January 27, 2012

Can’t Get Back To Sleep?

When your mind is whirling, working with your body can settle things down.

4:00 in the morning is a dark and lonely hour. Really, the best thing to do if you find yourself awake at 4:00 in the morning is roll over and go back to sleep. And, earlier this week, when I found myself wide awake at precisely that hour, that is what I tried to do.

It didn’t work.

I’d woken with a start from a dead sleep, the answer to a question that had been nagging me all weekend suddenly crystal clear. My heart was pounding. Adrenaline was coursing through my body. My mind was racing – making lists, schedules and working logistics. Other than the fact that one usually wants to be asleep, the problem with 4:00 in the morning is that everyone else is. Therefore, there was no way for me to get going on all the work I now knew I had to do.

After 20 minutes of ujjayi breathing, attempts at meditation, and mindfully trying to relax each area of my body, I was no closer to sleep. In fact, trying to hold still and relax had left me feeling increasingly stressed. So I slipped out of bed, brushed my teeth, laced up my sneakers and woke up the dog (poor thing). While we walk pretty fast on a normal day, that morning, we were flying!

My steps fell automatically into a steady, regular pace. My breathing synchronized with my movements. Because it was so dark, my eyes stayed focused on the road just ahead, not searching or drawn to any sights. As I breathed and moved, my mind focused. As I walked, I felt my perspective shift. I could see the whole of my problem – the good, the bad and the ugly. Instead of allowing the urge to react to distract me, I kept looking at it, studying it, accepting it.

Because I was working so hard physically, my mind began to downshift from the frenzied state I’d awakened in. I was still fully absorbed in the issue at hand, but in a very different way. Rather than working the problem, I was observing it. Giving myself other work to do (zipping through the dark streets of town so quickly that the dog was behind me at times) somehow freed me from the need to get to work – now! – that had shaken me from my slumber. This watchful, attentive mindset gave me the space I needed to grapple with what had caused my problem. It also gave me the patience to consider a variety of possible solutions. (After all, I wouldn’t be able to actually do anything until I got home!)

By the time my dog and I climbed the last hill of our walk, I began to sense my problem’s solution. I felt the beginnings of a plan fall into place. I was tired from the exercise, but I wasn’t sleepy. (That would come much later in the day.) I was wide-eyed and very alert, but no longer panicked. While my mind remained focused on my issue, I felt centered. I felt confident in the actions I was poised to take once the rest of the world woke up.

I am so grateful to my yoga practice for reminding me over and over again of the interconnection of my body and my mind. I am so grateful for the deep, clear understanding that sometimes the best thing to do when one part of me is out of balance is to work with another part. I knew instinctively that morning that to continue to think would quickly turn into a cyclone of frenzied thoughts and panicked feelings. Without thinking about it, my body seemed to know that if I shifted gears to do something physical, my mind would have the chance to settle.

As I absorbed myself in the hard work of a lightning-fast walk, I was able to safely experience my harried thoughts and upset feelings. Burning off some physical steam left me calmer inside and out. Stretching my legs and lungs in that cool morning air left me with a sense of space around my problem. I no longer felt squeezed to react. Instead, I felt I had the space to act mindfully.

Was that walk yoga? Not quite. But it sure provided some of the practice’s best gifts on that dark, early morning. 

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