Pic from Unsplash
The moment I experienced Yoga Nidrā with one of my first yoga teachers, Stephane Sisson, I was in love. She led us through a powerful meditation during śavāsana, corpse pose, at the end of class and I felt like I was transported to another place and time. The relaxation and ease I felt when I emerged from the meditation was nothing like I had ever experienced.
Yoga is the Sanskrit word for union or yoke. I think of Yoga as a means of coming home to ourselves to the place of wholeness and divinity that is our essence. That essence is always there, however it can be covered by the experiences we have in life, pleasant and unpleasant, that make us forget that we are unbroken, undamaged and absolutely perfect.
Nidrā is the Sanskrit word for sleep. The Māṇḍūkyopaniṣad describes 4 states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep sleep and turiya. Turiya isn’t really a state of consciousness but an all encompassing experience of awareness that envelops and pervades the other states.
In the Bhagavad Gītā, one of the core texts on Yoga, Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna in Chapter 2, Verse 69: What all beings consider as day is the night of ignorance for the wise, and what all creatures see as night is the day for the introspective sage.
What I have learned about these states of consciousness from my teacher, Dr. Kavitha Chinnaiyan, has radically changed the way I look at my mind. In her teachings on the Bhagavad Gītā she explains that most people are dreaming the majority of the time and are rarely truly “awake.”
I found this to be true in my own experience. When I am going about my day, if I pause and check in I am typically not present to what is in front of me. I am walking, but thinking about the errand I have to do later. I am eating and replaying a conversation I had yesterday. Dreaming is another way to see how I am not awake to each moment. Similar to my dreams at night I am living in a fantasy of what might happen if I say this or how that conversation could have gone if I had done that. The majority of my “waking” life is actually spent dreaming.
The wise Kṛṣṇa describes in the 69th verse considers the day as the night of ignorance. If most of my “waking” life is actually spent dreaming I am not present to the life I am living, which means I am ignorant of what is happening!
Deep sleep, on the other hand, is when everything comes to rest. Our thoughts, personalities, the fears and dreams we have all fade into nothingness. If you can catch it there is a moment right after you wake up from a deep sleep where you might not be aware of the sense of identity because it hasn’t come fully back online yet as you emerge from the deep sleep state.
Kṛṣṇa continues, saying what all creatures see as night is day for the introspective sage. Deep sleep is a complete absorption within yourself. The majority of us do not have a memory of being in deep sleep because memory doesn’t exist there. It is this unconscious, yet usually very restful experience. According to Kṛṣṇa these sages can experience this absorption while awake. So the “night” of being unconscious in deep sleep is the sage’s “day” of being completely awake and present to their direct experience.
Yoga Nidrā is an ancient meditation that supports psychological, physical and spiritual healing by training the mind to become awake to the present moment through a systematic approach to the states of consciousness. We use these different states of consciousness to work with the physical body, mind, subtle body, breath, heart and awareness itself in order to reconnect and return to our fundamental sense of wholeness. This is the big picture approach to Yoga Nidrā: to become the wise sage who is absolutely awake!
However there are many doorways into this powerful practice if becoming a sage isn’t on your list of life goals!
- For some people it can be a source of sleep support. If you have insomnia, Yoga Nidrā may help. One of the common challenges of insomnia is actually a dream challenge if we look at it from the states of consciousness. For some people they have difficulty getting to sleep and deep sleep because of the consistent “dreams” of the what if stories (i.e. what if this happens tomorrow? What will happen if I say this?).
- If you have experienced trauma, Yoga Nidrā can be supportive for your nervous system as it can activate the ventral vagal response that is associated with the parasympathetic part of the nervous system supporting rest and digestion. Trauma can impact the body’s ability to deeply rest because of hyper vigilance and increased levels of cortisol, which can also impact the body’s ability to digest sufficiently. The practice incorporates mindfulness and breathing practices that can help settle the system.
- Yoga Nidrā can also establish an embodied sense of safety and well-being, which can support resilience in the face of inevitable challenges.
- Once a sense of ease, groundedness, security or love is established (there are countless words to describe this state and these might not be the right words for you) the practice can proceed into intentional dreaming where we invite different experiences or images in to process challenges or blocks we face.
- Yoga Nidrā can also cultivate mindfulness as you practice watching your experience from the standpoint of awareness itself to observe the dreams of the mind. As you practice mindfulness in this relaxed state it can support you in “waking” life when you notice you have become lost in the dreams of past or future.
- Yoga Nidrā has also been studied in decreasing stress, anxiety, pain, hypertension, insomnia, migraines, sympathetic arousal (fight or flight), guilt, hyperactivity, inattentiveness, muscle tension, and increasing reaction and anticipation time in athletes and hormonal balance in people experiencing menstrual irregularities. You can read more about the research studies here.
Are you ready to try it? Here are a few guidelines to prepare you for the guided practice at the end of this blog.
The first aspect to explore is what one of my Yoga Nidrā teachers, Dr. Richard Miller, calls the inner resource. This can be a person, place or being where you feel safe, whole, supported or seen. It can be a person who you are close with or someone who inspires you but you don’t know personally. It can be a place in nature, your kitchen or an imaginary place you create. It can be an animal you love or a spiritual figure. Once you determine who or what your inner resource is tune into the embodied experience of being in this place or with this being. Does it feel relaxing? Soothing? Warm? Where do those sensations live? Is it a full body experience? A softening of your belly? A smile? A quieting of the mind?
Next contemplate a saṅkalpa, or intention. What do you hope for in this practice? To rest soundly through the night? To love and accept yourself? To feel at peace within yourself? Once you have a saṅkalpa put it in simple clear words as if it is already true. Instead of, “I will rest soundly,” say, “I rest soundly.” If you have a negative saṅkalpa (i.e. I don’t feel anxiety anymore) try naming what you want to feel instead (i.e. I am calm, grounded and can allow my emotions to move through me). You can have a different saṅkalpa every time you do a Yoga Nidrā practice or you can have the same intention for days, weeks, months or years.
Give yourself an hour for the practice and an additional 15 minutes for journaling or drawing to integrate the wisdom your body/mind/heart may share with you. You can listen to my newest Yoga Nidrā here or there are shorter versions here.
Did you know Seed Yoga Therapy has a YouTube channel with guided meditations? Subscribe to make sure you receive each new monthly meditation or video sharing on some aspect of Yoga Therapy, mental health and resilience! As a bonus I will also be giving away one free individualized Yoga Nidrā practice in April as a thank you to everyone who subscribes! A tailored Yoga Nidrā practice can focus on physical challenges such as chronic pain, injury recovery or fibromyalgia. It can address emotional challenges such as insomnia, trauma, anxiety, depression or learning to love the body you live in. A Yoga Nidrā practice can also be useful during transitions like changing jobs, moving, or starting a business so you can align with your highest intentions for this next journey. In order to enter, subscribe to my channel here and fill out this form. I’ll announce the winner on April 17, 2024!