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Yoga Nidrā: The medicine of rest

The Yoga Nidra Network was set up by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli and Nirlipta Tuli, who together have over forty years experience of practice, teaching and working therapeutically with all forms and levels of yoga nidrā. It is an accessible hub for all things yoga nidrā, a go-to resource for courses, workshops and events, the latest research and numerous and diverse free nidrās as downloadable audiotracks. They have also created Team Nidra, a collective of teachers from all traditions and lineages, working together to share yoga nidrā with everyone everywhere.

Neither a practice, nor a technique: Yoga nidrā is an effortless state of being. It is not a just a practice, but a form of awareness; not simply a technique, but a process for entering into certain states of consciousness. Although literally the term yoga nidrā can be understood to mean ‘yogic sleep’ or ‘sleep that is yoga’ or ‘sleep caused by yoga’, or even ‘sleep of the yogis’, in fact it is not a sleep, but an awakening.

Yoga nidrā empowers us consciously to welcome the power of rest and sleep, in order to nurture every dimension of being alive. There is no need for movement, no need to do anything at all, but simply to rest, and to hear the facilitator’s voice. There is no need even to pay any attention to what is being said, simply to be able to hear that there is a voice (or perhaps, maybe in time, to allow a voiceless practice to arise without words from your own heart) and to welcome all that arises in the practice, that is more than enough.

Nidrā Shakti – and who is she?

Nidrā Shakti (from the Sanskrit, nidrā = sleep, and shakti = power) is the very power of sleep herself!  Her power is at work in the world, wherever there are tired life forms, for example, humans in need of sleep:

When we practice Yoga nidrā, it is this active power of Nidrā Shakti that nourishes us. When we cultivate awareness of this power, we are cultivating the heart of life herself, in her capacity to restore vitality, bring clarity, heal, nourish, inspire and awaken. 

Literally, ‘yoga sleep’, yoga nidrā is an astonishing, accessible and totally effortless yoga practice that anyone of us can do, by ourselves, in a class, in a one-to-one yoga/therapy session, or by using audio recordings. Yoga nidrā is usually done lying down and does not involve any physical movement. It promotes deep healing and very profound rest at every level of being: physical, energetic, mental, emotional and intuitive. It does this because it works systematically through each aspect of our human being: first, establishing deep physical rest that allows for recuperation and the restoration of our body to a state of homeostasis, or balance at a biochemical level.

Because yoga nidrā promotes our body’s natural tendency towards homeostasis, it enables those systems of the body which are often out of synch or disturbed to move towards optimum balance and cyclical functioning, e.g. often during yoga nidrā one hears a contented rumbling in the gut, as the peristalsis in the smooth muscle of the digestive tract resumes effective functioning; often erratic breathing settles quite naturally into a restful depth and rhythm, whilst the heart rate also comes to an optimum level; and often tension headaches or eye ache disappears as the muscles in the neck relax, and/or the strain in the eyes is relieved.

Once the opening stages of yoga nidrā enable our bodies to relax and function optimally, then we are able to restore vitality and emotional stability. The combination of deep physical rest, revitalization and the settling of emotions and thoughts can result in improved productivity, heightened intelligence, enhanced creativity and an openness to guidance, wisdom and insight. Thus yoga nidrā is effective in the relief of insomnia, anxiety, depression, panic attacks and other stress-related problems. Yoga nidrā is also helpful in the management of chronic and acute pain; it’s also useful in the treatment of infertility, to relieve menstrual cramps, and pre-menstrual tension, and as a tool for self-enquiry. There is evidence from colleagues around the world of the efficacy of yoga nidrā in relieving symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, in the management of addictions, in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, and as a powerful tool in palliative care. It has so many applications, because every one of us can do it.

Yoga nidrā and the senses

The most important part of the practice of yoga nidrā is the preparation and settling. Plenty of attention is given to restorative propping, which speaks reassuringly to the nervous system, allowing for zero desire for movement and for the magic of yoga nidrā to happen.

Yoga nidrā does involve a process whereby you keep physically still, and the senses are gradually withdrawn from external stimuli and brought within, but it goes beyond the simple practice of relaxation and sense withdrawal – pratyahara. Rather, its true potential extends much deeper, to the meditative heart of yoga, where practitioners can experience deeper layers of being, beyond the conflicting thoughts of the subconscious mind: higher consciousness, intuition and bliss.

In the settling stage of yoga nidrā, the focus is on relaxation, and on focussing on each of the senses in turn so that attention can then be withdrawn and directed elsewhere. During the rotation of consciousness the awareness is moved around the body, checking in with each part, and then consciously withdrawn. After the rotation the attention is brought to focus on just one sense, hearing, and then even only the voice of the facilitator delivering the practice: there is the thinnest thread connecting the practitioner to the outside world.

Photo: Leticia Valverdes

Safe Practice

In the liminal states of consciousness that characterise yoga nidrā it is possible to experience direct contact with the Infinite, as the boundaries between sleep and wakefulness, between conscious and subconscious, become blurred. We settle for a time on the thresholds of awareness.

Because of this, it is important to ensure we are fully grounded before we move back out into our everyday activities. It is as if, having ‘broken the jar’ of our conscious concepts, we then need to put the jar back together, at least enough to carry us safely until we want to take it apart again.

So it is important to ground oneself properly after completing a yoga nidrā practice – By ‘grounded’, meaning brought back into the everyday state, connected to the external world. This is especially important if you have a journey to make.

Tips for Grounding

Firstly, allow enough time for this grounding to happen – be sure that you (or your teacher) allow at least ten minutes between the end of an interiorising yoga nidra and heading out the door.

The process can be helped along by consciously re-integrating sensory information, to help us feel fully reconnected with everyday consciousness. Here are some of the ways, with each suggestion relating to a different sense and so – according to yogic philosophy – to a different element:

  1. Engage with the sense of smell – use aromatic oils or the smells of plants, flowers or fruits. These smells reconnect us to the earth element through the energies of muladhara chakra.
  2. Engage with the sense of taste – eat a small piece of chocolate or dried fruit. These tastes reconnect to the water element through the energies of swadisthana chakra.
  3. Engage with the sense of sight – opening and closing eyes, welcoming in light and colour. Cover the closed eyes with your warm palms, and then open your eyes, reconnecting with the light outside by opening up the fingers. This process reconnects to the fire element through the energies of manipura chakra.
  4. Engage with the sense of touch – self-massage, rubbing the soles of feet and palms of hands. This practice reconnects to the air element through the energies of anahata chakra.
  5. Engage with the sense of hearing – laugh, chant, sing, listen to poetry. This focus reconnects to space, in which all the elements are held, through the energies of vishuddhi chakra.

The first two strategies (engaging the sense of smell and taste) are the most powerful, but it can be a positive habit to encourage connecting with all five senses at the end of a nidrā.

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