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How Yoga Can Prepare Us for Death

I've started wondering how yoga might prepare one for death. With so much emphasis on hatha yoga and so much focus on the body, I wonder if making the great transition will be that much harder.

óLindsey Swope, Twisp, WI

Tim Miller's reply:
As a child I remember lying in bed at night thinking about death. The thought of nonexistence was so terrifying that sometimes I would break out in a sweat and it would take me hours to go to sleep. I carried that fear of death inside me until I began to practice yoga. My feelings about death changed dramatically 25 years ago with my first yoga class. After guiding me through the first half of the primary series of Ashtanga Yoga, my teacher asked me to lie down and then covered me with a blanket. As I lay there on the floor I felt myself settling into a relaxed state listening to the Ujjayi breathing of the other students and watching the candlelight flickering on the walls. Gradually I began to feel first my body, and then my mind let go as I descended deeper into stillness. In that stillness I experienced a sense of calm, spacious awareness that felt like home--a home that was very familiar even though it hadn't been visited in some time. A great sense of comfort and reassurance came over me, knowing that deep within myself was this bedrock of being that felt clear, open, and endless.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us that when the fluctuations of consciousness cease we have the experience of our true nature, which he calls the drastuh. The closest English equivalent we have for drastuh is the Witness, or Seer. In other texts it is called the Atman or Soul. Ultimately, all of the techniques of yoga are designed to facilitate this experience of soul, or Essence. When we are fortunate enough to have this experience, we begin to realize that deep within us is an awareness that is unconditioned and eternal. This realization is a crucial step in preparing for death because it allows us to make the distinction between the Seer and the Seen. The mind, the body, and the emotions are all part of the seen, which has only a temporary existence and is highly conditioned by our experience. If we attach ourselves to these things, wittingly or unwittingly we are inviting suffering because they will all come to an end.

The key to practicing a highly physical discipline like hatha yoga without becoming more attached to our physical form is to recognize that the intention of this practice is the refinement of awareness. asana and pPranayama are forms of tapas (which is translated literally "to burn")--physical practices that are done for the purpose of purification. Patanjali tells us that tapas eliminates impurities and cleanses and strengthens the Indriyas (the organs of perception), which include the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and mind. When the Indriyas are clean and strong, our discriminative faculty is greatly enhanced. We can move easily and clearly distinguish between the Seer and the Seen.

We begin to recognize that we are not the form we animate, but the force of animation itself. We have a body, but we are consciousness. The body is born; it grows, ages, and dies. The seer watches this process dispassionately. Pattabhi Jois says, "The body is just a rented house." Through the practice of hatha yoga, we keep the body clean and healthy so it lasts a long time, and at the same time we refine our awareness so we can realize that what dies is the outer covering. Essence endures.

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