Savasana

The Science behind Yoga Nidra

Introduction

Stress is a major concern in today’s world. Stress triggers a lot of physiological and mental problems. One of the easiest ways to overcome it is with the help of yoga. More specifically here, Yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra is a safe practice for all, irrespective of age, gender, and health conditions (with alternative practices).

This blog is an overview of Yoga Nidra for a better understanding and application of the same.

What is Yoga Nidra?

Yoga Nidra is a systematic method of inducing complete physical, mental, and emotional relaxation. It is a technique derived from the tantras in which we relax consciously. The meaning of Yoga Nidra is – Yoga (one pointed awareness or union) and Nidra (sleep). According to Patanjali’s Raja Yoga, this is a state of Pratyahara. Pratyahara is a state of disassociation of the mind and the mental awareness from the sensory channels. It helps an individual reach higher states of consciousness or samadhi is also a belief.

Consequently, the practice becomes powerful with the separation of the consciousness from external awareness and sleep. It finds application in many ways–

  1. To develop memory
  2. Increase knowledge and creativity
  3. Transform one’s nature

How does this happen?
The answer is simple- When there is complete relaxation, the receptivity is higher.

Origin of Yoga Nidra

It is an ancient practice that originated in India, tracing back to the roots of Sankhya Philosophy. The Sankhya philosophy, first written down around 700 BC, but dating back to around 1000 BC through verbal teaching. The term is said to have been used in Mahabharata, and the Puranas. Furthermore leading to the expansion of the usage over the centuries through the non-dualist philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.

Objective of Yoga Nidra

We can practice Yoga Nidra with various objectives. It can be for

  • stress relief
  • controlling autoimmune conditions
  • simple relaxation
  • to analyze one’s deep-seated emotions
  • managing psychosomatic diseases
  • for cardiovascular health
  • healing of specific organs and more

Depending on the objective of the practitioner, we can alter the instructions. We can change the structure and instructions of the practice by introducing Sankalpas at the right time by using the right words. You can practice Yoga Nidra at the workplace or to induce sleep in insomniacs.

We can practice Yoga Nidra while lying down in Makarasana. In case of anxiety/depression or pregnancy or cold, we can practice it by rolling to the right side . For best outcomes, practice Yoga Nidra in Savasana. Practicing a lighter version while sitting upright is also not wrong.

Why practice Yoga Nidra?

Benefits of Yoga Nidra

  1. For children:
    • A study in the USA and Europe showed decreased hyperactivity levels, improved attention spans, decreased fidgeting.
    • It has also lead to fewer random movements, noise, action and reduced level of skeletal muscle tension.
  2. Elderly:
    • They confront a variety of difficulties, like lack of confidence, low self esteem, depression, loneliness and fear of future.
    • People practicing Yoga Nidra are more capable of recognizing and managing their problems.
    • They have an active and independent lifestyle and have a bright outlook towards the future.
    • They could also communicate difficulties and enable fruitful therapeutic relationships.
  3. Pregnancy, childbirth and menstrual disorders:
    • Highly stressed pregnant women who don’t know the art of relaxation, are more likely to have children with different problems.
    • Children can develop maladaptive behavior, hormonal imbalance and endocrine disturbances in their own teenage / adulthood.
    • It helps in Leboyer’s technique. A technique in which deep physical relaxation and spontaneous breath awareness form the basis for drug-free labor and delivery.
    • It helps in pain relief of dysmenorrhea.

Other Benefits include

  1. By reducing deep seated conflicts and tensions, it promotes a general feeling of well being. This can curb excessive consumption of cigarettes and alcohol. The use of sankalpa is also helpful to stop the habit.
  2. Attacks of asthma, growth of cancer, exacerbation of ulcer symptoms or colonic irritation frequently arise as a complex psychological reaction to emotional insecurity, hypersensitivity, frustration or deep seated emotional crisis. Yoga Nidra helps recognize and analyze underlying problems.
  3. It relieves the fundamental cause of cardiac strain and heart attack by reducing the load of environmental and intra psychic stress. This stress is relayed from hypothalamus into the electrical conducting fibers of the heart via the sympathetic nervous system. Therefore it reduces the heart rate, blood pressure and workload on these muscles.
  4. We can manage autoimmune conditions with Yoga Nidra. The triggering factors for these conditions could be stress and emotional fluctuations. Also, helps manage very common health issues like hypertension, etc.

Outline of the Practice

If you do not have a teacher, you can use a recording to practice Yoga Nidra or follow these steps-

Preparations for practice
  • Wear light, and loose clothing. The room should neither be hot nor cold.
  • Lay down in Savasana to minimize touch sensation by eliminating contact between the limbs.
  • The mind is directed to think of external sounds and to move from sound to sound as a witness.
  • After a while, the mind calms down (Antara mouna).
Resolve (Sankalpa)

Sankalpa must be very precise, positive and clear. For example – ‘I will be successful in everything I undertake’. Choose only one sankalpa and believe in it. Don’t wait for the results immediately.

Rotation of Consciousness

It doesn’t involve any physical movements. It is only the movement of awareness or consciousness. The three requirements here are – Awareness, Listening to the voice, and Moving the mind accordingly. This proceeds in a definite sequence according to the objective of the practice. For example – Begin with right thumb, move to the right foot; then from left thumb to the left foot. Subsequent circuits proceed from heels to the back of the head, and facial features to the legs.

Awareness of Breath

One may watch the breath in the nostrils, chest or in navel and throat. Attain greater relaxation by simultaneously counting the breath mentally.

Feelings and sensations – Recall feelings that are intense, experience them fully and then remove. Practice it with opposite feelings – heat/cold, love/hate etc. This harmonizes the opposite hemispheres of the brain and balances basic drives.

Visualizations

This induces mental relaxation and movers towards withdrawal of senses. Here, the practitioner visualizes the universal images that have huge significance and powerful associations. This brings about hidden contents of the unconscious mind to the conscious mind. Advanced stages here lead to a state of meditation.

Ending the Practice

Visualizations evoke the feelings of peace and calmness. This makes the unconscious mind very receptive to positive thoughts and suggestions. Therefore a sankalpa here is a direct order from the conscious to the unconscious. It is like a seed enabling radical change in one’s attitude, behavior and destiny.

A 15 minute guided Yoga Nidra practice by Indea Yoga.

Yoga Nidra And The Brain

A neurophysiologist affects the body by stimulating the brain. A practitioner of Yoga Nidra, begins at the other end of the nerve pathway by heightening the awareness of the body in order to stimulate the brain.

Rotation of consciousness

Each part of the body is precisely mapped out along the surface of the central gyrus, or fold of the sensory motor cortex of the brain. Researchers have named this neuronal map or hologram of the physical body existing within the cerebral white matter- the motor homunculus or ‘little man’.

In terms of the brain tissue, the hands, fingers, lips and nose are given importance. These occupy areas far in excess of the relative size and dimensions of those parts in the physical body. At the same time, these areas receive added emphasis during rotation of consciousness in Yoga Nidra. These areas are almost as large as the space allotted to the entire remainder of the body, from the wrists to the toes.

After establishing the sequence, try not to alter it, since it induces a flow of panic energy within the neuronal circuit. This flow is accompanied by a subjective experience of relaxation or ‘letting go’, as spontaneous dissociation of consciousness from the sensory and motor channels occur. Then, psychosomatic imbalance is restored spontaneously due to liberation of nervous energy. This is withdrawn from the channels and modalities as Pratyahara is attained. This energy is redirected for healing and rejuvenation of overtaxed tissues, glands and organs.

Sensations and feelings

After relaxation of the sensory-motor surface of the brain, the practice shifts to arousal of feelings and experiences.

Throughout the body tissues and structures there are numerous specially adapted sensory nerve terminals. They respond to specific types of stimuli including touch, pressure, pain, pleasure, etc. They are constantly gathering information from the entire body and relaying it to specific sites deep within the brain. Each of these centers has its reciprocal center for balancing our basic drives. For example – pain and pleasure centers, hunger and satiety centers etc. The pairing and alternation of these sensations in Yoga Nidra helps to maintain this homeostatic balance. It even evolves it by bringing normally involuntary unconscious functions under control.

Experiencing the Opposites

The various experiences which individuals have in their lives lie buried in the past. What remains with them is only a memory and not an actual experience. However, through this practice we can create the actual experience via this Somatopsychic route. Therefore awakening physiological responses of sweating, shivering, etc.

In Yoga Nidra the first experience to be awakened is the feeling of heaviness. After intensifying the feeling of heaviness, it is superseded by the sensation of lightness. Invoking the opposite sensation is not an arbitrary choice, but is in accordance with electrophysiological operating principles of the brain. Whenever a neuron fires, it transmits an impulse which is relayed and registered in the brain. However, if this repeats for a while, the message is no longer acknowledged by the brain. It becomes a constant electrical background feature of the CNS. This is called habituation. As a result, instead of physical sensations infiltrating & shaping our consciousness, our consciousness now determines & directs what the body feels.

Developing Emotional Control

For most people, negative feelings are harder to control than positive emotions such as love, joy and pleasure. Nevertheless, in advanced Yoga Nidra, practitioners submit voluntarily to these threatening emotions. Meanwhile preserving a state of deep relaxation and ‘witness awareness’ to the whole process.

This practice brings into simultaneous operation of nerve circuits in the opposite hemispheres of the brain. Under normal circumstances, this isn’t the case. Thus, leading to the establishment of a new neuronal circuit which incorporates two previously irreconcilable states of awareness simultaneously. For example, love and hate, pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. This occurs in such a way that, it maintains relaxation & witnesses awareness of the conflicting & contrasting emotions at the same time. With repeated practice, this new circuit becomes an established response. It enables the practitioner to gradually go beyond the realm of conventional human sufferings. These sufferings arise out of attachment and aversion for the duality of life experiences.

Conclusion

Yoga Nidra has a wide range of benefits to people of all ages. It can be practiced at the most convenient time and place of a practitioner, with or without an instructor. There is no wrong way of practicing it. Unlike other possible practices, there’s no side effect to the physiological or mental health whatsoever.

If you would like to try and experience Yoga Nidra, use the following video for a stress-free, relaxed, deep sleep.

If you would like to read more about the technique, you can read this blog on ‘How to Sleep better with Yoga Nidra‘.

A regular practice will therefore assure bettering of overall health.

Not to forget, it guides a spiritual mind in the right direction to understand oneself better.

This blog was originally written by Divya Suresh, Level 2 Indea Yoga Teacher and edited by Team Indea Yoga. This was a part of her dissertation work during her Level 2 Teacher Training Course.