiva, this practice creates a container for grief. Bread is broken and drink shared in a communal honoring of the person lost; and it serves to buoy the tender hearts of the lives that will carry on in the departed’s absence.
But what do we do with a grief that’s harder to locate? One that isn’t linked to a singular loss, but rather to many?
I’ve heard this time of grief we’re living through called one of “ambiguous loss.” We have lost so much and there is neither a singular point of grief and pain; nor any sense of closure. It’s ambiguous, in other words. A puddle of hurt, a muddy trudge toward hope and healing, that sometimes slithers back into despair and wallowing.
What would it feel like to sit shiva together? To come together in all our pain and loss and hurt, to break bread, share stories and grieve? Wear your sweatpants, or your finest ballgown. Bring pretzels or champagne. The social rules are confusing so we’ll toss them out the window. Come as you are. Bring a mask.
Then again, perhaps our practice is our shared shiva — one honored across time and space. We step to our mats, either in our homes, through our screens, or in the local shala, and (together together, or together apart, or alone but grounded in the wisdom of all those who have come before) we enter into a community that is both grieving and celebrating. And we, within our bodies, enact a complete ritual of birthing and dying, beginning with an ode to the sun, and the life sūrya nurtures, moving toward sāvasana, the corpse, and practicing our death.
In the yoga tradition, Śiva (pronounced like Shiva) is the God of death and destruction; and he is also the God of consciousness and creation. Creation and destruction are inseparable, each leading to the other. The fruit ripens when the vine dies; and the vine turns to compost, from which new seeds will sprout. So the process of loss and rebirth is continuous; it’s one and the same.
Which is the problem with sitting shiva, it assumes a timeline. Seven days to wail and moan is a practical and tidy gesture, but that’s not how life, how restoration, how cycles operate. Anyone who has ever lost someone close to them will tell you that the process of mourning is non-linear, often turning in on itself, sprouting new heads where old ones were trimmed. Of course, seven days is better than none.
Nevertheless, there is no timeline for piecing life back together amidst a pandemic; for grieving a friend lost to the political quagmire; or a grandmother lost to COVID; for healing from a breakup; for mourning the closure of a business; for waking up from a dream; for shedding an old skin.
Practice teaches us the necessary patience and tenacity for this time. Like grief, there’s no timeline for practice. Because — it is a practice. Not an end state. Practice is the process of showing up each and every day. Or most days. Even if only for a single conscious breath. Or a walk in the park. Or an intentional diaper change. Practice looks different for everyone. And for everyone at different stages.
And though our visual culture might have you think otherwise, no pose is the practice. Acquiring new poses and the ability to do them changes absolutely nothing on a fundamental level.
But what the process of practice teaches is transformative.
In dedicated, ritualistic practice we learn to be with the discomfort; the uncertainty; the grief. Ritual, in many ways, is hard to uncouple from magic.
So we return to the mat, we listen to our own pain, and to each other’s stories; we get curious about the hurt and joy that lives within each of us, gently rocking us back and forth. We make kügel for our neighbors. We put our fingers on each other’s pulses, and we just. Keep. Beating.
As an invitation of sitting shiva across time and space, I’m offering a led primary video to practice alongside. If you appreciate this offering and you’re able, please consider making a donation (suggested one-time offering of $10-$40). Your support ensures that I will be able to continue making and sharing in this way. Thank you!
“I believe that we learn by practice.
Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same.
In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit.
One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God.
Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire.”
— Martha Graham
“I think a lot about impossible tasks and depicting difficult subjects or events. I make scruffy drawings on envelopes and scraps of paper. I experiment to find the right surface upon which to paint, this could be anything from wooden furniture to plates or canvas and paper. I read poetry and essays and look at picture books. Sometimes I talk to other artists about what I am trying to do. Then I start to work (almost always listening to music) but continually thinking, drawing, looking at books and talking all through the process.” | Lubaina Hmid
John Chiara hand-builds human-size cameras that he then crawls inside of, spending the entire day making a single photo.
Danielle is a near-college-grad attending a shiva, where, over bagels and lox she runs into her ex, her sugar daddy, and surprise! His wife and baby, too. She’s peppered with questions from prying family and friends, and edges toward breakdown. It’s an awkward, provocative take on sitting shiva. | Shiva Baby
P.S. Full moon schmull moon. Thanks for your patience. Expect another moon-ish post soonish. Safe passages, dear ones.