What is Yoga Nidra: The True Definitions & Benefits Revealed
Yoga Nidra can be practiced by anyone. It holds immense benefits for all those who struggle to let go, those who suffer from lack of sleep, trauma, burn-out, and anxiety. It is also highly beneficial and holds great healing power for anyone who wants to experience a deeper sense of peace and re-connect more profoundly with themselves. The practice of Yoga Nidra leads us into a state of harmonious, restful being. From here, we can heal, restore and awaken to our true, blissful and eternal Self. This sublime practice is gaining popularity all over the world as more and more people experience its healing powers while ongoing research continues to prove its effectiveness.
But what is Yoga Nidra actually and by the extension of that, what isn’t? Read on to learn more!
Yoga Nidra literally means yogic sleep. It is an ancient technique where the practitioner enters the deep states of conscious relaxation. It is a systematic practice of moving awareness from our external world to the inner world.
It brings us to a state of deep sleep where our senses, intellect, and mind relax. We become free from the concepts of time, space and reason. When this happens, brain activity reduces and the body goes in the healing state. Therefore, it is also said that one hour of yoga Nidra can give the same benefit of a four-hour sleep. As the body enters a healing state, you can clear up the toxins at a cellular level, refresh the mind and remove baggage from the subconscious.
What Isn’t Yoga Nidra?
It isn’t just a relaxation: It has become quite popular to use the term ‘Yoga Nidra’ for any method that provides relaxation. Even though the practice of Yoga Nidra provides deep relaxation, it is not just a relaxation method. Yoga Nidra is a specific state of internal awareness. It is a conscious experience of dreamless, deep sleep where a person becomes connected with the inner world and disconnects from the outer world.
It isn’t just a guided visualization: Even though sometimes guided visualization might be used in the practice of Yoga Nidra, the purpose is to shift the awareness from the external world to the internal world. Guided visualizations mostly help with activating and becoming conscious of our senses and therefore move the awareness externally.
It isn’t just affirmations or autosuggestions: Though affirmations and autosuggestion can be part of Yoga Nidra to positively affect the subconscious mind, it goes far beyond merely affecting the subconscious.
It isn’t just reverie: Reverie is the state of being pleasantly lost in dream-like thoughts. Yoga Nidra may initially induce a similar effect but is meant to move the consciousness into a much deeper realm.
It isn’t just dreaming state: In the beginning, it is possible to get many complex dreams during the practice. But Yoga Nidra is not a state of dreaming. During dreaming the senses and the mental process are still fully active. In the actual state of Yoga Nidra, the mental processes cease, our senses rest and the mind becomes clear and calm.
Yoga Nidra versus Shavasana
Shavasana is a resting yoga pose where the physical body and the mind are meant to be silent and still, and the breath is effortless and gentle. ‘Shav’ literally means ‘dead body’ or ‘corpse’ and the pose is, therefore, Corpse Pose. This complete stillness brings deep relaxation to the body and mind. Corpse Pose looks like an easy pose, but many practitioners find it particularly challenging as it requires them to let go of the control of the body parts, allowing the breath to slow and the mind to calm down.
Shavasana is generally practiced for durations of 1 to 5 minutes. It is common for people to doze off in longer Shavasana, for example in a longer final relaxation after asana practice. But the idea is to simply still the mind, breath and the senses like in a dead state.
In Yoga Nidra, the practitioner guides his students to lie down comfortably. Preferably the students lie down in Shavasana as that is naturally the most effortless and balanced resting position. But it is also very common and acceptable to have students lie down on their belly or on their side. The teacher guides the students through a detailed and specific script. At the beginning of the instructions, you are asked to set a Sankalpa or making a resolve to yourself or to call upon the deepest desire.
You may have experienced the feeling when you are half asleep, and it strangely feels as if your brain is dozing. Such a state of consciousness, between being awake and being in sleep, is a state where Yoga Nidra may bring you.
So, to summarize; Shavasana is a yoga asana, a posture. Yoga Nidra is a state of consciousness, in between sleep and awake. It is complete relaxation of the body, while the mind stays awake. Proper use of Shavasana may allow one to experience Yoga Nidra, but the two are independent concepts. Shavasana is not required for Yoga Nidra, and the practice of Shavasana does not imply that one will experience Yoga Nidra.
Yoga Nidra versus Hypnosis
In both Yoga Nidra and hypnosis, the body is deeply relaxed and the subconscious is very active. But these are the only similarities.
As both Yoga Nidra and hypnosis can be used to influence the mind, many people think that Yoga Nidra is a form of hypnosis. But both the practice and the purpose are very different. Although they both begin with the guided relaxation, Yoga Nidra continues in one direction and hypnosis in another. But it’s true that when the senses and the mind calm down you may pass through a hypnotic state. If you stay aware of the ongoing process you can bypass that state.
That is why often the teacher repeats or asks you to not sleep. In Yoga Nidra, you try to stay awake. Even you relax deeply you don’t want to sleep. You are aware that you are in the process of Yoga Nidra. In Yoga Nidra, the conscious mind is still active and can assume control at any time, whereas and in hypnotism, the consciousness often is suppressed and you might have no recollection anymore of what you experienced.
In Yoga Nidra, the role of the teacher is to guide and bring you to a state of deep awareness. In hypnosis, the therapist often takes control of the conscious mind to explore your subconscious.
Yoga Nidra versus Relaxation
When we get tired of doing something or working hard, we need to relax. Most of the people do activities like listening to music, watching TV, going for a walk or reading, etc. This is not relaxation, this is a diversion. Here we divert ourselves to more pleasurable activities.
Proper relaxation is when the body, mind and the five senses are resting. For example, during deep sleep (dreamless sleep) we are relaxing. In deep sleep, the body, mind, and senses completely relax. Relaxation is very necessary because only in relaxation the body heals, repairs and grows. But here the consciousness fades away. That is why we are not aware of what happened while we were sleeping.
Yoga Nidra begins with relaxation but it goes much further. In Yoga Nidra relaxation of body, mind, and senses is very important but that is not the final goal. In Yoga Nidra, the consciousness is active and in an observing state. Even though the brain enters a deep relaxation state, you are observing the body, mind, and senses.
Rejuvenates the body
During Yoga Nidra, the body goes into a mode of deep relaxation. Regular practice helps the body to go into even deeper states of healing and rejuvenation. During this practice the body functions become minimal, metabolism slows down and the hormonal function increases. Therefore, the body gets the chance to begin the repair activity and expel the toxins out of the system.
Due to this, the body starts to conserve energy. This process removes fatigue and rejuvenates the brain. After the session, you will fresh and energized as you have slept for many hours.
We all suffer from some sort of stress. Stress has become part of our daily life. Some stress is healthy stress and some not. When the unhealthy stress is not controlled it creates physical and mental diseases. These are also called psychosomatic diseases.
Stress brings us in a sympathetic activity zone and drains our energy, robbing the brain and the organs of the necessary resources. That is why in stressful situations our capability to think reduces considerably and we feel tired and lazy. Because of this, we are not able to analyze properly, and we get confused between important and unimportant.
Sometimes we also have suppressed or repressed emotions which create constant stress in the body and the mind. With the regular practice of Nidra, slowly we began to become aware of our subconscious and the hidden issues. With the increased awareness we are able to release these issues and let them go.
Concentration is the ability to keep the mind on a single point of focus. This is difficult for most of us as the mind is like a monkey. It does not like to stay in one place and gets distracted and bored very easily. Lack of concentration is a major issue for most of us.
During Yoga Nidra, we practice to stay focused on the instructions of the teacher and move the awareness to the different body parts and sensations. In the beginning, the mind keeps wandering, but as we try to follow the instructions, we keep bringing the mind back to the practice. Slowly, with regular practice, we can stay with the instructions longer and longer and the mind starts to distract less and less.
Over time, we gain control over the mind and train it to follow and focus. Almost everyone I have taught has seen a big improvement in their ability to concentrate. Nowadays, many schools are also integrating Yoga Nidra in the curriculum to use it as a tool to improve the concentration of young students.
With the practice of Yoga Nidra, we improve our ability to be attentive, to concentrate. We also improve our ability to retain information, we improve our memory. As our subconscious gets rid of unnecessary baggage and information overload, we free up mental space and our subconscious becomes more active and clearer. Due to this the efficiency of the subconscious increases and it starts to absorb and retain information more efficiently. This process is similar to defragmenting your computer’s hard drive. During the defragmenting process, all the data and empty space are rearranged to increase the efficiency of the hard disk drive.
Normally, we use only the left hemisphere of our brains for learning. The regular practice of Yoga Nidra, however, also stimulates the functioning of the right hemisphere. This, in turn, helps in better retention of the information.
In fact, according to Ostrander (1973) “using the technique of Yoga Nidra, it is possible to learn a foreign language in ⅕th of the time required by conventional methods“.
Improves ANS response
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for various bodily functions like metabolism, healing, and growth. This system works involuntarily. We cannot activate or deactivate it. There are two subsystems of ANS: The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) provides energy and resources to our muscles and heart. It is activated during physical or mental stress activities. These activities range from exercising, running, arguing, fighting, worrying or any other kind of activity which puts us in stress. The main purpose of this subsystem is to help us cope with stress.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) provides energy and resources to the brain and the internal organs like the liver, kidney, intestines, etc. It is activated during calm and peaceful periods. The purpose of this subsystem is to give the body the tools to heal, grow and digest. When our nervous system is in the parasympathetic mode, our brain functions improve and repair at cell level takes place.
We need both systems active when they are required. But due to the excess stress and suppressed psychosomatic stress, in most people, the SNS stays active much longer. It stays active even when we need to rest and heal. This hinders the healing and repair of the body, resulting in illness.
During the practice of Yoga Nidra, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system. We train our subconscious to release stress and stay in a peaceful and observant state. That is why Yoga Nidra helps to rejuvenate the body. With the regular practice of Yoga Nidra, you will be able to improve the overall ANS regulation and response.
Yoga Nidra is a subtle, yet very powerful practice that can help us deal with every-day stress and triggers. But it can offer us so much more healing and growths, as the practice holds the potential to release deep-seated traumas and guide our awareness toward our most authentic self.
In the words of Swami Satyananda:
“It is a state in which you are neither asleep nor awake. If you fall asleep, it is not Yoga Nidra. If you remain awake, then it is also not Yoga Nidra. If dreams overtake you, it is not Yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra is a state in which there is awareness of the conscious, subconscious and unconscious fields of your mind all at one time. It is a perfect therapy. It removes all psychological abnormalities and sanskaras, and helps you to become your normal, natural self.”
About the Author
Ram is the Founding Director of the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams India and The Netherlands. Within the last 10 years, the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams have become renowned internationally for their professional yoga teacher training courses in India and Europe, and have up to present trained over 4000 yoga teachers from all over the world. Ram is the lead teacher of a multitude of yoga teacher training programs, among which the 50 hour Yoga Nidra teacher training course.