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June 20, 2014

Yoga Nidra: How Guided Meditation Can Improve Our Lives. ~ Johnna Langlo

rest yoga savasana

At this moment, how many thoughts are racing through your head?

Go ahead, stop reading, close your eyes and think about it. Can the thought patterns be counted? Is impatience taking over causing a desire to stop reading this article because it is moving too slowly? Would it be easier to skip to the end? Shall I get to the point?

How often do you turn off your mind? Stop the chatter? Silence the monkey mind?

For most of us, the answer is rarely.

Even when we sleep, our minds do not turn off. Studies in which our brain waves are measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine demonstrate that each stage is characterized by specific brain waves, all representing different levels of mental activity.

Although a detailed discussion about these brain waves and how they affect our level of consciousness during sleep would be fascinating, ironically, we need to stay focused—let’s get back on track!

The fact is, our minds are always racing, even when we think we are relaxing. The predominance of television, video games and social media keep our minds stimulated during our “free time”, so even then we aren’t really relaxed.

Then there is the matter of stress. Young or old, rich or poor, male or female, we all suffer from emotional and physical stress.

Scientists have long understood the connection between stress and physical and mental wellness. Yogis have understood this for even longer.

It all starts from the impact of stress on our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS has two operating systems. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is our “fight or flight” response. We need this system to operate correctly so we can spring into action appropriately. It causes our blood pressure, breathing rate and pulse to increase, and it causes our bodies to release the hormones adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine, known as the stress hormones.

When the danger has passed, our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) should be dominant. The PNS “is calming and restorative; it lowers the breathing and heart rates, decreases blood pressure, and increases blood flow to internal organs such as the intestines and reproductive organs, allowing us to ‘rest and digest’” (McCall, 2007).

When our stress and high level of stimulation become chronic, our SNS is overstimulated, and this leads to lasting damage to our physical health.

It appears that we have an epidemic of chronic stress and excess stimulation in this culture. What are we going to do about it? How can we train that monkey mind and encourage a balanced nervous system?

One answer is yoga nidra, which is Sanskrit for yogic sleep or sleep with full awareness.

The best explanation I have found for yoga nidra is by Kelly McGonigal, PhD, who teaches yoga, meditation and psychology at Stanford University and is currently editor-in-chief of The International Journal of Yoga Therapy.

In an article she wrote for Yoga International called “How to Create a Sankalpa”, she described yoga nidra—

“(It’s) a process of awakening to your true nature. Yoga nidra systematically relaxes the body and mind and guides you into deep awareness. You are aware and awake, but you experience a disidentification from the body and mind” (2013).

The practice of yoga nidra is usually done while lying in Savasana (corpse pose). A teacher or a recorded voice leads the practitioner through “an intricate form of guided relaxation, taking one on a journey through dozens of different visualizations” (McCall, 2007). It is said that a 20 to 30 minute session of yoga nidra is the equivalent of approximately three hours of sleep. (Stover, 2006)

Yoga nidra can be used to train the mind.

Part of the process of yoga nidra is to set a sankalpa, or resolve. A sankalpa can be your heartfelt desire or intention, but it isn’t to be confused with a prayer or one of the “endless desires of your ego, senses and conditioned mind” (McGonigal, 2013). It is not a statement of “I will” or “I want”; instead, it is a proclamation of “I am”.

McGonigal explains that “setting specific intentions can help you align your moment-to-moment choices with your heartfelt desire” (2013).

An example of a sankalpa could be “I am a vessel of compassionate acceptance.” Perhaps a heartfelt desire in that example could involve becoming less abrasive to one’s coworkers. By working in the present tense, a person with this sankalpa is identifying with the compassion and acceptance that are already within his true nature and conditioning his mind to follow his intention.

Typically in yoga nidra, a sankalpa is recited within one’s mind at two points during the practice. Swami Satyananda says, “the sankalpa taken at the beginning of yoga nidra is like sowing a seed, and the sankalpa at the end is like irrigating it” (Bhushan, 2001).

Guided meditation is growing in popularity among athletes as a way to train the mind to remain calm and focused and as a method of repeatedly visualizing performing their sport. Phil Jackson is valued as a basketball coach who has won 11 NBA titles. His nickname is the “Zen Master”, and he explained his method of coaching the Chicago Bulls to Oprah in an interview. Jackson said,

“I approached it with mindfulness, as much as we pump iron and we run to build our strength up, we need to build our mental strength up… so we can focus… so we can be in concert with one another” (OWN, 2013).

The basketball players at Penn State are also finding meditation improves their game. Michael Baime, an internist and director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness states,

“What impairs performance more than anything during competition is the effect of negative emotions on biology and on the ability to maintain perspective and continue to perform at the level at which you’re capable…Mindfulness practice really isn’t that different from athletic training. If you want to get neuroscientific about it, mindfulness practice changes the structure of the brain through which awareness operates. Just as running increases the strength of the quadriceps muscle, mindfulness practice strengthens the executive control function of the brain” (Rush, 2014).

Olympic legend Michael Phelps has been practicing a type of guided meditation called “structured relaxation” since his coach implemented the practice when he was 12 years old. His mom would guide him as he relaxed different parts of his body, and he would visualize himself swimming his races (Miller, 2010).

These athletes have learned that when our resolve is planted firmly in our relaxed and receptive subconscious mind, such as in yoga nidra, the conscious mind follows the path automatically (Bhushan, 2001). This is how the practice of visualization and imagery help train us to perform in areas of athletics, academics, public speaking and the cessation of bad habits.

The list of benefits of yoga nidra is extensive. It can be used as a preventative measure to help us manage stress and maintain a balanced autonomic nervous system.

Now that we know how stress can affect our physical health, we understand that mindfulness practice and stress management go far beyond mental benefits and help us prevent or even reverse the development of disease.

Web MD released an article by Morgan Griffin (2010) that listed a sampling of 10 health problems related to stress. They included heart disease, asthma, obesity, diabetes, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, Alzheimer’s disease, accelerated aging and premature death.

These conditions are exacerbated by stress because of the affect our sympathetic nervous system has on our blood pressure, heart rate, blood flow and hormone balance.

Yoga nidra has been used to improve the outcome of patients with cardiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, Rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune diseases, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) and migraine headaches.

Yoga nidra also has been shown to be an effective tool for treating psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Yoga nidra is affordable and easily accessible. In some cities you may find classes where guidance is provided by a teacher. If that is not an option for you, yoga nidra can be practiced in your home.

Because the benefits of yoga nidra are becoming more widely known, more modalities are offering it to the public. There are apps for your smartphone, CD’s and downloads for your computer.

The next time there is 20 minutes to spare, instead of wasting it on social media, why not give yoga nidra a try?

Begin the process of developing mindfulness and teaching your body to recover from the stress and stimulation of a busy life. Maybe that monkey mind can be trained to slow down and truly find rest.

Who knows? It could save your life.

~

References:

Bhushan, Siddhartha (2001). Yoga Nidra: Its Advantages and Applications. Yoga Magazine.
Retrieved from http://www.yogamag.net/archives/2001/bmar01/yoganid.shtml

Griffin, Morgan (2010). 10 Health Problems Related to Stress that You Can Fix. WebMD.
Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/features/10-fixable-stress-related-health-problems

McCall, M.D., Timothy (2007). Yoga As Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and
Healing. New York, New York: Bantam Dell.

McGonigal, Kelly (2013). How to Create a Sankalpa. Yoga International. Retrieved from
http://yogainternational.com/article/view/how-to-create-a-sankalpa

Miller, Jill (2010). Yoga Nidra for Kids: How to help your kids experience bliss. Gaiam, September 2010. Retrieved from http://blog.gaiam.com/yoga-nidra-for-kids-how-to-help-your-kids-experience-bliss/

Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) (2013). Phil Jackson on Using Meditation and Mindfulness to
Create Great Basketball Teams. Huffinton Post, July 2013. Retrieved from
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/17/phil-jackson-meditation-coaching-tactics_n_3606632.html

Stover, S. A. (2006). Yoga Nidra. FIT Yoga, November 2006, pages 40-43. Retrieved from

Rush, Ilene (2014). Athletes using meditation to improve performance. Philly.com, March 2014. Retrieved from http://articles.philly.com/2014-03-17/news/48269271_1_meditation-jon-kabat-zinn-strength-coach

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