Dying Daily

by Moritz Ulrich |
January, 2022
श्री कृष्णः शरणं मम
śrī kṛṣṇaḥ śaraṇaṃ mama

I take refuge in the all-attractive Lord who is the true identity of all being.
(translation by Sharon Gannon)

It is the new year, and you might have expected a more uplifting title. Dying is not the first thing that comes to mind when we contemplate over new year’s resolutions. They usually focus on creating something new or adding a habit like: “From now on, I will practice Yoga every single day!” or “This year I will finally switch to a vegan diet!” or somewhere along these lines. And I think those are great goals to be set, although at the same time we usually have some roadblocks that are preventing us from reaching them. Some hindrances might be easy to be solved (“I need to buy a yoga mat first.”) others might be less tangible: “What will my partner think about a vegan diet?”. Goal setting is a powerful practice, and becoming clear and precise about those goals is an essential first step. What is often missing is: can we imagine how we need to feel to achieve them or what would be the necessary mindset?

Something Has to End for a Beginning to Arise.

For anything to start, something has to cease. This is the universal cycle of beginning, middle, and end. We can find this cycle everywhere. Think of the holy trinity of Brahma (beginning), Vishnu (middle), and Shiva (end) or the sounds of OM: A (beginning), U (middle), and M (end). Or our very own life: We have been born, we live, and we will die. Whenever we see something new to blossom in nature, there certainly was something else that ended. If summer begins, the winter has ended. For new plants in some world areas to grow, a fire might be needed to destroy most flora and fauna. If we want to take on a new habit, we will likely give up another one, sometimes inadvertently. We need to especially give up the thought that holds us back from incorporating a new behavior into our lives.

The Fear of Ending.

To lose something or someone can be challenging.Most of the time we think and speak about new things instead:

A baby that has been born.
A partner we married.
The money we made.
Any other achievement.

Most of us enjoy these events and happily indulge in them. If you picture the opposites of these examples, it might be completely different. We would rather hide them or bury them deep inside and not celebrate them accordingly. This behavior is true for most cultures. Yet, a party happens in some areas of our world when a soul leaves its body. There is chanting, dancing, and time for praising the deceased. Where does that fear of things coming to an end come from? It might be our education, something we have experienced growing up, or just a pure survival instinct. In my opinion, finding out the exact cause does not matter, whereas becoming aware of it is the more critical step.

Śavāsana is an Important Practice.

During the asana practice, there is an outstanding opportunity to do so. Śavāsana translates into “corpse” (śava) and “seat” (āsana). It is the time during a class when we can practice dying. Some consider this asana the most important one that should never be skipped. Nevertheless, I have experienced many people leaving right before lying down on the mat for corpse seat. Being asked, they all have excellent reasons: Not wanting to be late for another appointment, difficulty lying on their backs, not wanting to lower the energy they had built up, etc. And while some of these things might be true, I am convinced that in most cases, the underlying causes of why we would not practice śavāsana is the fear of letting go, the fear of surrendering, and ultimately, our fear of death. Patanjali mentions abhiniveśāḥ as one of the five hindrances on our way to the state of yoga. Literally, it can translate into “clinging to the body” or simply “fear of death.”

There are multiple ways to support this process of letting go. Playing some music is helpful. Keeping the eyes open at first is also an excellent way to make people feel more secure. Or they are focusing on the breath for a while before letting it go. A guided relaxation or yoga nidra practice can help practitioners intensify the experience and “take them by the hand” and create a step-by-step approach.

Taking Refuge by Surrendering.

Using a relaxing massage lotion such as lavender can have profound effects. If you are giving this massage to someone, keep in mind that your job is to facilitate the process of letting go, the process of dying. This is not the time for a deep tissue massage. Instead, think of a tactile way to make feeling the other at ease, so they can fully and completely let go. As a more advanced practice for yourself or your students, you can suggest using phrases like “Krishna, take me. Take my legs, arms, and body”. Of course, Krishna is a placeholder here for whatever is close to one´s heart, for whatever one uses as a cosmic divine form in life. It is the ultimate practice of surrendering to the divine. It is a way of taking refuge in the universal, the ultimate, the unchanging.

Let us become more aware of the importance of endings and therefore make space, internally and externally, for new marvelous things to begin.

Teaching Tips

  1. Instruct a guided relaxation. You can use the following essay for reference.
  2. If you have students that have difficulties practicing śavāsana (maybe they are always leaving right before) give them alternatives such as keeping the eyes open, focusing on the breath, or using props underneath the body.
  3. Experiment with practicing śavāsana at different points of the class. You could even start with it.
  4. Practice chanting the different sounds of OM and feel the vibrations resonating in different body parts, placing hands on them: A in the chest, U around the throat, and M on the crown of the head.
  5. Ask students to focus on the M of OM and make it especially long. You can experiment with “chewing the M” and savor and enjoy it.
  6. When teaching asana sequences, pay special attention to having a precise ending (as well as a clear beginning). Make sure students become aware of the importance of conscious endings.
  7. Ask students what they have in life that they find difficult to end and why it is so challenging. Maybe they can write it down on a piece of paper at the beginning of class, placing it underneath their mat. At the end of class, ask them to burn it outside or place it on the altar as a practice of offering it up.
  8. Teach students about the three guṇas and focus on the importance of tamas, which is crucial for practices like śavāsana.
  9. Chant “Om Tryambakam” adding “svaha” at the end. This mantra is considered to conquer death. Explain what this idea means in a yogic sense, as only the small self can die.
  10. Teach about abhiniveśa as the “clinging to the physical form” or “the fear of death.”