Yoga Nidra: Power Yoga of the Mind
by Susan Abbattista
Right now, you’re the proverbial fly on the wall—not just any old fly, but one with Zen leanings and mystical vision. You’re hanging out in the yoga studio where I do my regular practice. The studio is located on a busy urban street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Inside, there are about 60 yoga mats, all lined up within an inch of each other. Upon those mats, bodies of all ages, shapes, and sizes move in tandem (more or less) for 90 minutes. From your spot on the wall, you can plainly see that this is a very intense vinyasa practice. A million Sun Salutations. Then you realize: Darn, it’s hot! Like, Miami hot. Everyone’s sweating like mad. Even the windows are sweating!
There’s me, standing near the back, in the coolest possible spot, where a thin crack under the door lets in precious air molecules from outside. I have just finished the balancing postures—Eagle, Dancer’s, Half-Moon, Tree—and am resting in Child’s pose. Man, this practice is tough! As the fly on the wall, you see me here a lot. I may not attempt every single pose, but I do my best—sweating, stretching, and burning through all the excess mental and emotional baggage of the day. By the end of class, I’m a wet rag, eyelashes clumped and pointed, like rays of stars. You observe: With all that physical movement, something has shifted. I’m calmer, more at peace with what is. You are indeed one perceptive fly.
One day, toward the end of September, you decide you’ve had enough of Boston’s back-to-school keg-party scene and you fly out to Kripalu. Ah, the Berkshires! The air is so clean and fresh! You land upon the yellow wall of a beautiful studio where about 30 people are apparently doing yoga. But they’re lying in the dark. Tucked under blankets, they are woolly lumps with human ears, noses, and lips. They appear to be doing nothing more than listening and breathing. You land upon one of the lumps. Hey, Fly, it’s me! You buzz with surprise: You! What’s a power yogini like you doing in a place like this? That’s a great question, my observant friend. For you, I’ve written this story.
One of my favorite vinyasa yoga teachers once said, “If dropping into stillness is the hardest thing for you to do, then that is what you need the most.” And so, sometime around the first frost, I came to Kripalu to try a meditative practice called yoga nidra. Translated as “yogic sleep” or “divine sleep,” this type of yoga focuses on systematic relaxation of the body while the mind enters a state of deep, meditative awareness—like dreaming while fully awake. The technique was developed by Swami Satyananda in the 1960s to make advanced, centuries-old practices of tantric meditation more accessible to everyone.
Yoga nidra comprised the meat-and-potatoes (or tofu-and-rice) segment of a retreat called Yoga and Deep Relaxation Retreat: Journey to Inner Peace. Like most of the other 30-or-so participants, I’d never done this type of yoga before and didn’t quite know what to expect. One thing I did know: Underneath my blanket, I was an exhausted mess. Summer had passed in a hazy blur of work and play—and, admittedly, too many margaritas. Now here it was, the onset of fall, the hardest seasonal transition for me. I felt myself floating and drifting, a balloon accidentally released from the fist of a child. I needed to reel myself back in.
I wasn’t alone. Most of the other participants also confessed to being deeply fatigued. On the first night, everyone told their stories. A tan, lanky man from California postponed a trip to Paris so that he could hop off the surfboard of life. A friendly couple from New Jersey needed time to decompress from their management jobs. A shy woman shared that this was her first trip without her husband and kids; she had come here to get to know herself a little better. And my favorite: the tough-on-the-outside/soft-on-the-inside cop who was trying to gain some emotional footing around the 10-year anniversary of September 11. Like many first responders, she still seeks an elusive peace.
Our teacher, Jennifer Reis, guided all of us with compassion. I saw her as Divine Big Sister, with soulful eyes, a playful spirit, and a golden voice as soothing as warm maple syrup on pancakes. Twice a day for five days, she turned off the lights, made sure we were absolutely comfortable, and took us on an hour-long journey inside ourselves. The only instruction: Listen and don’t try too hard.
Over the course of five days, some unspoken guidelines (or pointers) emerged from the darkness:
Stay awake if you can. “Divine sleep” is really not about sleeping (though you might). In this ultra-relaxed state of consciousness, your mind is focused, fully alert, and receptive. This experience is sometimes called the relaxation response, where deep healing and regeneration can happen.
Don’t worry if you can’t relax at first. You may find that divine sleep may not feel too, well, divine. For me, it was a slow process of trusting and letting go. In fact, for the first two days, I felt like an egg sitting on the edge of a kitchen counter. My back ached. If I really let myself relax to the core, would I smash to the ground? And would I be able to clean up the mess afterward?
Trust the flow. It can seem formless and passive, but the ancient practice of yoga nidra is as systematic as most any other yoga flow. There is a basic sequence: Get comfortable; set an intention for your practice; relax each part of the body; take a guided journey (maybe it’s a forest, field of sage, or warm beach); see what you see; feel what you feel; repeat your intention; return to your self. On a deeper level, the sequence moves you through all layers (called koshas) of your consciousness—physical, energetic, mental, emotional, and spiritual. When you’re done, as in other practices, you feel as though you’ve landed in a different place from where you started. You know yourself a little better.
What makes this yoga so powerful, in my opinion, is summed up by one word: vision. Not just everyday vision but ultra-vivid perception, like suddenly having a lens that magnifies your moment-by-moment experience. Sometimes the lens is tightly focused on the tiny details; other times, it’s a wide-angle view that takes in everything. This is the power of the focused gaze, or drishti, as it is called in Sanskrit. It resonates on many levels.
Inner vision. In the deepest depths of yoga nidra, a film plays out in the darkness of your mind. And like studying an abstract piece of art, you may see signs, symbols, or metaphors. You close your eyes and gaze into your heart. You find words there, like “freedom.” You see symbols. A turtle retracted inside its shell. The stop sign that actually says GO. The picnic table from your childhood. The backyard of your first home. The tablecloth your mother used for company. You see the faces of people who have passed on. Your uncle handing you change from his pocket. Your small, outstretched hand. Your father giving you his blessing: “Be happy.” You see the elements of your life that resonate most. The things that make you, you.
Outward vision. After doing this for a few days, you start to have a different view of everything around you. The world moves more slowly, and so do you. You see the autumn leaves in exquisite detail—sad and beautiful at once. Bands of color stretch across the mountains, banners of change. You decide to sit outside for awhile. Two rabbits emerge from the bushes. They munch on the grass at your feet, unafraid. You see for the first time the gentle curve of their glassy eyeballs, and your reflection bending along the shiny arcs. It fills you with a complicated feeling, hard to name. Something like gratitude mixed with longing.
Soft vision. By the fifth day, you see yourself, and others, with more gentleness. You realize everyone is searching for the same thing. You watch yourself heading back down the long driveway at Kripalu. You take a breath. You watch yourself wondering “What now?” You feel yourself at a crossroads. You remember the stop sign with GO written on it. You see very clearly how, in life, you always hold yourself back a little. And how it may be time to let go of the reins. Yes. Let go.
A wise swami once said, “Observation without judgment is the greatest spiritual practice of all.” I would have to agree. But I would say it this way: Become a cosmic fly on the wall of your own experience. Trust what you see.
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