I was very lucky to learn yoga nidra (yogic sleep), a powerful raja (royal) yoga technique of conscious relaxation, during my first stay in India in 2004. I spent a month in a Bihar School of Yoga ashram in Bangalore where I learned yoga nidra directly from a yogacharya (yoga teacher) who was a disciple of Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati for most of his life. It’s Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati, an outstanding spiritual leader and the founder of the Bihar Yoga Tradition, who adapted yoga nidra from tantric yoga and made it accessible to all of us. I am so very grateful to Guruji and my teacher for sharing this powerful technique which since then had become a permanent part of my personal yoga practice and my yoga teaching. Thanks to yoga nidra, many of my friends, students and myself personally have benefited greatly and brought essential positive changes in our lives.
Nidra is a Sanskrit word which can be translated as sleep, and yoga nidra is known as yogic sleep or sleep with awareness. It is a powerful technique of inducing complete and systematic relaxation on the physical, emotional and mental levels of our being. It uniquely unwinds the nervous system, which is the foundation of the body’s well-being. One can rejuvenate in a short period of time – 30 minutes of yoga nidra is as restful as two hours of conventional sleep! Practiced lying down, it does not involve movement, just listening and relaxing, therefore it is suitable for any physical condition.
The practice of yoga nidra consists of a few different stages among which are total relaxation of the physical body, breathing techniques to promote deep mental relaxation and guided visualization to resolve suppressed memories and desires. Another very important stage of yoga nidra, which turns it into a life-changing method, is sankalpa (resolution) but it’s a vast topic I wrote about previously.
Yoga nidra practice has been investigated in many research centers around the world and showed extremely favorable results in many fields. A state of profound psychophysiological relaxation and metabolic rest which occurs during yoga nidra is characterized by decreased sympathetic and increased parasympathetic nervous activity, decreased heart rate and blood pressure, altered levels of «stress hormones» such as adrenaline and cortisol, and enhanced concentration capacity. This state was given different names such as «the hypnagogic state», «the creative surrender» and «the relaxation response». It is in this state, the awakening and mobilization of prana (vital energy) happens naturally, and with consistent practice the ability to consciously control and direct prana throughout the body can be developed. This ability to use pranic energy at will allows a yoga nidra practitioner to access unlimited potential of inner healing power and improve any diseased condition of body-mind system.
Doctors and healers in many countries now prescribe yoga nidra as a preventive and curative therapy for stress-related diseases. Stress is a contributing factor in everything from backaches and insomnia to cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome. Some estimates say that stress is related to 40-80% of all doctor visits! Heart disease, high blood pressure, peptic ulcers, arthritis, bacterial or viral infections, migraine headaches, asthma and respiratory aliments… Have you ever experienced any of these problems? Unfortunately, most of us have illnesses or conditions brought on by stress or made worse by it. Fortunately, yoga nidra has been successfully used in the management of many stress-related diseases, and is proved helpful in both acute and chronic conditions.
Yoga nidra is also a successful therapy for psychological disturbances of all kinds, such as anxiety, depression, mood swings, etc., as it helps remove emotional imbalances and mental fatigue and tensions. In yoga nidra the subconscious mind is tapped to bring out into awareness the source of psychic pain – previously suppressed emotions, memories and desires. Self-recognition and desensitization of these painful life experiences follow spontaneously, and it can be safely relived and reintegrated into the conscious personality. When practice yoga nidra you become your own psychotherapist, you follow the instructions and not the instructor. The instructor is only a guide who doesn’t dominate your mind or will in any way. In yoga nidra you do everything yourself, and when you become familiar with the technique you will not even need an instructor anymore. Yoga nidra helps you to recognize your own personal problems and systematically alleviate them.
You can also use yoga nidra to stimulate your personal growth. The combination of alert awareness and the deepest form of relaxation helps you to dive into the subconscious and unconscious levels of the mind. In this «hypnagogic state» the mind is exceptionally receptive, and its nature can be easily changed: bad habits can be given up more easily, personality can be reshaped and direction in life can be chosen more wisely. In yoga nidra state you can also restore your creativity: we all have genius but we often cannot find it under the layers of tension and ever-busy mental chatters. You might find that right after yoga nidra practice, your mind is clear and still, and you feel inspired and called by your creative muse. This time is precious and can be used to write poems or music, to paint, sculpt or for any other creative process.
Applications of yoga nidra are very versatile, and one of them is to enhance the learning process by using our ability to absorb knowledge through the subconscious mind. Experiments are showing that yoga nidra is an extremely efficient mean of increasing learning capacity and memory function. Many pioneering educators now utilize yoga nidra to create the state of active and relaxed awareness in which knowledge is soaked up without effort. If you are a scholar, you might choose to use the stillness of your mind after yoga nidra practice to memorize and study.
The last and for me personally the most important use of yoga nidra lies in its meditative nature. If you find it difficult to meditate in a sitted position, you should start with yoga nidra. Achieving deep relaxation and perfect state of pratyahara (withdrawal of senses) brings out sensory inhibition that enables you to watch your mental activity. This can be more difficult to achieve while sitting but it is a necessary prerequisite to any meditation. Once you master pratyahara and relaxation, you will be able to get to the stage of dharana (contemplation) where your inner focus on one point helps you not to get involved in your thoughts and to reduce their number. This might eventually lead to dhyana – defocusing or effortless focusing, the state in which you keep one single thought effortlessly and are continuously present in the now. That makes meditation a meaningful experience filled with spontaneous awareness and deep insights. Knowledge of truth only comes when you are free of tension and mindful. The ultimate purpose of yoga nidra is to take you even further into the state of samadhi where your body, mind and soul are completely united and become one with all there is. This is the true goal of yoga – UNION.