Have you ever contemplated your own death? Not in a suicidal sense, but in the realistic contemplation of the eventual demise of the physical self. Contemplating mortality forms a spiritual practice for many different traditions including some Yogic and Buddhist practitioners. This is really the antithesis of modern postural yoga’s body consciousness. It’s easy, and some might say preferable, to imagine that your body will last forever. Yet no matter how lovingly you tend to its needs, the ageing process will occur in a time frame that is both fast and slow. The ultimate transition from life in a physical vehicle is inevitable. Death is the final stage but before that, a whole process of living plays out in a phase known as dying.
Barring accidents and acute illnesses that strike rapidly, we are likely to have some time to contemplate the end of our lives. But when is that arbitrary marker in your life span when you will think of the end phase knowingly? Is life like a two week vacation, where the first few days ( childhood) seem to creep as if the end will never come, then you start to fill your days with a rhythm and new activities (in young adulthood you’re just super busy and time flies), until before you know it there’s less time ahead of you than behind you? Have you ever had the feeling as the vacation comes to an end that you’re ready to go? Can you imagine feeling similarly at the end of life?
Like other big transitions such as the birth of a baby, the major transition of end of life, is potentially a catalyst for engaging in spiritual practice. Yoga therapists are well placed to support people who seek mastery over their minds, and peace with their changing bodies at the end of their life.
Koshas, Sutras and the Good Life
The Taittriya Upanishad, a Vedic era Sanksrit text, describes a model of the human being as 5 layered, the pancha maya kosha model. The model functionally describes lifestyle and techniques to clarify perception in order to accurately observe the self (svadhyaya). Each layer is increasingly subtle, beginning with the body (annamaya kosha) made of physical elements and maintained through food and movement, right through to the wisdom (jnanamaya kosha) and bliss (anandamaya kosha) sheaths. Yogic philosophy describes incarnation as a crudifying process, from the bliss sheath into the form of the physical body, and death as a reversal of the same process, becoming increasingly more subtle until the physical form dissolves.
This conscious approach to death and dying is a powerful form of yoga. According to Patanjali’s yoga sutras, clinging to life (abhinevesha) is one of the obstacles to yoga, or ultimate union with cosmic consciousness/bliss. Recognising ourselves as multidimensional beings (panchamayakosha) means perceiving the physical body (annamaya kosha) as one aspect to ourselves, temporary, crude, useful for sadhana ( spiritual practice) but not indicative of our essential nature ( ananda maya kosha) which is cosmic bliss. While the great mystery of what happens after the body dies may not be directly perceivable, the yogic cosmology gives us a beautiful model to work with in life. Recognising the impermanence of the body removes a layer of ignorance (avidya) and liberates the mind from the habit of clinging to body identification.
Staring at the Sun
Author Irvin D. Yalom describes thinking about your death as akin to staring at the sun. It’s radical, dangerous even, certainly fear provoking. It can only be done fleetingly, through the protective shield of cupped hands. Yalom explains that many of our life choices are driven by the deep seated anxiety we have about death.
The yogic physiology model of the chakras might indicate that this is helpful and healthy because we need to cling to life in our early evolutionary process, to procreate possibly, or at least to stay embodied in order to evolve and express our latent talents and abilities.
In yoga we consciously cultivate a relationship with the sun through practices such as surya namaskar, but using Yalom’s analogy, also when we lean in to what we fear, whether that’s through asana, relationship or in our own mind in meditation.
Not everyone feels anxious about death. In some cultures death is seen commonly, a shared experience in communities. In the Indian subcontinent it’s not uncommon to see bodies carried through the streets, on their way to the ghats where the remains will be burned and set afloat on the river. In other places though youth is highly valued, health is respected, and elderly people disappear into facilities that we seldom visit. Even in sudden, traumatic deaths, bodies are quickly covered and removed from public spaces. We see the chalk outline of death, but seldom the visceral reality.
In yoga the meditation on self can carry us beyond bodily and ego identity, to other concepts of what ‘I ‘may be. Enquiry practices encourage us to ponder the thinker having the thoughts, is that who I am? The witness to the sensations, is that the true self? Again Vedic wisdom gives us a technique, noted in the Upanishads of Neti Neti, not this, not that. By watching the thoughts of who or what ’I’ identifies with, the meditator loosens identity with external things, until they realise ‘I’ am simply ‘I’. As a reminder of this realisation we can use the mantra, So Ham, repeatedly reminding oneself, ‘I am that I am’.
Prana Flow in Life and Death
Besides the sudden accident or rapid cardiac arrest, many death experiences are drawn out over weeks, months or years. In an ageing population with hygienic care, it’s common for chronic disease to be the vehicle for our slow ebbing away of Prana. Time can help people reflect, and open up possibilities as the outer engagements of life drop away. The process of withdrawal of the senses from the wonderful enticing pleasures of the world (pratyahara) then may be a conscious one.
Yogic physiology describes the flow of Prana through nadis, governed by winds or Vayus which may be manipulated through specific practices to direct Prana to spiritual goals. The end of life is the natural culmination of Prana leaving the nadis and being directed towards subtler functions, until finally merging into the pranic ocean of the universe.
Daily life is not generally concerned with directing consciousness or Prana. In a capitalist society, samskaras ( desires, habits of mind and body) are created, expressed and burnt up rapidly by seeking external gratification and satisfying it with purchasing power. Many people draw their prana from stimulants, relationships and exciting adventures in the world. Yoga practitioners may undergo a process of deeper understanding of their own prana, developing a sattvik lifestyle that has fewer requirements from the external world.
Yet no matter how practiced, the end of life will still likely ask you to drop your sense pleasures. Even simple pleasures like nutritious food and drink, loving touch, sunshine and fresh air, are minimal and eventually unavailable at the end of life. So all the ways you sent your Prana out, all the karmendriyas (exit doors for senses) of your nervous system function, are shutting down, until internal senses are all that’s left. This can be understandably terrifying.
Satya & Surrender
The ethics and models of yoga philosophy can be used to frame the experience of death and dying. One common experience is that of receiving a prognosis, a doctors’ educated guess at how long the disease process is likely to take in your case.
Satyam Brown, palliative care consultant says most patients or residents in care facilities want to know the truth. They seek Satya for themselves, to come to terms with their experience, and for their loved ones too. They appeal to medical professionals to drop the euphemisms and double talk and give them benevolent truth. They want this so they can make informed decisions about things like power of attorney (who decides when life support is switched off and more), whether to try an experimental drug regime, to hang on valiantly, or to surrender.
Ah surrender, the spiritual notion of letting go. Surrender has many forms and is seldom practiced in any deep way during our householder years. In fact most people are rewarded by striving and avoid surrendering to anything external.
In the ashrams of life, our middle years are spent building material comfort, passing on knowledge and only at retirement for many people, contemplating nature, the universe and our place within it. Yet life is fleeting and our practiced approach is what becomes our default setting under stress.
So if you’ve practiced in business for example, responding to threats to your security with aggression, imagine the experience of an aged care resident who has lost control of their finances, cognitive function and bowels. Their shame, frustration and even rage is rational, yet distressing.
The whole process of dying can be greatly distressing to observers, including nurses, carers, relatives and support staff. When you contemplated your death did you want certain people around? Yet frequently it’s an isolating experience due to others withdrawing out of fear or pre-emptive grief.
Close relationships are the solace of life. In the Anahata chakra , the vritti of mamata, (attachment) speaks to our bonds with those we consider our own kin. Yet while the dying person may be seeking reassurance of that kinship, the significant others may be protecting themselves from the pain of loss, by covering their own tender hearts.
Yoga therapists can offer a professional, heart centred relationship that is a rare gift at any phase of life, but particularly valuable at the end of life. Having a professional listener who is not personally grieving (not to say that therapists don’t also feel the loss of clients but it’s different from the child or partner of the person dying), and has no agenda other than to be of service, allows the dying person to use their strengths and accept their changing circumstances with support. Offering guided relaxation, meditation, pranayama, mudra, mantra, gentle asana like movement that may alleviate the discomfort of being in a bed, and self -awareness opportunities are all ways the yoga therapist assists. Perhaps the most powerful offering though is calm, kind presence.
Facing Fear For Yourself & Others
The fear that arises also frightens staff and practical measures include sedation. Yet most family members, and many patients, would prefer to stay alert as long as possible. This can only happen if they are able to be calm in the face of diminishing capacity and senses. Pratayhara (sense withdrawal) is happening naturally, yet if the person has never witnessed internal life or actively avoided being quiet and introverted, this is very challenging.
So to prepare for our own deaths we can choose to practice with inner focus, using drishtis when eyes are open, and practicing seated or supine meditations where senses are withdrawn from the outer world. In every savasana is an opportunity to gently sneak up on our own death anxiety, to witness our mental fluctuations in the face of stillness, and gradually, over time, cultivate santosha, a contentment with what is, even if what is turns out to be inevitable loss and discomfort.
Your own fears around death must be faced enough to be calm and kind in the presence of someone’s suffering. The urge to save, fix or even alleviate suffering is an impulse to watch dispassionately. For beyond basic physical care, the most important quality to have with a dying person, is calm acceptance. This can only be cultivated through your own sadhana. So practice dying regularly, so that you may live more fully and accept the seasons, ashrams and cessation of individual pranic flow. The universal Prana welcomes all.
Chandrika Gibson will be presenting training that covers skills, theory and practice of the Yoga of Death and Dying in her upcoming teacher trainings.
Living Yoga Therapy Foundations Nov 19-28, 2016 Hong Kong – a post graduate training for 200 hour yoga teachers to up skill towards becoming yoga therapists. Part of a longer course, the ten days Foundational training is offered every two years and forms the prerequisite for Advanced Clinical Yoga Therapy training. Includes two days of cancer specific training to equip yoga therapists to work in chronic illness and palliative settings. See www.livingyogatherapy.com for details.
Spectrum of Life Yoga Teacher Training – March 4-24, 2017 Hong Kong, a unique 200/350 hour Yoga Alliance and Yoga Australia recognised training covering the lifecycle from fertility and prenatal yoga, baby yoga, yoga for children and teens, yoga for seniors and the yoga of death and dying. See www.spectrumoflifeyoga.com for details.
Bali Intensive Teacher Training 200/350 hours – Join the team from the Yoga Space for a Yoga Australia and Yoga Alliance recognised intensive training in beautiful Bali. August 5-13, 2017. See www.yogaspace.com.au for details. Book online here at www.suryahealth.com.au