Yoga Therapy is one of the healing modalities offered in Integrative Medicine.
In yoga therapy, physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation practices are offered as tools to help meet the specific needs of an individual or group.
One of the sub-populations I have experience working with is end-of-life patients. I realized recently that the tools of yoga that I extend to patients at the end-of-physical life can translate to the metaphorical “end-of-life” we are collectively grieving during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although life as we know it will return on some level, the life we once lived in its entirety is not going to return. It is in the past. That realization may evoke a great deal of anxiety, just as it does for most people at the end of their physical life. However, there are so many tools to help us remain present and, in that presence, mitigate any anxiousness that arises.
Simple breathing practices like a “4 count” inhale, “4 count” hold in, “4 count” exhale, “4 count” hold out (“4-4-4-4” breathing practice) help to create what I often refer to as “an internal container” that allows us to simply be with emotions and sensations as they arise instead of habitually reacting to them.
With patients who are dying, these breathing practices, done over time, create the space to allow them to explore various end-of-life questions such as “What will happen to me when I die?” Instead of getting crushed by fear and suppressing such questions, the space created through frequent practice allows those tough questions to be explored.
Similarly, many of us are facing incredible uncertainty in this pandemic. Simple breathing practices, done over time, create the space for us to explore questions like “What will life be like after restrictions are lifted?” We have the room to ask these questions without shutting down or fleeing to a bag of chips when these difficult questions potentially evoke unpleasant sensations.
According to yoga theory, which yoga therapy is based on, “Our real self, the soul, is immortal. We may sleep for a little while in that change called death, but we can never be destroyed. We exist, and that existence is eternal,” writes Paramahansa Yogananda in The Divine Romance: Collected Talks and Essays on Realizing God in Daily Life. “The waves come to the shore, and then goes back to the sea; it is not lost. It becomes one with the ocean, or returns again in the form of another wave. This body has come, and it will vanish; but the soul essence within it will never cease to exist. Nothing can terminate that eternal consciousness.”
This assurance of the eternal becomes essential when the fear of death arises for the patient at the end of his life. Likewise, this assurance is essential for those of us navigating turbulent waters right now. The understanding that the physical world, including our body, is temporal and always changing, but underneath is an eternal, endless dimension that we can always dissolve into is ultimately what provides infinite assurance to calm anxiousness as it wells up within.
There is a wonderful practice for entering into that eternal, infinite dimension. Close your eyes and with your eyes closed turn your attention up to the space between your eyebrows. Stay connected to your breath. Consider maintaining that “4-4-4-4” breathing practice mentioned in the preceding paragraphs. What do you notice? Maybe you “see” a white light? Maybe you feel a sensation of lightness come over you? The proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” described in near-death experiences may be the soul passing through the spiritual eye/third eye entering into expanding consciousness or a grander state of being.
Entry into this dimension is not restricted to end of physical life scenarios. We have access to this realm each moment of each day. We can use this as a tool for soothing a disturbed mind and grounding into something so much greater than our limited self and limited understanding in the physical plane.
Being in this infinite space allows for peace as we “cross over” at the death of our physical body and also as we metaphorically “cross over” into the new life offered to us each moment of each day.
Guest post by studio BE mindfulness teacher Michelle Smith.
Michelle Smith is program manager of Geisinger Medical Center’s House of Care, an outpatient home for cancer patients undergoing treatment, and has worked to helped create an Integrative Medicine program for the health system. Michelle has introduced yoga therapy, vibrational sound therapy, and Reiki to many staff, patients, and family members.
In addition to her work at Geisinger Medical Center, Michelle teaches yoga at several studios in Northeast Pennsylvania and several yoga and mindfulness courses at Luzerne County Community College. Michelle also volunteers her time at a local addiction treatment center teaching patients how to use the many tools of Integrative Medicine to find freedom and peace.
Feature photo by Corinne Kutz