The survivors are gathered in a tight circle when I arrive at Champion Studios, a large rehearsal space for New York City performers. I’m there to lead an iRest Yoga Nidra guided meditation experience sponsored by Sakhi for South Asian Women, a non-profit organization whose mission is to empower survivors of domestic violence.
iRest Yoga Nidra is a complete program of deep relaxation and focused self-inquiry. During the guided meditation, we learn to witness and welcome sensory impressions such as sounds, feelings, thoughts, memories and images without the mind becoming distracted by them.
Our room is the last rehearsal studio at the end of a long hall and has huge windows overlooking a maze of downtown streets. It’s Sunday afternoon and surprisingly all is quite around us.
I speak informally yet specifically about how to welcome whatever sensations arise during the session. Being in the heart of noisy New York City, I describe in detail how to witness and welcome sound; inviting all sounds in the space to be part of the meditation experience.
The women lie on mats or sit upright in chairs arranging themselves to be as comfortable as possible. Midway into the session the tranquility in the room feels palpable. As I’m guiding “Bring your awareness to the sensation in your thighs” the sound of what I imagine to be at least 50 men loudly chanting explodes into our space from the next room. “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA. . . HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA” over and over again. (Of course, as I remember later, repeating HA is a traditional voice warm-up for actors).
Not recalling that fact in the moment, however, I feel physically shaken by the voices. My focus disappears… my mind distracted by thoughts… how will these sounds affect the process, I wonder?…should I stop leading the meditation until the HA-HA’s stop?…do the women feel frightened?… what should I do?… what should I do?…
Then the support of my personal practice of Yoga Nidra arises and I remember to simply notice the HA-HA chanting, welcoming the sound to be part of my experience. I resist the urge to raise my voice and instead create a willful intention imagining that the sound of my voice is easily and effortlessly reaching every ear.
I look at the women gathered before me. Not an eyelash is moving on any of them. As I continue guiding the meditation, the chanting stops and the space becomes silent once again… we dwell together in that natural yet extraordinary place between sleep and wakefulness.
And then “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA. . . HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA…” and now an alarm in a nearby firehouse goes off and the sound of a siren pierces the space… “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA…” Siren… “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA…” Siren.
I linger in deep relaxation and welcome what’s happening in this moment. I gaze at each woman and see stillness.
The room becomes quiet once again. Our meditation ends and we gather together creating a circle with our bodies. I ask, “How was this meditation experience for you?” One by one each woman describes her Yoga Nidra practice. “I felt a peace I seldom can find within me”… “I noticed that my mind gives me images instead of letting me feel my body”… “It was the first time I was ever able to stay focused in meditation”…
We fall silent. I realize that not one woman has mentioned the men’s booming voices or the shrieking siren. I ask, “’What was your experience of the sounds in the room?” The women shrug and turn their palms up; expressing without words that it wasn’t a problem.
One woman says, “I did what you said to do…I made the sounds part of everything”…as I look around our circle each woman is nodding her head in silent agreement.
Abuse survivors… men’s voices…stillness…sirens…peace…everything part of everything…
Adrienne Jamiel leads Yoga Nidra Meditation.