Here's What You Need to Know
By Lindsay Kellner Contributing Wellness & Beauty Editor
Look on the schedule at your local yoga studio. In between the inversions workshops and regularly-scheduled yoga classes, you may find a yoga Nidra class or workshop. If not in the next month, it will be there soon. That's because the ancient practice of yoga nidra has tons of benefits for our bodies and minds—and people are finally catching on.
This deep state of conscious rest, an ancient style of meditation that's starting to go mainstream, is no longer reserved for ashram life or advanced yoga teacher trainings. It's become a semi-regular offering in yoga studios in New York City and Los Angeles, as yogis of all levels who get a taste keep coming back for more. New release books like Yoga Nidra: The Art of Transformational Sleep, out in March, and Daring to Rest: Reclaim Your Power with Yoga Nidra Rest Meditation (due out this November) praise the modern benefits of yoga nidra and share practical applications of the age-old practice. Plus, with the rise of podcasts and audio content, accessing yoga nidra through YouTube videos and various other sources of audio has never been easier.
So what's all the buzz about? If you're new to yoga nidra, here's everything you need to know about this magical practice.
What is yoga nidra and why haven't I heard about it before?
Yoga Nidra is often referred to as "yogic sleep," a paradoxical state of being between sleep and consciousness that's conducive to deep emotional and physical healing, rewiring your brain, and self-exploration. Richard Miller, Ph.D. and author of the authoritative, often-referenced text Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing, has postulated that there's no separation between our dream state and reality because they inform each other, and yoga Nidra is a practice that helps bring you into alignment with your truth.
Canada-based yoga teacher Tanis Fishman studied yoga Nidra at the ashram of Swami Satyananda, who played a powerful role in developing the yoga Nidra technique. Fishman agrees that yoga Nidra is gaining popularity because it's an antidote to our modern lifestyles. As a culture, we're always connected, often stressed, and our nervous systems are constantly in a fight-or-flight, sympathetic state. Yoga Nidra is an effective and efficient way to access the "rest and digest" parasympathetic state, which is where healing happens.
But it's not all about undoing the side effects of modern life—there's a lot more to it than that. "As a collective consciousness, we're waking up," she said. As wellness becomes more of a lifestyle than a trend, practitioners want to experience the subtler practices of yoga and yoga Nidra offers exactly that.
Chloe Kernaghan, co-owner of trendsetting and community-based yoga studio Sky Ting agrees. "Yoga nidra has been a hidden jewel of the yoga practice for a long time but definitely is starting to reach a wider audience now. I think as 'wellness' as a trend continues to boom, the more esoteric and deep-rooted practices are starting to gain recognition."
What are the benefits of yoga Nidra?
The practice of yoga Nidra starts with a personal intention. So while it truly depends on the intention, yoga nidra will help you rest, restore, de-stress, increase awareness, undo bad habits, and eventually understand your true calling and higher purpose. And we all need more of that, right?
In the beginning, whether you fall asleep during practice (which is quite common) or not, you'll start feeling more rested and restored. One hour of yoga nidra is as restful as a few hours of sleep, according to Swami Satyananda—so it's a great tool to rely on when you're feeling under-rested. And as you progress, you can use yoga nidra as a spiritual practice to help clarify and execute your purpose as you spend more time inside your mind, fusing your consciousness with your powerful subconscious.
In one fascinating study that scanned the brains of men and women doing yoga Nidra, researchers found that practitioners' brains showed that they were at once in a deep resting state similar to sleep, but they weren't asleep at all. Actually, they were completely conscious. "The measurements show, for the first time, that one can be completely aware in such a deep state—that one can consciously experience and control the brain’s activity simultaneously. This confirms that meditation is the fourth major state, equal to dreaming, sleeping, and wakefulness."
In addition to the benefits of the actual practice, yoga Nidra is accessible to everyone, can be done almost anywhere at very low cost, and is a simple way to start a meditation practice.
What do yoga Nidra "poses" look like?
You know all about "regular" yoga poses: Downward facing dogs, upward facing dogs, sun salutations, baby cobras, the list goes on. But is there such thing as a a yoga Nidra pose? Not in the traditional sense. The best way to describe yoga nidra is that it's a lot like a very long Savasana, or corpse pose. The difference is that while in traditional yoga classes this pose typically lasts for a few minutes, in a yoga Nidra class you'll be holding it for the full hour of practice.
If lying flat on the floor with your palms facing up for a full hour is uncomfortable for you, worry not: Many yoga nidra classes supply props like blankets or bolsters. Bolsters are great for propping under your knees if you're prone to lower back pain, and when our bodies go into a state of deep relaxation our overall temperature tends to drop—so having a blanket handy to cover yourself up with is crucial to keeping that state of deep relaxation going.
While in a traditional yoga class teachers are typically cueing poses, in a yoga nidra class your instructor will direct your awareness to your body, breath, and conjure up imagery that helps you more easily transition into that hypnotic, ultra-relaxed state that leaves you feeling so rested afterward.
Yoga Nidra is a sleep meditation—but that doesn't mean it's the same thing as sleep.
You know that moment right before you're about to fall asleep? You're aware of your body, heavy and relaxed in your bed, and all your worries have shifted to the furthest corner of your brain. Instead, you're having slightly odd, dream-like thoughts, while still being mostly aware of your surroundings. Maybe you vaguely hear a noise outside your bedroom window, but it doesn't bother you. It's just a noise, and you're only moments away from drifting off to dreamland. That's exactly the mental space you should aim for with yoga Nidra.
When you're in a deep, restorative sleep, you have absolutely no awareness of what's going on around you—you're completely unconscious. Yoga Nidra isn't quiet like that. In yoga Nidra, we do hold on to our consciousness, and we may even be aware of sound or activity around us. The difference is, we don't react to it. We're just immersed in the most relaxed possible state of conscious energy.
The energy of yoga Nidra can best be described as hypnotic, and it's something to aim for. Once you fall asleep, you're no longer in yoga Nidra—but the longer you can stay in the space, the more easily you can reap the restorative benefits. While you can't always avoid falling asleep (many beginners do—it's part of the process!) it may help to not practice yoga nidra late at night. Instead, aim for a time of day when you're more alert and able to focus your energy toward achieving this hypnotic state of mind.