How Yoga Teaches Us to Live Life and Cope with Death
“The one thing that stood out the most for me was that he said he worried about everything and worried about things he couldn’t control (I can relate). I thought how fitting it is that you have chosen to take control by living a life of devotion to yoga. To me, this says everything about combatting those things that are out of our control and living everyday in the moment. What a gift he perhaps unknowingly gave you.”
My student shared with me these sentiments in an email after she had read the recent Globe and Mail’s obituary about my father, Irving Ungerman. Her words touched me deeply. They have also helped me as I continue to process the final intense days of my father’s life.
When I first saw my father only moments after his stroke, I remained very calm. I kept my hand firmly upon his head in the ambulance and spoke gently to him as I tried to mitigate his anxiety and fear about what was happening (and perhaps also my own). The next hour was characterized by a sense of urgency as the hospital staff took immediate control. A team was called in and within thirty minutes my father was wheeled off for a procedure which was sadly unsuccessful. During the night my father had a second event, a hemorrhagic bleed.
At 4:30 a.m. my husband and I were shown cat scans of my father’s brain before and after the hemorrhagic stroke and the doctor’s words were direct, honest and compassionate. Standing straight and somehow grounding myself in emotional stability and clarity, I sadly accepted the truth about my father’s situation. I trusted that what was unfolding was simply the natural order of things and it was as it was meant to be. Over the coming days as family members held onto hope for something to change or weren’t yet able to separate from my father, it became clear to me that there were many different ways of processing what was happening.
Two weeks later during the Shiva, my Cantor and his wife were very supportive when I shared that I was trying to glean greater understanding about the intensity of the hospital days, my involvement in it and how I navigated this very challenging experience. My experience with my father was not unique for eventually we all face the death of loved ones, perhaps without years of yoga practice. But my friends helped me to connect the dots between my sustained yoga and mindfulness practice and my ability to calmly accept whatever is happening in the moment with the facility to be anchored in stability, stay centered and remain fully present. From my yoga I have learned how to cultivate a quality of mind that is focused and present and how to move through life – and death – with greater ease, calm and grace.
During my father’s hospitalization, I stayed at his side through the acute nighttime hours, alone with the nurses and his soul essence. As I sat quietly with him in the dark, sometimes speaking softly or else resting in silence, I felt the profound sacredness of the moment. Although my father was now a different man than he had been because of the injuries and damage, I believed that he was also the same for his inner essence remained and I felt that he was truly present. His understanding that the people who cared for him were by his side might not have come from his cognition but I have no doubt that he sensed and knew us and felt our loving presence.
Even though people encouraged me to take some personal time and space, there was nothing that I really needed. To support my father by remaining at his side so that he wouldn’t die alone if that were to happen and to honour him by bearing witness to the many painful things that his body mind and spirit endured in the quiet and haunting nights was really all that mattered to me at that time. In addition to feeling despair and sorrow for his suffering, I was experiencing something very profound.
Being present as I was with my father while he transitioned on his final journey was one of the hardest and most gratifying experiences of my life. During those long hospital nights of pain and medical interventions I tried to remain fully immersed or absorbed in the moment. I communicated with him through touch, often holding his hand or placing mine on his head, arm or chest. Occasionally, he would hold my hand with an incredibly strong grip and I was shocked by his tremendous strength. I will never know for sure if his actions were simply involuntary or intentional.
In his final night, my father’s breathing pattern included a kumbhaka, a breath retention or pause at the end of each inhalation and exhalation. This pause is like a place of rest, perhaps preparing for the final resting place that we reach. During pranayama, (a yogic discipline concerned with breath control) I practice the kumbhaka technique to increase the pause by ceasing the breath routinely and continuously. As my father’s prana or life force was ebbing away, I observed how this breathing pattern naturally established itself. At times, this state of suspended breath lasted for up to thirty seconds and in the quietness of the pause, I experienced the profound sensation of deep stillness and awareness. As I mirrored my father’s breathing pattern, my yoga became our yoga and together we shared the sanctity of life, breath-by-breath, moment-to-moment.
I feel very blessed and privileged for the opportunity to have experienced many precious moments of time with my father. I am also very fortunate to have the benefit of lingering effects from these poignant days and nights. My yoga practise also continues to assist me now as I begin to experience the loss and try to remain present for whatever arises in the moment. Each time that I go on the mat, I open up my heart, my skin stretches, I release my defenses and my grip just a little, and experience my emotions and sensations just as they are. I trust that my yoga will continue to support me in my healing journey as it supported me in being able to face my father’s truth with equanimity and brave his death with gratitude and humility.
Yesterday my mother handed me an old Globe and Mail magazine called Weekend to look at. This was the Globe’s old syndicated weekend magazine and it was dated December 28, 1974, interestingly the same day that my husband had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. I found myself reading an article that had been written about my father who at age 51 was so ambitious, driven, compassionate and smart. Not only was I reading this on the same day 41 years later from its original publication but this national newspaper was the same one to have recently featured a full page beautifully written obituary about my father… articles that bridged a man’s lifetime and were bridged by decades. I faced this huge span of time and felt as if I smashed into its passage.
My father’s presence was a large one and many have said that he was larger than life. Life, however, includes death and in this case my father was not larger than life. But even in his death, in his absence, and in the darkness of my loss, the light of the connection I shared with him will illuminate the way and especially since I feel that his light shines upon me ever so brightly. Even as I write these words, the sun is coming through the thick clouds and the light is penetrating the window under which I am sitting.
Here at the cottage, I feel my father’s absence. Yet at the same time I feel his presence everywhere. I hope that in the future I will continue to be mindful of my father’s presence, in whatever form it is in and wherever I feel it, and that I will always experience such appreciation and abundance for all that he has given me and for all that yoga teaches me.