Getting three to four hours of sleep in 45 minutes only. That’s how I got involved in yoga nidra. Nothing more, nothing less. It was taught at a beautiful yogaplace in my hometown Amsterdam in Holland. So far I understood the connection it had with yoga. But how it worked? And what it could bring me more than a beautiful sleep? Uhu, maybe to hear myself snore and be aware of it? Or to feel my body being heavy and not being able to move.
After the weekly practices I took, I felt relaxed. As I tried to explain to others what it was, I said something about deep sleep and relaxation. Somehow they wanted to know more, but that was mainly all I could reproduce after the teachings. Oh, and something about hearing as the only sense brought into practice. Just by listening to the spoken instructions given by the teacher. First by hearing loud and almost silent sounds and second by hearing far-away and close-by sounds. Not giving any name to it. And to relax the body by every joint there was, from toe to head in a long, long savasana.
This deep relaxation and the long savasana triggered me to dive deeper into the subject. On my trip to India for my second hatha yoga teacher training I ran into a book named ‘Yoga Nidra’ by Swami Satyananda Saraswati. This and the remark of my Indian teacher Vijay Gopala of Yoga Gita, that yoga nidra was the only form of yoga that could exist next or in addition to yoga, made me decide to look for a deeper understanding on this topic.
Well, that wasn’t easy. There was one school in Amsterdam where they provided teacher trainings on this topic, but already in a try-out lesson I got annoyed. Too much bla-bla-bla about healing stones and visualization I couldn’t do. What I found on YouTube was more of the same. Visualize a wild sea, a ferocious lion or a pyramid. By the pyramid I got upset. I could not find anything that seemed to create some understanding and a good feeling in me.
I decided to search for a school in India and found Vedic Yoga Academy for a 100 hr yoga nidra teacher training. Their offer seemed to match with my ideas of yoga being as true as possible and I decided to go for it. So I jumped in a plane, on my way to Rishikesh. What I found was indeed a true Yoga school with teachers that seemed to match what I had been taught formerly by Yoga Gita, to bring the ancient yoga philosophy to the mat, more specific the Himalayan tradition swami Rama.
My first introduction to yoga nidra gave me a peak preview on the coming topics as: asana practice and pranayama are important in the preparation for yoga nidra, the use of visualizations can be quite dangerous as it can create blockings in your energy system given an image with bad memories, that you cannot start teaching yoga nidra to lazy people and that it can be beneficial for overactive people. Also that there should be an understanding of chakra’s in yoga nidra. Further that yoga nidra is a way to learn pratyahara, usually translated by withdrawel of the senses, the fifth limb of Ashtanga yoga mentioned by Patanjali. The ultimate stage is samadhi, the last stage in meditation mentioned by Patanjali, the stillness of the mind, wherein you connect with the universal soul. Yoga nidra helps preparing for that stage, as it is a practice in silence, with awareness and conciousness. After this rather technical explanation we had an almost silent session of yoga nidra, starting in makarasana or crocodile pose, through savasana ending in a silent meditation.
The given instructions were simply on the poses to take and to guide the breath to the lower abodominal muscles or the perineum. Wow… felt really relaxed afterwards, not feeling the cold of the Himalaya’s anymore, that I was suffering from when our practice started. Just saying… Nidra in Yoga nidra can be explained as deep sleep. Nidra is one of the 5 vritti’s, fluctuations of the mind, Patajali speaks of in his yoga sutra’s. When there is no experience of any kind, you are in a state of deep sleep, he says. How do we experience things? We experience through 11 senses: 5 cognitive senses (smell, touch, taste, hearing and sight), 5 active senses (hands, feet, organs of reproduction, organs of excranation and speech) and controlled by 1 internal sense, manas, or the thinking mind. When all the 11 senses are closed down, we speak of nidra, deep sleep. Yoga, according to Patanjali, means union, a union between the individual soul and the universal soul, with awareness.
When we look at the meaning of the combination of these two words, yoga and nidra, it means when you choose to go asleep with awareness. Instead of falling asleep as an unconscious process, or nidra. To speak in terms we all know, the proces of falling asleep is the same in yoga nidra (sleep with awareness) as in nidra (sleeping without awareness). The important difference is the awareness. You should at all times be aware of everything happening in your body, especially the flow of prana from head to toe and in all the bodyparts you have. And stay focused at all times, stay concentrated. In yoga nidra 3 stages of closing down are recognized: 1. karmendriya (close active senses) 2. jananendriya (close cognitive senses) and 3. manaskosha (close the mind). Between stage 2 and 3 we speak of the lower stage of yoga nidra and stage 3 can be divided in 3a, the higher stage of yoga nidra, stay awake in a state of consciousness and 3b, fall into nidra or deep sleep. In this lower stage of yoga nidra, between 2 and 3 the magic happens. Here you can for example resolve emotional conflicts, psychosomatic problems and reveal knowledge from the mind if the mind is ready to receive.
Swami Rama speaks about learning a language in 3 weeks in his book ‘Path of Fire and Light, volume 2’. When I ask my teacher Rahul if we can do this experiment with a difficult chant I could never learn by heart, he says yes. This would be such a thrilling experience! The higher stage of yoga nidra, which you can hold for a maximum of 10 minutes, leads to the universal soul, or turiya, the fourth and last state of the consciousness (the first state of consciousness is the wakening state, the second is the dreaming state and the third is the sleeping state). I do hope to reach this last point one day, maybe in another life, because it is only for those who are really enlightened, which I doubt I am right now. For me it is enough to go through all the experiences given to me, such as being able to recite one day this chant I could never learn by heart after a yoga nidra session.
From experiencing yoga nidra to teaching seems a big step. ‘In fact’, Rahul says, ‘it is not. Because you teach yourself as if you were your own student. As a teacher you do the same practice, only in a sitting position.’ He advises not to make a script and read it aloud. ‘That’s not fresh anymore’, he says. ‘Take one of the possible practices for yoga nidra, like full body relaxation or the so called point by point relaxation, the sweeping breath practice, that makes you inhale and exhale to certain points in your body, or the 31-points relaxation practice. And teach from the heart. The only thing you should be very keen about, is your communication. What you say and how you say it should be adjusted to the people and the environment or the culture they are from. Everything should be netural, and not create any emotion.’ How to avoid emotions? Patanjali speaks in his second sutra of the first chapter about ‘citta vrtti nirodaha’, which can be translated as yoga is the ability to calm, direct, restrain the fluctuations of the consciousness, the mind’.
In yoga in general and especially in yoga nidra you should avoid emotions and keep the mind calm. You practice this by avoiding the 5 vritti’s or fluctuations of the mind, Patanjali describes in his 5th sutra of the first chapter. They are: valid cognition (pramana), misconception (viparyaya), imagination (vikalpa), sleep (nidra) and memory (smriti). Let’s take rain as an example. For me, listening to the raindrops as just a sound, is neutral and it doesn’t create an emotion. If you call that sound rain, it creates within a split second an emotion in me and a tension in my body. Just because I come from a country with lots of rain, which I don’t like. In india it is opposite. The people are happy when it rains and be natural to this phenomenon called rain. Another example is talking about being grateful to the mother, in the practice of yoga nidra. In India It is a normal thing, a common sense, to say this. People from the west, on the contrary, may have difficulties with their parents, so this topic is a ‘no go’ in yoga nidra when taught to western people.
So to avoid emotions, run on these sutra’s of Patanjali when creating your scripts for the practice. And how does the curing or healing work, that makes yoga nidra a hot topic nowadays? ‘When you need healing of a certain bodypart, go there with your attention during your own practice’, Rahul says. ‘The prana or life-energy will flow to that point and curing or healing can start. But never use it for others, only for yourself. Doing that, you may take the karma of others and that is a very bad thing. It may come to you like a tornado. And practice this only when you’re developed in concentration and in holding your attention to one point.’ This approach is for regular practitioners only, who leared about the natural flow of energy, the prana. ‘Yoga nidra should be taught in a holistic way, not to manipulate the energy. Then it makes the prana flow everywhere in your body, dissolving the blockages in your body’, Rahul says. A whole practice as well can be beneficial for certain health issues.
The practice sweeping breath, as mentioned before, is known for its cleansing and energizing effects as it let’s prana flow everywhere in your body. It can also be beneficial for people with high blood pressure, because it lowers the blood pressure in general. The 31-points or 61-points relaxation practices are known for their energizing capacities and improvement of the nervous system. When you go with your attention from point to point, the prana starts flowing to these points, in a way that you build communication systems in the body. This will take the energy blockages away. After I did this specific practice, I felt so energetic, that I cleaned my room, did some laundry, took a spa and still there was energy left for yoga homework. Wow…
I wish everyone to experience this. Before you start a practice of yoga nidra take time to really relax. Not by taking a cup of coffee, as my first thought says, but in yogaterms by acting like a crocodile or taking makarasana pose. A crocodile is well-known in India for it’s respiratory system. That is very strong, as the crocodile can be almost in hybernation for hours. ‘This way of breathing is the key for optimal relaxation’, Rahul says. ‘The diaphrame is so strong, that the crocodile can remain still under water for hours.’ Makarasana is also beneficial for people in mental trouble. Usually their diaphrame became weak as a result of chest-breathing only. When you practice this breathing in makarasana daily it strengthens the diaphrame quickly and releases tension and fatigue. The breath will be taken to the lower abdominals. When this breathing is activated, emotions can’t take over and the body can really relax. Also this relaxation will happen to the other diaphrame muscle we have, the pelvic muscle. A lot of our emotions are kept in this area. Think of what will happen to your whole body, the flow of the prana, when blockages here are released? Yes, it will relax to the max. And it can take you further on the path of yoga, towards meditation and ultimately samadhi. I’ll sign up for that.
In yoga nidra one can see three main traditions. In this article, the information in this article is mainly based on the theory of yoga nidra by Swami Rama, the so called Himalayan tradition. He sees yoga nidra not only as a way to relax the whole body, like described in the theories of swami Satyananda and swami Shivananda (who was the teacher of swami Satyananda). He takes relaxation of the whole body as a starting point and from there to an energetic, emotional and spiritual level. So, he goes beyond the physical level to pratyahara (withdrawel of the senses) and dhyana (concentration), the stages before samadhi. The way you go into sleep and into meditation are the same. From there you can go into meditation with conciousness and awareness. Yoga nidra is one of the ways to get you there. And on the way many things can happen. Just take the first step: relax to the max. Namaste