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I needed a nap. It was spring 2004, and my body felt a deep-in-the-bones exhaustion. My boys were 3 and 4 years old, I had been rising at 5 a.m. with my older son for more than four years, and I had just spent a year interviewing more than 100 women about their childbirth experiences for a possible book about why so many healthy, educated mothers in America were having an unusually high number of medical interventions and complications when giving birth. I deserved a nap, right?
I told myself that, to unwind, I should take a “bendystretchy” yoga class, as many mothers do. But when I read the description of the yoga nidra taught by Robin Carnes at Willow Street Yoga in Takoma Park, Maryland— that all you do is lie down and rest for an hour— I thought, Forget about twisting my body into the boat pose—yoga nidra is exactly the kind of yoga I need. Little did I know that a yoga-nidra nap would change my life.
“That’s not serious yoga,” commented my mommy friends.
Part of me agreed. Paying for a yoga class was an investment, and paying to nap at a yoga studio seemed a little nuts. So when I stepped into Robin’s class for the first time, even though I desperately needed rest, I was somewhat skeptical that this expensive nap in the middle of the day was a good idea.
“How many blankets do I need?” I asked Robin, a striking, middle-aged redhead who appeared less earthy-crunchy then the average yogini.
“At least four underneath you, one for your head, and two to put on top of you,” she said. “Oh, and you may want a bolster and an eye bag.”
As I made my bed, I watched the room fill with women of all ages, some of whom had brought their own eye bags. By noon, the room was packed. I guess I wasn’t the only one who needed a nap.
“Is there anyone here who has never done yoga nidra?” Robin asked. Up went my hand. “Great. Your mind may not know why you are here, but your body does.”
I didn’t know it yet, but my yoga-nidra journey began right then.
Discovering My Sankalpa
As I lay down on the four folded blankets and tucked myself in with another blanket on top, a sigh emerged from my mouth that was more like a roar. This mama was tired.
“We’re going to focus on your sankalpa today,” Robin said. “Sankalpa in Sanskrit means will or purpose. Every yoga nidra session begins with focusing on what your intention, or purpose, is for the practice. It could be to simply relax, or it could be more focused on something you want to manifest in your life.”
I want rest, my mind told me in an instant.
“Don’t let your mind answer this question,” Robin urged a second later, ruling out the immediate answer my brain had in mind. “Let your intention come from your body.”
My body? I was ashamed to admit that, after two powerful homebirth experiences, I no longer felt intimately connected to my body. Pregnancy and giving birth were all about every little feeling in my body; mothering felt like a marathon of meeting everyone else’s needs and rarely my own. My life was too busy to focus on my body. I was consumed with interviewing mothers about their birth experiences and caring for two small toddlers born 18 months apart, the elder a constant screamer. Most days, the question I asked was, “How are their bodies?” My body was in the back seat, unattended, without a seat belt.
“If you don’t know your intention now, don’t worry,” Robin assured us. “See if it comes to you during the practice, once you’re sensing your body.”
And off we went. Robin’s sweet, melodic voice, with a hint of high school history teacher, took me through my body: mouth, tongue, ears, eyes, forehead, scalp. She even led me into the “hollows of the brain cavity,” a place I had not ever imagined.
“Sensation flowing in the back of the neck…in the throat…in the shoulders and arms…” her voice continued, as tingling electricity pulsed through these parts of my body. “Radiant sensation flowing down the left shoulder…into the left upper arm…left elbow…left forearm… wrist…left hand.”
After 45 minutes of guiding me in the exploration of my every body part, right down to the phlegm, while breathing deeply and sinking into awareness of my feelings and thoughts, Robin invited us to feel our bodies as spacious, open, without boundaries. Ten minutes later she returned us to our sankalpa. At that point my body felt deliciously empty, as if an abandoned lot in my brain were now displaying a big “vacancy” sign. From this space emerged my sankalpa: I will turn the 118 birthstory interviews I did into an important piece that will help make childbirth more mother-friendly. Four classes later, I began to hear the voices of birthing mothers.