Yoga in the service of life and death

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Ellen Fein is dying while very much being alive, and her voice is so important to share.  She is a devoted student of Yoga, and has used some of her time on this Earth to support others as they walk towards death.  I wanted to use this space to testify to the impact she had on my life and my teaching.

In 2009, a friend of mine asked me to support her with Yoga.  For a Yoga teacher, it is pretty normal for friends and family to ask for support, but this time, the request felt heavy.  My friend was living with stage 4 breast cancer, and she was asking for support to manage the pain and stress of living with the treatments to slow a progressive disease.  I felt that I needed help in order to work with her complex situation.

I knew of Ellen because she studied with one of my teachers, Gary Kraftsow, and the community of the American Viniyoga Institute held her in high regard.  She did a lot of work with end of life care and support of cancer patients.  So, I asked for a consultation.

On the phone, Ellen was very kind and listened carefully to the story of my friend and what she was asking.  After I had told her everything, she took a moment and gently said, “Well, your friend is dying.”  And, for a moment, time stopped.  That was the first time anyone spoke this truth.  Up until this point, the only word spoken were of wishful thinking and denial (which many needed for their own sanity).

Ellen did something really important after that, she told me that I was completely qualified and skilled to treat the body with Yoga Asana so she wouldn’t even consult me on that aspect.  However, she gave me insight to what my friend may be experiencing.  The greatest gift that I could offer, she told me, was to hold a space where it was safe to talk about death or the realities of the ‘details of death’ (organizing one’s stuff to help the family left behind).  She helped me realize that my friend had no one with whom she could speak about dying because her beautifully supportive circle were also terrified.

Ellen’s guidance took me back to something my teacher Gary once said about the motivation we have to practice Yoga – “Best case scenario, everyone you know and love will die, and then you will die…. and we are scared.”

Ellen helped me be in a space outside of my own fears in service of my friend.  Until her consultation, I had let my own fears keep me in denial and I could not serve her as a Yoga guide in that mind set.  So, I let death be our unspoken companion in Yoga sessions.  My friend never spoke of death but she she spoke of loneliness.  I started to see that the idea of dying created this sensation in her.  It was vital that she never feel alone, so I created a partner-meditation technique that we would do together because for her to sit alone was for her to sit with death, and she was not ready…. her readiness was my guide.

Ellen helped me realize that approaching Yoga as a teacher meant being in complete service to the moment with the student – it is so simple but requires one to remove their opinion from the equation.  We carry the tools of the tradition in service of life and death.

My friend completed her journey towards death a few years after she first asked me to support her.  She spent the last year of her life living very far from me, and I last spoke with her from a hospital bed about desire to meet my second child who was recently born, and we both held that vision knowing that it would never come to pass.  But, in that moment, my role was to be with her in the beautiful moment of happy meetings that will never come.

After losing my friend, death and I had some conversations.  The fear of death haunted me in a way that I hadn’t experienced before that time.  My friend’s death and knowing that she left behind a young child and husband triggered my greatest fears, and I had to do some deep work for myself to come to a peaceful space about it.  Since that time, and because of Ellen’s guidance, a fearlessness has arisen.  When hearing of a frightening diagnosis, accident, etc, my mind does not jump to fear as easily as it once did.  It goes more to a place of curiosity about what we can do to walk towards death with more peace.

To put it simply, Ellen helped me to consider dying while very much alive.  Please check out her online resources for some beautiful guidance.