Cartoon of Charley Brown and Snoopy sitting on a jetty discussing death.
 

Willingness to be with grief, dying and death

This last weekend I had the privilege of teaching a daylong workshop entitled ‘Yoga in a Palliative Care Setting’. It was a beautiful day, attended by 12 yoga therapy trainees, willing to learn about grief, dying and death.
 
These brave participants were able to touch into their feelings relating to dying and death. They were open to let the sadness that often surrounds the end of life come up to the surface. 
 
Grief is likely to be present for us at the end of life. But before then, we experience so many other losses. Some of them are small, no more than transitions: moving house, changing schools, different working hours or conditions. Some are major, as in the death of a spouse or child, a divorce or a bankruptcy. No matter big or small, for the most part, we don’t fully experience these losses. Our lives are so busy and grief is potentially so painful.
 
At the beginning of the workshop, I made an assertion. I said that we teachers can only support those at the end of life to the extent that we have faced our own grief.
 
American writer, James Miller sums up this notion in his book, The Art of Being a Healing Presence
The depth you can go within yourself corresponds directly to the depth at which you can connect intimately with another.
I don’t have a tool box full of techniques for dealing with grief, dying and death, other than being able to be with experiences. I’ve been a Palliative Care volunteer for several years now, and I’ve had practice sitting with death. I have seen that each individual’s death is unique. The teacher/writer, Stephen Jenkinson, says in his book, Die Wise that we in the West are ‘grief illiterate’. To remedy this impairment, we need to see being with grief and dying as skills that require learning. I’m definitely still learning.
 
You might think I’m a little mad to give grief, dying and death the attention I have in recent years. I’m of an age where I can see ‘the train a-comin’. Thank goodness, I’ve had yoga in my life for five decades. I’m hale and reasonably hardy. But there’s no escaping the fact that we will all get to the end of life, some sooner, some later.
 
Ironically, to be intimate with the preciousness and brevity of life, is a steady reminder to be alive to right now. Seeing the end of my life ahead of time gives the opportunity to love life all the more. 
 
I still wonder how an old yogini like me gets tossed around on a sea of emotions. Aren’t I part of a breed of calm and detached observers–that is, meditators? It’s possible that what I experience at these moody times is some of my own unresolved grief. So, here are some tried and true practices to help carers, patients and us as supporting yoga teachers:
 

Practices for carers and patients

  1. Savasana (Corpse Pose) – Yoga relaxation is the ultimate teacher of surrender. The yoga practitioner when in deep relaxation is ‘dying’ to all that is experienced in everyday life. Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist in A Joseph Campbell Companion says that this state is ‘where you don’t know what was in the newspapers this morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are….’
  2. Yoga Nidra (Psychic Sleep) – This is a practice that has the practitioner cultivate a state of being awake, aware and still able to plumb the subconscious. It gives access to healing on levels that are not accessible in a fully conscious state. Yoga Nidra is designed to help us acknowledge and ultimately welcome all experiences, even grief, dying and death. The sort of freedom that this sort of surrender offers, according to Dr. Richard C. Miller, a leader in promoting Yoga Nidra, allows people to come home to themselves. ‘You know yourself, all others and every thing as the unititive Presence that everything is: that you are.’
  3. Mindfulness Meditation – In mindfulness meditation practice, life becomes simpler. It is as it occurs in this moment. And this moment. And this moment. There’s nothing to push away or try to change because whatever it is is already here. For the individual who is dying, this practice may be  helpful in letting go at the end of life.
 
There’s another important yoga practice that may be appropriate to someone near to their end of life. That is, pranayama, usually translated as controlled breathing. More than controlling the breath, the practice can connect us with the tissue-thin interface between the mind and the body. It can be experienced in the space that opens up between the phases of the breath–inhalation and exhalation. 
 
One of my teachers, Ann Barbato, says:
The simple practice of following the out-breath into the silence and then watching the in-breath arise from the silent space is calming and peace-inducing.

Whether you are a yoga teacher or a person close to the end of life, this sounds exactly like the pathway home to our essential selves–our homecoming.

All these practices help foster acceptance. Our emotions, our griefs, then become part of being hale and hearty.