Things I've learned
Normal perception of typical lifestyles would have us believe that the best ways to relax and unwind are to have a drink, or zone out and watch TV or youtube, or go to sleep, etc. But drinking and TV/internet zoning-out are distractions. They are what they are. And a lot of the time sleep is not even relaxing or restful. If the mind is stressed out, as many of ours are, the quality of our sleep reflects that.
But there is another way, and it works much better!
It's possible to systematically relax the body and mind, and it's a really useful thing to learn to do. There's an excellent practice for this, called Yoga Nidra, which is a relaxation technique and meditation technique combined. It's a total gift, because it induces proper, nourishing relaxation. When I first started practicing Yoga Nidra, I couldn't get over how it made me feel. It was like being plugged in to recharge. I hadn't realised how much I needed to relax, so I kept practicing it, and over time I was amazed to find that I had progressively deeper and deeper experiences of relaxation. Just when you think you can't get any more relaxed, you can! Proper relaxation is a wonderful thing. And a rare thing.
The stresses and strains of daily life create tensions and these rob the mind of its serenity. Yoga nidra removes tensions and restores the elasticity of your mind.
Meditation is too much of an ask
Life is very stressful. People are walking talking balls of tension: physical, mental and emotional tensions, and without any decent release valves. It's exhausting! And it means that when people hear about meditation and about what's ultimately possible with the mind, they go straight for things like mindfulness practices, and end up getting drowsy and falling asleep all of the time. Going straight for meditation is just too much of an ask. It probably sounds like a strange thing for a Yoga teacher to do, but I seem to spend a lot of time talking people out of doing meditation practices! We have to accept where we are, and start from where we're at. We need to learn how to let go of tension first. And there's plenty of that to do. We can do that by building up self-awareness gradually, with things like relaxation techniques, gentle yoga postures and breathing practices. Regular relaxation is one of the first key steps in the path of self-study. Then, after we have come down a few notches, we can think about starting to observe the mind. And then, much later, the mind might be kind enough to be quiet for a few moments, if we're lucky. But by then we will have learned how to relax overall, and we'll have gained the health benefits of practicing relaxation, so will ideally be approaching meditation in a more balanced and gentle way anyway.
The current obsession with mindfulness worries me, because I think it bypasses some key steps that are really necessary for most of us. And I've met so many people at this stage who have become totally disillusioned with the magic of Yoga because they tried meditation and "couldn't do it". It's such a massive shame. It's like giving up on your sport after going straight for the Olympics without any training! There's a lot of preparation that needs to be done, and if you commit to doing it gradually, the irony is that it actually speeds up. Slow and steady wins the meditation race, and wins it well.
A true act of kindness
Stress and tension is the bane of our society, and causes and worsens the majority of diseases. The body is an incredible, self-healing machine, it just needs to be given a proper chance to optimise.
Practicing a systematic relaxation technique gives you an actual break, a real break, fully conscious and without distraction. It restores and balances the mind and body, and also happens to be a great way to practice self-love. The body and mind are always very grateful after lying down and just following instructions in a 20 minute relaxation technique, and I have often found that it feels even more rejuvenating than a full night's sleep. The mind is much more relaxed when following a sequence of simple instructions in Yoga Nidra, than when it is left to its own devices and can run riot.
But again, I'm not suggesting that you take my word for it. Try Yoga Nidra and experience it for yourself. I'll be offering free taster sessions at weekends during August at The Yoga Centre if you'd like to come along.