Right thumb. First finger. Second finger. Third finger. Fourth finger. Right palm. The back of the right hand. I feel a slight buzz of energy as I quickly shift my focus from one part to the next. I listen, feel, and let it go. On to the next, no time to linger and think. There is nothing but darkness, the sound of her voice, and the shifting of my awareness, simply, from landmark to landmark on the map of my physical terrain.
Thoughts fade effortlessly. Soon, I hear nothing at all. I know that I enter a still calm place, but I can’t tell you much more. “I”—the conscious part of me that has, stores, and can recall thoughts and experiences—can’t really venture past the door I’ve just stepped through. It must wait for me outside, eager to see what has happened but unable to understand the language reverberating back from this deep mysterious land. Once in a while it gets a glimpse. And it can witness the effects of this voyage.
Before long I am listening to my body snore lightly as it rests on the floor. Now, I’ve admittedly woken myself up from sleep with a loud snore (it runs in my family)—but this is different. I am witnessing my body asleep on the floor. I am conscious and I am asleep. I am the witness, the perusa. I am that.
I slip deeper again, back through that door and hear nothing, see nothing, think nothing. Then, like waves that always return to the shore, my consciousness moves back in again and I hear her voice, she is guiding us, as she has been through this journey’s entirety. Soon I hear her say, in her sweet gentle voice: “The practice of yoga nidra is now complete.”
I have returned from a place I can barely describe. But I know its effects. I feel lighter, more relaxed and more at peace. I feel as if I’ve just woken from a full night’s sleep though technically my body’s only been lying there—on a yoga mat on the floor—for about 25 minutes. It’s hard to speak because the thoughts are slow to return. I move as if sleepwalking for the first few minutes. It takes some time to return fully to my body and to the conscious life I dwell in most always. This is a sweet time outside of time, juicy moments dripping with the rich nectar of pure being-ness (as opposed to doing-ness). It is our very deepest nature peaking out from the layers of our humanness.
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Yoga Nidra is an incredible practice. Before I began practicing regularly last year, I’d heard the term—yogic sleep—and half-figured it was just another offshoot of traditional yoga that would come and go like a sneaker fad. I was wrong. Lucky for me. Yoga Nidra has a long, rich history, I would learn as I delved deeper into the written work describing this practice.
Surely, the greatest book on this practice is Yoga Nidra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati. This book. To me, it’s like opening up a treasure chest filled with fascinating trinkets. Here are some of the jewels one can glean from this groundbreaking work on the fascinating practice of yoga nidra. Really, this is just the top layer in a deep and full treasure chest.
What is yoga nidra?
Yoga Nidra, also called psychic sleep or deep relaxation with awareness, is a systematic method of inducing complete physical, mental and emotional relaxation. More aptly, it is the scientific removal of tensions from the body and mind. Saraswati explains that during actual sleep, we are not necessarily experiencing complete relaxation, which is why we do not always wake feeling as rested as we wish. Because yoga nidra removes our tensions and creates total relaxation, just a single hour of this practice offers the same benefits as 4 hours of sleep, psychically and physiologically.
Yoga nidra is tantric in nature because the desired evolution of the mind happens in a spontaneous way.
How does yoga nidra compare to meditation?
For me personally, I have derived greater and more effective relaxation from Yoga Nidra than from meditation, on the whole. Of course, it isn’t a competition and I have experienced tremendous benefits through meditation. However, I have found that in Yoga Nidra I don’t wrestle with my conscious mind the same way I do in mediation; it just falls away. Consistently. I appreciate this. Of course, this is a little like saying breathing is better than water—both are awesome and, arguably, crucial to our optimal functioning.
What is happening in yoga nidra?
During the specific practice of yoga nidra—which is unique and different from all other forms of meditation or relaxation practice—one enters the state between sleep and wakefulness, in which contact with the subconscious and unconscious dimensions of our mind happens spontaneously. This is called the hypnagogic or hypnaYOGIC state.
I’ve always experienced this time between wakefulness and sleep as a delicious though fleeting state. I’ve spontaneously solved problems and gained creative insight in this sweet spot and all without using my rational thinking mind… the insight just sort of appears. While delighted by these gifts, it never occurred to me that this state of being could be cultivated—that it could be developed and lengthened as a means to receive greater benefits. This is one reason why yoga nidra is so valuable.
From the outside, it looks as if the practitioner is asleep (especially if they are sawing logs like me); however consciousness is functioning at a deeper level. What is happening is that the attention, or consciousness, is turned inwards, away from outer experiences. This disconnection between the mind/mental awareness and the sensory channels is called pratyahara in yoga. Pratyahara, or sensory withdrawal, is one of the eight limbs of yoga (With asana/physical poses, Dyana/meditation, and pranayama/breathwork being the better known of these limbs).
Yoga Nidra utilizes a rotation of awareness or consciousness known as Nyasa which is adapted from Tantric practice. This is the finger business I opened this post with (right thumb, second finger, etc). This rapid movement of consciousness through the body helps to still the mind and allow us to sink deeper into our sub and unconsciousness.
Benefits of yoga nidra
If you practice yoga nidra, then the nature of your mind can be changed, diseases can be cured, and your creative genius can be restored. (Yoga Nidra, 17)
What’s revolutionary and exciting about yoga nidra is that it’s not just about having a pleasant restful nap. Saraswati says that yoga nidra restructures and reforms our whole personality from within. Through this practice, we burn our samskaras, or our conditioning/ our tendencies/ our unconscious habits that do us little good. This burning away of what doesn’t serve us can happen quickly through yoga nidra.
In this vein, yoga nidra can and has been used to quickly and effectively:
- Develop the memory
- Assist in learning a new language or other information
- Increase knowledge
- Boost creativity, yoga nidra enables one to receive intuitions from the unconscious mind—it facilitates the state from which all artistic and poetic inspiration is born.
- Relieve physical, emotional and mental tensions (which we often aren’t fully aware of)
- Remove unwanted habits and behaviors and solve our problems from within ourselves (not needing to seek anything outside of ourselves for this transformation)
- Cure diseases, particularly those that are stress-related or psychosomatic
- Transform one’s nature
If these sound like overly lofty claims, I invite you to put them to the test—try yoga nidra for yourself and experience the benefits first hand. You may also want to pick up Saraswati’s book, which contains detailed information about the scientific evidence that’s been gathered to support these seemingly far-out claims.
Yoga nidra is the real deal.
And it will rock your world.
Where is yoga nidra offered?
Depending on where you live, yoga nidra may be offered at a local yoga studio. Saraswati emphasizes the importance of having a teacher, someone to guide you through this practice. If a real live person is not available, teachers can come through in recordings of yoga nidra. Rod Stryker (Relax into Greatness CDs) and Richard Miller (Yoga Nidra book with CD) are great contemporary yoga teachers that offer recorded practices. Saraswati’s text has a number of scripts (they happen to be my favorite, although I do like Stryker’s work so far) that you can read aloud and make into a recording you can play.