filling the gap: beginning to transform grief

On 11/19, Octopus Garden hosted a fundraising event for the family of Jenna Morrison: an asana class accompanied by music. It was attended by about 60 people and raised over $1600 for Lucas and Florian. I was asked to deliver a few remarks before we started. I spoke about holding space for the grieving, the economy of giving voice to grief, the implicit exchange of caregiving, and the moment in which grief might begin to elide into action, and how this can happen. Here are my notes, slightly expanded.


When there is grief, some of us are called upon to hold space. And the grieving person dissolves into that space. There is a delayed exchange going on. Because with time the grieving person will recover, and then be able to hold space for you when you grieve.

You are holding space here, in this room, and absorbing grief. And on that day you inevitably grieve what you cannot now imagine, you will, as though you yourself were dying, be able to dissolve into the care of others.

If you are a public person during such a time of grief, it is your duty to hold space. The community ordains you with the speaking stick, because so many have lost their voice. You can hold it for a while, but it will begin to burn with your own speechlessness, with the absence at the heart of our language. I’ve held the speaking stick for a week now, alongside Dylan Kirk, Gitta Bechsgaard, Joey Gill, Dana Lerman, Carlos, and many other family friends, and now we pass it to you, and into your bodies, so that we can be more silent.

This process has made me realize the weakness of most authority-based priesthood: it is comprised of those who are taught to hold onto that stick, week in and week out. In order for them not to be burned by the ritual, they must make themselves into ice. And so they stand endlessly at the cold centre, telling other people what to do and how to feel.

But the priesthood of yoga community is shared and exchanged. We ordain each other as needed. No one is at the centre. We are all called to minister, one after another, as the absences of life blossom in our adjacent gardens. And we don’t know how to feel. We just know that space allows for feeling, and feeling is life.

I also want to honour the fact that this event begins to move beyond grief, into action. Tonight, it is an asana class to raise money. But what will happen when you leave here? You might go home afterwards and remember how brief our time is, and hold everyone you know just a little bit closer. If you live alone, you might make that phone call you’ve been putting off.

But in the days after, it might mean something more concrete, like joining one of the guerilla teams going out into the streets to paint bike lanes themselves where the city has failed to. Or next Friday, coming to the open meeting with Olivia Chow at her Kensington Market office to discuss how the yoga community can mobilize around the truck guard issue. She phoned us the day after the funeral. It’s an open meeting. Get in touch with me on Facebook if you’d like details.

There are lots of asana classes to raise money. At times they may feel like nice gestures only. But I want to tell you that sometimes asana is the most real thing you can do. You may have heard in new-agey spiritual circles, or even from classical yoga, that “you are not your body”. But when someone dies like this, you realize that this is cold comfort at best, and complete nonsense at worst. You are most definitely your body, and moving it and loving it and dancing with it and touching others with it is exactly how you experience being alive. Where else is experience, but in and through this flesh? Jenna’s embodiment is what has been amputated from those of us left here. She is now our ghost limb, and whenever we remember her, we move it, and it will hurt, until we find her movements in our very limbs, and the ache begins to soften with fresh circulation.

It is in bodily absence that we feel bodily presence most acutely. Absence makes things real. This life is real, this night is real, this musician is real, these teachers who will lead you are real, the money you put in this box is real, Jenna is real, her little man Lucas is real, and you are really here, really making this embodied life better.

We are all on the edge of not-being. We have no choice but to move and dance. Jenna knew this very well.

So tonight, we invite you to extend your body into any absence you feel – Jenna’s, or any others you feel to be absent. Align your bones within this emotional turbulence. Love this body and the flesh of others surrounding you, and this time we exist in.


  • I cannot stop reading you. I am overcome. You elevate us all to the level of heart-bursting sanity and accuracy. Bravo. Brava, Jenna, bravo, Matthew. May I know you in real time, some time.

  • I started to study Anusara yoga in 2003 when I first moved back to South Florida. I was dealing with the terminal illness of my mother and the Tantric teachings helped me make sense of everything going on in my personal life. Plus, the “method” seemed to open my physical practice to new levels. I admit, that I drank the kool-aid and totally immersed myself in the local kula. Anusara offered me so much of what I desperately needed at the time- community, spirituality, and a physical release.

    During the last few years of my “intimate relationship” with Aunsara I suffered many back problems. My psoas and piriformis were screaming out. Those universal principles just didn’t seem to work with my body. In reading your articles it is so apparent why my Anusara practice began to quickly disable my body. At a time in my life when I needed to be nurtured and grounded I was too busy practicing the standard Anusara sequence that includes tons of backbending.

    Not too long after my mother’s death my love affair with Anusara started to fade. I began studying with another well-known teacher who also embraced many Tantric and Ayurvedic teachings. I was excited to explore more with this new teacher- much to the dismay and disapproval of the others in the kula. I was starting to teach yoga and I knew in my heart that I could no longer stay within the confines of the Anusara method.

    After I left the kula my back issues faded, and I learned to practice what was right for my body. Now, two pregnancies later I have learned to follow my body’s needs over my ego’s desires to perform advanced poses. My practice comes from instinct and intuition. I wish that more yoga teachers were trained in how to use Ayurveda with their students.

    John Friend was here in town three weeks ago. I admit, curiosity got the best of me and I went to the morning workshop on the last day he taught publicly. I had to see for myself how my local kula was reacting to the drama unfolding around him.

    It was obvious that the implosion of his empire had taken a physical toll on him. He did not teach with the same charisma that I remembered. The sequence included the usual high energy arm balances and backbends that are typical of a morning practice. After reading your second article I realized how out of touch that sequence was with the reality of the situation. Mr. Friend truly needs to root down deep into the earth for a long time. When he spoke to the “incidents” and how this was probably his last class for a indefinite amount of time, I got the impression that he felt victimized by the situation. Perhaps I didn’t spend enough time near him, but that was the impression I left with.

    I feel for all the highly trained and extremely talented teachers who are left feeling dazed and confused. I know they will all find their way along a much better path. I just hope the entire yoga community is stepping back for a little self-introspection.

    Thanks for all of your inspiring insight.


  • Matthew, as always, very inspiring. I don’t know much of the Anusara world as we seem to not have many “followers” here in Ottawa. However, I have encountered many at the air-miles trainings with Rod Stryker. Your words really help me to continue to expand my understanding of teacher. Of course the inner Guru should prevail, but most of us don’t have the grounding and good sense for it to. Rather we put our eggs in the celebrity Guru basket and kinda hope for the best.
    I encourage everyone to step back and spend some time reflecting on “the state of yoga” and where you are in your path. Be brave enough to step outside of the commercial model and be your authentic self.

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