In the fall of 2014, my therapist introduced me to a, new to me, meditative practice called Yoga Nidra, which translated from Sanskrit to English means ‘yogic sleep’ or ‘sleep with awareness’. This yoga practice is said to be “an immensely powerful meditation technique, and one of the easiest yoga practices to develop and maintain.” To teach me the Yoga Nidra practice he used materials developed for the iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation program. iRest “is currently being utilized in VA hospitals, military bases, hospitals and clinics, hospice, homeless shelters, community programs, and schools. Research has shown that iRest effectively reduces PTSD, depression, anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain, and chemical dependency while increasing health, resiliency, and well-being.”
The few times we worked on the practice during therapy sessions, I felt sensations in my body that I couldn’t articulate. To be honest, the unfamiliar sensations I felt in my body freaked me out, which might be why when I used the recorded guided meditations at home on my own; I had great difficulty working through the exercises. Ironically, it was also hard for me to relax and even harder to find a comfortable position so I could focus. I told myself, and my therapist, it was too hard for me to practice alone, and I made myself believe that. After a short time trying the practice, I gave it up.
A few months ago, my therapist told me about a six-week iRest group program held at a local hospital that still had space available and he asked if I might be interested in taking it. I was a bit hesitant because it obviously meant weekly travel that would undoubtedly increase my pain, even though it was just a short cab ride from my home, but I agreed to have him send a referral on my behalf all the same. The program started at the beginning of November, and I wasn’t at all surprised that my health issues met the requirements for me to take part. I was skeptical at first because of how I had felt when first introduced to the practice but I was open to learning more about it in a structured group setting.
The first class of the program introduced us to a meditation similar in some ways to a body scan in mindfulness meditation with the striking difference that your awareness isn’t focussed on your breath and body. With iRest, you focus your awareness on sensations in your body, your body’s energy, and all energy around you. As the program progressed, the class materials, discussions, and meditations became more intense. Through the iRest meditations, the reading materials, and group discussions I was better able to understand my struggles with certain issues. Interestingly, a discussion about fear made the most significant impact on me. We discussed how paralyzing it could be, especially when we don’t understand the origin of our fears.
Over the course the program, we learned to identify what is called ‘sankalpa’ or personal intentions for each meditation in the practice. I focussed on the issues that seem to consume so much of my time and energy. Thankfully, there was content in the classes I connected with that I felt related directly to my issues: trying to accept my illness and that because of it, I now do nothing. I came to understand that acceptance is not about resigning myself to or giving up on an issue, nor should it be a struggle because acceptance should come without effort. What I’ve been doing is fighting against what exists, which creates mental and emotional pain and intensifies the physical pain in my body. This added pain, mental and emotional, is triggered each time I compare what exists now with my former, pre-illness life. It’s triggered whenever I project my anxiety and fears and attach unproven meaning(s) to the actions of anyone with whom I interact.
The solution to end the extra pain is to do the other thing I fight against: nothing. In doing nothing we connect with the purest form of being. Doing nothing allows us to disentangle our existence from the identities we create because of the work we do and to fit into our various social environments. This uncovering, or unmasking, is necessary to understand ourselves. I recognize now, that my illness is an opportunity to strip away the many masks I wore because I needed to fit in to the world around me, including within my family. For the first time, in my life; I don’t have to justify my existence. I can just be myself, which in this moment means not working and definitely not beating myself up while I do nothing, which is so necessary for me to heal.
Because I couldn’t understand this before, my instincts led me to fight against losing what I’ve known my whole life: constant busyness and doing. Even though, always being busy and doing things is not the whole of who I am, nor is it the complete picture of any other human being. Continuous activity actually prevents us from connecting with our true selves and attending to our needs. Through the iRest program and the self-inquiry it required, I know that what I was really struggling with since the arrival of my illness was my fear. Definite fear about having an illness that still defies complete diagnosis and treatment, but also fear of not being able to point to an identity grounded in constantly doing to show the world or myself who I am.
Of course, there’s a lot more to the iRest program than the small snapshot I’m recounting, but after those six weeks I feel less conflicted than when we started out. More importantly, I feel gratitude about what I learned from iRest, and ultimately about myself, this time around. Unlike the first attempt, two years ago, when I let my fear get in the way of experiencing something new, I also see the value in developing a solo practice. My intention is to continue with the meditations from the program and my self-inquiry. I am practicing to gain as much benefit as I can so the fears I’ve been holding and struggling with – and the many fears I’m certain have yet to emerge from my subconscious – will no longer overwhelm my being and existence, even if my illness remains with me indefinitely.