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Sonima Heroes: Nancy Perlson

After she lost her father and discovered yoga as a vehicle for self-care, she found her life’s calling to provide mind-body healing for grief and bereavement.

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When Nancy Perlson’s father committed suicide in 1996, she found herself undone. Her father was 56 when he died, and his suicide seemed to come out of nowhere. He had struggles—he’d been forced out of a job and was feeling lost—but his family didn’t know the depth of his darkness. Perlson had a solid relationship with her father but it began to deteriorate in the year leading up to his death as he became increasingly angry and distant. The last time Perlson spoke with her father she was frustrated by his behavior, which made it even more painful when she learned of his suicide a few days later.

“I was a shell of myself,” says Perlson, 49, regarding the period in her life following her father’s death. “I was shut down and very depressed for a year and a half. For the first 10 months, I felt truly incapacitated. With two young children, I was just doing the best I could with parenting, and I’m lucky that my husband stepped up and took over, and my friends also helped me.”

Though her sadness felt insurmountable, Perlson knew she needed to come to terms with what had happened. She began weekly sessions with a therapist, joined a support group, and after a year of emotional work and healing, turned to yoga. One day, during Savasana, Perlson noticed that yoga made her feel “absolutely elated—better than any exercise ever had.” She started practicing rigorous vinyasa yoga four to five times a week.

“My yoga practice gave me a sense of peace and reconnection, and it became an important part of my self-care,” she says. “I got hooked, and I have not left my yoga mat since.”

In the years after losing her father, Perlson decided to become a licensed clinical social worker focusing on trauma and loss. She went back to school to earn a master’s degree and worked as a counselor and facilitator, leading groups for suicide survivors. The idea of using yoga in her work was something she considered for years and decided to pursue it wholeheartedly in 2009, after completing a 200-hour training program to become a certified yoga teacher.

In 2010, empowered by her healing process, Perlson founded Connecting Through Yoga, a biannual course in the Chicago area for people dealing with loss and bereavement. The program has become an important lifeline for those seeking a mind-body approach for working through grief. The two-hour sessions incorporate gentle yoga poses, breath work, meditation, brief journaling, and optional sharing. The curriculum can be highly transformative, especially for those dealing with unresolved trauma, though Perlson notes that participants need to be ready for a group setting and able to talk about their loss. Individuals who have clinical diagnoses or are severely traumatized, for example, might not be a good fit.

The program’s yoga sequences are thoughtfully constructed to avoid sensitive terminology and postures that create too much vulnerability in the body. “I have to be very careful with my language and my sequencing because some people have been physically traumatized,” says Perlson. Happy Baby Pose might sound innocuous, but it may not be for someone who has experienced the death of a child or had a loved one who was a victim of assault. Child’s Pose presents a similar sensitivity, so Perlson uses the Sanskrit word, Balasana. Savasana is never Corpse Pose.

The classes are accessible to all ages and levels and place an emphasis on heart-opening poses like Cobra, as well as balancing poses, such as Mountain Pose. “There’s so much to learn with Mountain Pose,” says Perlson. “I encourage participants to lift up their toes, and feel how their bodies root them down, making them feel solid and present.”

Liz Sarnik, 57, took a Connecting Through Yoga course just a few months after her 23-year-old son died suddenly in 2011, and she remembers how difficult it was to walk into the room. “You’re in a protective place in your heart, body, and mind, and you just want to disappear,” says Sarnik. “You’re raw, and that room is part of the unknown.”

Sarnik’s biggest challenge was meditation. She had trouble relaxing and being still; her grief made her restless. Gradually she became more comfortable, and, as an experienced yoga practitioner, she was surprised to feel sore from the class the next day. “I learned that grief resides in the body. People think it’s just a feeling in your head, but it’s not,” she says. “The movements of yoga help move grief through your body. ‘Lean into it,’ is what Nancy says.”

The physical practice is essential to the program’s efficacy and can serve as a metaphor for therapy as participants learn to be steady through discomfort, according to Perlson. “Talk therapy and support groups are wonderful, but a body component in a healing program is necessary,” says Perlson. “You can tell your story over and over, but people need to learn to recognize, control, manage, and tolerate the physical sensations of their trauma.”

Perlson still works with therapy clients two and a half days a week, teaches four regular yoga classes each week, and is the coordinator of the Survivor Outreach Program for the State of Illinois. She reserves special time in her schedule for Connecting Through Yoga twice a year, in fall and spring, plus one-night courses around the holidays and in the summer, calling each one “An Evening to Remember.” She has also led bereavement yoga in four schools with adolescents as part of grief groups.

“As a culture, we’re not good at talking about death, but people want to talk about it. I want to create opportunities for more conversations,” says Perlson. She eventually hopes to expand her program beyond the Chicago area, lead weekend retreats, and start a group focused on divorce.

For Sarnik, the conversation about loss has changed dramatically over the past three years. When she returns for Perlson’s one-night sessions, the experience is less about her own grief and more of a thoughtful memorial. “It’s not about me anymore,” she says. “It’s about honoring my son.”

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