Updated: Sep 7, 2022
This week we explore the opposites stage of a Yoga Nidra practice. This can include opposites of sensation and opposites of emotion. The Satyananda tradition typically focuses on the sensations element whereas the iRest tradition tends to incorporate both.
During the preceding stage of rotation of consciousness, we induce relaxation of the sensorimotor surface of the brain and then during the opposites of sensations stage we draw awareness in from the periphery to the core, specifically to feelings that seem to emanate from our centre yet affect the body as a whole, such as cool and warmth or heaviness and lightness.
The Purpose of Exploring Opposites of Sensation
During this stage of a Yoga Nidra practice you may be guided to experience two opposing sensations separately, perhaps moving between the two and depending on the style and the facilitator’s intention you may then be asked to try to experience the two simultaneously.
On a simple level invoking the feeling of heaviness can facilitate deep muscular release (similar to the autogenics cues we discussed in last week’s blog) and from this deep muscular release feelings of lightness, expansiveness and maybe even liberation can spontaneously emerge as the brain habituates to the heavy feelings and awareness floats free of the body. Moving between two opposites can sometimes facilitate an experience whereby the two sensations gradually feel as though they are growing closer together until they eventually merge into a kind of flat-lining sensation of deep relaxation as the brain tries to experience two opposing sensations at the same time.
During my training, this was explained to me both in terms of being similar to sound waves gradually meeting to merge into a single note and then as a trance state similar to that which arises during hypnosis. The explanation for the latter being that ‘the mind, seeing that it is doing something that is usually impossible, accepts that it is in an altered state and allows itself to accept ideas that it wouldn’t usually consider' (Nirlipta Tuli of Total Yoga Nidra). We touched on this last week when we spoke about this state being one of high receptivity and as such the subconscious is more permeable to hypnotic suggestion, such as repeating your sankalpa towards the end of practice harnessing the hypnogogic state-type of awareness for transformation.
The exploration of opposites is sometimes expanded into opposites of emotions, particularly in an iRest Yoga Nidra practice and can be transformational and healing in terms of PTSD, C-PTSD and many other emotional issues afflicting the mind/body. I'm going to say modern life isn't exactly conducive to welcoming and exploring emotions so I reckon this stage is beneficial for most humans.
What is happening in the body and brain during this stage?
Scattered throughout the periphery of the body are cells called proprioceptor cells, which are sensitive to electrical nerve impulses but also to pressure, touch and temperature. These cells are sense organs that gather information from the outer environment and deliver it to the deep brain. During the opposites of sensation stage of Yoga Nidra whilst using these sense organs to awaken sensations of hot/cold, heavy/light, we also stimulate the part of the brain responsible for maintaining homeostasis. This part of the brain is trying to bring about harmony between the inner and outer environments and its stimulation helps to bring balance to the areas of the brain that are responsible for balancing basic drives and brings under our control normally unconscious functions. This can be incredibly helpful with emotional regulation.
Meeting Challenging Emotions in a Relaxed State
Stimulation of these homeostatic mechanisms takes us into the mid brain and brings awareness to a region called the hypothalamus. This part of the brain is the primary regulator of the autonomic nervous system and is connected to the body’s glands and to our emotions. Invoking different sensations such as hot/cold, heavy/light accesses different parts of the hypothalamus as there are distinct pathways for each of these physically based opposites. This practice can help with experiencing sensations and emotions whilst remaining in witness consciousness, learning to observe rather than react.
Electrical stimulation of certain parts of the hypothalamus has been shown to induce fear, rage and aggression. In daily life, it can be incredibly challenging to experience these kinds of emotions calmly but during a more advanced Yoga Nidra practice, we are invited to experience these and other challenging emotions from a state of relaxation. This invites nerve circuits that under normal circumstances never operate simultaneously to operate at the same time, which establishes a new circuit incorporating these two, usually irreconcilable, states in such a way that relaxation predominates. It invites us to witness rather than react to emotions and sensations. Yoga Nidra allows us to experience mental control of our emotions and senses and establishes fresh neuronal patterns that we can harness in daily life.
Releasing or Stimulating Frustration?
I find it interesting that often if there has been an experience of frustration, restlessness or anxiety during a Yoga Nidra practice that on investigation with a practitioner it very often occurred around or shortly after this stage. An anecdotal piece of evidence for our capacity to access the hypothalamus during the opposites stage of Yoga Nidra. I would love to know if we are simply stimulating or also releasing when this happens.
Feeling ready to meet despair, hopelessness and shame
Personally, this opposites of emotion stage has been one of the most transformational for me.
I took an iRest immersion a couple of years ago and during an exploration of opposites I came to see that the anxiety I had suffered for all of my life manifested in my body physically in the same way as excitement and as such a simple reframing of my mindset from anxious to excited was sometimes enough to help me avoid a panic attack.
And in more recent explorations I have been able to revisit traumas without being triggered into flashbacks or reactionary responses in body and mind as the deep state of relaxation predominated, creating completely new neural circuits which have helped me to cope with triggers and flashbacks more easily in everyday life. I have also been able to approach, and eventually welcome in for exploration, emotions that I have been afraid to embrace such as suicidal thoughts, shame or hopelessness without being drawn down into what can feel like a bottomless pit of despair. Truly beginning to understand that emotions are messengers guiding us to wholeness and healing and the more we push them away the louder they will become.
‘Every feeling and emotion moves through a natural cycle of birth, growth, stability, decay and dissolution. The degree to which you’re able to welcome, experience, and allow your feelings and emotions to go through this natural life cycle is directly related to the degree to which you’re able to feel fully engaged in your life and relationships. When you deny your feelings and emotions, peace and wellbeing remain out of your reach. When you welcome and allow your full range of feelings and emotions you’re able to recognise and experience lasting peace and wellbeing. Fearlessness and peace spread throughout your life when you’re no longer afraid of experiencing fear or joy. When you’re open to experiencing all of your feelings and emotions, anxiety and fear no longer control your life. Self-judgement loses its grip. Self-love, kindness and compassion blossom.’ ~ Richard Miller, The iRest Program for Healing PTSD
Teaching Opposites of Emotion in a Class Setting
This stage can be powerfully transformative but I use it in class with discretion as it can also be incredibly triggering for those dealing with PTSD, C-PTSD or any emotional regulation difficulties. If I do offer this stage in a class, as opposed to a 1:1 setting, I almost never suggest emotions to work with but instead welcome an exploration of inner experience as it is and always offer this exploration in a permissive manner to allow practitioners to work to their own emotional capacities. I also open and close the session with a discussion that normalises the challenging and difficult experiences that can arise during a contemplative, meditative practice to ensure people feel comfortable sharing and do not feel they are alone or doing it 'wrong' in some way.
Next week we explore breath awareness!
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The Guest House ~ Rumi
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.