Healing and Relieving Stress with Yoga Nidra: The Yoga of Deep Rest
What’s causing stress in your life? Maybe the hustle and bustle of the holiday season or perhaps something more life altering like an illness, family situation or professional change. For me, a second breast cancer diagnosis followed by a double mastectomy certainly took my stress to peak levels. At times like this, the practice of Yoga Nidra has been a refuge for me, and I’m convinced this practice sped up my healing process.
Yoga Nidra (pronounced nih-drah) is a form of guided meditation also known as “yogic or psychic sleep” or “effortless relaxation.” It’s usually practiced lying down with a yoga teacher guiding the session. The body is completely relaxed while the mind is awake and focused inwards. It is one of the most accessible yoga practices I know of and a great boon to anyone who is recovering from surgery, feeling stressed or just needing a really good rest.
Origins of Yoga Nidra
Swami Satyananda Saraswati, the founder of the Bihar School of Yoga, created the modern relaxation technique Yoga Nidra in the early 1960s. Satyananda took inspiration from earlier important, but little known practices which already existed in the yoga tradition, and modified them to create techniques accessible to everyone.
The term Yoga Nidra is a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping, induced by guided meditation. Practitioners follow oral instructions in which the mind is directed to focus on different sensations or images while remaining completely awake and alert. Practitioners may appear asleep, but their consciousness is actually operating at a deeper level of awareness.
How Does Yoga Nidra Differ from Sleep and Traditional Meditation?
Yoga Nidra is not the same as the sleep that you get when going to bed. In fact, when practicing you will be asked to avoid falling asleep! However, a key similarity is that the goal of both is relaxation and recovery, where your mind, body and senses are all resting.
Yoga Nidra and meditation are two concepts which often get confused with one another. Meditation is the overarching term for any form of practice which allows you to focus your mind and gain awareness of both your mind and body. Yoga Nidra is a type of meditation. Here are some of the key differences between Yoga Nidra and meditation:
- Physical Position: Whereas meditation is traditionally practiced in a seated position, Yoga Nidra is practiced in Savasana, or corpse pose, lying down on your back.
- Attention: During meditation, you consciously place your thoughts on a single focus point, such as the breath or a mantra. By contrast, during Yoga Nidra your attention shifts as you are guided by the instructor. The teacher helps you maintain a conscious connection to the outer world by having you focus on the different koshas, or layers, of your inner self.
- State of Consciousness: In traditional meditation, you remain in the waking state. In Yoga Nidra, you are in a hypnagogic state, the state just before falling asleep. During sleep we lose consciousness, which is why we are not aware of what’s happening around us. By contrast, during Yoga Nidra your conscious mind is alert and active, as you are in the state of consciousness between being asleep and awake. Although you are in a deep state of relaxation you can assume control at any time and bring yourself out of this state.
Stages of Yoga Nidra
Although there are many different ways of practicing, there are certain stages of Yoga Nidra common in every practice. The following eight stages are designed to help your mind and body become gradually more relaxed. Each step systematically guides you through the layers of consciousness (koshas) which takes you into a deeper state of consciousness:
1- Initial Relaxation/Settling
This first stage is about settling into the practice by relaxing your body and turning your attention inwards. You’ll be prompted to get into a comfortable position, become aware of any sensations or tension, then turn your attention to your breath.
2- Setting an Intention or Sankalpa
A sankalpa is an intention you set for your practice, just as you may do in an asana practice. It can be a general feeling or quality you want to cultivate or a specific goal you have. Setting a sankalpa helps train your mind to stay focused and brings more purpose and direction into the practice.
3- Rotation of Consciousness
Often starting from the toes and ending with the face, this stage is a body scan which involves systematically relaxing every part of the body and releasing any tension you find there. Because you have to focus on following the teacher’s guidance, this stage is excellent at settling an overactive mind and shifting to internal awareness.
4- Breath Awareness
Building from the body scan, breath awareness involves counting each breath backward to promote deeper relaxation. You breathe normally while counting down each inhale and exhale until you arrive at one. This draws you into an even deeper state of relaxation, while simultaneously moving your attention inward and away from the external world.
5- Experience of Opposite Sensations
This stage involves experiencing opposite feelings and sensations in your body. Two common examples would be hot and cold and heavy and light. Shifting between opposite feelings like this harmonizes the brain’s two hemispheres and prevents your mind from wandering.
In this sixth stage, the instructor will guide you to envision specific images or scenarios to remove any mental disturbances. The teacher may list a series of objects or sights, and ask you to bring to mind each thing, or you may be asked to visualize yourself in a scenario, such as climbing a mountain path, with much more detail.
7- Revisit Sankalpa
As you move towards the later stages of Yoga Nidra, you will have reached the borderline state of consciousness between sleeping and waking. Re-visiting the Sankalpa that you made at the start of the session enables it to sink deeply into your subconscious. This allows your subconscious mind to regularly remind you of your deepest desires, making you more likely to act on them
Because Yoga Nidra takes you into profound states of consciousness, it’s essential to take some time to come out of it. In the externalization stage, you’ll slowly bring your awareness back to your breath, the body and finally, the external environment to reawaken.
Tips for Practicing Yoga Nidra
No experience necessary! Easy to get started! Good for all!
Anyone, young or old, no matter of physical fitness can practice Yoga Nidra and you can literally do it anywhere. Either with the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher or using recordings found online and as part of many meditation apps.
Whether you are practicing at home or in a class, here are a few tips on how you can get cozy, comfortable and enjoy your session from start to finish.
- First of all, come as your genuine self. If you’re feeling uneasy about trying something new, it’s okay. You cannot practice Yoga Nidra wrong, so try to relax and enjoy the experience.
- Wear comfortable clothes and have a pair of socks plus a sweater, long-sleeved shirt or cozy blanket to keep you warm.
- If you’re worried about accidentally falling asleep, don’t be. There’s no need to feel guilty or embarrassed if it happens (it does– a lot!). It’s also natural to be distracted by random thoughts. Accept your thoughts and let them come and go.
- Ensure your body is supported while lying down, especially if you suffer from lower back pain or are recovering from a recent injury. Make use of bolsters, blankets and pillows. When practicing at home, consider lying on your bed rather than the floor.
- Then, when you’re all settled in, take a deep breath, relax, and continue to follow the sound of your instructor’s voice.
Frequent practice will help you access the important benefits of Yoga Nidra, leaving you feeling well-rested, relaxed and energized. I am convinced, both as a yoga instructor and practitioner of Yoga Nidra, that consistent practice of this technique is what allowed me to heal so much faster after my surgery.