Archive for February, 2013

February 27, 2013

Yoga Nidra: Yogic Sleep

Yoga Nidra is a little like sleep but with a trace of awareness remaining. It is an opportunity to stop the constant flow of mental and physical activities that we experience for most of our waking lives.

The physical, mental and emotional release of yoga nidra activates brainwaves that are associated with deep relaxation states. When we are wide awake we exhibit a pattern of brain activity called Beta waves. These waves of activity are present when we are experiencing the constant stream of thoughts associated with our most active state of wakefulness. When the body and mind relax, the pattern of brainwaves gradually slows, passing through two more layers of activation before eventually reaching the delta wave pattern of deep sleep. Yoga Nidra is designed to keep participants in state of brainwave activation that hovers just above the delta level.  This reflects not only the level of relaxation that we experience but the level of consciousness that we have access to.

In this borderline between wakefulness and sleep we are open not just to the experience of deep relaxation, but also are able to access creative, visionary states and to release emotions that may be held in the subconscious. As such, a guided yoga nidra practice has the potential to resolve deeply rooted issues, fears and stressors and to decrease anxiety, depression and stress levels. It is an ancient practice that is currently finding relevance in modern approaches to healthcare. Many healthcare organizations have begun to use yoga nidra practices with people who have PTSD, depression, substance abuse, chronic pain and sleep problems.

You do not need to be struggling with the more serious issues listed above to achieve benefit from a yoga nidra practice. People who practice regular periods of yoga nidra also report a general lowering of stress levels, better sleep and a greater sense of physical and mental well-being. Yoga Nidra is usually a guided meditation. Some yoga teachers weave a little yoga nidra into their final class relaxations, so maybe you have experienced this state of going deeper, feeling like you are sleeping, yet somehow still hearing the teacher when you are instructed to roll onto your side and make your way back to a sitting position. Yoga Nidra can be designed to bring a student to a sense of general balance and calm or to be more focused on a specific goal, such as healing or releasing a particular emotion. Yoga tradition teaches that a short time in yoga nidra is the equivalent to a much longer period of regular sleep, due to the quality of rest it provides for the nervous system, the mind, the body.

You can purchase yoga nidra guides from a variety of sources or write your own relaxation script to record and listen to. The benefit of having a voice to guide you through the practice is that the mind doesn’t have to think. If you are working on a deep release or specific therapy this method is most suitable. However, you can develop the skill of bringing yourself through mini yoga nidras if you are simply trying to release tension and feel great. This version of the practice has to be kept simple so that the mind can truly relax. After a few times it will become an automatic practice and your mind can rest as you go through the flow. Here is an example of  how you can approach your own yoga nidra practice.

1. Find a comfortable place to lie on the back. Hands lying a few inches away from the hips and feet hip width apart.
2. Give yourself permission to relax. Set your watch, phone or egg timer to the amount of time you are giving yourself to practice.  Recognize that even a short time will have a big impact on your physiology and mental state.

3. Close your eyes and become aware of your whole body. Allow the breath to slow and the body to completely relax and move with the breath. Count your breaths as you watch your body become lighter on each inhalation, and  to become heavier on each exhalation. Continue until until  your body is able to surrender to gravity, as if the whole body is melting.
4. Set your sankalpa (resolve or intention). This is a short phrase that you repeat mentally at the beginning of your practice. My life is good, My body is healthy, I am calm and focused as I go about my day, etc. Repeat the same resolve each time you practice for a few weeks before changing. It is always said in the present tense. Once you state this resolve it have already begun to form in your thought and emotion patterns. Don’t make resolves such as “I am going to heal”, instead use intentions such as “I am strong and healthy”.
5. Bring your awareness to your whole body and begin a rotation of consciousness. Start with the right arm/hand, then the right leg, left leg, left arm/hand, whole torso, whole head. Repeat this cycle, as your mind rests on each part that area melts into relaxation. Visualize increased blood flow, cells healing, balance being restored to the body and mind.
6. Then count down from 30 slowly visualizing yourself sinking down through layers of consciousness, the mind slowing. Release yourself into a place of peace, calm and safety.
7. Stay in this place of calm for as long as you have time to be there.
8. When you are ready (or when your alarm goes off) return to your sankalpa and repeat it 3 times. Then take a deep breath in and feel your mind and body reconnect. Energy flowing into the body as you inhale. Visualize where the body is in space. Roll to your side and open your eyes, energized, deeply relaxed, physically, mentally and emotionally balanced.

After a few times you will be able to practice this do-it-yourself yoga nidra from memory anywhere (with eyes open or closed). If you prefer to listen to an audio yoga nidra consider keeping your i-pod in your pocket and relax on a grassy space, sitting upright in a chair or resting with your head on a desk. Lets face it yogis, having a few minutes to spare is simply a decision you make. Make your first sankalpa now as you read, “I always have a few minutes to spare for deep breaths and self care!”

February 1, 2013

Loving Kindness Meditation

Loving Kindness Meditation is an absolute must-have addition to all the Valentine’s Day chatter about cards, chocolate and candlelight dinners. As yogis, this meditation practice is the essence of what we strive to achieve in our practice whether we are sweating through postures or sitting in contemplation. We learn to forgive, be kind and compassionate toward ourselves and from there experience how easy it is to then extend this practice beyond our sphere of existence into the rest of the world.

Many studies have been done on meditation and while all types of meditation are now known to have numerous types of positive impacts on your physical and psychological well-being only one kind of meditation has been shown to increase the level of happiness in your life; Loving Kindness Meditation.

The Dali Lama has written much on this topic. He admits that this is not completely a selfless practice, that we reap benefits of our own as we learn to love the world around us, but states beautifully that if we are to be selfish then we should be wisely selfish, practicing a philosophy of life that makes the world a better place as we make our own lives happier and more satisfying.

And if this were not enough of a reason to practice loving kindness meditation, studies now show that the positive impact of this kind of meditation persists in the long term.(Michael A. Cohn, University of California San Francisco & Barbara L. Fredrickson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2008). In this study, 15 months after participation in a loving-kindness meditation study, those who continued their meditation practice were found to continue to feel very positive emotions in their daily life, however, even those who had stopped meditating felt more positive than a control group that had never begun the meditation practice. What is so significant about this is that feelings of happiness from certain events such as getting a great job or buying a new car dissipate rather quickly while feelings of happiness from loving kindness meditation endure. So let Valentine’s Day be your motivation to beginning a loving kindness meditation.

Loving Kindness Meditation: How to do it

To begin meditating on loving-kindness, first prepare yourself to sit in a comfortable position, where you will not be interrupted, and allow yourself to settle into a natural breath rhythm for a few minutes. Then cultivate the emotion of love by focusing on something, or someone, that evokes a powerful uncomplicated love response. Allow this emotion to penetrate your full experience and then slowly transition from the object or person that helped you connect with this emotion to sitting with the emotion itself in its purest form.

The next step is to allow this love to expand to include everyone in your close circle of family and friends, one at a time, or as a group. You can mentally repeat, “May they be healthy, live happily, and may they love one another and themselves.” Pause here and then expand your loving circle to include, acquaintances, strangers (This would include neutral people, the person who serves your coffee or unknown faces in far away locations, for example), again repeating, “May they be healthy, live happily, and may they love one another and themselves.” Next, move on to include those who have hurt you in the past, those for whom you find it difficult to feel compassion in daily life, and again repeat the loving phrase written above. This step helps us better understand why Buddha described love as being the best armor. When we love those who are unkind to us, we remove the damaging impact that their behavior has on our lives and well-being. We cannot control how other people act. We cannot always understand what motivates them to do what they do, but we can control how we respond. If we feel loving-kindness towards those who do not treat us well, we remove their power to injure us and we stop the perpetuation of this behavior and energy.

Once you have allowed yourself to sit immersed in loving-kindness for a period of time, visualize this feeling being released from your heart center to fill your whole body. Do a body awareness sweep. Smile at your feet and send love to them. Move up your body repeating this process until you have spent some time on each part of your body. Continue to do this until you feel full of this emotion, flowing completely into love, loving yourself unconditionally. This initial step can sometimes be difficult. There can be resistance to sending love to oneself. If you experience this, you may need to spend some time identifying and releasing feelings of unworthiness, replacing them with loving acceptance. Giving the practice some time to blossom in your heart will eventually allow you to overcome any feelings of self-doubt or negativity. This may not happen immediately, but with practice, you will remove this initial hurdle and be ready to systematically develop loving-kindness towards others. This is a key part of the process. When we feel genuine love and acceptance for ourselves we open the door to an unlimited source of love and kindness that can then be effortlessly shared with the world.

And finally, for as long as you feel comfortable simply be with this love, sit with this love and breathe with this love. Repeating this practice even for just a few minutes daily will allow you to cultivate these emotions more easily and in a shorter period of time. Happy Heart Opening.