Q: I would like to ask about the connection between Centering Prayer and Yoga Nidra. I once went on a three-day silent retreat where we did Centering Prayer three times a day, about 2 and a half hours, and an hour of Yoga Nidra in the afternoons. It was lovely, I enjoyed the silence and the Centering Prayer sits and in the afternoons it was good to lie down and relax in Yoga Nidra. I could see some similarities in these practices although Yoga Nidra is led and therefore not in a complete silence like Centering Prayer. At first I missed the silence and found the voice leading us in Yoga Nidra distracting (I wanted to use my sacred word!) but I got used to it. The retreat leader emphasized the importance of doing Yoga Nidra after long sits of Centering Prayer, when unloading would occur in Centering prayer the Yoga Nidra practice would calm it down and help the body work through it. The Centering Prayer would unsettle the system and the Yoga Nidra would correct it. I was a little surprised by that so I’m curious to hear your thoughts about it. I can see that these practises could complement each other but I wonder how? I can also imagine that our defences are lowered in Yoga Nidra as well as in Centering Prayer and wonder if an unloading could also occur after practising Yoga Nidra?
A: First of all, I would like to say that because Centering Prayer is a practice of surrender, of letting all go, it is helpful to balance it in our day with some practices of attention in which we become present to what is, in the present moment, within our body, feelings, and mind. In Centering Prayer, a practice of surrender, we are letting go of absolutely everything that comes up, and building up a muscle, or habit, of not jumping into reactive stances or identifying with stories of who we are, or what may be going on in our lives. This freeing up allows unloading of material from the unconscious to come forward. As you know, our instructions are to let this material go with our sacred word, or in cases where it is quite intense, to let it be our sacred word.
What we do with the material of our unloading is different in a practice of attention. I would put both Welcoming Prayer and Yoga Nidra in that category of practices. Yoga Nidra practices can vary a lot, but generally include attention to physicality, to breathing, and to emotions, encouraging a non-judging presence with them. There is a close resemblance to the first part of Welcoming Prayer, where we focus and sink into the body. In both practices we are fully present to what comes up in the body and in our emotions; and it can all be grounded within the body, and anchored within the present moment, rather than having a story with long tendrils extending into the past or the future. This changes our relationship to whatever emotions, sensations, or other thoughts have come up within us. This is in agreement with what you said about Yoga Nidra, that the body works through it. However, when you said that Centering Prayer might unsettle the system and Yoga Nidra would correct it, I would say, rather than “correct,” the goal is not to fix anything or change anything, but merely to be present with it. As I said above, it is however, helpful to have other practices that work with attention in balance with Centering Prayer and Yoga Nidra is a lovely one, as is the Welcoming Prayer.
There is also a unique factor in Yoga Nidra, and similar sleep practices: we can learn to enter a very relaxed state, and sometimes even sleep, without losing awareness. As we do this we let go, much as we do in Centering Prayer, of a sense of identification and entrenchment in our egoic “emotional programs for happiness,” as Father Thomas called them. This is a very relevant practice for preparing for death, our ultimate letting go to a presence beyond circumstance.
In Yoga Nidra we can also engage and grow our witnessing presence, which is described by Cynthia Bourgeault both in Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, and also in The Heart of Centering Prayer. This witnessing presence is the key to the practice of resting in God, or abiding in God, not just in our Centering Prayer but during all our activities of the day, and even as we fall asleep at night and awaken in the morning (and even through the night). Overall, this is how I see that the sleep practice relates to our Centering Prayer: with these practices we can move toward praying without ceasing. We are building a muscle of giving all of our times back to God, to the Wholeness that has always existed, and that permeates everyone.
Blessings on your practice.
Joy Andrews Hayter