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What is Yoga Nidra (NSDR)?

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

Prepare for me to wax poetic. This could possibly be my favorite subject.



Yoga Nidra, translated from Sanskrit as "yogic sleep" or "psychic sleep," is a practice deeply rooted in the ancient traditions of yoga and meditation. I have also heard it called “sleepless sleep” and “dreaming while awake”, because within it you learn to enter the state between sleep and wakefulness while fully conscious. It is absolutely amazing.


Despite its outward simplicity – lying down and listening – Yoga Nidra holds transformative and healing powers when practiced regularly. In this article, I want to sink into the tapestry of Yoga Nidra today, exploring its history, philosophy, modern adaptations, the art of practicing it, and the many *many* reasons to incorporate it into your life. We'll also dig into the science behind what is happening in the brain and body when we practice.


Strap on your boots and let’s go.

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My Experience

I want to start here because obviously I am giving all of this information as seen through my lens of experience and learning.

My first encounter with Nidra was during my initial teacher training. I had heard of it but never had the opportunity to try. I did my 200 hour under the guidance of a wonderful teacher from West Bengal, a master of Sanskrit, yoga philosophy, meditation and tantra. This traditional experience left a profound impact, disconnecting my awareness from my physical body. As I emerged from this practice, I realized hours had passed, and in the days that followed, I observed a rippling subtle impact. Like tiny waves of calm lapping at the shore of my subconscious.


This initial experience marked the beginning of my ongoing journey with Yoga Nidra. Since earning my 500-hour certification in 2020 and later a Level 1 certification from the Integrative Restoration Institute, I've been guiding Yoga Nidra with a focus on both its therapeutic applications and its philosophical roots. Today I am a student and admirer of the work of Sri. Dharma Mittra, Kamiri Desai, Dr. Richard Miller and Stephanie Lopez, and Tracee Stanley to name a few.


Dawn somewhere over Oaxaca

Origins of Yoga Nidra

The term "yoga nidra" finds its origins in ancient Indian texts, including the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, which associates it with the deity Vishnu's state of deep meditative sleep.

[The Ocean] becomes the bed of the lotus-naveled Vishnu when at the termination of every Yuga that deity of immeasurable power enjoys yoga-nidra, the deep sleep under the spell of spiritual meditation.

— Mahabharata, Book 1, section XXI

References to Yoga Nidra also appear in the Devīmāhātmya, describing a goddess named Yoganidrā. These mentions did not define the specific practice, but are depicting the transcendent nature of sleep itself.


Then & Now

Throughout history, Yoga Nidra is intertwined with the philosophies of yoga, tantra, Shaivism, and Buddhism. Medieval texts used "yoganidra" as a synonym for the deep meditative state of Samadhi (the step in Patanjali’s Sutras that refers to being absorbed into universal consciousness).


The modern guided meditation technique we know today has roots in 19th and 20th-century Western methods. It was popularized by Swami Satyananda Saraswati in 1976 and marked a significant change in the practice. It was further cultivated by spiritual leaders like Swami Rama, making it a globally recognized technique.

Yoga Nidra has evolved significantly over time, Satyananda Saraswati introduced the multi-stage technique that includes the rotation of consciousness, breath awareness and creative visualization often used. These stages differ from the ancient method but have become integral to the modern practice. Others like Swami Rama and Richard Miller introduced their own unique variations, incorporating elements like shavayatra (inner pilgrimage) and Integrative Restoration (iRest) methodology, respectively. These adaptations have broadened the practice's scope, making it accessible to various individuals with diverse needs and even applicable in therapy settings.


How to Practice Yoga Nidra

The practice of Yoga Nidra is based on what Vedantic tradition recognizes as the five main bodies or Koshas, which include the physical, energetic, mental/emotional, higher intelligence, and bliss bodies. Kosha means sheath, or covering, is depicted as layers of the self being protected by this sheath that can be revealed through deep practice.


Beautiful illustration by Sri Dharma Mittra showing the Koshas.

During a Nidra session, we systematically move through these layers, settling into a deep state of relaxation.

To practice is simple. Find a quiet place, lay down on a mat or rug (not your bed), put on a guided nidra meditation and try to remain as still and attentive as possible. The more completely you can be absorbed into the practice, meaning committing to absolute stillness, the more impactful the journey will feel.


What if I fall asleep?

There are some different schools of thought here. From a traditional perspective, you certainly want to do your best to stay awake. And it’s ideal really, as the difference between yoga nidra and deep sleep is the seed of conscious awareness that exists from your wakefulness. In integrative Restoration it is seen that the brain is receiving the information of the practice whether or not you are awake, and that if you fall asleep it’s likely because you *need* to and your brain will still receive the practice. There are studies like this one from Switzerland’s University of Bern, demonstrating that the human brain can absorb information during slumber.


I personally don't fall asleep in Nidra practice, but I don't fall asleep easily in general. My husband, on the other hand, frequently drifts off during Nidra. I know about 10-15 minutes into the practice I’ll hear his breath change and the gentle purr of sleep. That doesn’t seem to make his experience any different than mine. So my advice - do your best, and either way there’s likely to be a positive result.


Your Brain on Nidra

Yoga Nidra profoundly influences brain activity, shifting us into various states of consciousness. Three distinct states -waking, dreaming, and deep sleep- are recognized by yogis and scientists alike. Each corresponds to unique brainwave patterns: beta, theta, and unconscious states. Yoga Nidra is shown to introduce a something unique, beta waves shift to alpha waves, signifying an unparalleled state of deep relaxation.

M.C. Escher’s Phosphorescent Sea (1933)

Beyond this it has been shown maintaining consciousness develops heightened awareness and enhances operation in the higher cortex (the "conscious brain"). This in turn creates greater control of emotional centers which enhances self-awareness and emotional control.


More Nidra Body Poetry

Yoga Nidra works with the autonomic nervous system, calming the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) response and activating the parasympathetic system. The sympathetic system is what would fire for our ancient ancestors to let them know, ‘Hey there’s a tiger. Fucking RUN!’ But after they would escape the tiger that system would shift back to parasympathetic (rest and heal) mode. In today’s world with a constant barrage of stress and anxieties we are basically receiving a low level, ‘Hey there’s a tiger.’ ALL. THE. TIME. This has a powerful affect on our entire body - hormones, healing capacity, reproduction, digestion, and brain health just to start. Nidra facilitates the shift out of tiger mode, and into healing mode.


Here are some well-documented benefits:

  • Reduction in anxiety and stress: Yoga Nidra promotes relaxation and reduces anxiety.

  • Positive changes in blood glucose levels and hormonal balance: Contributing to overall physical well-being.

  • Symptom reduction in mild depression and anxiety: Providing relief and support for mental health.

  • Enhanced self-awareness and inner connectedness: Fostering a deeper sense of self.

  • Scientifically supported therapeutic applications: Including the treatment of chronic pain, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Notably, the U.S. Army has even applied Yoga Nidra, specifically Integrative Restoration, to aid soldiers in recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).



What is NSDR?

Interest in deep rest practices has surged as of late, thanks to this generation's Bill Nye and renowned neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman. On his podcast, Dr. Huberman has highlighted the benefits of Non-sleep Deep Rest (NSDR), an umbrella term for Nidra, hypnosis, meditation, and breathwork.

 

Yoga Nidra, with its ancient roots and modern adaptations, serves as a profound gateway to the self and respite from chaos. The continuing evolvultion of the practice reflect its adaptability and scientific validation adds a compelling dimension. Embracing this as a practice for yourself opens an endless pathway of discovery, proving that the age-old wisdom of Yoga Nidra continues to resonate today.


Give it a try...






Sources:

  • The Impact of Yoga Nidra and Seated Meditation on the Mental Health of College Professors [Internet]. Int J Yoga. 2018

  • The Origin and Clinical Relevance of Yoga Nidra [Internet]. Sleep Vigil. 2022

  • Yoga Journal - Sri. Dharma Mittra on Why You Shouldn’t Fall Asleep in Yoga Nidra

  • Implicit Vocabulary Learning during Sleep Is Bound to Slow-Wave Peaks [Internet]. Current Biology. 2019

  • [Huberman Lab - NSDR, Meditation



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