If you practise yoga regularly, I am sure that you have experienced some sort of body scan led by a teacher during Savasana at the end of a yoga class. Well, in its essence, this is a form of Yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra literally means 'yogic sleep' and is a form of guided meditation that leads you into the healing and deeply restful state between waking and sleeping. It is an extremely accessible form of meditation; there is no effort involved, it is always guided by a teacher and it is taken lying down (it can also be practised seated or standing up, if that is more comfortable for you). It can be tool to allow your body and mind to rest, a tool for self-enquiry and processing emotions as well as a profoundly powerful form of meditation that helps you to practise living in the present moment and perhaps recognise the true nature of your being.
Is Yoga Nidra different to meditation?
You might wonder then; what makes Yoga Nidra different to meditation? Meditation is traditionally taken seated and you are in a waking state throughout the practice. A practitioner might be guided by teacher or they might use certain meditation techniques to focus their mind. Meditation requires effort. Yoga Nidra, in contrast, is passive and effortless. You aren't trying to achieve anything or move the body into a specific pose or the mind into a specific state; you are simply allowing yourself to do nothing and just be. In a similar way to your body breathing, digesting your food or falling asleep, Yoga Nidra is something that happens to you and you are not trying to make anything happen. This is a powerful lesson to learn especially in a society that is obsessed with 'the hustle', achievement and attainment of material things as well as symbols of success.
What happens to the brain during Yoga Nidra?
Due to the nature of Yoga Nidra, it can be a different experience each time you practise and factors such as the length of the Yoga Nidra (it can range from 5 minutes to a full hour) and the cues that your teacher uses will impact your experience. However, Yoga Nidra will always involve exploration of different states of consciousness and comprises of a series of body and breath awareness techniques to help you do this.
When we are awake our brain functions with Beta brainwaves and we are constantly experiencing the world around us, processing our senses, judging, making decisions and intellectualising our experiences. When we fall asleep, there are 2-5 minutes where the brain is between waking and Dream Sleep (or REM sleep) and this is called the Hypnagogic state (the brain functions with Alpha brainwaves). This is when our senses begin to shut down and we might experience things like Myclonic jerks (brief, shock-like jerks of the muscles). After the Hypnagogic state, we move into Dream Sleep where, as the name suggests, we dream and this is thought to allow the brain to process emotions and memories from the day. The brain functions with Theta brainwaves during this state. When we practise Yoga Nidra, we extend the time between waking and sleeping and we might move between all three of these sleep stages, sometimes even moving into Deep Sleep (Delta brainwaves) where the body fully rests and repairs itself. I am personally fascinated by the link between ancient yogic teachings and modern scientific research. If you would like to learn more about the science of sleep then I recommend reading or listening to Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. You also do not need to read the book in order so I recommend skipping to the chapters that interest you most as the author has a very soothing voice on the Audible version and you might, ironically, fall asleep.
What are the benefits of Yoga Nidra?
After understanding the function of the brain during Yoga Nidra, you might be asking: well, what is the point of this? The benefits of Yoga Nidra are wide-ranging and backed by research. The iRest Institute (where I undertook my Level 1 Yoga Nidra Teacher Training) has a growing list of research papers which detail that Yoga Nidra has been shown to be effective in scientific trials for conditions including:
depression and anxiety
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
overall health, resiliency and well-being
Again, the benefits that you experience will range depending on the length of Yoga Nidra, the cues that the teachers utilises and the Intention that you are working with. Whenever you are guided through a Yoga Nidra practice, you have the opportunity to choose your intention and therefore, you can choose what feels comfortable to explore in that moment. You might want to use Yoga Nidra as a tool to allow you to rest and relax. Yoga Nidra is very effective for this and when you move between these different states of consciousness the nervous system moves from the stress response (sympathetic nervous system) to the relaxation response (parasympathetic). A typical 12-18 minute Yoga Nidra practice can increase creativity, problem solving and energy, reduce sleepiness and heighten alertness, elevate mood, enhance concentration and motor performance. There is no wrong way of practising Yoga Nidra. If you fall asleep, that is perfectly okay and evidently what you needed at that time. With prolonged daily practice, your need for nighttime sleep can be reduced anywhere from 1-4 hours per night.
Yoga Nidra can also be used as a powerful tool for processing emotions and feelings (especially relevant for some of the conditions listed above). In the same way that meditation helps you to practise mindfulness and being present in each moment, Yoga Nidra is an effortless way to learn how to step back from your thoughts. Yoga Nidra focuses on what is good about you and does not label any emotions or feelings an inherently 'good' or 'bad'. Yoga Nidra allows you to come face to face with your emotions, past experiences and feelings without a need to overcome them, process them or intellectualise them.
How can I practise Yoga Nidra?
Yoga Nidra is especially accessible as all you need is a comfortable place to lie down and you can practise it any time of the day, even before bed to help you sleep. The type of Yoga Nidra I share in my public classes and on my YouTube channel focuses primarily on rest and relaxation. As part of my iRest Yoga Nidra training, it is advised that self-enquiry focused Yoga Nidra is restricted to a six week course (which I plan to offer in the future) or Private One-to-One Yoga sessions as I able to offer more support to students within these settings. You can find out more about my Private One-to-One yoga sessions here.