Tag Archives: reflection

Yoga Nidra

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.

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.

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.

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.


Yoga Studio revisited

This time Studio begins with an upper case “S” as we have been practicing in this space for close to four years and our stash of supplies has begun to mimic a small yoga studio. I first shared a post about the space here (with a lower case “s”) in 2017 and figured it was time for an update. The closet holds all the props, with the mats on the shelf being loaners. This is what a typical setup looks like.

The community where I lead yoga has a Clubhouse that was renovated beginning in the Fall of 2015 and completed by early Spring 2016, just in time for the summer season. The Clubhouse and surrounding grounds sit at the end of a road; any further and they would be in Long Island Sound! This, in large part, is why the Clubhouse was renovated, having sustained damage over the years due to hurricanes and super high tides. The renovated building included raising the ground floor up a level, with storage underneath the building. With a wall of windows on the Sound and Harbor sides, and the space where we practice now up a flight of stairs, you can imagine the views are much appreciated! (You can see a view of the entire space here.)

Since the space is a Clubhouse, as you may have noticed in the above photo there is some furniture that occupies about a third of the room. The remainder of the space is wide open and is where we set up our mats. These next few pictures are from a Monday evening restorative practice. I usually set up my mat facing the entrance to the room, and yogis set up their mats facing Long Island Sound and the larger wall of windows.


Since this was a restorative practice the overhead and wall lights eventually get turned off and we are graced with the light from the Yoga Lights sculpture created for us by my husband. The lights gently cycle through random colors and perhaps you are able to get a sense of the variety. They provide a calming light for an evening practice of restorative yoga.

Our neck of the woods has had one snow fall with enough to carpet the ground. This last photo was taken the morning after, on the grounds of the Club looking out at Long Island Sound.


Book Review – The Art of Dying Well

from my Goodreads Review of The Art of Dying Well – A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life by Katy Butler

My father died in a nursing home; my mother died in her home, having set the conditions for how she wanted die. I prefer the latter, which is why I am drawn to books about (as this author calls it) the art of dying well. It is a handy “practical guide to a good end of life.”

As I am not in this phase of life, most of the book does not currently pertain, causing me to chuckle at the start of most chapters. Katy Butler begins chapters with “you are likely to find this chapter useful if…” followed by a list of descriptors, most which pertain to someone who is edging close to or ready for death. However, precisely because I am not at these stages yet, her book is helpful in thinking about death and how it can be a better process than most of us might otherwise imagine.

Sitting in my desk drawer are several versions of forms, any of which when filled out will stipulate the types of life-saving procedures I do or do not want administered. I have at least three versions and they are currently all blank. Butler is adamant that some type of “authorized representative” form be filled out that will let someone else interact with Medicare and have access to medical records, along with a Durable Power of Attorney for Finances, a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, an Advance Directive and a Living Will. All of these forms are designed to be of guidance to anyone who will be helping you in any capacity when a time comes that you are unable to make decisions (be it temporarily or permanently) for yourself.

She further suggests Choosing Wisely to help eliminate unnecessary health screenings and Drugs.com or the Beers List from the American Geriatrics Society. The list helps check for drugs that are unhelpful or even dangerous for elders, and the Society is a useful resource tool.

In general, she recommends an HMO and Medicare Advantage, which she feels is better than a fee-for-service Medicare plan. And she absolutely states, multiple times, the importance of having a DNR and POLST or MOLST, creating multiple laminated copies and mounting one on the frig, keeping one in the car, giving copies to your doctor and those people most likely to meet you in an emergency situation or at the hospital.

POLST stands for Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment and more about this can be found at the National POLST Paradigm. MOLST stands for Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. These vary by state, so you would need to find the form for your state. Nonetheless, you can learn more about this at MOLST. Overall, Butler urges going for “comfort care.”

In the final chapter, Butler describes a program that I found phenomenal in its care of and approach to aiding not just an individual who is in the final stages of life, whether the individual has months ahead of them or just days, but also aiding their family. The program began in Syracuse, New York, although there are a few versions elsewhere around the country. The Syracuse program is PACEStay in the home you love. Get the care you need. This is based somewhat on the Eden Alternative, an organization I have read about in the past, it is dedicated to creating quality of life for Elders and their care partners, wherever they may live.

If you are of a certain age or have ideas or concerns about the dying stage of life, I heartily suggest reading this book. It might help dispel fears, and it certainly will provide what, for some people, will feel like a more positive alternative for facing and dealing with death, be it your own or someone you know. Further, Katy Butler provides multiple bits of information (many linked to in this review) that, unless it conflicts with your religious views, can be of tremendous assistance to you and those who might care for you if need be.

I think it an important enough book to have my husband and children read it at some point in the future and at the very least it is a prod for me to revisit topics with them that I have discussed in the past. (And sooner rather than later I should fill out one of the forms sitting in my desk drawer!) (And by the way, those forms can be revised as minds and circumstances change.)

Book Review – Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

from my Goodreads Review:

In the recent yoga therapy training I took with Jillian Pransky she referenced this book multiple times. Before sitting down to read Robert Sapolsky’s book I watched this 90 minute talk he gave at The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science at the University of Illinois in June 2017. Sapolsky is an entertaining speaker and makes his points with a wonderful blend of humor, anecdotes and science.

zebrasHis book is written in that same voice, making it immensely easy to read, absorb and digest. Sapolsky starts off by explaining what stress is and how the body responds to stress. With the physiology as a foundation, he then tackles a multitude of diseases, each receiving their own chapter. Some of these I skimmed, some I skipped and others I devoured. He concludes by culling from previous chapters some of the strategies that can be useful for managing stress, along the way reminding us that even the strategies require a balance between too much and not enough.

Science has found many connections between stress and illness, both biological and psychological, and perhaps the most daunting are the causes related to what Sapolsky calls in the apt named chapter 17: “The View from the Bottom.” The place a person has in society, the education of a person’s parents, the level of wealth or poverty, socioeconomic status…these all impact the role that stress can have on a child as the child grows and develops, and on the ensuing adult that child becomes.

There is much in this book that could be construed as daunting, yet Sapolsky presents a balance in almost all of his teaching (for that’s what this book is, a teaching.) I was intrigued by the biology of stress and now understand what is happening in my body when it produces a cold sore. It was interesting to learn why some people eat when stressed and others have a loss of appetite.

Ultimately, everything boils down to understanding our autonomic nervous system, which is composed of the sympathetic nervous system – those parts of our system over which we have little to no control – and our parasympathetic nervous system – those parts over which we do have some control. The biggie here is that the sympathetic nervous system is what activates our stress response, what is commonly referred to as fight, flight or feint, while our parasympathetic nervous system, when activated via the vagus nerve, is known for rest and digest.

For more on any of this, however, read Sapolsky’s book! Take in the early chapters to create a base line of understanding about stress and the body, then read those chapters that have a connection to you, and finish up with the final chapter.

Book Review – The Vital Psoas Muscle

from my Goodreads Review:

psoas coverI quite enjoyed reading this book but have to giggle because upon falling asleep last night I mentally began composing this review and thought the title was “The Little Psoas Book” – not because the muscle is little, but because the book is smaller-sized, short and sweet.

Staugaard-Jones has compiled a concise book that highlights the psoas muscle. I especially liked the diagrams, which made it quite easy to understand the location not only of this important muscle but of other muscles and systems, and their interrelationships and interdependencies. The book’s physical size and paper, as well as colors and font helped make it a handy, legible guide that is comfortable to consult as well as mark-up with my additional notes.

As a fairly new yoga teacher of a little over two years, I appreciated the way Staugaard-Jones organized poses and stretches (some yogic and some pilates) complete with explanations of how the movement impacts the psoas and related muscles. I am considering purchasing The Concise Book of Yoga Anatomy, by this same author, as her style of writing and book design appeals to my sense of organization. While I have multiple books on yoga anatomy, many of them either have diagrams that are overly complex or explanations that are more technical than my needs or interest warrants.

You can learn more about Jo Ann Staugaard-Jones at Move To Live.

Smiling Meditation

Awhile ago one of my yoga teachers, Jillian Pransky, shared a meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh. Jillian called it a smiling meditation, and I have since shared it with the yogis with whom I practice. This evening, while thumbing through Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Being Peace, I came upon the poem again. Here is what he has to say.

I would like to offer one short poem you can recite from time to time, while breathing and smiling:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.

“Breathing in, I calm my body.” Reciting this line is like drinking a glass of ice water – you feel the cold, the freshness, permeate your body. When I breath in and recite this line, I actually feel the breathing calming my body, calming my mind.

“Breathing out, I smile.” You know the effect of a smile. A smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face, and relax your nervous system. A smile makes you master of yourself. That is why Buddhas and bodhisattvas are always smiling. When you smile, you realize the wonder of the smile.

“Dwelling in the present moment.” While I sit here, I don’t think of somewhere else, of the future or the past. I sit here, and I know where I am. This is very important. We tend to be alive in the future, not now. We say, “Wait until I finish school and get my Ph.D. degree, and then I will be really alive. When we have it, and it wasn’t easy to get, we say to ourselves, “I have to wait until I have a job in order to be really alive.” And then after the job, a car. After the car, a house. We are not capable of being alive in the present moment. We tend to postpone being alive to the future, the distant future, we don’t know when. Now is not the moment to be alive. We may never be alive at all in our entire life. Therefore, the technique, if we have to speak of a technique, is to be in the present moment, to be aware that we are here and now, and the only moment to be alive is the present moment.

“I know this is a wonderful moment.” This is the only moment that is real. To be here and now, and enjoy the present moment is our most important task. “Calming, Smiling. Present moment, Wonderful moment.” I hope you will try it.

Yamas: Brahmacharya ~ Nonexcess

Of the five yamas, this is perhaps a bit more difficult to relate to because it has a very definite spiritual association. According to Deborah Adele, Brahmacharya translates to “walking with God.” While Adele and Donna Farhi each make mention of the relationship to celibacy, Farhi spends the bulk of her writing discussing Brahmacharya as it manifests as sexual energy. Both authors note that there are ways to “enter each day and each action with a sense of holiness rather than indulgence, so that our days may be lived in the wonder of sacredness rather than the misery of excess.”

The process of living with nonexcess, of taking what is needed and no more, reminds me of the Japanese saying Hara hachi bu. The idea is to take only what you need to fill your belly until 80% full, leaving the other 20% of your belly unstuffed. (You can read more about this saying here in a post by Garr Reynolds.) This approach can be applied to all of living, not just eating.

In researching Brahmacharya I stumbled upon this post at The Yoga Lunchbox. Kara-Leah Grant’s approach humanizes this yama as she makes it accessible and something that can be understood. The essence, as described by Grant, is that as we abstain from overindulgence then we will have more energy to apply to our spiritual journey, whatever that may be, as well as any other goal we set for ourselves.

The more I read about Brahmacharya, the more it called to mind a favorite Danna Faulds poem.

Walk Slowly

It only takes a reminder to breath,
a moment to be still, and just like that,
something in me settles, softens, makes
space for imperfection. The harsh voice
of judgement drops to a whisper and I
remember again that life isn’t a relay
race; that we will all cross the finish
line; that waking up to life is what we
were born for. As many times as I
forget, catch myself charging forward
without even knowing where I’m going,
that many times I can make the choice 
to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk
slowly into the mystery.

My prior posts on the Yamas:
Asteya ~ Non Stealing
Ahimsa – Nonviolence
Satya – Truthfulness




Yamas: Asteya ~ Not (Non) Stealing

Asteya is the third of the five yamas, the yamas being a personal code of conduct for living peacefully and in harmony with all living beings, including the Earth. Donna Fahri writes

The practice of asteya asks us to be careful not to take anything that has not been freely given.

She goes on to give seemingly mundane examples, yet they are powerful because they are so commonplace. For instance, when calling someone on the phone, asking first if this is a convenient time to talk rather than immediately jumping in and presuming the recipient is ready for the overflow of information. The jumping in and taking of someone’s time is equivalent to stealing their time; better to first ask if the time can be given rather than to immediately snatch it.

Both Farhi and Deborah Adele bring up personal satisfaction and the commonplace action to reference others in determining one’s own satisfaction. This comparing oneself to others often leaves an individual feeling something is lacking, in a sense they have stolen from themselves by not looking inwards. Emma at Ekhart Yoga sums this up succinctly (and you can read more of her explanation here)

The need to steal essentially arises because of a lack of faith in ourselves to be able to create what we need by ourselves

From that vantage point of comparison, it becomes easy to insert oneself into conversations with others so that the conversation becomes about you rather than the person you are speaking with, in a sense stealing from others. To quote Adele quoting Yogi Bhajan:

Be a forklift; you should always be lifting people up.

According to Deborah Adele, “we steal from others, we steal from the earth, we steal from the future, and we steal from ourselves.” She suggests a practice of reciprocity in order to give back what has been taken.

Both Farhi and Adele believe that Asteya necessitates looking inwards to see who you are and who you want to be, and then turning your attentions and actions to the deeds needed to achieve your goals. As Donna Fahri states

Not stealing demands that we cultivate a certain level of self-sufficiency so that we do not demand more of others, our family, or our community than we need. It means that we don’t take any more than we need, because that would be taking from others.

One way to help cultivate that sense of taking only what is needed is to build a practice of gratitude. Acknowledging all that one has to be grateful for is a way to foster a “sense of abundance.” Again to quote Deborah Adele, this time quoting Albert Einsten:

A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other people, living and dead, And that I must exert myself in order to give in the full measure I have received and am still receiving.

My prior posts on the Yamas:
Ahimsa – Nonviolence
Satya – Truthfulness

Yamas: Satya ~ Truthfulness

Satya is the second of the five yamas, the yamas being the first of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. Two years ago, for our 200 hour yoga teacher training graduation, each of us led a portion of a one hour practice designed so that any of our guests would be able to participate. I guided the final part of practice consisting of Savasana as well as an explanation of Satya, and a summing up of our group-led practice.

As Donna Fahri has written, Satya is a commitment to Truth, truth with others and truth with oneself. I was particularly taken by her statement to “practice right speech…when we say something we are sure of its truth.” This asks for a commitment to only utter words that you have validated as true; leave out the gossip, innuendo, “office cooler” talk, assumptions and the like.

The practice resonates deeply with me, because I know how easy it is to get sucked into the non-right speech of others. This is also a reminder that to try to construe someone else’s meaning based solely on their actions is likely to yield incorrect non-right thoughts or speech; it is much more effective and accurate to actually speak with that someone else and ask them for clarification.

Deborah Adele suggests that another aspect of Satya is to be your “real” self rather than being “nice”. It is one thing to be polite, another to be nice, particularly if being nice translates to saying words that are inaccurate in an attempt to not say anything that may be construed as uncomplimentary. For many of us who grew up feeling we needed to be nice to everyone, even if it meant telling a fib, it can be a refreshingly newly learned behavior how to speak politely and still tell the truth. One of my favorite quotes from my 200 hour teacher training is from Paula, who said

A good no is better than a bad yes.

Deborah goes on to rephrase the psychologist/psychiatrist Carl Jung in her discussion of how each person’s truth will change over time: What is true at one point for us will, at some point no longer serve us and therefore eventually becomes a lie. After all, we change and grow and develop over time, and as we change our needs and what is “true” for us also changes. We need to change our truth to accommodate our development as humans.

Ekhart Yoga, an online repository of yoga practices, meditations, talks, and readings that I periodically pop over and check out, has a series of articles about the yamas, including this article on Satya. Emma’s post offers another way to look at the meaning of Satya, and provides a way to cultivate a personal practice of Satya in daily life and on the mat.

My prior posts on the Yamas:
Ahimsa – Nonviolence


Since April 2007…

This year has me doing a bit of writing at various blogs (Goodreads book list/reviews, Yoga ~ Dance ~ Music ~ Movement and here). Occasionally something I write refers back to a prior post, and in reading the prior post I discover a typo or a link that is no longer active. So, I’ve made it my goal that periodically, for as long as it takes, I will check one month of Neurons Firing posts at a time, starting at the beginning, and fix typos and links that no longer work.

That’s when I realized it’s been 14 years since my first Neurons Firing post! I have learned a tremendous amount about the brain, seen my interests spread to other areas, taken time off, returned with interest, taken time off again, returned with a bit more zest, till finally it is April 2018.

I have seen how my interest in the brain and my love of practicing (and now teaching) yoga are intricately entwined. During my years of volunteering with people living in both skilled nursing and assisted living I have seen how music, song, and movement temporarily stimulated movement, memories, and liberated their brains.

I have seen how my blogs provide a creative outlet, and are a wonderful resource for when I want to look up something for clarification or as a reminder of an idea or information that is not currently on the tip of my tongue.

Happy 14th birthday Neurons Firing! And, since it is by far my oldest blog, happy blogging birthday to me!