Yoga and Death.


Happy Halloween, a day on which death might be a more palatable topic than usual.  In that spirit, here we go…

I have heard many great yoga teachers allude to the fact that “death is the greatest teacher,” and I have personally found it to be a worthwhile subject of attention.  I don’t intend for this to be depressing, but rather awakening and enlivening.  If it feels uncomfortable to think about your own mortality, this is good.  Go there, into the discomfort.

Death is an inescapable part of life, essential to the cyclical nature of things.  Plants grow and die, pets grow and die, relatives die, parents die, friends die, children die, lovers die, strangers die… and – believe it or not – we ourselves will also die.  Just as we are surrounded by life and change, we are surrounded by and constantly moving toward death – which is really inseparable from life.

When I was little, sometimes the immense reality of my own impermanence would creep up on me, frequently as I looked at my own reflection in a darkened window just before closing my curtains at bedtime.  I learned to push away the idea and think of something more immediate and happy to distract myself, and I think this is what most of us tend to do.  Certainly, by thinking about death we don’t get a clear answer to the big question of what happens after we die, and it can feel safer to just ignore it.  We can turn to our various deep-seated beliefs about an afterlife, or heaven, or reincarnation, for comfort or some sense of dealing with the unknown, but these are just different forms of speculation, which we can’t personally verify – until we die.  So while it is mostly futile to concern yourself with trying to figure out precisely what will happen after death, I have found it helpful to become comfortable with the inevitability of death itself; I think that coming to terms with death is a valuable life skill that many people unfortunately don’t seem to cultivate early enough in their lives.  And we never know when it is coming.

Some places in the world are more obviously conducive to contemplating death than others.  When I went to India for the first time in 2008, for three months as an engineering exchange student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, I spent a few weeks traveling by train before returning to school at Rice.  We passed through Varanasi, the holy city on the banks of the Ganges River, a city where many people go to die.  It is thought that by dying and being cremated in Varanasi, one escapes the cycle of death and rebirth.  I encountered some of the most skeletal living humans I have ever seen outside the Varanasi train station.  The narrow, twisting, stone-paved alleys in the old city are hardly wide enough for a cow to pass (so if you encounter one, you had better step into a doorway to let it pass, or turn around to find another way).  There is also a sense of vibrancy to the place, and the wide, flat river is stunningly beautiful and calm in the early morning, with mist gently floating over its filthy waters.  Wading into the holy water makes you wonder if you will develop some sort of infection in your feet.  Several crematory ghats line the river, and the air in the entire city is perpetually thick with smoke – so thick that contact lenses become unbearable after a few days, and you can wipe black sweat off your forehead.  Some body is always being burned.  The body is wrapped in a colorful, shiny cloth, placed on a wooden pyre, and lit.  The cloth burns quickly, the small kindling burns quickly, even the flesh burns quickly, and soon a leg bone juts out of the fire.  The fire burns until everything is ash, and then the ash becomes part of the river.  It isn’t glamorous or clean, but it is a very raw, final way to experience the end of a body.

Several years later, lying awake to the blinding light of a full moon one night, in my bamboo hut as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mountains of Panama, I had a deeply comforting realization regarding my own death.  It goes something like this:  Before I was aware of being alive in this body, there was a vast expanse of time (going back at least until the Big Bang, long enough to be unfathomable).  After I die, there will be a similarly vast expanse of time.  That first “half” (before this life awareness) presumably went pretty well, so what is there to worry about the semi-infinite part coming up after death?  Somehow this makes a lot of sense to me, and maybe it will to you too.

A few years ago, I came up with a wonderful New Year’s Resolution to really become comfortable with the idea of death – not to simply grasp the fact that I will die (which is easily done on an intellectual level, and is obvious to most of us), but to viscerally feel that truth, in an embodied way.  This was one of the most effective resolutions I have ever made in terms of personal growth.  Later that year, I was present for the last few days of my last living grandfather’s life at my parents’ house, and it was not an easy end for him.  The body holds on so tightly to life and to the breath, even when everything else is shutting down.  He suffered from severe dementia in his last years, and one of the most heart-wrenching aspects of being with him as he died was his confusion and the not knowing that he was old, in a dying body.  Every few minutes that awful realization would hit again, and again.  What if we could prepare ourselves for that final journey earlier in life, so it becomes deeply rooted in our consciousness, and even when dementia sets in, we might be more at ease with death in whatever stage of life our mind takes us back to?

An interesting exercise in preparing yourself for the uncertain timing of death is to imagine that this day could be your last – would you be ready?  Last year I rafted the Grand Canyon, which involves a whole slew of enormous rapids that can tear apart boats if not properly navigated by the person on the oars.  The most ferocious of these is Lava Falls, with a hydraulic hole near the top that looks big enough to swallow a house, followed by all sorts of other nastiness that can ruin your day, ending with a large rock slab at the bottom of the falls known as the “cheese grater.”  The morning of our approach to Lava, our entire group was quiet.  We had been on the river for a few weeks at that point, with nothing but water, sky, and unthinkably old rock walls to distract us from our own bodies and minds.  As Eli rowed our little blue rubber boat through the flat water leading up to Lava, I lay on my back on the plywood deck, looking up to the cloudy sky and the black inner canyon walls, and sorted things out to prepare myself for the reality that we could actually die that day, which is a useful exercise on any day.  We ended up having a perfect run through Lava, skirting just far enough from the edge of the top hole to avoid being pulled in, but close enough to avoid the succession of smaller-but-still-nasty holes downstream to the right, dancing our way between terrifyingly large hydraulics, punching through the crucial V-wave perfectly centered, and somehow timing the periodic standing wave at the bottom of the rapid perfectly at its low phase, coming out clean.

By regularly exposing ourselves to death (but not in a reckless way) and by considering our own mortality, or at least by not quashing the idea in our thoughts, maybe we learn to live a little more fully every day.  This is it, so live the very best life you can!

With much love,

For your pleasure, here are some practices related to death (not just for Halloween):

Savasana:  In yoga, the final pose we do at the end of a practice is savasana, the corpse pose, that lovely, nourishing finish where you get to simply lie on your back and let everything soak in, after a strenuous asana practice that made you feel indescribably alive.  The nervous system comes back to balance, the body integrates all the effort and release, and you spend some minutes in total stillness with nothing to do. Savasana is like a little death that we practice over and over again, which ultimately helps us prepare gracefully for the real one, whenever it comes.

Self-decomposition:  I sometimes look at my own body and imagine its aging and decay.  You can do this by simply staring at a hand or your feet.  Visualize the bones inside, the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and all the other physical pieces that won’t last forever. Once, after a particularly long run, as I lay on my back with my legs up the wall, I could almost see my feet dissolving into old feet, then bones, then nothing.  Try to do this in simply an interested, uninvolved way – and notice if it scares you.

The “last breath” meditation: (based on a technique presented in Meditation Secrets for Women by Camille Maurine and Lorin Roche).  Find a comfortable position, lying on your back. Breathe smoothly and deeply through your nose, and particularly focus on lengthening the exhalations.  On every exhalation, imagine that it is your last.  Every gentle “haaa” is the final release of the body from this life.  Try to keep your awareness like this for several minutes, and just notice whatever thoughts, sensations, or emotions come up along the way.  After a while, let go of the technique and breathe normally, back to balance and fully alive.

Note: In a similar but different practice, you can imagine every inhalation is the first breath of life – a new start in the beautiful world, full of potential.  This can be very uplifting.