This is certainly one version of yoga, the kind that dominates the modern understanding of yoga in the West, but it is not at all what we are talking about today.
What if I told you there’s another type of yoga where you don’t move at all? You don’t even sit or stand; you lie down all the time. It is 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 consciousness where you are neither awake nor asleep, but in a liminal space in between, or perhaps transcending both. (Technically, the term refers to a state of consciousness outside of waking or sleeping. That is, yoga nidra is the destination, not the journey to get there. But in common parlance, people use it to mean the entire practice.)
Yoga Nidra enables you to get out of your body, thoughts and emotions. It’s a state of deep relaxation and, proponents say, deep healing where your subconscious becomes more open to learning and establishing new patterns of thought and behavior, stress dissipates and you move toward physical health and homeostasis. “Equal to four 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, promoting relaxation, better sleep, and even recovery from major stress and trauma. There isn’t a person in today’s world who can’t benefit from slowing down and deliberately practicing calming, restorative practices. Is yoga nidra right for you?
A Brief History of Yoga Nidra
Modern yoga nidra practices have roots in many ancient yoga and meditation traditions. In ancient texts, yoga nidra or yoganidra sometimes referred to that non-sleeping, waking level of consciousness or to the goddess Yoga Nidra Shakti. Yoga nidra was often described as a higher state of being where normal mental and bodily activity ceases and the yogi attains 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 relaxation, according to scientists, but it really got its start thanks to Swami Satyananda. The teachings of Saraswati. Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, Satyananda developed a method of breathing techniques and body scanning to achieve advanced relaxation and enter yoga nidra. If you take a yoga nidra class today, there’s a good chance you’ll be following her method or something similar.
Yoga nidra has since enjoyed increasing 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 the institute of the same name, to help people dealing with anything from “normal” stress to severe PTSD, sleep disorders, and problems. chronic health problems. Recently, Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman coined the term Non-Sleep Deep Relaxation (NSDR) to include practices that can promote stress relief, neuroplasticity, more effective learning, and better sleep, among other benefits. Huberman considers yoga nidra, hypnosis or self-hypnosis, and sleep to be 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 reach a deeper level of consciousness. You remain aware of the outside world (unlike when you sleep), but you are completely disconnected from it. You are aware but not really awake. There, but not there. In an authentic state of yoga nidra, you reportedly experience not only deep relaxation, but also a sense of interconnectedness with the universe.
This is where yoga nidra differs from traditional meditation in an important way. In meditation, you usually sit and develop an intense focus, sometimes on the breath, a chant, or a mental image. You are very awake and your conscious awareness is very “on”. In yoga nidra, the conscious mind is “switched off,” replaced by an awareness that is neither focused nor intentional. As yoga scholars Dr. Steven Parker and Swami Veda Bharati describe, “Neither thoughts nor images are present, and the practitioner experiences conscious, deep, dreamless sleep, aware of the surroundings but not thinking about them or interacting with them.”
As with all forms of yoga or meditation, the details of your practice will depend on who is guiding you. Depending on how your guide or teacher has been trained, they may follow a script or may go into a more intuitive flow during the session. In any case, it will probably involve a series of similar steps, something like this.
- You start lying on your back savasanaor corpse position.
- Set an intention, or sankalpa, for practice. This could be something as simple as “I’m going to rest” or it could be something bigger that you’re trying to achieve, like “I’m going to sleep well at night” or “I’m going to stop drinking alcohol.”
- Next comes a series of visual and breathing exercises. The goal is to move you through the various layers of the self into the state of yoga nidra. Typically you begin with a body scan, moving your awareness to various points on your body, followed by instructions to bring awareness to your breath, your senses, and your thoughts, often with specific visualization cues. Eventually, you reach the desired state of deep relaxation.
- Finally, you reaffirm your intention or sankalpa before returning to the waking state.
Benefits of Yoga Nidra
According to traditional wisdom, yoga nidra is a deeply healing state. Yoga Nidra is particularly well-known as an effective way to relieve stress, sleep better, and improve overall well-being. And there are many studies that support these claims, e.g.
- Yoga nidra reduced stress and anxiety among college students, nursing students, and faculty.
- Adults with chronic insomnia were randomly assigned to cognitive behavioral therapy or to perform yoga nidra at home (via audio recording) for five weeks. Total sleep time and sleep efficiency improved in both groups, but yoga nidra outperformed CBT in terms of changes in slow-wave sleep and overall insomnia severity.
- Four weeks of yoga nidra was more effective than progressive muscle relaxation in improving sleep quality in male athletes (although both were beneficial).
- Two studies found that depression and anxiety decreased and psychological well-being improved in women with menstrual health problems after six months of yoga nidra. (Interestingly, yoga nidra also seems to affect reproductive hormone levels.)
- Yoga nidra can be an effective tool to help veterans (and potentially others) cope with PTSD symptoms. The Surgeon General of the US Army has endorsed yoga nidra as an effective pain management strategy.
Scientific studies (small though they are) provide some evidence of the physiological effects underlying the mental and physical health benefits of exercise.
- According to one study, e.g. yoga nidra can activate the parasympathetic, relaxing and digestive nervous systems; as evidenced above heart rate variability (HRV).
- Another group of researchers subjected eight experienced yoga teachers to PET scans and had them practice yoga nidra, during which they showed: A 65 percent increase in dopamine release in the brain.
- Other studies show that a regular practice of yoga nidra can reduce blood pressure, inflammation as measured by CRP, and blood glucose levels.
There is no doubt that all forms of yoga and meditation can provide tremendous physical, mental, and even spiritual benefits to those who practice regularly. However, other forms of yoga have barriers to entry – fears that you might not be strong enough or flexible enough, for example – which can scare people away. And many people give up meditation because it is too difficult for them to quiet the monkey mind and achieve the desired concentration (although it gets easier with time).
The beauty of yoga nidra is that it can be practiced anywhere by anyone. No special equipment or physical training is required. There are many free yoga nidra exercises online, and many yoga studios offer private lessons. Some are as short as 10 minutes, which is great when you need a quick break. However, to really reap the benefits, most yoga nidra practices will last 30 to 45 minutes or more.
If the idea of detaching from the conscious mind while still maintaining awareness, the idea of ”traveling the interface between sleeping and waking consciousness” (the general line of yoga nidra) Sounds a little too abstract for you, but I’d encourage you to give it a try. All you have to do is lie still and listen to the teacher’s voice. Consider practicing deep relaxation to start. Who could not benefit from that?
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