Soviet Sleep-Learning or Yoga Nidra?

First - Yoga Nidra

The past weeks or so I’ve been thinking about guided meditations - those recorded mind-journeys that are so helpful and popular - Headspace, Calm, other meditations and visualizations. My favourites are always the Yoga Nidra, the Yogic sleep.

I first learned it from a cassette tape from the Himalayan Institute. Side one: full body relaxation. Side two: The 61 Points. The 61 points exercise was a beginner Yoga Nidra. Placing 61 blue flames or stars on all joints of the body in a specific order, a very old venerable practice.

Later, I saw the Yoga Nidra from Bihar School come into the foreground. I did this version faithfully - at first I’d been disturbed that the pattern wasn’t exactly the one I’d learned before. It felt a little like singing a different tune to a song you had known so well. Which one is correct? Or is this the ‘folk tradition’? It didn’t matter, for soon this Bihar version with visualization and healing, or long-style with activation of the chakras became my go-to. I took the classes for years, listened to the audio for many more, and still do. I even led weekly classes at the Y and in workshops.

Instructors have said there was something important about allowing the guidance to be spoken to you while doing the practice. Still, I couldn’t imagine being a cave yogi doing the yogic sleep with someone else guiding me along. It didn’t seem right somehow. Aren’t you supposed to learn it and then leave the guiding voice behind, doing it consciously for yourself? Still, I kept on with the audio visualization, it was so soothing, and easy. And effective for calming the autonomic nervous system. They say that 30 minutes of Yoga Nidra gives rest that is the equivalent of 4 hours sleep.

I saw versions of it popping up all over the place, in so many relaxation methods. Back in the days of flying, British Airways had “Well-Being in the Air” audio programming that was basically yoga nidra induction. People continue to adapt it for their own traditions or reasons. There is a “Druid Nidra” that is excellent, using garden imagery, or a cave in which the stars are seen. This is all potent stuff. Induction dreaming.

However, I’d wondered about the will of my own consciousness while doing this, the long-term effects of an induced passive state. When we ‘return to the normal’, I wonder if part of ourselves could be left up in that cloud storage? What if we forget the password to access it when we need it? Some of my best friends are hypnotists, visualizers, meditation leaders, mind-guides - maybe they know the score on that.

What about Sleep-learning? Are there side-effects?

The idea of using tapes for sleep-learning may have had something to it. Learn a language while you sleep! The mid-20th century was rife with rumours that there were Russian scientific methods and social manipulation techniques that made ours look clumsy and inarticulate.

Did the Russian sleep-learning ever really work? It was a gadget-based thing. And what about the brain studies, the elaborate breath-work, the raising of arms and deep squats in the gymnasium at 5AM, the psychic research behind the Iron Curtain, all techniques and ways not familiar to the west, seeming exotic and perhaps more valuable because they came from afar.

In my mind’s eye, I see women in sturdy shoes and the old stiff nurse uniforms that are pinned into place, handing obedient people tiny cups of medications designed to make the mind more malleable. Something to bring everyone into a condition of suggestibility and compliance, and promote acceptance of the most preposterous conditions and under the most unbelievable premises. What for? Wealth and power aggregation? What drives these movements that dull the will and crush the spirit?

I worry that increasing suggestibility is a removal of the will to good. Isn’t it our birthright to retain full awareness, develop critical thinking, to become useful? What forces are able to act out their purposes through gullible people who have softened their awareness? Brave New World?

Taking a tip from the Czechs, in times of oppression, look not so much to distraction, but sardonic humour, satire, coded jokes. And then to poetic expression - the place of mind that permits artistic and poetic understanding of life, death, love, power struggles, and all that is in between. Remember, after so many years of tanks in the streets and heavy oppression, the Czechs finally had a POET as head of state.

What’s the matter with us? Where’s the vision? Have Puritan values made us obedient drones? Where’s our Walden Pond? How do we retain and express our humanity? Through poetry and humour, or resignation? Secret communications? Or active forces? What do we do after relaxation of all the body parts and the placement of blue flames everywhere?

There is a new voice that can’t be silenced and calmed by sleep apps. Power roams the land in the form of giants that stomp and crush the people beneath their feet. We have to work together, to rise up and act, be human. People of good will mustn’t take it all lying down with headphones’ soothing tones relaxing the feet, the thighs, the face.

I’m used to personal changes, but these big communal shifts ask much more of us. So often these days I feel like Rip Van Winkle coming out of his sleep to see that everything has changed. And it is not like his 100 years, but in a day or two, or overnight.


Sisters: Dream and Variations

Finally I had a chance to see this poetic film featuring James’ daughters, Tyr Jami and Jasa Baka, because it is now being shown free online in the Brooklyn Film Festival! And it’s on for the duration of the festival, so be sure to check it out! Be amazed. Sisters: Dream and Variations is a feature length documentary, taking place in both Montreal and Iceland.

Just sign up for the festival at this Registration link. It’s free.

The description and film link is HERE.

Here’s the trailer, but there’s so much more to see in the film itself.

There’s also talkback interview with the director, and a toggle to vote for the film (rating from 1 to 5 - the best)


I’d started on this week’s issue of Personal Papers before the weekend, but waited until my usual time on Sunday to refine it. I tried, couldn’t do it, so here it is anyways. In light of the protests and demonstrations, and the reasons for them that the murder of George Floyd brought into the spotlight once again, I am speechless with the intensity. Like everyone seeing the news clips and reading the commentaries, I’m shocked, dismayed, and very much processing what this means for us all, for democracy, and for a more just and equal world.


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