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The practice of yoga nidra – or yogic sleep – is accessible to everyone and can help us relax our ...
2022-04-29 09:00:00
healthy living

Yogic Sleep
The Practice of Yoga Nidra

Photo by Chris Thompson/Unsplash
Yogic Sleep
Yogic Sleep

Yoga nidra (or yogic sleep) is an ancient practice that can help us face the demands of modern living. It’s accessible to everyone, regardless of their age and physical fitness. Yoga nidra helps the body deeply relax and builds our resistance to stress. It can remedy insomnia and even improve memory – the list of benefits goes on.

Read in 10 minutes

Our first meeting took place in 2015. I was living in a Hridaya yoga and meditation community in the south of Mexico and despite my nearly decade-long yoga experience, I had never heard of nidra. After the class, I felt reborn. The short practice was enough to bring me a sense of deep calm, distance from the world around me, and inner lightness that I had never experienced before. I didn’t yet have the theoretical knowledge to realize that for the past 30 minutes, my brain had been floating freely on the alpha waves typical for the relaxation phase we experience right before falling asleep. Much later, I also learned that classic writings refer to the state of mind after yoga nidra practice as “peace that eludes words to describe it”. In the years upon my return to Poland, I was overjoyed to see more and more yoga schools and teachers offer this form of practice to their students.

The path to deep rest

Let’s start with the basics: yoga nidra does not require us to do any kind of gymnastics on the mat. We spend the entire session lying comfortably on the ground, wrapped in warm blankets. We practice in savasana, also known as the corpse pose. The only thing we are expected to do is follow the voice of our guide and try to stay conscious, without falling asleep. The guide will lead us softly through several stages of the practice. First, we find an unconstrained and comfortable position, then create the intention, focusing on individual parts of the body. Finally, we visualize. Each step is equally important for achieving deep relaxation. The mind remains conscious the entire time, while the body soaks in blissful rest. When the session comes to an end, the teacher’s voice wakes you up, gently bringing you back to reality. Sounds nice and simple? It certainly is.

The experience of deep rest is what people usually remember best from their first yoga nidra sessions. In a world crowded with sensations, information and stimuli, we often forget how it feels when our muscles stay relaxed and our nervous system remains quiet for a while. The body gets used to being on constant standby mode, always ready for what’s coming next. Sometimes, we don’t even realize the tension we experience. Only after engaging in tender and mindful contact with our body do we begin to notice it.

Yoga nidra regulates our overstimulated bodies. Similarly to other relaxation practices, during a nidra session, we gradually reduce our engagement with the outside world. Instead, our senses turn inwards, letting us give careful attention to what is happening within our body and psyche. In yoga theory, this withdrawal of the senses is known as pratyahara.

The good ambassador

Sara Lilia Siemaszkiewicz is a yoga teacher with many years of experience. She is also the founder of the Quaternary Institute, where she organizes meditation courses and trains yoga teachers. Sara’s adventure with yoga nidra began over 20 years ago, in 2000 at the Bihar School of Yoga. “At the time, I had no idea I would go back to Poland or that I would teach yoga,” she remembers. “But I was very impressed with the practice itself.” In the years to come, Sara introduced elements of yoga nidra to her school’s programme until 2011, when she began offering a separate yoga nidra course for teachers.

According to Sara, yoga nidra can be considered the ‘ambassador of yoga’. It’s a great type of practice for all those who would have never found their way to yoga, as well as people who couldn’t practice other forms of exercise due to various physical limitations. In Sara’s class, there was once a woman with a physical disability. To her, even savasana was too demanding. So instead, she participated in the yoga nidra class laying on her side, in a position that was comfortable for her. In yoga nidra, comfort is one of the most important aspects of the entire process.

As an ‘ambassador’, nidra has already seeped into circles that have nothing to do with yoga. It has become a subject of scientific research and a frequently-used tool in psychotherapy and stress management therapy, as well as in education. It has been suggested that regular practice of yoga nidra improves memory and brain function.

The International Journal of Yoga Therapy described a 2014 study in which yoga nidra practice was used for stress reduction in women who had experienced sexual violence. After 10 weeks of regular nidra sessions, the women reported reduced insomnia and body tension, as well as feeling more joyful, stress-resistant and better at managing intrusive thoughts. Another study, conducted in London, suggested that dopamine levels in participants’ brains increased up to 65% while listening to a yoga nidra session recorded by Swami Janakananda.

Postcards from the subconscious

In Sanskrit, the word transcribed as nidrā means ‘sleep’. That’s why yoga nidra is also called ‘yogic dreaming’ and ‘yoga of psychic sleep’. What does ‘psychic sleep’ mean? It’s a state of controlled sensory withdrawal. It does not mean to completely cut oneself off from the outside world, but rather to experience the state of perception in-between of what is outside and inside.

During the everyday hustle-and-bustle, our brain remains in the spectrum of beta waves that define the rhythm of active functioning. Beta waves are typical for the state of mental activity and engagement. However, there are other frequencies of brain activity that are much better for relaxation. We experience alpha waves in the short moments right before falling asleep, when we are drifting somewhere between the state of wakefulness and sleep. There are also theta waves that intensify during such activities as meditation, hypnosis, trance, daydreaming, and intense emotions. Delta waves are typical for the deepest sleep and deep meditation.

Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska

During the yoga nidra session, our brain remains in the alpha wavelength. It could be compared to the state of dreaming, but it’s not the same. During the nidra session, we do not succumb to sleep, but experience hyper consciousness: we are more relaxed, our perception expands, and we become more open to visions. There are also moments of entering the theta wavelength: the state of deep meditation. Because it activates alpha and theta frequencies, yoga nidra can touch the subconscious. Both the psychology of yoga and many schools of Western psychology teach us that conflicts experienced on the psychological level cause tension to build up in the body. That’s why becoming aware and letting go of mental and emotional tension can help us feel better, and sometimes even get rid of some chronic ailments caused by muscle tension. In the state of mental relaxation, we engage in introspective activities that can help us get in touch with our subconscious. Therefore, participation in a yoga nidra session can spontaneously evoke various images, words or answers to some important life questions.

Multi-level practice

Nowadays, we usually hear of yoga nidra in the context of relaxation. Even though we can practice it for relaxation only, its potential is much greater than that. To learn more about it, let’s go back 2000 years to the times when the epic Mahābhārata was written in India, between 300 BCE and 300 CE. There, in the description of Vishnu’s sleep, the term ‘yoga nidra’ was used for the first time. Over the ages, it also appeared in various tantric and Buddhist texts.

However, it was Swami Satyananda Saraswati who gave us yoga nidra as we know it today. Satyananda was a 20th-century teacher and the founder of the Bihar School of Yoga, who merged yoga techniques with the ancient practice of nyasa that allows one to connect various body parts to the sound of mantras. This way, he composed a systematized nidra that is practised all over the world today.

This heritage matters: to say that yoga nidra is an excellent relaxation technique is only partially true. Lesław Kulmatycki, one of the yoga pioneers in Poland, wrote about the essence of nidra practice: “Yoga nidra is not hypnosis or some esoteric exercise meant to give us any unique ecstatic experiences. Neither does it offer a kind of escape from our responsibilities and the real world.” Nidra is one of the classic yoga techniques and as such, its main purpose is to achieve a deeper understanding of oneself and the world in its essence. Therefore, the experience of blissful relaxation could be considered just one of the practice’s side effects. It’s a side effect much needed by our overworked bodies and minds, but a side effect nevertheless.

Ancient psychotherapy

The expansion of consciousness is much more important. Thanks to the practice of yoga nidra, we can explore our psychological states deeper. We get to know ourselves better: our potential, as well as our limitations or mental blocks. Because yoga is, above all, a way of getting to know oneself. Sara Siemaszkiewicz describes it as an ancient psychotherapy method: “Yoga has a cognitive impact on our mind and psyche, and yoga nidra is one of its aspects. It paves the way for various techniques. Yoga nidra can be the first step or a higher level of yogic advancement.” I explore this idea with Sara. Together we debate what yoga nidra can teach us. Is it just the ability to relax better? What is its true educational potential?

I remember how fast and painless learning new things can be when the brain remains in the alpha frequency. Absorbing information is much easier for the relaxed mind, as proven by various exercises in creativity development for young people, or when learning foreign languages. Having entered a state of deep relaxation, we listen to a recording that contains knowledge we need to grasp. Upon waking up, when the mind is fully awake, we repeat the lesson. This way of conducting yoga nidra practice was also described in detail by Swami Satyananda. Perhaps research on this method of remembering new information could provide the basis for a step toward a less oppressive schooling system?

However, Sara draws my attention to a completely different issue. The learning aspect is interesting, but to her, it is the self-discovery that makes for the essence of nidra. “It’s about getting to know yourself from the surface, from the shell down. I’m not talking about some incredible depths or finding the reason for my existence. The point is to turn your attention inwards instead of the constant search for solutions to various problems – even your own – on the outside.” During yoga nidra, this happens through the expanded awareness of our sensory field and bringing together the experiences of different senses while learning to observe ourselves from the position of an autonomous ‘witness’.

To feel the world anew

After our conversation, my conclusion is that one of the most important things yoga nidra teaches me is feeling. It awakens sensitivity in a world of dulled senses. Thanks to nidra, I can experience the world in a simple, organic way again: through my body, mind and energy.

I remember the exercise we did during our teacher training. At first glance, it seemed so simple: we had to sit down in front of a student group and tell a short story. However, there was a little catch. We had to do it while maintaining full contact with our surroundings, the participants, and above all, with whatever was happening in our body, mind and emotions. To a lot of us, even those seasoned by years of working with people, the experience was groundbreaking. We realized to what extent we avoid the experience of our feelings and sensations while trying to fulfil the tasks that everyday reality puts in front of us.

Even a long time after that experience, various questions kept on circling my head: to what extent am I self-aware in the rush of my everyday life? Do I still remember to breathe after several hours spent working in front of the computer screen? Can I feel what is happening to my body while cooking soup or driving my car? Do I remain aware of my body and mind while having an interesting conversation or reading an absorbing article? I would recommend such questions as simple everyday training to expand our self-awareness, in addition to the experiences garnered from yoga nidra sessions. The results can be surprising.

Experiencing silence organically

There are no reasons not to start practising yoga nidra straight away. Contrary to the more demanding asana-based yoga or meditation practices, it is accessible to people of all age groups. It can be a great experience for anyone who needs to feel soothed and relaxed more often. The yoga teacher Lesław Kulmatycki called the experience of yoga nidra the “organic experience of silence”. Even though during the session we remain anchored by the teacher’s voice, we still get to feel our inner silence with all the senses.

The most recent psychiatric research shows that our society’s level of anxiety and depression has risen significantly over the past few years. We are going through a difficult period in history: the narratives that used to explain reality are now falling apart, and what is happening outside our windows doesn’t help in maintaining psychological balance. Losing our sense of safety is a perfectly normal reaction; anxiety becomes our everyday companion. This experience can be especially painful for highly empathetic and sensitive individuals. Even though there is no magic formula to tell us how to live in such times, psychologists and psychiatrists agree about one thing: to maintain mental stability, we must find a way to take care of our wellbeing. I suggest yoga nidra, because I know it can become a simple and accessible tool for many of us.

Like any other yoga technique, nidra increases our capacity for change, that is – in psychological terms – our capacity for self-regulation when faced with demanding life situations. It helps us to develop stress resistance and supports mental and emotional regeneration. Sara Siemaszkiewicz concludes our conversation with an inspiring thought on the gift of yoga nidra for the modern age. “It gives us the ability to experience a state of absolute openness and relaxation in life, because life is within us, and luckily, we needn’t do anything with it. The only thing yoga expects of us is to be conscious. That is the gift of yoga: it gives us consistency and the ability to be present in what is happening. It’s about our capacity to absorb what there is around us. And what’s around us is constant change.”

How to practice yoga nidra

If there is a yoga school near you that offers nidra classes, try starting with that. It’s an extraordinary experience. However, if you prefer to enjoy the benefits of yoga nidra at home:

  1. Practice in a clean, well-aired and quiet room.
  2. Prepare a spot to lie down comfortably in the savasana pose. Stretch on your back on a mat, blanket or bed.
  3. Make sure you’re warm and comfortable. You can rest your head on a folded blanket and put a bolster or rolled towel under your knees. This way, you can avoid any tension in the neck and lumbar spine. Prepare a warm blanket to put over your body. You can also use a relaxing eye pillow.
  4. Make sure your environment is quiet during the practice. Turn off your phone.
  5. Use one of the nidra recordings you can find online. I recommend the recordings of Swami Satyananda from the Bihar School of Yoga.
  6. Don’t be discouraged if you fall asleep, and remember that regular practice gives the best results.

All quotations come from Lesław Kulczycki’s book Joga nidra. Sztuka relaksacji (Książka i Wiedza, Warsaw 2004).

 

Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano

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