Yoga nidra translates as yogic sleep. In other words, sleeping with awareness or a state of ‘conscious’ deep sleep. The word ‘yoga’ in Sanskrit translates to ‘union/unity’ and the word ‘nidra’ in Sanskrit means ‘sleep.’
Yoga nidra is an ancient yogic practice that dates back to the Hindu text the Upanishads, although it may actually be a lot older than its portrayed. It was designed for a variety of reasons - to create profound relaxation and harmony in your body and mind, eliminate stress, solve personal and interpersonal problems, resolve trauma, overcome fears, anxiety and depression.
What is it?
Yoga nidra is a form of meditation, and working organically it follows the natural workings of the mind. In yoga nidra you are lying down in a comfortable position, listening to either a trained teacher or guided audio. The deep state of relaxation that yoga nidra allows you to access feels like being somewhere between awake and asleep, yet still completely aware.
The guide will ask you to focus your concentration inward, bringing your awareness to your breath. They will then go through body parts for you to focus your attention on, rotating awareress within the body to keep you concentrated and the mind should be very focused at this point. Another common way of rotating awareness is tensing each of your muscles and then releasing them, and doing so in synch with the breath. An enjoyable feeling may come up as if you are sinking into the floor, floating in the air, or feeling like a light feather.
Before the rotations, it is a very good idea to create a sankalpa or positive intention/affirmation of what you want out of your practice. After these rotations, the teacher will then ask you to further relax your mind, this usually involves bringing the attention to the natural rhythms of your breathing, concentrating on the inhale and exhale, making your breath deeper and deeper.
Other approaches may be used by visualisations. For example, visualising a light flowing through your body or imagining a place of serenity, peace and beauty.
In conclusion, the guide leads the person through awareness on many levels of mental processes which ultimately leads to a state of complete clarity and intuitiveness.
Purpose of the practice
This practice is especially wonderful to incorporate your sankalpa into as it holds the purpose of helping you to realise or achieve something in your life. The reason for this is because yoga nidra and sankalpa (positive intention) work wonderfully together because the sankalpa is more likely to work because the mind is in a very relaxed state. Your sankalpa may even be just be gaining gratitude or creating more positivity in the mind. The intentions and goals can be repeated before and after the practice, as this takes root in the subconscious mind and deals with the underlying causes of tension.
The philosophy behind yoga nidra is that it improves the balance of our ‘life force’ otherwise known as ‘prana’ in India, and ‘chi’ in China. Most spiritual traditions recognise and believe in the existence of life force in the body and that it charges and permeates the health and wellbeing of our body, spirit and mind.
Some practitioners say that yoga nidra is like a form of self-administered acupuncture. The aim of acupuncture is to restore and improve the flow of life force in your body, this is also the aim of yoga nidra.
How to practice
All that is needed to practice yoga nidra is a quiet and warm place with an audio recording of a guided yoga nidra session. Otherwise, classes and courses are provided in most cities. In a traditional practice, the person is to lie on their back with the arms away from the body, palms facing up. The feet should be hip width or slightly more than hip width apart, with the toes relaxed and falling outwards. The eyes remain closed, soft and relaxed throughout the whole practice, and make sure that the body is lying symmetrically/feels symmetrical. If you are familiar with yoga, lying in savasana is what you want to be doing.
Relaxation is something most of us can do naturally and easily, like taking a walk in the park, listening to music or anything that relaxes us as individuals. A lot of people think switching on the television or reading is relaxation, but this is merely sensory diversion. Deep relaxation is something that is completely different. In a state od deep relaxation, the body releases tension, breathing slows down, and so does the heart rate. This is very beneficial to our health. Practitioners say that the regular practice of yoga nidra (preferably 30 minutes a day) has the rejuvenating effects of several hours sleep and just like meditation has profound emotional, physical and spiritual benefits.
One study I have discovered online was an experiment that has been undertaken by brain researchers at the state university hospital in Copenhagen. They scanned pictures of the brain before and after meditation, and during meditation with people who had headphones and were listening to a guided yoga nidra session. These pictures were taken by an advanced medical research instrument called the ‘pet scanner’. The pictures showed which areas were active before, during and after yoga nidra.
They also had a different person lay under the scanner and remain in a normal state, not practicing, so that they could compare the differences in the brain. The results show that the subjects practicing yoga nidra were in a deeply relaxed state all throughout the brain, throughout the forty-five minutes under the scanner.
The measurements also showed a significant difference between the subject practicing the meditation and the subjects who were simply resting. The person's brain who was practicing the relaxation was active, aware, yet extremely relaxed from start to finish. It is not just the research studies in Denmark that proved the power of yoga nidra and its beneficial effects; the Menninger foundation in the 1970s in the U.S showed that yoga nidra is the most powerful method of achieving this certain state of deep relaxation apart from the use of chemical agents.
Tips for the modern Yogi
There are many online sources you can turn to for guided yoga nidra practice such as apps, Youtube or other websites.
Take the first couple of minutes in your practice to make sure that your body is comfortable and feels aligned so that you feel like you are able to remain still.
If you feel you have limited time to practice, go to bed that little bit earlier and practice yoga nidra before sleep. You will also most likely sleep A LOT better than you would if you go to bed straight after the use of electronics or light stimulation.
Read scripts and study the subject to decide what kind of guided relaxation you enjoy .