It was around 7 years ago now that I was first diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. And it was also about then that I took a course in Yoga Nidra (a guided meditation practice usually translated as “yogic sleep") with Dr. Richard Miller. I didn’t realize when I signed up that it was exactly what I needed to help me come to terms with this new version of me… I just knew I needed some Continuing Education to maintain my Yoga Teacher Credentials, and I’d always enjoyed Nidra when I’d have a teacher offer that for a savasana in a class I was taking.
One of the biggest things that I learned specifically from Dr. Miller and his style of Yoga Nidra called irest is the idea of welcoming opposites. The idea that we can be going through something traumatic, but also connect to peace. Or experience anger and joy at the same time. Or in my case, that I am still healthy and whole even though I have a condition I’ll have to monitor for the rest of my life.
When we are confronted with challenges, go through trauma or experience “negative” emotions, we often either try to push them aside as quickly as possible, or get so caught up in them that we become completely stuck. Instead, if we can allow ourselves to welcome our feelings and emotions as messengers that supply information, we can receive that information and respond appropriately. If we can allow ourselves to become a witness to our emotions without judging them, we can recognize that we are more than our emotions.
Simple, right? Of course not. We have all experienced that this is not an easy thing to do - to welcome and witness emotions, thoughts and beliefs simply as messengers without judgement. But just like strength is a skill anyone can practice and improve on, so is welcoming, witnessing and being with what is.
In the fitness world, the concept of reciprocal inhibition is very well known and utilized to our advantage all the time. Reciprocal inhibition means that when we contract one group of muscles, the opposing muscle group is inhibited from also contracting. Chances are pretty good you’ve experienced this, especially if you train at Breakthrough, even if you didn’t know you were doing it. For example, when we ask you to squeeze your glutes during a hip flexor stretch, it’s because the glutes are hip extensors. If we activate the hip extensors deliberately, we can send a stronger signal to the hip flexors to relax.
Reciprocal inhibition is also a concept in the psychology world, developed by psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe (which he later developed into “systematic desensitization”). The basic idea is that anxiety can be inhibited by pairing it with feelings, situations or environments that are incompatible with (opposite to) anxiety. For example, if the body and mind can be guided into a relaxed state, we can allow ourselves to experience “negative” emotions in a way that we can possibly welcome them more easily without reacting to them.
Yoga Nidra is a meditation process where the body and mind are purposefully guided into a state of deep rest. In this deeply relaxed state, we can practice allowing emotions/thoughts/feelings to spontaneously arise. We can practice locating an opposite emotion/thought/belief. Then we practice transitioning back and forth between the two, and then allowing both to be present together. The idea being that if we practice this in a relaxed state, when we go about our daily lives, we can do a better job of allowing emotions to come and go without pushing them away or clinging to them. We can transition more quickly and easily between different states, and allow ourselves to fully experience many different things all at once without becoming attached to any one thing.
I should mention that Yoga Nidra is not meant to be a replacement for therapy, and that teachers of meditation like myself are in no way meant to be replacements for therapists. So if you are experiencing mental or emotional distress that feels totally overwhelming and out of control, please reach out to a licensed therapist. I also want to mention that not all Nidra practices include this working with emotions and their opposites. I offer short Nidra meditations at the end of yoga classes very often that don’t include this. Very often Yoga Nidra can be used to help you fall asleep.
So, why am I writing about using Yoga Nidra to welcome emotions, thoughts and beliefs right now? Because we’ve all gone through and are still going through a traumatic event in dealing with the pandemic. Our lives are changed and are going to continue changing. As we start to look toward this next phase of life, with things starting to open up again, and our working and home environments likely changing again, we will feel a complex mix of emotions. Our beliefs will and should be questioned. If we can do this in a compassionate way for ourselves, our care for ourselves and interactions with others will be dramatically improved. If we can witness and welcome, we can recognize we are more than our emotions, and we can take action and make choices that empower us.
Strength & Love,
PS - If you want to experience a Nidra practice that involves welcoming emotions and their opposites, I’d love for you to check out this practice here!