What is Yoga Nidra? A brief explanation of Yogic Sleep
By now we are all well acquainted with the words "Yoga Nidra" and perhaps you may have even attended to one of these classes or actually go regularly to enjoy the benefits of this amazing yoga practice but... do we really know how it works?
Although the benefits and applications of Yoga Nidra are wide and deep as an ocean I will try to give a brief and comprehensible explanation of how this Tantric rooted Yoga practice works and its key elements.
Yoga Nidra means "Yogic Sleep" and it finds its origin in the ancient practice of "Nyasa", which means "placing" or "touching" in Sanskrit, the original language of Yoga. This practice would be done by a Rishi - Seer - who would physically or mentally touch specific parts of the body while chanting specific mantras.
However, the "modern" Yoga Nidra was first devised by Swami Satyananda Saraswati in the mid 20th century in Rishikesh, India. The idea came to his mind when while walking around the holy Himalayan city and passing next to a temple he realized that he knew the mantra that was being chanted there without ever studying it. After some time he realized that this specific mantra was being chanted in his Ashram at night during his sleeping hours and from there on he dedicated his efforts to developing this useful Yoga technique.
What Yoga Nidra offers is a systematic method to induce physical, mental and emotional relaxation but before we go into more details of how it works we need to explain briefly the process of perception and storage of memories in the mind.
Impressions, experiences, events, situations.... and the mind
Every action we take and situation we experience first reaches our brain via our sense organs (Jnanendriyas) - Sense, Smell, Touch, Sight and Hearing - and organs of action through which we interact with the world (Karmendriyas) - Hands, Feet, Mouth, Genitals and Anus -, these organs and senses of perception are constantly collecting data and information from the environment. All this information reaches the brain in such large quantities that it needs to be classified, filtered, otherwise our mind would collapse and we would not be able to interact with our environment in a safe and harmonious way. We would literally go nuts!! This is what is sometimes called the process of intellectualisation and it occurs in our conscious mind.
At this point, our incredibly smart mind decides what is useful and what is not, what deserves our attention and what can be overlooked. According to this classification, we act or react to events and situations. Things like an increase or decrease of atmospheric temperature will tell us that we need to remove or put on some clothes or the sight of a friendly looking person will tell us that it is safe to engage into a conversation with him/her. These two were simple examples but we can draw the relationship action - sense organ - conscious mind - reaction in absolutely every situation in our life.
We mentioned earlier that our experiences go through a filter called intellectualization process and that we act upon those that our conscious mind determines that are worth our attention BUT, that doesn't mean that the rest of the information or that "unworthy" data gets erased or rejected. This non-useful information is stored in the subconscious mind.
All this information in the subconscious mind (Chitta - Memories) can then be interpreted by our conscious mind (Buddhi - Intellect) to produce knowledge - Right or Wrong knowledge - but also, behaviors, cultural and familial background or habits are stored within the subconscious mind to give birth to our ego (Ahamkara - "I-ness"), which is nothing else than the wrong identification of our true self (Atman) with the image that we have created of ourselves through those behaviors, vital experiences and cultural backgrounds.
Yoga Nidra offers the tools to access the subconscious mind and by-pass the conscious mind to avoid the filter of the intellect. In Yoga Nidra, the state of relaxation is attained by developing an introvert state away from external stimuli (Pratyahara). When we separate consciousness from external awareness we can reach the subconscious mind and modify, heal or improve different aspects of our mind.
Hence Yoga Nidra can be used to:
- Remove bad habits.
- Increase memory and concentration.
- Reduce stress and manage depression.
- Acquire new knowledge and increase creativity.
- Change ones own nature.
What tools does Yoga Nidra offer to reach the subconscious mind?
1. Sankalpa or Resolve
A Sankalpa or resolve needs to be repeated several times during the practice of Yoga Nidra, ideally three times at the beginning of the practice, between the different stages and at the end of the practice. This Sankalpa should be positive, relevant to the practitioner and to the final goal of the practice.
We should practice Yoga Nidra with the same Sankalpa until our goal is achieved.
2. Rotation of awareness
Yoga Nidra should be practised while in Shavasana. Once we have achieved a comfortable posture we should bring our awareness to each part of our body and consciously relax every muscle of it. This will allow us to relax completely and will help us reach a complete state of Pratyahara - withdrawal of the senses -. We should AVOID falling asleep during the practice.
3. Recollection or Awakening of sensations
By inducing opposite sensations - ie. cold/hot, heavy/light, dark/bright, etc. - we can further induce our body and our mind into a state of relaxation and Pratyahara.
This is one of the most common problems that almost all teachers face when they start their Yoga journey. What I recommend to my students when they come to me with this problem is stop, think, and find shelter in their practice, even stop teaching completely for a few weeks if necessary!
4. Conceptual Visualization
This stage of Yoga Nidra involves mental visualization or conceptual awareness of the psychic centres of our body. This may range from Chakra visualization to conceptual symbolism or a tailor-made story made for a specific purpose. This is the stage where we can give new commands to our subconscious mind, remove addictions, heal from traumas, improve our overall wellbeing, etc.
*IMPORTANT NOTE: Therapeutic Yoga Nidra with Conceptual Visualization is to be practised by a professional Yoga Therapy Teacher only. Please approach a Yoga teacher that you trust before practising Yoga Nidra to treat or modify the patterns of the mind.
Yoga Nidra or Yogic Sleep is an incredible and powerful tool that can help us improve our lives in many ways if performed appropriately. I truly hope you have enjoyed this article and it has served to put some light on this wonderful practice.
About the author:
Jose Marquina is a Yoga Teacher, Yoga Therapist and Co-Founder of Banjaara Yoga & Ayurveda.
He currently conducts Yoga teacher training in India and Thailand.
You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org through Banjaara Yoga & Ayurveda's Facebook Page