#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 โ€œpowering down,โ€ 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. Itโ€™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. Itโ€™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 youโ€™re put under anesthesia, youโ€™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 stateโ€”one that canโ€™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 youโ€™ll receive glimpses of it.

After you touch into the fourth state of consciousness, you are guided back to a waking state. Again, you couldnโ€™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 :)
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