What if one hour of yoga and meditation could equal the restorative effects of four hours of deep sleep? It's a thing, and it’s called yoga nidra.
More obscure than your typical hatha or vinyasa flow, yoga nidra is not a New Age phenomenon—it’s a technique that's been used for thousands of years to awaken the deep unconscious in order to alter behavioral patterns for the better.
Mystified? Here’s the lowdown.
Stress is an underlying cause of a number of health issues—degenerative diseases, high blood pressure, heartburn, indigestion, insomnia, and premature aging, to name a few. It can also be debilitating enough to create energy blocks in the body that paralyze people from living life to the fullest.
Yoga nidra helps to relieve this stress and rebalance the body into an integrated state that promotes self-healing. Through a combination of gentle yoga and deep meditation, the brain is aligned with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to restore the internal body to homeostasis. Ever heard the phrase being one with the world? This is it, right here.
The term "yoga nidra" translates to "yogic sleep"—a state of conscious deep sleep. Typically, meditation occurs while completely awake—the mind focuses while thought patterns, emotions, sensations and images are acknowledged and then let go. Yoga nidra, however, takes things to another level, guiding the practitioner away from the waking state, past the dreaming state and into a deeply relaxed, lucid state—still totally awake and aware. Sounds trippy, but it’s for real.
So what exactly happens during yoga nidra? First, it’s helpful to move through a gentle yoga flow to warm the body, stretch the muscles, and stimulate the internal organs. If nothing else, cat cow and hip openers like happy baby, thread the needle, half pigeon, and low lunge are good poses to focus on.
After about 20 or 30 minutes of flow, it’s time for savasana, or corpse pose. Basically, lay down, get really, really comfortable and with eyes closed, breathe deeply and release any tension from the body.
Set an intention and reflect on it. Often, yoga nidra instructors will tell you to create a mantra that embodies your heart’s deepest desire (not to sound like a romance novel or anything). It could be to gain greater confidence, to be able to think more positively, to stop thinking cupcakes are a breakfast food—anything. The practice is meant to root that intention into the subconscious, where it can be free from outside influences that can bombard the conscious mind, basically creating a “good habit.”
One-by-one, attention should be focused on individual parts of the body, from the big toe all the way up to the top of the head; and then, each of the seven chakras, located at the base of the spine, lower abdomen below the navel, upper abdomen, the heart center, the throat, the third eye between the eyebrows and the top (or “crown”) of the head. This meditation lasts about 30 minutes and is much more effective with someone guiding. Since yoga nidra isn’t always offered at yoga studios, try this guided video meditation.
This deep meditative state is almost an out-of-body experience, drifting into what feels like sleep, but with sustained awareness of your surroundings. In fact, towards the end of the guided meditation, the mind actually intuitively “wakes up” slowly. On emerging from the yogic sleep, tension and anxiety feel like a thing of the past.
Illustration by Karley Koenig