Yoga nidra is a specific yogic practice. Yoga means union or inner communion and nidra means sleep. It is often termed as yogic sleep and is a simple, yet powerful technique where there is systematic physical, mental and emotional relaxation. It is often known as psychic sleep or deep relaxation with inner awareness because one seems to be asleep yet one is still aware.
It can be used as a meditative technique, improves the quality of sleep and helps in sleep problems, can remove deep psychological complexes, improves psychosomatic problems, balances and recharges the body, mind and energy levels, awakens intuition, can improve learning, intelligence, education and so on.
Yoga nidra was formulated by Swami Satyanandaji and is loosely based on the Tantric practice of Nyasa. He devised this practice after an experience at a Sanskrit school where he used to be the night guard. He used to fall asleep in the early hours of the morning at the time when the boys got up and chanted their mantras and prayers. One day the boys came to the ashram and chanted these and he realised he knew them, even though he had never studied them. This was the turning point where Swami Satyanandaji realised that when one is asleep we are not completely unconscious, that we can still have some awareness and that this state can be utilised with proper training.
There are eight stages of yoga nidra and four being essential. The first stage, which is essential, is the “Settling” stage or internalisation. It is a time to prepare the body, make it comfortable, release tensions, increase awareness of the body and of the environment, sounds and so on until one can focus on the breath. This stage is about moving from the gross, external awareness to the more subtle, internal awareness.
The second stage is the “Sankalpa” stage. It is not an essential stage but is very beneficial to introduce as it helps to train the mind, give direction and reshape the personality. A sankalpa is a short statement that may be very general or very specific.
The third stage is “Body Rotation.” This is where the awareness is focused and rotated through all the parts of the body. It is an essential stage and it is important to be aware, listen to the instructions and follow them with the mind at the same speed. This systematically relaxes the whole body.
The fourth stage, also essential, is the “Breath Awareness” stage. Here there is simple awareness of the breath and there may be counting, but no changing of the breath. It gives even deeper relaxation and awakens higher energies that can be directed to all parts of the body.
The fifth stage is the “Opposites” or “Feelings and Sensations” stage. It is not essential but can develop willpower and allow emotional relaxation by awakening and experiencing particular feelings and emotions. It is often practiced with pairs of opposite feelings and harmonises the two hemispheres of the brain.
The sixth stage is the “Visualisation” stage, again not an essential stage, but one that induces mental relaxation. It develops self-awareness and relaxes the mind through the removal of disturbing material and can lead the mind to concentration and meditation. This is done by visualisation of a variety of different images.
The seventh stage is again the “Sankalpa” stage and not essential but will reinforce the sankalpa if it was made at the beginning and will help to give more direction in life as well as mental strength.
The eighth stage is essential and is the “Externalisation” stage where ones moves away from the subtle internal awareness to the gross external awareness. It is an important stage because if one moves very fast out of yoga nidra they can feel disorientated and uncomfortable. It is done by breath awareness, then body awareness, body and room location, the external environment and finally closing and moving the body.
The practice of yoga nidra allows us to experience the state of pratyahara which is withdrawal of the mind from the senses. It means we start to look inward and away from the external distractions. Yoga nidra does this through the eight stages. It begins with the gross awareness of the body and environment. Gross awareness is tangible and easy to experience and perceive. By becoming aware of the body and environment and focusing on it the mind becomes less interested and distracted and starts to look inward. The mind continues to withdraw and awareness becomes more subtle, progressing to the more subtle breath and prana and then on to the even more subtle feelings, sensations and different aspects of the mind which are more elusive and difficult to experience and perceive. At the end of the practice awareness is again taken away from the mind, to breath, body and finally environment.
Satyananda, Swami. Yoga Nidra. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar, India. 1998.
Satyananda, Swami. A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga & Kriya. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar, India. 1981.
Niranjanananda, Swami. On the Wings of the Swan Part II. Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India. 1993.