What does a yogi do when someone they loves dies? According to B.K.S Iyengar, “the yogi is never concerned with death, he is only concerned with life…” Yet every time we come to our practice we end with “Savasana” – Corpse Pose.
Often, some students come to my yoga class and leave early, mostly right before we enter into “Corpse Pose.” I am always left wondering if the idea of pretending they are dead makes them uncomfortable, or if they think that we are just laying on the floor doing nothing so they’d rather go and change their clothes or maybe they have somewhere important they need to go after class. Whatever the real reasons, I always feel so sad when this happens. I often think in my mind, “No, don’t leave yet, not without practicing corpse pose!” To me this is the most important pose in the asana practice. It’s the time when we detach from “perfecting” or “trying to achieve something” as we so often spend time doing in yoga practice. It’s the time when we just fall into our present state of awareness. We detach and let go from the physical body, the breath, down to the mind and its thinking process and the thoughts that arise. Like death, it is a practice of letting go of the idea of our self or the ego. This is quite possibly the hardest part of the practice and if we are really honest with ourselves when we are in corpse pose, can we honestly say we are completely detached from our body, breath and mind and able to be absorbed into a higher consciousness?
Since my father passed away in 2013 I have been grappling with the feelings of grief, the unavoidable suffering caused by attachment from losing someone I love so much so suddenly. One minute I am driving the Big Sur coastline with my husband and my father on a glorious, sunny day, enjoying each others company and then suddenly we realized that my father was not feeling well.
Almost a decade ago I had attended some of my father’s group therapy sessions at the VA hospital after he checked in for help. He was severely depressed and diagnosed with PTSD from experiencing over a year of combat in Vietnam many moons ago. At the VA, I attended a meditation and breathing class, not unlike what we practice in yoga, except without the asanas. I was the only middle aged woman in a room full of Vietnam veterans following the instructors guided meditation and instructions. I was excited, I loved that they were introducing these practices to the veterans! I enjoyed the class.
While we were in the hospital on my father’s last day, what seemed like at least 8 different doctors or nurses came in to ask my father the same bunch of questions about his health and health history. It would make any normal person anxious and nervous, but suddenly I saw my father close his eyes, calmly answer all their questions and start to practice some of these breathing exercises. One doctor came in and saw him do this and asked him, “Sir, are you okay?” and he answered calmly, “Yes, I’m just meditating.” I was so proud of him. Often people are introduced to these practices, but when a moment of conflict or intensity off the mat happens in life — all they learned goes out the window. I was impressed that in this moment of gravity he was able to use what he learned to get through it.
Unfortunately, they took my father in to do a major test on his heart and he didn’t make it. In a matter of a few short hours we went from a vacation to my father dying. They brought me in to show me his heart disease on a monitor and told my husband and I that we would have to “say goodbye” to my father now, we only had minutes. I held my husband’s hand so tightly and the sense of darkness, fear and dread that washed over me was unspeakable. I couldn’t help but think “This is it. This is the moment I’ve always dreaded. The moment when one of my parents dies.” They took me into his room as his heart gave out slowly. I ran my fingers through his long white hair. Over the past ten years after he was introduced to therapy at the VA, he had started to grow his hair long, about shoulder length. In particular they introduced him to art therapy and he took to it and suddenly exploded with all sorts of wonderful art endeavors, mostly into painting. He painted every day and I think he grew his hair long to mark this psychological change and identity as an artist. When he first started growing his hair, some family members got nervous and thought maybe he was being eccentric and he was, but I thought it was wonderful. I felt that his foray into painting and also writing poetry brought him back to life from his dark depression, so I loved this part of him.
I also kissed his forehead as his heart started to slow down and give way, right over his third eye. I have read various texts that say that the soul leaves from this space. Some also say the crown, or the heart too. So I kissed him in the center of his brow and continuously told him how much I loved him. I ran my fingers through his hair above his head almost as if to help him leave peacefully with my love and affection for him. His eyes were open and didn’t want to close. A tear ran down his cheek as we cried together. I can never really know what he felt, or what was happening for him. But I could only pray that my love for him went with his spirit to wherever we go when we leave our bodies.
After he passed so quickly there were so many things to attend to, so many details. Traveling, family, friends. People who I never met who told me how my father touched their lives. We went back to New York City to take care of loose ends and gather all his paintings for a memorial exhibit where we showed his artwork and allowed others to take his last pieces home and we also read his poetry. But not too long after the busyness subsided I felt the dark sorrow of loss come over me. The reality that I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call him anymore. That this was real. That he was not here anymore. That to every beginning there is an end.
When you have a spiritual practice, these moments become incredible opportunities to engage all that you know in a deeper level. Just like my father did when he started to meditate at the hospital, I pulled out all the tricks in my yoga bag. I meditate, I sauna, I asana, I breathe, I steam room, I get a massage, I read spiritual texts, I work out, I walk, I eat vegetables, I light candles, I go to a therapy session, I pray, I light incense, I chant, I write poetry, I journal, I write this article for you.
But this grief is still here anyway. My body is aching, my immunity is down, all sorts of imbalance and minor illness comes including panic attacks when I try to go to sleep. It seems as if my body has a life and a mind all it’s own despite my best efforts. My body is talking its own language, full of all sorts of unconscious messages coming to the surface that I must listen to. What I learn in this process is that there is no escaping a threshold or a rite of passage that we must go through. That this is okay and there is nothing that needs to be “fixed” and nothing to “get over or get on with.” There is no skipping out on the necessary phases of grief and there is no going back. But instead, it is more interesting to just relax and learn about my self in the process of many tears, sorrow, accepting the reality of loss and impermanence. That my present reality is not to avoid or to get on with my life as quickly as I can but to experience fully, these emotions as they arise, enter my feelings and face them with pure honesty and compassion for myself. To understand what it means to me to live on without my father. To also become intimate with the experience of death and the reality of my own mortality. Sort of like being in corpse pose.
Which is why I get so sad when students walk out of class early without experiencing corpse pose, without experiencing what it means to ultimately detach from everything, even our idea of our self and become intimate with the impermanence of our own lives. It is also in the detachment or the time spent in relaxation that we become able to retain, reflect and embody all that we learned in our experience of the practice without grasping too tightly. Although it sounds unpleasant, it is my favorite pose. If anything because understanding the impermanence of my self, fills me with such presence, love and gratitude for life. My father’s death is teaching me to deeply feel this for everyone in my life, how miraculous, precious and unique every single person is to me. How no one can be duplicated or replaced. How much one person’s life means to so many people whether they realize it or not. How important it is to live fully present. In his last years and his last moments I felt my father has taught me some of the most important lessons I have learned so far – everything that means anything – to laugh, even in the face of adversity, to care about people, to be true to yourself, to not only say it, but to show your love for everyone.