If you’re struggling to master the downward dog, or feel like traditional yoga isn’t for you, then why not give Yoga Nidra a go?
Translated as ‘yogic sleep’, Yoga Nidra focuses less on asanas, meaning yoga postures or poses, and more on taking the mind and body into a state of conscious relaxation - something which we will explore further in this article.
In this article, we will explore everything from the origins, benefits and stages of Yoga Nidra, to how and when to perform the practice!
Here’s what we’ve covered:
- What is Yoga Nidra Meditation?
- Origins of Yoga Nidra
- Yoga Nidra vs Normal Sleep
- Yoga Nidra vs Meditation
- Stages of Yoga Nidra
- What are the Benefits of Yoga Nidra?
- How to Do Yoga Nidra
- When to Practice Yoga Nidra
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What is Yoga Nidra Meditation?
Yoga Nidra, or yogic sleep, is a practice intended to allow the mind and body to reach the deepest state of relaxation possible, whilst maintaining consciousness.
The aim of Yoga Nidra is to reach a hypnagogic state, which is a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping.
This state is reached through a guided meditation, which consists of a multi-step process to unwind your body and brain. This process withdraws your senses from the outside world, known as pratyahara, and instead moves your awareness onto your inner self.
Whilst the level of relaxation reached through Yoga Nidra meditation helps practitioners deal with everyday stress, long-term practice has even been shown to help address and relieve deeper traumas.
This is because the state of conscious relaxation that Yoga Nidra induces allows those practicing to explore the different layers of their authentic inner selves, known as the five koshas.
In everyday life we generally only have easy access to the two outermost koshas, but Yoga Nidra helps us to gain access to the deeper koshas. Not only does this help us to understand ourselves more deeply, but also allows us to question our emotions and reactions, as well as to access and relieve deep-set traumas that we may have experienced in the past.
Origins of Yoga Nidra
If you’ve found yourself wondering ‘what does Yoga Nidra mean?, or ‘where does it come from?’, then you’re not alone! Despite its growing popularity, there is much confusion about the origin of Yoga Nidra, so we’re going to address these questions.
As a concept, Yoga Nidra originally appeared in Indian mythological and physiological texts as the word yoganidrā.
In these texts, yoganidrā refers to the sleep of God and power of the Universe Vishnu, between the cycles of the universe. Yoganidrā is also the name of a Goddess who appears in later texts, to wake Vishnu so that he can fight the two Asuras, or anti-gods, Madhu and Kaitabha.
Yoganidrā is also mentioned in Buddhist texts, as a state that perfect Buddhas enter in order to realise secret knowledge. It is also commented in these texts that yoganidrā is like sleep, as it is free from distraction.
However, as the modern practice of meditation that we know it as today, Yoga Nidra meditation was created by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, the founder of the Bihar School of Yoga, in the early 1960s.
In his own words, Satyananda took inspiration from earlier ‘important but little known practices’ that already existed in the yoga tradition, but modified them to create techniques that are accessible to everyone.
Yoga Nidra vs Normal Sleep
Despite the practice being known as ‘yogic sleep’, Yoga Nidra is not the same as the sleep that you get when going to bed. In fact, when practicing you will be asked to avoid falling asleep!
However, a key similarity between Yoga Nidra and sleep is that the goal of both is relaxation and recovery, where your mind, body and senses should all be resting.
Here are some of the key differences between Yoga Nidra and normal sleep:
State of Consciousness
During sleep we lose consciousness, which is why we are not aware of what has happened around us whilst we were sleeping.
In contrast, during Yoga Nidra your conscious mind is alert and active, as you are in the state of consciousness between being asleep and awake. Although you are in a deep state of relaxation you can assume control at any time and bring yourself out of this state.
Whilst asleep, your subconscious mind cannot leave behind any of the stress and worries that you have whilst being awake. This is because they manifest themselves within your brain, in the form of dreams.
On the other hand, Yoga Nidra meditation trains your conscious mind to instead address these worries and leave them behind.
Yoga Nidra vs Meditation
Like Yoga Nidra and sleep, Yoga Nidra and meditation are two concepts which often get confused with one another.
Meditation is the overarching term for any form of practice which allows you to focus your mind and gain awareness of both your mind and body.
Yoga Nidra is a type of meditation, which is why it is often referred to as Yoga Nidra meditation. However, it does have a few differences from traditional meditation practices:
A 2018 study found that while traditional meditation and Yoga Nidra are both effective in reducing anxiety and stress, Yoga Nidra was the most effective practice overall for reducing anxiety.
The results of the study showed that Yoga Nidra is a useful tool in reducing both cognitive and physiological symptoms of anxiety, concluding:
“There was a tendency toward a greater effectiveness of the Yoga Nidra intervention regarding anxiety, which might represent an effective tool in reducing both cognitive and physiological symptoms of anxiety.”
One of the most significant differences between these two practices is that traditional meditation is usually practiced in a seated position, whereas Yoga Nidra is practiced in Savasana, or corpse pose, lying down on your back.
Traditional meditation encourages self-guidance, and it is your own responsibility to bring yourself back to a single focal point.
Yoga Nidra is guided, which helps you to maintain a conscious connection to the outer world whilst diving deep into the different koshas, or layers, of your inner self.
You remain in the waking state during traditional meditation, whereas you are in a hypnagogic state during Yoga Nidra, which is the state between sleeping and waking.
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Stages of Yoga Nidra
Although there are many different ways of practicing, there are certain stages of Yoga Nidra that are common in every practice.
Yoga Nidra stages are designed to help your mind and body become gradually more relaxed. Each step systematically guides you through the layers, or koshas, of your being. As we know, this helps to take you into a deeper state of consciousness, between being fully awake and asleep.
If you’re interested in attending a class, or just want to know what to expect, then read on to find out what Yoga Nidra technique is!
Step 1: Initial Relaxation/Settling
The first stage is all about focusing on the breath. This means that you will perform some breathing exercises to release tension, as well as to trigger the nervous system to allow you to relax.
You will begin to withdraw inwards, by moving from external to internal awareness.
Step 2: Setting an Intention or Sankalpa
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering ‘what is Yoga Nidra technique?’, then this is one of the most important stages to consider. This step involves making a short statement in your mind, of something that you wish to achieve or manifest in any area of your life.
You can choose the type of intention that you want based on your desired outcome for the session. Some examples are: I am at peace, I am focused, I am strong, I am capable, I empower others, I can change my life.
You will be encouraged to mentally repeat your chosen Sankalpa a few times.
Step 3: Body Rotation
Often starting from the toes and ending with the face, the next stage involves systematically relaxing every part of the body and releasing any tension within each body part.
This step also creates pratyahara, or sense withdrawal, where we disconnect the 5 senses from the external world and begin to look inwards.
Step 4: Breathing Awareness
As Yoga Nidra stages go, this one is vital due to its purpose, which is to concentrate on keeping the breath steady.
This encourages you to enter an even deeper state of relaxation, and allows you to continue to withdraw from the external world. Your attention will be drawn even further towards your inner energies and sensations as you breathe in and out.
Step 5: Experience of Opposite Sensations
During this stage, you will be asked to bring your awareness to opposing bodily sensations. For instance, pain and pleasure, or heat and cold.
As these opposing sensations wouldn’t usually be felt together in such a short period of time, they stimulate different parts of the brain. This can therefore be considered one of the most crucial Yoga Nidra stages, as it helps to establish new neuronal circuits in the brain.
Step 6: Visualisation
The leader of the Yoga Nidra meditation will next guide you through a series of images, which may be stored as archetypes or samskaras (impressions) in your unconscious mind.
Visualising one of these images may help to unlock a feeling or memory that is repressed in your unconscious mind. For instance, visualising a full moon may trigger a memory of an event or feeling that you experienced previously during a full moon.
Unlocking repressed memories in this way helps you to experience and understand them whilst in a relaxed state, rather than in the more emotionally charged state that led you to repress them.
Step 7: Sankalpa
As you move towards the later stages of Yoga Nidra, you will have reached the borderline state of consciousness between sleeping and waking.
Re-visiting the Sankalpa that you made at the state of the session whilst in this state will enable it to sink into your subconscious. This allows your subconscious mind to regularly remind you of the manifestation that you made, which means it is more likely to happen!
Step 8: Externalisation
It is crucial that these last Yoga Nidra stages are performed, in order to prevent confusion and disorientation when ending the practice. Ideally, you want to move smoothly from the subconscious to the conscious mind without losing any of the progress that you have made.
During this final stage, the practitioner is once again encouraged to become aware of their breathing, then their body, and finally, the room in which they are situated. They will then slowly awaken from the borderline state into full consciousness.
What Are the Benefits of Yoga Nidra?
Following these Yoga Nidra stages on a regular basis has been proven to lead to many benefits. Whether you’re looking to improve your mental health, or are simply looking for an accessible form of yoga, we’ve answered ‘what are the benefits of Yoga Nidra?’ just below!
#1 Aids Growth and Recovery
Yoga Nidra benefits both your mental and physical health, as it gives your mind and body the opportunity to rest and heal; something which we often find hard to do during our busy day to day lives!
In fact, did you know that 45 minutes of yogic sleep is thought to be as restorative as 3 to 4 hours of normal sleep?
This is because Yoga Nidra guides practitioners progressively through the 4 main stages of brain wave activity, which gradually helps stress and tension to fade away.
These 4 stages of brain wave activity consist of:
Beta Wave State
The Beta wave state is the first of the Yoga Nidra stages to be reached, and is the state where your brain is actively thinking. For instance, when you are engaged in conversation.
Alpha Wave State
During the Alpha wave state, your brain waves begin to slow down, and you therefore begin to relax.
Theta Wave State
Here, the brain waves slow down even more.
This is the state reached during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which usually occurs approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. You are likely to have intense dreams during REM sleep, as your brain is still active, which stimulates the areas of the brain associated with learning.
The Theta wave state is also reached during hypnosis, and is therefore where negative thought patterns can be released. It is thought to be the best state in which to address and change bad habits formed within old neural pathways.
Delta Wave State
The Delta wave state is the final stage of brain wave activity reached during Yoga Nidra meditation, and is when brain waves are at their slowest.
This state is experienced during the deepest, dreamless stage of sleep, and is the most restorative state for the mind and body.
This is because several hormones are released, including Growth Hormone Releasing Hormone, which stimulates the release of Growth Hormone from the pituitary gland.
As the name suggests, this stimulates growth within the body, as well as aiding cell reproduction and repair. It helps to boost metabolism and muscle growth, whilst also aiding recovery from disease or injury.
When brain wave activity is in the Delta state, the stress hormone cortisol is also at the lowest level in the body.
Yoga Nidra benefits our brains by allowing us to reach this state, which gives our bodies the opportunity to rest, restore, and recover from any stress incurred. This puts us in a much better position to grow, both mentally and physically.
#2 Reduces Stress and Anxiety
As discussed, Yoga Nidra reduces the presence of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. As well as helping us mentally, this lessens the risk of stress related illnesses such as heart disease, stroke and fatigue, as well as decreasing inflammation and chronic pain in the body.
This is because the practice of yogic sleep helps to increase our awareness of the issues that are repressed within our subconscious, which can cause excessive emotional stress. When we become aware of these issues, it is easier for us to let them go, which releases this constant stress.
As well as this, Yoga Nidra helps to balance the components of the autonomic nervous system, which are the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous systems.
The SNS is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response in our bodies, which provides energy and resources to the muscles and heart. This response is activated during activities which cause us physical or mental stress, such as exercise, arguing, fighting or worrying.
The PNS is a response for the ‘rest and digest’ response of the nervous system, which provides energy and resources to the brain and internal organs, including the liver, kidneys and intestines.
This response is activated when we are calm, and its purpose is to give the body the tools to heal, grow and digest. When the nervous system is in PNS mode, our brain functions improve and cell repair takes place.
In our day to day lives, the SNS often stays active for longer than it should do due to elevated stress levels. Yoga Nidra therefore benefits us mentally as it helps to activate the PNS, which allows the body to release stress and reduces anxiety levels.
#3 Improves Sleep
If you’re still wondering ‘why practice Yoga Nidra?’, what better reason than to give you a deeper, more peaceful night’s sleep?
In fact, Yoga Nidra trains both the mind and body to relax so well that new practitioners often fall asleep during their first few sessions!
Physically, Yoga Nidra helps to calm the body to allow it to enter into a deeper sleep. Mentally, it guides the brain gradually through the different stages of brain wave functioning, making it easier for us to switch off and prepare for sleep later on.
Also, one of the key benefits of Yoga Nidra is that it is a great method of self-care, meaning that it can improve quality of life and reduce factors such as stress and overthinking, which cause insomnia in the first place.
Furthermore, in deeper relaxation the pineal gland is activated, which releases the hormone melatonin. As well as regulating our sleep cycles and inducing restful sleep, melatonin is a powerful antioxidant which helps to manage immune function, blood pressure, and cortisol levels.
#4 Improves Brain Function
One of the benefits of Yoga Nidra over other forms of meditation is that it is guided, meaning that your brain is forced to focus on the instructions provided for you.
During your first few sessions you may find it difficult to maintain this focus, but as you become more experienced, you will be able to maintain a deeper level of concentration and stop your mind from wandering.
As your brain becomes less distracted and your subconscious removes any unnecessary stress, trauma or information through the practice, your mind will become much clearer.
Also, regular practice of yogic sleep has been shown to activate the functioning of the right hemisphere within the brain, whilst we would usually only use the left hemisphere for learning. This increases brain efficiency and ensures that you are able to retain information more effectively.
#5 Helps to Heal Trauma
As well as reducing stress and anxiety, researchers are examining how Yoga Nidra benefits those suffering from deep-set traumas, including veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), people who have experienced sexual assault, and addicts struggling to get clean.
Trauma exists in the body as a reaction to an event or series of events that inflict pain, fear and confusion. Maintaining this state of chronic stress can lead to the individual having to live with constant anxiety.
When the individual becomes triggered in the present by this past trauma, the brain sends distress signals to the body. Over time, this constant barrage of stress turns into deep-seated neural pathways.
By undoing old neural pathways and creating new ones in the brain, Yoga Nidra can help to heal these emotional triggers and past traumas. This is because it helps individuals to gain an insight into these traumas, by providing a way to experience these emotions safely, which offers understanding about how to heal.
Conducted in 2011, an 8-week study examined the feasibility of offering weekly Yoga Nidra classes to military combat veterans at a mental health agency in San Francisco.
At the end of the study, all participants reported reduced feelings of rage, anxiety and emotional reactivity, as well as increased feelings of relaxation, peace, and self-awareness.
Another study found that Yoga Nidra benefits those who have experienced sexual trauma. Within this study, 90-minute Yoga Nidra sessions were held twice a week, for 10 weeks.
Participants reported significant decreases in symptoms of PTSD, thoughts of self-blame, and depression. They also reported decreased body tension, improved quality of sleep, improved ability to handle intrusive thoughts, as well as increased feelings of joy.
#6 Stabilises Female Hormone Levels
If you’re a woman wondering ‘why practice Yoga Nidra’, then keep reading!
Research has linked the relaxation associated with Yoga Nidra practice to a drop in hormones within the female body. These hormones, including prolactin, luteinizing hormone, as well as thyroid and follicle stimulating hormones, have been found to cause problems and irregularities with the menstrual cycle.
This was proven by a study of 150 women who reported having abnormal menstrual cycles and symptoms, including intense cramps, and either infrequent or heavy flows.
Half of the participants completed 5 Yoga Nidra sessions a week in addition to taking medication, whereas the other half only took medication.
After 6 months, those doing Yoga Nidra reported greater relief from their menstrual problems. It was concluded that Yoga Nidra is therefore an effective treatment for hormone imbalances.
#7 An Accessible Type of Meditation
Whether you’re young or old, an experienced yogi or a beginner, Yoga Nidra benefits everyone!
One of the great things about Yoga Nidra is that it is taught lying down and is always guided, which is appealing for anyone who may be put off by difficult yoga postures or traditional seated meditation.
As well as there being no need to worry about how to do Yoga Nidra, another benefit is that you need little to no equipment. All you need is simply yourself, and perhaps a blanket and a few cushions to make you feel more comfortable!
Furthermore, Yoga Nidra meditation is easy to incorporate into your routine. It can be as short or as long as you want it to be, so should fit easily around your schedule.
If you’re interested in finding out more about how to do Yoga Nidra and the best times to perform it, keep reading!
#8 Creates an Improved Sense of Self
Being guided through the different stages of Yoga Nidra, where you’re encouraged to focus on breathing, scanning your body and creating visualisations, creates a sense of mindfulness. This takes you away from the stresses of the external world and allows you to cultivate a deeper connection to the self and your internal state.
For instance, the process of setting a Sankalpa during your Yoga Nidra meditation, and re-visiting it whilst in the borderline state, will allow it to sink into your subconscious.
This creates new neurological pathways in your brain, which allows your brain to make new positive connections and allows you to manifest your Sankalpa more deeply.
Yoga Nidra therefore provides a great opportunity for you to refine your sense of self, identify your purpose, as well as helping you to achieve whatever you may desire.
How to Do Yoga Nidra
Now that you know what Yoga Nidra meditation is, let’s explore how to practice it!
#1 Choose a Yoga Nidra Meditation
Many studios offer Yoga Nidra, but you can also perform it from the comfort of your own home. The best way to do this is by following a YouTube video, or using a guided meditation app.
Your sessions don’t have to be long, especially if you’re a beginner; start with 15 or 20-minute meditations and make each session a little longer as you become more experienced!
#2 Make Yourself Comfortable
To ensure that you are comfortable whilst practicing, lie on a yoga mat, blanket, or bed, with a pillow to support your head, lower back, and spine. You could also use a blanket to cover your body if you so wish, as your body temperature tends to drop whilst at rest.
It’s important to practice away from distractions if you hope to complete all stages of Yoga Nidra, so we would recommend that you practice in a dark room, using a sleep mask to block out any light.
#3 Begin Your Practice
To begin your yogic sleep session, you should lie face up on the floor in Savasana, or yoga corpse pose.
Remain still and silent, as this will help to bring natural relaxation to your body and mind. Allow your breathing to slow down, until it becomes effortless and gentle.
Now you should be all set to begin following the 8 Yoga Nidra stages. However, if you’re still unsure of what Yoga Nidra technique is, simply follow your guided meditation!
When to Practice Yoga Nidra
Ultimately, the best time to practice Yoga Nidra varies from person to person, so we would advise you to practice at whatever time best fits your schedule and preferences.
However, it is advised to practice when you feel most alert and are less prone to drowsiness. This is because it’s important to stay conscious during Yoga Nidra, however tempting it may be to fall asleep!
For instance, if you feel most alert at night and struggle to sleep, it’s a good idea to practice at night just before going to bed.
Also, we would advise you not to practice straight after eating, as you will be more inclined to fall asleep. You should therefore leave at least 2 hours after eating before beginning Yoga Nidra, in order to give your food sufficient time to digest.
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Before You Go!
If you were wondering ‘what does Yoga Nidra mean?’ or ‘why practice Yoga Nidra?’, we hope that we’ve managed to answer these questions in this article.
Yoga Nidra has both mental and physical health benefits that make it a great practice for everyone, whether you’re looking to get into yoga, are hoping to learn more about yourself, or simply if you’re looking for a stress-reducing activity!
So why not grab a mat, choose a guided meditation or class, and try Yoga Nidra for yourself!
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- Camila Ferreira-Vorkapic et.al., ‘The Impact of Yoga Nidra and Seated Meditation on the Mental Health of College Professors’, in International Journal of Yoga, (2018, Vol.11, No.3), pp.215-223
- L. Stankovic, ‘Transforming Trauma: A Qualitative Feasibility Study of Integrative Restoration (iRest) Yoga Nidra on Combat-Related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’, in International Journal of Yoga Therapy, (2011, Vol. 21, No.1), pp.23-37
- Pamela Pence et.al., ‘Delivering Integrative Restoration-Yoga Nidra Meditation (iRest) to Women with Sexual Trauma at a Veteran’s Medical Center: A Pilot Study’, in International Journal of Yoga Therapy, (2014, Vol.21, No.1.), pp.53-62
- Monika Rani et.al., ‘Impact of Yoga Nidra on Menstrual Abnormalities in Females of Reproductive Age’, in Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, (May 2014, Vol.19, No.13)