Stillness In Fast-Changing Times
Nirodah - Learning to be still
Nirodah is the theme for my online yoga classes throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, while we are staying at home and distancing ourselves physically from one another. I had actually begun to think about this as a theme for a yoga course back in February, after listening to my teachers’ podcast with J. Brown (an eminent yoga teacher in the USA), where they discussed the topic of nirodah in their new book ‘Embodying the Yoga Sutra’.
As I frantically tried to adapt my work and home life to these new circumstances, I felt this would be an important concept for me to work with personally, and that it might help my students too. The government’s mantra STAY HOME might conjure up the idea of slowing down and resting for some, but not me, when the lockdown began on 23 March I was in a flat spin.
Where does the word nirodah come from?
Nirodah means still or stilling and appears in chapter 1, sutra 2, of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra where he sets out the goal of Yoga as "Yogah citta vrtti nirodah” which means Yoga is the stilling of the activities of the mind. Right at the start (as is common in sacred Indian texts), we are given the condensed meaning of the entire book, the conclusion if you like, stating that everything we practice in Yoga is to stop the mind bouncing around like caged monkeys.
Well, I don’t know about you, but as I watched the Coronavirus pandemic spread rapidly from China, to Italy, Iran, then Spain, France and to the UK, my mind became as far from still as imaginable. I was frantically and concurrently thinking about my health, my kids’ health, their work, my husband’s job, my mother on her own, our finances, how we’d cope if one of us caught it, how the NHS would manage, I was scared by the images broadcast around the world... and I was desperately holding on to delivering all my weekly yoga teaching - serenely!
STOP! I had to stop that, I had to get off that Ferris-wheel of thoughts going round and round in my head (apparently, 80% of the thoughts you have today are the same as the ones you had yesterday). First, I recognised that my mind was all over the place, that my old patterns of anxiety were beginning to show up - I knew I needed to sit with that for a while. If you have noticed your mind being like this too, praise yourself. That’s good work, well done, this is the starting point, you are becoming aware of how you are and that’s great.
Nirodah as a state of mind - how do we get there?
Nirodah has two meanings; it is the goal of Yoga, the desired state for the mind to be in, and it is the process or the method of achieving that goal. That process is doing the practice. The method of stilling the mind is to get on your mat, every day, and practice āsana (postures), prānayāma (breath work), chanting, and meditation. These focus and direct the mind in a particular direction, and slowly, eventually, as you become more self-aware, the mind begins to settle. How do I practice nirodah in these difficult times?
I was already doing my daily practice, which includes āsana, pranayama and chanting, so why was I completely all over the place when the pandemic started to change the way we live Yoga isn’t a golden ticket, it isn’t like getting diplomatic immunity or a get-out-of-jail-free card, we all have to stop and recognise that we are living in exceptional circumstances. This is not normal (although I secretly hope some bits of it do become the new-normal), so everything is going to be different, including my mind – and yours. So, the second thing I did was to adapt my practice to the situation – more stillness was required.
3 types of nirodah
Spoiler alert for current group students: there are 3 types of nirodah: kāya nirodah referring to the body, prāna nirodah - life force/energy/breath, and citta nirodah - mind. I have slowly begun to build more nirodah into all my practices and as we know, what the body does can be reflected in the mind, and vice versa. There’s a brilliant TEDTalk by Amy Cuddy on this.
The third thing I did was take a full week off all work which was incredibly restorative and nourishing. I got up later and later each morning, I spent more and more time on my practice, I walked, did some gardening and crocheted. I stopped. So, as a yoga teacher, doing my yoga practice (almost) every day – do I always achieve the state of nirodah? When I’m spending up to an hour a day (as I am right now) on my mat, do I achieve the goal? The answer, I think, is sometimes. It can be a fleeting moment when I am utterly absorbed in a posture or breathing practice, it can be several minutes if I’m able to easily drop-in to meditation, and when I’m away on a retreat or having time off work, it can feel like my mind is channeled for an hour or more. But I have learned not to judge or measure ‘how long’, instead I check-in with myself every day, I take notice, and try to sit with myself, just as I am. I also like the idea of those moments in nirodah being cumulative, but I’m not totally sure about that!
So, as a yoga teacher, doing my yoga practice (almost) every day – do I always achieve the state of nirodah? When I’m spending up to an hour a day (as I am right now) on my mat, do I achieve the goal? The answer, I think, is sometimes. It can be a fleeting moment when I am utterly absorbed in a posture or breathing practice, it can be several minutes if I’m able to easily drop-in to meditation, and when I’m away on a retreat or having time off work, it can feel like my mind is channelled for an hour or more. But I have learned not to judge or measure ‘how long’, instead I check-in with myself every day, I take notice, and try to sit with myself, just as I am. I also like the idea of those moments in nirodah being cumulative, but I’m not totally sure about that!
Quite unexpectedly, Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God;”started popping up in my mind a few weeks ago when I was meditating (I am not a practising Christian). The words 'be still' have been very soothing and so I’m sitting with that, for now, too.
Try to just be.
To finish, a bit of advice; whether or not you are a yogi - allow yourself to stop and be still. This is incredibly hard for some people, me included, but try doing nothing for say 10 minutes, in the middle of the day. Put your phone down, turn the TV/radio/music off, don’t read, don’t talk, get away from your PC/laptop, don’t do any sort of task, hobby or practice, just be.
Om shanti X