Yoga Nidra: A Path to Relaxation and Happiness

This Sunday, group classes will resume after the summer break. And they will resume with one of my favourite classes to teach: yin yoga followed by a yoga nidra session. While most people will be aware of what we mean by yin yoga, yoga nidra is still a little obscure to most.

Yoga nidra means ‘yogic sleep’ in Sanskrit. If yoga is “the practice of stilling the fluctuations of the mind”, according to the “father” of yoga Patanjali, I believe that yoga nidra is the perfect example of why this is the case. Each time you practice yoga nidra, you’re stilling the waves of the mind through conscious relaxation. Your body will be completely asleep, while your mind will be awake and relaxed.

As a matter of fact, it is a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping, like the “going-to-sleep” stage. It’s a state in which you will become systematically and increasingly aware of your inner world by following a set of verbal instructions provided by the teacher. This state of consciousness is different from meditation, in which concentration on a single focus is required. In yoga nidra you will be guided into a state of light withdrawal of the 5 senses (a state called pratyahara) with four of your senses being internalised and only the hearing still connected to the outside world – meaning to the teacher’s verbal instructions. The only thing that is required of you is to listen to the teacher’s voice while in savasana – corpse pose. Nothing else.

What is the science behind yoga nidra?

You start with sensing the body and breathing in specific ways in order to trigger the relaxation response. In the process, your brain shifts from beta, an awakened state with lots of brain activity, to alpha, a more relaxed state. In alpha, the mood-regulating hormone serotonin gets released, and this calms you down. People who spend little time in an alpha brain-wave state have more anxiety than those who spend more time in alpha. 

From alpha, you go into a deep alpha and high theta brain-wave state, the dream state, REM sleep. In theta, your thoughts slow down to 4 to 8 thoughts per second. This is where super learning happens. Kids and artists experience a lot more theta activity in their brains. 

After theta, you are guided to delta. This is the most restorative state, in which your organs regenerate and the stress hormone cortisol is removed from your system. When you’re put under anesthesia, you’re put into a delta brain-wave state. In our modern Western society, very few people are going into the deep states of sleep like theta and delta on a regular basis, and as a consequence, our bodies are not powering down and getting the chance to restore themselves.

From delta, the guided yoga nidra experience takes you down into an even deeper brain-wave state — one that can’t be reached through conventional sleep. In this fourth state of consciousness, below delta, your brain is thoughtless. This state is sort of like a complete loss of consciousness, but you are awake. This state is one of such a deep surrender, where your consciousness is so far away from the physical body, that living here every day would be difficult. Not everyone who practices yoga nidra touches this state, it takes practice to reach it.

After you touch into the fourth state of consciousness, you are guided back to a waking state. Again, you couldn’t live in this fourth state, but as a result of touching into it, you bring a little of its peace back with you to your waking, everyday brain state. You also are able to rewire your thoughts and emotions because your subconscious mind in this fourth state is fertile, more open to intentions and affirmations, than it is when you are in your waking state. As a consequence, in your everyday life, you begin to rest more and more in the space between emotions and thoughts, and this resting in this space gives rise to a sense of freedom, where you are not triggered so much by the stuff in your life.

While yoga nidra is not a substitute for sleep, it is commonly said (although there is still some debate over the science that backs this up) that 45 minutes of yogic sleep feels like 3 hours of regular sleep. What is certain is that yoga nidra improves overall health, both physical and mental. It is often used to help people suffering from PTSD, e.g. former military or victims of sexual assault.

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I love teaching yoga nidra, or rather guiding someone through a yoga nidra session. It is incredible to see the peaceful look on someone’s face after they have practiced yoga nidra. I believe it is the most beautiful gift to offer to another person.

I hope you will soon come check it out for yourself and see what benefits this practice can bring to your day-to-day life.

(inspired and adapted from Yoga Journal: Yoga Nidra for Better Sleep)

5 Reasons Why

For those who wish to learn more about yoga and some of its benefits, these are the 5 things that happened to me thanks to a regular yoga practice. This is all very personal and may not be true for everyone though.

In no particular order:

  1. 1. I care less. Yes, it sounds bad, but I care less. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about my life and the people in it. In fact, there was a time when I didn’t care about anything anymore and it didn’t feel good at all. Now caring less for me just means caring less about unnecessary drama in my life and about things that are beyond my control. In turn, this leaves more time, space and energy to cherish and care about what is essential.
  1. 2. My mind is clearer and quieter. For a Type A personality like mine – the restless, hyperactive and ambitious type – this is definitely the biggest challenge and probably something I will always struggle with to a certain extent. Living in the moment without jumping three steps ahead is not something that comes natural to me. I have to make a conscious effort to live in the moment and avoid multitasking. I have my techniques by now and they work well, but I have to choose to do so. When I practice yoga, this happens naturally. I simply am.
  1. 3. I am stronger and more confident in my body. I’ve already written how I’ve never been the sporty type before, but most of it was just my own mind creating a negative narrative of being anti-athletic. ‘I can’t’ was the key word. I now do things I would have never thought I would be capable of doing. Things I thought only the ultra-fit could do. Every time I see a tiny bit of progress in my practice, I am amazed by what my body can actually do. This improved strength doesn’t mean having a six pack to show off on the beach. It just means being more aware of my own body, and ultimately feeling better and more confident in it.
  1. 4. I am more positive towards life challenges. Practicing yoga doesn’t mean living a life of hearts and flowers where problems don’t exist. In real life, problems will never cease to exist. The difference is in how I choose to react to them. Looking at them as inevitable challenges during this journey and trying to face them without disproportionate reactions. Looking for solutions for what is possible and letting go of what is not in my hands. A fine balance between effort – abhyasa – and letting go – vairagya.
  1. 5. I don’t feel the need to compare myself to others. I am what I am, with my strengths and my flaws. I am no longer scared of showing who I am. My life is what it is. Imperfect. But I am still grateful for it, as it is a privileged life. And yes, there is always room for improvement, but right now I wouldn’t change it with anyone else’s. And most importantly, I know that if and when I decide to change it, I can.

The bad news is that the positive effects you feel in the immediate aftermath of the asana practice don’t last forever. There needs to be a certain rigour and discipline in the practice for them to keep materialising. The good news is that over time we internalise some of the teachings offered to us by this practice.

In essence, what does yoga do to me? It brings out my best self.