November 17, 2011

Practicing Dying. ~ Abby Wills

Photo: Nino Satria

I wrote this piece in June 2009 upon the passing of one of my beloved yoga students, Pablo Thrailkill Castelaz. Pablo was just six-years-old when he died after a brave year-long struggle with a rare form of childhood cancer – Bilateral Wilm’s Tumor. Pablo’s mother recently contacted me about finding yoga mat donations for a Childhood Cancer Survivorship Symposium, The Pablove Foundation, which is hosting for kids living with cancer. I felt inspired to share this and encourage the yoga community to support yoga for kids with cancer. 

By the looks of it, yoga at The Walther School pre-kindergarten is all fun and games. We make tunnels, build ships and pretend to be everything under the sun – including the sun. Yet within the jubilation we sometimes stumble upon profound jewels of momentary understanding and experience deep, spiritual, human connection.

One of the greatest honors of my life has been to share yoga with the children of The Walther School – including Pablo. I say “share” rather than teach because truly – our relationship was based on a mutual search guided by wonder. Pablo certainly taught me as much – No – Way more, than I taught him.

Without intending to – or who knows, perhaps Pablo and I were living out some purposeful contract that our souls made long before my remembrance – he gently challenged my beliefs and joyfully crossed limiting thresholds that I held in my mind.

In one of our first yoga sessions during Pablo’s first year at school, I asked the children to think of a sound that made them feel peaceful:

“Close your eyes and remember a sound you’ve heard that makes your heart feel like everything is okay.”

One by one, children shared their peaceful sounds: birds chirping, the wind, the ocean, Mommy’s voice. Then, it was Pablo’s turn. He said, “Dogs barking.” Just like a Zen master, he stopped my mind. For a fleeting moment, I had the urge to define peace, to somehow create more context for the question. But the purity of Pablo’s gaze cut through my preconceived notions of peace and I realized that peace is different for every one of us. For me, a barking dog signified danger or annoying territorial behavior. For Pablo, I imagined, maybe a dog’s bark signals safety or place – a feeling that everything is okay.

And then there were the fire trucks. In an attempt to lure children into loving forward bends, we transform Dandasana (Staff Pose) and Paschimattanasa (a seated straight legged forward fold) into Making Pie. We sit closely together in a tight circle with legs out stretched and “roll the dough,” we chant, “roll the dough.” Who knows what vibrational impact this particular chant has, but it certainly does provide a nice relaxing divergence from the subtle tinge of the stretching hamstrings that often creates resistance to such movements in children. Then, we sit very tall and each child and teacher gets a turn putting something in the pie. We end up putting in a lot of cupcakes with vanilla icing and sprinkles and ice cream and chocolate and marshmallow hearts with a cherry on top, all one answer. Sometimes a child might say something out of the ordinary like “broccoli”, and the eeeews ensue.

But Pablo had a different contribution.

First he said, “Fire trucks.”

“Hmmmm,” I said, “well, we can’t eat fire trucks. Can you choose something that we can actually eat and digest?”

Pablo scrunched his lips into his nose, looked up at the ceiling in deep thought, and responded brilliantly with one tiny fat finger pointing up into the sky, “Gummy fire trucks!”  I looked to the other teachers for support and they tilted their heads while lifting their shoulders.

“Okay,” I said, “Gummy fire trucks it is!”

And that was just the beginning. From there, we had gummy eyeballs, gummy roller coasters and gummy you-don’t-even-want-to-knows. And within the play of it all, a child figured out how to cleverly get what he wanted while a yoga teacher learned how to accept the creative diversity of her students.

At the end of every session, we practice a pose we call “Sea Star.”  Traditionally in yoga, this final resting posture is named Savasana, which roughly translated means “Corpse Pose.” For obvious reasons, I’ve chosen to use a more developmentally appropriate name for this pose. While some children (the boys) could find it cool to be corpses, other children (namely, the girls) might find it weird, gross or even scary and the whole point would be lost.

So, Sea Stars we are.

And what fine Sea Stars, indeed. Despite the initial fidgeting, tickling and resistance to rest, most of our Walther yoga circle come to love Sea Star as a favorite.

I remind the children time and again that practicing Sea Star is a way to soak in all of the yoga we have created. It’s a way to rest our bodies so that we have lots of energy to play outside. I tell them that if we did not do Sea Star, we might run out of energy during the rest of the day. Sea Star is a transition between phases. I don’t tell them that part. Many other aspects of Savasana also go unspoken. Unspoken – but not, I believe – undetected.

You see, the practice of Savasana, is truly the practice of dying. The whole sequence of standing poses, balancing poses, abdominal strengthening poses, backbends, forward bends and twists lead up to the final resting pose wherein we practice “letting go.” We literally ask our bodies to just be and we do our best not to interfere. For three and four year olds this can be a tremendous feat. Yet, Pablo practiced earnestly. We put one hand on our belly and one hand on our heart. We relaxed each part of our bodies systematically until we could feel only the movement of our breath inside. We let our bodies sink into the Earth and our spirits rise.

In essence, we practiced dying together.

Despite his friends’ attempts to distract him, Pablo generally engaged his Sea Star-ness. If Pablo gained even one fraction of benefit from this practice of yoga, my entire purpose as a teacher is fulfilled. I chose to share the lineage I was humbly initiated into with young children because I know they are entering a quickly changing world and they will need these tools, these skills for living and also for dying. I did not imagine that any of the children I work with would need to utilize these skills so soon.

Pablo transitioned from this realm into the mystery with such grace. I delight in the way he showed up in our time together and I reflect on Pablo’s yoga with great admiration. Pablo’s family, and his profound connection to source, are the benefactor’s of his character and his ability to enter the great transformation with courage and skill.

I’m not sure if Pablo had any Rabbit energy or medicine in his charts. His Lion certainly roared for all to see, but I saw something of a cautious Rabbit in Pablo at times – almost like looking into a mirror.

The first time I met him, he said,  “No, thank you” to a hug at the end of class. Soon, he nailed my palm in a hearty high five. Not too long after, he ventured into hugdom and gave the most absolutely sublime hug ever – soft – like his aura was hugging mine. From there, he got squeezy until finally he downright flew into my arms and jumped into my lap. All of these hugs I will cherish and share with as many children as I possibly can. I appreciated that Pablo did not hug the crazy yoga lady at first.

He waited until it felt right for him. I have to believe that Pablo waited until it felt right for everything.

Every single child I have met and shared time with has a special and unique quality. The thing about Pablo is that his life and his death put a huge and sparkling exclamation point on his remarkable nature. In Tibetan Buddhism there is a concept of being called Bodhisattva. They are the ones who choose to come back to Earth and stave off full enlightenment in order to end the suffering of humanity. To me, Pablo displayed the nature of a Bodhisattva. He had big work to do here and he did it well.

Even though we weep and pain over Pablo’s passing, we feel a palpable beauty in all of this. Our hearts are broken open and raw. In this state, we restructure our values and gain a much broader perspective than normal. Pablo gives us an incredible gift. He gives this gift continuously. He is. He will always be. We are so fortunate to cross paths. So very blessed to be in his presence. Pablo is pure presence.

Everywhere. Eternal, perpetual, unending. (quote from a 311 song).

If you’d like to donate a brand new yoga mat to a child living with cancer, please contact [email protected]

Abby Wills, MA, E-RYT, has joyfully spent the past 13 or so years on the yoga and mindfulness playground with kids, teens and teachers at schools and centers across Los Angeles and beyond. She finally found her perfect guru in September 2010, her first son Falken. Abbys’ other baby is Shanti Generation, through which she created “Yoga Skills for Youth Peacemakers” a teens and kids yoga DVD.



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