A personal interest in the science behind yoga nidra

My interest in yoga nidra expanded in parallel with many others including neuroscience, eastern philosophy, religious studies, and psychology. Teasing out the aspects of each of these broad disciplines that are relevant to me personally is an ongoing occupation. One common thread that has emerged for me is a desire to understand the process of self-actualization.

As it’s been described to me by a western scientist who is also a student of nondual Kashmir Shaivism, we arrive in our bodies with the ability to sense, thus beginning the rapid ongoing process of “separating to understand.” Taking vision as an example, we learn to perceive color, form, and depth through interacting bodily with our environment. As we realize what’s green and what’s red simultaneously with where “I” end and the world begins, we rapidly arrive at our sense of self as a separate being. Bolstered by the ability to label things as language arises, we continue to categorize the world in smaller and smaller chunks. “I like beans. I don’t like tomatoes. Lightwaves are made of photons. Living organisms are made of cells.” As our experiences blend with our unique predispositions, we develop elaborate ideas of self, what James Austin calls the I-Me-Mine complex.

This process of forming is common to us all though uniquely personal, a fact that has sparked my curiosity in personality typing systems, both mainstream (Myers Briggs) and esoteric (enneagrams, astrology, ayurveda). Abraham Maslow, Carl Jung, and Viktor Frankl, among others have provided us with ways of understanding how, once our basic needs of food, shelter, community, and self-esteem are met and we might move on to a process in which we put it all back together again. This is the process of reintegration, of self realization, individuation, and man’s search for meaning. Is this different from enlightenment? awakening?

The eastern nondual traditions of taoism, Zen, Advaita, and Kashmir Shaivism are, at their core, schools of reintegration, or in other words, waking up to true nature. Collectively, they present a rich and varied selection of techniques that include silent meditation, breathing techniques, chanting, walking, movement, dish-washing, and wood-chopping. Though varied, they are all present-moment attentional exercises. There is an emphasis on carrying this present-moment attention into an engaged life of interaction, not one of monastic seclusion. The understanding of their respective cosmologies is only of interest so far as it supports my own process of reintegration. I can embrace a mythology only in so far as it resonates with my scientific understanding of the world. For instance, the cosmology of Kashmir Shaivism is one in which the world came into being as an act of play by pure consciousness. Just for fun, consciousness coalesced into dense blobs of manifestation and found sensation! Sensation provided a mechanism for experiencing other blobs in the glorious fabric of consciousness. I have much to learn yet in the realm of science, but what I know so far presents no contradictions to this view of the material/non-material universe being condensed/rarefied areas of one primary stuff, however elusive that stuff might be to get a handle on.

Wrestling with my own process of individuation I have repeatedly come face to face with some recurrent themes that I’d like to delve deeper into. Each, in turn, has led me back into the present-moment attentional practices. They are as follows:

free will
Do we have it? Clearly, if there was a yes or no answer we’d have arrived at it by now and for this reason, I am not the least bit interested in having abstract philosophical or theological discussions about free will, nor am I concerned with questions of responsibility and morality. Whether one has the ability to do otherwise in any given situation is confounded by conflicting desires, external pressures, beliefs, conditioned responses and who knows what else. The more aware we are of the forces acting in any given moment, the more clarity we can have regarding the freedom/limits of our actions. My own experience with attentional practices is that they illuminate what’s present. Sometimes they illuminate preconceptions, desires, and/or agendas I didn’t know I had. My actions may precede in the same way but the illumination allows for a re-crafting of my personal narrative that incorporates far more humility.
My fascination with free will has led me to an area of neuroscientific study in which the origins of thought and volition are examined in relation higher processes of conscious cognition, one I hope to explore.

Though we are learning machines, a distinguishing feature of those who have reached the full expressions of their individuality is their ability to unlearn. In countless domains that include music, writing, fine art, psychotherapy, design, engineering, and cooking, to name a few, are examples of people who have spent substantial time learning their craft only to realize that they had to abandon what they had so painstakingly learned. This experience is so widely recounted that I believe that this unlearning process is necessary in the process of individuation. This is not just a conceptual process, it is physical, and it can occur either spontaneously or as the result of hard work.

Unlearning leads us back to an ability to respond authentically to the present situation, not using yesterday’s experience or data though, clearly, that earlier process of learning was an essential antecedent. Given my focus, it’s not surprising that I link this back to present-moment attentional practices. Unlearning is at the heart of the practice of yoga asana and the cultivation of Zen’s beginner mind. But I am also intrigued by the ways in which those outside of contemplative traditions cultivate this beginner mind. For instance, I heard a talk given by a conductor who described his spontaneous attempts to jar his orchestra into presence, to transcend their conditioned playing, which included rehearsing in the dark, or switching everyone’s position in the room. To me, discovering pockets of transcendence in non-contemplatives gives me hope that there are many roads that lead to Rome. Teasing out what it is about the myriad of roads that make them work fascinates me. Do all dedicated intentional practices, even artistic, scientific, and academic ones, lead to self-actualization?

Related to the questions free will and unlearning is our ability to act as we chose. These questions start to get interesting when we look at the aspects of self and action that we wish to change. Personally, I wish I was more organized, that I had a specific place to put my keys so I wouldn’t be running around the house looking for them when I need to be on my way already. I wish I would put things away instead of letting them pile up until I’m walking around in a big mess of an apartment. I wish I could be patient and kind even when totally spent. My particular desires for personal change are not new. I’ve been arguing with myself over them for years now. I assume everyone has similar desires though they are often directed outwardly as attempts to change someone else’s behavior, an even more ludicrous proposition than the internal variety.

I believe that changes are possible, at least some of them, though which ones and with how much effort are unknown. The changes require unlearning. The new behavior would demonstrate free will. At the extreme, the actions to be changed are pathological as in the case of addiction or compulsive disorders, but that’s only the extreme. None of us escape this life without experiences that prod us towards unlearning. Whether we label the activity as an illness or an inconvenience, the cure is tricky. Western medicine has not come up with a single reliable “cure” for nicotine addition or alcoholism much less heroin addiction. Could this be, in part, due to the reductionist view of patients as metabolic processes? If there is an attentional, spiritual, or cognitive component that is essential for the modifying of all behaviors including addictive ones, viewing an addict as broken machine will always fall short.

While several eastern traditions provide practices that support the process of coming into full realization, becoming the best you you can be, western civilization is limited in its dissemination of tools to work with individually. Christianity gives us weekly worship, prayer, and the advocation of selfless acts of service. While we’ve got cognitive behavioral therapy, and various forms of psycho analysis, most people think of these as tools for handling dysfunctionality, not as practices to help one thrive.

These themes of free will, unlearning, change, and self-realization have, if not emerged from, most certainly fed back into my interest in yoga nidra which I now teach. While I’ve been introduced to many forms of contemplation, yoga nidra appears to be unique in the structure it provides for unlearning. Its hierarchy of attentional exercises move through successive realms of experience: sensory, feeling (such as hot/cold, heavy/light), emotional, cognitive (in constructs of identity and beliefs), and the abstract. In an effort to understand the common aspects of all present-moment attentional practices, I have increased my scope of study to include a broad range of contemplative practices. Whether one reads the texts of yoga & buddhism in all their flavors, or western religious text, there is a common advocation to actively grapple with the paradox of transcending one’s individual self.

By deepening my understanding of yoga nidra and other meditative practices I hope to get a sense of whether yoga nidra holds promise for expediting the process of individuation, especially in our western culture where discomfort is to be avoided if at all possible. Yoga nidra has some salient features in this regard: it is conducted lying down (though it can be adapted to a variety of positions if necessary, for instance, a friend with chronic pain due to advanced MS practices standing up), it requires no special (or even normal) physical abilities, and it often has significant observable affects after a single practice session. These features combine to make it uniquely accessible to the novice, so much so that I describe it as meditation with a toy box. In addition to its potential for supporting personal growth, I have heard enough anecdotal reports of its amelioration of chronic pain to be encouraged regarding its use in palliative care. And finally, if in fact, meditative practices can be shown to assist in unlearning, they could be quite effective therapeutically for post traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and compulsive behaviors.

While I frequently waffle on how deeply I want to get into the science of yoga nidra’s efficacy, for now, I continue to be fascinated by learning more about the neural mechanisms of meditation and the practice of yoga nidra itself.

sue borchardt

stretch your brain toward this…

The online etymology dictionary never ceases to provide delightful insights into everyday words, most recently for me, attention in who’s origins I discovered this hidden gem: The notion is of stretching one’s mind toward something [from ad- “to” + tendere “stretch” (tenet)]. The act of paying attention has been on my mind in so many contexts lately I’m having a hard time keeping track. I believe the ball began rolling and taking on mass when I stumbled on an article in Psychology today that describes Nora Volkow’s new theory suggesting that the neuro-hormone dopamine is a key in directing attention rather than a mechanism of reward. In the article Nora Volkow suggests that dopamine alerts us when there is something important to pay attention to whether it’s the muscular firings of a new motor skill, the curves of a potential mate, a lurking predator, or our next dose of crack.

My self-directed attempts at learning about the chemical soup of the body’s communication system have not gotten much beyond wikipedia but I have learned enough to be fascinated by the neural mechanisms of attention. I am also astonished at how often the topic of attention is now coming up in my day to day life. Most of us have experienced the phenomenon of being totally oblivious to something only to see it absolutely everywhere once it is brought to our attention. In this case the experience is a little like looking into the infinite reflection of two mirrors since the thing in question here is attention itself.

William James wrote that “Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others[…]” But what does it feel like to pay attention and what happens to our brains and our selves as a results of paying it daily? Conscious attention paying practices are legion: everything from learning to play piano to meditating. My own experiences would most certainly warrant the inclusion of rock climbing in that category. For me, climbing is an activity so demanding of my focus and attention that all other elements of self fall away. Unfortunately, this includes important sensory signals like the pain and so, in the end, I decided to give my torn up shoulders a break and so now choose a less physically demanding attention practice: yoga nidra (undertaken lying comfortably on your back!)

As I gain experience teaching and practicing yoga nidra I’m starting to think of it as something of an extreme attention sport. During the practice we are directed to attend to areas of the body, sensations, thoughts, images, emotions, and awareness itself. Usually these objects of attention are suggested sequentially but the practice takes on real power when we attempt to hold two objects in awareness at the same time requiring the exhausted brain to relinquish it’s illusion as the only witness to our experiences.

My uneducated picture of what’s happening in the brains of all of us: healthy, addicted, or traumatized, is one in which synaptic ruts begin to develop in the communication highways of our neurotransmitters. By attending (and by attending I simply mean directing awareness, not thinking) to whatever is arising in the present moment we are, in affect, intentionally devolving – emptying out of all assumptions, perceived facts, beliefs, knowledge. This is the beginner mind of Zen meditation, dropping down the ladder of inference of Peter Senge and the radical empiricism of William James. Whatever we call it and by whatever means we achieve it it provides us a venue in which to collect new data, possibly unseating old data, and in the process, developing new synaptic paths – popping out of the ruts, if all goes well. If my armchair hypothesis holds any validity then the attention exercises of yoga nidra could turn out to be a valuable tool in helping people with all kinds of compulsive and addictive behavior as well as those of us simply hoping to become better people.

sue borchardt

Sue Borchardt studies with Richard C. Miller PhD who is currently researching yoga nidra’s effects on veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

interview with a lama

Not long ago, I was fortunate enough to have a private interview with a Lama. It was a somewhat impulsive decision inspired by my ongoing ruminations on the issue of free will – i.e. do we have it? My views on this topic have undergone an accelerated evolution in the most recent 7 of my 43 years on the planet instigated by an unceremonious disabusement of the notion that I was actually in control, but that’s another story altogether. As it turned out, my efforts to engage the Lama on one of my favorite topics were thwarted either by language or cultural issues, though I’m not sure which. So there I was, on a couch with a Lama all to myself wondering what to ask next so I went big asking him what is the purpose of life? Continue reading

about yoga nidra

The practice of yoga nidra is not an easy one to categorize as contemplative practices go. This might be due to the fact that it takes a multi-sensory approach to awareness. Where many practices choose a single focus, yoga nidra moves us through awareness of sensations, emotions, beliefs, and identity as well as “nothingness”. It is such a rich practice that those exposed to it initially have the experience of holding a tail and not have the slightest ida of whether it is attached to a mouse or elephant. You can read more on what yoga nidra is as well as try it out right now by downloading a practice.

While a recording of a yoga nidra practice will certainly give you an idea of what it’s like, it falls far short of experiencing it with a live teacher. Check out your local yoga studios to see if they offer yoga nidra – many are holding once a month classes. If you’re in the Baltimore area you can try out with our very own Sue Borchardt – here’s her yoga nidra class schedule. Also in Baltimore, Yama studio offers yoga nidra classes on some Sunday evenings- look here for their schedule