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Rediscovering the Family Wisdom of Yoga
I was raised with yoga, though it didn’t involve stretchy pants or sticky mats. At its origins, yoga is an Eastern practice of presence. My parents, who immigrated from India, gave me sacred tools, such as mantra, meditation, and full-body namaskar, to steady my mind and body from a young age. As a first-generation teen in America, I desperately wanted to escape being teased for my culture, so in order to assimilate, I intentionally displaced those parental teachings. It wasn’t until I felt lost, exhausted, and at my lowest in adulthood that I rediscovered the true healing of yoga, and, in particular, yoga nidra.
When I was a child, I suffered from anxiety. I took schoolwork extremely seriously, even as a 6-year-old. I constantly worried about disappointing people and being rejected. I felt guilty for how hard my parents had to work to provide for us. I frequently got sick.
At night before bedtime, my mother could see the tension of my thinking mind and scrunched body. She used to cover me with a blanket. And then, very gently, she wished each part of my body to sleep in a voice where spoken word meets song. She always started with my eyes: “Eyes, go to sleep.” And she continued from head to toe.
Only moments into the experience, my child mind moved from anxiety into a state of soft focus as I listened to the rhythm of my mother’s voice asking my arms, my elbows, then my hands to rest.
Years later, as a young adult, I embraced societal norms. I proved my work ethic in high school, worked an overnight job while on scholarship in college, and was accepted into a prestigious program to teach elementary school in underserved communities in New York City. Though well-intentioned, the program stressed student academic results. Like my counterparts, I arrived early, worked late and through weekends, and was encouraged to make home visits to students, leaving virtually no time for myself.
The anxiety that affected me in childhood had not disappeared. I took the program’s expectations and my job extremely seriously. I worried about disappointing people and being rejected. I felt guilty about letting down my students and their families. And I frequently got sick. One week in February, in my first year of teaching, I was so ill that I couldn’t stand up or breathe without pain for weeks. One might think that after my recovery I would have learned to take better care of myself. But my patterns under pressure continued for another year, until my immune system and skin—from head to toe—quite literally flared up.
Having access to physical health care and prescribed medication helped, but they didn’t solve the self-destructive pattern that still continued in me.
As an adult, I forgot that I might need exactly what a child needs—regular rest and reassurance. As an adult, I undervalued my Indian family’s generational wisdom, like yoga nidra.
Yoga nidra loosely means “yoga sleep” in Sanskrit. The intentions of the practice of yoga nidra are to bring together the mind, body, and spirit into blissful union (“yoga” in Sanskrit). Bringing oneself into presence can be considered a state of yoga, where you are relieved from the common human affliction of distraction and thinking.
As a practice, yoga nidra calmly guides one’s attention to the outside environment, to the environment of one’s own breathing and body in sequence, and to the inside environment of one’s mind. Similar to my mother’s spoken song, it involves calm, repetitive guidance, much like a mantra (Sanskrit for a devotional repetition either spoken out loud or inside the mind to gently train the mind toward stillness, or meditation).
I rediscovered yoga and yoga nidra as a new struggling schoolteacher, and I’ve been practicing ever since. After nearly two decades of seeing the effects of pressure for high achievement on fellow teachers, administrators, kids, and families, I took steps to share the benefits of yoga nidra more widely. I became a certified yoga teacher and later earned my degree from Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program, where I began designing curricula for yoga and mindfulness self-regulation research. In recent years, advancement in technology to help us study electrical brain signals (EEG), structure (MRI), and oxygen flow (fMRI) often underscore what people have been experiencing for thousands of years: Ancient Indian yoga nidra (“progressive body relaxation” in science) can elicit a relaxation response and support mental and physical health across ages and populations to help us live productive, happier lives.
My wish is to bring the long-standing benefits of yoga nidra to children and adults of all ages across the world. Yoga Nidra Lullaby is my first children’s picture book, which I authored and illustrated. It is inspired by my ancestry and family, my yoga research, and my continued work in education. In the story, calm scenes are paired with poetic couplets and reflective questions to progressively invite relaxation into sleep, from head to toe. May it bring your mind, body, and loved ones together.
Rina Deshpande is a pre-K-12 educator, researcher, author, and illustrator for Yoga Journal Magazine, Learning and the Brain at Harvard, Self Magazine, Talkspace, and more. She is a member of SCBWI. She enjoys writing and illustrating yoga-inspired light poetry on Instagram as @rinathepoet. Follow Rina @rinathepoet for free video resources and more!