The practice of yogic sleep (yoga nidra) is quickly spreading through yoga studios. What was almost unheard of a few years ago, is blossoming at a time when calming one’s mind is very much needed. Though it may be new to the West, yoga nidra is an ancient practice in both Buddhism and Hinduism. In an example from one Buddhist text, yoga nidra is described as a “peace beyond worlds” that is obtained from the guru's teachings. And from the beloved ancient Hindu text, the Mahābhārata, yoga nidra refers to Vishnu's sleep between the cycles of the universe called the yugas. These early references are not defining a specific technique or type of yoga, they are describing a state of enlightened transcendental sleep. In modern times, yoga nidra is a practice of lying on one’s back while allowing the consciousness to move into a deep state of relaxation. This is achieved by gently guiding the mind/body into the subtle awareness of sensations.
Why Do We Need the Practice of Yoga Nidra?
The negative effects of stress are everywhere. The increasing use of antidepressants, sleeping pills, and anxiety medications is overwhelming. People are looking for something to calm their minds, improve their mood, and bring them peace. Yoga nidra just may be the prescription. Nidra is a very accessible form of meditation, deeply relaxing and easily available to anyone looking to try it. If you shy away from studios, there are many videos and even apps you can get that will guide you through a private home practice.
Students and clients often tell me they have difficulty meditating. "I just can't sit there and do nothing with my eyes closed," or "I try to meditate but my mind just won't slow down." These folks are perfect candidates for nidra.
That is not to belittle the practice at all. In fact, quite the opposite as it makes meditation possible for those who have difficulties moving into deep states of relaxation. “Can you lay comfortably on a mat and listen to my voice” is a pretty easy sell for someone whose past meditation attempts have been dominated by their monkey mind.
Warning, it is quite common to fall asleep or drift in and out of consciousness when you first begin. That can happen for a few reasons. The first reason is sheer exhaustion. This can come from too much stress, lack of proper sleep, and physical exertion—all of which drain our mind and body. It can eventually just become our "norm" to feel this way. Secondly, we can become addicted to stress, not knowing how to just be in the present moment without any drama or excitement. So if you are just beginning this practice, don't sweat it if you doze off. The deepest part of you will be listening and you will still receive the benefit. If you are in a class and your “dozing” does become too audible (you begin to snore), you may feel the teacher give a gentle touch to your foot or ankle to bring you back so that it is not disruptive to the other students in the class. If you are at home and on your own, let it rip! Just know that as you become used to this form of conscious napping, you will have the ability to stay awake and aware through the whole process.
What to Expect
To get the most out of your experience, come to the practice with an open mind and an attitude of curiosity.
Imagine yourself walking into a dimly lit room. The temperature is perfectly comfortable and you are offered a generous stack of blankets and bolsters. As soon as you begin to build your nest, your body and mind automatically begin to relax. Once your space is nicely padded, you settle in for your guided rest. You want to be comfortable enough that you can lie still without moving for the duration of the approximately 45–55 minute practice. Of course, it is fine if you need to move to be comfortable, but shift your position slowly and consciously. Feel yourself lying on the padding and allow yourself to soften into the ground. Imagine the earth as warm sand cradling you and holding you safely and securely. The teacher guiding the class may ask you to start to bring awareness to your breath, allowing your breath to lengthen and slow down.
Then you bring to your awareness an intention, vow, or resolve that is formed by both the heart and the mind. When you incorporate an intention in the practice of yoga nidra it can be a powerful tool to change demoting habits or to achieve goals. The intention is a statement that is said in the present tense. An example could be "I flow through life with ease and insight," or "I am loved and loving towards others."
Remember, plants don't grow over night. It takes some time and regular maintenance. Eventually a well-nurtured intention will produce the abundant harvest you are looking for. Once your vow is repeated three times, the practice begins.
Your awareness will then be guided through your body allowing any tension to release. You may be asked to focus on various sensations, such as the feeling of heaviness or weightlessness, the feeling of being cold or hot, feelings of tension, and then deep relaxation, followed by feelings of anxiety and calm. All of this moves you incrementally into deeper states of relaxation as the emotions that are buried deep inside are released.
All form has dissolved and you are just pure existence. This is the place where you can tap into your true essence, also called your true nature—the natural state of being that we all are but frequently forget. This place is a space of truth, consciousness, and bliss.
The beauty of this practice is that we visit a state of consciousness every time we settle in and surrender to something bigger than ourselves; something that every religion, philosophy, and belief system has. We can find the oneness and the peace. The benefits that many, including myself, have received is a deeper sense of peace, better sleep, and more energy. They begin to cultivate the ability to really slow down in this incredibly fast-moving world. The benefits are experienced differently by everyone as we all come into the practice with our individual history and stress. It takes time to realize the results of yoga nidra. If you can create the space in your schedule to either attend a class or find an online source that resonates with you, it is my belief that you will find great benefits from your yogic sleep.