For the past three weeks I’ve been teaching a Yoga Nidra meditation series. It’s been incredible. I think most yoga teachers are in this gig because the transformations that occur in classes and on the mats are energizing and inspiring – it is truly humbling and gratifying to be able to participate in those transformations. Yoga Nidra is no different despite how radically distinct it is from, say, a sweaty vinyasa flow. Energetic shifts happen, not just to the participants but also to me. I leave practice feeling saturated by the calm that pervades the room. And even now I’m struggling to find the right terms that describe how the room shifts in Yoga Nidra, how the stillness is so deep that the air itself seems to hang thick, almost as if your favorite blanket – that one that shelters you from whatever muck is happening outside of it – has settled down to hug the entire room. Not in a way that suffocates. More like a sweet steeping in deep relaxation. My skin still tingles just thinking of its effect.
I have no idea what is happening in the minds and bodies of my students on their mats but I do know that it is necessary. So rarely do we have opportunity to actually drop off into a restorative but meditative practice. If we restore our bodies, then our minds and subconscious are often untouched. If we try to focus our mind through meditation, we still demand that our bodies support us. The deliberate release of mental, emotional, and physical tension simultaneously is rare – we seem to always be working. And if we are also working, then we remain in the possibility of recreating tension through our habits and patterns.
A friend of mine hurt his back the weekend before one of our Yoga Nidra sessions. He felt well enough by Tuesday to hobble to class and lay on the floor. When I saw him recently and asked how his back felt, he said that he hadn’t felt any pain since Yoga Nidra. I joked, “Yoga Nidra heals!” But there’s truth in that joke: Yoga Nidra heals. Do I really think that a session of Yoga Nidra healed his back? No. But I do think that Yoga Nidra helped him release some of that three-fold tension (physical, emotional, and mental) that his back injury most likely ratcheted up. He was, in all likelihood, creating more tension unconsciously by trying to constrict his motion and protect the injured site. Add in physiological responses to pain, stress, emotions and you have a cauldron of tensions that not only require more than a paltry instruction like, “Let it go,” but also a therapeutic practice that doesn’t increase the stress and tension in the body. Yoga Nidra’s method of releasing those tensions is like none that I’ve seen and it works.
That being said, I know some folks who don’t feel like Yoga Nidra is really doing anything. They don’t get “deep.” Their physical body gets in the way – coughing, snoring, wanting to move in the midst of practice – or their mind gets caught on the counting and the breath. Or, for whatever reason, the descent just isn’t “deep.” I don’t know that they’d say Yoga Nidra heals, or even works. The optimist in me, however, remains confident that something is happening on some level. Not all changes need to be radical. Not all effects need to intense. Even a slight tremor rocks the earth, and we still call it an earthquake.
Tuesday marks the end of our series, which saddens me. I’ve enjoyed this time with my students. I’ve enjoyed the peace and the dark and that magnetic, magical energy that rises up and saturates me. And I, like many of my students have expressed, am looking forward to future Nidra dates. They’ve yet to be inscribed on the calendar but they’re coming, I promise you.
In the meantime, you might consider continuing your Yoga Nidra practice at home. It’s easy so long as you find the right set of conditions to make it work:
- Find a guide: Unlike meditation or even yoga, Yoga Nidra requires another person to serve as your guide. The reason is simple: if you are trying to act as your own guide, then you’ll never get deep into your subconscious. You can’t drop down into a sleep if you’re consciously trying to craft your journey. Maybe, at some point, you’ll become an epic Yoga Nidra guru who can drop into different levels of consciousness through will and breath. But for now, find a buddy – a friend, a loved one, or a voice recording – who is willing to sit with you for the duration of your practice and guide you through it. There are some terrific resources for guidance.
- http://www.swamij.com has a host of guided meditations, most of which are downloadable.
- Richard Miller’s website – http://www.irest.us/ – also has a slew of downloadable, guided meditations. His book, Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing, provides a lovely overview of the practice as he sees it and includes an audio cd of guided meditations.
- Swami Satyananda Saraswati’s book, Yoga Nidra, also provides a thoughtful explanation of Yoga Nidra as well as guided meditations that can be read out loud by a friend. He’s the first recognized practitioner, perhaps its pioneer.
- YouTube it. Seriously. Type in Yoga Nidra meditations and see what arises.
- Find a time: As you practice you’ll learn that there’s a time of day that is best for your body and mind for Yoga Nidra. An evening practice might be too stimulating for some (usually indicated by atypical bursts of productivity and cognition in the late evening / early morning) while a morning practice proves to be too calming for others. When you find that time of day that works best for you, try to continue to practice at that time. Make it a ritualized routine: e.g. every Thursday at 10 am I practice Yoga Nidra. Your body, your consciousness, your subconsciousness will start to recognize and respond to that continuity, making your practice more fluid and generative.
- Create the space: You’ll want the space to be as quiet and as dark as possible. The less sensory impressions the body and mind are taking in, the more likely your parasympathetic nervous system will kick in and you can settle into relaxation. (Relaxing at the airport in the thick of air traffic rush is very different from relaxing in a quiet, dark place, no?) Give your body as much padding as it needs to be comfortable. Put down blankets, pillows, bolsters … whatever it is that your body needs to feel supported and at ease. Thinking about using your bed? Consider placing your feet at the “head” of the bed and your head at the “foot” of the bed. Just as working in bed can disrupt our peaceful sleep at night so can Yoga Nidra.