Have you ever been in savasana at the end of yoga clas and just when you feel yourself start to relax, your teacher calls time? Have you wondered what a longer, deeper period of relaxation would feel like? What it might do for your stress levels and your health in general? Well, I have two words for you: yoga nidra.
What is Yoga Nidra?This relaxation/meditation technique originated in India, but, like most modern yoga, has been modified and Westernized to suit the needs of contemporary students. Though yoga nidra is translated as "yogic sleep," this method is not really about getting in a good snooze. Guided by a teacher's voice, you identify sensations throughout your body and focus on your breath, while (ideally) remaining in a state of relaxed awareness so that you may release deeply held tensions, some of which you may not even be aware.
Richard Miller and Rod Stryker are the two most prominent yoga nidra teachers working in the United States. Miller's 2005 book Yoga Nidra explains his technique, which is based on moving through the koshas, or sheaths, which are layered within the body, in order to reach the innermost layer, a place of innate joy and peacefulness. Miller's method has been used to help people dealing with substance abuse, depression, homelessness, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Beginning in 2005, Miller developed a yoga nidra program called Integrative Restoration (iRest), for veterans with PTSD at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where it is still being used, as well as in a number of additional military facilities.
What is a Yoga Nidra Class Like?I recently took a Richard Miller-inspired class to experience yoga nidra for myself. We were first instructed to gather a number of props around our mats so that we would be comfortable during the long lie-down to come: a bolster for under the knees, a blanket to lie on, another blanket under the head, and yet a third blanket as a cover. An eye pillow is optional; it's a good idea bring your own if you have one. After about 10 minutes of basic stretches to loosen things up, we were instructed to settle in amongst our props and close our eyes. Teachers may use different techniques to encourage relaxation, such as singing bowls, playing a gong, or simply lulling you with the sound of their voice.
Miller's approach begins with focusing your attention on sensations in your mouth and then moving through the body, traveling down the arms to the fingertips and then back to the torso for the trip along the legs, en route to the feet. It also includes identifying opposite sensations in the body, such as warm and cold. Each sensation is felt separately and then simultaneously, which requires the mind to focus and keeps it in the present moment. As thoughts do arise, you learn to disassociate from them by confronting the "I" question. For instance, if your mind produces the thought, "I feel scared," you question who is doing the feeling and who is observing the thought, which diffuses the body's usual reaction to fear.
My teacher mentioned that it is not unusual to fall asleep the first few times you experience deep relaxation. Despite my intention to remain awake, I felt myself begin to drift off almost immediately. When I was awoken by the snores of a neighboring student some time later, I had no idea how much time has passed. It turned out there were only about 10 minutes left in the class. During that 10 minutes, I felt more rested and aware than usual, and my craving for a long savasana was thoroughly satisfied.
Yoga Nidra Self Practice
Yoga nidra lends itself well to self practice, since all you need is a comfortable place to lie down and an instructor's voice to guide you. Audio recordings of Miller and other teachers are readily available. Many find yoga nidra to be an accessible gateway to meditation, a way to relieve accumulated tension and a path to heal deep psychological wounds. It can also provide the equanimity necessary to face the stress of daily life.
Miller, Richard. Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing. Sounds True, Inc., 2010, 2005.