Most people associate yoga with posture, breathing and meditation. Yet, at the very heart of yoga lies the practice of ‘yoga nidrā’, otherwise known as ‘yogic sleep’. In this article, I’m going to show you what yoga nidra is and how yoga helps with sleep.
Firstly, what is yoga nidra?
Yoga nidra is a direct way of experiencing the mind in an unconditioned state. The word ‘nidra’ means the practice of going ‘in’, and also means going ‘without’. It can be seen as a portal to that which is without divide (or non-dual).
So, we can think of it as a deep dive through the various layers of mind – from gross to subtle – in and out. One can also think of it as the process of ‘attending to the places for which there is no conscious awareness’, yet in a very wakeful state.
In other words, yoga nidra is space between ‘wakefulness and sleep’. Tias Little describes this space as ‘the space between perception and non-perception‘. The space between ‘knowing and not-knowing‘.
In some respects, yoga nidra can be thought of as being in attendance to those parts of the psyche that are ‘non-volitional’. In other words, to occupy spaces which are beyond our will.
For the most part, we live in the ‘volitional’ world. From the volitional world, comes ‘conditionality’. This conditionality directly affects how we think and feel. Subtle layers are imprinted upon the pysche, often for which we have no conscious awareness.
Accordingly, the purpose of yoga nidra is to access states of mind that are unconditional. Where there is unconditionality, awareness arises that is unconfined and boundless. In yogic terms, this is similar to the state of samadhi, where there is the full absorption of body and mind.
Moreover, one could also describe yoga nidra as the practice of dissolution (known as ‘laya yoga’). From dissolution arises complete absorption, into the unified field that is ‘everything’, or as Eckhard Tolle describes in the Power of Now, ‘the unified field of consciousness’.
Accordingly, Yoga nidra can be thought as a means by which the separation between the ego-self and the true self ‘ceases’.
How yoga nidrā helps with sleep
When we sleep, there are two distinct stages. The first is ‘REM Sleep‘, and the second is ‘Non-REM Sleep‘. It is in the REM stage of sleep where we dream. One interpretation of this stage is that there is the ‘integration of fragments of the psyche’ that have arisen during the previous day and over the course of a life time. In this stage, the eyes are rapidly moving.
According to Guy Leschziner, a consultant neurologist at Guy’s and ST Thomas’s Hospital, dreaming sleep is that stage in our lives every night where we tweak our internal model of how we make sense of the world. This assists our nervous system to function ‘properly’. So consciousness relates to how are our nervous system produces our perception of the world.
The other stage of sleep is Non-REM sleep. It is in this stage that the practice of yoga nidra resides.
The non-REM stage is the ‘non-dreaming’ stage. At this stage, the brainwaves become slower and can resemble what is experienced under anaesthesia or a coma. The neurons in the brain begin to act in synchronicity and the brain can be thought of as going into a hibernation or deep rest. The analogy is almost like putting your computer to ‘sleep’.
During a 45 minute yoga nidra session, the body and mind begin to realise that deeper states of relaxation are possible. As a consequence of accessing these stages, the nervous system begins to evolve into more parasympathetic states. Neuroplasticity in the brain occurs and synaptic connections in the brain begin to rewire. As Matthew Walker, said in his popular book ‘Why We Sleep‘:
Sleep enriches a diversity of functions, including our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical choices. Sleep recalibrates our emotional brain circuits…sleep reforms the body’s metabolic state by fine-tuning the balance of insulin and circulating glucose. Dreams provide a neurochemical bath that mollify painful memories and provide a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present, inspiring creativity.
So, by inducing deeper states of rest during yoga, we get to mimic the more restful states of sleep.
How yoga nidra works
From a physiological perspective, in yoga nidra gamma wave activity in the brain starts to reduce. Upon doing so, the brain produces spontaneous images and cursory thoughts.
From here positive sensory images deposit in the liminal space between wakefulness and sleep. This then alters the neural make-up of the mind.
From a neurological perspective, the ‘thalamus’ (found in the centre of the brain), begins to block all sensory signals. One of its roles is to act as a gatekeeper by blocking all perception. The neo-cortex (located in the front of the brain and where critical thinking is performed), goes into a default mode of relaxation (ie a ‘nocturnal cerebral meditation’).
So in other words, when we practice yoga nidra, we operate to put ourselves into a state of ‘stupor’. The brain itself effectively goes to sleep (perhaps like ‘airplane mode’). This is how yoga helps with sleep.
How yoga nidra helps improve wellbeing
There are many reasons why one would want to practice yoga nidra. According to Richard Miller, a world renowned leading authority on the practice of yoga nidra, these include to:
- Bring about profound states of relaxation;
- Eliminate stress;
- Overcome insomnia;
- Solve personal & interpersonal problems;
- Resolve trauma; and
- Neutralise and overcome anxiety, fear, anger & depression.
Above all, the practice of yoga nidra can help answer life’s biggest questions, such as ‘Who am I’? or ‘what do I do next?’ It is only in these unconditioned states, where the ego is not present and one can operate at the soul level, that such answers can be found.
How yoga nidra is practiced
There isn’t a lot of reference to the practice of yoga nidra in the yogic texts. So a lot of the techniques and practices today are modern interpretations of the idea of yogic sleep.
- body scans
- temporal suspension of breath
- dissolution of the elements
- nada yoga (yoga of sound)
The practice may be done by inserting images of an archetypal god, a totem animal, a trusted ally or other natural setting.
One quote though, taken from the Vijnana-bhairava, gives us a clue as to its meaning:
Contemplate step by step the dissolution of mind (manolaya) beginning with the earth and moving from gross to subtle.~Vijnana-bhairava Verse 56
- Warm up. Some movements are helpful so that the connective tissue becomes loose and the body is ready to sit still and rest.
- Provide optimal support to ‘drop in’. Support the spine by a bolster or blankets. Sandbags or weights are helpful to enhance the feeling of heaviness or ‘soaking in’. The aim is to prepare the body to go into a cocoon-like state.
- Perform a body scan. This should be done from the peripheral to the central. ie from the fingers and toes and work into towards the centre of the body. The arms, wrists and fingers are connected to the forebrain. The practice of ‘yoga nidra’ is a journey from the forebrain to the back brain (where the visual cortex is located).
- Release tension from the cranium. The aim is to tap into the fluidity of the ‘cranial-sacral’ rhythm. This induces the ‘slow-wave’ pattern of sleep. As a result, there is a large scale integration of many areas of the brain.
- Arrive at a middle ground between wakefulness and sleep. The aim is to ensure that the brain is in a position such that absorption takes place, but not so much that actual ‘sleep’ takes place. The aim is that clarity should arise, more so than during the normal waking mind.
- Close the eyes. This supports the notion of ‘becoming one with the divine’. That said, yoga nidra may also be done with the eyes open. This represents an expression of consciousness, moving ‘outwards’ – a manifestation of the divine. Alternating between eyes open and closed helps cultivate the conviction that the outer and inner worlds are essentially the same.
- Interoception occurs. That is, there is the capacity to perceive subtle shifts in the body’s physiology.
- Dissolution. In the final stage of yoga nidra, the sensory organs of perception (touch, smell, sight, hearing, feeling) dissolve with the subject of that perception (ie the person who is practising). At this stage, the practitioner is resting in ‘pure perception’.
Here there is no separation between the subject of the mind and the object of the body – subject and object become one. In this stage one rests in “pure perception”.
Yoga nidra, as part of an overall yoga practice, is profound and can help achieve deeper states of relaxation. One can gain the benefits of 4 hours of deep rest, in as little as 45 minutes of practice. This is how yoga helps with sleep. It is helpful if you find a guide, either recorded or in person to help you realise such states. Upon doing so, you may heal parts of your self that are in conflict or divided, or gain wisdom into questions or issues that have been ‘on your mind’ in the world of conception.
If I can help you achieve stress reduction or inner peace through yoga or meditation, please feel free to get in touch or contact me at email@example.com