The yoga of dying: Japa meditation

In this series of blog posts, I discuss yogic practices that relate to death and dying. In a previous post, I looked at corpse pose (savasana).

Mala, japa, samskara

Have you noticed those strings of beads that yogis sometimes wear around their necks or looped around their wrists and wondered what they’re for? Those are malas and they’re used in a meditation practice called japa meditation. A mala usually consists of 108 beads, which yogis consider an auspicious number, plus an additional bead known as the guru bead.

Japa is a Sanskrit term referring to the practice of repeating a mantra or prayer. In japa meditation, a mala acts as a counting device. Each bead represents one repetition of the mantra. As you recite the mantra (silently or aloud), you move your fingers along the beads until you reach the guru bead, which indicates that you’ve completed 108 repetitions. You could stop at 108, or you could continue, doing as many rounds of the mala as you chose.

There are many reasons why you may wish to incorporate a mantra into your meditation practice. A mantra is useful as an anchor, giving your mind something to focus on as you practice. A mantra can also act as a personal motto or intention, inviting a specific energy into your life. It’s important to choose your mantra carefully. Yogis believe that anything you do repeatedly creates a groove in the mind. This groove is called a samskara. The more repetitions, the deeper the groove. Samskaras are neither inherently positive nor negative, they’re simply habits. But if you find yourself in a groove that you recognize as unhelpful, the deeper the groove, the more difficult it is to create change.

How does this relate to dying?

Yogis have traditionally believed in reincarnation. Because of this belief, there are specific practices meant to prepare for death so as to influence the next incarnation. For example, yogis place great importance on the content of the mind at the moment of death. They believe that remembering god as they die will free them from the cycle of birth and death. The god Krishna explains this in The Bhagavad Gita:

Those who remember me at the time of death will come to me. Do not doubt this. Whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying; always they will tend toward that state of being. (8:5-7)*

But remembering god at the moment of death is easier said than done. Death can happen at any time in any number of ways. Knowing this, yogis prepare for death by remembering god at all times. This is where the practice of japa meditation is helpful. Over hundreds of thousands of repetitions of their chosen mantra, the yogi creates a deep groove in their mind. In time, the mantra becomes like a song you can’t get out of your head. Even when the yogi isn’t practicing japa meditation, the mantra carries on in the background of their thoughts, whether awake or asleep.

Witnesses to Gandhi’s assassination recall him uttering the name of the god Rama three times as he fell to the ground. Gandhi had prepared for this moment over years of repeating Rama’s name in loving devotion.

What can non-yogis take from this?

Reincarnation aside, I believe most of us want some control over our final thoughts. Whether we want to remember a prayer, or the people we love, or to visualize ourselves in a peaceful place, we can use the teachings of yoga to prepare for that moment long before it happens. From what I understand and have witnessed as a hospice volunteer, dying is not a great time to create new habits. Habits require time and energy to take hold. If there’s a habit or groove that you wish for yourself at the moment of dying, begin today. Whether your mantra is “only love” or “surrender” or “just this”, you can infuse your life with the sacred qualities you wish for yourself at death.


*Easwaran, E. 2007. The Bhagavad Gita. Nilgiri Press.

Image © 2019 Erin Bidlake

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