Yoga And Learning To Live With The Experience Of Death

It took four months to realize that, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, every cell in me as well belongs to her. Up until that moment, four months after her death, it felt like a damp melancholy surrounded my entire being.

Cancer took my mother's body in 2003. She was a neurologist and had been diagnosed with breast cancer 12 years earlier. Three rounds of chemotherapy silenced "the big C", as she used to call it, for 10 years, but then it reappeared in her liver. Chemotherapy held it at bay for three more years. That eventually stopped working, and then it was three months until she passed away at home under hospice care. She was adamant about a natural transition.

Her passing was a sacred moment. She went in and out of consciousness for about 24 hours before her final breath. In a lucid moment during that time, I asked her what it was like in the place she was transitioning towards. Her answer reminded me of how my teacher, Sri Chinmoy, described the yogic state of Samadhi, wherein the yogi realizes inseparable oneness with all of existence. He said that in that elevated state of consciousness, there is the experience that all things are complete, and it is this sense of wholeness that my mother was traveling towards.

And then, she was gone.

The first few days after her passing felt like a bad dream. I thought I saw her in the shopping mall. I had nightmares where we had accidentally buried her alive. The church services, cremation, service at the cemetery and putting her ashes at sea passed by in a blur of faces. Once I got back to my life in San Diego, the sorrow hit me with a new intensity.

I was stricken after my mom's passing, weighed down by grief, unable to move forward. I felt as though I were drifting, lost, through the fog. My only anchor during those days was my yoga practice.

Yoga has been my path since I was 18. I'd studied with a spiritual teacher for 23 years. I didn't know how to live with the death of my mother, but I did know that yoga had to be the key.

Every day, often early in the morning or late at night, I pulled out the bow and arrows of my yoga practice and fought the battle. It is one thing to practice yoga when life is going smoothly, and quite another when faced with challenging circumstances. My practice took on a new level of intensity during this time. Each day I practiced asana and meditation, and added in my own self-styled yogic practices: hard cardio workouts with breath concentration, journaling and creative release through piano.

One of the prevailing thoughts that often overwhelmed me with sadness was all the events occurring in my life that she would never know about. She had set in motion many wonderful things, but now she was gone. She would never see her grandchildren grow or the yoga studio that she helped finance thrive. These thoughts plagued me at all times, even during my meditation, and re-ignited my grief at every turn.

And then one day, I was meditating after a long hard run. I had been finding that any thoughts or memories of my mother immediately brought the feeling of grief because they were linked the realization of her death. On this day, however, something shifted. When a thought or image of her arose as I sat in meditation, I held it in my mind and pulled it into my body without the corresponding thought that she was no longer with me. Suddenly each memory that I pulled in made me feel better and more alive. Letting go of the idea that she was gone opened up the possibility of connecting with her in this moment.

A delightful metamorphosis started to take place. I deeply felt the cellular connection that I have with my mom. I knew at that moment that she had not gone anywhere, but rather lived on in my very biology. I could not separate myself from my mother, even if I wanted to. We were linked at the molecular level. A joy and deeper awareness began to replace the sorrow.

Today, I am at peace with the knowledge that death is part of life. Learning to live with the experience of my mother's death started with the darkest moments of my life, but for me it has ended with the certain knowledge that life, in all its myriad forms, is still wondrous.