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In your imagination, see yourself under a clear, light blue sky on a warm spring afternoon.
You’re standing at the top of a lush rolling hill with wildflowers spilling out along both sides of a path. A delicate breeze hits your skin, which prickles before the sun warms you. A path lays out before you, and cascading down the hillside on both sides are lightly scented flowers dressed in shades of red, purple, and indigo.
Could you feel yourself there? Smell the flowers, feel the breeze? Visualizations like this are part of a technique called Yoga Nidra, a multistep approach toward integrating body, mind, and spirit. The best part about Yoga Nidra is that the only requirement is to lay down and listen to the instructor as they take you on a journey through the body and beyond. Even though your consciousness may flow in and out, there’s really no wrong way to do the practice.
Viewing ourselves as separate from the world leads to suffering. To live life as if universal principles and laws of nature don’t apply to us leads to disease, fear, and resentment. Our finite connection to others has been validated through the relentless spread of COVID-19; we are one world, integrated.
Living life from that universal principle leads to greater self-awareness, contentment, and gratitude, away from fear and suffering. The practice of Yoga Nidra is a systematic, researched approach that reminds us of our unity consciousness through stimulation of the right brain, allowing us to “see” and even feel “the bigger picture.”
In the timeline of yoga, Yoga Nidra is relatively new. Having first been developed in the mid 20th century, it grew from ancient tantra practices and has more recently made its way through the doors of yoga studios, hospitals, mental health facilities, veterans programs, and Zoom classes for its positive benefits. Through research, Yoga Nidra has been found to be beneficial for general well-being, anxiety, stress, PTSD, insomnia, trauma, chronic pain, and more.
While each instructor will add their own individuality, there are varying adaptations and shortened forms of Yoga Nidra. A basic structure includes:
>> Initial Relaxation
>> Sankalpa (Affirmation)
>> Rotation of Consciousness
>> Sense Perception
>> Breath Awareness
>> Working with the Chakras
>> Guided Journey
During the practice of Yoga Nidra, participants lie down but ideally remain awake and aware as an instructor guides them through the various stages. The exception being specific Yoga Nidra practices were designed to help participants fall asleep.
If you’re a yoga practitioner or have experience with meditation, some of these steps may be familiar to you even if you don’t know them by name. For example, the Rotation of Consciousness consists of noticing different parts of the body as the instructor names them. The instructor may say something like, “Feel your right thumb, index finger, middle fingers,” moving throughout the body as the student internally follows along.
The practice and planning of Yoga Nidra allow for creativity of the instructor and adaptability to different populations or conditions. A trained instructor should be able to meet the needs of the student(s) and achieve specific outcomes through more specific techniques, appropriate pacing, breathing practices, and visualizations. To put it simply, you wouldn’t want to incorporate energizing breath work or ask a student to visualize themselves running when they struggle with insomnia. You also wouldn’t incorporate sensitive or personal imagery that could provoke an emotional reaction in someone suffering from trauma, although it could be really helpful to others.
It wasn’t until I began training as a yoga therapist at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, that I was able to participate in a full Yoga Nidra practice. By “participate,” I mean I fell asleep about halfway through the 20-minute practice. Still, in the end, I felt deeply relaxed and like I had just had the best nap of my life. Many of my peers at Kripalu had been using the practice of Yoga Nidra for years in their work with veterans, chronic pain, and insomnia, and I couldn’t wait to share the practice with my students at the yoga studios and mental health facility where I taught.
Since then, I’ve watched a Yoga Nidra practice ease those struggling with insomnia or anxiety into a peaceful state of relaxation or sleep. I’ve moved slowly and tenderly through a practice, as it seems to melt away physical, mental, and emotional tensions in veterans, trauma survivors, and children.
The accessibility of the practice is extremely gratifying: students who are unable to sit upright or take part in a physical yoga practice can reap the benefits of a Yoga Nidra practice.
As we consciously relax in Yoga Nidra, we switch off our flight/flight/freeze sympathetic nervous system in order to turn on the more healing parasympathetic nervous system. This internal switch, from sympathetic to parasympathetic, plays a major role in why Yoga Nidra can be so beneficial for chronic and stress-related conditions.
For me, the can’t-stop-won’t-stop benefits of Yoga Nidra just keep getting better. The diversity and adaptability of the practice keep me engaged and focused while the basic rhythm of the practice is predictable and comforting. As a teacher, I can cater the practice to the small group or individual I’m working with to help them achieve a sense of balance and an experience of wholeness.
My personal adoration for Yoga Nidra and training at Kripalu prompted me to begin using the practice with my students back at home in Pittsburgh, Pa. The results among my students were overwhelmingly in favor. Yoga Nidra was a number one hit. More than that, many students over the years have shared with me that Yoga Nidra is the simplest, most effective way they’ve found to achieve the three for one benefit of physical, mental, and emotional peace.
A complete Yoga Nidra practice will guide you through conscious, subconscious, and unconscious levels of being in order to access Karana Sharira or Causal Body. Karana Sharira is a subtle state that is neither awake nor dreaming. Like an extended version of that moment when you’re laying in bed just barely beginning to wake and briefly suspended in a pleasant state of dreaming while awake.
Yoga Nidra techniques guide you to greater focus and clarity through the engagement of right-brain consciousness. The ability to feel the body and sensation (as opposed to thinking about it) is an important aspect of Yoga Nidra that you may find helpful in boosting creativity, empathy, gratitude, a sense of community, and helping you to experience a “flow” state.
If you’re interested in learning more about Yoga Nidra, it’s best to work with a trained therapeutic yoga teacher or yoga therapist if you have underlying medical conditions. You can also find helpful general practices on meditation apps and YouTube.
*Guided imagery should not be used with certain mental health conditions.