So just what is yoga nidra?
Perhaps you’ve heard of yoga nidra but are not quite sure exactly what it is or what it could do for you? Or perhaps you’ve been wondering how it differs from savasana, the relaxation at the end of most yoga classes?
Here’s a brief explanation and introduction to the history and practice of the fabulous nurturing experience of yoga nidra.
Nidra means, in translation, sleep. But yoga nidra is not sleep as we normally know it, but rather a deep state of consciousness when we are neither asleep nor awake but experience total physical, mental and emotional relaxation. Even a short nidra can completely nourish and refresh the mind and body. It can be like experiencing a lovely warm and welcoming hug throughout the whole mind/body. But it can also be more profound and help us to resolve problems and access our creativity and intuition. People are drawn to nidra when seeking calm and respite from the effects of our modern life. But nidra complements and brings balance to a physical yoga practice too. It’s good to practice nidra regularly alongside asana classes, and particularly on those days when you might not feel up to a physical practice.
A little history and science.
Yoga nidra is both very old and remarkably up to date. Ancient sanskrit texts from India contain references to the roots of yoga nidra as early as 300 BCE with further references identified by scholars in both the sutras of Patanjali and the Upanishads. Based on his study of ancient traditions, Swami Satyananda pioneered our more modern practice of yoga nidra in the 1960s and 70s. At a similar time, the Himalayan Institute was established and began to develop further understanding of the practice and benefits of yoga nidra.
The work of US psychologist Richard Miller has merged western science with these eastern traditions in his ‘iRest’ approach. Defining yoga nidra as the ‘meditative heart of yoga’, his clinical practice and research advocates yoga nidra not only for total relaxation and well being but also for many clinical applications. His most recent book (2015) is a guide to the use of yoga nidra in PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
Modern research in neuroscience suggests that some of the processes used in nidra (e.g. yogic breathing techniques and the rotation of awareness around the body) are ideally designed to calm the mind and to create a sense of pleasantness and well being. In nidra the beta brainwaves, which usually predominate our normal waking activities, subside and are replaced by alpha, theta and delta waves associated with sleep, meditation and creativity. In nidra, unlike in deep sleep, we are aware of, and can control, these changes in brain activity.
So what should you expect?
A good yoga nidra will be designed by a trained practitioner to meet the needs of the class or individual. For a general class, the nidra might simply aim to induce deep relaxation and a sense of well being. But more specific nidras are used in different therapeutic situations in both group and one to one settings.
It will involve a settling process, snuggling down into the mat as comfortably as possible, often with the aid of cosy blankets and bolsters. It might invite the use of breathing techniques or a focus on the breath. There will usually be a ‘rotation of consciousness’, focusing the awareness on different parts of the body. It might also include consideration of opposites and other meditative approaches. Some nidras might include focusing on a ‘sankalpa’ or heartfelt intention.
It will be a supportive and kind environment for you to experience a deep sense of calm in your own personal space. There is no pressure to do anything but just ‘be’ and rest.
And there might be chocolate! At the end of the nidra, stimulating the senses of taste, smell and touch helps to bring us back to the here and now after our yogic ‘sleep’.
This queen of relaxation approaches is the ultimate way to chill, rewind and renew.
Where can you try it?
If you’d like to experience it for yourself, a stand alone Yoga Nidra class can be found at Meadowlark on alternate Friday evenings or a short nidra is included alongside gentle movement and breathing (pranayama) in the Yoga Gently class each Wednesday afternoon.