Yoga Nidra, or yogic sleep, is a practice that brings an individual into a state of deep relaxation while maintaining a sense of alertness.
Often, this is described as that stage between waking and sleep, where we are still conscious of the world around us and what is happening in our minds, but have—to a large degree—let go of our active control of both. It is in this state that we are able to connect wholly with Divinity.
Yoga Nidra: A brief history
“Yoga Nidra is the yoga of aware sleep. In this lies the secret of self-healing. Yoga Nidra is a pratyahara technique in which the distractions of the mind are contained and the mind is relaxed.” ~ Swami Satyananda Saraswati
While the more formalized practice of yoga nidra is a fairly modern innovation, the concept of yoga nidra can be found in many ancient Sanskrit texts. In particular, the origin of yoga nidra comes from one of the Hindu creation myths.
In this story, Vishnu, the Supreme Being, lies on the ocean of consciousness in a deep sleep, in Yog nidra. Brahma grows from his navel in the form of a lotus flower, and when Brahma awakens, a universe is manifested.
As a practice, however, yoga nidra in its current formation only came into being about seventy years ago by Swami Satyananda, a sannyasin and the founder of the Bihar school of yoga. While Satyananda was living in Rishikesh and studying under his guru, Sivananda Saraswati, he focused his studies on the tantric scriptures.
Using the teachings he received from these scriptures, Satyananda created a method to access this particular stage between waking and sleep. He used this technique on the younger aspirants in the ashram where he lived, and it is said that he taught them several languages while they rested in yoga nidra.
What does Yoga Nidra practice look like?
“Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish with repetition and emotion will one day become a reality.” ~ Earl Nightingale
A typical yoga nidra session can last from anywhere between 20 minutes to about an hour. The practitioner spends the entire practice lying in savasana, with their eyes closed. Ideally, a teacher is present. However, there are lots of high-quality recordings that can be used in the comfort of your own home, which are also hugely beneficial.
The practice of yoga nidra will take you through several stages. First, is preparing the body for the practice through relaxation, and awareness of mind, body, and breath. After this, you’ll repeat a Sankalpa, or resolve; this is a very short, present tense, positive statement of something you wish to bring into your life. It can also be thought of as developing a clear intention, for example, “I am happy,” or “I am healthy.”
Following the Sankalpa comes the rotation of consciousness throughout the body, which brings about more bodily awareness, relaxation and a more thorough exploration of breath awareness.
Then, the teacher will guide you through manifesting opposite sensations in the body (such as cold and hot, heavy and light). This, too, increases bodily awareness and also develops your ability to induce relaxation in a variety of circumstances.
After moving through 3-4 sets of opposite sensations, you will go through a series of easy visualizations. For example, envisioning a snowy mountain, a single candle, a deserted beach. Finally, we move back to the Sankalpa in order to more firmly place that positive intention into the conscious and subconscious.
At this point, you will be led gradually back into a fully waking state of consciousness. This element of the practice is taken slowly because after being immersed in yoga nidra, quickly hopping back into daily life could be very disorienting.
Benefits of Yoga Nidra
“Most people sleep without resolving their tensions. This is termed Nidra. Nidra means sleep, no matter what or why, but yoga Nidra means sleep after throwing off the burdens. It is of a blissful, higher quality altogether.” ~ Swami Satyananda
While you may not be able to pick up Spanish after a session of yoga nidra, there are numerous reasons to build a regular practice into your life. First and foremost, yoga nidra is a relaxation process. It’s no secret that stress is a major contributor to illness — both physical and emotional — and that we live in a pretty stressful world.
Many of us are in a state of constant sympathetic response. That is, our bodies are stuck in fight, flight, or freeze, pumping cortisol into our systems just as a matter of course. Yoga nidra activates the parasympathetic nervous system and begins to bring the body back into a state of equilibrium.
Yoga nidra can be a great practice for improving sleep cycles. Again, it cultivates relaxation, and also helps to clear the mind of frantic energy which can often make getting to sleep almost impossible.
This is good not just for sleep, but for waking life, as well. By releasing those tensions, we can interact with ourselves, others, and our work with more clarity and ease.
Another benefit of releasing those tensions is an increase in creativity. Imagine you are holding your hand under a stream of rice. By closing your hands, you grasp some of the grains tightly, but new rice — new ideas and perspectives — can’t get into your palm.
When your hand is open, however, those old grains can move on, making room for new grains. The same is true with your mind. Holding tight to negative patterns of thought means there isn’t room for newness and goodness to flow through.
Building a Yoga Nidra practice
“The very heart of yoga practice is abhyasa—steady effort in the direction you want to go.” ~ Sally Kempton
In a perfectly ideal situation, yoga nidra will be practiced daily. This would allow for regular, deep relaxation, and would give your Sankalpa more opportunity to root deeply so it can manifest in your life. However, an hour a day isn’t something many of us can commit to, and finding a teacher who offers yoga nidra can be challenging.
Instead, start with a shorter, less frequent practice at home. Carve out twenty minutes, two or three times a week, when you can have uninterrupted time to yourself. Spotify and Insight Timer both have dozens of yoga nidra recordings available for free. You’ll want to explore a little to find a teacher whose voice and style resonate with you.
For starters, though, here are a few of my favorites.
⁃ On Spotify: Anything by Robin Carnes. Her voice is soothing, and her directions are clear and well-timed.
⁃ On Spotify: Yoga Nidra for Sleep from Tripura Yoga. This is specifically designed to help you get to sleep and does not include a process to wake up. Great for insomnia.
⁃ On Insight Timer: Yoga Nidra Chakra from Rachelle Tersigni. Not a fully traditional yoga Nidra, but beneficial for helping clear the chakras.
⁃ On Insight Timer: Yoga Nidra from Joanne Jackett. Thorough, and beautiful, with lots of description so you can really grasp the practice. Great for beginners.