Yoga Nidra is often called ‘yogic sleep’. It’s said that a 30 minute Yoga Nidra practice is equivalent to 2-4 hours of actual sleep in terms of its effects on your energy and health.
That's a big claim! In this blog we're going to be digging into Yoga Nidra in more detail. We'll cover:
- What is Yoga Nidra?
- What does science say about Yoga Nidra?
- Does Yoga Nidra help with stress?
Before we get into the science behind the practice and explore its important benefits, let’s start with the basics. Read on for everything you need to know about Yoga Nidra before trying it for the first time.
So let's get to it...
To the untrained eye, it might look like you’re just lying on the floor doing nothing. But in reality, Yoga Nidra is a psychologically active and focused experience. It works on your brain and immune system in a number of powerful ways.
What is Yoga Nidra?
Yoga Nidra is a form of meditation with a focus on profound relaxation. A practice typically lasts around 30 minutes, although you can do an hour or more. Originating in India, the roots of Yoga Nidra have been traced back to Sankhya philosophy which dates back to around 1000 BC, and taught that there is a separation between the part of consciousness that witnesses thoughts, feelings and experiences; and the part of consciousness that is being witnessed.
Of course, the practice has evolved since those very early teachings, and Yoga Nidra as we know it today has been influenced by non-dualist Advaita Vedanta philosophy, as well as Tantra Yoga and mindfulness. And clinical psychologist called Dr. Richard Miller has used the principles of Yoga Nidra to develop a system called iRest, which is increasingly used to support the treatment of mental health conditions such as PTSD.
During a Yoga Nidra session, you lie on your back, usually with your arms and legs wide, and palms facing up. Most teachers will offer adjustments to this posture though; for example, if you have lower back pain you might keep your knees bent and your feet flat to the ground, or use cushions or yoga bolsters to elevate the knees.
A teacher guides you through your practice. First you’ll train your awareness so that although the body is still and relaxed, the mind is awake and alert. And then that awareness is used to consciously relax the whole body, bit by bit.
Once settled into this state of relaxation, a deeper Yoga Nidra practice will move on to explore opposite feelings, sensations or thoughts — for example, you might be asked to feel cold and then warmth, or heaviness and then lightness.
All of this works to shift the body into a state of rest, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘rest and digest’ mode) to take the lead. Simultaneously, the mind’s ‘witnessing’ skills are developed, and you learn to recognise patterns in your thoughts and feelings.
The overall feeling that comes from a Yoga Nidra practice is blissful presence and calm. Everything feels a bit easier, and the things you were worried about before practice become more manageable. And you gain a new understanding of how powerful your mind is — as you consciously choose to experience cold and then warmth, for example.
What Science Says About Yoga Nidra
As yogic practices have become more popular in Western cultures, scientists have launched studies to test whether they really do have measurable effects.
And studies that look at what Yoga Nidra really does to do the body and mind have turned up some interesting results. In short, brain imaging studies show that Yoga Nidra takes us into the ‘hypnagogic state’. This is the neurological state we usually enter while we’re falling asleep — between active beta brainwaves (14-40 Hz) of our waking state and the relaxed, thoughts alpha waves (9-13 Hz) of our sleeping state.
In yogic texts, this state is characterised as both passive and active at the same time, making it an ideal space in which access subconscious memories, and to integrate new thought patterns into the workings of the subconscious mind.
This could be why psychological studies have found that Yoga Nidra can be really helpful for people with PTSD. For example, research from the John F. Kennedy University shows that war veterans display reduced anger and ‘emotional reactivity’ after an eight-week program of Yoga Nidra; and a study of female victims of sexual trauma highlighted notable reductions in negative thoughts and self-blame.
Yoga Nidra helps to balance the effects of stress
By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, and giving the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘fight or flight’ mode) some downtime, this practice also creates a change in levels of stress hormones, including cortisol.
When we’re regularly stressed out, our bodies release hormones that are essentially designed to help us fight or run; raising the heart rate and blood pressure, and putting us into a state of alertness and anxiety. If we don’t then fight or run (and most of us in the modern world are stressed about things that we don’t really need to battle or flee from) those stress hormones stay in our systems. Over time, this can cause illness, fatigue, and even serious cardiovascular disease.
During Yoga Nidra, stress hormones lower and the body is flooded with hormones that signal rest, safety, and relaxation. In a brain imaging study, researchers found that Yoga Nidra acts on the brain’s neurotransmitters, increasing the release of dopamine — a hormone that makes us feel relaxed and happy.
So this powerful relaxation practice doesn’t just make us feel good, but actively improves our physical and mental health.
- Reduces stress hormones and increases relaxation hormones — making us feel calmer, happy, and ready to handle whatever comes our way
- Shifts us into a state of deep relaxation and openness — an ideal state to release trauma, heal from old wounds, and establish more positive thoughts patterns or habits
- Protects against illness — particularly health conditions caused by high blood pressure
- Increases energy, reduces fatigue and improves sleep
You feel the positive effects after your very first practice. You’ll float out of the studio with a sense of peace that will make life feel...well a lot better than it did before.
If you’re interested in experiencing Yoga Nidra for yourself, we’d love to be part of your journey. Check our Meditate page to see our current classes and courses.