sarva-dvarani samyamya / mano hrdi nirudhya ca
murdhny adhaya-atmanah pranam / asthito yoga-dharanam BG VIII.12
Closing the gates of the body and drawing the mind into the heart, then raise the prana into the head.
“Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are useless.” -the Dalai Lama
The most important moment of our life will be the moment of our death. Don’t expect that at that time you will automatically know what to do. We all die according to how we have lived, so the best way to prepare for a good death is to live a good life. Before you know it your life will be over and it will be time to die.
I have been privileged to witness several deaths. For some there was great fear and fighting, for others a peaceful surrender and for a rare few, a mindful intentional act. In all cases the separating process of the soul from the physical body played out in a similar manner. The material of the physical body is composed of the elements of earth, water, fire air and ether, which also correspond to chakras. The dissolution of the elements always occurs in the same sequence at the time of death for every living being. It may take days for the elements to dissolve or the dissolution may be accomplished in minutes or moments, but in every case it happens.
When the elements are still actively present in a living body, the soul experiences life through the bodily senses, which operate by means of the elements. The process of death involves the dissolution of the senses and elements, which is what the verse in the Bhagavad Gita refers to when it says, “closing the gates.” The gradual withdrawal of each element from each level or chakra to the next is what allows the body to fall away and the soul to move to the top of the head, which is the best exit door (that is why it is advised to never touch the top of a person’s head while they are dying). When the earth element and the sense of smell withdraw and move into the water element, we have no appetite for food, our body feels unbearably heavy, we lose strength and it is difficult to move. When the water element and the sense of taste withdraw into fire, we may become thirsty, but can’t drink, and we lose control of our bodily fluids. When the fire element and the sense of sight withdraw into the air element, we feel cold. And when the air element and the sense of touch withdraw, it becomes harder to breathe, the out-breaths become longer and we feel a slipping away. It is at this point, when the prana is in the heart chakra, that the practitioner must act to consciously push the life-force upward and into the head. This final act of exertion necessary to eject one’s self out of the shell of the body takes all of one’s physical and spiritual strength. Some may not be able to do this.
I remember taking what was probably my first “yoga class” around 1972. Near the end of the class the teacher instructed us to lie down for the corpse pose and then told us to “tense your body, make fists with your hands and toes, lift the legs, arms and head off the floor, scrunch the face into a prune face and…. hold…. hold…. hold…then exhale and let go…release…relax.” After that initial class I did take a few other classes where that same tensing of the body was instructed. But then I took other classes where it was not part of the practice and I gradually came to regard it as insignificant and hardly ever asked students to do it, nor did I practice it myself. It wasn’t until I witnessed the death of three incredible beings that I gained an insight about the possible purpose for this yogic practice of tensing the body before releasing into shavasana, its possible relationship to the actual death experience and how through its practice we might be able to ready ourselves for our own deaths.
The deaths of my thirty-nine year old brother from AIDS, old Grandma the cat and the elegant Siamese cat Thai Tea shared something similar and what I later learned was very unusual. Right before death, before the final shudder, when the soul took wings and flew, the person contracted all of the muscles in their body, more or less scrunched and tensed, then stretched out and with the out-going breath released the tension and propelled their own soul out of their body through the top of their head. My sister who works for a hospital as a care-giver for dying people has seen many people die and she noted that the only time she had witnessed that type of leaving the body was with the death of our brother Marty. When Professor Robert Thurman, who is head of Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University in NYC, heard me describe how my brother died, he told me that his was indeed a rare death: “Buddhist monks practice their whole lives to be able to do that at the time of their death, but few accomplish it. It is known as phowa or conscious dying. At the moment of death the practitioner ejects their consciousness out of their body and into the clear light of wisdom.” From my observations I conclude that in the three cases that I witnessed, each person was able to perform the actions spoken of as “closing the gates” in order to accomplish a conscious death. Although in shavasana, we are not actually dying, nonetheless the “tensing/release practice” can provide us with an experience of directing prana that could be useful to us at the time of our death.
As Michael Franti sings (from the song Yes I Will), “When you find you’re at the end of the road, just lift your head up, spread your wings and fly away.” So if we want to be able to do that consciously and gracefully we must start practicing for it long before it is time for us to die. Becoming a master of shavasana may help.