Rest is the Best! A Tale of Burnout, Trauma, & Yoga Nidra
Updated: Nov 25, 2022
Slowing down and truly resting is not something that’s valued in our society. Most of us picked up a belief early on in our lives that our self worth is tied to our productivity (not true), and of course we live in a capitalist, patriarchal society where our go-go-go-ness leads to accolades as well as burnout and despair.
So taking time for yourself to truly rest — it’s absolutely revolutionary.
Personally — that’s what I’ve been up to lately. My own personal revolution of rest. (My former wanna-be punk rocker with her studded belt and self-inflicted pixie cut is so here for it.)
In mid-October I got an abrupt internal hit to stop teaching and focus solely on my own healing. Rather than fight it, I went for it. I canceled my yoga classes with the intention of taking a break from teaching for an undetermined amount of time.
Which means, it’s pretty much the first time in my adult life I haven’t been hustling. I’ve been practicing Yoga Nidra regularly, getting acupuncture, and purposefully emphasizing rest, rest, and more rest. My body and mind are responding positively — it says something that I actually felt inspired and wanted to sit down and write this.
There’s privilege here ‘cause I have a partner who understands and supports me. Not everybody has that. Not everyone can afford to take such a break. And not everyone would take a break, even if they could, because of the drive that connects self worth with productivity in our capitalist society.
Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been through or the degree of burnout you’re feeling — and it doesn’t matter what traumas your body has or has not fully processed. Your story doesn’t negate or validate this truth:
WE ALL DESERVE REST.
We’re all healing something. And we’re all already whole.
Taking time to rest is a way to come home to ourselves. It’s a subtle message to the body, mind, and spirit that the body is a safe place to be... because sometimes the body is NOT a safe place to be.
As a human being, you’ll experience events your nervous system interprets as trauma, meaning 1) it was unexpected, 2) you were unprepared, and 3) there’s nothing you could do to change it.
When my nervous system interprets an event as trauma, it means I no longer feel safe in my body. My agency and autonomy is lost because I could not change what happened.
Another definition comes from Kimberly Johnson: “Trauma is anything that registers in the nervous system as happening too fast, too much, too soon.”
Trauma is not defined by the event. It is defined by how a person experiences the event and what it means to them. Trauma can create fear, shame, avoidance, and hypervigilance. Any event could cause trauma if it shapes the way a person sees themselves or sees the world.
There are many routes to choose from when purposefully healing trauma, and all modalities have their place. Some are quite cathartic and include much emotional upheaval. Yoga Nidra is on the gentle and subtle end of the spectrum. It’s more like a super chill album playing in the background compared to thrashing around in the pit at a live rock show.
I received some basic Yoga Nidra training in my original yoga teacher training, and I credit Brandy Berlin with planting a seed and getting me started. While I’ve been teaching Yoga Nidra for as long as I’ve been teaching vinyasa, my depth of knowledge was shallow, and my personal Yoga Nidra practice was quite irregular. I’d simply put on a recording on the rare occasions I couldn’t sleep.
Then I began relying on Yoga Nidra more and more in mid-summer as my anxiety and rumination spiked, making sleeping through the night damn near impossible.
By the end of August, I had signed up for a Yoga Nidra training with Hilary Jackendoff, a teacher I’ve been following for a while. I highly recommend her training as well as her recordings on Insight Timer. I credit Hilary, her research, and her 15 years of experience leading Yoga Nidra with much of the content of this article.*
I also give past-Ashley a series of high-fives for her intuition and for responding to Hilary’s invitation with a hell yes! I knew this was the right thing to give myself, and hot damn am I proud of myself for following through on that knowing.
My inclination for taking this training was purely selfish. I wanted to immerse myself in learning more about the practice of Yoga Nidra and the science and soul behind it. More than that, I wanted some structure around my own healing.
I was aware that Yoga Nidra was understood as a treatment method for PTSD by the U.S. military, but I didn’t know why.** Turns out Yoga Nidra can be incredibly beneficial in regards to trauma and anxiety as it strengthens the connection to the physical body and can reinstate that lost sense of agency resulting from experiences the body interprets as trauma.
What I’m learning is actually getting me psyched to make my way out of my sweet lil’ hermit cocoon and start teaching again. I’m stoked to tell you about how Yoga Nidra shrinks the amygdala and strengthens the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex — and about how Yoga Nidra increases endogenous dopamine by 65 percent!
But it’s not just what I’m learning that has me feeling like myself again. It’s that the practice has been quietly working on me. ‘Cause if I had before-and-after brain photos, I bet we’d see that my amygdala — which likely grew from being in a prolonged state of trauma — has shrunk a bit over the last weeks.
And while trauma is known to weaken the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, these days my prefrontal cortex, with a little help from its buddy dopamine, is better equipped to do its job (impulse control, prospective memory, cognitive flexibility) and is no longer being run over by an overgrown fear-based amygdala.
I can’t help but think fondly of my Physiological Psychology course at Carroll College circa 2005. 💜
Back to 2022.
Prior to taking a break from teaching with an undetermined end date, I was absolutely dreading showing up to class. I was dreading leaving my house. Nowhere felt safe because my body wasn’t a safe space. I didn’t trust the words that were coming out of my face.
The events of summer ‘22 that my body — my nervous system — interpreted as trauma wiped me the fuck out. I was already burnt out before those events, and I realize now I had actually been in an ongoing state of burnout since roughly 2010. Running in the background since summer ‘21 were the physical and emotional fallout of two pregnancies; one failed to implant and the other ended in a lengthy and rather brutal miscarriage at 10 weeks. I was wrecked.
Part of Hilary’s Yoga Nidra training is practicing Yoga Nidra every day with a suggested minimum of four times a week. I’ve been practicing almost every day.
I’ve been working on being less rigid with myself regarding all things yoga. One of the shadows of yoga I’ve experienced is the unreasonable expectation to practice rigorously and often. Whenever my practice “slipped” in the past, I felt a lot of guilt — rather than a gentle kindness and understanding with myself that my practice will naturally ebb and flow (especially if I’m in tune with my body’s needs) and there need not be any expectations or grasping around it.
So yeah. I practice Yoga Nidra nearly every day.
It’s not hard to do. It’s simple, easy, and it feels so good! Remember that dopamine stat? Yoga Nidra increases endogenous dopamine production by 65 percent. That's AMAZING!! Beyond my overuse of exclamation points, please consider the implications for those dealing with addiction.
Many recordings are half an hour. And that half an hour can feel like you’ve gotten two to four hours of deep sleep. Insight Timer is a free app and it’s full of free recordings. Here’s one of my faves: Yoga Nidra for Deep Rest.
It feels like wrapping myself up in a bundle of love and care. If you haven’t practiced Yoga Nidra before, there’s a literal bundling involved. Make sure you’ll be warm enough with cozy socks and a blanket, support yourself with a bolster or pillow under your knees, and lay yourself down on the ground or in your bed with your legs and arms resting at equal distance at either side of your body. You can also practice in a reclined chair or on your side. Maybe add some slight padding under your head. Like a cozy Nidra nest.
And then you listen. Maybe you end up falling asleep and that’s fine. Maybe you hear all the words. Maybe you fade in and out of conscious listening. Maybe you don’t hear any of the words but are aware of yourself lightly snoring. It all works, and there’s no pressure to get it right.
Bringing it back to our society — getting significant results without effort is not something that computes for us. The idea that we don’t have to fight like hell or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps in order to get the desired outcome — well that’s other worldly. And that’s Yoga Nidra. It’s effortless, and it works.
Usually I practice in the afternoon and sometimes I turn on a recording right when I wake up. It’s sometimes used after the work day to let that part of the day go, enabling greater presence and peace during the evening. It might seem a little counterintuitive, but it’s actually not suggested to use Yoga Nidra as a sleep meditation unless you have problems getting to sleep. Sometimes the practice results in a burst of energy which isn’t all that helpful when sleep is desired. Here’s one of Hilary’s recordings that’s designed as a nighttime practice: Sleep Deeply with Yoga Nidra
It’s also important to note that Yoga Nidra is not a sleep replacement. Getting too few hours of sleep and poor quality sleep are associated with so many downfalls. When we turn our clocks forward in the spring and lose just an hour of sleep, there’s a 24 percent increase in heart attacks the following day. In the fall, when we gain an hour, there’s a 21 percent drop in heart attacks. Car accidents and suicide rates follow the same trends. Check out Matt Walker’s Ted Talk for more: Sleep is your superpower | Matt Walker
Practicing during the day can result in your body learning to let go and quickly drop into alpha, theta, and delta brain waves. This leads to better and deeper sleep at night.
A quick overview of brain waves: Beta is when we’re actively thinking and working. High beta is when we’re feeling anxious. Alpha is when we’re feeling relaxed. Theta is when we’re dreaming, and it has to do with integrating the day and emotional regulation. If you’ve ever awoke with an answer to a problem or question — that’s a result of theta. And delta is deep sleep. Deep rest. It’s where healing and regeneration occurs, so it’s essential for the immune system and general well-being. When you wake up feeling well-rested and ready for the day, it’s because you got enough delta. It’s also the state experienced during a coma because the sole focus of the body is on healing.
If ya can’t tell, I’m rather stoked and could easily continue on for another few pages, but I’ll start to wrap it up with some final thoughts. A few bullet points if you will.
Yoga Nidra is a gentle, behind-the-scenes healing practice. It’s effortless. It addresses the common pain points of troubled sleep, stress, and anxiety.
In less than two months of regular practice, I feel healthier, and my energy feels lighter. My eyes are brighter. My sense of humor has returned. I’m feeling like the version of myself who relishes life and isn’t so damn bogged down by burnout and trauma.
Rest is not a luxury folks. It’s a necessity. This practice happens to be free and accessible to anyone with internet access and a way to play a recording.
Ideally, don’t wait until you’re in severe upset before putting some healing practices into place. As a human being it's your right to slow down and rest. And it’s my wish that you give yourself such a gift. Let it be your own personal revolution, complete with a grounded and resilient nervous system.
*Learn more about Hilary Jackendoff’s work and trainings at meditationchick.com.
**Dr. Richard Miller developed iRest, a style of Yoga Nidra, and the Department of Defense conducted research at Walter Reed in 2006 which determined Yoga Nidra to be a treatment for PTSD.