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Yoga Practices for Living and Dying

Om asato ma sad-gamaya,

Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya,

Mrtyor ma amritham gamaya.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

-Brhadaranyaka Upanishad

Lead me from the unreal to the real, From darkness to light, From death to immortality. Peace Peace Peace. (Translation from the Jivamukti Chant Book)

I have a yoga student named Ann who was often rushed, arriving late for class and leaving before savasana. On the mat, she sped ahead anticipating the next posture, and in her life she did the same; always preparing for what her future might bring, unconscious of the bigger world at play. I didn’t see her for a while; then, after several months Ann reemerged looking changed – radiant and calm. She explained that one ordinary day while running she dropped to the ground and went into cardiac arrest. Helpless on the sidewalk, images of her life flooded past her, dissipating into a luminous sky. She recalled, “I felt peaceful letting everything slip away; it was the first time I really understood what it meant to let go. Happiness was lying on the cement, witnessing my life dissolve with nothing to lose.”

From the Unreal to the Real Sometimes we receive a reminder about what is important in life, what is real. We’re conditioned to live in fear of losing our possessions, of what the future might bring, fearful even of our own death. Clinging to our day-to-day existence, we’re unaware these very attachments prevent us from being truly secure with who we are. Careers come and go, relationships form and dissolve, our body deteriorates and dies. If we are not these things, then who are we, and what is real?

According to yoga philosophy, something is real (sat) only when it is permanent and unchanging. Everything else is temporary, unreal (asat). The objective of the asana practice is to investigate what is real by experiencing it. We’re challenged to observe the fluctuations of the mind and body without attaching to any one thought pattern. As our body morphs in and out of postures based on terrestrial beings, we connect with the earth and her inhabitants through our movement and our breath. During this process, misconceptions of who we think we are are deconstructed until we’re left only with who we are, experiencing the transcendental nature of the Self. We arrive at the fundamental element that exists without our body and mind, without change – our soul.

From Darkness to Light Darkness (tamas) and light (jyotir) represent ignorance and knowledge. When living in the dark, we cannot see the deep roots of our relationships with all beings. Life appears finite, so we subsist with shortsighted, self-serving goals; ignorant of any long-term consequences of our actions. As our knowledge of Self grows, we begin to identify with an underlying causal element existing beyond our body and mind: ever-present, non-discriminating and shared with all of life. This is our ‘true’ nature, or Atman in Sanskrit (meaning Divine Self or soul) – this is who we are.

Even if temporary, we have a body and mind, and in this regard darkness and light represent aspects of the material world. Three qualities, called the gunas, give form to all animate objects. The gunas are darkness (tamas); activity (rajas); and lightness (sattva). Diet is an important aspect of the gunas because what we eat materializes into our physical body and influences our energy and mind. An animal-based diet, for example, produces heaviness (a characteristic of tamas). Meat is difficult to digest, but the real effort comes in working through the consequences of eating a being who has been subjected to a life of violence. The law of cause and effect (karma) advises us all actions we take produce a reaction: what we think, say and do will come back to us. By choosing a diet that harms other beings, we will also be harmed. Until we change our behavior, the cycle of violence is fed indefinitely and we continue to live in the dark.

In contrast to tamas, sattva is lightness. A sattvic diet consists of food that promotes a harmonious co-existence with nature. When we tread lightly causing the least harm possible to the earth and all beings, we cease to encounter hostility from others.Compassion and kindness replace harmful deeds, and our awareness expands to even our smallest actions. We consider our relationships, including associations to consumer-brands, corporations and political institutions as they relate to the welfare of all beings. Realizing many beings don’t have a voice, it becomes our responsibility to act on their behalf. Life is given purpose by serving others and we’re content simply being in the process that contributes to this goal. In this way, light infiltrates the darkness as we’re transformed to an uplifted state of existence; one where we live in the present seeing other beings as a reflection of ourselves, where ‘other-ness’ dissolves.

From Death to Immortality One of the biggest fears we have as humans is the fear of death (abinivesha). This is an obstacle to realizing the state of yoga, because we project into the future rather than being present, living in a state of ‘what if’ rather than a state that is. A fear of death of the body implies a separation of being – when my body dies, I don’t know what will happen. As we realize who we are and our transcendental nature and interconnectedness through the Supreme Being, we’re no longer fixated on the material world, our bodies or searching for salvation. We understand that we were never born nor will ever die, and have nothing to cling on to or anything to lose. We are One with the Divine in all beings. Yoked with the universe and eternally blissful, we are present; we are enlightened.

Ann is still practicing yoga, and is still often rushed and late for class….but she never misses Savasana.

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