Updated: Dec 14, 2022
This week we explore the body scan or rotation of consciousness stage of yoga nidra. During this stage the practitioner is guided around the body resting attention at various points. As with most of the stages in a Yoga Nidra practice the approach to this stage is completely personal to the individual and dependent on the intention for the practice.
The Purpose of the Body Scan
The body scan can be used to promote relaxation and body awareness, to invoke or deepen a trance state, to promote healing by reconnecting to particular areas of the body, to reconnect any split that might have arisen between body and mind (can be particularly useful for disassociation), to clear neural pathways from areas of the body to the brain, for pain management and creating a sense of sensory satiation that leaves you feeling satisfied and in need of no external stimulus. And those are just some of the many reasons why you might explore the body scan.
The Science of the Body Scan
The traditional Satyananda and iRest rotations of consciousness both follow the sensory-motor cortex within the brain. The Satyananda tradition follows the route of the motor cortex homunculus promoting relaxation and a physical reconnection to the body, whilst the iRest tradition follows the sensory cortex homunculus inviting and welcoming sensory input.
The sensory-motor cortex is the region of the cerebral cortex that is related to planning and directing the actions of muscles and glands that are under our conscious control. In this area of the brain reside pathways to all of the areas of the body through which we pass during a rotation of consciousness. Beginning at the right-hand thumb as per the Satyananda rotation or in the mouth as per the iRest rotation helps with sensing the body, as there are the highest number of nerve endings in these areas. This heightened sensory perception can then be spread throughout the physical body.
The rotation of consciousness can also be viewed as a kind of massage of awareness or sensory acupressure treatment. Just as we know that when particular parts of the brain are stimulated certain parts of the body respond, when particular parts of the body are stimulated certain parts of the brain respond. Through taking awareness to each of these key points we are not only inducing physical relaxation but also clearing the neural pathways to the brain. Yoga Nidra stimulates the brain surface from the inside out and works to continuously forge new connections between brain circuits. I like to think of Yoga Nidra as yoga for the brain and nervous system.
The Different Itineraries
As mentioned already each lineage or school of Yoga Nidra has its preferred itinerary to follow and reason for doing so and I wanted to share these before delving into a little more detail:
Satyananda Tradition Rotation
Starts at the right-hand thumb
Travels down the right side then the left
Works up the back from the feet
And down the front from the head
This rotation follows the motor cortex homunculus both calming the nervous system and promoting physical reconnection to the body.
Starts by welcoming and inviting sensation inside of the mouth
Travels through the key points of the body
Often ends at the feet
This rotation follows the sensory cortex homunculus inviting and welcoming sensory input.
Starts at the crown of the head
Moves through the marma points (Ayurvedic junctures in the body where two or more tissues meet, similar to chakra points)
This rotation induces autonomic relaxation.
Effortless vs. Interesting
In general, I am a bit fan of shaking things up and in a yoga class I always prefer creative flow to set sequences but when it comes to the body scan of a Yoga Nidra I am a Satyananda slut. I adore the right-hand thumb rotation because for me it’s familiar, effortless and my body, mind and nervous system immediately enter a trance state from the simple mention of a right-hand thumb. If you were to walk or drive the same route to work every day, soon it would become so effortless that you might end up at work without even realising how you got there and the rotation of consciousness works in a similar way. The more you travel the route, the less you have to think, and the more effortless the journey. The experience of the state of Yoga Nidra gathers momentum with practice and repetition and you may find after a few months of practice that you arrive at the state of Yoga Nidra by simply lying down and settling. The momentum builds all the more rapidly with the familiarity of route. I also recently made the association that I dislike a there and back walk in nature and have always preferred a circular walk, so for sure this plays into my love of the Satyananda rotation too!
There are different schools of thought on this though of course and again it’s going to be all about your intention for the practice. Some facilitators believe that the mind should always be awake and aware, able to hear the guidance throughout and therefore may prefer to change up the rotation in order to keep practitioners alert.
I like to welcome drifting as a part of the practice, an opportunity to enter altered states of consciousness and a natural part of the mystery of rest, sleep and dreams and the liminal spaces in between. Though I really do see the value of being awake and aware for particular types of practice, for example, I have undertaken some deeply healing iRest practices exploring opposites of emotion and witness consciousness, all of which required my presence and attention. So if I am exploring a more meditative enquiry focus within a Yoga Nidra then I may well reluctantly shake up my itinerary.
We have the effortless vs. interesting discussion a lot in class, as it’s something I always like to seek feedback about out of curiosity and for my own research, and almost without fail people seem to prefer habit, routine and effortlessness over novelty and change with relation to the itinerary of a Yoga Nidra body scan.
Another reason to explore a different itinerary might be to explore particular areas of the body for healing or pain management. For example one of the most powerful experiences for healing I have encountered has been deep explorations of the organs within the pelvis and more recently a Yoni Nidra with Uma Dinsmore-Tuli which explored the whole Yoni area all the way up into the uterus. It was profoundly and deeply healing to sense this often neglected area of the body from within and this is certainly a rotation I will revisit and add to my repertoire for Women’s Yoga.
Ways to Travel the Routes
And then of course there’s what to do as you travel the routes! And at the risk of becoming incredibly boring, I must state that this is, of course, totally personal to the individual and dependent on the intention of the practice.
The iRest tradition invites the practitioner to sense and feel into various parts of the body or to simply welcome whatever is present, whereas the Satyananda tradition tends not to be focused on sensory input and is instead a journey or observation of each part and then the Himalayan Institute uses blue starlight in the mind’s eye that is moved around the body.
There are also lots of creative methods of moving awareness around the body such as singing or placing a mantra at each point, envisaging rays of light, sending healing to each part and often for sleep nidras repeating the body part mentally. One of my good friends and a fellow Yoga Nidra facilitator, Chiara, uses singing bowls after she names the part of the body and I adore this method, I always find myself deeply relaxed after her practices.
If you’re curious to explore these more creative methods; Jennifer Piercy and Uma Dinsmore-Tuli are the queens of creative rotations and my Wild Forest Nidra ~ Rewilding the Earth, Rewilding the Body explores planting seeds of hope and new life at each point of the body that grow into a thriving forest.
Pacing is an interesting thing to explore too. When I self-guide sometimes I scan in a matter of seconds because my brain and body are so familiar with my chosen rotation that the simple mention of my right-hand thumb and my awareness travels around the body on its own. It’s a highly effective tool for relaxation in everyday life as well as during meditation. But for anyone new to the practice it can feel a little overwhelming to speed through, so I usually stay steady, rhythmic and fairly slow, pausing at key areas to explore sensation, implant a reminder of the intention for the rotation (seeing in the mind’s eye, placing a moonbeam, sensing and feeling, observing etc.) and also to drop in autogenics cues. Personally, if a body scan is too slow and detailed for me I am unable to drop into the practice as fully as I might like but again this isn't the case for everyone and I'm always learning through my students' experiences.
Don’t Tell me to Relax!
Yoga Nidra is an ancient concept and state of awareness but a relatively modern practice and combines ancient teachings with modern neuroscience, meditation and relaxation techniques. Autogenics is a technique to invoke relaxation and involves suggesting sensations that are picked up on by the practitioner. For example, I might say something like: ‘feeling both legs releasing heavily towards the ground’ and often simply by saying these words the sensation of release and letting go that accompanies heaviness in the legs will be experienced by the practitioner.
One thing I try to avoid is the use of the word ‘relax’. If a practitioner arrives incredibly stressed and tense, particularly those experiencing high anxiety or PTSD/C-PTSD, being asked to relax can feel disheartening as that is often not possible and can lead to feelings of failure or frustration. Instead, I use words like ‘sense and feel into the space between the eyebrows’ and autogenics cues like ‘broadening and releasing’, ‘softening’ or ‘releasing pressure’.
Crossover between Yoga Nidra and Psychedelics
I have begun to notice that there is a huge crossover between people who enjoy Yoga Nidra and people who are interested in mind exploration and the experience of altered states of consciousness, whether through meditation or the use of psychedelics and one of the most common pieces of feedback that I receive after class is that Yoga Nidra is like a sober trip.
There are lots of explanations for this experience, many of which I will go into in further detail in the weeks to come but one of the reasons could be that Yoga Nidra, long-term meditation and psychedelics all influence the Default Mode Network in the brain. The DMN gives rise to our sense of self or ego and in turn self-referential narratives, mind-wandering and what is sometimes referred to as ‘I-me-mine thinking'. Yoga Nidra, long-term meditation and the use of psychedelics have all been shown through research to deactivate the DMN and to increase activity in the Present Centred Default Mode Network, which gives rise to creativity, insight and remaining task-focused in everyday life.
During the practice of Yoga Nidra there are a couple of ways in which we explore the deactivation of the Default Mode Network such as sensing the left arm, right arm and then both arms together or sensing awareness move in all directions at once, left, right, back, front, everywhere and nowhere.
I love discovering the science behind what is said during Yoga Nidra as it gives potency to each and every detail.
Next week we explore opposites!
Link to this full 9 part series can be found on my website Yoga Nidra page.
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Uma and Nirlipta ~ https://www.yoganidranetwork.org/
Photo: Lisa Chapman // @primalembrace 2019