Yoga Nidra, the 'yoga sleep', takes you to the state between waking and sleeping. After a session you feel rested; not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Because this soft form of yoga works deeply connecting and healing.
Interview & Text: Angélique Heijligers for Yoga Magazine
Yoga Nidra is a very old form of yoga. The method, with which you systematically work towards complete relaxation, has its origins around 700 BC. It is seen as the bridge between the last two steps of the eightfold path of yoga: dhyana, or meditation, and samadhi, enlightenment.
In contemporary Western culture, we apply techniques from the Yoga Nidra philosophy not so much to become enlightened, but to achieve a deep rest physically, mentally, and emotionally. The simplicity and at the same time deep healing effect make Yoga Nidra, also called 'yoga sleep', an attractive practice. Lying still and listening is actually all that is asked of you.
You are invited to lie down, put a blanket over yourself, close your eyes, and surrender to the teacher's voice. That voice guides you through different phases of consciousness. You sink deeper and deeper until you enter a state between waking and sleeping, the so-called hypnagogic. Yoga Nidra is a soft, but also a very intimate form of yoga. 'Actually, there is hardly anything more vulnerable and intimate than falling asleep in front of someone,' says psychologist, trauma therapist, yoga and Yoga Nidra teacher Suze Retera (42).
"It's a form of meditation, but also hypnosis.
You enter a state of deep rest, which causes the brain waves to slow down. That also happens when you sleep, but with Yoga Nidra you stay in the phase just before you fall into unconscious sleep. And it is in that state of mind that healing can take place.'
The hypnagogic state is a state of being that we all go through when we fall asleep. Suze: 'Think of when you are on a train or reading a book, dozing off and trying to stay awake, in that moment dream thoughts can mix with reality. That moment, that is where you go during Yoga Nidra. Normally, hypnagogia lasts a few minutes and then you fall asleep, but at Yoga Nidra we extend that moment. That is very refreshing for the brain. If you are very tired, you can still fall asleep during class. That's not bad at all, you just need that for a while. And you will notice: the more often you do Yoga Nidra, the less often you fall asleep. Staying longer in the border area between waking and sleeping is also a matter of getting used to.'
Everything is possible
The idea behind Yoga Nidra is that the rational brain calms down and the subconscious gets space to become more active. To get there, the teacher talks you through eight phases during class. The first phase is settling down, landing in the body for a while, and feeling safe in the space where you are lying. This may be followed by a Sankalpa, which is often loosely translated as 'intention': you set an intention for this session. A more appropriate translation might be 'heart's desire' or 'heart's desire', which is less purposeful and more inviting to connect with yourself. In some Yoga Nidra styles, the Sankalpa is omitted completely, leaving the practice free of desire, attachment, or ambition.
The attention is then directed to different points in the body. Suze: 'Then the moment comes when you as a teacher work with contradictions. Contradictions are very hypnotic. If I say "you feel heavy" and then "you feel light", or maybe "you feel heavy and light at the same time", your rational brain can't do much with it. It cannot contain opposing concepts, with the result that your rational brain goes offline for a while and your subconscious is given space.
In the subconscious, anything is possible without the intervention of the rational brain. Suppose you are very convinced that you need stress, or that you live in an unsafe world. I can tell you that is not the case, but your ratio will not believe me. But if I introduce concepts like safety, trust, and security the moment your rational brain has calmed down, you receive those concepts in your subconscious. That's a very powerful thing. Ninety percent of our thoughts are repetitions of what has been programmed into our subconscious. It can be very useful to let go of what no longer serves you in your subconscious mind and to introduce concepts that are healing for you.' After the opposites phase, the session continues with a focus on breathing and visualization. After that, you will again be brought to focus on your breathing and brought back to the Sankalpa, after that you will wake up again.
Sankalpa, a sacred promise
Depending on which Yoga Nidra tradition you follow,
you may or may not create a Sankalpa at the beginning
of the class. Kalpa means promise and san refers to a
connection with one's highest truth.
Sankalpa is thus a sacred pledge you make to your
highest truth, honoring the deeper meaning of life.
For example, your Sankalpa could be "I am loving to
myself and everyone around me," "I am present in the
here and now," or "I am a being of light." The Sankalpa is
a reflection of your true nature and can help you
make choices in your life.
Support for your cycle
Bringing the body to a deep rest is what we often see in our daily lives as an inefficient use of time. But by now we are increasingly realizing how necessary rest is, to relax our often overactive sympathetic nervous system due to stress and too many stimuli. Then the parasympathetic nervous system can be activated, giving your body the chance to recover from stress and stress-related complaints. Stress can disrupt many bodily processes.
The female cycle, for example. According to a study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Yoga Nidra may help relieve menstrual symptoms such as irregular, painful, or heavy periods. 150 women with menstrual problems participated in the study. Half of the women followed a Yoga Nidra class of 35 to 40 minutes five days a week and indicated after six months that they suffered less from painful cramps, excessive blood loss, and an irregular cycle. The women felt more balanced, more vital, and healthier compared to the other half of the group, the control group.
"We all go through cycles in life, but women are more hormonally sensitive than men," says Suze. 'Women's systems are more hormone-driven and women experience the influence of stress on their monthly cycle. Yoga Nidra can also bring relief to women in menopause who experience complaints such as poor sleep, fatigue, and depressed feelings.'
We often know that we need rest, and then maybe try to meditate. But if you are very busy in your hood, meditation can be quite difficult. Suze: 'You can see Yoga Nidra as an accessible meditation. You are taken by the hand, on a journey through the eight phases. You may surrender to something, but you will remain in a state of mind in which the brain waves largely correspond to when you are in deep meditation.'
Sleep, deep rest, less stress... Qualities that connect you directly to Yoga Nidra, which would make you think that this yoga form is suitable for everyone, especially for people with a burnout or depressive feelings.
Yes, Yoga Nidra gives you new energy and offers an entrance to feel connected to your essence again. But the same effect is not necessarily good for everyone, says Suze. She is very firm when it comes to clinical depression. We all feel a little less sometimes. When things in life go wrong, you can rest. Even if you are in the last part of your burnout and the worst is already behind you, you can find support in Yoga Nidra. But I don't do Yoga Nidra with people diagnosed with clinical depression!' With Yoga Nidra, just like with 'normal' sleep, there is regular REM activity in the brain; your eyes then move back and forth horizontally and vertically. 'There is then great brain activity and sympathetic nervous system activation and you can have dream patches,' explains Suze. 'Under normal circumstances, that's totally fine and helps us process strong emotions that we haven't been able to express during the day. But part of depression is a lot of introspection, and worrying, which triggers strong emotions. As a result, people with depression have more and longer phases of REM activity, which makes sleep less restful. More sleep and Yoga Nidra often have the opposite effect in this case and can actually increase fatigue and the tendency to worry.
I would rather recommend a little more exercise, even though he may not feel like it. When you move, you can release your energy and you produce endorphins, which prevent worrying. That helps you to sleep better at night.'
Feelings of happiness
Twenty years ago, research showed that Yoga Nidra
stimulates the production of the feel-good hormone dopamine.
Dopamine is a substance that belongs to the reward
system of our brain. Due to the increased production
of dopamine, you can feel feelings of happiness and
pleasure during and after the session, and the motivation to do
things that you find enjoyable more often.
If you regularly do Yoga Nidra, you will notice that
you become increasingly aware of your thoughts,
emotions and the signals your body gives.
This awareness translates into a better connection
with yourself. You become more aware of tensions in
your body and know better when you need to take a
step back to relax. Yoga Nidra also brings you
back to yourself in periods when you threaten
to run past yourself.
Exercise in letting go
In Yoga Nidra we in the West, just like with other mild yoga forms, mainly seek rest and relief from stress-related complaints. But originally this technique is mainly an exercise in detachment and not identifying with the body and the earthly. 'That's actually what yoga is all about, says Suze.
“We accept and honor our body, but we don't attach to it. In the ancient traditions of Yoga Nidra, there are visualization exercises where you imagine yourself lying in a coffin. It is inconceivable that we would apply these visualizations in a lesson today.
But the concept of detachment and detaching yourself from all those things that your ego runs off with on a daily basis is timeless. I think a lot of people suffer from a lingering restlessness, the idea of always having to keep going and not knowing how to break free from having to keep up all the balls. Doing nothing for a while and feeling carried, is the gift you may receive during Yoga Nidra.
You can surrender to a very soft energy, you will be taken care of and the teacher will talk you into a kind of sleep. It sounds so simple, but peace and a sense of security can change your life.'