‘Cause I can’t pretend it’s okay when it’s not. It’s death by a thousand cuts.
– Taylor Swift
2020 has been such a challenging year it has become a cliché. When we experience yet another hardship, we wink and give a half-hearted chuckle. “2020,” we say to our neighbor with a shrug. Our neighbor simply nods and gives a wry, uneasy smile. No further explanation is needed.
Death has overshadowed 2020. No one wants to talk about it. Sure, we can discuss death in terms of unfeeling statistics: such- ‘n-such number of Americans have died of the novel Corona virus, there have been so-‘n-so number of deaths world-wide. Police gun down another innocent black man. As environmental catastrophe ensues, hurricanes devastate the coastline, forest fires burn another town to the ground, and the effects of these disasters are most keenly felt by the poor, marginalized, and most vulnerable.
But in 2020, that is just how we do.
Speaking of death….
During the best of times, humans avoid thinking about death, much less speaking of it! We can talk around death, as long as we don’t actually talk about it. The fact that one day we all are going to die is the worst best-kept secret in history.
Spiritual traditions throughout time have insisted we prepare for death. Yoga and other mystical traditions teach that we are not our bodies. Within each of us there is a spark of divinity. It is that spark of divinity, what some call the soul and yogis call atman, that does not die.
Every autumn we are reminded that death, like birth, is a process. It doesn’t happen all at once. Just like the leaves change color, crinkle, and fall to the ground, our bodies change as we age and prepare for death. As the fall air becomes chilled and crisp, our breathing, too, changes as we die. We experience shifts in consciousness, sometimes residing in the present moment and other times going deep within ourselves to a place where time is irrelevant. Finally, like winter, death comes.
Living and dying well.
How we live indicates how we will die. Yoga teaches us to live and die well. Most of us do not fear death itself. We fear dying. Death frightens us for many reasons. It is the ultimate unknown. Dying well involves willingly letting go of all worldly attachments in the most humble and profound way.
The very same yoga practices that comforted us throughout our lives can usher us in to death. As the breath guided us through vigorous asana practices on our mat, it will help us as we journey to the Numinous. We breathe more slowly. The exhales grow longer and longer. Breath is the very last companion we say goodbye to as we fade from the physical world.
We want to die as the liberated beings we inherently are. Throughout our lives, meditation teaches us to withdraw our physical senses and uncover inner stillness. Mantra, which means “mind-training”, gives us a way to consciously control our unconscious. By staying present and focusing our minds, we are better able to navigate whatever emotions are part of our death.
Shavasana means corpse pose. It is usually practiced at the end of an asana (yoga posture) practice. It allows our bodies to cool and integrate the physical and energetic work of our practice. However, it also gives us the opportunity to practice dying. During shavasana, we consciously and methodically release our body. We start at the base of the body: the toes, feet, and legs. Then we release our fingers, hands, and arms. Next the torso, neck, head, and finally the scalp. We do this because it is said our soul ascends through the top of our head when we die. As we lie in stillness, we are completely relaxed and comfortable, as the guide of our expedition on our mat- our yoga teacher- lovingly holds space for us to rest in peace.
Death overshadows this time of year, and perhaps 2020 more than any year we have ever experienced. It is not easy to talk about death, but it is as much a part of life as living. Yoga teaches us not to shy away from the things that make us uncomfortable. Rather we delve into them, do the work that is ours to do, and let go of the outcome when it is finished. Yoga teaches us to die as well as we lived: whole, radiant, complete.