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The Big 5-0

Milestone (noun)

  1. A stone set up beside a road to mark the distance in miles to a particular place

  2. An action or event marking a significant life change or stage in development.

With February comes cold air and snow but also noticeably longer days and the first emergence of the daffodils. February also brings my birthday. On the 8th, I’ll turn 50, a milestone. I’m not depressed about turning 50, but I am surprised by how quickly this milestone has arrived. It felt like it took forever to turn 16, but here’s 50 in the blink of an eye.

One definition of “milestone” is “a stone set up beside a road to mark the distance in miles to a particular place.” I think we could consider this definition not only literally, but metaphorically as well: Life is a journey, we’re traveling a road from birth to death, and milestone birthdays, like stones set up alongside the road, mark the distance in years to a particular destination—death.

As you may know, yogis spend time considering death and preparing for the time of their own death. Consider, for example, savasana. Literally translated as corpse pose, it is practiced at the end of each yoga class. One of my teachers said that we can think of savasana as a dress-rehearsal for the time of our own death. Think of how you feel in savasana: perhaps calm, relaxed, peaceful, unafraid, open, receptive, willing to let go, humble, willing to surrender. Ideally, at the time of our actual death, our experience is very much the same. We practice letting go of attachment to our physical body, to our ego, and to our small “s” self each time we practice savasana so that when the time of our death comes, we can truly let go and open to divine grace. Then, at the end of savasana, we turn onto our side and curl up in a fetal position. We move from the corpse to the fetus, from metaphorical death to metaphorical rebirth. Coming up to seated, we are “born anew,” refreshed from our practice. We have a chance to begin again, to do our best to live in kindness, compassion, and generosity.

Yogis also seek to live in such a way that they generate good karma, and eventually no karma, so that they may someday be liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth known as samsara. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna teaches Arjuna that any progress made on the path of yoga will carry through into the yogi’s next life and that souls reincarnate in environments reflective of their spiritual attainments (BG 6.40-44). He then says, “With sincere practice you will then make further progress, dissipate any remaining karma, and come to me.” (BG 6.45-46).

Karma is a large and complex topic, but as Clare Nicholls writes in the Jivamukti Yoga February Focus-of-the-Month, “In its most basic form karma is the universal moral law of cause and effect—every action has a consequence.” All of our thoughts, words, and actions generate karmic “seeds” that will sprout and ripen when conditions are right. In other words, by planting good karmic seeds we will reap good karmic benefits. We reap what we sow. One way to plant good karmic seeds is to live by what are known as the Yamas. The first of the 8-limbs of yoga as explained by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra, the Yamas are ethical precepts for how to treat others. They are 1) ahimsa: non-harming 2) satya: truthfulness 3) asteya: non-stealing 4) brahmacharya: sexual continence and 5) aparigraha: non-greed (YS 2.30).

I approach my 50th birthday with lots of gratitude. Understanding and accepting the truth of impermanence of all things—ourselves included—is one of the important teachings of yoga and many Eastern traditions. Wholeheartedly embracing impermanence leads to gratitude. When we accept that everything is impermanent, we cherish each moment, each person, each experience more fully because we know that all things exist for only a limited time. We may become better at not taking for granted all that we love and value knowing that everything can (and will) change in an instant.

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