When I was 21 I had a nervous breakdown. Well, that’s what the doctor said. A toxic combination of untreated depression, exam worries and self-medication with a variety of substances tipped me into a year of hell.
Nobody knew what to do with me. The doctors prescribed drugs, my mother ran out of ideas (for the first time in her life) and most of my friends drifted away when they realized things weren’t going back to normal any time soon.
One friend, however, had an idea that turned out to be a life-changer. She suggested I try yoga and took me to a class in a nearby community hall (this was back in the day before there was a shiny yoga studio on every corner).
I hated it. I hated the teacher with his hippy beard and chunky-knit cardigan. I hated all the grannies in their leotards. I hated the cold room and the smelly blankets. But I experienced something incredible - twenty minutes of (near) normality.
Twenty minutes without panic, anxiety and fear. Twenty minutes of not wondering if life was worth living any more. That, my friends, was a miracle.
It wasn’t the poses or sequences that relieved me of my terror (actually, I sat most of those out). It was a specific relaxation technique that brought me the peace I hadn’t felt for months. I’d experienced the magic of Yoga Nidra.
Yoga Nidra (or yoga ‘sleep’) is a carefully sequenced practice that includes setting an intention, progressively relaxing every part of the body and following a guided visualization. The body ‘sleeps’ but the mind stays alert, following the teacher’s instructions. This powerful practice has enjoyed a major revival in recent years as the community becomes increasingly aware of the mental and physical damage caused by excessive stress and anxiety.
In the USA, traditional Yoga Nidra has been re-imagined as iRest, a deeply restorative body-mind practice that has proven highly successful with returning war veterans as well as the broader community.
I’ve never been in a war zone, but motherhood presented me with challenges that I found utterly overwhelming. A difficult birth was followed by post natal depression and by the time my baby was 6 weeks old, I couldn’t cope with even the simplest daily tasks. To my eternal gratitude, my partner Kevin, a yoga teacher and all-round sensitive human being, stepped in and prescribed twice-daily Yoga Nidra.
Despite being a short practice (around 20-30mins), Yoga Nidra facilitates the same amount of rest and rejuvenation that would normally be achieved in 2-3 hours sleep. For a new mother, that’s a life-saver.
As a yoga therapist, I work with many students living with chronic illness. Often, Yoga Nidra is the single most effective tool for helping students find relief from the mental and physical challenges they face each day. When the body is too sick for asana and the mind is too exhausted or agitated for meditation, the deep, unconditional relaxation of Yoga Nidra provides vital respite.
While the postures, breathing and meditation techniques of yoga are important, they can sometimes introduce unhelpful expectations. The desire to execute the perfect asana or master a particular technique can see students transferring their patterns of perfectionism or self-criticism on to their yoga practice. Yoga Nidra offers an alternative – there is no goal to reach, no benchmark to meet and no comparisons to be made. It gives students permission to let go of expectations and become absorbed in profound relaxation.
Yoga Nidra saved my life twice – once as an unhappy undergraduate and once as a struggling new mother. Over the years it has provide extraordinary levels of comfort and support for me and many of my students. Next time you feel exhausted or overwhelmed, don’t reach for a glass of wine, the remote control or even your favourite asana routine. Stop, lie down and immerse yourself in the transformational power of Yoga Nidra.
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