My first memory as a human being is waking up from a night terror.
I can remember opening my eyes into my dark room, seeing through the bars of my crib, and looking to my left at the plastic cow melded onto the side of the mirror, hanging there.
These night terrors were recurring experiences for me. And from that time until I was about 10 years old, I was afraid of sleep and everything it represented: darkness, unpredictable and vivid dreams and nightmares, and this sense of somehow being alone.
When I was 6 years old I was “diagnosed” with sleep apnea — the rare kind in which one stops breathing multiple times throughout the night. Turns out, unconsciously holding your breath is a super inconvenient way to be woken up throughout the night!
All of this meant that waking up for school at 7 am was a major drag — as I’m sure it was for most kids.
I just remember waking up every day exhausted and living in exhaustion for most of my young life. I didn’t exactly realize that I was living with this exhaustion at the time because I had no reference for how it was to be well rested.
Needless to say that I had a rocky relationship with rest and sleep. And this led to a rocky relationship with life.
In my teenage years, I struggled with anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue. Not only was the schedule of early morning school days difficult based simply on being a hormonal teenager, but I was also still struggling with my ability to rest and sleep well.
At the age of 26, I started to notice my health being affected by my incongruent, irregular, and flaky nights of sleep. I had been practicing yoga for years, following all sorts of diets to support my health, eating mindfully, taking vitamins, spending time in the sunshine, exercising, walking in nature…check, check, and check. I checked all of the boxes for how we might describe a healthy and well person. All but one.
Now, these practices I’ve just mentioned above had a positive impact on my mental and physical well-being for sure. But there was still a key component missing; something in my foundation was crumbling. And I could no longer ignore it.
In 2019, I came upon the practice of Yoga Nidra, which essentially is a practice of ‘wakeful sleep.’ It’s like a guided meditation that drops you into a deeply restful place, although you remain awake. This form of meditation can be done any time of the day, and I found it to be incredibly healing and transformative. I was now equipped with this practice that I could lean into on my draggy days. “Waking up” from a Yoga Nidra practice, I was finally able to enjoy and soak in this sense of restfulness that I was unable to resource in my nightly sleep. Yoga Nidra gifted me with an embodied reference for how it is to be truly nourished by rest.
This practice inspired me to look deeper into my relationship with rest in general. I started to ask myself: what did it mean to rest well? Why was my body resisting rest? Why was my breath resisting rest when I went unconscious? Am I also unconsciously holding my breath while awake and conscious?
I believe that how we are breathing is a key indicator of how our nervous system is responding — or how we are responding — in any given situation. So if we’re not breathing well, something is going on in that situation, or in that relationship, that is causing our bodies to have a disruptive reaction.
I had to dial it back to my infancy.
Where did this resistance and fear around rest come from?
Although I haven’t been able to draw any hard conclusions, I think even asking these questions has been a pivotal point in my life and in my relationship with rest.
I now see this relationship as not only foundational, but a relationship like any other: one that needs to be tended to, that needs to be seen as sacred, that needs to be held as important, and made a priority when the time and situation calls for that.
I went on a healing journey, so to speak, to reclaim my sacred and inherent relationship with rest.
And while today, this relationship is not perfect, it is developing in consciousness and awareness.
I can now honestly say that bringing more attention to my relationship with rest has been the number one thing to support my health, well-being, and happiness on all levels. I say with confidence now that how well we live is directly dependent on how well we rest.
Going into a state of rest means that our body, mind, and awareness get to enter a repository of vital energy; a state in which reparations can take place; a state of healing resonance; and a creative, abstract state, in which our mind is able to process and reform itself. Rest is a place to seek refuge, guidance, and insight about ourselves through symbols and feelings that arise in our dreams, that only we can decipher. Rest is a deeply intimate and personal connection to oneself and to life.
How do we measure rest?
All states of consciousness can be measured scientifically through brainwaves. Brainwaves are essentially rhythmic electrical pulses that can be measured as they occur through the central nervous system. There are 5 main brainwave states, each with its own experience: gamma waves appear in a shorter, more erratic pattern and are characterized by a hyper-aroused, highly cognitive state; beta waves are slightly longer and are characterized by feelings of alertness and excitement; in alpha waves, the rhythm begins to lengthen and become more spacious, and these signal a relaxed body and mind; theta waves are slower and more spacious still and are known as the creative and meditative states of awareness, and delta brainwaves are the longest and most spacious, with very little variation, and this is the state of deep, unconscious rest.
In a deep rest or sleep state, we ideally enter delta brain waves. These brainwaves are responsible for an unconscious, natural, and uninhibited state of reparation for both body and mind. A life without time spent in these brainwaves essentially means that we are running on borrowed time. It is the time spent in the delta state that rejuvenates us and adds time and vitality back to our living clock. Time spent in delta brainwaves is the wellspring of youth, joy, peace, and creativity that we all so deeply crave.
We can access delta waves through the process of Yoga Nidra. My practice of Yoga Nidra has been an incredible and conscious exploration through these brainwaves. I’ve been able to reform my relationship with them in safety. The practice helps us to develop skills and space in being able to witness ourselves in all of the different states and brainwaves, and re-learn how to become comfortable and settled enough to relax into deeper states. This is a lifelong practice. Essentially, this is a practice of surrender.
Sleep and rest are experiences of surrender.
They ask us to develop our capacity to receive, to let go, and to allow a force of nature to come over us and into us completely. We must be willing to relinquish who we think we are in our waking state and welcome the return to the underbelly of our psyche. These deep, delta states are no less than the source of our being. And we don’t want to wait until we get to a state of tattered exhaustion to embrace and embody this truth.
Ancient and indigenous cultures believe in our sacred relationship with rest. Many spiritual traditions revere sleep and dreams, especially dream symbols, and believe that dreams deliver guidance and insight applicable to both the individual and, at times, could be oracular for the wider society. In the Native American Navajo culture, there is no actual word for dreams because what we experience in dreams and ‘real life’ are given equal value.
It’s only in our modern, industrialized societies where mass amounts of people are living in sleep deprivation and with a corroded relationship with such an inherent birthright such as rest. We might attribute this to high-stress lifestyles, poor diets, and cluttered minds. But I boil all of this down to the need to re-learn and understand right relationship.
A right relationship is one in which two entities become mutual beneficiaries.
Maybe, rather than asking what we need to rest, we might begin by asking what rest needs from us to feel safe and welcome to enter our beings. Is our body-mind a welcome place for sleep to take residence? Are we creating a sort of inner temple, an inner altar, a seat at the table for rest in our lives?
It’s a fun experiment to personify rest. The ancient yogis and yoginis did and believed rest to be a goddess. They call Her Nidra Shakti Ma. Is our body-mind a temple into which Nidra Shakti can enter? And one in which she is worshipped? Sleep is, after all, another expression of life. For all life, all creation, and all manifestations, spring from the dark womb of unconscious sleep states.
So what are some ways we can reform our relationship with rest?
#1: Sober Sleep
First and foremost, limiting our intake of substances near sleep time is key. Sober sleep is most definitely ideal. This means limiting caffeine, alcohol, cannabis — whatever it might be — especially near sleep time. We can induce sleep naturally with herbs if needed or desired. I suggest chamomile, mugwort (for dream recall), and magnesium.
This is first and foremost: clearing the body of any substances that might disturb the sensitive frequency of rest. Although it might seem that some of these substances can help us to fall asleep, they certainly don’t help us in staying asleep or sleeping well, drifting into those rich brainwaves we’ve mentioned above. If we wish, we can replace our outdated rituals with new, more supportive ones, like brewing an herbal dreamtime tea with the flowers of chamomile, taking time to sip and reflect, and setting the tone and the inner space for rest.
#2: Declutter the Mind
When the sun sets and the hormone melatonin kicks in, our bodies ask us to drift and to dream. We are designed to enter different states of consciousness throughout the day in rhythm with the cycles of the sun and moon. One of the difficult things about the modern lifestyle is that it is continually asking us for one state of consciousness: that is, an alert, hyper-aware one — essentially, a mind maintained in gamma brainwaves.
Re-learning the art of shifting consciousness even before you fall asleep is a great place to begin. Death is the ultimate shift in consciousness, but sleep is second to this. It’s a shift we experience every night of our lives (if we’re lucky); a mini-death. We shouldn’t take this shift for granted, and instead, support our body-mind in the transition.
The art is in taking intentional and sensitive steps through the different states of consciousness, acknowledging each one, before arriving softly in the deep state of rest. As opposed to hitting the pillow and expecting to fall from the top of our mind to the deepest part; rather, we should learn how to ease our way in, and how to swim with grace and ease, from the surface, down to the deep.
In my practices, decluttering my mind and shifting gears looks like limiting or eliminating screen time after dark, choosing instead to read or reflect in my journal. What I choose to read also has an effect. I save educational and inspirational non-fiction books for stimulating my mind in the morning and choose fictional and fantastical books to rouse my inner dreamer at night. I’ve found books and writing to be excellent tools for coaxing myself into different states of consciousness as they help me to access different aspects of my mind, but I encourage you to find rituals that feel natural for you.
#3: Begin or Deepen a Yoga Nidra Practice
Yoga Nidra swooped in and saved my relationship with rest, so I sing its praises from the rooftop whenever possible. Yoga Nidra is like a boat that takes one from feeling deserted and eluded by these deeper states of mind and connection, across — safely and well — to experience these deeper states with skill, and without pressure to fall asleep.
Rather than something we learn how to ‘do,’ Yoga Nidra reminds us that true rest is an embodied experience and must be cultivated in the fertile soils of one’s inner feelings. The practice is also held in a safe container and a familiar, yet creative, process as we re-learn to embody restful states. All who suffer from a tattered relationship with rest can find refuge and solace in a Yoga Nidra practice. It brings you back home to yourself. It is essentially training in learning how to fall into sleep, or into your deeper self.
Humans are endowed with incredibly powerful, creative, diverse, and intricate minds; we are multi-layered and capable of numerous ways to think, dream, and be.
Reforming a relationship with rest — a once revered state almost forgotten — is to reform our relationship with our humanity.
You can listen to free Yoga Nidra audios to practice rest on our YouTube channel.
And check out the new Self-Paced Yoga Nidra Immersion for Women’s Wellness.♥
Thank you for reading.