a zombie in class
One night a few years ago, a zombie showed up to my Yoga Nidra class. Haggard and vacant, she rolled out her mat on the back row and sat there trying to look like a normal, living person while other students were busy arranging their yoga mats, blankets, and eye pillows in preparation for our relaxing Yoga Nidra session.
As always, I asked the class if anybody needed anything in particular from this Yoga Nidra session. The zombie in the back row, trying her best to look normal, lifted a timid and tired hand, looked at me with dead, bloodshot eyes, and announced that her name was Suzie.
“Please,” she begged, “I haven’t slept—I mean really slept—for almost 6 months. I’m going crazy. Can Yoga Nidra help me?”
“Suzie, you’re in the right place,” I responded enthusiastically. I then explained to her and the rest of the class exactly how Yoga Nidra can help work its magic to promote excellent sleep. To prepare for Yoga Nidra, first I led the students in a few gentle asanas, then some relaxing pranayama, before instructing them to lie down, close their eyes, and relax.
Next, I led them through a 35-minute Yoga Nidra practice, and Awareness practice which acts like a guided meditation, where I focused on helping people achieve deep, peaceful, and nourishing sleep. I made an audio recording of the Yoga Nidra practice and sent it home with the students as homework. Suzie received the recording gratefully.
The next week, Suzie came back to class though I almost didn’t recognize her. The zombie that had come the week before had transformed into a vibrant human being with bright eyes, a warm face, and a wide smile.
Like normal, I asked if anyone in the class needed anything in particular from this Yoga Nidra practice. Suzie raised her hand again and excitedly reported to me and the entire class how the previous week’s Yoga Nidra practice helped her to relax more than she had been able to relax in a very long time. She also talked about how that night she went home and experienced an utterly fantastic night of deep sleep, and that she had been sleeping well ever since.
(Drop the mic.)
Have you ever suffered from sleeplessness? Of course, you have. Everybody does. In the United States, 50–70 million adults of all ages and socio-economic classes suffer from regular sleep problems (Reference). Before you go get a prescription drug to help put you out, consider Yoga Nidra is an excellent, effective, and completely natural remedy for sleeplessness. Though it’s not addictive in the pharmaceutical kind of way, once you try it, you likely come back for more.
I know what you’re thinking: what is Yoga Nidra and why is something like a guided meditation even called yoga? Also, how does lying down, closing your eyes, and listening to someone lead you through a guided meditation help you sleep better?
To understand what Yoga Nidra is, it’s best to start with the definition of yoga. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, (written between 500 BCE and 400 CE AD), says that the experience of yoga is to connect body, mind, and spirit to eliminate the disturbances of the mind and arrive at a state of Awareness called Samadhi, or Oneness. This state of Oneness is synonymous with wholeness. It’s rich. You might need a glass of milk to wash all of that down. And while Samadhi may sound quite lofty, ancient wisdom also says that it’s actually our most natural state because it’s our Source.
Be warned: the practice of yoga is different from the experience of yoga mostly in that the practice merely sets the conditions for the experience of yoga to occur. You can’t “make” Samadhi happen but regular practices of body, mind, and spirit connection can help us remember our Source and achieve regular glimpses of Samadhi. Then one day I guess you piece together all those glimpses to realize that you’re living Samadhi.
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I haven’t been there, I’ve only read the book. Still, Yoga Nidra has been an immensely illuminating practice for me that has helped me regularly “lick the eternal,” as one of my students says, and get those Samadhi glimpses. And hey, if stilling the mind is leading me to something as magnificent as Oneness and wholeness, then surely it can help with a little bit of insomnia.
Likely, when you think of yoga practice probably conjures images of sweaty asanas, stretchy pants, and deep Ujjayi breaths, yet there are many ways to practice the conditions to still the mind. Yoga Nidra is a serious and ancient yoga practice, rooted in Tantra and Vedantic Shaivism, that basically doubles down on one, and ONLY one asana: savasana.
In Yoga Nidra you practice stilling the mind by lying down, closing your eyes, and getting obscenely relaxed as the facilitator helps guide you to pay attention to parts of you like your body, energy, thoughts, emotions, etc. You’re invited to simply observe all these parts, as well as anything else that arises in your Awareness, without value or judgment.
The deal is that you begin to disidentify as a body, energy, thoughts, etc, and start to experience yourself as Awareness itself in the form of all these parts. Essentially, Yoga Nidra trains you to be less reactive and more observant of everything about yourself and your environment. That and get outrageously relaxed. A crucial difference between yoga asana and Yoga Nidra is that with Yoga Nidra, instead of moving or stretching your body to become more aware, Yoga Nidra helps you to simply relax while paying attention to the body, or other parts of your being, to become more aware.
What is Nidra, Anyway?
Nidra is a Sanskrit word meaning sleep. More correctly in the context of Yoga Nidra, it refers to a particular state of mind, the Nidra state, which is the liminal, hypnagogic state between waking and dreaming consciousness. Nidra is like being in a daydream state that acts like an opening of your consciousness whereby you may experience your most natural being, that of pure Awareness. It acts as a secret doorway to glimpse Samadhi. Truly, Yoga Nidra is like napping your way to enlightenment. Truly the yoga of sleep is in truth helping you to wake up.
How does Yoga Nidra help you sleep better?
There are several ways that Yoga Nidra helps you achieve more regular, deep, and nourishing, sleep. First, yoga is a practice and relaxation is a skill that you must practice. Do you know somebody who simply does not know how to relax? Come on… are YOU ever that person? Of course, you are because we all are at some time or another. Before your roommates stage an intervention for being the crankiest human alive, maybe you could try practicing some relaxation with Yoga Nidra.
Relaxation is a skill. You can do it well and you can do it poorly. Sometimes how well you relax depends on how your brain is hardwired and on your brain habits, like stress management, watching violent movies, etc. Regardless of brain chemistry, circumstances, or your Netflix choices, Yoga Nidra is an effective and easy way to practice mindful relaxation.
Even if your mind is wired to be very active, Yoga Nidra actually invites you to welcome anything that shows up in your Awareness, even busy thoughts, invites you to acknowledge all the ways in which that object affects your being, then invites you to merely be the witness of the object. That’s it. Doing so helps you to be the observer of rather than subject to things like busy thoughts. Becoming the observer of busy thoughts breaks your mind’s habitual cycle of busy thoughts and allows you to relax.
Relaxation As a Practice
Yoga Nidra uses relaxation as a primary tool to help you get into the Nidra state. Modern psychology says that you can’t be stressed and relaxed at the same time. One way Yoga Nidra helps you to get relaxed is by going through something similar to a body scan. This helps you identify not as the body but as Awareness witnessing itself through the sensation of the body.
It may sound like splitting hairs but it’s actually a complete mental game-changer. Witnessing the pure sensation of your body, acknowledging all the ways that affect your being, then merely observing that sensation, is a remarkably effective method to relaxing your body. The more you become aware of your body in Yoga Nidra, the more you relax. This happens because your most essential Self is pure Awareness.
And before you go off and divorce your body and move to the astral plane or something, realize that in truth, Yoga Nidra helps you to feel your truest essence which is Awareness married to the body. Awareness and form are in it for the long haul and the fruits of that love is boundless equanimity. So, essentially the more you can anchor your Awareness in something like your body, the more you experience your birthright of peace. But the same way you gotta practice headstand to do it well so you don’t fall over and go yogi bowling, you also gotta practice relaxation to do it well.
If you’re more yoga science-minded than Yoga Sutras-minded, you’d be interested to know that going through the layers of Awareness in Yoga Nidra gives your mind a simple object to focus on, which helps to train you to manually activate your parasympathetic nervous system or relaxation state.
Yoga Nidra actually helps to train you to downshift your brain wave activity from a frenetic high beta brainwave state to low beta, alpha, theta (Nidra state), and even delta. Look at Steven Kotler’s book called Mapping Cloud 9 to explore the scientific studies done on how meditation practices like Yoga Nidra alter brain waves.
Another way that it helps you to sleep better is by the quality of rest that occurs during Yoga Nidra. It’s said that resting in the Nidra state equals 4X regular rest time. Yoga Nidra is like rest concentrate. A 30 minute Yoga Nidra session is equal to the rest you’d receive from a sound, 2-hour nap. So, if you’re feeling under-rested, even if Yoga Nidra isn’t putting you to sleep, you’ll relax knowing that you’re receiving concentrated, nourishing rest as you practice.
It’s very common to emerge from a Yoga Nidra practice feeling alert, relaxed, and clear-headed, even if you’re under-rested due to sleeplessness. If at night you can’t sleep try listening to a Yoga Nidra recording and allow your mind to focus on getting some concentrated rest. This will also help you avoid the hamster wheel of worrying about not sleeping. You’ll likely fall asleep when you listen to the Yoga Nidra recording but if you don’t, at least you’ll feel rested.
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Aligns Your Imbalances
It’s important to remember that sleeplessness is often a symptom of other imbalances in body, mind, or spirit. Get this: Yoga Nidra’s purpose is not necessarily to heal you from sleep problems. What it actually does is help you gain Awareness, Awareness which in turn puts you back into balance. So while Awareness is the goal in Yoga Nidra, balance is often the result. Wellness is the byproduct of Awareness.
Visualizations: BE The Sleeper!
Last, Yoga Nidra is a fantastic venue for visualizations. Countless athletes, addicts, leaders, and creators, have proven that visualizations help revolutionize behavior and transform the impossible into the every-day. Yoga Nidra acts like a bridge between your conscious and unconscious mind which allows you to both recognize unconscious behaviors and program the kinds of behaviors that you’d like to see in your life. Visualizations work because to your unconscious mind, seeing is believing. If you believe it, you can do it.
Neuroscientists say that our brain sends the same message of fight or flight to our body whether we are watching a scene in real life, on a screen, or just in our minds. If you are playing out scenes of worry and mayhem regularly in your mind, then no wonder you aren’t getting any sleep—your brain is telling your body to get ready to run or start throwing punches.
Similarly, if you visualize yourself receiving deep, nourishing, and peaceful sleep, your brain starts to send those same peaceful brain chemicals to your body to deliver on what it translates as reality. Yoga Nidra can help you visualize yourself receiving excellent sleep and literally overnight you can rewrite your patterning.
At the end of the day, Yoga Nidra is a life-changing practice that cultivates Awareness in body, mind, and spirit. Not only does it help you practice Awareness but it simultaneously helps you practice relaxation, cultivates concentrated rest, and helps you align your imbalances, including your sleep habits. Also, Yoga Nidra is very effective at helping you learn to visualize to change behavior so you can literally program yourself to receive deep, peaceful, and nourishing sleep.
I invite you to practice greater awareness as you move toward your optimal wellness with this Yoga Nidra for sleep practice, free with the promo code: YOGASLEEP.
Many people often complain that they get so relaxed during Yoga Nidra that they fall asleep and miss all enlightening stuff. Unfailingly, I tell them that the part of them that I’m speaking to during Yoga Nidra is always paying attention, regardless if their waking mind is conscious or not.
And for those of us who are seeking better sleep, if you do fall asleep during a Yoga Nidra practice then all I can say is, mission accomplished!