Yoga Nidra has gained tremendous popularity within the Yoga community because of its wonderful relaxation benefits. The fact that 1 hour of Yoga Nidra is the equivalent of 4 hours of normal Sleep is startling, to say the least! Its ability to relax Physically, Mentally and Emotionally even the most beginner of Yoga students has meant that more and more people are learning this ancient art. In fact it is no exaggeration to say that your Yoga practice is incomplete without Yoga Nidra!
So, what is Yoga Nidra? It is often loosely defined as “Yogic Sleep”; or Dynamic sleep or Psychic sleep. To actually understand what it is, let’s first examine our knowledge of that most mundane of our daily activities – Sleeping. If you ask most people what they would do if they were tired they would say ‘sleep’. However, why is it that very often you wake up in the mornings feeling tired and jaded? Didn’t you just sleep for 6-7 hours? This shows that the sleep you experienced was not relaxing – perhaps you were dreaming a lot; tossing and turning all night. Also, if you ask most people what they would do to relax; they would say ‘watch a movie, listen to music or read a book’. Again, these are at best sensory distractions as opposed to real, deep relaxation!
So when we talk of Yoga Nidra, we are implying a state of the deepest relaxationwhere you systematically relax every part of your body; focus on deep breathing and slowly enter a state where your nervous system unwinds and you are totally relaxed physically, mentally and emotionally. Living in a hyper-active, over-stimulated world – this is really the best therapy for you. Studies are showing that it is also the good therapy for a range of Physiological and Psychosomatic illnesses like ulcers, stomach pain, diabetes, skin illnesses, migraine, chest pain and other Stress-related disorders.
Swami Satyananda – foremost proponent of ‘Yoga Nidra’
Modern History of Yoga Nidra: The first Yogi to actively teach and educate people on Yoga Nidra wasSwami Saatyananda Saraswati. In fact, when he was living with his Guru in Rishikesh; he studied some Tantra books that spoke of Yoga Nidra. Having seen the benefits to relax and also as a spiritual practice; he went about mastering the techniques of Yoga Nidra. As he taught people he found that they were able to relax so deeply that in a few minutes his students were snoring! People felt transformed after a few sessions as they had not felt this sort of relaxation before. His technique included a Teacher guiding students with vocal instructions and the few stages of the technique were; ‘Internalization, Sankalpa, Rotation of Consciousness, Deep Breathing Awareness, Feeling of Opposites, Creative Visualization, Sankalpa, Externalization’.
Most people sleep without resolving their tensions,
This is termed nidra.
Nidra means sleep, no matter what or why,
But yoga nidra means sleep after throuwing off the burdens,
It is of a blissful, higher quality altogether. -(Swami Satyananda)
Swami Satyananda began more interesting experiments with Yoga Nidra. Since in this deep relaxation state; the Sub-conscious mind surfaces whilst we are still slightly Conscious – it is a unique opportunity to harness the latent power within our Sub-conscious and Unconscious minds. (Modern Psychology after all says that the Conscious mind is only the ‘Tip of the Iceberg’ constituting about 10% of our Consciousness!) So imagine, living our lives with only 10% of the knowledge available to us!
He found that the best way to learn languages or memorize holy verses was actually to learn it while Asleep! Yes, the conscious mind is a critical mind and takes in only 10 – 20% of the information that it is presented with depending on the filters that you have developed through your experience. Whereas the sub-conscious mind is very obedient and can absorb almost everything like a sponge! So, he found that if you listened to a language being spoken (or to verses of poetry recited) while asleep; all you had to do was read it once when awake and you would have internalized all of it!
All our deep-rooted drives, desires and phobias are nestled in our Subconscious and Unconscious realms. The three states that we know usually are Waking (conscious); Dreaming (sub-conscious) and Deep Sleep (unconscious). In Meditation; the practitioner is able to delve into the deeper levels on consciousness and confront all his fears and desires – thereby gaining a complete knowledge of himself. This is imperative for Transformation to happen to us! Now, science shows us that as we try to sleep; the time it takes for the average adult to slip from Conscious state to Unconscious state is 4 seconds (ie, we spend about 4secs in passing through the Sub-conscious). Yoga Nidra is a technique to expand that time to a few minutes or more.
Why should we be bothered with the Sub-Conscious; the half-sleeping state? The reason is simple yet profound. Creativity!
Creation of Man
All the great Scientific and Artistic discoveries in history have happened when people were in the sub-conscious state. Analyze your own sparks of genius – when did you ever think of a great new idea? Didn’t it just flash to you when you were relaxed! Yes, and similarly to the greatest of minds in history. The great scientist Kekule was sleeping at the back of a carriage traveling one night; when suddenly he dreamt a pattern which was the structure of the atom – something microscopes would later confirm! Michaelangelo was almost asleep on the mountainside when we dreamt the could formation to be a representation of ‘the Creation of Man’ painting. (Of course these are individuals who spent their lives mastering the skills needed to perfect their disciplines; and the creative intuition then happens to them. So it’s a combination of their hard work and the creative spark that they ‘received’). The French emperor Napolean used to practice Yoga Nidra! At the height of the battle when a crucial decision needed to be taken; he would hand over the reigns to a general and retire to his tent with instruction to be woken up in 15 minutes. As he lay on his bearskin rug; soon loud snores could be heard coming from his tent! After 15 minutes when he was woken up; he would invariably come out with a clear-minded decision as to what needed to be done – and as lead his army to another decisive victory! These are great men who decided to trust the information coming from their sub-conscious to solve the problems that they faced in everyday life.
Swami Rama; and scientific testing of Yoga Nidra: To understand Yoga Nidra scientifically we must refer to the experiment conducted at the Menninger Foundation, Kansas (USA) in 1971. The team working under Dr Elmer Green was studying famous yogi – Swami Rama- who would be wired to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine in a laboratory to demonstrate the different states of Consciousness including the 4th state called ‘Turiya”. Up until this point, modern psychology maintained that Man had no control over the 3 states of consciousness known to science. This was the first time a Yogi was being examined in strict laboratory conditions – and what they saw change Psychology forever!
Swami Rama first relaxed and entered the Yoga Nidra state by imagining ‘a blue sky with a few clouds’. He remained in a state of Conscious awareness for 5 mins which was known by the scientists based on frequency of the waves emanating in his brain. The EEG received the Alpha waves that are characteristic of Waking state.
Sleep patterns on an EEG showing Alpha, Theta and Delta waves
Next, the Yogi entered the Dreaming Sleep (Subconscious) state which is characterized by slower Theta waves that the scientists recorded. Later, the Yogi said that he did this by ‘stilling his consciousness and bringing forth the subconscious’. He described the state later as being ‘noisy and unpleasant’ filled with dreams, desires and more. After 5 mins here, he moved to the next state.
In the next 5mins, he entered the Deep Sleep (Uncomscious) state as characterized by the pattern of slow rhythm Delta waves. His body lay snoring. What amazed the scientists was that the Yogi could recount all the events that had occurred in the lab, including the questioned asked to him by one of the scientists even as his body lay snoring!
As the Yogi was slowly relaxing and entering what seemed like a dream state to the outside observer; he was actually moving through the Waking, Dreaming & Sleep stages (in other words Conscious, Sub conscious & Unconscious states) effortlessly. This was the first Scientific proof that there exists the potential in Man for a fourth, all-encompassing, eternal state of consciousness that is called in eastern traditions as ‘Turiya’; and is the ultimate state of Yoga Nidra. (We may have glimpsed this when at times we keep an alarm for say, 6am and wake up at 5:59am just in time to turn it off. Yes, there is some part of us that is awake and present all the time.)
Practical uses of Yoga Nidra in daily life: Apart from the obvious benefits of deep relaxation; there are more ways to benefit from Yoga Nidra.
Sankalpa; and the power of will! How often, have you made a New Year Resolution, only to break it in a couple of days or weeks? This happens because the resolution was taken at a Conscious mind level – and as we are all aware, the conscious mind changes dramatically ever so often! In the morning we have made up our minds that we want to become Fit & Healthy – but by evening we’re convincing ourselves that we really should be Enjoying life (having another glass of wine, actually!). This always goes on in the mind. So for any resolution to be truly successful; we need to feed it into our subconscious mind – a process very easily done when we are relaxing in Yoga Nidra. All you need to do is articulate quietly to yourself your resolution in a short positive sentence. You can do this as an experiment; and almost every time you will find that the structure of the mind is so strengthened that you are able to muster the will power to achieve what you wanted to! Just make sure that you don’t make one of your desires (like making more money, etc) into your Sankalpa – use it judiciously to work on your self-improvement!
Yoga Nidra can be practiced by Everybody! Yes, it is such a basic practice that each of us can practice it every night before sleeping! Anyone and everyone can benefit from relaxation. Even dogs!
I used to teach Yoga Nidra to a lady many years ago in New Delhi, India. The lady had a pet Russel Terrier dog; which was always running around the room. As soon as I would change my voice to a deeper tone saying ‘Prepare yourself for Yoga Nidra’ the dog would go to its bed and fall asleep almost immediately. And as we went through the 30 minute routine; it would stay asleep. Finally, as soon as I would say ‘Begin to move your fingers, toes and stretch your body’ to conclude the practice – the dog would spring back to life; looking bewildered as if it didn’t know where it had been for the whole time we were in Yoga Nidra!
Total Yoga is a balanced style of Yoga that focuses on Fitness training and Mindfulness practice equally.