Yoga Nidra: Here's What You Need to Know

Photo by Thais Ramos Varela

Look on the schedule at your local yoga studio. In between the inversions workshops and regularly-scheduled yoga classes, you may find a yoga nidra class or workshop. If not in the next month, it will be there soon. That's because the ancient practice of yoga nidra has tons of benefits for our bodies and minds—and people are finally catching on.

This deep state of conscious rest, an ancient style of meditation that's starting to go mainstream, is no longer reserved for ashram life or advanced yoga teacher trainings. It's become a semi-regular offering in yoga studios in New York City and Los Angeles, as yogis of all levels who get a taste keep coming back for more. New release books like Yoga Nidra: The Art of Transformational Sleep, out in March, and Daring to Rest: Reclaim Your Power with Yoga Nidra Rest Meditation (due out this November) praise the modern benefits of yoga nidra and share practical applications of the age-old practice. Plus, with the rise of podcasts and audio content, accessing yoga nidra through YouTube videos and various other sources of audio has never been easier.

So what's all the buzz about? If you're new to yoga nidra, here's everything you need to know about this magical practice.

What is yoga nidra and why haven't I heard about it before?

Yoga nidra is often referred to as "yogic sleep," a paradoxical state of being between sleep and consciousness that's conducive to deep emotional and physical healing, rewiring your brain, and self-exploration. Richard Miller, Ph.D. and author of the authoritative, often-referenced text Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing, has postulated that there's no separation between our dream state and reality because they inform each other, and yoga nidra is a practice that helps bring you into alignment with your truth.

Canada-based yoga teacher Tanis Fishman studied yoga nidra at the ashram of Swami Satyananda, who played a powerful role in developing the yoga nidra technique. Fishman agrees that yoga nidra is gaining popularity because it's an antidote to our modern lifestyles. As a culture, we're always connected, often stressed, and our nervous systems are constantly in a fight-or-flight, sympathetic state. Yoga nidra is an effective and efficient way to access the "rest and digest" parasympathetic state, which is where healing happens.

But it's not all about undoing the side effects of modern life—there's a lot more to it than that. "As a collective consciousness, we're waking up," she said. As wellness becomes more of a lifestyle than a trend, practitioners want to experience the subtler practices of yoga and yoga nidra offers exactly that.

Chloe Kernaghan, co-owner of trendsetting and community-based yoga studio Sky Ting agrees. "Yoga nidra has been a hidden jewel of the yoga practice for a long time but definitely is starting to reach a wider audience now. I think as 'wellness' as a trend continues to boom, the more esoteric and deep-rooted practices are starting to gain recognition."

What are the benefits of yoga nidra?

The practice of yoga nidra starts with a personal intention. So while it truly depends on the intention, yoga nidra will help you rest, restore, de-stress, increase awareness, undo bad habits, and eventually understand your true calling and higher purpose. And we all need more of that, right?

In the beginning, whether you fall asleep during practice (which is quite common) or not, you'll start feeling more rested and restored. One hour of yoga nidra is as restful as a few hours of sleep, according to Swami Satyananda—so it's a great tool to rely on when you're feeling under-rested. And as you progress, you can use yoga nidra as a spiritual practice to help clarify and execute your purpose as you spend more time inside your mind, fusing your consciousness with your powerful subconscious.

In one fascinating study that scanned the brains of men and women doing yoga nidra, researchers found that practitioners' brains showed that they were at once in a deep resting state similar to sleep, but they weren't asleep at all. Actually, they were completely conscious. "The measurements show, for the first time, that one can be completely aware in such a deep state—that one can consciously experience and control the brain’s activity simultaneously. This confirms that meditation is the fourth major state, equal to dreaming, sleeping, and wakefulness."

In addition to the benefits of the actual practice, yoga nidra is accessible to everyone, can be done almost anywhere at very low cost, and is a simple way to start a meditation practice.

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What do yoga nidra "poses" look like?

You know all about "regular" yoga poses: Downward facing dogs, upward facing dogs, sun salutations, baby cobras, the list goes on. But is there such thing as a a yoga nidra pose? Not in the traditional sense. The best way to describe yoga nidra is that it's a lot like a very long savasana, or corpse pose. The difference is that while in traditional yoga classes this pose typically lasts for a few minutes, in a yoga nidra class you'll be holding it for the full hour of practice.

If lying flat on the floor with your palms facing up for a full hour is uncomfortable for you, worry not: Many yoga nidra classes supply props like blankets or bolsters. Bolsters are great for propping under your knees if you're prone to lower back pain, and when our bodies go into a state of deep relaxation our overall temperature tends to drop—so having a blanket handy to cover yourself up with is crucial to keeping that state of deep relaxation going.

While in a traditional yoga class teachers are typically cueing poses, in a yoga nidra class your instructor will direct your awareness to your body, breath, and conjure up imagery that helps you more easily transition into that hypnotic, ultra-relaxed state that leaves you feeling so rested afterward.

Yoga nidra is a sleep meditation—but that doesn't mean it's the same thing as sleep.

You know that moment right before you're about to fall asleep? You're aware of your body, heavy and relaxed in your bed, and all your worries have shifted to the furthest corner of your brain. Instead, you're having slightly odd, dream-like thoughts, while still being mostly aware of your surroundings. Maybe you vaguely hear a noise outside your bedroom window, but it doesn't bother you. It's just a noise, and you're only moments away from drifting off to dreamland. That's exactly the mental space you should aim for with yoga nidra.

When you're in a deep, restorative sleep, you have absolutely no awareness of what's going on around you—you're completely unconscious. Yoga nidra isn't quiet like that. In yoga nidra, we do hold on to our consciousness, and we may even be aware of sound or activity around us. The difference is, we don't react to it. We're just immersed in the most relaxed possible state of conscious energy.

The energy of yoga nidra can best be described as hypnotic, and it's something to aim for. Once you fall asleep, you're no longer in yoga nidra—but the longer you can stay in the space, the more easily you can reap the restorative benefits. While you can't always avoid falling asleep (many beginners do—it's part of the process!) it may help to not practice yoga nidra late at night. Instead, aim for a time of day when you're more alert and able to focus your energy toward achieving this hypnotic state of mind. You'll learn more about how to note fall asleep during yoga nidra below.

What's the difference between yoga nidra and a guided meditation?

Yoga nidra is a very specific type of guided meditation. According to Fishman, a yoga nidra session is typically 30 minutes long—any shorter isn't long enough to enter a parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) state and any longer than 45 minutes can be considered an advanced practice. Dr. Miller describes the following stages as "sheaths" of being, which are called "koshas" in the ancient yogic texts.

Before moving through the exercise of bringing awareness to each one of these states, it's best if the practitioner sets the stage with an intention and a desire. That intention is called a "sankalpa" in Sanskrit and, once you land on it, it should be kept at the forefront of your mind, always in the present tense. The second step is to identify what you deeply desire for yourself and others.

Then the teacher will guide you through a series of inquiries related to each one of the aforementioned sheaths. Here's what a typical flow looks like:

  1. Set your intention.
  2. Feel your desire for yourself and others.
  3. Physical body: Sense and perceive your physical body and arrive in the present moment by doing a body scan.
  4. Energetic body: Count breaths, elongate breaths, and experience the sensation that arises from the breath work. This raises awareness of where energy is stuck and where it's flowing.
  5. Emotional body: Invite the polarity of opposite feelings and sensations into your practice, like warm and cool, left and right, safety and fear. Often we experience emotions on this polarity: For example, someone living in fear desires safety. Yoga nidra teaches us that we don't need the positive end of the polarity to be comfortable, safe, fearless, joyous, and vulnerable.
  6. Body of intellect: Notice thoughts, beliefs, and images that arise in the guided exploration of opposites. They offer insight into your long-held belief systems and answer why we are the way we are.
  7. Body of joy: Recalling memories that are pure joy and at ease helps reset a mental baseline and can alleviate anxiety levels while offering an ever-present sense of calm.
  8. Body of ego-I: Through guided mantra and meditation, become aware of the witness inside us all and check (and recheck, and recheck) your ego.
  9. Natural state: Recognize the power of the mind to facilitate emotions from an inner and outer state. This helps bring awareness of our inner witness, the consciousness inside each one of us that's remained the same since we can remember. In this state, we recall the intention and desire set at the beginning of practice and integrate them with our re-patterned consciousness before coming out of the meditation.
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How do you avoid falling asleep during yoga nidra?

If you've been practicing yoga nidra regularly and keep falling asleep, worry not: This is actually very normal. Even though she had an awakening during her first yoga nidra experience, Fishman admits to sleeping through six months of practice save for that first experience.

Her recommendation is to do yoga nidra at a time when you feel very awake, refreshed, and not in danger of falling asleep, like first thing in the morning versus in the evening. If you need a little extra help with this, doing a physical asana practice beforehand and setting a strong intention to stay awake during the practice can work wonders. The last one is important because our consciousness takes cues from our subconscious, and the intention creates a blueprint so re-patterning can occur.

Can I do yoga nidra?

Yes, of course you can! The best part about yoga nidra is that it's completely accessible: All you need is a place to lie down or sit upright and relaxed. If you don't have access to a guided class, we recommend listening to the CD in the back of Richard Miller's book to start, band there are several online podcasts and YouTube videos that work well for yoga nidra. Fishman has also compiled a selection of recordings to guide you through the process. You might not get the hang of it right away, but once you to surrender to the power of yoga nidra you'll likely find that it's a reliable tool for those days when you don't get enough sleep or simply need to take a beat to relax.

If you're into subtle body practice, check out how to fine tune your sonic diet and what happens to your brain when you meditate.

Also, yoga is incredible for keeping your body & mind healthy. Ready to learn about how the power of food can also create a sound body & mind? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.

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