by Leah Zerbe, MS, NASM-CPT/CES
If you crave those last few minutes of your benefit-rich yoga class when you settle into savasana for stillness and relaxation, meet your new best friend: the little-known practice of yoga nidra. An ancient practice to tame the nervous system, you’ll find your mind in a more collected, peaceful state as a result of the exercise.
So what does a yoga nidra session look like? At first glance, the practice may seem like nothing more than lying on the floor wrapped up in super comfy clothing and blankets. (And socks. You’ve got to wear fuzzy socks.)
But there’s a power in stillness. And modern-day science is catching up to what yogis have known for ages: yoga nidra, also known as yogic sleep, improves your health, and in all sorts of surprising ways.
Hint: Many who practice yoga nidra report feeling fully rested in as little as 30 to 120 minutes of practice. That’s a lot shorter than the eight hours of sleep usually required for that type of restoration. And then there’s the 65 dopamine boost. More on that later…plus, there’s a free guided yoga nidra relaxation below, too.
What Is Yoga Nidra?
Yoga nidra is a powerful relaxation practice that can act as a natural stress reliever. Some people use yoga nidra for sleep improvement, although when practiced correctly, you don’t actually fall asleep. The ancient yoga practice helps you draw your consciousness inward so you can move into a more self-aware form of “sleep.”
“It’s the same process as meditation,” explains tantra yogi Michele D’Agostino, instructor of kinesiology at Penn State University. “You are completely relaxed on the physical level but the mind remains alert.”
While the yoga nidra definition simply translates to”yogic sleep,” there are some complex things going on on the neurological level as an instructor guides your breath and focus throughout different parts of the body.
Yoga nidra helps shift your brain into the zone between sleeping and waking states; it’s like your body sleeps while your mind remains conscious and clear. Brainwave studies show higher alpha and theta brainwave power in yogis who practice yoga nidra. This refers to brain waves shifting to beta ways, which reflect high levels of thought, to being completely relaxed, alert and hanging on the edge just before entering sleep. (1)
In fact, for the last 13 years, D’Agostino has built yoga nidra practice into the class syllabus during finals weeks due to its powerful restorative effects. “I noticed that a lot of the students were stressed out, not sleeping well and up until 2 or 3 in the morning getting work done,” she said. “They would come in completely exhausted and mentally drained and disconnected.”
So she used the opportunity to introduce yoga nidra as a way to lower stress levels and help them turn off their overactive minds for a bit. Many students report incredible effects, saying a yoga nidra session makes them feel as though they slept for a full eight hours after the 90-minute practice.
It also reminds us that while running and lifting weights are among the benefits of exercise, Americans often forget that going hard 24-7 isn’t always what our bodies — and our minds — need.
“It’s all about balance. There’s a place for being vigorous and doing all of the hard-core work,” D’Agostino said. “It’s good for us to build muscle and do the cardio work. But what happens if we don’t create balance? We’re really kind of burning out our nervous system. The idea of adrenal fatigue.”
Can you meditate to sleep?
While meditation and relaxation like yoga nidra can help you ultimately achieve better sleep, you shouldn’t actually fall asleep practicing meditation or yoga nidra. You want to train your brain to stay awake and alert during these practices.
What is sleep yoga?
Because yoga nidra translates to yogic sleep, some people think it’s a yoga practice you do as you fall asleep at night. In reality, D’Agostino says it’s better to practice yoga nidra earlier in the day because you don’t want to train your brain to associate the practice with slipping into an all-out slumber. (2) That said, practicing yoga nidra guided meditation can actually help improve your overall sleep patterns.
What is yoga nidra iRest?
There are several modern adaptations to yoga nidra practice. One popular one is yoga nidra by Richard Miller, founder of iRest Yoga Nidra. This type of yoga nidra is modernized and used to help quite parts of the brain responsible for negative thoughts and feelings. The US Army Surgeon General and Defense Centers of Excellence endorsed iRest as a complementary and alternative medicine in 2010. (3)
3 Benefits of Yoga Nidra
1. It’s Accessible to Everyone
Perhaps the most important benefits of yoga nidra is that it’s a practice available to all of us. (No crazy twists or standing on your head!) It’s also one of the easiest yoga practices to develop and maintain, according to Yoga International. (4)
Since it’s practiced entirely in savasana, which means you’re lying down, there’s really no “wrong” way to do it. (If lying down isn’t accessible to you, you can also practice yoga nidra in a chair.) And since it’s guided, you’ll probably have less frustration compared to sitting down and trying to meditate cold turkey. And while yoga nidra isn’t technically guided sleep meditation, it’s often considered a meditation for sleep because the guided relaxation helps improve sleep patterns in many people. Can’t sleep? Yoga nidra for sleep enhancement will likely grow stronger the longer you practice.
2. PMS Mood Balancer
If you find yourself Googling “how to get rid of period cramps,” it may be time to give yoga nidra, a super relaxing type of yoga, a try.
A study of 150 females with period irregularities (severe pain, unpredictable cycles) found that women who took meds and practiced yoga nidra for for 35 to 40 minutes five days a week experienced fewer symptoms like painful cramps, anxiety and depression compared to women who took medication alone. (5)
3. Helps Boost Dopamine Levels
We already know that yoga changes your brain, In a first of its kind study in 2002, scientists used brain scan imaging to confirm the natural dopamine-boosting effect of yoga nidra. In fact, a single yoga nidra session resulted in a 65 percent increase in dopamine release, showing the practice regulates conscious states at the synaptic level. (6)
PET brain images of the meditators suggest a few things: (7)
- Subjects were in a deeply relaxed state but not drowsy.
- The meditative state is completely different than sleep state and includes conscious awareness.
- This state lasted for 45 minutes and was evenly spread throughout the brain.
Science also suggests yoga nidra practice is beneficial for these ailments:
- Back pain (8)
- Stress (9)
- Rheumatoid arthritis (10)
- Insomnia (11)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (12, 13)
- Type 2 diabetes (14)
- Tinnitus (15)
A Yoga Nidra Audio Practice
Now that you know about yoga nidra’s health benefits, it’s time to give it a try. Here, D’Agostino leads a condensed yoga nidra session to give you a taste of what it’s all about. A customary yoga nidra practice in the Himalayan tradition takes about an hour and a half, but doing even shorter versions can bring brain benefits.
Don’t get frustrated if you aren’t experiencing deep relaxation the first time you practice. “All of these practices have a cumulative effect,” D’Agostino notes. “You may notice that when you first start out, the effects go away relatively quickly. But when you do it daily and regulate, you can stay in those states of relaxation longer and longer. Or if a stressor does come, you may notice that you handle it with better ease.”
You will want to take a few minutes to properly prepare to make sure you feel comfortable and uninterrupted. Then, you’re ready to get started! “You’ll find that a daily practice and the cumulative effects of that is where it’s really at,” she says.
Here are some basic yoga nidra instructions and recommendations.
- When you start to practice, make sure you won’t be interrupted. That can be very jolting to the nervous system.
- Make sure you’re warm.
- Create an environment where you feel safe and secure.
- Turn off your phone. No distractions.
- Make sure your family knows they shouldn’t knock on the door or interrupt you.
- If you fall asleep, get up from the practice. You don’t want to develop a bad habit of falling asleep during yoga nidra.
- Be comfortable. Use props under your knees, a small pillow under the head and comfortable clothing and socks.
Here, D’Agostino offers a condensed yoga nidra script to help you experience the practice. This yoga nidra audio is free to enjoy.
Yoga Nidra Precautions
Yoga nidra is scientifically proven to lower stress, along with many other health benefits. Because it requires no strenuous yoga poses, it’s really accessible for almost everyone. However, if you experience back pain while lying on your back, be sure to put a blanket, foam roller or bolster under your knees to eradicate any lower back pain or discomfort.
And remember, this isn’t a guided meditation for sleep. In other words, don’t get in the bad habit of falling asleep during yoga nidra. If yoga for sleep is what you’re looking for, try these four gentle poses.
Final Thoughts on Yoga Nidra
- Yoga nidra is an ancient practice that is often referred to as “yogic sleep.”
- Don’t confuse yoga nidra with a deep sleep meditation; while it very well may improve overall sleep health, you shouldn’t fall asleep while practicing it.
- While it isn’t sleep guided meditation, you can use the practice to tune out external stressors and look within for lower overall stress levels.
- The ancient practice calms the brain and creates almost a sleep-like state while the brain remains clear and alert. This has been confirmed by brainwave studies.
- Scientific studies suggest yoga nidra is beneficial in reducing symptoms of stress, PTSD, insomnia, rheumatoid arthritis and type 2 diabetes.
- Many consider yoga nidra easier to practice compared to jumping straight into meditation.
- Because you lie on your back in savasana pose for the duration of yoga nidra, it’s considered accessible for almost everyone.
- Yoga nidra isn’t the same as yoga for sleep. If that’s what you’re looking for, try gentle poses like wide-angle standing forward bend, reclining bound angle pose, downward facing twist and supported child’s pose.
- Some think of yoga nidra as a guided meditation for sleep; it will enhance sleep ultimately, according to research, but you should not technically fall asleep during yoga nidra.
Read Next: Is There Such a Thing as Healing Prayer?
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