Everybody settled onto the floor. We were swaddled by the sounds of shuffling limbs, the sighs of tired people arranging themselves, the rubbery sweat-smell of the yoga studio.
It was my first live yoga class and we’d finally arrived at the snoozy part.
Then came the instructor’s voice.
He started giving quiet instructions. Specific guidance on how to align our bodies, bit by bit, so that we were laid out on our mats as if we were resting. But really, we were doing a lot. He was directing us to hold our bodies in this precisely aligned way. He was asking us to hold our awareness in this precisely aligned way. And to not snooze.
It was way more work than I had expected it to be. I thought this was the resting bit, the bit where we got to blow off all the effort, and the attention, and just drift away a little. But, no.
This happened in my first live yoga class and I was being very obedient. I have since done Shavasana many times and have often occasionally drifted away. I’m much kinder to myself about that these days.
But I have never forgotten that slight sense of shock at learning that you could lie down on the floor like that and not let go into dreaminess, but have it be a very rigorous practice of paying attention.
Sit Upright, Cross Legs, Face Forward
When I took that first yoga class, I had been meditating for a while in the Zen tradition. And even though my earliest experience of meditation practice was through using guided meditation recordings, I had decided that real meditation involved sitting on a cushion in a formal posture.
I didn’t think about it much, but if you’d asked me I wouldn’t have thought of lying down to meditate as being very useful. The only time I’d seen it happen recently was on a retreat when someone had some kind of injury and couldn’t sit up straight. Otherwise, it seemed like an invitation for a nap.
The idea that meditation involved sitting upright, crosslegged, facing forward was very ingrained with me.
It’s not like my practice was going that well. Whenever I sat, my body became a battleground of stiff limbs, knots of unresolved traumas, and grinding jaws trying to clamp down on all of this as well as an unrelenting wave of useless, critical thinking.
Pushing hard made sense at the time. I thought that if I meditated hard enough, correctly enough, that some kind of awakening would wash away all my difficulties.
That experience of meditation as a fight did ease, and as my relationship with the practice softened I got a lot of benefit from it.
Then I came across yoga nidra, a guided meditation practice that you generally do while lying down.
When I began this daily practice of lying down to meditate I learned a whole lot.
The Gift Of Yoga Nidra
The reason I’ve been thinking so much about lying down to meditate is that my main daily practice for the last two years has been Yoga Nidra. In fact, a few months ago I became an I-Rest Yoga Nidra teacher in training.
Yoga Nidra is a form of awareness meditation you do (mostly) lying down, and after practicing for a while now, I’ve found that instead of lying down being a signal to my body to automatically fall asleep, it has now become a signal to wake up more.
That sounds weird, but it’s true. Hundreds of hours of Yoga Nidra has changed some set of neural pathways in my brain and now, whenever I lie down, my awareness starts scanning the body and noticing what’s going on in there automatically.
After laying down to sleep I nearly always launch into an informal body scan and often fall asleep that way. I often wake up that way too, my eyes open, I look around a little and then start noticing and following sensations in my body as the muscles wake up and I start moving around.
Yoga Nidra is about self kindness, and restoration. It’s also a very physical practice, and has completely changed my relationship to meditation. My meditation practice (sitting or lying) has become much gentler and kinder. That, alone, has been a great gift. There will definitely be plenty of Yoga Nidra inspired posts on this blog in the future, but for today let’s hang out with this idea of lying down to meditate, and what that can offer.
Some Things I learned While Lying Down To Meditate:
If you are exhausted at the end of a busy day and your mind is racing, lying down can be a great way to get grounded in the body and give your mind a chance to settle.
A great way to increase your chances of staying awake is lie down on the floor or on a yoga mat. Lying on the bed makes it more difficult to stay alert and awake.
Guided meditation is a great practice to do while lying down, and especially helpful if you are new to meditation. They were my first experience of meditation, way before I ever visited a meditation group. Think of the instructions as scaffolding for your practice. They help save mental energy that can then used to on simply maintain awareness, rather than worrying if you’re doing it right or if you should change your breathing, or your posture.
You can sense through your back! We spend so much time facing forward, concentrating all of our attention and life energy into the three feet of space in front of us, it’s as if our backs don’t even exist sometimes.
When you meditate lying down on the floor you get to feel how your back relates to the support underneath you. You can feel where your back has tensed up and lifts off the floor for no apparent reason, and the soft parts where it naturally sinks into the floor. And you notice after a while that all of this information is in flux. It’s a whole living system of tensing, and softening, and movement between. Through a regular practice of lying down meditation there is much more awareness of how you can sense things through your back, how this is a living, sensing part of you.
It doesn’t have to make you sleepy. Sometimes it will, but is that really a bad thing. Sometimes you just need to rest, and if you’re not rested enough your mediation is going to be a pretty difficult exercise in staying awake and focused. If your body needs to sleep, let it sleep a little. When it’s more refreshed, let it meditate.
Walking, Standing, Sitting, Lying Down
In Buddhism they talk about the four meditation postures as being walking, standing, sitting and lying down. So there doesn’t seem to be any problem there with lying down to meditate. Any opposition to lying down meditation has mostly been a thing in my own mind, and it’s been a great experience to get past that limiting idea.
The practice of meditation, of cultivating awareness, is more than an exercise in moulding yourself into any particular form. It’s about finding awareness wherever you can, in whatever state, posture, or circumstance you happen to find yourself.