Category Archives: Learning

Brain + Body = Connected

Within us there is most definitely a brain-body connection. To quote Mary Richards, emotions – thoughts – beliefs live in our bodies, not just in our brains. Mary is one of two yoga teachers (the other being Lizzie Lasater) leading Deep Rest, a four week deep dive into how to nourish our bodies through exhaustion.

Our bodies and our brains have an intimate relationship, not just due to sharing the inner space of our outer shell, but also because our emotions and thoughts manifest within our bodies. Ever get a nervous stomach, that sensation of butterflies in your belly, before speaking in public or going on the stage or taking a test for which you might or might not have sufficiently prepared? Ever feel a loop-de-loop in your heart or belly when you see someone you love or have a crush on? Ever have your heart feel heavy or your body feel deeply tired when you are overwhelmed with sadness? Ever hear an unsettling story and have the hair on your arms stand on end? Ever find your body physically experiencing something being described to you by someone else?

This first of four exploratory weeks focused on “somatosensory processing” or sensing what is happening in the body. I have been practicing yoga for 16 years and leading yoga for almost five years, and one of my mantras is “let your breath be your guide.” By focusing on the breath it becomes possible to tune in to the sensations of the body and that, in turn, makes space to notice what we feel and how we feel.

Deploy our intention to pay attention to the barely susceptible sensations of the body and connecting them to perceptions, beliefs, judgements in the brain and welcoming them as messengers. From those messengers, we can learn.

Mary Richards channeling Richard Miller of iRest

In the practices I guide there are always multiple pauses with the cue to go inside and listen to what the body has to share, notice the sensations, and respond accordingly. As Mary noted in her brief lecture, in asana (asana being poses) we are learning to concentrate on sensory experience, and by noticing the sensory feedback we are then able to make choices based on that feedback, often different choices than might have been made if we weren’t paying attention to our sensory experience. The ultimate result is we can start to change the rote patterning of our brains that responds based on past experience and begin to rewire our brains to respond based on current experience.

Lead with the present tense of the body

Mary Richards

So how does all this fit in with the topic of the course, dealing with exhaustion. Mary and Lizzie provided one way to think of immense tiredness: it results from either hanging on or pushing away rather than accepting and acknowledging. (See the first quote.)

Using the currently free app Pocket Brain to display colorful, clear visuals, Mary discussed the various areas of the brain that are related to planning and executing movement. Most of what follows comes directly from my notes, which in most instances is verbatim.

Pre-frontal cortex Focuses on the “where” of movement, such as where to place the feet.

Pre-motor cortex Sustains our attention for movement that takes place over time, such as in building, cooking, putting something together or sustaining a headstand.

Primary motor cortex This area is a major contributor for yoga students and teachers as it informs movement choices based on auditory and visual cues.

Primary somatosensory cortex Sensations are processed from pain, touch, vibration, temperature and, interestingly, the smaller the input (such as fingers), the more space allocated in this area.

Somatosensory association cortex Information is interpreted, and objects can be recognized without seeing them, such as feeling something in the dark or behind some other object and knowing what it is. Mary likened this to connecting the dots.

Primary visual cortex This is where we process what we see. Mary suggested trying to practice with eyes closed, if that is accessible. When we practice with eyes closed, other areas of the cortex are lit up that increases our accuracy in regulating balance.

Anterior lobe of cerebellum (The cerebellum has long been my “favorite” part of the brain as it deals with novelty and movement.) Movement is refined in this area and gross (large) body movement is coordinated.

Posterior lobe of cerebellum Coordinates fine-motor skills, such as fingers.

At this point in the lecture time was fast approaching for the physical, experiential portion of the live webinar. Mary provided a brief overview of the Pons (bridge between the cerebellum and the cerebrum) and Medulla (information highway between brain and spinal cord, and regulation of respiratory and cardiovascular systems), which sit at the base of the brain above the brainstem. In particular, she mentioned sensory nerves (sight, sound, touch), which send information from the body to the brain, and motor nerves (movement instructions to contract muscles), which move information form the brain to the body. She noted that there is a lot more movement in the sensory nerves than in the motor nerves, upon which Lizzie questioned whether schools are designed adequately given what we know about movement and how children spend so much time sitting.

I picked up (or maybe was reminded of?) new vocabulary. Sensory nerves are afferent, “conducting inward or towards something” while motor nerves are efferent, “conducting outward or away from something.”

Functional areas of the brain from the app Pocket Brain

Book Review – Nonviolent Communication

From my Goodreads Review

During a recent conversation with our younger son and his girlfriend, I mentioned a workshop about nonviolent communication, and immediately Katryna responded that it reminded her of the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, which she had on a bookshelf, having read portions of the book but not a cover-to-cover read. I then blurted “that is who trained the leader of the workshop!” As a result, I borrowed the book from the library. (I hadn’t taken the workshop, just expressed interest in it.)

I wrote four blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4) about the process of NVC, and in the first mentioned my tendency to avoid self-help books, of which this appeared to be one.

However, I ultimately found it a thoughtful process and one that will lurk in the back of my mind as the approach jells. My reason for reading the book was an interest in figuring out how to have potentially unpleasant conversations with people around the myriad topics that have been pervading our lives for the past four years. In other words, how to engage with people when we do not see eye-to-eye.

I don’t have any expectation of changing mindsets, but I would like to be able to discuss rather than listen without comment when someone expresses a belief with which I do not agree. It has often felt to me like my silence was seen as complicit agreement, when actually my silence was either trying to better comprehend why someone would feel the way they expressed, or else my wanting to avoid conflict. Either way, engaging the person in dialog using the principles of NVC would have met my need to find out why they felt the way they did in a way that would likely engender positive discussion rather than conflict.

One other aspect of NVC that particularly resonated comes from the final chapter, Expressing Appreciation in Nonviolent Communication. It has always been difficult for me to accept compliments; I often want to reflect them back on the speaker. To quote Rosenberg:

NVC encourages us to receive appreciation with the same quality of empathy we express when listening to other messages. We hear what we have done that has contributed to others’ well-being; we hear their feelings and the needs that were fulfilled. We take into our hearts the joyous reality that we can each enhance the quality of others’ lives.

Nonviolent Communication: Requesting That Which Would Enrich Life

That is a lengthy title for the fourth precept of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as described by Marshall Rosenberg in the book of the same name. The first four precepts of NVC deal with self-expression, of which this is the final precept. The remaining four components (about which I am still reading) deal with how to receive other people’s self-expression.

Precept three deals with taking responsibility for our feelings, and that is what I focused on in my previous post. However, part of taking responsibility includes identifying what is needed. “By focusing attention on our own feelings and needs, we become conscious that our current feeling of hurt derives from a need…” (p. 50)

Precept four is all about how to make a request so that someone else will be able to assist with fulfilling a need. This is, perhaps, the most difficult part to the NVC process because inadvertently using inappropriate language could cause the request to backfire. For instance, a request should be asked for in a positive tone, using “clear, positive, concrete action language,” with care taken to avoid sounding like a demand is being made rather than a request. To accomplish this successfully, it is helpful for the person making the request to include not only their need but also the feelings they have that accompany the need.

One of the more useful tools of NVC was introduced in this chapter, that of the listener reflecting back to the speaker what the listener believes they heard. This is a way to make sure that the words and tone of the speaker are being correctly heard and understood. I have seen this approach used myriad times in school settings when a teacher asks a student to reflect back what has just been stated by the teacher. If the teacher is using this tool properly, it is a way to check both for understanding on the part of the student, and clarity of expression on the part of the teacher.

Rosenberg sums up NVC in nifty charts on pages 6-7 of the book. The four components inform the process, of which there are two parts. The first part is applying the components to oneself by “expressing honestly through the four components”; the second part is applying the components to others by “receiving empathically through the four components”. Ideally, this is a give-and-take conversation between two people, where each person is able to express themselves clearly and also take in what the other person has to share.

Four components of NVC:
1. observations
2. feelings
3. needs
4. requests

NVC Process
The concrete actions we observe that affect our well-being
How we feel in relation to what we observe
The needs, values, desires, etc. that create our feelings
The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives

Nonviolent Communication: Taking Responsibility for Our Feelings

My first yoga teacher once shared these words at the beginning of a practice.

Life is not the way it’s supposed to be – It’s the way it is –
The way you cope with it is what makes the difference

Deb Gorman

This third component of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), taking responsibility for your feelings, seems to me directly related to Deb’s comment.

As we go through life, each of us will hear words directed to us or about us. The words may not be what we think they should be, but nonetheless they are the words that are uttered.

How we react and respond to the words is what will make the difference. We will have control over how the words make us feel, and that, in turn, will impact how we cope and deal with the situation. This opportunity for taking responsibility for our feelings and actions is what makes all the difference.

On the face of it, this may seem logical and even manageable. However, I think that learning how to manage our emotions, how we feel, is a learned art. So how does NVC approach taking responsibility for one’s emotions.

NVC heightens our awareness that what others say and do may be the stimulus, but never the cause, of our feelings. We see that our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as from our particular needs and expectations in that moment.

Nonviolent Communication, page 49

NVC suggests there are four approaches we could take in dealing with a negative message or action: blame ourselves, blame others, sense our own feelings and needs, sense others’ feelings and needs. At various times I have certainly laid claim to each of those, sometimes – especially when I was younger – employing more than one to deal with a negative situation.

Over time (which I often say is a benefit of aging) I have learned to parse my reactions and feelings before ascribing any blame. Indeed, except in extreme circumstances, I have worked successfully at trying to understand where the other person is coming from to better grasp the meaning behind the words or actions. Ultimately, this leads to reflecting on my needs and on their needs.

I have just finished reading chapter 7, and so far each chapter concludes with one of the more interesting and useful methods I have encountered for checking on understanding. Ten brief one- or two-sentence statements are presented.

To determine if the reader and author are in agreement about the precept that was discussed, the reader is asked to choose which statements reflect the precept. The author, Marshall Rosenberg, then discusses his choices and why. He never says “right” or “wrong;” rather, he simply explains why, if the two of you chose the same you are in agreement, and if you chose a different response, why you two are not in agreement. I found this a positive approach to garner understanding and promote additional thought.

Nonviolent Communication: Identifying & Expressing Feelings

This is a chapter in semantics. But I get ahead of myself!

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is an approach developed by Marshall Rosenberg for communicating with others. I have been reading his book and thinking about how useful it might be for a wide ranging array of conversations as well as for garnering an understanding of oneself. My previous post was about the first of the four essential precepts of NVC; this post is about the second, identifying and expressing feelings.

On the one hand, especially for me, this might seem quite easy to accomplish. I can often sense my feelings and usually have little difficulty expressing them, though more intense feelings or feelings as a result of complex situations, often leave me a bit encumbered in trying to state how I feel.

Turns out, precept two is an exercise (and a chapter) in semantics. Semantics is all about the meaning of words, and what we may call “feelings” are not always – according to Rosenberg – feelings. For instance on page 43 there is a list of words, many of them verbs that end with “ed” and he ascribes these words to “how we interpret others, rather than how we feel.” The way I speak, any of these words could easily have been used to express a feeling.

Rosenberg makes several distinctions: “between feelings and thoughts; between what we feel and what we think we are; and between words that describe what we think others are doing around us, and words that describe actual feelings.”

All is not lost in the world of words! To assist with expressing feelings Rosenberg provides a two-and-a-half page list of words for describing emotions. (Refer to the image at end of this post.) As for the difference between emotions and feelings, there is a wealth of information available with a quick web search, and I leave that to you if it is of interest.

Perhaps the strongest lesson I take from this chapter is the importance of thinking before I speak in order to come up with accurate expressions of what I want to express. For me, this is not just about expressing feelings, but having conversation in general. There is such a wealth of words available to us if we give ourselves time to choose them and incorporate them into our daily language. I am not suggesting using “fancy” words when simpler ones will do; just choosing the words that most truly reflect our feelings and thoughts.

Nonviolent Communication: Observing Without Evaluating

Not too long ago I heard of a new three-session workshop, Difficult Conversations: Using Nonviolent Communication in Our Relationships, hosted by a yoga teacher whom I have studied with multiple times online. The required reading is the book What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication, authored by the teacher and her former husband. Ultimately, I decided to pass on the workshop to conserve funds that have been too readily spent during the pandemic!

In the meantime, during a conversation with our younger son and his girlfriend, I mentioned the workshop, and immediately Katryna responded that it reminded her of the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, which she had on a bookshelf, having read portions of the book but not a cover-to-cover read. I then blurted “that is who trained the leader of the workshop!”

All this by way of explaining how, thanks to our local library, I have come to read Rosenberg’s book.

In general, I tend not to have patience for reading self-help books, which is what this book initially felt like. However, I was determined to give it a try and so pushed on to chapter two and then chapter three, by which point I was hooked.

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is grounded in four essential precepts, the first being observation without evaluation. Immediately this idea hit home. As a teacher and a parent, I can recall too many instances where adults made value judgments based on what they saw rather than simply stating what they noticed. A typical example: This child is lazy because she does not turn in her homework on time. The observation would be: This child does not turn in her homework on time. The judgement is: This child is lazy.

This type of thinking is not unusual for us humans, as assumptions about the reasons behind what is seen or heard helps to give meaning to actions. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for those assumptions to be made without benefit of knowledge or understanding of the actual conditions behind the action. The result is inaccurate evaluation; evaluation that is incorrect.

Our older son and his wife are both trained Montessori Guides and as such had to studiously learn how to observe children without evaluating them. After one of her training days, Sandra returned home and described spending hours at the Central Park Zoo diligently recording regularly paced observations in a journal. Each observation was of the same animal throughout the day. Even while it was sleeping she remained attuned to how it positioned itself, whether it moved, if it made noise, and anything else it did.

This may sound tedious, and at times she said it was, but it brought home to her the importance of simply observing. The exercise helped to fine-tune her sense of looking, watching, noting, heightening her awareness that observation takes focus. And, as I learned in a nature journaling class this past fall, only by truly focusing on an object can you begin to see it. Often, this focus leads to questions, which should be duly noted for future research, yet the questions are not the actual observation; they are two distinct entities.

Liz, the nature journaling instructor, shared the Curiosity Cycle. As this is a cycle, the Further Questions would lead to additional Observations, and so on. Drawing is from my Nature Journal.

While this is not a one-to-one equivalency with NVC, the observation component meshes them together. Simply put, an observation can only ever be a neutral statement of what is seen. The way to know the meaning behind what we see is to then ask questions to find out the “why”.

…I noticed close to one hundred ducks swimming in the Mill Pond, almost all of them moving in the same direction. Gradually, a bunch would turn 180 degrees and ascend in flight. Maybe they were swimming with the tide, or preparing for flight by swimming in one direction to give themselves enough of a runway for taking off in the other direction. And that had me wondering if there is any intentional synchronicity to floating en masse? Knowing that they do not ride the currents as other water fowl do, does wind direction impact how ducks prepare for flight? What is the relationship of this large group of ducks to one another? What is the deal with duck families?

From my Fall 2019 Nature Journal

Serendipity with Carol Dweck

I have not read the New York Times online in many months, and only receive the print edition on Sundays. However, it is mid-August, I am up quite early this morning, Joe Biden has just announced Kamala Harris as his running mate, it is still dark outside, and I decided it was time to return to checking in with the world what with the election a little less than three months from now.

(Not that I have been absent from the news; my husband keeps me up-to-date and I receive daily ‘breaking news’ emails from the Times. I just haven’t felt there was anything to be learned by bombarding myself with the negativity of the news. Fixed mindset, growth mindset or sanity mindset?)

This by way of explaining how it is I serendipitously came upon an article about Carol Dweck, someone I first wrote about in December 2007. At the time, Dweck’s theory of Fixed and Growth Mindsets made a big impression on me. Someone with a fixed mindset tends to believe that they are born with whatever intelligence they have, the brain is what it is, and that’s all there is, whereas someone with a growth mindset tends to believe that their brain is malleable, meaning it can change. Which mindset would you think is more conducive to learning?

As an individual, a parent and a teacher I found much to appreciate in the theory for myself, my children and my students. At the same time, I also felt thwarted by an educational system that may have wanted teachers to inculcate their students to the theory, but was unwilling to alter the checks and balances and methods of assessment that still sent home messages about individual learning not totally in concert with the idea that failing can promote learning.

If you are willing to take risks you will sometimes fail at what you try, but the very act of failing will give you the learning experience that sets the ground upon which the next learning risk will take place. This cycle of trying and making mistakes is what learning is all about. If you have a growth mindset then the mistake-making is not the end of the world but rather a jumping off point to decipher what went wrong and how it can be changed for improvement. That process is actually what learning is all about. Someone with a fixed mindset will likely give up and, as a result, not make any progress.

For years, until I retired from teaching this past June, I would share the following simple statements that actually have much meaning behind them:

Try it and see!

You made a mistake. How fascinating! (This came from a talk I watched by Ben Zander.)

Flop with fanfare, revise with relish! (I picked this up from an education listserv.)

So here I am this morning, browsing today’s articles in the Times, when an image captioned by “Feel Like You’re Going Out of Your Mind? Consider Your Mind-Set” comes into view. Over the years criticism has been lobbed at Dweck regarding this theory of mindsets, and perhaps what was most satisfying is that she took in the criticism and then used it as a springboard to fine tune the theory and further her research.

In any case, I appreciated stumbling upon this brief article. It was both a reminder of ideas I used to think about, as well satisfying to serendipitously revisit a person who had made educational news and was still out there doing her thing.

Pranayama Intensive: Sama Vritti

For the past five weeks (concluding last weekend) I was engaged in the Pranayama Intensive online class with Judith Hanson Lasater and Lizzie Lasater. Last summer I was a student in their Experiential Anatomy online class led by the highly talented teaching team of Judith, Lizzie, and Mary Richards. When the opportunity arose to participate in another class with them, I immediately jumped in. The class was intentionally offered at this time, when so many of us are sequestered in our homes as a result of the pandemic, making it for me an auspicious time to study the breath. When breathing is slowed and exhalations become longer, the slower, deeper breath calms the nervous system. 

Judith noted that Pranayama and Breathing are NOT the same thing. Pranayama is intentional control of one’s breath. Prana refers to energy, and yama is restraint. Taken together, pranayama is “working with the physics and energetics of breathing.” Within the yogic umbrella there are several types of controlled breathing patterns; the first one we explored was Sama Vritti.

But before we could practice, we had to set up the yoga mat with props to enhance the sensation of the practice. The photo just below is the suggested setup. I have tried this and did not find it sufficiently conducive to my practice so have made subtle changes. Pranayama ProppingIn place of the stair-stepped stacked blankets I used a soft bolster with a sweatshirt rolled at the front to fill in the space between my low back and the bolster. In place of a rounded bolster under the back of my knees I used a squishy bed pillow. And I prefer a small, soft pillow under my neck and head. Delightedly, the first time I practiced was on a lovely warm, sunny Saturday afternoon when our back deck beckoned. Propped next to my head was my iPad for playing the guided pranayama audio file. my setupSama means same, which appropriately is what the spell checker usually tries to change “sama” to each time the word is typed. Vritti refers to busyness and activity. Sama Vritti Pranayama is a balanced breath pattern, each inhale and each exhale being of equal duration, like a balanced seesaw. In this manner, the breath balances the busy mind. 

I have seen this breath referred to as Box or Square Breathing, though I prefer the Sanskrit flow of the words on my tongue, like the flow of my breath. I enjoyed 22 luscious minutes listening to Judith guide me in to the setup and practice, listening to the quiet as I breathed, listening to the silence in my mind, returning at the sound of the chimes and listening to Judith guide me out of the practice. 

I would like to write that my practice has been in earnest, taking the time every day to practice, be it five minutes or twenty. Alas, that has not been the case. Twice. That’s the total number of times I have practiced. Partially this is because I lead yoga practices online three times a week, and partially because I still have a day job. However, the day job concludes next week and it marks not only the end of a school year but my retirement from the world of school teaching and transitioning more fully to the world of yoga teaching, something for which I have been preparing for the past four years!

The Gene – An Intimate History (1/2)

In January I finished reading and wrote about The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I was bemused that the history of cancer could be so captivating, all due to Mukherjee’s story telling prowess and facility with language. I immediately wanted to read more by him, and last night completed The Gene – An Intimate History.

Reading this book was no small feat! Night reading was difficult as my mind tended to wander or my eyes would droop into tiredness. I had no choice but to make this purely a the genedaytime read, meaning it took awhile to make my way through the 495 pages of text. Mukherjee’s writing sparked many questions and points of interest, as the sticky tabs attest. At one point I grabbed the nearest piece of paper, a page from the Sunday Times with sufficient white space for me to jot down my thoughts after reading pages 274-275, which is one of several times that eugenics and newgenics are discussed.

My response whilst reading those pages: If we are all alike we lose the beauty of our unique human differences because often a disease in one area yields a strength in another. That variety of strengths is what creates the range of thoughts, actions, and ideas without which we become more mono-thinking, mono-acting; we give up potential creative approaches and solutions to obstacles that life presents. “Uber-normalcy” yields inability to sustain life when, as will happen, an abnormality occurs.

Turns out, Mukherjee feels similarly. As he went on to state on the next page, “What if ‘disease-causing’ gene variants were also genius enabling?” To a certain degree, this theme percolates throughout the book as scientists uncover the foundations of genes, heredity, DNA and their inner related worlds, and discover (an ongoing process) ways of meddling in that soup. To be sure, sometimes the meddling is phenomenally beneficial, such as highly targeted approaches to cancer care. But the ability to meddle with our humanity opens up numerous safety, philosophical and ethical questions to which there are no easy or quick answers. Taken as a whole, this is a book about science, philosophy, ethics, social science, history, medicine, disease, and people.

I have gotten ahead of myself! Let’s back up to page 61, where I chuckled at chicken…was merely an egg’s way of making a better egg. This was the conclusion of Hugo de Vries, a Dutch botanist turned geneticist. de Vries built upon the work of Mendel and is credited with using the word mutants (change) to describe variations in plant life. From there he postulated that “these mutants had to be the missing pieces in Darwin’s puzzle.” And from there it became apparent that “natural selection was not operating on organisms but on their units of heredity.” Hence the italicized quote at the start of this paragraph.

Parts of this book were like biology and vocabulary lessons. (I was once exposed to some of this in high school.) The interplay of natural selection and evolution as they relate to genetics results in the words genotype, “an organism’s composition…[referring] to one gene, a configuration of genes, or even an entire genome” and phenotype, “an organism’s physical or biological attributes and characteristics–the color of an eye, the shape of a wing, or resistance to hot or cold temperatures.”

Along the lines of more basic biology and chemistry, how often do any of us stop to remember that sugars provide energy, fats store the energy, and proteins enable the chemical reactions that manage the process.

With the contemplation of the interplay of nature (genes) and nurture (environment), this led to some of the early stepping stones delineated by Mukherjee (p 107).

  • a genotype determines a phenotype
  • genotype + environment = phenotype
  • genotype + environment + triggers chance = phenotype

Slight digression – as a yoga teacher who has been known to say “let your breath be your guide” and “move with your breath,” I enjoyed the visual that came from an early chapter about the “gene molecule.” Mukherjee writes “Cells depend on chemical reactions to live: during respiration, for instance, sugar combines chemically with oxygen to make carbon dioxide and energy. None of these reactions occurs spontaneously (if they did, our bodies would be constantly ablaze with the smell of flambé sugar).” 

As the story of the gene unfolds, Mukherjee paints a picture that perfectly clarified for me the process of trying to understand DNA. He explains that

Chemists generally piece together the structure of a molecule by breaking the molecule down into smaller and smaller parts, like puzzle pieces, and then assembling the structure from the constituents. But DNA, broken into pieces, degenerates into a garble of four bases–A, D, G, and T. You cannot read a book by dissolving all of its words into alphabets. With DNA, as with words, the sequence carries the meaning. Dissolve DNA into its constituent bases, and it turns into a primordial four-letter alphabet soup. (p 216)

This post covered a little less than half of the sticky tabs stuck throughout the book as I marked pages to return for further thought. As most of the remaining tabs deal with a particular interest of mine, I will save them for a second post.

Yoga Nidra

WORKSHOP OVERVIEW
This past weekend I was at a 3-hour workshop hosted by the Yoga Teachers Association (YTA) of the Hudson Valley. The workshop, Yoga Nidra & Restorative Yoga, was led by Mona Anand, someone with whom I was already familiar having been introduced to her by a yoga colleague who extolled Mona’s training and online Yoga Nidras. I was eager to learn more and purchased Yoga Nidra to Lift Your Spirits on iTunes; it did not disappoint!

As with her iTunes album, the in-person experience did not disappoint either. During the  first 15 or 20 minutes Mona shared a bit about her background and provided an overview of what the remainder of the workshop would entail. From there she guided us through Restorative yoga followed by a 35-45 minute Yoga Nidra. The final 30 minutes consisted of elaboration and discussion based on a summary handout she provided. For more about Yoga Nidra in her own words, read Mona’s Introduction to Yoga Nidra. Be sure to scroll the page because the section about the Benefits of Yoga Nidra comes after the email slot for subscribing.

WHAT IS YOGA NIDRA?
The quick answer is that it is an experience somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, and you are led into that place by someone who continually speaks as they guide your attention (not your movement) to various parts of the body. This is different from Savasana, which is the final resting pose after any yoga practice and is a quiet practice. At the end of the practice Mona added that Yoga Nidra is designed to release thoughts and feelings, but not to analyze those thoughts or feelings.

THE HANDOUT
Mona’s approach to Yoga Nidra consists of nine steps and was developed by her and Alan Finger. The Yoga Nidra that I have experienced in the past has usually consisted only of what is Step 4 in this approach. The steps below, with some commentary by me, are from the handout shared at the conclusion of the workshop, copyrighted by Mona Anand and Alan Finger, 2008-2018.

1. Ekagrata – planting an image on the screen of the mind
Begin lying on the back with any support necessary to provide warmth and comfort. In this step you are guided to check in with your inner state as you draw your senses inward. Mona used the imagery of visualizing a flame at the third eye, that space between the brows.

2. Asana with nyasa – pre-yoga nidra asanas
The physical practice of yoga consists of poses (also called asanas). In looking up the meaning of “nyasa” I learned it is a series of touches on specific locations on the body. In the case of Yoga Nidra, these are not physical touches but visualized touches (more on this in Step 4.) As Mona guided us through asana she moved the flame down the body through the chakras. Typically chakras move from the bottom to the top, but she intentionally guided top-down to help draw us inward. She especially wanted us to focus on places where the body holds tension at the back of the neck and in the hips.

3. Pratyahara (antar mouna) – letting the mind move from sound to sound
Pratyahara refers to the withdrawal of the senses. During this phase Mona first guided us to listen to sounds around the room as we become aware of “antar mouna,” the practice of becoming aware of external sensory perceptions. From there she led us to draw our senses inward, pratyahara.

4. Rotation of Awareness – moving the mind through the body
This is the portion of Yoga Nidra with which I was familiar, having been led through it multiple times over the years. The guided travel through the body is intentional in its sequencing. The rotation is designed to clear the conscious mind, relax the physical body and increase body awareness, neurologically creating a circuit of energy in the brain, thus letting you go to the hypnogogic state. This is the state immediately before falling asleep. I have usually experienced this as a slow flow through the body where my attention was guided first fully to one side of the body, starting with a pinky finger and wending its way to the same side little toe, and then traveling the same route on the other side, leading to deep relaxation. When Mona guided this she “pinged” the body parts, thus pinging the brain, and had us travel from the feet upwards.

5. Nirodha – counting the breath backward
Starting with the number 11, count each breath going backwards. Since self-counting can tend to put people to sleep, Mona’s voice was intentional here in order to help people remain awake. Nirodha deprograms the mind and brings it to the present moment.

6. Pairing of Opposites – creating opposite sensations and emotions
The purpose of this step is to clear the subconscious mind and release emotional tension. The opposites are meant to induce a feeling of heaviness as muscles relax. Mona noted that the pairing of opposites is useful for people with PTSD to help them experience the range of what they miss when blocking out sensations. As she explained, you “cannot feel one side of the coin unless you can feel the other.” Examples of opposites include:

  • hot-cold
  • heavy-light
  • pleasure-pain

7. Rapid Visualization – fast moving images
In this step the unconscious mind is cleared, relaxing it so it can purge itself of painful memories. It is meant to be quick and consists of reference points to release what is in the subconscious so that it can “take out the garbage.” I enjoyed listening to the items but did not retain them and in the discussion that followed was tickled to hear one person list almost all of the items:

  • best childhood friend
  • Tinkerbell
  • hot cocoa
  • rainbow
  • warm sand
  • roses
  • white petals
  • smell of lavender
  • mother’s eyes
  • bonfire

8. Long Visualization – guided imagery
I have been guided through visualizations before and every time, including this one, I get lost somewhere along the line. It’s not that I do not know where I am, rather I simply tune out any speaking and eventually come back “online” usually towards the latter part of the visualization. This portion of Yoga Nidra frees one from being trapped by the boundaries of time and form, which is known as “maya.” It is a safe bubble.

9. Sankalpa – order from the conscious mind to the subconscious 
This is done seated and invites each person to set an intention before leaving. It is more productive to give instructions to the subconscious mind. Mona notes that in more advanced Yoga Nidra a seated meditation may be added between Steps 8 and 9.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
Mona shared a way to think about how our brains deal with negatives and positives. She said negative emotions stick like velcro, whereas positive emotions slide off like teflon because we are wired to remember the one negative event (or comment) rather than the twenty positives. This comes from very early human history, when remembering the location of the one hungry lion (who might want to eat you) was more important than thinking about the twenty smaller animals you killed that day for food.

If you ponder those thoughts, you may perhaps see a similar pattern in yourself, noticing how the single slight can overtake the many positive interactions in a given day. This is likely why practices such as keeping a gratitude journal or doing the “Three Good Things” practice can be so beneficial.

That’s Mona in the left photo, leading the discussion after the experience. The workshop was packed and the room was quite chilly. We had been forewarned about the temperature so I dressed in layers (yellow arrows in second photo are pointing to me). Nothing like a mirrored wall to make the room seem larger and some of us seem to be in two places at once. 😉 I had the delight of sitting next to Paula, one of my three 200-hour Yoga Teacher Trainers (she is in the red top to my left.) Photos are from Mona’s Instagram feed.