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Creating a community bond through our common goals; shining a light on demystifying death.

Join Our Book Club

Join Dr. Deerheart and Melissa Diaz as they weave our way on a literary journey exploring various cultural and historical views on death from around the world.

Through our imaginations, into our subconscious, deep into our own hearts, let us wander to ponder, share, explore and reflect on this ILLUMINATING mystery. Together we will venture into our individual and collective PSYCHE to explore the captivating and sacred, UNIVERSAL ritual of DEATH.

Weekly online meetings begin March 9, 2021 at 7:00 pm PST

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The book club will meet on Tuesdays via Zoom from 7pm-8pm PST and will run for six weeks. The first online meeting will begin March 9th and end with the final meeting on April 13th. Each book is a six-week journey and discussion.

Printed in Laguna Beach Living magazine
October 21, 2019
Written by Mari Verdugo

Meet Dr. Deerheart, Death Doula

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There are only two guarantees in life: that you will live and that you will die -- and the rest is a mystery.

Why then, in western culture, are we so afraid of dying? Just the thought spreads worry into most minds.

For over 30 years, Dr. Andrea Deerheart, founder of Laguna Beach nonprofit The HeartWay, has been talking to people about death. Her mission is to serve people nearing their end of life transitions, as well as their loved ones and caregivers. The HeartWay provides counseling, advocacy, education, workshops, and programs to help with the changes and challenges that come along with death and dying. Their motto: Embracing Life. Honoring Death.

Through The HeartWay, Dr. Deerheart has hosted a monthly “Death Cafe” at the Susi Q Center in Laguna Beach for the last several years, dedicated to returning the intimacy, reverence, and sacredness of death and dying to a culture that often avoids, denies, or bypasses what makes us uncomfortable.

“Death inspires life, it’s not about the mortality or morbidness of it,” explains the death doula. “Until we can face our own mortality, we live in the underworld of this experience. When we were born we signed a contract that we were going to die, but we live like we aren’t going to die. There’s something amiss in that.”

Dr. Deerheart knew she needed to bring about change when she noticed that the “D word” was somewhat taboo to talk about, especially with those nearing the end of their lives. She didn’t set out to start a grief or counseling group, but rather to create a safe place with a relaxed and open atmosphere to share issues surrounding life and death. Deerheart’s Death Cafes are never the same, and have become a discussion where everyone is welcome from grandkids to grandparents, moms, dads, sons, and daughters.

“PEOPLE LEAVE INSPIRED, RELIEVED, AND MORE CONTENT,” SAYS DR. DEERHEART. “IT’S WHEN WE UNBURDEN OURSELVES — WHEN WE LET THAT SECRET OUT AND DON’T HOLD ONTO IT — THAT THE DEATH CAFE BECOMES SO MIRACULOUS.”

Following the popularity of Laguna’s Death Cafe, Dr. Deerheart has opened another in Nevada City, California, currently in its second year.

For Dr. Deerheart, nothing in this life has more honor, sweetness, and privilege than holding someone’s hand literally, spiritually, and physically when they are feeling vulnerable.

“The misnomer is that death is not a part of life, but if you’re embracing life you’re absolutely honoring death, and if you’re honoring death you’re absolutely embracing life.” explains Dr. Deerheart. “If I could change anything in the world I would wish that all beings (including those with four legs) felt loved. We can get through anything if we feel loved.”

Death Cafe is held the last Monday of every month at the Susi Q Center, 380 Third Street, Laguna Beach from 3:30-5:00pm. Being a nonprofit, The HeartWay is always accepting donations to support their mission. Please visit their website to learn more here.

Mari Verdugo is a fourth generation Laguna Beach native, photographer, and writer who knows firsthand the amazing love and work Dr. Deerheart provided for her grandma who gracefully transitioned last year. Find Mari at @marielenaphoto or on her website.

Printed in Professional Exchange magazine
March/April 2019 publication
Written by The Therapist

Yoga Nidra Graceful Transitions: Clinical Applications

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Yoga Nidra, the ancient art of conscious deep relaxation, awakens a return of intimacy and sanctity to life, living, death, and dying by offering an accessible means to transcend fears and develop a deeper connection to the essential self, psyche, and soul. Yoga Nidra elicits an exploration within ourselves at a deeper level than most treatment methods attempt to go—a level beyond ordinary waking consciousness that penetrates the subconscious mind. During Yoga Nidra the body is asleep, the mind is quiet, and the witness (pure awareness) is present. This state of consciousness has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and pain while altering the pattern of electrical activity inthe brain and increasing dopamine production, which results in psychological and spiritual tranquility. Yoga Nidra practice influences the fields of personal growth, modern psychology, and hypnotherapy.

This article focuses on providing an understanding of the history, science, and practical clinical applications of Yoga Nidra as it relates to individuals who are dying or who have a pathological fear of dying (Death Anxiety).

Introduction to Yoga Nidra

Yoga Nidra, the state of psychic sleep (a conscious sleep where the physical body falls into the deepest state of relaxation while the mind remains fully conscious), is derived from ancient classical texts of India— the Puranas, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads. It is an efficient method of inducing complete physical, mental, and emotional relaxation. The term Yoga Nidra is derived from two Sanskrit words: yoga meaning union or oneness, and nidra meaning sleep. Yoga Nidra is not a technique but rather a state of consciousness. During the state of Yoga Nidra, you leave the waking state, go through a dreaming state, and move into a deep state, yet remain fully awake. During this state of deep relaxation, the body is awake and aware. According to Swami Satyananda Saraswati, one of the founding teachers of Yoga Nidra in Western culture, “In Yoga Nidra, the consciousness is in a state between waking and sleep, but it is neither. In modern psychology this has been termed the hypnagogic state, but I prefer to call it the hypnayogic state. But the best name of all is Yoga Nidra” (Saraswati, 2008). Yoga Nidra is a state of meditation and pratyahara (turning the mind inward). During Yoga Nidra, the client discovers and investigates sensations, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and images. As these impressions are allowed to float freely in awareness without the client trying to repress or express them, they arise and fade away into the background, no longer bothersome to the mind because the mind has no intention to refuse or deny their existence. This corridor to pratyahara is a method of elimination whereby unconscious material surfaces into awareness—into consciousness. When repressed material arises without attachment, it dissolves (Miller, 2016).

Yoga Nidra is utilized for both developing consciousness and self-healing. In our deepest states of relaxation, the physiology of the body returns to a state of balance from which healing occurs. Where healing is possible, Yoga Nidra will maximize the ability of the body and mind to heal itself. Yoga Nidra supports the immune system, the nervous system, the endocrine system, and all the organs of the body. Yoga Nidra is an outstanding complementary approach to supporting the healing process of patients suffering from cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, chronic fatigue, pain, anxiety, and much more.

The human body is a densely packed field of energy. Through this field, prana, life energy flows through the 72,000 different channels described by yoga. These channels are called nadi. Every thought, every feeling produces a change in the flow of prana. Disturbances in the flow define our suffering both physically and emotionally. When the flow of prana is disturbed the systems of the body function less than optimally. The practice of Yoga Nidra maximizes the potential of the body and mind to heal themselves by restoring the proper flow of prana. It expands consciousness and allows the systems of the body to function properly.

History of Yoga Nidra

The importance of deep relaxation to our health and well-being has its origins in Yoga, the world’s oldest system of quieting the mind. As the knowledge spread out ofIndia, it impacted the systems of healing and spirituality around the world. As Yoga teachers came to the United States during the 19th century, they emphasized the importance of deep relaxation techniques. This significantly influenced the personal-growth field and the field of modern psychology. It also became the foundation of some techniques within a branch of psychology called hypnotherapy. From this state of deep relaxation, suggestions can be implanted in the subconscious. Yogis call these suggestions sankalpa, or intention. It is through sankalpa that our personal world and all of our experiences come into existence.

Neuroscience and the scientific literature are now demonstrating how the brain is changing during meditation, sound, and prayer, and creating changes in thoughts—this is called neuroplasticity. Positive thoughts expand our brains. Negative thoughts shrink them. The biggest factors creating these changes are our thoughts and emotions. Self-directed neuroplasticity is a concept that allows us to influence our minds consciously and control how we want our brains to work. For example, anytime we learn a new skill (e.g. meditation, Yoga Nidra), our brain functioning changes and adapts to whatever we put in front of it (Mental Health Daily, 2015). Yoga Nidra is a powerful tool to assist in expanding our minds and becoming conscious creators.

Psychologists, often without knowing the proper name of the technique and its broadest implications, were the pioneers of Yoga Nidra in the West. They modified it and called it by a variety of names, including guided or progressive relaxation. Today, the Yoga Therapy community has reclaimed this technique by bringing it back to the practice of yoga for healing body and mind, for deepening one’s experience of meditation, and for expanding consciousness. Yoga Nidra is utilized as a therapeutic tool all over the world in a variety of clinical settings, such as mental health centers, hospitals, rehab centers, cancer centers, Ayurvedic centers, yoga centers, and hospices.

The Science

Yoga Nidra, although an ancient practice, has a strong foundation of empirical data to help us understand the practical applications. These studies will help solidify Yoga Nidra as a valid instrument to help clients and patients with fears, anxiety, dying, disease, and PTSD. In addition, Yoga Nidra has been effectively prescribed in conjunction with other medical and yogic procedures in the management of severe autoimmune diseases, psychosomatic diseases, cancer, bronchial asthma, colitis, peptic ulcer, and menstrual irregularities.

A study conducted in 2005 by the Department of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience at Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark utilized positron emission tomography (PET) and found that participants in Yoga Nidra demonstrated more brain activity and blood flow in the areas of known sensory imagery. These are areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, that become active during visualization. They also found that the  areas of the brain associated with executive function (the cognitive process that organizes), including the thalamus, the pons (the part of the brainstem that links the medulla oblongata and the thalamus), and the cerebellum and striatum, showed decreased activity. They concluded that in meditation both the quality and the contents of consciousness may be voluntarily changed, making it an obvious target in the quest for the neural correlate of consciousness. They also found decreased efficiency of retrieval of self-judgment. (Lou, Hans C., et al, 2005).

A study at the John F. Kennedy Institute in Denmark found increased production of dopamine during the practice of Yoga Nidra. Dopamine has a powerful effect on many physical and cognitive functions, including movement, motivation, and memory. It is also responsible for the feelings of reward and pleasure, which is why it’s often considered “the pleasure neurotransmitter.” This study concluded that Yoga Nidra alters brain biochemistry and increases a sense of well- being, creativity, contentment, and bliss, thereby establishing the reasoning that when you change your frame of consciousness you change your biochemistry—i.e. neuroplasticity (Kjaer TW, et al, 2002).

Many studies on Yoga Nidra and Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) continue to be conducted on military sites around the world. John F. Kennedy University in California in 2011 conducted a groundbreaking eight-week feasibility study to see if veterans with combat-related PTSD could complete the Yoga Nidra sessions.The veterans that completed the eight-week study (16 patients began the study and 11 completed it) all reported an increase in their well-being and a willingness to participate in weekly classes. As a result of this study, many military veterans are utilizing Yoga Nidra as an ongoing treatment in managing their PTSD (Stankovic, 2011).“

Today, there are hundreds of studies being conducted in psychoneuroimmunology, a field of study that looks at the interactions between the central nervous system (CNS) and the immune system. Researchers advocate for the role of stress reduction and complementary therapies in traditional settings. There is substantial evidence from both healthy populations and individuals with cancer that links psychological stress with immune dysregulation. When you have cancer, the cells have damage. We now know that stress decreases the body’s natural immune protection against cancer and reduces the factors that affect DNA repair mechanisms.Many cancer centers and clinical environments are already utilizing integrative therapies such as meditation, music therapy, yoga therapy, and support groups. Yoga Nidra is yet another effective tool to help the body’s immune system heal and repair the damaged DNA (Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., et al, 2002).

Other conditions that benefit from regular Yoga Nidra practice include metabolic disease (diabetes mellitus), cardiac disease (hypertension, post-heart attack care), psychological disease (anxiety and depression), chronic and autoimmune disease (Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus), and pain secondary to injuries and cancer.

Clinical Practices Yoga Nidra: Graceful Transitions

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Yoga Nidra has extensive application to management of diseases of all kinds and promises to play a vast role in the future as its potential becomes fully recognized by doctors, psychologists, and healers. Its value as both a curative and a palliative technique has been investigated in recent years in research centers around the world with favorable results in more than 33 research articles. For the past 30 years, I have had the privilege of companioning hundreds of individuals over the threshold from life to death, beyond which they must walk alone. Each sacred brush with death sanctions a glimpse into the great mystery of this life. Many clients and their families have found Yoga Nidra extremely helpful in managing their pain and anxiety, and in cultivating spiritual serenity. Many transcend their fears and develop a deeper connection to their subtle and spiritual body, which frees them to embrace their lives, say their goodbyes, and honor their deaths. Yoga Nidra provides a personal and professional tool to help release blockages in the body, the mind, and the consciousness, and connect with an authentic sense of self.

While today we steep in images of death predicated on fear and violence that are parlayed ad nauseum by film, television, video games, and a news media bent on a consistent diet of rage, terror, and dismay, actual dying— death as commonly encountered every day— remains almost invisible, in effect vehemently denied. Indeed, most individuals in the West spend more time viewing—as entertainment— media portrayals of terror-stricken death than considering their own inevitable demise or holding death in their arms as loved ones pass from this life. To be human is to be reminded of death and have a perspective informed by it. Death is understood with the heart, the soul, and our essential being.Considered metaphysically and from the perspective of depth psychology, the soul is the seat of the heart and the home of individual and collective consciousness. Yoga Nidra offers a pathway to developing a harmonious relationship with dying, death, and loss ina culture where death is feared, denied, and often shoved in the closet.

Through Yoga Nidra, I have had the profound honor of witnessing many clients and their families increase the quality and meaning of their lives.

Conclusion

Yoga Nidra is a state of deep conscious relaxation. It is an efficient method of inducing complete physical, mental, and emotional relaxation. It is in this deep state of relaxation that we can achieve our highest level of healing and become the conscious creator of our life and death. Yoga Nidra can be conducted in individual sessions or groups at health and mental-health institutions, or at home by listening to a guided recording (Yoga Nidra: Graceful Transition).

Many clients benefit from one-on-one sessions with a trained Yoga Nidra teacher as well as from practicing daily in the comforts of their own home. Advanced certification courses in Yoga Nidra and Yoga Nidra: Graceful Transitions are available.  

Andrea Deerheart PhD

Dr. Andrea Deerheart is the passionate founder of The HeartWay, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to embracing life through honoring death, and author of Yoga Nidra: Graceful Transitions. Using wisdom gathered from decades of guiding the living and dying physically, spiritually, and psychologically, Andrea has provided loving care and healing for those on the journey of living and dying. Her primary work and teaching focuses on issues related to aging, radiant well-being, cultural mythology, death, and dying, as well as on grief, loss, and mindful and compassionate care. She also offers diverse programs that emphasize the relevance that the lessons learned near death have for living a more loving and compassionate life. Dr. Deerheart is a RYT 500 Yoga Medicine Trainer and a certified Yoga Nidra instructor.She has a doctorate degree in mythology with an emphasis in depth psychology, comparative religions, death, dying, and beyond. She is a sought-after consultant, writer, and poet.

References

Deerheart, Andrea. Yoga Nidra Graceful Transitions: A Pathway to a Beautiful Death, https://smile.amazon.com/Yoga-Nidra-Graceful- Transitions-Beautiful/dp/B07BBRR7BP/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid= 1543825011&sr=8-1&keywords=andrea+deerheart2018

Easwaran, Eknath. Bhagavad Gita. S.l.: NILGIRI PR, 2019. Print.

Halpern, Marc. Yoga Nidra and Self Healing, https://smile.amazon. com/Yoga-Nidra-Self-Healing-Relaxation/dp/B007PA4LN0/ref=sr_ 1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1543825204&sr=8-1&keywords=yoga+nidra+a nd+self+healing.

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., et al. “Psycho-Oncology and Cancer: Psychoneuroimmunology and Cancer.” Annals of Oncology, vol. 13, no. suppl 4, Jan. 2002, pp. 165–169., doi:10.1093/annonc/ mdf655.

Kim, Sang-Dol. “Psychological Effects of Yoga Nidra in Women with Menstrual Disorders: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials.” Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, vol. 28, 2017, pp. 4–8., doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2017.04.001.

Lou, Hans C., et al. “The Mental Self.” Progress in Brain Research The Boundaries of Consciousness: Neurobiology and Neuropathology, 2005, pp. 197–594., doi:10.1016/s0079-6123(05)50014-1.

Kjaer, Troels W, et al. “Increased Dopamine Tone during Meditation-Induced Change of Consciousness.” Cognitive Brain Research, vol. 13, no. 2, 2002, pp. 255–259., doi:10.1016/s0926-6410(01)00106-9.

Miller, Richard C. The Irest Program for Healing Ptsd: A Proven- Effective Approach to Using Yoga Nidra Meditation & Deep Relaxation Techniques to Overcome Trauma. , 2016. Print.

Saraswati, Swami S. Yoga Nidra. Place of publication notidentified: Yoga Publications Trust, 2003. Print

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“Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: Consciously Changing Your Brain Function.” Mental Health Daily, 22 Feb. 2015, mentalhealthdaily. com/2015/02/20/self-directed-neuroplasticity-consciously- changing-your-brain-function/.

Stankovic, L. “Transforming Trauma: A qualitative feasibility study of integrative restoration Yoga Nidra on combat-related post- traumatic stress disorder.” Int J Yoga Therap. 2011;(21):23-37. \

Srivastava, Neena, et al. “Impact of Yoga Nidra on Psychological General Wellbeing in Patients with Menstrual Irregularities: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” International Journal of Yoga, vol. 4, no. 1, 2011, p. 20., doi:10.4103/0973-6131.78176.

The Upanishads. New York: Dover, 1962. Print.