What mental image does the word “yoga” conjure for you? Probably a spandex-clad individual in downward dog or balancing on one leg in tree pose. Or maybe they’re in a complicated full-body knot that requires five times more flexibility than you’ve ever had? Does it look like hard work?
That’s certainly one version of yoga, the kind that dominates the modern notion of yoga in the West, but it’s not at all what we’re talking about today.
What if I told you that there is another kind of yoga, one in which you don’t move at all? You don’t even sit or stand; you lie down the whole time. That’s yoga nidra. “Yoga nidra” literally means “yogic sleep,” sometimes translated as “conscious sleep.” The goal of yoga nidra is to achieve an altered state of awareness where you are neither awake nor asleep but in a liminal space in between—or maybe surpassing both. (Technically, the term refers to the state of consciousness beyond wakefulness or sleeping. That is, “yoga nidra” is the destination, not the journey it takes to get there. But in common parlance, people use it to mean the entire practice.)
Yoga nidra offers the opportunity to step outside your body, thoughts, and emotions. It is a state of deep relaxation and, say proponents, of deep healing where your subconscious becomes more open to learning and establishing new thought and behavior patterns, stress dissipates, and you move towards physical health and homeostasis. “Equivalent to fours hours of deep sleep!” is a common selling point.
The latter may or may not be true, but it’s clear that yoga nidra has a lot to offer by way of promoting relaxation, better sleep, and even recovery from major stress and trauma. There isn’t a person operating in the modern world who couldn’t benefit from slowing down and intentionally tapping into relaxing, restorative practices. Is yoga nidra right for you?
A Brief History of Yoga Nidra
Modern yoga nidra practices have roots tracing back into many ancient yoga and meditation traditions. In ancient texts, yoga nidra or yoganidra sometimes referred to that non-sleep, non-waking level of consciousness or to the goddess Yoga Nidra Shakti. Yoga nidra was often described as a higher state of being, one in which normal mental and bodily activities ceased, and the yogi achieved a state of bliss.
The type of yoga nidra practice you’re likely to encounter today was probably inspired by 19th and 20th century “relaxationists” and hypnotists who were interested in harnessing the healing power of rest, according to scholars, but it really got its kickstart thanks to the teachings of Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, Satyananda devised a method of using breathing techniques and body scans to achieve progressive relaxation and tap into yoga nidra. If you take a yoga nidra class today, there’s a good chance you’ll be following his method, or something quite like it.
Yoga nidra has since enjoyed a surge in popularity, as well as academic interest. In the 2000s, clinical psychologist and yoga scholar Dr. Richard Miller developed his iRest protocol—a version of yoga nidra—and institute of the same name to help people dealing with issues ranging from “normal” stress to severe PTSD, sleep disturbances, and chronic health issues. More recently, Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman coined the term “non-sleep deep rest” (NSDR) to encompass practices that can promote stress release, neuroplasticity, more efficient learning, and better sleep, among other benefits. Huberman counts yoga nidra, hypnosis or self-hypnosis, and napping as types of NSDR.
What Happens During a Yoga Nidra Practice?
Yoga nidra involves a guided, meditative practice designed to achieve a deep state of relaxation where you transcend waking, sleeping, and dreaming states to arrive at a deeper level of consciousness. You remain aware of the outside world (unlike when you’re asleep), but you are totally detached from it. You are aware but not really awake. There but not-there. In a true state of yoga nidra, you reportedly experience not only profound relaxation but a sense of interconnectedness with the universe.
This is where yoga nidra differs from traditional meditation in an important way. With meditation, you are usually sitting up and cultivating intense focus, sometimes on the breath, a chant, or a mental image. You are very much awake, and your conscious awareness is very much “on.” In yoga nidra, conscious thought is “turned off,” replaced by an awareness that is neither focused nor intentional. As yoga scholars Dr. Stephen Parker and Swami Veda Bharati describe it, “Neither thoughts nor images are present, and the practitioner experiences conscious, deep, dreamless sleep, possessing awareness of the surroundings but neither thinking about them nor interacting with them.”
Like all forms of yoga or meditation, the particulars of your practice will depend on who’s guiding you. Depending on how your guide or teacher was trained, they may follow a script or they may tap into a more intuitive flow during the session. Either way, it will probably involve a similar series of steps, something like this:
- You begin by lying on your back in savasana, or corpse pose.
- Set an intention, or sankalpa, for the practice. This might be something simple like “I am going to relax,” or it could be something bigger you are trying to achieve like, “I will sleep well at night” or “I will stop drinking alcohol.”
- Next comes a series of visualization and breathing exercises. The purpose is to move you through different layers of the self toward a state of yoga nidra. Typically you would start with a body scan, moving your awareness to different points around your body, followed by instructions to bring awareness to your breathing, your senses, and your thoughts, often with specific visualization cues. Ultimately, you arrive in the desired state of deep relaxation.
- Finally, you reaffirm your intention or sankalpa before returning to a waking state.
Benefits of Yoga Nidra
According to traditional wisdom, yoga nidra is a deeply healing state. Yoga nidra is especially touted as an effective way to alleviate stress, sleep better, and improve overall well-being. And there are plenty of studies to support these assertions, for example:
- Yoga nidra reduced stress and anxiety among college students, nursing students, and professors.
- Adults with chronic insomnia were randomly assigned to receive cognitive behavioral therapy or do yoga nidra at home (using a recording) for five weeks. Both groups’ total sleep time and sleep efficiency improved, but yoga nidra outperformed CBT in terms of changes in slow-wave sleep and total insomnia severity.
- Four weeks of yoga nidra was more effective than progressive muscle relaxation for improving sleep quality in male athletes (though both were helpful).
- Two studies found that depression and anxiety decreased, and psychological well-being improved, among women with menstrual health problems after six months of yoga nidra. (Interestingly,yoga nidra also seems to affect reproductive hormone levels.)
- Yoga nidra may be an effective tool for helping veterans (and potentially others) cope with PTSD symptoms. The U.S. Army Surgeon General has endorsed yoga nidra as an effective strategy for pain management.
Scientific studies (small though they are) provide some evidence about the physiological effects underlying sthe mental and physical health benefits practitioners observe.
- According to one study, for example, yoga nidra can activate the parasympathetic, rest-and-digest nervous system, as evidenced by higher heart rate variability (HRV).
- Another set of researchers put eight experienced yoga teachers in a PET scan and had them do a yoga nidra practice, during which they showed a 65 percent increase in dopamine release in the brain.
- Other studies suggest that a regular yoga nidra practice can reduce blood pressure, inflammation as measured by CRP, and blood glucose levels.
There’s no question that all forms of yoga and meditation can offer tremendous physical, mental, and even spiritual benefits for people who practice regularly. However, other forms of yoga have barriers to entry—concerns that you might not be strong enough or flexible enough, for example—that can scare people away. And a lot of people give up on meditation because they find it too hard to quiet the monkey mind and achieve the desired focus (although that does get easier with time).
The beauty of yoga nidra is that it can be practiced anywhere by anybody. No special equipment nor physical fitness capabilities are required. There are lots of free yoga nidra exercises online, and many yoga studios offer in-person classes. Some are as short as 10 minutes, which are great when you need to take a quick break. To really tap into the benefits, though, most yoga nidra practices will last 30 to 45 minutes or so.
If the idea of disconnecting from the conscious mind while still retaining awareness, of “surfing the interface between sleeping and waking consciousness” (a common tag line of yoga nidra) feels a bit too abstract for you, I’d encourage you to give it a try nevertheless. All you have to do is lie still and listen to the teacher’s voice. Consider it a practice of deep relaxation to start. Who couldn’t benefit from that?
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