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Yoga nidra translates to “yogic sleep,” and while the practice doesn’t involve actual sleeping, it does share two very important characteristics of sleep: deep relaxation and occasional seepage from the unconscious to the conscious mind. Deep relaxation is probably clear, but a bit more explanation may be needed about that latter part. Put simply, when one sleeps one dreams, and most of us become consciously aware of at least a few of these dreams. The practice of Yoga Nidra can also help one gain insight into mental activities that ordinarily occur below the level of conscious awareness.
With respect to Patanjali’s “Eight Limbs” of yoga, yoga nidra is a practice of pratyahara, or sensory withdrawal. No longer bombarded with sensory stimulation in competition for one’s attention, one gains the ability to become aware of deeper internal insights.
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On EKA, one can find a comprehensive set of practices, starting with those that will help one learn the basics in a gentle fashion, progressively moving on to complete sequences designed to help achieve a balanced state of mind, a state of mind perfect for meditation or for facing the challenges of the day ahead.
Benefits of Yoga Nidra
Yoga NIdra helps us connect to the subconscious mind.
One can think of the conscious mind as being like the Chief Executive of a large corporation (the human body.) Most of what happens on a daily basis happens without the executive’s awareness. If the executive had to be briefed everytime a janitor changed the paper towels or each time a secretary bought a box of paper clips, the corporation would be doomed to fail.
The same is true of one’s body, most of the vast number of events that are happening at any given moment are happening without conscious thought or input. T-cells are built by the immune system, bacteria break down fiber in the digestive system, hormones are released by the endocrine system, along with so many other tasks that happen without conscious awareness. With that said, it can be beneficial for the executive to selectively peer into some of these low-level activities occasionally because they might have bearing on high-level decision making. Through the sensory withdrawal of Yoga Nidra one can become more attuned to some of the problems that may go unnoticed outside our level of awareness — e.g. obsessions or temptations. The concept of yoga nidra is ancient, being referenced in the Vedas, but the precise nature of the practice today is generally informed by Swami Satyananda Saraswati’s organization of principles and procedures. Swami Satyananda, in turn, was heavily influenced by Tantra in his formulation of Yoga Nidra. Throughout this page, when we are referring specifically to the practice of Yoga Nidra (in caps,) we are referring to the practice that was handed down by Swami Satyananda or variations derived from it.
Yoga Nidra has many benefits – especially in triggering the rest and digest function of the body, combating insomnia, and enhancing mental wellbeing. It also gives us a way to plant our intentions deep into the subconscious mind, and enables us to manifest those changes into our lives. Read more about the benefits here
8 Stages of Yoga Nidra
A full practice of Yoga Nidra consists of eight stages. However, some of these stages may not seem familiar even if you’ve practiced Yoga Nidra before. Yoga Nidra is a flexible tool, and the practice may be shortened to fit into a particular length of time or modified to achieve particular purposes. Some people practice Yoga Nidra primarily for its deep relaxation, but others are primarily interested in influencing the unconscious mind (e.g. the ability to plant a resolution.) What one seeks from the practice influences how it might be organized or modified.
As a precursor to the first stage, the instructor will normally give a few instructions. One will be encouraged to find a comfortable position that allows one to remain still throughout the practice, using props or blankets as needed. Another common instruction is to try to not fall asleep. While called “yogic sleep,” Yoga Nidra is really closer to the state of hypnagogia — the period between wakefulness and sleep.
I will describe the sages in generic terms because there are many variations on how each step is completed. Without further ado, here are the eight stages:
This stage is used to begin to withdraw from the sensory inputs of the external world so that one can tune into one’s internal world — i.e. pratyahara. This may seem odd because internalization often involves actively paying attention to sensory stimuli — e.g. the sounds around one. But, it turns out that actively, but non-judgmentally, tuning into sensory information is a good way to become accustomed to the information, and becoming accustomed to sensory information tends to make the mind dull to it, and that tendency can be used to help turn the attention deeper inward.
2. Resolution/Sankalpa – I
Next, one will engage in the first repetition of one’s statement of resolution (i.e. Sankalpa,) or otherwise plant a seed in the unconscious. This is the most direct way Yoga Nidra is used to interact with our unconscious mind, and it bears a resemblance to self-hypnosis.
There seem to be differences between how the unconscious mind is best communicated to — as opposed to how the conscious mind is. These differences have implications for the nature of one’s sankalpa, or statement of resolution. First, one’s sankalpa should be simple and straightforward. Language doesn’t seem to be as effective for planting seeds in the unconscious as it is for communicating consciously. Second, the message must be reinforced through repetition (e.g. we repeat the sankalpa multiple times in the exact same form, and we pick a sankalpa that we will use for a long time — i.e. it’s not just the wish of the week.) Finally, we avoid negation — for example, if one were trying to quit eating sugary desserts, one wouldn’t make a New Year’s style resolution like “I won’t eat dessert!” Why? Because, the unconscious mind isn’t so good at grasping subtle verbal cues like “not” and “…n’t” So, repeating such a Sankalpa would just convince one’s unconscious how obsessed one is with dessert.
3. Rotation of Awareness
During the rotation of awareness, the teacher or session leader systematically calls out body parts. The practitioner takes his or her awareness to that part, noting that the body part is relaxed. This portion of the practice does double duty. The first thing it does is encourage one to become aware of one’s state of relaxation and avoid holding tension. It also helps lull one into a state of deep relaxation. This works when the leader maintains a pace that is even and swift, but not rushed. The steady and calm sound of the voice has a tranquilizing effect.
4. Breath Awareness
In this stage, one is urged to become aware of one’s natural breath. Those who’ve done the Breath Familiarization practices on the EKA app, will be familiar with the variety of activities that one might be asked to do during this stage. E.g. Watching the movement of the abdomen. Feeling sensations at the nostrils. Cyclically counting the breath. Almost any practice that uses the natural breath without modifications and without body movement could be used for this purpose.
5. Imagined Sensation
During rotation of awareness, one takes one’s awareness to various body parts to become attuned to what is being felt. At this stage, one goes deeper inward by imagining sensations rather than observing sensations from the external world, and thus one becomes aware of the degree to which one’s internal experience is not a product of one’s environment.
A common version of this practice is called “Pairs of Opposites,” in which one is asked to try to experience the sensation of cold, then of heat, then heaviness, then lightness, and so on.
This stage is closely related to the previous one. Here, one practices visualization — that is having an imagined visual experience. The practices that are used in this section are among the most diverse and varied of any stage of the Yoga Nidra practice. There are just so many ways to visualize, and different practices achieve different purposes. There are rapid visualizations that shift through a variety of objects of visualization in swift succession. There are visualizations that guide practitioners to a particular location or to a person in the hopes of triggering an epiphany.
Next, the second stage is repeated. That is, one engages in repetition of one’s sankalpa, or statement of resolution, once again.
Why repeat this stage? The reason the sankalpa is repeated at this point is that one should now be so relaxed that the mind is receptive. In that way, the resolution is more likely to take hold with the unconscious.
The reason one did the first repetition of the sankalpa (i.e. Stage 2) is as a reminder to help one hold the sankalpa in the mind. In this extended Hypnagogic state, the mind becomes sluggish, and one doesn’t want to lose track of the sankalpa because trying to dredge it up could have a stimulative effect on the mind. Therefore, one repeats the sankalpa in Stage 2 so that it is at the tip of one’s mind, and one does it in Stage 7 to plant the seed in the unconscious.
Externalization is essentially the reverse of internalization, one is gently transitioning the mind back to awareness of the external world.