Yoga Nidra: The Yoga of Enlightened Sleep
That which stays awake in deep, dreamless sleep is Yoga Nidra.
~ Ancient Text
Sleep deprivation is rampant in our culture today—so much so that the Centers for Disease Control declared this issue a public health epidemic. Gazing endlessly at computer screens and smart phones, as well as our marathon-like work schedules, are throwing off our circadian rhythms so that we have, as a culture, adjusted to less sleep. Today, more cases of obesity, type 2 diabetes and ADHD are linked to the fact that as a society we are getting an average of 6.8 hours of sleep per night instead of the much-needed 9 hours; and the quality of our sleep is questionable.
Let’s face it. Being exhausted and overwhelmed most of the time has become the new normal. Feeling refreshed and well rested is completely out of fashion, and is even looked down upon in some competitive work situations: If you aren’t tired and stressed, you must not be working hard enough seems to be an unspoken mantra of our day—and how sad that this is so. With all of our multi-tasking and lightening fast communication capabilities, we have to wonder, are we getting more intelligent and spiritually evolved, or are we just getting more exhausted?
The Yogis of ancient times were wise cognitive scientists. They knew a thing or two about the ways our minds work. They especially knew that the place we go to during that state of deep sleep is very valuable. In many of the ancient texts there is reference made to three states of consciousness we all live in. The Mandukya Upanishad, for example, offers us a detailed commentary about these three states, which are: waking (vaisvanara), dreaming (taijasa) and deep sleep (prajna). In the wisdom of these ancient Rishis, who must have been doing sleep studies themselves, they felt the state of deep, dreamless sleep was a lead in to exquisite rejuvenation of the mind and body, as well as a stepping stone to enlightenment and total union with the Infinite.
Many of the texts that describe these teachings focus on what lies beyond the so-called “ordinary states” (waking, dreaming and deep sleep)—that state is called Turiya. This refers to a state of pure consciousness; the mind is aware, but moving in very slow, steady waves. In this state we have what is called direct knowledge, meaning, we are in a state of union, or pure yoga. The practices of Yoga Nidra are aimed at facilitating the state of deep sleep and remaining aware of it. Deep Sleep, according to the ancients, is one of the portals for this most auspicious state of consciousness. It is through this practice we can begin to come “home” to our truest selves and eventually enter into that state of Turiya.
The thought of remaining awake while in a state of deep sleep sounds ominous and paradoxical. The Healthy Sleep Harvard Medical blog entitled, “What is Sleep?’” describes it beautifully, “Every night, nearly every person undergoes a remarkable change: we leave waking consciousness and for hours traverse a landscape of dreams and deep sleep. When we wake, we typically remember little or nothing about the hours that have just passed. Except in rare instances, we never contemplate and appreciate that we are sleeping while we are asleep….” Imagine, what would it be like to actually be present when we “traverse the landscape of dreams and deep sleep”? Who is it that goes there? What part of our innermost self would we learn about if we could actually train ourselves to be conscious while in that state of deep sleep? Yoga Nidra is the yogic answer to these questions.
If this is all just a little too “out there” for you to comprehend, then think of this practice as one of the most user friendly, beneficial ways to nourish yourself on every level: physically, psychologically, emotionally and mentally. The protocol for a Yoga Nidra session is simple. Yoga Nidra requires no movement of any sort or intense effort; you are to do nothing more than to lie on your back comfortably with your palms facing up, and relax. You are encouraged to explore effortlessness while you are guided through a series of vocal cues that systematically help the mind to move from the waking state to a state of deep sleep. A Yoga Nidra session can last anywhere from 20 minutes to one hour. You can’t do it wrong; in fact, the less you try to do anything, the better. There is no body, young or old, that cannot do the simple, wonderful practice of Yoga Nidra.
Stages of Sleep and Brain Waves
The science of sleep reveals that we have two basic types of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement). As we are falling asleep, we move through about four stages of NREM sleep while our brain waves move progressively towards slower and slower cycles. In the fifth stage we experience REM sleep, which means the brain waves speed up and the eyes dart from side-to-side rapidly. This is probably when most of our dreaming takes place, and this stage is similar to the waking state as well.
The first stage of NREM sleep is a transitional phase that moves us from the waking world to the sleeping one. Respiration and heartbeat slow down, and the brain produces alpha waves. Alpha waves are produced for most of us when we close our eyes and relax; this is also experienced in meditation and yoga practice, especially while in the savasana (corpse pose) at the end of the practice. Alpha waves have a low frequency (8-13Hz); this is a pattern that is characteristic of one who is deeply relaxed but still awake.
As we continue to rest, the brain waves shift to theta waves, which are an even lower frequency (4-7 Hz). All this is known as “light sleep”, and a person can be easily woken while in this stage. If we only experience this stage, it will not feel as if we have slept, even though we have rested.
When we move towards stage two, the body goes deeper into relaxation. Theta waves still dominate the brain’s activity, but there is another interesting occurrence call “sleep spindles”. A sleep spindle is a rapid fire of brain frequencies that may be our link to memory and learning
In stages three and four, we start to enter what is called “deep sleep”. Brain waves slow even more. Heart rate and respiration slow down again, considerably. It is harder to wake someone up in this stage. It is important that in this phase we slow down enough to truly rest, but that is not always the case. Many of us have undiagnosed sleep disorders that cause us to experience more alpha waves in this phase, which are associated with the waking state. Sleep disruptions have many causes, such as difficulty breathing, having too much caffeine, or sleeping in a room that is not completely void of electronic devices.
Deep sleep is the stage where we do the most significant repair to our bodies and minds, more so than in all other stages. It is this stage that interested the ancient sages, because during this stage we are completely gone. We aren’t aware of who we are, we aren’t even aware we are sleeping. During a regular night’s sleep, the average time it takes to get to deep sleep can be over an hour, if we get there at all.
Yoga Nidra practices were formulated in ancient times to facilitate the state of deep sleep more quickly. A practice is designed to help you get into the slow steady brainwave cycles that constitute deep sleep in about 10 or 20 minutes; the result of this practice can actually constitute about an hour of deep sleep, if done properly. The trick though, is to practice staying awake during the deeply open and spacious mind activity that occurs while in this state. Why should we miss out on one of the most salient functions of our mind because we are too busy sleeping?
Protocol and Recommendations
Many will use a Yoga Nidra recording to help themselves fall asleep at night, which is fine for a while, especially if you have trouble sleeping. Yogarupa Rod Stryker, creator of Para Yoga, recommends it not be done in bed before sleep, but rather you practice away from the bed. We have too many associations with sleeping in our beds, which is why choosing a different location will help you to remain present. An ideal environment includes a soft (but not too soft) surface to lie on, a pillow for the head if needed, something to block out the light in the room such as a very soft eye bag or a cloth, something to keep you warm, and 20-30 minutes of time, once or twice a week. It is, after all, an actual yoga practice aimed at helping you to find your own unknown inner resources. If done properly, the practice will have a significant impact on all other areas of your life’s functions: you will feel less stressed, your body will heal more efficiently, and the sleep you do get at night will be of better quality.
There are many modern adaptations of Yoga Nidra in the yoga landscape today. Most of what is available is good and will give the participant a way to rest the body and the soul deeply. I am quite fond of the following two recommendations.
First, a very popular and exciting interpretation of Yoga Nidra to research is called “iRest”, which stands for Integrative Restoration Institute (www.irest.org). Its founder Richard Miller developed “iRest meditation”, and offers it along with several products and trainings that anyone can do, who is so inclined. He has conducted landmark research studies on iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation, and has been enormously successful in helping those who suffer from PTSD, chronic pain and even chemical dependency in his work with the concepts of Yoga Nidra. Suffice to say that Miller is using the ancient methods to help thousands who suffer, and his very accessible practices speak to individuals who are deeply in need of healing. His work has been used in conjunction with other healing modalities to help people get themselves back on track and break long held patterns of stress and trauma.
Second, and along more traditional lines, is Yogarupa Rod Stryker’s Para Yoga Nidra, “Relax Into Greatness”, which utilizes direct practices from the Tantric tradition, such as the 61 points and the 75 breaths (Shithali Karana), to help participants towards that state beyond waking, dreaming and deep sleep.
Para Yoga Nidra has five specific goals, and there are five specific practices to reach them. The aims of Para Yoga Nidra are: Healing (mind and body), Cognition, Transformation, Sankalpa (resolve), and Spiritual Awakening. Yogarupa Rod Stryker has delivered these time-tested, traditional teachings with a sophisticated grace, and has designed specific practices for each goal. While he remains dedicated to the original intentions of this practice as set forth in the ancient texts, he has also been trained himself by teachers who have experienced the essence of Yoga Nidra itself. In his own words, all the practices are accessible, and each practice will end with you “resting on a cloud of sublime healing, expansion, effortlessness and peace….” There is much to learn from his master trainings and his certification trainings in Yoga Nidra, as well as his newly launched 10-hour course that can be purchased through Yoga International. Stryker also has numerous offerings on other websites, but has just launched his own app, Sanctuary, which includes an abundant array of practices in meditation and Yoga Nidra. You can also access several of his Sanctuary Yoga Nidra practices on YouTube.
As a whole we are quite lucky to have teachers today who are accessing this ancient, life transforming practice and making it available. It couldn’t be simpler to do. I hope that you will go forward and give it a try!
Yoga International: www.yogainternational.com
Lumen Introduction to Psychology, State of Consciousness, Stages of Sleep: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wsu-sandbox/chapter/stages-of-sleep/
Harvard Medical School blog, Healthy Sleep: http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/
Rod Stryker Para Yoga Nidra on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mfujZB_BhQ
Claudia Neuman, E-RYT 500, YACEP, MSW, was born in Los Angeles and began her formal Yoga training in 1984 at Yoga Works in Santa Monica. Her teachers have included Rod Stryker, Eric Shiffman, Anna Forrest and John Friend. She also studied with Pattabhi Jois, creator of the Ashtanga system. In 2005 she took her certification in Anusara Yoga. She is currently working towards her level one certification in Para Yoga with Yogarupa Rod Stryker. She is the director of the Yoga Teacher Training at Blue Heron Wellness and teaches regular classes in both Silver Spring and Baltimore, MD, weekly. See also her ad on page. Stay tuned for her new workshop series: ‘Enlightened Rest: Yoga Modalities for Total Reset’ coming in 2019.