I bloody love yoga nidra. It's without doubt one of my favourite things to 'do', talk about and teach but it's still a relatively little known compared to the more mainstream practices of yoga and meditation.
When I first started teaching Yoga Nidra back in 2016 almost no-one had heard of it and it was hard to get people to come out to classes.
These days the classes almost sell themselves as people are coming to recognise the benefits of practices for the nervous system and the mind. I am still so happy every single time a room full of people come out to lie down for 45 minutes!
In my Yoga Nidra classes over the next few weeks I'm going to be breaking down the practice into its various stages and sharing information, benefits, research and anecdotal experiences (my own and others) related to each stage to really help bring the practice to life so I have decided to share the information as a blog too for those of you who can't make it out to class or as additional information to support your practice if you can!
For this first week I just wanted to provide information about the practice and in class we're going to talk about the different stages, how they vary within styles.
What is Yoga Nidra?
Yoga Nidra, taken from the Sanskrit words meaning ‘yogic sleep’, is both a state of awareness and a practice. As a practice it is both a technique that helps to promote deep relaxation and a practice of effortless meditation. As a state of awareness it falls somewhere between sleeping, waking and dreaming and offers the potential to reap the benefits of both deep meditation and sleep simultaneously.
During a Yoga Nidra practice the brain moves through different states of awareness and as such exhibits different brainwaves activity as guided by the various stages of the practice. Between each of the stages are opportunities to access the subconscious through the doorways of the liminal states of awareness that can arise here such as the hypnogogic state (usually found just before falling asleep) and the hypnopompic state (usually arises just before waking).
Yoga Nidra has immense healing potential due to this capacity to access the subconscious and because of its ability to promote deep states of relaxation, bring normally unconscious functions under conscious control and provide a safe container within which to explore trauma, pain, suffering and challenging emotions without being triggered into emotional responses.
And all of this unfolds quite naturally without needing to do anything at all and with no prior experience, understanding or information required in order to receive the benefits.
How does Yoga Nidra differ from meditation?
This is a question I get asked a lot so thought I’d share my perspective.
Meditation is, of course, a broad category with many different approaches nestled within it but for me a seated meditation is a practice to help focus and calm the mind, there is often an object of attention such as breath, sensation or a guided visualisation, something that requires wakeful, attentive awareness. Meditation can facilitate a movement into the slower brainwaves and can be relaxing but focused presence is a pre-requisite of most styles, a common cue being to ‘bring the mind back to the breath’ or to the object of attention.
Yoga Nidra on the other hand welcomes drifting as a part of the exploration of the liminal states of awareness that are a key aspect of the practice. There is a lot of crossover as there are meditation techniques weaved throughout the stages of yoga nidra but the key difference for me is that drifting is welcomed as a doorway to altered states of consciousness such as feeling the body deeply asleep whilst the mind is aware or experiencing waking REM as just two examples. Yoga Nidra can be seen as a practice of effortless meditation as nothing is required of the practitioner in order to reach deep states of relaxation and presence. It can be a highly effective tool for deepening a seated meditation practice.
Meditation can be taken seated or supine whereas Yoga Nidra is almost always taken lying down (with lots of support it is possible to offer a seated practice to those unable to lie down).
There are usually long periods of silence within a meditation practice whereas a yoga nidra practice is usually almost consistently guided with the intention being that the mind stays loosely tuned into the voice without needing to necessarily focus on what is being said. In some styles and practices gaps are offered towards the later stages of the practice.
Yoga Nidra has only recently begun to emerge into the mainstream of meditation and as such has not been researched anywhere near as much as regular meditation practices.
Yoga nidra has been scientifically proven to improve conditions like insomnia, addiction, PTSD, anxiety, depression, chronic illness and chronic pain
Richard Miller has done extensive work with the US military using his iRest Yoga Nidra technique to heal PTSD.
It has even been shown via brain scans (EEG) that practitioners of yoga nidra can exhibit the delta brain waves usually associated with deep sleep, whilst their minds are awake and aware, accessing deep meditation from a place of effortless rest
Regular Yoga Nidra has been shown to increase levels of serotonin, dopamine, melatonin and GABA (all of the feel good hormones!).
In 2002 an experiment was undertaken to demonstrate the association between levels of dopamine and Yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra practice was shown to increase dopamine release by 65%.
(Studies taken from The Total Yoga Nidra immersion course notes delivered by Nirlipta Tuli)
Reduction in PTSD symptoms
Therapeutic use for trauma and addictions
Improved memory and recall
Better sleep ~ can be used to help with insomnia or sleep difficulties
Healing ~ decreased stress improves overall health
Enhances creativity ~ unconscious mind access
Access to bliss, pleasure and joy
Access to simple animal state of being/pure awareness
Supports and strengthens meditation practice leading to increased self-awareness
Anecdotal evidence shows a reduction in autoimmune symptoms
There are different stages and orders in which those stages are delivered depending on the style of yoga nidra and the intention of the practice but each of the different forms of yoga nidra is based on the same underlying structure as detailed below…
1. Preparation ~ preparing the body for the practice. This often involves propping and ensuring the body is warm and comfortable. It may involve checking in with the practitioner(s) to decipher the approach to be taken based on the needs of the student(s).
2. Settling ~ transitioning from the every day state of awareness towards the state of yoga nidra. There can be a focus on senses, elemental connections, body sensing and breath awareness to aid relaxation and deepen the experience of grounding
3. Sankalpa ~ intention or affirmation for the practice. There are many different ways of experiencing and arriving at an intention for the practice. It can be as simple as a short affirmative sentence that you hand over to the subconscious for the duration of the practice or a deep exploration of your heartfelt desire for this life or any intuitively arising guidance that might arise as you settle awareness at the heart. The practice is also whole and complete without this stage.
4. Rotation of consciousness ~ rotating awareness around the body. There are different itineraries depending on the intention of the facilitator, each with its own specific intent and affect.
5. Opposites ~ experiencing opposites of sensation and/or emotion depending on the focus and type of practice. Stimulating the centres of the brain responsible for homeostasis (maintaining harmony between inn and outer environments). This aspect of the practice helps to balance our basic drives and emotions as well as bringing normally unconscious functions under control.
5.Breathing / body floor awareness ~ sensing the breath can deepen the experience of yoga nidra and sensing the ground beneath can do the same and also act as an opportunity to sense back into the physicality of the body which can sometimes appear to dissolve in these later stages of nidra
6. Visualisation/bliss body experience/pure awareness ~ what happens during this stage varies greatly and is completely dependent on the intention of the facilitator and the experience of the practitioner. It can be a series of images offered by the facilitator, an invitation to notice what is present, a guided journey or an exploration of the experience of pure awareness which can sometimes lead to blissful or drifty experiences and deep relaxation. In a yoga nidra for sleep this is the point at which the facilitator releases the practitioner into sleep.
7. Sankalpa ~ sometimes the facilitator might return to the sankalpa for a second time to deepen the connection, notice if anything has shifted or visualise the intention as already happening.
Externalisation ~ a slow and gradual return to the waking state, sometimes with a reminder to bring the benefits of the practice into waking life
8. Closing ~ akin to the settling stage of yoga nidra, during this slow return back to waking consciousness it can be an apt time to share a reading, snacks or roll on essential oils to reconnect to the senses. It is important to leave a good amount of time here for the practitioner(s) to return fully back to their wakeful state without rush or hurry.
Next week we begin our exploration of the stages of yoga nidra by talking about stage 1, preparation. We'll break down the many different ways to prepare for yoga nidra and ensure that the body stays comfortable and warm for the duration.
Photo: @primalembrace // 2019