Why you need Yoga Nidra but you probably don’t know it
Yoga Nidra is the new kid on the block in the yoga world. The western yoga world that is. And not because the practice itself is new, in fact its roots can be traced back to ancient yoga practices referenced in the Mahābhārata (thought to have been composed in the 4th Century BCE) and later in the Puranas. But because, it is only more recently coming into our frame of reference. On a personal note I had been practising yoga for years before I’d even heard of yoga Nidra, let alone experienced it. I know this is also true for many of my yoga students, many of whom have been practising yoga for far longer than I have.
Perhaps it might be more accurate for me to say that yoga Nidra is the yoga world’s best kept secret. In a world where we look for quick fixes and reward without really having to do the work then this is the golden chalice we’ve all been waiting for. All you need to practice is a little time and a little patience. You don’t need anything else other than a place to lie down. Yoga Nidra is a practice that could leave you feeling refreshed after 20 minutes and ready to take on the rest of your day.
The Origins of Yoga Nidra
The lines are a little blurred as to how the practice originated. It is referenced in ancient yogic texts but these don’t embellish to discuss the mechanisms of the practice itself. Yoga Nidra stems from the Sanskrit word Yoganidrā meaning ‘yoga’ and ‘sleep’. In this context the term refers to a state of mind much like samādhi the Sanskrit term for a state of deep meditation.
Many credit the modern practice as having originated from the Bihar School of Yoga, founded by Swami Satyananda Saraswati. He developed a relaxation technique that followed a set formula, which drew in part from ancient yogic principles but for the main part from modern psychology methods, to help participants access a liminal state of consciousness. Accessing this state helps participants to change the functioning of their brain, reset the nervous system (useful when we spend so much time feeling agitated), to rest deeply, connect to creativity and improve sleep patterns.
Paradoxically yoga Nidra is referred to as ‘yogic sleep’ but its about maintaining a waking awareness of conciousness. The goal is to tap into a borderline state that allows you to redress the way that you process experiences and emotions.
Richard Millar (of the iRest school) has made significant inroads in its use for PTSD and trauma. As a clinical psychologist he encourages a spacious approach to the practice that helps his students process their trauma.
Other schools of yoga Nidra include; The Himalayan Institute of Yoga Nidra, Clairvision and the Yoga Nidra Network, all of whom have their own approach to the practice of yoga Nidra.
Let’s talk about the science
This guided relaxation systematically changes and cycles through brain wave states, lowering beta and increasing alpha, theta and delta waves. All of this works toward a positive change in the brain.
Throughout the course of the day you accumulate experiences and information that go into a temporary holding area in your memory. During deep sleep your brain sorts through these experiences and transfers what it needs to the permanent memory area of your brain. Sometimes, and it feels like this happens more than I like it to, some of the information we need to hold onto is discarded and doesn’t make it into the permanent area of the brain.
The good news is that yoga Nidra can help you recreate some of what happens during sleep – transferring important information into your long term memory – can you imagine what this means for students revising for exams? You could study in the morning, partake of a 20-30 minute yoga Nidra session at lunch time and then go back to studying in the afternoon, significantly increasing your likelihood of processing and retaining all of that information. I can’t help thinking that if instead of doing away with nap time in early years schooling we expanded on that to include yoga nidra we’d have a bunch of children that could tap into their full potential. Hands up who doesn’t want nap time in the office?
Just some of the benefits of a regular yoga nidra practice include:
- Relaxation: slows down thoughts, enhancing memory and learning
- Awareness: develop awareness on all levels
- Nervous system: become more in tune with our needs – the body no longer has to shout to get our attention
- Stress reduction: helps to decrease cortisol (the stress hormone)
- Inward focus: most of the time our attention goes outward, depleting our energy, taking time to focus inward can help boost our energy.
How to Practice Yoga Nidra
You begin by lying down as comfortably as you can. You’ll stay lying down for the whole practice unless you feel more comfortable in a seated position.
A typical practice will include the following elements:
- Arrival / settling in period in which you are invited to find a comfortable position laying down. Your teacher might also let you know what you can expect as part of the practice.
- Sankalpa / Setting and intention: my students will be familiar with setting an intention in their yoga classes, its often easier to find space to practice for something or someone else.
- Rotation of awareness: you’ll be invited to focus on different areas of the body, not moving them but just gently taking your focus to each part as your teacher names them.
- Breath awareness: noticing your breath, feeling the breath as nourishing in the body
- Opposites: Considering opposite imagery – being aware of the duality of life can help us to provide context for our experiences
- Images: this can include a guided visualisation, for example ” picture yourself walking down a beach…” The use of images can help us to increase self compassion.
- Free Flow: in which you are invited to allow any thoughts, visions, emotions to come to you
- Repetition of your Sankalpa / intention
- Return: you are guided to slowly come back to your room
Where can you practice Yoga Nidra?
Happily there are some great online resources available to you so that you can practice in the comfort of your own home. Insight Timer offer a fantastic selection of teachers specialising in yoga nidra as do Yoga Glo. You can also experience one of my live classes (held twice a month) by booking in via the schedule page.