For some reason, whenever we think about working out and general physical fitness, we tend to draw a sharp border between mental activity and physical activity typically performed at a gym. For the purposes of full-body fitness however, the two are complementary in nature rather than antagonistic: indeed, they feed each-other rather than detract from one-another. It is this realization that has prompted physical fitness establishments pushing yoga, to incorporate a not-exactly-new, yet not particularly well-known branch of yoga into their offers: Yoga Nidra.
Unlike its “regular” cousins of the yoga menagerie, yoga nidra is entirely focused on the exercising of the mind. As such, practitioners spend the entirety of their 30-45 minute-long yoga nidra classes lying in a comfortable position on their backs, the Shavasana (corpse) position the only one they’ll put to use.
Through its benefits, yoga nidra (nidra meaning sleep; however, this is not the same practice as Tibetan sleep yoga) promotes physical as well as mental well-being in surprisingly numerous ways and on scores of levels. Scientific evidence keeps mounting in support of these benefits too, so they can definitely not be dismissed as the constructs and ramblings of an esoterically-inclined mind.
What exactly is yoga nidra though?
Best defined as a state of consciousness halfway between being asleep and awake, yoga nidra has the body in a completely relaxed state – as if asleep – while the mind is quite active and aware of its surroundings – at least as far as the sense of hearing allows it. The other 4 of the 5 senses (pratyahara) need to be turned completely inwards, so for the purposes of awareness, they are ideally non-existent.
The goal of yoga nidra is to empty the mind of thoughts as much as possible. While beginners will often find themselves falling asleep while practicing yoga nidra, advanced practitioners will manage to severely limit the number of thoughts they “process” per second. Some will even reach a state of complete thoughtlessness – which is the most desired, albeit barely achievable, goal of yoga nidra.
What is it all supposed to accomplish? By eliminating the analytical part of consciousness, yoga nidra taps into deeper layers of the mind, making a sort of “super learning” possible, and eliciting effects with ramifications into one’s physical health/well-being. Through this practice, the effective “rewiring” of the mind is possible, which opens the path to the elimination of bad habits and the setting of good ones.
The most prominent representative (and modern-day parent) of yoga nidra is Satyananda Saraswati, who has developed the current form of the practice around the middle of the 20th century.
The origins of yoga nidra reach much further back in time though, all the way to the ancient tantric scriptures, which Satyananda used as a starting point.
Indeed, many of the concepts involved in yoga nidra were drawn from the ancient nyasa, a practice involving the mental positioning of tantric mantras within certain body parts.
Similarities and differences between yoga nidra and lucid dreaming
Given the nature of yoga nidra, it is easy to draw parallels between it and lucid dreaming. After all, most of the techniques used in yoga nidra can be used for the induction of lucid dreaming, and in both cases, the goal is the attainment of a hyponagogic state.
The WILD technique for lucid dreaming is almost the same as the techniques used in yoga nidra.
Furthermore, lucid dreaming and yoga nidra aren’t really different in nature. Rather, they are different degrees of the same phenomenon. Surprisingly, yoga nidra is deemed to be the deeper mental experience of the two.
The main difference between the two is obvious: with yoga nidra, the practitioner remains aware of his/her physical surroundings, while with lucid dreaming, the cognitive perception is limited to the dream environment, the physical one remaining completely outside of the dreamer’s perceived environment.
While under normal circumstances, during yoga nidra, the subject remains aware of his/her surroundings (a must, given how the whole experience is guided through audible instructions) and of his/her body position, actual OBEs (Out of Body Experiences) may indeed occur too.
Those having such experiences slip from the realm of lucid sleeping into the domain of lucid dreaming though, so for them, the yoga nidra session fails to meet its objectives.
Why is it though that yoga nidra can be a deeper mental exercise than lucid dreaming? During dreaming, the mind is apparently blocked from tapping into its deepest layers, by the generation of the dream sequence itself. During such a stage, the brainwaves are of a much higher frequency than those required by the full relaxation, which is ultimately the goal of lucid sleeping.
What exactly happens during yoga nidra?
Now that we know what yoga nidra is and what it is supposed to achieve, taking a closer look at what actually happens in a practitioner’s brain during a session makes perfect sense.
While – in layman terms – yoga nidra can indeed be called the confluence of sleep and the waking state, in terms of brainwave-patterns, it is the confluence of alpha and delta waves.
According to Satyananda, yoga nidra should include 8 distinct stages. It has to be said however that many different versions of lucid sleeping are practiced these days, and not all followers of the practice have stayed true to the core principles laid down by Satyananda.
The above said 8 stages are: internalization, Sankalpa (the stating of a very strong intention), the rotation of consciousness, breath exercises, the surfacing of the opposites, pattern-visualization, Sankalpa again and the reorientation of the inward-turned 4 senses to the exterior again.
As far as brainwave activity is concerned, the goal is to move from the beta waves of the fully active mind, to the delta waves of very deep sleep/hypnagogic state induced by the exercise.
The first step is to move from the beta stage (characterized by brainwaves in the 14-40 Hz) frequency range, to the alpha stage. The typical frequency of the alpha range is 9-13 Hz).
From there, the next step is theta (4-7.5 Hz) and then delta (1-3 Hz). The theta and delta frequency ranges are the most interesting ones in regards to yoga nidra, because this is where most of the benefits can be reaped.
The theta range for instance, is apparently ideal for learning. Satyananda Saraswati himself has stated that he taught several languages to one of his disciples using yoga nidra. It is safe to assume that he made use of the theta brainwave frequency range to accomplish that deed.
In this realm, the analytic part of the brain out of the way, knowledge is embraced by the deeper layers of the brain and it is assimilated for good.
This state is apparently the source of most poetic and artistic inspiration as well as the birthplace of scientific discoveries.
The theta frequency realm is also used for the dismantling of old neural pathways and established thought patterns, and with them, the elimination of bad habits. This is where the rewiring of the brain is also supposed to occur. Obviously, to accomplish all that, the services of a certified yoga nidra instructor are needed.
The delta range is the one closest to complete “thoughtlessness.” In fact, it is believed that its furthest reaches are indeed free of all thought. This is the brainwave frequency range where the body is restored. Most of the health benefits and purported physical benefits of yoga nidra originate in this range.
Complete and utter thoughtlessness is believed to help a great deal with decision fatigue – one of the major banes of modern life.
Through the delta stage, the brain is effectively reset, and the conundrums that it previously deemed inescapable, are eliminated.
What does a typical yoga nidra session look like?
As said above, yoga nidra is not about the various poses you may already know from other branches of Yoga. Instead of guiding his/her students through such poses, the yoga nidra instructor takes them through a selection of mental exercises, meant to achieve the hypnagogic state where most of yoga nidra’s benefits reside.
A yoga nidra session is between 30 and 45 minutes long and during it, practitioners will be lying on their backs, palms turned upwards, in the corpse position. Most yoga nidra studios provide footrests and blankets to practitioners, since it is not uncommon for the temperature of the body to drop during the exercise.
Once everyone is comfortable in the corpse position, the instructor prompts practitioners to establish intention and desire. This is in effect the lead-up stage to the session, and as such, it is indeed a very important one.
This intention, known as “Sankalpa,” should be focused on through the session.
The second step is to set the desire for oneself and for others.
The third stage moves the focus to the physical body. During this stage, the instructor tells practitioners to perform a body scan, and guides them through it step by step.
Next, the energy body comes into focus. The participants count breaths, and work with their lengths.
The emotional body is targeted next: the instructor brings opposite feelings into play, prompting participants to focus on the difference between hot and cold, fear and safety, up and down etc. The reason why such feelings are employed is that we tend to live our emotional lives focused on this polarity.
This exploration of the opposites takes the session to its next stage: the intellectual one. Practitioners are told to focus on the thoughts generated by the above said emotional polarity. The images and beliefs conjured by these feelings are also explored.
Addressing the body of joy is the next step. This stage is mostly about recalling various joyful experiences and reliving them with the goal of eliminating anxieties and fears.
Ego-checking through guided mantra is meant to call attention to the internal witness residing within us all.
Lastly, the natural state comes into the picture, focused on self awareness and on the isolation of the eternal consciousness that has always been the same within us all. In this state, the initially established intention is reaffirmed, and re-incorporated into the refashioned consciousness resulting from the practice.
This is the step that sets up the end of the session and eventually the exiting of the lucid sleeping state.
How to stave off sleep during a yoga nidra session
Indeed, from the above, it should be clear that one of the biggest “dangers” beginners face on their yoga nidra journey, is falling asleep. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that, if it happens once or twice. If it becomes a regular occurrence though, it can frustrate one’s efforts to achieve the vaunted hypnagogic state, for good.
One way to avoid going to sleep is to do yoga nidra sessions in the morning, while practitioners are well-rested and much less likely to doze off.
A proper asana practice before the nidra one can do wonders in waking a person up too.
Yet another way to tackle the sleep issue is to include the intention of staying awake in the yogic intention established at the beginning of the session.
The medical benefits of yoga nidra
The medical benefits of the practice cover a surprisingly wide range and some of them do come with scientifically established proof too.
Interestingly, most of the scientifically conducted studies regarding the benefits of yoga nidra were focused on women’s hormonal and menstrual issues. Although the quality of some of these studies is debatable, the conclusions reached by most were that yoga nidra had significant positive effects on menstrual disturbances.
The benefits apparently did not stop there either. Improvements were noted in blood pressure, heart inspiration-expiration rates, and heartbeat rates as well.
Various hormone imbalances were apparently successfully treated with yoga nidra too.
In addition to all the above, the practice was also found to stabilize the blood sugar level of type 2 diabetes sufferers. It has been found somewhat useful for the treatment of clinical depression and metabolic syndrome too.
The benefic impact of yoga nidra on PTSD has been recognized by the Army and it has been incorporated into the treatment of the condition.
While every single one of the above described medical benefits is backed by science to some degree, it has to be stressed that more research is warranted on every account.
Depression, self-blame and a host of other stress-related psychological problems have also responded positively to yoga nidra.
As its popularity has skyrocketed over the last few years, the purity of yoga nidra has been inevitably compromised.
Certifications for it can be obtained over a single weekend apparently and thus scores of more or less qualified people have begun offering yoga nidra classes. Some companies have even added it as a corporate activity called a “sleep class.”
As people twist and turn it into their desired shape, the practice has been westernized to quite a degree in some cases. Some “sleep class” instructors have made a point of avoiding the yoga nidra name and the various traditional expressions associated with it. Still, as long as it delivers the benefits it is supposed to deliver, all should be good.
Just remember: to make the most of it and to attain advanced hypnagogic states, you are best off sticking to as pure of a form of yoga nidra as possible.