Whether you’re a devoted yogi or not, when the class description reads “a state of conscious deep sleep” it’s natural to wonder just what’s in store. Far more than just lying on your back and trying to meditate for an hour, yoga nidra, also known as yogic sleep, is thought to help strengthen your immune system and help with digestion and hormone regulation – plus the US army have implemented it as a technique to help deal with the effects of PTSD. What’s more, some practitioners claim that 45 minutes of it will make you feel like you’ve slept for three hours.
But, if the goal is to get your body into a deep, conscious sleep, is it still like going to a traditional yoga class, and what are the benefits of this dreamy sounding form of yoga? To find out more, we sat down and relaxed with yoga nidra instructor Leela Miller, who served as Director of Yoga at Triyoga in London, where she still teaches nidra classes.
What is yoga nidra, or yogic sleep?
Defined in Yogapedia as a “deep relaxation technique and form of meditation, yoga nidra is the state between sleeping and waking. The body is completely relaxed and the practitioner turns the awareness inward by listening to a set of instructions; much like a guided meditation.” Performing yoga nidra also involves practising the fifth limb of Ashtanga yoga, named pratyahara, which is the “withdrawal of the senses” during practice.
In yoga nidra, the goal of the practice is to get your mind into this state of conscious sleep, while remaining comfortably motionless.
What are the benefits of yoga nidra?
As relaxing as it might sound, why would you want to be between sleeping and waking? To understand more about the practice, it helps to take a look at the benefits of yoga nidra.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System: Miller explains that the main benefit of yoga nidra is that it “strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).” The PNS is one of the three divisions of the nervous system, and the part that controls functions like digestion, the cardiovascular system, normal respiration and elimination. When the PNS is suppressed, the immune system weakens and the body produces more cortisol – the body’s main stress hormone.
Although we need cortisol in our bodies, too much puts us into the “fight or flight” mode, during which the body will feel like it’s under threat and put survival first, diverting resources from maintenance.
“As a result of strengthening the PNS, sleep can improve, as can digestion, anxiety levels, chronic conditions and pain,” Miller adds. “It is not a cure-all but it can facilitate the body and mind to restore itself to health.”
Post traumatic stress: A 2001 study showed that yoga nidra can be beneficial when it comes to reducing post traumatic stress in returning war veterans, leading to yoga nidra being implemented as a form of therapy by the US Army. When asked about the therapeutic benefits of sleep yoga, Miller explains that during a yoga nidra session, the instructor can guide the practitioner to a place where they can access repressed parts of the brain; “memories that have been buried can be uncovered and resolved, or past events reconciled. During the session, it is important that the practitioner feels safe. When one feels safe, it’s possible to look at issues and possibly let them go, or integrate them.”
Stress and anxiety: A 2008 study that looked at the relationship between yoga nidra and stress and anxiety found that regular practice dramatically reduced levels in both male and female participants. The study took place at the yoga clinic of Dev Sanskriti Vishwavidyalaya, and involved 80 yoga students (40 male and 40 female) who formed the experimental group, and another group of 30 students as the control group.
During the session, it is important that the practitioner feels safe. When one feels safe, it’s possible to look at issues and possibly let them go, or integrate them
Before the experiment, all participants underwent psychological tests to determine their stress and anxiety levels. Both groups practised yoga regularly during the study, with the experimental group doing an additional 30 minutes of yoga nidra daily.
At the end of the experiment, psychological tests showed participants in the experimental group had dramatically reduced levels of anxiety compared to the control, plus reduced stress levels. The studies authors concluded; “stress is a cognitive or emotional response made by the individual towards any situation, which demands adjustment. When the demands of the situation exceed the ability of the individual distress results, which may manifest in mental and physical symptoms of abnormality.
“Stress-related disorders evolve gradually through four stages. In the first stage, psychological symptoms like anxiety and irritability arise due to over activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
“Yoga nidra can be considered as a highly effective practice for reducing stress on the basis of the study, as yoga nidra releases the stress of the students of higher classes. Practice of yoga nidra also reduces the anxiety of male and female subjects both. It may have positive results for the other age groups and occupations also.”
How is yoga nidra different to meditation?
With the rise of meditation apps such as Headspace and Calm, it’s important to look at how yoga nidra differs to the meditation you might already be practising at home. Miller explains, “in my opinion, the main difference is that yoga nidra is more passive than active, and meditation is more active than passive.”
When Miller teaches yoga nidra she incorporates intention at the beginning and end of the session; “this repetition is important, as it helps students almost work to autosuggestion”. During the class, the body stays motionless and connected to the sound of the teacher’s voice, regardless of whether practitioners are asleep or awake. “In an ideal world the yoga nidra practitioner is hovering between waking and sleeping (that is called a hypnagogic state). That is the most effort required. I am completely okay with people falling asleep in my sessions, although the idea is to hover between states,” Miller says.
Although both yoga nidra and meditation classes require stillness, they vary in their physical approach. When you meditate you are normally somewhat active, seated upright and straight and although you might be guided in the mediation, you are kind of on your own.
“Yoga nidra uses some of the techniques of meditation – breath awareness, body scan – but it stops there. Meditation takes those techniques to move the mind itself closer to stillness,” Miller adds. “One of the definitions of yoga is that it is the stilling of the thought waves of the mind. This stilling of thought waves is the goal of meditation. So some people say that meditation is yoga. Yoga nidra comes before this.
“Before you can still the mind, you have to relax the body so it is not preoccupied with physical sensations. And you have to access the the deeper layers of the mind so it is not preoccupied with psychological extremes – pleasure can be as distracting as pain” Miller says.
How do you stop your mind getting distracted?
If you’ve ever struggled to meditate, or focus on your breath during your yoga practice, you’re not alone. Despite starting with all the right intentions, as thoughts come and go, sometimes it can be tricky to ignore them. Miller, who is also a biodynamic craniosacral therapist explains that it’s not a bad thing, and doesn’t mean you’ll hate yoga nidra; “from my understanding of how the brain works, I think yoga nidra is designed to scramble the front brain – the part of your brain that thinks about what to have for dinner.”
Like meditation, most yoga nidra classes will incorporate a body scan. Miller teaches her students to scan just fast enough for the conscious mind not to be able to follow it precisely, “as a result that part of the brain lets go, so the unconscious and subconscious mind begin to reveal themselves, and the front brain moves to the back.”
This sounds very technical, but according to Miller, only a minority of people struggle to do this. For those who struggle, it could be about making small adjustments. “If I do yoga nidra first thing in the morning, my brain doesn’t let go, so I do it later in the day. For me, it’s effective from about 11am onwards. Sometimes I practise just before sleeping and it helps me fall asleep,” Miller says. In other words, don’t panic if you struggle during your first yoga nidra class, you might just need to try a class later in the day, when your morning coffee has worn off.
What’s a yogic sleep class like – do you actually fall asleep?
Forget the theory, we ask Miller what yogis can expect when attending their first yoga nidra class. Miller explains that her classes are normally an hour long; “the first 25 minutes is easy movement, often on the back to just open the joints, begin to settle the system and transition from busyness to stillness.” Alternatively, she’ll talk yogis through a few restorative poses which don’t require any movement whatsoever (don’t expect to get sweaty in a nidra class).
After this, you’ll set yourself up for yoga nidra, using a range of bolsters, blankets and props – “lie down with whatever you need to be comfortably motionless for 30 minutes,” Miller says. The teacher will then proceed to talk you through yoga nidra.
Unlike other forms of yoga, this isn’t one you can really practise completely on your own in your living room, but if your local studio doesn’t offer classes, Miller adds that there are a number of CDs and apps available.