Yoga: Dead or Alive

Practicing yoga won't make you live forever, but it can help you put the fear of death into perspective. Neal Pollack explains how.
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Practicing yoga won't make you live forever, but it can help you put the fear of death into perspective. Neal Pollack explains how.

One afternoon a couple of years ago, I gave a private yoga lesson to a guy in his Los Angeles backyard. He wasn't a close friend, but our kids hung out sometimes and played on the same baseball team. Whether or not I was qualified to teach him anything was another question. I'd just completed my first 200-hour certification and had no plans to become a yoga instructor in any format. But I went ahead, even though I wasn't getting paid. I figured it was practice for whatever came next.

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The guy tended toward the jock side of the ledger, so I put him through a tough workout. Like a puppy responding well to its training, he willingly accepted everything I gave him. Even though he was my age, or maybe even a little older, his physical skills went way past whatever I could do, even past what I ever wanted to try. He jumped and leapt and stretched and did his vinyasa with no problem at all. If you'd put him at the center of any level 2-3 Power Yoga class anywhere in the world, he would have fit in just fine.

When I asked him to meditate for 10 long, calm breaths at the end, he crossed his legs into Lotus, downward-focused his eyes, and disappeared into what appeared to be samadhi, that enviable state of bliss beyond thought. Then I instructed him to lie down and began my Savasana spiel, designed to get the body and mind to relax. He went supine for a couple of seconds, but then bounded up, like his body was on a spring.

"We're done!" he said.

"What?" I replied.

"I don't like that part."

I'd never heard of that before; everyone loves savasana.

"Why?" I said.

"Because it feels like I'm dying," he said. "And I'm afraid of dying."

"Well, you're not actually dying," I said.

"Yeah, but I want to live forever. Isn't yoga supposed to teach you how to do that?"

The short answer is no. The longer one is: In yogic lore, you hear tell of siddhis, or extraordinary powers, wherein certain yoga masters develop the ability to live for a thousand years or more. By learning how to prolong or even partially cease the breath, they slow down the body's aging function and therefore give the appearance of living forever.

Of course, this is a myth. Many great yoga teachers, like Patthabi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar, make it into their 90s because they decided early on to devote themselves to a lifestyle of extreme physical fitness, nutritional integrity, breath control, and a certain kind of simplicity rarely seen in the world. Then again, many other accomplished yoga people die in their 60s and 70s, just like anyone else. The oldest living person is a woman in Georgia. She's 116 and has never taken a yoga class in her long life. Yoga doesn't make you immortal.

The Buddha, a man who knew more than a little something about yoga (and who died, at the unspectacular age of 80, of food poisoning) understood that aging, decay, and death were a natural part of life, and therefore shouldn't be feared. Death and illness mean suffering, at least at the end of one's life, but not nearly as much as the fear of death does. Nothing creates more anxiety and unhappiness. We should be out in the world experiencing it in all its weird, messy glory, not worrying, consciously or subconsciously, about when it's all going to end. When you practice yoga, you're really practicing living and dying, learning how to deal with the reality of impermanence. Also, sometimes you stand on your head.

So to my former not-quite yoga student I say: Sorry, dude, you're going to die. But you should do your yoga anyway, because you'll feel a lot better when you're done. Practice isn't going to keep you alive forever, but it might help you calm your mind and get rid of some of those fears. That alone makes it worth the time.