Yoga Nidra: The Practice of ‘Yogic Sleep’

What do soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and those going through cancer treatment have in common? Both groups may experience life threatening challenges on a daily basis, bringing a geometric magnification of the unrelenting daily stress that most of us feel and accept as normal. However, according to research, both soldiers with PTSD and people experiencing the ordeal of cancer can greatly benefit from the meditative practice of yoga nidra.

What is Yoga Nidra?

Yoga nidra is a practice which can greatly benefit those on the cancer journey — but what really is it?  Yoga nidra as commonly practiced today evolved from an ancient tantric practice known as nyasa, meaning “to place,” which involved visualizing a body part and using a mantra at that spot. Swami Satyanananda, the author of the classic book Yoga Nidra, reintroduced a modernized form of this practice in the 1970s, making it more accessible to the general public and those unfamiliar with Sanskrit mantras.

Yoga Nidra, a profound form of conscious and systematic relaxation, is a form of pratyahara (sense withdrawal), the fifth limb on the 8 limbs of raja yoga. It is not a form of dharana, or concentration, and in fact, the practitioner should not try to concentrate but should only maintain relaxed awareness on the directions given by the instructor. The practice involves shifting from the external senses to a focus on only the voice of the instructor. Swami Satyanananda tells us that when consciousness operates through only one sensory channel, we can develop a sense of awareness on the border of the conscious and unconscious where we are more receptive and less critical– and the mind becomes very powerful. In more advanced practices of yoga nidra, the practitioner may also experience the 7th and 8th limbs of raja yoga:  dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (transcendental consciousness).

The Popularization of Yoga Nidra

Two American yogis in particular, Richard Miller, PhD, and ParaYoga® founder, Rod Stryker, have helped to bring yoga nidra to the attention of the American public in the past decade. Miller studied in India under the therapeutic yoga master T.K.V. Desikachar and later co-founded the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), releasing his book and accompanying CD Yoga Nidra in 2005. Later, Miller created the iRest® Integrative Restoration Institute (IRI) in response to a request from the military for help in dealing with the often intractable condition of PTSD in soldiers and veterans. Department of Defense officials told Miller that “the military doesn’t do yoga” and asked him to change the yogic terminology to suit their needs. In response, Miller changed the name of the yoga nidra program to iRest® and began to teach a 35-minute form of a yoga nidra meditation to soldiers.

The iRest® materials describe their program as a research-based practice of “deep relaxation and meditative inquiry that releases negative emotions and thought patterns, calms the nervous system and develops a deep capacity to meet any and all circumstances you may encounter in life.” Miller’s efforts led to studies showing statistically proven benefits, including better sleep, less depression and less anger, and proven benefits for PTSD, chronic pain, cancer care and chemical dependency. His organization has trained over 1,700 practitioners in this system, helping to bring this practice to worldwide popularity.*

Rod Stryker, also brought the yoga nidra practice to prominence under the Americanized label of “Relax into Greatness.” Stryker, founder of the ParaYoga® Master training, is primarily a student of tantric master Kavi Yogiraj Mani Finger, as well as Swami Rama and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait of the Himalayan lineage. Stryker’s 2003 yoga nidra recording, Relax into Greatness, is a favorite among many yoga teachers, who enjoy it for their personal use and often play the recordings for their students. Stryker narrates a shorter version at 25 minutes and a longer version at 47 minutes, in addition to the four minute introduction and sankalpa explanation.

The Benefits of Yoga Nidra

In addition to the benefits of yoga nidra that have been supported by studies such as the ones done by Richard Miller and his team, there are other less verifiable, but staunchly asserted benefits. Some people say that 20 minutes of yoga nidra equals three hours of sleep. Some of the other touted benefits include:

  • Calming the mind and relieving stress
  • Opening the heart and cultivating self-compassion and self-love
  • Transforming negative thought patterns
  • Boosting creativity & spontaneity

The most powerful aspect of yoga nidra may actually be its ability to reprogram the subconscious mind.  Before beginning the practice, the practitioner himself creates a Sankalpa, a term that translates from Sanskrit as resolution, a short mental statement in which is a conscious resolve is impressed on the subconscious mind when the practitioner is in a calm and receptive state. This sankalpa serves as a seed or affirmation to do or be something which creates an intention for the subconscious mind to fulfill within the next six to eighteen months.

Swami Satyananda wrote: “Sankalpa can create a direction for your whole life if you use it wisely…when sankalpa becomes the directing force, everything you do in life becomes successful”. At the same time, Swami Satyananda states that the practice also helps to purify our minds by clearing previous mental patterns, or samskaras, that include painful memories, unfulfilled desires, frustrated needs, fears, neuroses, inhibitions and other deep-seated unconscious conditioning that compel us to think or act in certain ways.

How Yoga Nidra Works

Is there one explanation on how or why yoga nidra works? No, actually the explanations are quite textured and vary according to the source.  While Yoga Nidra translates to yogic sleep, this practice of releasing accumulated tensions takes place when the practitioner remains aware and awake. Swami Sivananda states that unlike during hypnosis, in which the sushumna nadi (main energy channel) is closed, in yoga nidra, the sushumna nadi remains open or awakened, supplying energy and stimuli to the brain. Yogis describe this relaxation as a balance between the ida and pingala energy channels. Yogis tell us that the practice of yoga nidra brings us through the five koshas, or layers, from the physical body, all the way to the bliss body, where we deeply experience this innermost layer of joyful existence.

With the use of PET scans and EEG instruments to monitor brain activity, scientists can now confirm the effects of yoga nidra in objective measurements.  Scans show that yoga nidra promotes symmetrical brain wave functioning, integrating the right and left hemispheres, shifting brain waves from the beta waves of daily life and problem solving to the alpha and delta waves seen in deep relaxation. Experts generally agree that the alpha state most supports learning and the retention of information; in fact, the slower the brain wave state, the faster that learning may take place.

More information on the practice of Yoga Nidra will follow in The Elements of Yoga Nidra.

*Richard Miller’s products include:

Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing (book)

Resting in Stillness: Integrative Restoration – iRest Yoga Nidra (CD)

The iRest Program for Healing PTSD: A Proven-Effective Approach to Using Yoga Nidra Meditation and Deep Relaxation Techniques to Overcome Trauma (book)

Yoga Nidra: The Meditative Heart of Yoga (book and CD)