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Don't Fear the Reaper

Urban Sadhu Exploration October 2023

guru brahma, guru vishnu, guru dēvō mahēśwara guru sakshat, param brahma, tasmai shri guravē namaḥ -- From Guru Stotram

Meaning: The beginning of a cycle is a teacher, the middle of a cycle is a teacher, the ending of a cycle is a teacher. There are teachers in plain sight. There are teachers that will be revealed when the time is right. I humbly bow down to the guru, the remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is omnipresent. – Interpretation, Austin Sanderson

We are born, we live, we die. Few things are as certain as the beginning, middle, and ending of the cycle of this thing called life. And yet while we scroll through countless social media stories about the start of life, and we celebrate its achievements and letdowns, the ending of life is a subject we’re less inclined to talk about in public. Conversations about death are few and far between, until we face the loss of a loved one or our own mortality. The brush with death can come as old age, calamities, or illness. But however it comes, death dissolves our attachment to the body and mind; it’s the great equalizer among us all.

In 2022, 133.99 million human deaths occurred worldwide. Counted in this number were the young and old, the rich and poor, the famous and unknown, the healthy and the ill. No gender, religious affiliation, or racial identity escapes from life’s sobering cycle, and yet in most communities we rarely have frank conversations about death, dying, and what may happen after we leave the body.

In sharp contrast, the ancient teachings of yoga approach the subject of death with straightforward fearlessness; they emphasize that the most important moment of our life will be the moment of our death. Life – how we have lived it, and how we deal with the ending of it – is all a preparation for our next phase of our existence and next cycle. Within yoga, life is not one linear single life cycle, but a circular cycle of many lifetimes.

In the Katha Upanishad, the text focuses on a philosophical conversation between the young student Nachiketa and his teacher/guru Lord Yama, God of Death. Nachiketa asks all the right questions of Lord Yama to get him to reveal the esoteric teachings of yoga: controlling the senses, calming the mind, letting go of attachments, the nature of the Atman (soul), and union (yoga) with Brahman (God, or Higher Self). But in the end Nachiketa can’t resist asking Lord Yama, “What happens after a person dies? Does he continue to exist in another form or not?” Lord Yama, reluctant to offer a straightforward answer, replies, “Even gods are uncertain about the answers to the question you ask.” Nachiketa, not giving up so easily, asks again; finally Yama tells Nachiketa, “Some of these souls enter into the womb in order to be embodied again in organic beings, others assemble into what is called Sthānu, meaning “stump,” in Sanskrit [maybe indicating that souls came back as trees], according to their karma (past actions), and according to their shrutam (knowledge or wisdom).” But Lord Yama asserts that those “who do not know the Self nor understand the Atman return to the world of creation over and over, and those who do understand are liberated from the cycle of birth, life, and death.” This would seem to suggest that life is a like a school: we keep coming back to learn and advance in knowledge and wisdom until we graduate. This approach leaves little to fear, and we know from our own educational experience that some are faster learners then others.

The Upanishad texts continue to develop these ideas and practices that originate in the Vedas, beginning a period called ‘preclassical yoga’. In the ‘classical yoga period’, Sage Patanjali writes the Yoga Sutras and informs us that abhiniveśāh (fear of death) is one of the five kleśāh, or five hindrances to yoga. Patanjali is clear that identification with the body and mind leads to attachment, causing the fear of death, a form of egoism.

When we are on our yoga mat, yoga keeps teaching us how to experience and embrace the ending of a cycle through many different yogic techniques. I once heard a yoga teacher say in class, “each inhale is a birth and each exhale is a little death.” In truth, when a being is dying, breath can be more complicated than just life ending on an exhale, but the statement “each exhale is a little death” is the poetic justice of yoga. In the practice of pranayama, yama means “to restrict,” and prana means “life force”; the “vital principle” is the restriction of the breath.

Applying a kumbhaka, (from the Sanskrit word kumbha, “a pot,” comparing the torso to a vessel filled with air) on an exhalation, and thus depriving the body of the next inhale for a specific amount of time, allows the yogi to experience a simulated death. The Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā states in sloka 2.3, “When there is breath in the body, it is called life. Death is when the body is no longer breathing. Kumbhaka (breath retention) is a mastery of a small death.”

The practice of savasana, corpse seat, provides an important key to understanding death and how to explore death in the yoga practice. I remember in many of the Jivamukti Yoga classes I took with Sharon Gannon, she would have us tense up all of the muscles of the body and then let go before allowing deep relaxation to occur in savasana. My guru, Yogishri Sudarshan Kannan, once said, “Savasana is the hardest of all the asanas. Only an advanced yogi can truly experience the death of the body when the body is still alive.” Not long after I started teaching yoga, my mother in Alabama started to go to yoga classes at her local fitness center. I asked her how she liked the yoga classes, and she replied: “I like most of it but I don’t like that `dead person pose’; who wants to think about dying?” I laughed and pointed out that confronting one’s own mortality was the whole point of savasana, and encouraged my mom to try and make peace with that “dead person pose.” If you, like my mom, are one of those people who can’t close your eyes, relax, or remain still in savasana, I suggest you spend some quality time in Svadhyaya or “self-study” to explore what thoughts and emotions are keeping you from deepening your practice of savasana. You may find that savasana causes you to confront your abhiniveśāhp or fear of death.

Ram Das once wrote in an essay on death, “These bodies we live in, and the ego that identifies with it, are just like the old family car. They are functional entities in which our Soul travels through our incarnation. But when they are used up, they die. The most graceful thing to do is to just allow them to die peacefully and naturally – to `let go lightly.’ Through it all, who we are is Soul . . . and when the body and the ego are gone, the Soul will live on, because the Soul is eternal.” A yogi should never fear the ending of a cycle. Change and transformation are inevitable; the ending of a cycle can be our greatest epiphany.

Austin Sanderson – Urban Sadhu


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