#soulcare: yoga for stress monsters

I might be super late to the party, but Tuesday night I took a class in a form of yoga I'd never heard of before but now cannot imagine my life without.

I've been having some health challenges lately, mostly thanks to the enormous stress and innumerable unhealthy habits I adopted during my years as an active self-destructive workaholic, and one of those challenges has been chronic fatigue. I'm tired all the damn time. If I don't start my day with caffeine, I can't get through it without a nap. If I decide to take a nap, I'm down for 3-5 hours and wake up feeling groggy.  And even with a nap, I can sleep 9 or 10 hours a night and awake not feeling rested. I've made massive changes to my diet, am taking recommended supplements and am slowly incorporating exercise, but so far the results have been mixed. I get change isn't going to come overnight, but it has been a long time since I've felt truly rested.

Until Tuesday night at about 8:30pm. The reason? 

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Yoga Nidra is 30-45 min guided meditation that enables participants to experience the rejuvenating effects of 3-4 hours of deep, restorative sleep in a fraction of the time.

Here's a breakdown of how Tuesday's class went:

  • When we arrived around 7pm, the room was dimly lit and soft, Kundalini kriyas were playing. On the small stage at the front of the room, the teacher was sitting on a giant sheepskin rug surrounded by gongs and singing bowls. So very zen. We were encouraged to cover our yoga mats with woolen blankets and to grab an additional blanket for warmth, as well as a bolster for neck support, as yoga nidra is done laying down. Yes, this yoga involves very minimal actual movement, which is about all my out-of-shape ass can handle right now. Right before she started, the teacher also circulated and offered participants essential oils to rub on our neck and pulse points. I chose a citrus vanilla, and it was LOVELY. 
  • Once we were horizontal and comfortable, the teacher had us turn our attention to our breath, and then to each part of our bodies. The goal of yoga nidra is relaxation and release, and in order to *really* release, it's important to know where you're actually tense. We started creating and then releasing tension, first in our feet and legs and then moving up the body to our midsection, shoulders, arms, neck and face. By tensing different muscle groups and then releasing, I was able to recognize where I was carrying tension that I had grown so accustomed to that I didn't even consciously realize was there.
  • Then, the teacher walked around the room playing gongs and singing bowls as we returned our attention to the breath. Every time I sit to meditate at home, I struggle to quiet my wild-monkey brain. It seems like, as soon as I try to empty my mind of thoughts and hold space for silence, my subconscious decides that RIGHT NOW is the perfect time to generate a to-do list or to rehash an argument I had with a friend in the 4th grade. By playing the gongs and bowls, and by changing her location in the room, the teacher provided just enough auditory stimulation that it was relatively easy to focus my attention solely on sending my breath to the sound, and relatively few unauthorized, unproductive thoughts tried to crash my zen party.
  • After an indeterminate amount of time, the guided meditation began. This is where shit got real. The best thing I can liken it to is how hypnosis has been explained to me: the teacher began to describe how heavy our bodies felt and how we were sinking into the floor...and my body/consciousness immediately responded. It was nuts. Like, the power of her suggestion allowed me to just let go and sink into the experience. I don't remember everything that she said, but the general theme of her words centered around surrendering, melting into the floor, releasing any barriers between our physical bodies and the universe...all next level zen. And it felt very natural and incredibly easy.
  • Once the guided meditation part was over, the teacher brought the gongs and singing bowls back and we slowly started bringing our awareness back to our breath and, finally, to our bodies. When I finally sat up, I felt rested and refreshed in a way I hadn't experienced in years.
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So how exactly does yoga nidra work? Clearly, I had no idea so I googled it. I'm going to let the expert folks at Yoga Journal explain it:

You start with sensing the body and breathing in specific ways in order to trigger the relaxation response. The relaxation response balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and balances the left and right brain. In the process, your brain shifts from beta, an awakened state with lots of brain activity, to alpha, a more relaxed state. In alpha, the mood-regulating hormone serotonin gets released, and this calms you down. People who spend little time in an alpha brain-wave state have more anxiety than those who spend more time in alpha. Think of a car: if you want to stop and turn off the engine, you first need to downshift. Shifting your brain into an alpha state starts its process of “powering down,” or coming into a rest state with slower, restorative brain-wave activity.

From alpha, you go into a deep alpha and high theta brain-wave state, the dream state, REM sleep. In theta, your thoughts slow down to 4 to 8 thoughts per second. This is where super learning happens. Kids and artists experience a lot more theta activity in their brains. Emotional integration and release also happen here, and structures in the brain change. It’s here that some people sometimes have random thoughts or see images. A person in theta may see colors or visions or hear the voice of a person talking yet at the same time not hear this voice. It’s where you being to enter the gap of nothingness.

After theta, you are guided to delta, where your thoughts are only 1 to 3.9 thoughts per second. This is the most restorative state, in which your organs regenerate and the stress hormone cortisol is removed from your system.

When you’re put under anesthesia, you’re put into a delta brain-wave state. People in comas are also in a delta brain-wave state, which gives their bodies a chance to restore their systems. In our culture, very few people are going into the deep states of sleep like theta and delta on a regular basis, and as a consequence, our bodies are not powering down and getting the chance to restore themselves. Depressed people go to beta and alpha states, but rarely go to theta and delta.

From delta, the guided yoga nidra experience takes you down into an even deeper brain-wave state—one that can’t be reached through conventional sleep. In this fourth state of consciousness, below delta, your brain is thoughtless. This state is sort of like a complete loss of consciousness, but you are awake. This state is one of such a deep surrender, where your consciousness is so far away from the physical body, that living here every day would be difficult. Not everyone who practices yoga nidra touches this state, but the more you practice, the more you’ll receive glimpses of it.

After you touch into the fourth state of consciousness, you are guided back to a waking state. Again, you couldn’t live in this fourth state, but as a result of touching into it, you bring a little of its peace back with you to your waking, everyday brain state. You also are able to rewire your thoughts and emotions because your subconscious mind in this fourth state is fertile, more open to intentions and affirmations, than it is when you are in your waking state. As a consequence, in your everyday life, you begin to rest more and more in the space between emotions and thoughts, and this resting in this space gives rise to a sense of freedom, where you are not triggered so much by the stuff in your life.
— Brody, Karen. "Your Brain on Yoga Nidra." Yoga Journal. 11.1.17
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I can't say that I spent the entire meditation in the sought-after fourth state, but I did touch it a few times, and overall, this particular meditation felt far more dropped in than my solo home practice has ever been. I also have started going to sound healings regularly, but this was a different experience for me, even though both used crystal singing bowls and gongs. During the sound bath, I'm able to drop into my meditation far more easily than when I practice at home, but I haven't experienced the same feelings of profound relaxation as I did during yoga nidra. The post-class experience was also different. When I leave a sound healing, I feel this intense humming in my body, as if I'm suddenly aware of each and every cell buzzing with activity. I always want to write or journal post-sound bath, and normally have to consciously unplug digitally or read to bring my body back to a state where it's open to sleep. After yoga nidra, by the time I went home, I was ready for a warm bath, a cup of tea, a good book, and deep sleep. 

Have you ever tried yoga nidra? Is it a regular part of your practice? Let me know in the comments! 

And if you're ever in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area of Arizona, Kim (Ravidass Kaur) Balzan's Tuesday night class at Anahata Yoga is next level. (They're not sponsoring this post. I'm just an enthusiastic customer). And if you're in an area where either classes are cost-prohibitive or not available, the Yoga Nidra Network offers free downloads to use for individual practice. They operate on a contribution basis :)
 

#selfcare v. #soulcare

Have you ever browsed the hashtag "selfcaresunday" on Instagram? It's a fun rabbit-hole to fall down. Just check out the "top posts" and "most recent" images on any given Sunday and I guarantee a majority of the stream will consist of:
    •    immaculately clean bathroom counters brimming with expensive beauty products, all tagged and affiliate-linked
    •    immaculately clean bathtubs filled with flower petals, often accompanied by the perfectly spray tanned calves of a upper-middle class/wealthy white woman
    •    carefully curated images of smoothies and açia bowls filled with precisely placed ingredients with $$ per lb price-tags that make me LOL in the Whole Foods produce section
    •    Face masks. So. Many. Face. Masks.

Who, exactly, is going to clean that shit out of the tub post-soak?? And whose bathtub looks that spotless on the regular??? 

Who, exactly, is going to clean that shit out of the tub post-soak?? And whose bathtub looks that spotless on the regular??? 

Now, I'm not trying to throw shade at any of these things. Smoothies are the shit. I LOVE a long soak in the tub. I have a skincare product obsession (anyone who has seen my counter FULL of products can attest that my obsession *really* toes that fine line between aficionado and full-on hoarder) and I sheet mask religiously. That said, the hashtag pushes the "aspirational," and it seems like the primary message is that, as women, what we're supposed to be aspiring to is some glossy-magazine-adjacent aesthetic, and the self we need to be caring about is external, mainly "fixing" or "treating" our faces and bodies for the aesthetic pleasure of others. UGH.

Once in a blue moon, however, something beautiful happens admist all the intricate, well-lit salads and sheetmask selfies: someone posts a picture of a book they're reading. Or tags a picture from the trail they're out hiking. Or shares a snap of their toes in the sand or sticking out from under their comforter after sleeping in. THIS, my friends, I find SO👏DAMN👏REFRESHING👏

FUCK YES to all of this!

FUCK YES to all of this!

Self-care as a glass of wine, a face mask, and a Grey's Anatomy marathon is relaxing, no doubt. I've absolutely had MANY nights where I actually JUST CAN'T ANYMORE and need to TURN OFF MY BRAIN, and slapping on a mask and (accidentally) drinking a half a bottle of wine is SO EASY and mindless and numbing and feels good in the moment...but just in the moment. As inevitably as death and taxes, after Sunday night comes Monday morning, and yes, my skin might be a tad bit glowier, but the effects the prior evening's "self-care" are fleeting, and all of the problems and stressors I was trying to escape the night before are STILL THERE. If I'm honest with myself, nothing really was taken care of.

I'm gonna channel Yogi Bhajan for a minute. He said:

📷:  floral wallpaper by Ellie Cashman Design

📷: floral wallpaper by Ellie Cashman Design

Homie really understood the whole self-care thing on another level, and I've really taken that to heart lately, and hav been pushing myself to cut down on the wine-drinking/sheet-masking/binge-watching in favor of deepening my self-care practice...and it's been life👏changing👏.

I'm not gonna lie: trying to do this soul/spirit level self-care work can be hard.  Yes, it requires me to be present and aware of my thoughts and actions. Yes, it requires me to carve out time. Yes, it requires reflection and quiet. And it requires practice and failure and persistence, all of which can, especially when work was crazy, feel far more stressful in the moment than I feel I have the energy for. BUT BUT BUT the rewards are so much more lasting, and actually provide tools and solutions and ideas for making our day to day that much better so I don't need to take that time to just check-the-eff-out come Sunday.

It's not just the Kundalini yogis that feel this way. So many major religions and spiritual practices all have a teaching that's some sort of variation on this very theme: it is imperative that we work on ourselves on a deep, personal, soul/spirit level and only through that process and that learning are we able to show up for others. And by showing up for others as our most compassionate, empathetic, highest selves, we can truly begin to affect real change in the world.

And affecting real change in the world is something I (and many of my fellow left-leaning Americans) have been thinking about quite a bit since, oh, I don't know, the morning of November 9th of 2016. I hate to bring this up, especially after we just channeled Yogi Bhajan and looked at soothing images of crystal singing bowls and snow-capped mountains...but as of today, we're on day 422 of the National Nightmare that is 45's presidency, and the collective culture of the country could use a giant healing sound bath right about now. The national stress level is HIGH AF. Most days, when I turn on the news, I just want to let out a giant primal scream...but again, that might be easy and feel good in the moment, but it ultimately solves nothing and scares the shit out of my neighbors. The best thing I can think of to do is hold space for difficult conversations and show up in the world with my most compassionate, empathetic, highest-self. It just feels like this has never been more important or more, well, difficult. 

Apologies for bringing up 45. As a palate cleanser, here's that pic of the puppy who loves a trip Target as much as I do.

Apologies for bringing up 45. As a palate cleanser, here's that pic of the puppy who loves a trip Target as much as I do.

Here on interior creature, I'm holding space for exploring the myriad ways we can level-up our #selfcare into #soulcare and #spiritcare. Going inward and taking time to really take care of #1 is super crucial, now maybe more than ever. Because until the National Nightmare is over, we're going to need every ounce of strength we've got to be able to truly show up for each other.

What are your #soulcare and #spiritcare practices? How do you nourish your interior creature? Let me know in the comments!