In the epic poem, the Mahabharata, the sage Yudisthira is asked, “Of all things in life, what is the most amazing?” Yudisthira answers, “That a man, seeing others die all around him, never thinks that he will die.” I don’t want to be like that; I want to learn from the precious experiences that I have had seeing others die. I have studied the scriptures to find some validation and further clarity for what I have witnessed.
DEATH AND YOGA
Death is an important topic for the yogi and often it is left unexamined in our modern approaches to yoga practice. But as the Dalai Lama says, “Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are useless.” If we as spiritual practitioners, of all people, don’t try to understand death, then really what are we doing with all of the other practices we are involved in? Death is a serious subject, but it is a relevant subject to us all because we will all have to die sooner or later. As Yoga practitioners, yes, we are focused on discovering immortality. But immortality remember is for the soul, the body will still have to die. We do our best to take care of our bodies, eat healthy food, exercise, sleep enough, use creams and lotions to help our skin retain a youthful glow, but no matter what you do, your body will get old and there will come a time when you will want to move out and get a new one. So when the time comes for us to die and we become afraid and freak out and throw all of our spiritual practices out the window, then what good have they been to us? It is imperative that we start now to develop the grace and know-how, which will serve us when we have to transition from this present body to the next adventure.
sarva-dvarani samyamya / mano hrdi nirudhya ca
murdhny adhaya-atmanah pranam / asthito yoga-dharanam BG VIII.12
Closing the gates of the body and drawing the mind into the heart, then raise the prana into the head.
This verse focuses on closing all the gates of the body with the instructions: Sarvadvarani samyamya. Sarva means “all,” dvarani means “gates” and samyamya means “controlling” or “articulating. Patanjali in the third chapter of the Yoga Sutra spends considerable time with the concept and practice of samyama. The term samyama refers to intense one-pointed (ekagraha) focus, constraining the senses and directing them, in a simultaneous practice of concentration, meditative absorption and ecstasy. The word samyamya is the verb form of samyama and it is used in this verse from the Gita to describe the practice of doing this type of intense, effortful, internally directed, controlled articulation of the prana.
Many of the translations/commentaries I have read refer to those gates as the 9 gates of the body: 1 anus, 2 urethra, 3 mouth, 4-5 ears, 6-7 nostrils, 8-9 eyes. Because yogic instruction was usually meant for men mention of the vagina as a 10th opening is not often found in the old texts, although is in some of the more recent commentaries.
I feel strongly that the gates that are referred to in this verse are not those physical nine gates only, but those gates are the gates of the senses which elementally lie in the chakras and that in this verse we are being instructed in the practice of pratyahara – sense withdrawal. Yes, the nine gates do also correspond to the outer physical gates which of course correlate to the senses, it is true, but I don’t think that the verse is saying that you literally close the mouth, the ears, the nostrils for instance as in shanmukh mudra. Instead I feel that this passage is actually a reference to the dissolution of the elements that occurs at the time of death. The verse is giving us a set of instructions, which involves a very effortful, intentional pulling together of energy and directing it upward in a specific way, using the closing of the gates as a bandha practice. The verse is giving advice to yogis as to how to practice conscious dying, by drawing the senses which are aligned with the elements of respectively earth, water, fire and air into each other starting from the root moving prana into the sushumna and upward to the heart chakra and holding it there and then from there by means of the element of air-by means of the exhale, the soul takes wing and flies into the head to exit out through the braharandra, the hole in the skull at the top of the head. This is a description of the dissolution of the elements from earth to air into ether and this is how the soul (jiva) disassociates itself from the body at the time of death. The element of air resides in the anahata or heart chakra, and the sense of touch also resides in the heart. The verse is describing how the four senses, smell, taste, sight and touch exit the body with their corresponding elements. It is interesting to note that the verse specifically sites the heart as the launching pad and the air element as the fuel. My speculation is that the sense of hearing is associated with the 5th element of ether and the vishudha or throat chakra. The element of ether and the sense of hearing are not totally dependent on the physical body for their ability to operate. Many traditions say that the sense of hearing remains with the soul for some time after death. For this reason you can still speak to a person who has died, as they will be able to hear you. The Tibetan book of the Dead for example is an instructional manual intended to be read by the still living to the deceased after they have died. It provides help to the deceased in how to navigate through the various bardos or in-between states which exist after death before the soul reincarnates into their next birth. Its original Tibetan title is the Bardo Thodol, which means liberation through hearing in the in-between state.
Delving into the practice of shavasana provides an important key to understanding death and how to practice for it. The tensing of all of the muscles of the body prior to letting go and allowing deep relaxation to penetrate all the cells and tissues of the body, seems at first to be a simple physiological exercise designed to facilitate relaxation. The first yoga class I took, I was taught to do this. After that I did encounter it in several other classes I took, but in many classes I took there was no such instruction given and so I got into the habit of not doing it myself and I dropped it from my teaching instruction in the classroom. But with the study of this sutra from the Bhagavad Gita, and my first hand witness experience of three deaths, I have awakened to the important significance of the yogic practice which is often simply described as “tensing all the muscles of the body and then let go exhale and relax.”
I feel that this directive of tensing the muscles prior to relaxing is actually far more significant than I first thought-if that tensing of the muscles is done as a practice of samyamya-an intense and directed pulling together and pushing upward of the energy.
I wanted to write from my first hand experiences about the three extraordinary deaths I have witnessed because I felt those accounts could benefit all of us from a yogic perspective and perhaps give us new insight into some of the simple practices that we use everyday in a yoga class. The practices I am focusing on are practices done in relation to shavasana, the corpse pose or seat. The profound meaning of this asana has often been disregarded and instead just thought of as a rest period, time to take a nap after the exertion of the class, and it is the asanas performed before shavasana that are mainly focused on. The two verses in the Bhagavad Gita from chapter 8 which deal with the practice of dying hold great significance to the yogi and should be incorporated into one’s regular practice of shavasana-if that is you want to use the practice of shavasana as a yogic practice, a way to prepare and train you to be able to leave your body consciously at the time of your death. I really learned these practices from others who had died in front of me and at that time gave me these lessons as a final teaching.
It was the insight that I had when I saw that all three of these beings, my brother, Grandma the cat and Thai Tea the cat, had all done that same tensing of the body right before the final surge of the exhale and death. Being with my brother in 1992 and then Grandma in 2007, I hadn’t picked up on the significance; it wasn’t until I witnessed Thai Tea in 2010 doing the same action that I had a feeling that this might be important. After seeing this three times, I couldn’t write it off as insignificant, but what did it mean? Was it a normal way that most people died? Did only cats die like that and my brother was an exception? After Thai Tea’s death, I spoke with my sister, who is a professional care giver and works daily with people who are dying, and I was surprised to find out that she had never seen anyone do the “tensing of the body” like we had seen our brother do before exhaling the last breath. I knew that she had been with several of her pet cats when they died so I asked her if they went through that tensing of the muscles before the last exhale. She replied very ponderously, “You know I have always taken them to the vet to get euthanized, so they are completely unconscious when they die. I realize now from what you are telling me that perhaps I didn’t give them a chance to go as far as they could. But they seemed to be suffering so much, I just wanted to put an end to their pain.”
DESCRIPTIONS OF THE THREE DEATHS
My Brother Marty
My brother had AIDS and had been in a hospice for one week. During the first part of that week he was actually quite active. He had many visitors and was always up and available for them; he was very upbeat cheerful and communicative. He would spend a lot of time making rounds, visiting other patients who were also in the hospice house, but who had become severely depressed and or resentful. He did his best to console and cheer them up. He even took several short walks with his family and friends outside in the park during those first few days. But during the last three days before his death, he started to slow down and spend more time in bed, resting.
The day he died as well as the day previous, he had been pretty much unconscious. He appeared to us to be asleep. Then he woke up, and with some difficulty, sat up in bed. He was very weak at this stage, but even so, he called for my sister and me. When we were there with him he reached out his hands and held our hands with his and looked into our eyes steadily for several moments-such a look! Then he said, “watch this,” winked his left eye, tensed his body, his face all scrunched up and then, exhaled, released and pulled his consciousness out of his body.
Grandma, the cat
We never knew exactly how old Grandma was. Our neighborhood veterinarian guessed that she might have been as old as twenty at the time she died. Julie, David’s sister, had found her in a cardboard box in Tompkins Square Park in the Lower East Side of New York. She was emaciated, missing all of her teeth and almost blind. She lived with us for several years and was a happy cat during those times. She died on the morning of the winter solstice 2007. A week before, she stopped eating and spent most of her time sleeping, with intermittent moments when she would drink a little water or vomit. At this time she preferred to lie on the hardwood floor without any blanket or padding under or on top of her. She had been sleeping next to my bed when I awoke because I heard her get up. She was so thin, weak and groggy and yet she was trying to walk. I picked her up and put her on my bed and started to stroke and talk to her. She then meowed and curled her body into a tight ball and held it, then relaxed. Then a moment later she curled her body into a very tight ball, this time with what seemed to be a lot more intensity, holding herself like this for a second, then she dramatically arched and lengthened her body, throwing back her head and exhaled. She was dead.
Thai Tea, the cat
Thai Tea or TT as we called her, was my beloved companion for almost 18 years. She was an elegant and very articulate Siamese cat. She died in bed in my arms on March 17, 2010. David and I had just returned from a very long world tour. When we arrived off the plane, Julie called us to say that TT was dying and that we had better get home as quickly as possible as she felt that TT might not last much longer. A friend immediately drove us to Woodstock. When I arrived, TT became very animated and excited to see me, expressing herself vocally and with physical affection, although she was very weak, and had not eaten nor drunk any water in 4 days. I somehow did not think she was dying but that she was dehydrated and that if we could get fluids into her body she would revive. So I started, with a medicine dropper to feed her water, gracefully she took it. The next day I took her to the Vet, who put her on an I-V drip to hydrate her. She took it all in stride. She spent all day at the hospital and in the evening I took her home to sleep with me. The next morning I brought her back again to the hospital for the same hydration procedure. The doctor said that she wasn’t responding. I suddenly had the realization then that she was not just sick and would recover if she were to be rehydrated; I realized that she was dying. In retrospect I feel that I should have never taken her to the hospital, that I should have kept her with me every moment of those last two days, but I honestly was blinded to the fact that she was dying and instead felt that she was ill and needed me to help her get well. Later when I spoke to my sister she told me that the reason that a dying person stops drinking water is that it makes for an easier death. When the kidneys have shut down and there is too much fluid in the body it can create the death rattle, so often heard in the throat of people close to their last breath, which makes it uncomfortable for the person dying. Well I didn’t know this information at the time. But anyway, fortunately for TT she didn’t have to experience that death rattle, which I am grateful for.
So I took her home from the hospital that afternoon and prepared for her death. I burned incense and lit candles, I played her favorite music-a CD by Jai Uttal called Loveland. She was very weak and quiet. We went to bed early that evening. I couldn’t sleep and kept watch, her body lying close to mine as I witnessed her breathing begin to change, the inhalations short and the exhalations longer. I knew this to be a sign that death was close. Sometime near dawn, her left back leg began to twitch, the twitching increased quickly in intensity, and I knew something was up, but even then ignorantly, I thought that she might be just having a dream. Then she contracted all of the muscles in her body, at this point I moved away to give her space. She held them tense for a moment, then she arched through her spine, extending her head back, stretching her front legs forward, spreading her toes, letting out a soft mummer with her last exhale and that was it, she left her body! It must have taken tremendous stretch at that moment to accomplish what she did.
SWADYAYA-LOOKING INTO THE SHASTRAS
We know so little about how death works, as we know so little about how life works. From my own deep work with the chakra system I know that the elements (of earth, water, fire, air and ether) and the senses are integrated with the chakras. I am not content to accept a superficial new age version of the chakras. Somehow their mystery is wrapped up in the very fabric of how we are put together as entities. The methodology involved with how we as spiritual beings having a physical experience, perceive ourselves and others is connected with the subtle anatomy of the chakras.
I have ventured deep into many of the yogic practices and questioned their relevance and tried to find answers in books, teachers as well as personal experience. In experience I have had insights that have helped me to put some pieces together, all of which have always taken me back to the shastras, where on a second, third or forth read clarity started to emerge. Shastra comes from the root word shas, which means to instruct. The yogic scriptures are meant to be taken as instructions. They don’t usually come right out and tell you something as fact. All mystical teachings are written like music–in code, the idea being that if you follow the instructions you will arrive at a mystical experience which will go beyond any words that could be written in a text, even a Holy text. When a composer writes down music, the musical notation is meant to be instructional. Just because a musician can read the notation, the musical score, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that he or she can play or manifest the sound of the music as the composer intended it. That takes a special musical talent, which mysteriously comes from not only experience and practice but intuitive wisdom being able to soulfully render into form what is essentially formless-the etheric unseen world of spirit.
Like directions, formulas or recipes we, as spiritual practitioners must be able to extract the meaningful aspects according to what we need to learn at the moment. Sutras and verses are like tightly packed poetry. Scriptures are open to interpretation and only have meaning to one who is looking to them for meaning. Sanskrit words can have many meanings depending on where the word is placed in a sentence, or a section and what other words are nearby.
I am a practical person and so I like finding ways to apply the concepts and ideas that are found in the yoga teachings and texts to a practical framework. As a teacher I want to be able to give something that could be useful to students.
I have been profoundly affected by Patanjali and his first sutra where he speaks about looking for the hidden meaning behind everything. The world, all of the people, all of our experiences-everything-is communicating to us something important. I want to be able to hear what nature is trying to tell me. I want to be able to make connections and never to dismiss anything or anyone as insignificant. Everyone and everything has significance; there is nothing meaningless in life. So when you can start to put things together you begin to be able to solve mysteries – transforming theory into practice – and this is the great adventure of life. At least for the yogi, who is someone who is enthusiastic about living an examined life and asking the important questions as well as looking for the answers within their own life experience. For instance, Who am I? How did I get here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Will I die? When? Who dies? What are thoughts? What do the chakras have to do with anything? What does knowing about the elements have to do with anything? What about our senses? Where do they come from? What about our mind? What is a body? How do we learn how to operate our body? Is there an instruction book? How do I use it?
When seen in the light of what some of the shastras say in regards to dying, capital punishment, especially executions where a person is killed by beheading, or hanging by the neck until dead, is horrific. And what about the billions of non-human animals who are routinely killed, murdered by human beings, to later be eaten as food, their throats cut as they bleed to death. Or electrocution, or death by legal injection seem all the more horrible in that they would seem to severely deprive the dying person (human or animal) any chance to consciously eject their soul from their physical body in a way that they would know that they are truly dead. Perhaps these people receive an additional death sentence-to be a ghost-and in this way their punishment is prolonged even after the physical body is severed from the soul.
Of course I do not know for sure, who really does? Death remains a mystery, but then again so does life.