Stillness, silence and Yoga Nidra

Stillness, silence and Yoga Nidra

Monday, March 21, 2022

Stillness and silence can be hard to come by, our lives are so busy – and if they’re not busy, we tend to fill the emptiness with all kinds of distractions.  Thoughts, eating, drinking, restless activity, screens of all kinds are just some of the ways we avoid actively embracing stillness and silence.

Even whilst seeking peace in nature, many have their headphones filling the silence with music, conversations, opinions and podcasts, or apps to identify plants, locations etc. All of these distract from being right here, right now, fully experiencing this place and time. It also means we can’t hear the wind in the trees, the birdsong, the waves, the stream rippling on its way.

There are many valid reasons why stillness and silence are so hard to find – our responsibilities to people, animals, jobs for starters.  But the fact is, unless we make space and time to pursue them, they will remain a mystery to us.  Yet silence is where the mystics from all traditions since the beginning of time have told us peace lies.Perhaps the most common reason we avoid it is fear of silence, fear of stillness, of dropping into emptiness, temporarily letting go of our personality, our preferences, our desires.  Fear of any kind makes makes us contract on all levels as we try to protect ourselves from discomfort. 

Silence through the ages

Silence can be a profound healer and teacher. Father Thomas Keating (1923-2018) a Trappist monk and pioneer in the Christian contemplative prayer movement says:

“Silence is God's first language; everything else is a poor translation.”

He talks briefly about this method of meditative centring prayer here and recommends the habit of emptying, becoming nothing.

St Teresa of Avila, a Catholic nun (1515-1582) said something similar:

"This magnificent refuge is inside you.  

Enter... put away the incense and forget the incantations they taught you.

Ask no permission from the authorities.

Close your eyes and follow your breath to the still place that leads to the invisible path that leads you home." 

Yoga nidra practice connects us to the stillness within, which in turn (with regular practice) takes us to the ground of being, which connects us to everything. Emptying ourselves of all images, impressions, memories and thoughts paradoxically results in completion, a fullness of being. Yoga nidra, and other forms of meditation and prayer have been used throughout history to experience this state

Quaker Silence

Quaker meetings are based on silent worship, speaking only when prompted by the spirit.  Members become used to silence and the way it deepens - calm descends on the group as the silence enfolds them, and they speak of going to a personal centre of inner peace.

An interesting article on the anthropology of Quaker silence

by Annemarie Samuels (Leiden University) - part of a project on silence with Ana Dragojlovic (University of Melbourne) funded by the EU Horizon 2020 

  Taoist Meditation – The Value of Stillness 

Close your eyes and you will see clearly

Cease to listen and you will hear the truth

Be silent and your heart will sing

Seek no contacts and you will find union. 

Be still and you will move forward on the tide of the spirit

Be gentle and you will need no strength

Be patient and you will achieve all things

Be humble and you will remain entire.

This meditation has always summed up for me the ‘peace that passes understanding’; since starting intensive Yoga Nidra practice in 2014 I know it also describes this so well. Silent retreats also reveal this deepening and profound peace and love, and the futility of so many of the words we speak. 

Not all Yoga Nidra practices include silence, the opportunity to become comfortable with it and allow its depths to teach their wisdom.  But if you want to go to the authentic roots of the practice, you’ll find the Himalayan tradition scripts are faithful to these roots. Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati’s Himalayan tradition script finishes with your attention resting in the heart space for a silent period of 10 minutes. 

Swami Satyananda Saraswati and Dr Richard Miller and many others have adapted this ancient practice to suit contemporary culture, done a great job of promoting Yoga Nidra and bringing their contemporary versions of it to a wide audience.  The development and history of the practice from its roots to the present time are accurately described here

Close your eyes and you will see clearly

Just closing the eyes reduces the brain activity by 25% or more (J Jealous – Private lectures in Osteopathy). If we are also silent, and there is silence in the Yoga Nidra script, then the language centre of the brain is also quiet, reducing neuronal activity by another 25% or more.  If we’re also motionless - lying in savasana for yoga nidra practice, or seated meditation or prayer, brain activity is likely reduced overall by about 75%. Giles Cleghorn Osteopath

In this state of reduced external stimulation, competition for attention in the neuronal circuits of the brain is also reduced, meaning the subtle activity has a chance to be noticed. This subtle internal activity is something many of us never hear, such is the focus on external distractions. We see where we are in the present moment, what we bring to it in terms of fluctuating currents of emotion, physical restlessness, tension and so on, and how these currents disconnect us from our true nature if habitually dominant.

“Specifically I have been able to work with a level of emotional tension in my body that the other Yoga Nidra practices had not revealed. This, I think is because of the periods of silence in both the breathing phase and the total silence/stillness in the last phase of the practice, allows other sensations to become clearer as there is very little going on the brain.” Reflections from a Yoga Nidra Teacher Training course student.

If we embrace complete silence we allow inner listening, meditation on the inner sound, known as nada yoga in Sanskrit. Coincidentally, the Spanish word for nothing is nada – no thing. Paying attention to this sound of no thing, we realise that it is ever present, if we listen - as Ajahn Amaro describes here.

Yoga Nidra connects us to stillness. When we relax enough, slowly but surely we learn to let go, to drop fearlessly into the stillness living quietly in our soul, we come home again. 

“When you feel a peaceful joy, that’s when you are near truth.”― Rumi

© Jane Mackarness 2022

 “Our essential nature is boundless consciousness.  We are rooted in it when the mind focuses and settles.” 

Yoga Sutras 1.3