I consider myself the world’s worst meditator. Quiet my mind? Sure. No fidgeting? Right. Lie still but don’t fall asleep? Not happening. But look – a girl’s got to chill out sometimes. So when I received an invite from my yoga studio (I favor vinyasa flow – less chanting, more lunging) to a workshop on how to meditate using the practice of yoga nidra, aka “yogi sleep,” I had to sign up.
The class was planned for a Saturday afternoon in a quiet studio a few stories above Fifth Avenue near Union Square. In the warm, sunlit room I came upon a semicircle of folded blankets – one for each student. Blankets? A warm room on a crisp fall day? I congratulated myself on having the foresight to drink an extra cup of coffee that morning. And there, sitting with her legs crossed at the front of the room, was our instructor, a Bangalore-born pro, she who would lead us to eternal calmness and serenity. And so we began.
As it turns out, yoga nidra isn’t just all about just kicking back and relaxing. There is a process. Rules. To-dos. Rule no. 1: No sleeping. Rule no. 2: No fidgeting. In addition to the rules, there are multiple steps that bring you through sankalpa (a Sanskrit word meaning “will, purpose, or determination,” i.e., your intention), relaxation, visualization, and breathing over the course of forty minutes. But how does one not fall asleep while lying on a cozy blanket, in a room that’s set to the perfect temperature? I raised my hand and asked my new guru. She suggested we focus and remain aware, not of external distractions like street traffic or a ringing phone, but on her voice, on counting our breaths, on our sankalpa – focus. I confess: I dozed. More than once. But I did find that focusing helped. As I felt myself beginning to nod off, I pulled myself back to consciousness by really listening to what she was saying. Sure, I had to do this multiple times, but it’s a start.
For this, my first attempt at meditation, I’ve granted myself a mulligan. Meditation is harder than I expected. Falling asleep was a bit discouraging, so I took it as a lesson that I need to ease more slowly into the practice. With that in mind, I’m already well into Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape, which is a collection of talks the Buddhist nun gave at the Gampo Abbey, a Nova Scotia monastery that was founded by Buddhist meditation master – and Chodron’s teacher – Chogyam Trungpa. Chodron talks about focusing on the “out breath” as a meditation tactic. I’ve tried this and so far it helps me quickly focus on the fly – without putting me to sleep. Baby steps. Next up is the Dalai Lama’s A Profound Mind. It’s not as meditation focused, but does address transformation and perception – and isn’t that what meditation is all about anyway?
The benefits of meditation are numerous. There’s relaxation, of course, but studies have also shown that meditation can reduce the risk of heart disease, enhance immunity, and can even lead to lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It’s not, however, all peaches and roses. Roger Thomson, Ph.D., points out in Psychology Today that meditation “puts us in the middle of ourselves, which is not always where we want to be … Often, we want to fix things rather than accept them the way they are.” Isn’t that the truth! And yet…
I’ve run marathons. I’ve jumped out of a plane at fifteen thousand feet. I recently learned how to shoot a rifle. Meditation can be as challenging – and at times as frightening – as any of these things. But I’m determined to master it and I realize now that’s not possible to do over the course of only one sunny afternoon – and so the adventure continues.