March 17, 2012

Living & Dying on the Mat. ~ Liz Arch

(I took this photo at my family’s funeral home 15 years ago. The way the camera caught the light that day has always captivated me and provided comfort.)

My family has been in the funeral business since 1859.

Death is our life.

Growing up while other kids were painting rainbows and drawing puppies in art class, my sister and I were making urns out of clay. Our teachers were disturbed. Our parents were thrilled.

Death provided me with some of my fondest childhood memories, along with some very practical life skills. I learned how to alphabetize by filing obituaries as my first summer job. I conquered claustrophobia by testing out the newest shipment of coffins. I got over my fear of public speaking by giving eulogies at backyard funerals for pets that had passed on.

But despite death’s numerous gifts, I was ready to hit the road and leave the funeral home by the time I turned 18. When people ask me why I became a yoga teacher rather than have gone into the family business, I joke that I wanted to do something a little “livelier.” Ironically, I’ve realized that as a yoga teacher, I am more intimate with death than ever before.

A yoga class represents a life cycle. We start in child’s pose and end in corpse pose or savasana, as it is known in Sanskrit. B.K.S Iyengar has described savasana as one of the hardest poses to master. But when one does learn to master this final resting pose, the payoff is sweet.

Symbolically, we die in savasana so we can be re-born. As Iyengar says, “in forgetting oneself, one discovers oneself.”

I have lived many lives and have experienced it all on my mat-love, heartache, grief, joy, discomfort, pleasure, resistance, release, anger, acceptance-but no matter how challenging the journey gets, at the end of every class, I’m always left with a sense of peace. Profound peace. Savasana grants us that. Its gift is that in death, we are offered a way to truly live.

The greatest lesson I have learned from death is to live fearlessly and with deep compassion. I have personally experienced the devastation and inconsolable grief that accompanies the death of a loved one. I have also witnessed that which is most noble and resilient about the human spirit.

I often think back to a story from my father, recounted below in his own words:

When my friend was dying from a horrible debilitating disease, I was over at his apartment every night for months. We talked, laughed, sang, cried; I emptied his bed pans, cleaned up his vomit, wiped him clean, just to give his family respite for a few hours everyday. I took him for “rides” in his wheel chair. One night toward the end, I was holding him up with my arms – he was leaning on me as we were moving him back to bed and he uncontrollably excreted on himself. He looked me in the eye and said “now you’re really family” and we all burst out laughing. To me, that was dignity personified.

For my father, it was dignity personified. To me, it is compassion personified. My parents are the most compassionate people I know. They have dedicated their lives to providing healing to families in their darkest hours.

I recently asked my dad why he chose to become a funeral director. He responded, “Courage. I get my dose of courage every time I meet with a family who comes in to make funeral arrangements. When their world has been totally shattered, when life will never be the same again, when they are empty and sick with grief and sadness, bone tired, too weary to even think about tomorrow-they’ve forced themselves out of bed to see me. That’s why I go to work every morning.”

My mother echoes his sentiments. “Having been in the eye of Grief’s hurricane has been my honor and privilege,” she says, “you are invited into the most private room of people’s hearts.” I have witnessed her weep with families who have just lost a child and open her arms to all who seek solace and support.

I asked my mother what in her over 25 years as a funeral director has touched her the most. She told me the story of an orphaned baby girl who died and was left at the hospital with no one to claim her. The state contracted our funeral home to dispose of the body without a service. My mother cremated her tiny body, but did not feel right placing her remains on the shelf of a crypt to be closed and forgotten.

She hired a priest and organized a service in the unnamed baby’s honor. She posted an obituary notice in our local newspaper announcing the service and on the day of the funeral over 100 people showed up offering flowers and prayers. Every single person who showed up that day was a stranger to the little girl, but they were all connected by their shared compassion for this tiny soul that did not deserve to be forgotten.

My parents have taught me to live not in fear of death, but in celebration of life. They have also taught me what it means to serve. That is my highest calling. I might have chosen a different path than funeral directing, but it has led to the same destination. It is my greatest privilege and honor to serve everyday as a yoga teacher.

While my parents may never step foot on a yoga mat or know how to pronounce savasana, I am forever grateful to them for teaching me its true meaning.


Read more from Liz: Confessions of a Naked Yogini. {nudity}


Liz Arch is the creator of Primal Yoga®, a dynamic yoga/martial arts fusion class that merges Vinyasa yoga with the playfulness of Capoeira, the artistry of Kung Fu, the grace of Tai Chi, and the agility of Budokon into a creative and mindful flow.She has over 10 years of experience in various yoga and martial arts styles including Power Yoga, traditional Northern-style Kung Fu and Yang-style Tai-Chi.She is a yoga ambassador for lululemon athletica and YogaEarth and a proud advocate for A Window Between Worlds (www.awbw.org), a non-profit in Venice, CA that uses art as a healing tool for women and children who are survivors of domestic violence.Visit her here or find her on facebook or twitter @primalyoga.




Editors: Tanya L. Markul / Andrea B.


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