Yoga, Death and the Art of Letting Go: A Personal Narrative
There are many who say the path of yoga, or the inner tradition, is primarily concerned with inner freedom. My grandparents embedded the philosophical understanding of yoga in my mind during childhood, yet I always felt a sort of uneasiness when trying to apply the understanding of the freedom of dukha (suffering/sadness) to death and dying. That is until recent times. A few weeks ago a magnetic black and orange butterfly landed on my hand, and the next day my beautiful grandmother died.
I posted the picture of the butterfly that landed in my hand and fluttered around me on Instagram, the day prior to my grandma's death, with the caption “…saw beautiful butterfly…reminder of freedom, change, tranquility & so much more!”. After the butterfly of death, as I call it, visited me prior to death I now continue to receive beautiful visits from butterflies. I looked up the symbolic appearance of butterflies (black and orange colored) and apparently they are: messengers of death, symbols from guardian angels, and symbols of the soul moving on, along with other mythological/spiritual symbols. Whatever the reason for the appearance of butterflies in my life, I can now honestly state that I truly understand the well-known saying: “just when the caterpillar thought the world was over she became a butterfly”.
I arrived five minutes after my grandmother’s heart stopped beating. I held her tender, warm hand while sorrow and heart-wrenching tears flooded my face. Meanwhile, in the liminal space of life and death something extraordinary happened that brought a strange sense of peace to my heart. I felt the sensation of my grandmother squeezing my hand moments after her death. I felt I might be in a state of delusion in those moments of fragile awareness, so I asked my grandfather to hold her hand and confirm that the internal currents of her body were in fact signaling life. She had indeed saved her last breath (or in yoga the vital life force: prana) to continue ritual bonds with her kin. In those sacred moments the cultural geographies of absence took on new meaning. By this I mean that we experienced feelings of emptiness on a large emotional scale. Those feelings generated a kaleidoscope of memories where we felt her absence by remembering her journey in different, and multiple, geographical landscapes. We felt my grandmother’s presence, yet we were aware of the physical absence of her corporeal body in time and space and, therefore, the place for grief instantly became embodied into a new terrain.
The day after my grandmother’s death I did not turn to the myriad of social science books I have on the geography or anthropology of death, dying and sending off, for I have researched the cultural politics of necrogeography for some time from an academic perspective. Nor did I turn to my understanding of grief from a psychological or bereavement counseling perspective, for I was never convinced of the popular way of governing our souls via bereavement discourse. Instead, what I turned to was the practice of yoga. I woke up the next morning, after a sleepless night, and opened my heart to various asanas (yoga postures), mindfully reflecting on both my knowledge on death (textual and ethnographic) and the ways in which my body naturally wanted to flow towards movement. Perhaps this too was a kind of necromobility. By this I mean that we often think of the dead as bodies at rest, even though they are always on the move. In a similar, yet different, way, the grieving body also wants to be on the move by means of ritual or, in my case yogic, performance.
I've had an on-and-off relationship with yoga practice for many years and only this year I decided to make that relationship long-term. At the moment I'm training to become a yoga teacher. Each time I did yoga during those days of ritualized mourning, I felt my heart opening and at the same time healing peacefully as I did my diverse poses. Each breath, or pranayama, I reminded myself I had a death and a new birth. By practicing yoga after the death of my grandmother I was nourishing my body with inner strength. During moments of yoga practice I experienced an eerie sensation where my heart was filled with what felt like true love-–the kind of relationship I had wanted for many years. Life, like love, is fleeting, but through yoga I felt inner peace and - dare I say - happiness during the moment of loss. My heart for the first time in what seemed like forever was happy in a diverse kind of utopia.
What I found fascinating within the yogic world is the fact that many come into this amazing spatial bubble because they want to heal from personal forms of suffering and loss. Yet, there is not much attention to the impact of death on yoga in the yogic world. This is somewhat ironic given the final ‘resting’ posture of yoga practice is savasana (corpse pose), one where we reflect on the spatial art of resting the body, mind, and soul. I knew after filling my heart with yoga that there was something truly magical about the connection between yoga, death, and loss that no amount of time researching or talking about death could explain.
The day of the funeral I smiled as I read a poem dedicated to my grandmother from my grandfather. As the time for farewell came near, I respectfully bowed to my grandmother and lit a symbolic candle to guide her on her way.
Now, as I write these words, from the corner of the room I see the beautiful ray of sunshine bright on my grandfather as he, too, practices the inner tradition of freedom via yogic life. We have opened our hearts, cultivated an inner sense of spatial peace, and embodied a yogic way of life. Our hearts are now somewhat at peace even though the messenger of death has taken away our beautiful butterfly....
Dr. Lakhbir K. Jassal: I am a wellness practitioner, academic and creative soul with experience in holistic health, including, but not limited to the everyday practice and culture of yoga. My passion for yoga stems from my belief that yoga is, in essence, a kind of medicine for the body, mind, and soul. I am also the founder of Healologié Wellness Ltd. I specialize in naturopathic and ayurvedic wellness, speaking on wellness and mental health, conference/seminar/retreat organizing, holistic health lifestyle consulting, necrogeography, and yoga teaching. In addition, I consider myself a humanitarian, writer, explorer, and global wellness ambassador. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Social Media: Instagram: @lakhbirjassal or @healologie Twitter: @lakhbirjassal