What is yoga nidra, really?
When I first starting teaching yoga nidra out in the community, I had one student say to me that she’d never been able to meditate in all her life and now here she was, meditating for half an hour. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that actually she wasn’t meditating at all (sometimes people are on such a high after a yoga class I don’t want to deflate them with technicalities). But technically yoga nidra isn’t a meditation. It’s not a relaxation either, as many understandable mistake it for. Nor is it a hypnosis.
So what is yoga nidra? If not a meditation or a relaxation or a hypnosis?
Yoga nidra is a practice of pratyahara.
Pratyahara is a sanskrit word and it refers both to the process of sensory withdrawel and the mental state of sense withdrawel. When our awareness is fully internalised we are said to be in pratyahara. This is not the same as to be in meditation. Meditation is the state of one-pointed awareness. Meditation follows pratyahara. In fact, in order to reach meditation one must first achieve pratyahara (and as anyone who has tried to focus on something with a fly buzzing around their head can identify, pratyahara is a challenge in and of itself). As Swami Satyananda explains,
“In the raja yoga of Patanjali there is a state called pratyahara when mind and mental awareness are dissociated from the sensory channels. The perfection of pratyahara leads to concentration and then to meditation. Yoga nidra is one aspect or form of pratyahara. When one practises yoga nidra he is not asleep. His consciousness is functioning in a certain state of awareness.” (1980).
Literally “nidra” means sleep and “yoga nidra” means sleep with awareness. Some strands of yoga do something like yoga nidra and call it shavasan. Shavasan isn’t the name of the technique though, it’s the name of the posture.
Actually yoga nidra is a state that we pass through every night as we transition from wake to sleep. In pyschological terms the state that is achieved in a yoga nidra is called the hypnogogic state, a state that lies somewhere between sleeping and waking. Swami Satyananda refers to it as the state “between this and that.” (1980). The intention of the yoga nidra practice though is to hold the mind between “this and that,” and to make use of this state. This intention is what makes it not a relaxation practice.
“When you practise yoga nidra you must remember that you are trying to evolve a most dynamic state of consciousness. This deeper state of your mind is dissipated during the waking and dreaming states. You have that dynamism even now but the tendencies of the mind are dissipated. There are a lot of distractions through the sensory channels, and we are unable to attain a profound state of consciousness.” (Swami Satyananda, 1980)
Swami Satyananda developed yoga nidra, but it’s not right to say he created it. The origin of yoga nidra lies in the tantric practice of nyasa. Tantric practices are ancient world practices. What Swami Satyananda did was to adapt, systematise and collate certain tantric practices to develop yoga nidra. Yoga nidra was given to modern yoga by Swami Satyananda and it endures to this day as one of his greatest contributions to modern yoga.
That’s all well and good but, how will practising yoga nidra benefit me?
Well, there are three ways that a regular yoga nidra practice can benefit you (actually there are more but I’ll stick with three)
Through deep relaxation
Yoga nidra stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, also referred to as our rest and digest or rest and repair mode. In this day and age, with the pace and pressure of modern life, more and more of our time is being spent with our sympathetic nervous system aroused. Our sympathetic nervous system is also called our “fight or flight mode”. This is our emergency state and was only intended to become the dominant mode when the shit hits the fan, metaphorically speaking. Our brains are likewise spending a lot of time in a mental state known as beta – the awakened state with high mental activity.
Modern life is a series of never ending stimuli and attention demands. We want more and more is wanted of us, always, endlessly. On top of this our main recreational activities involve staring at screens; televisions, laptops, phones. Screens that bombard us with the last thing we need more of – stimulation.
This puts us in a time and a state of constant arousal, which means our symapthetic nervous system, our bodies back-up “emergency mode,” has become “the mode” with which we spend most of our time. The mind is likewise spending longer and longer periods of time in the beta state of high mental activity. Our minds and bodies were simply not designed for this.
A lot of people think that they relax when they sleep, but that’s not necessarily so. It’s possible to sleep a kind of aroused restless sleep of poor quality.
“Most people still feel that yoga nidra is only a practice of relaxation, and yet, excepting the scientists, they don’t even understand what relaxation means. You are tired, so you go to bed and think you are relaxing. But unless you are free from muscular, mental and emotional tensions, you are never relaxed.” (Swami Satyanada Saraswati, 1980)
When this aroused state is allowed to continue for too long, illness and psychosis can manifest. So yoga nidra, in stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, allows the body and mind to move into “rest and repair” mode. The mode that works to stop illness and psychosis from manifesting. Yoga nidra also induces the mind into the delta state. The state of deep sleep. Experienced yogis have been shown to move into this state, with conscious awareness, during yoga nidra.
By releasing repressions from the psyche
Yoga nidra helps over and above the uber-stimulation of our lives, because yoga nidra can create a space for repressed emotions to emerge. Some people mistake yoga nidra for hypnosis, it’s not. Aside from repeating a personal resolution, there is no autosuggestion put on the mind. In yoga nidra we are witnessing the mind, allowing the subconscious to reveal things to us that the wakened mind has pushed down below. This…
“…allows us to free up repressed feelings, thoughts or belief which the awakened mind has repressed. In the deeper realms of the mind this conflicting and frustrating matter does not die but remains alive and later manifests in the form of various pathological symptoms.” (Siddhartha Bhushan, 2001)
Particularly in the stage of practice called ‘visualisations,’ where the practitioner is guided to visualise certain images, the dream-sleep is being emulated at the conscious level and through association, unresolved feelings and experiences have the potential to bubble to the surface and ultimately, be released. Quite remarkably, yoga nidra can enable a person to let go of things without the need to consciously remember them in the process.
Through the repetition of the sankalpa
One of the non-core stages that can be in a yoga nidra is the sankalpa stage, the place where a personal resolution is repeated. I will do… something or I will be… something. A sankalpa has an incredible power to change the life of a person if yoga nidra is done regularly enough. This is because the sankalpa that we choose changes our subconscious mind.
A lot of our behaviour is guided by our subconscious mind, and for this reason we find ourselves often doing things that we know aren’t good for us – smoking, drinking, gambling, over-eating, bad relationships, irritability, gossiping, etc. When somebody struggles to quit smoking, for instance, the struggle is between the conscious mind which wants to stop, and the subconscious mind which has been habituated to smoking. Often too there is a subconscious need being fulfilled by the bad habits we take on.
“Intellectual conviction is one aspect of human life and we are all intellectually convinced about good and bad. But we have to also be receptive emotionally to everything that we need to assimilate, and this is possible only when the dissipations and distractions of the mind are withdrawn. When the mind is flowing on one smooth level, the fluctuations and the waves in the mind are calmed. Then whatever is impressed upon the mind, that becomes the corrective, that becomes the destiny, that becomes the directive.” (Swami Satyanada, 1980)
So in the sankalpa we can shape our subconscious mind into something positive and this tends to have a ripple out effect on our whole beings and our whole lives. Even just practising yoga nidra once a week, the subtle shift of one’s sankalpa will start to shape the life.
So yoga nidra, a practice of pratyahara, systematically brings us into a state of deep relaxation, but it is not a relaxation, because we are aiming to achieve a dynamic state of consciousness. This state can be used to bring about big changes in our lives, not only in balancing us out from stress, but in moulding the subconscious mind and allowing it to let go of repressions. A regular yoga nidra practice can have remarkable ripple out effects on your life. Remarkable too especially because all you have to do is lie there and not go to sleep.
Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Alcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress and Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. St Martin’s Griffin, New York.
Siddhartha Bhushan. (2001). ‘Yoga Nidra: Its Advantages and Applications,’ Yoga Magazine, March.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati. (1980). ‘Taming the Wild Monkey,’ Yoga Magazine, February. http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1980/bfeb80/tammon.shtml
Swami Satyananda Saraswati. (2013). Meditations from the Tantras. Yoga Publications Trust, Mungar, Bihar, India.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati. (2015). Yoga Nidra. Yoga Publications Trust, Mungar, Bihar, India.