February 14, 2013

Understanding Yoga Nidra. ~ Mark-Francis Mullen

Yoga nidra is one of the least known tools of yoga.

It’s typically thought of as a sort of guided meditation or deep relaxation technique, and is often confused with some “New-Ager” chanting notional ideas of light and relaxation to “soothing” music. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yoga nidra is a practice that has been refined over five millennia, using the experiences of countless people as “guinea pigs.”

It is a tool to enter a zone of yogic “sleep,” which is much deeper and more restorative than regular sleep. In this zone, we release energy and emotions trapped in the body and free channels so energy can again flow unimpeded. We re-establish our connection to the earth, develop our sense of lightness and heaviness and play a bit with gravity, space and time. We take a 61-point tour through the physical and energetic bodies and rest in, and re-tune, the energy of our main energy vortices, also known as the chakras.

The basis of yoga nidra is non-effort or allowing, as is true of all the yogic practices, even, and especially, those that appear effort-full on the surface. Yoga nidra is not so much something one does, but something one experiences, something one feels, lives and breathes.

Yoga nidra is based on a healthy and grounding relationship with the breath, which centers us and helps still the mind and calm the body. Many of the practices traditionally use various forms of guided breath exercises, along with the energetic tours of the body and specific imagery intended to still and soothe the mind while gently engaging it so it does not run free and wild.

Yoga nidra can be used as a prelude to meditation, and/or a conclusion to it. While nidra is most typically done at the end of the day, during the ambrosial hours during and after sunset, it can be done anytime, even as a morning wakeup that is more energizing and healthy than a cup of espresso.

It appears to work best when done at the same time each day.

Yoga nidra works on the two most basic and external “sheaths” of the body; the annamaya kosha, or the physical body and the pranamaya kosha, the energetic body. By integrating and relaxing these sheaths, the internal sheaths of the mind, the intellect and the pure consciousness can rest in their abode, naturally and peacefully.

One primary, and often overlooked or undervalued, aspect of nidra is the setting of sankalpa, or deep intentions, at the beginning of each nidra session. These intentions must be set not only for the good of one’s self, but for simultaneous realization of the Truth and for the good of the entire world. Through these intentions we remove ingrained habits, or samskaras.

These intentions are very powerful, so they must be chosen and invoked carefully. Many opt for the basic methods of intending for general improvement of one’s compassion, honesty, non-violence, or manifestation of other basic global moral attributes and attitudes.

In addition to aligning and balancing energy in the body and returning one to a sense of grounding in gratitude, compassion and connectedness with the world, nidra establishes a set of neural networks and emotional tone that we can return to in times of stress.

Nidra is not quite meditation, or dhyana. Instead, it is a related “petal” of yoga practice called dharana. Dharana is often mistranslated as “withdrawal of the senses,” and sometimes as control of the senses. But it is closer to release of the senses, of the attachment to them and to relying on them to define our world and our physical, mental and psychological states.

The effect of nidra is cumulative on the physical and energetic levels. On the physical level, nidra embodies the neurological truism that neurons that fire together wire together. Or, put more simply, our repeated thoughts can and do effect the neural structure and density of the brain.

Each experience in nidra can, and will, be different, but together these experiences create a growing and steadily, almost exponentially, increasing benefit in the balancing and release of energy, greater interoception, increased proprioception and an improved relationship with the entire mind/body complex and its processes.

Studies have shown that even short-term practice of yoga nidra results in increased gray matter volume (GMV) in the brain, most notably in the hippocampus, xxx and yyy. As length of practice increases, so do the measurable increases in GMV. This accessibility by all is key. Whereas famous studies in meditation used experienced practitioners, beginning practitioners of yoga nidra can access many of these same benefits.

Nyasa is a related practice in which special mantras, or root tones, are “sent,” via thought, into various parts of the body, much as our awareness is in the rotation of nidra. As nidra has been popularized in the west primarily by Swami Satyananda Sarasvati, who is also often attributed as its inventor, most of the guided nidra recordings in the western world follow his sequence of this ancient practice: internalization; sankalpa; rotation of consciousness; breath awareness; manifestation of opposites; creative visualization; sankalpa and externalization.


Mark-Francis Mullen is lucky enough to live in Boulder, Colorado amongst a vibrant yoga community. He is called to be a guide to those who think they are ‘too something’ for yoga (too old, too sick, too fat, etc.). He loves life.


Assistant Editor: Sara McKeown

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