By Catharine Ghosh (Krishna Kanta Dasi)
At the heart of life’s most seductive, unsolved mysteries we find death—that dizzying prospect that our existence is but a flicker upon the landscape of eternity. Or is it? Humans have resisted accepting their own mortality since antiquity, when attitudes toward dying were engaged in relationships with death deities. From the Greek’s Hades to the Hindu and Buddhist’s Yama, to the Egyptian’s Osiris, death was not portrayed as something finite, but as a transition or passage that led to infinite life. Thus, traditionally, the relationship our species has with death is tightly wound around the way we approach living.
The world’s religious and cultural perspectives on death and dying have been some of the most powerful lifestyle architects throughout history. They have designed rituals, birthed myths, influenced behavior and served as social maps, satisfying the part of the collective, human psyche that identifies itself with transcending mortality. Yet the dance with death’s inevitability entails of uncomfortable turns and twists that oscillate between confidence and fear. When fearful attitudes toward death predominate, traditions around the globe concur that the quality of life decreases proportionately. Because rich lives were regarded as the result of having cultivated a peaceful relationship with death, befriending death became a prominent theme in most of the world’s major civilizations.
The one singular concept that weaves together the various, multi-cultural views of the afterlife is the concept of the immortal soul, or the eternal life force, which continues to exist after the demise of the physical body. Whether referred to as the Atman by Vedantists or the ka by the Egyptians, identifying this imperishable portion of existence was the key to approaching death as a potentially rewarding journey, instead of an end in and of itself. The preparatory steps for the unavoidable undertaking of such a journey are carefully outlined in ancient texts. These depict death as an opportunity to rise, like a lotus flower out of the murky waters of this world, to a higher level of existence, leaving behind a lifeless corpse.
Corpses are poignant reminders of the inherit fragility of human life. They force us to face our own utter vulnerability and lack of control. Although most people try to avoid entering such a helpless state, the Yoga tradition encourages it as an essential part of a spiritual practice. One of the ways this powerful meditation on death and transcendence appears is as savasana, or the corpse pose. Traditionally, it is the only pose always included in an asana sequence as it injects the practitioner with the potent sobriety critical for sculpting consciousness.
Although approximately over 200,000 people die each day around the world, very few deliberately prepare for it. In the longest epic poem of the world, the Mahabharata, King Yudhishthira is asked: “Of all the things in life, what is the most amazing?” To this, he replies, “That a man, while seeing others die around him, behaves as if he will never die.” A denial of death, or fear of it, was interpreted as an undesirable state of being described in ancient Vedic literature as a tight flower bud refusing to blossom. Even modern investigators of consciousness, like Carl Jung, echoed this by viewing humanity’s general resistance to death as “something unhealthy and abnormal, which robs…life of its purpose.” Thus, reconnecting with purposeful living meant relinquishing one’s identification with temporary aspects of existence, such as one’s body. A peaceful death equaled the birth of illumined consciousness.
Savasana honors the dying process as an integral part of spiritual living. This practice is one of anticipatory dying, which contributes significantly to the quality of one’s life. Significantly, traditional Yoga asana routines will often begin and end with the corpse asana. This carefully designed structure is intended to bring awareness to the cyclical nature of being, as it carries the participant through a symbolic cycle of death, birth, action and death during a single Yoga session. The movements mirror the morphing forms consciousness entertains while circling around in this cyclical wheel known as samsara. . .
Read the rest of this article in the Fall 2011 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.