The other day I couldn’t get out of bed. Literally.
I thought I had pulled aside the covers and crawled to the end of the bed, but in a blink returned to my back like an overturned turtle receding into her shell.
It’s not the first time I’ve experienced physical paralysis prior to waking. It happened earlier this year, and I remember furiously swinging my legs over the side of the bed but right before my feet touched ground, boom, I was on my back again.
There’s a scientific explanation for this phenomenon, which makes me feel a lot better about the whole thing. It’s called (wait for it) hypnopompic sleep paralysis.
As you sleep, every 90 minutes your body cycles through REM and non-REM. The body turns off your muscles in REM so that you’re immobile while dreaming. Unfortunately, if you become aware during the REM cycle your body is still turned off.
Hence, my paralysis.
During, I was overwhelmed by the sound of great crashing waves or wind, and the waking part of me realized it was my fan. I attempted to turn it off, but no matter how much I pressed its buttons, the sound would return.
My arms, heavy with sleep, were unmanageable to move and I quickly grew irritated. Wake up! Wake up! I internally (I think) shouted.
When I awoke, it was like the whole thing had never happened. But the first thing I did, instinctively, was turn off the fan.
When problems paralyze you
Sleep disorders aside, how many times have we felt distinctly aware of our problems but are seemingly paralyzed to their solutions? Perhaps right now you feel a discomfort, but the discomfort has persisted for months because you just don’t know where to start to put an end to it.
In my dream, discomfort arose because my physical body wasn’t doing what I told it to do. Like being on your yoga mat, one day you can balance on one foot, the next day you have trouble.
After I had my dream, I picked up my copy of The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle and opened to a random page:
“If you found yourself in paradise, it wouldn’t be long before your mind would say ‘yes, but….’ Ultimately, this is not about solving your problems. It’s about realizing that there are no problems… Problems are mind-made and need time to survive. They cannot survive in the actuality of the Now.”
My problem was that I was conscious in my dream, but I couldn’t wake up. I knew what the problem was and I couldn’t do anything to change it. Eventually, I had to shout for help.
Our subconscious problems aren’t so different from our conscious problems. In both cases, the instinct to protect our vulnerability can paralyze our actions.
Western culture encourages us to solve problems from a very young age. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, author and Economics Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman would say that this essence of our mind is called System 2.
System 2 is analytical, calculating, conscious. It’s the slow in Thinking, Fast and Slow. But Kahneman writes that there’s another portion of how our brain forms thoughts: System 1. This system is automatic, emotional, subconscious—and fast.
In yogic terms, System 2 is our self with a little “s.” It’s the person who walks around all day making judgments about what clothes to wear (and what others are wearing), whether to buy kale or cookies, and if she’s doing a yoga pose “correctly.”
System 1 is the Self with a big “S.” It’s your divine within that often gets lost in the shuffle, but emerges during life’s monumental moments. I like to describe this as feeling infinite, a phrase that never left me after reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Both of these Systems and selves are present all the time, whether we recognize them or not. It wasn’t until depression brought me to my yoga mat that I realized how out of balance I was—and I’m not talking about standing on one foot.
Yoga teaches us that many of our problems get their start in our minds. (Tweet it? Sure!)
So how do you get rid of problems?
Well, you don’t. But what you can do is stop thinking of them as problems and start treating them as teachers. You can allow your System 1 to blossom and balance out your often default System 2.
Yoga is as much a mental practice as a physical one, perhaps even moreso. That’s because long after the poses are done, your mind is still present. And maybe it’s still thinking about how you toppled over in Warrior III.
Hey, System 2! Take a break. Your mat is System 1 time. It’s where you learn to create a mental habit that knows that falling is neither good nor bad. It’s just part of the practice.
As you attempt the physical postures of yoga, and learn your body’s current limitations, it’s all too common to think: Well, I just can’t do that. I’ll never be able to do that.
If you feel paralyzed by a current situation in your life, one you may or may not be actively trying to solve, take some pressure off yourself with these truisms.
5 ways to get unstuck
1. Put this on repeat: “Where I am right now is exactly where I need to be.”
2. Ask for help. True intention for change starts with you, but sharing your struggle is where the magic happens. It’s where you start to believe that you’re not alone.
3. One Martian year equals 687 Earth days. Whenever you feel like you’re not making progress fast enough, remember that time is relative. As long as you maintain your intent to change, it will happen.
4. Olympians wouldn’t be Olympians if they performed only against themselves. We need a tribe to surround us and inspire us to be great. Find yours—even if it’s just one person.
5. Try a yoga pose you normally don’t enjoy or say you “can’t do,” and instead flip your script to, “I’m going to see what I can do in this pose today.”
Try it: Warrior III, Virabhadrasana III
One of those poses for many of my students, and for myself when I first started doing yoga, is Virabhadrasana III or Warrior III. Find the freedom in this pose by giving yourself an assist. Use a wall or keep your hands on the floor… and then see what happens when you let go.
Note: A dancing little dog will challenge your balance.
- Stand in Tadasana, Mountain Pose, and shift your weight into your right foot. Draw energy from your toes, lifting the knee cap and engaging the femur into the hip socket.
- Bring your hands to your heart and, on an exhale, firm your navel to your spine as you begin to tilt the upper body forward and extend the left leg up behind you.
- Actively reach through the left heel, flexing the toes toward your face. Drop the left hip slightly to square your hips and lift through the inner thigh. The more active your back leg, the more stable the pose.
- Keep your hands where they are, or extend your arms straight in front (a traditional Warrior III) or, my favorite, reach your arms behind you like wings.
- Soar your heart, dropping your shoulders onto the back and reaching through the fingertips.
- Keep your breath slow and steady, continually firming up your right leg and actively extending through the left heel. Bring your palms back to center before lowering your left leg. Repeat on the other side.
How do you get unstuck when your problems paralyze you?