Friday, January 21, 2011

The Death of a Friend and the Experience of Yoga

I lost a friend recently. My friend Cynthia was talented. A deep thinker, a questioner of all things existent, Cynthia was brilliant. Intelligent was an understatement when it came to Cynthia Smith. And though Cynthia was brilliant, she also struggled. I got to spend time with Cynthia in her best times, and she sometimes shyly opened up to me during her dark times. This last December of 2010 when Cynthia passed, the cause of her death was both mysterious and also very clear. Considering she struggled with life itself, though the details of her passing may never completely surface, all the evidence (which I won't elaborate on) points to her taking her own life and in my heart I am sure that is what happened.

It has been over a month since Cynthia's passing. And though I have lost loved ones before, I have never lost such a close friend so tragically. To add to my experience of tragedy, our last interaction which happened over a year ago led me to believe that we may not actually be able to be friends any longer. But something happens when a friendship fallen-out ends due to the loss of one of those people's lives. I discovered that there was no way ever, that we could have not been friends. Because I loved Cynthia deeply. True friendship based on love is much like the True Self. It needs nothing to sustain it. For regardless of all events, the bond remains. Only our attitudes, or our thinking, can change. Grudges count as part of the attitude and I believe that what Cynthia and I had developed were grudges against one another. This has of course effected how I feel about losing Cynthia. More importantly it has effected how I feel about the type of friend I want to be. And I was far from the perfect friend (we all are sometimes!) I wanted to share a few insights that I have gained from experiencing this loss.

I have been practicing bhakti yoga, which is to say the yoga of devotion. The idea itself can be misleading as many people view bhakti as a religious devotion to God devoid of the asana we so adore in the west. But we can practice devotion to whatever we believe God to be. So if you perceive asana to be the divine earthly representation of God, then you can practice bhakti through asana. Lately I have developed a strong sense that God not only exists in all things, but that we can experience God most powerfully through our relationships. Devotion to relationships has become my bhakti...I have long way to go! This loss, given its circumstances is proving to he a gigantic lesson in my deepest spiritual beliefs. And as such a loss does, it has caused me to question what I truly believe. The biggie: could yoga have healed my friend? And if so, why didn't it? Alas, yoga is and has healed me. But here's the thing; I chose yoga and to make the question even more complicated, the fact is that I chose yoga because it seemed to have chosen me. And my healing process began a long time ago, before Cynthia was gone. Yoga can only heal what is hurt. So any wounds inflicted are bound to be tested by my practice.

Like many, I have always believed in speaking only kindly of others and truthfully to them. But have I truly practiced this? I have not. Looking back on certain interactions that seem harmless, I realize that on a deeper level I have participated in unkind speech regarding my friend. I was also dishonest with her about "little things". In retrospect, my dishonesty seemed tiny at the time, but now I know, that though it takes real courage, full-on honesty (in which kindness is employed) is never regrettable. Am I beating myself up over it? I am not. I do have some regret, but it is the kind of regret that creates change. I am grateful to have it so profoundly brought to my attention by means of loss. I realize now what kind of friend I want to be, not just for myself, but for the entire world. Every single interaction we have with each other creates a reaction. Reaction is a form of action itself and like dominoes there is no end to the consequence of one action. No end at all. Not from the beginning of time. This is the law of karma, and when you think of karma that way, like the domino effect, you can see how it is not just about you as an individual. Like a wave in the ocean, we may each represent one molecule of water, but we are all part of the same wave.

The most phenomenal thing about this experience is that though I am grieving, I am also deeply peaceful. This sense of peace comes from knowing that nothing in earthly existence is permanent. We work so hard to preserve so many things; the earth, beloved objects, our youth, and our relationships. But all must come to an end. And what is left of the impermanent is what can never be destroyed. That is Pure Consciousness where, according to yogic views, we are destined to dissolve into. To dissolve into Pure Consciousness is self-realization. In self-realization we know that we are not truly the self-oriented, individualistic creatures we believe ourselves to be. To dissolve into pure consciousness is to know that I, you and my friend are one and the same. That when we grieve because we lose someone, the grieving comes because we feel certain we have lost a part of ourselves. We are both right and wrong. The loss like everything else is temporary. Because what is real can never be destroyed. Only the egoic connection, the belief that existence on earth is what connected us, is destroyed and we struggle to all ends trying to make sense of what feels like an amputation. But if you lost your arm, would not still be you? Though our cells and every element of our bodies is constantly dying and being reborn, then is this body who you really are? Discovering the True Self, and understanding the connection with all of humanity that is eternal begins with understanding that we are not the bodies we think we are.

I am beginning to really understand the benefits of my yoga asana practice. Sometimes we need to act physically when dealing with great challenges. Yoga for me, has provided a practice for dealing with the pain that comes into the body which is always accompanied by emotional pain. So I treated my self to a deeply spiritual yoga practice full of joy and pain, dedicated to my friend as well as to myself. I felt the emotional pain of my experience safely flood my body with each breath. I was able to release some of that pain by exhaling. For each pose that came with ease I was reminded of how easy love affairs with friends can be. With each challenge, each point of wanting to be done with certain poses, I was reminded that friendships come in a single package, and what comes in them is inseparable; the pleasant from the unpleasant. Yoga has and continues to teach me that skillful, conscious breathing with each and every life challenge acts as a vessel upon which I might travel across the sometimes calm and other times raging ocean of this life. Breath is as much the ship as it is the life preserver. Yoga has provided me with myriad practices that help me perceive life from the viewpoint of the true-self. All is temporary, and nothing that is real can ever be lost, changed or die.
The game here on earth is hide and seek with that truth. For my friend Cynthia, I think she was done counting and calling out "Ready or not, here I come!", then feeling at a loss for where truth and joy were
hiding. For some reason, those two made themselves very elusive to her. I do know that I will continue to share the effect yoga has had on my life. And if through me, people stumble upon it as a practice that makes their life a better place, then I feel more purposeful and grateful for it. But I have to accept that one thing I cannot believe is that my beliefs could have saved her. Because the fact is that they did not. Nor did her own spiritual beliefs. No, I only know that what I believe and practice has thus far been able to save me.
Many blessings,


  1. I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your friend, that must have been difficult to write as well as share. One thing is do know is that you can't save some from themselves and it is so hard to witness that struggle. Yoga saves me every day and helps me be a better person inspite of myself. Thanks for sharing your reflections. I am still thinking on your words and that I think is a good thing! Blessing to you . . .

  2. That was beautiful. I appreciate everything you said as I too have had very similar experiences. Your self-realization practice is wonderful. May you find comfort and strength in it, now and always. Namaste

  3. I'm humbled by your ability and willingness to acknowledge and share your inner thoughts on such a sensitive topic. The journey through these relationships has also left me wondering and exploring my role in their lives and the interconnection that sometimes seems healthy and at other times toxic. Achieving a balance can be difficult as the pendulum swings back and forth based on what they need at any moment. To survive, the balance has to come from a larger pool as some individuals can pull so hard that they and challenge the relationship. Deciding how much closeness or distance to maintain can be unsettling and leave you questioning whether you've established the right boundaries for the right reason. Who's playing what roles? Can you help? Do you improve their lives? Why is the connection there? Sometimes the questions loom large.
    My thoughts are with you. It's difficult to decide how to place them in your memory. The experiences fade but the impact will continue to be felt. Namaste

  4. Thanks Jen. I have breathed through loss. I lean on Yoga, perhaps not practicing as much as I need for full benefit, and I am better for what I do practice. Your spirit and awareness enlightens me.