Facing Fear of Death Through Yoga

Death is the one certainty we face. How do you make sense of this inevitability? A recent New York Times piece describes one man’s journey to India, where a yoga instructor informs him “yoga is not some circus routine you do with your body. It is about aligning the body, breath, intellect, and soul.” Yoga is also, he noted, “dying many times before we actually die—and that way we are forced to find calmness and experience rebirth.”

According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.9, the fear of death pervades all aspects of human consciousness. For many, death hearkens a cold, unpleasant, and unwelcome end to all we find precious. We live in a society that is both deeply fearful of and uncomfortable with death. This often manifests as an avoidance of discussing it, dealing with it, or embracing its inevitability with openness and honesty. Of course, it would be odd not to experience fear of death, given that life is a shared, evolutionary prerogative for most sentient beings. Yet other cultures (for instance, India) have a much different relationship to this transition.

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Patanjali would argue that powerful attachments to our bodies, relationships, material possessions, and identities feed into the fear of death. These attachments obscure the ultimate reality: that death is merely a transition from one life to the next, with the soul’s essence remaining intact. When we acknowledge the roots of our fear of death as residing in our (justifiable!) attachments to all we value in this lifetime, it plants a seed of freedom. When we accept that death is inevitable and face this reality fearlessly, a new spaciousness and presence can arise in the space previously occupied by fear (easier said than done for those facing terminal illness or mourning the recent loss of a loved one).

How does yoga help us die before we actually die? The practice of yoga is a beautiful metaphor for the rising of the phoenix from the ashes. Each human being possesses a jumbled tangle of samskara; the habitual orientations and patterns through which we interact with the world. When yoga is practiced, these subtly shift, and over time they radically transform. In this process, parts of who we are die and are reborn. Like shavasana, where stillness is practiced in the pose of a corpse, yoga prepares us to welcome death, as life, with graciousness and ease.

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Ultimately, yoga is about elucidating and facing our deepest fears with spaciousness and love, as we traverse aspects of our psyche that may not be available to us in a “default” state of mind. As the architecture of our psyche is gradually unearthed, fundamental patterns and fears are revealed. We can then challenge these fears based on the embodied, moment-to-moment awareness that we are already full, love then fills the space formerly occupied by fear.

In a youth-worshipping culture, this is challenging to accept. We tenaciously resist the march of time and our inevitable demise. In so doing, we unwittingly perpetuate the stigma of ageing and the underlying discomfort with our collective mortality. Yet yoga philosophy teaches that this life is only the beginning. It is a precious gift that should be nurtured and lived in the richness of the moment, celebrating the continuity of this and other souls that will continue long after these bodies have passed.

What does fear of death mean to you? Have you thought about this in the context of your yoga practice?

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