This week we explore the first two stages of yoga together – preparation and settling. These are quite practical stages but are crucially important to experience the maximum benefit from the practice.
Yoga nidra is practiced lying down in a comfortable position, so whatever that means to you. It is also possible with the right propping to deliver this practice seated which can be useful if you are unable to lie down for any reason. Wherever you are it’s important that you feel so comfortable that you have no desire to move and that if you were to relax completely you wouldn’t fall anywhere. The rest is personal preference. There are some really useful things you can do to facilitate more ease though, such as what I like to call super deluxe savasana:
Super Deluxe Savasana
Blanket underneath you for warmth and padding
Blanket or low pillow under back of head
If the back of your head gets uncomfortable after a little while you can roll up a blanket and make a horseshoe shape with it, resting the head on the roll with the centre of the back of the head no not resting against the ground
Thinly rolled blanket underneath the neck to support its natural curve
Thinly rolled blanket between ribs and pelvis to support the lumbar curve
Eye pillows horizontally underneath the wrists (arms to the side palms up helps to open the chest and shoulders, you could also rest hands on the belly)
Bolster or pillows under the knees (support the lower back)
Pillow, blanket or block under the heels raising the feet slightly
Blanket over the whole of you (even if you feel warm at the start the core body temperature can drop as you relax so it’s good to be prepared)
To eye pillow or not to eye pillow
An eye pillow can provide a nice weight and block out the light which can really help to facilitate relaxation and rest. If the weight proves too much on the bridge of the nose or eyes (in some people it can cause vision to be blurry after practice temporarily) then you might prefer to use a scarf instead. A reason not to use an eye pillow is that waking REM can occur during yoga nidra and the weight of the eye pillow can interrupt this process.
Restorative pose use
To get the most from a yoga nidra practice the body needs to be completely effortless, so as long as the position you are in requires no muscular effort and you feel able to relax then you can take any position you like. I personally find side lying really helpful if I’m using yoga nidra to sleep or nap.
Preparing as a facilitator
As a facilitator there are some things I need to do such as turn up radiators, close windows, secure the space, dim the lights, assist with propping and physical preparation but I also need to assist with setting the tone for the space and supporting the emotional expectations of the practitioners...
The emotional side of preparation
As well as preparing the body for the practice it is also important to prepare mentally and emotionally, especially in a class or private setting. Preparation in this sense can involve offering a space to ask questions or share experiences at the start of class or checking in with each student, at home it might be journaling at the end of practice to validate your experiences and then once moving into the practice it is important to outline where we’re going, what to expect and how best to receive the practice. For me it is also incredibly important to honour the vast and diverse spectrum of experiences that arise from this practice as normal and to offer space for those experiences to be heard, normalised and validated if needed.
Key points to remember during yoga nidra:
Although this is a sleep related practice the intention is not to sleep but that if sleep arises not to fight it, this is a practice of effortlessness (there are differing views on this but this is my personal approach) and it is clearly needed, as you become more rested over time you will stay more present and every day is different from the last
It’s not necessary to listen to each word but rather to use the guidance as a loose tether to the waking world as you drift into ever deeper states of rest
Work to discern a genuine call to movement from a call to distraction and if really needed then to move slowly, with awareness and being mindful of those around you (if you’re in a class setting)
If those around you make sleep sounds or snore, see that as a sign that this practice is working its magic (I have techniques not involving touch to help move people from snoring but sometimes you just have to surrender to it!)
There is no way to do this practice wrong as there is nothing to ‘do’
Always return to what you are feeling if you don’t feel what is being suggested, trust fully in your experience
Let this be your practice, take what you need leave what you don’t
You don’t need to know anything, do anything or have any prior experience to reap the benefits of this practice, you are invited to rest and receive
This stage varies greatly from style to style, teacher to teacher and depending on the intention for the practice but the overall intention is to facilitate an arrival into the present moment and begin to stimulate the relaxation response in the body in preparation for the practice. The Himalayan Institute approach offers the most detailed settling process with a long and detailed sequence of breath work and movements before coming to stillness. There can be a focus on the senses, elemental connections, body sensing and breath awareness to aid relaxation and deepen the experience of grounding.
Alpha brainwaves (8-12hz) are present during meditation and quietly flowing thoughts. It is a state of awareness that is a resting, wakeful state which aids overall mental co-ordination, calmness, alertness, mind-body integration and learning. These type of brain waves decrease with the eyes open and this state of relaxation is experienced during the early stages of yoga nidra as the body settles.
My favourite way to begin to arrive into the practice of yoga nidra is to stretch, yawn and sigh all of which signal to the body that it is time to rest. Sighing can also stimulate the release of oxytocin into the blood stream, which amongst other things can help to induce sleep and reduce stress.
When delivering a class or session I like to invite the practitioner(s) to stretch and move intuitively before finding stillness because some may have stayed from the yoga class but others may have come straight from their day and need the movement to ground, arrive and ease out tension.
Breath work can be really helpful to move from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system a few of my favourites are:
Bhramari Pranayama / The Humming Bee Breath ~ to ground and soothe the nervous system (bhramari stimulates the vagus nerve)
Visma Vrtti Pranayama / Varied Ratio Breathing ~ to slow the breath by lengthening the exhale, moving into the way we breathe when deeply relaxed and therefore invoking this relaxed state
Sama Vrtti Pranayama / Same Ratio Breathing ~ to even out the inhale and exhale, simulating the way we breathe in deep sleep, steady and even and therefore invoking this state in the body and mind
Sounding the Breath ~ a bit like sighing, this is simply making any sound that naturally arises as you exhale and can be a really great way to release tension and slow the breath, body and mind
A short body scan of common stress areas can really help to undo habitual tension holding patterns and arrive into the body. One of my favourite yoga nidra teachers, Nirlipta Tuli, uses a hypnotic body scan to induce relaxation which involves body scanning to opposite and unexpected/non symmetrical parts of the body. I always find myself deeply relaxed during his practices and I’m sure his time as a hypnotist is a big part of this.
Opening the senses helps to move from a potentially inwardly focused, constricted and limited experience of the self and the world around to a more expanded, spacious and open experience of the self and the world around. Opening the senses facilitates a movement to the present moment as all of the senses are engaged and there is little space for distraction and can also be a useful exploration if there are sounds present in the space, it can help to get accustomed to their presence in order to release them from awareness effortlessly (easier said than done!).
Another of my favourite settling methods is a technique inspired by hypnosis and involves counting back from 10 to 0 with each exhale as though dropping down a little further from the mind each time. I find this to be an incredibly effective way of deepening into rest and turning my attention fully to the internal landscape. There is some conjecture as to how much crossover there is between yoga nidra and hypnosis but having researched both I see that the crossover seems undeniable. The difference being that the hypnotic suggestions are not being offered by the facilitator but rather are unfolding from within. More on this in later blog posts!
Elemental connections can be an effective way of finding embodiment, remembering our connection the natural world and arriving fully into the present moment. And this is something we’ll be exploring in class this week!
Next week we explore Sankalpa or intention an the many different approaches available in a yoga nidra practice.
Photo: Lisa Chapman // @primalembrace 2019