Yoga Nidra – the yogic deep, awake sleep
Yoga Nidra is one of the few things in your practice where it is not so much about the journey, but more about the destination.
Yoga means union, and Nidra translates to ‘sleep’, so the best way to describe Yoga Nidra is a way of finding union or connection while you are in a deep sleep. During Yoga Nidra, you achieve a conscious deep sleep, which means you essentially practice being aware while deeply asleep.
Yoga Nidra is considered to be the third level of consciousness represented by the AUM (OM) mantra. The AUM mantra is believed to have four levels of consciousness, with three transition levels between each. These levels closely relate to how we view the mind in the west and include your awakened state, subconscious, and unconscious, each representing a ‘deeper’ part of your mind.
The words ‘subconscious’ and ‘unconscious’ are often used interchangeably and can cause some confusion. In this article, I will be using ‘subconscious’ to describe the parts of your mind, your thoughts, or memories that are not in your immediate awareness, but that you can recall when you try to. Unconscious refers to parts, memories, emotions, and thoughts that you have repressed. Here sit the things that you have either repressed because they are not important, or because they have caused you a lot of distress.
The thing about all the gunk in your unconscious mind is that they dictate your thoughts, feelings, and behaviour – all without you even knowing that they do. Yoga Nidra focuses on accessing your unconscious mind with awareness.
The first level is waking, where you are conscious and is represented by the ‘A’ in AUM. The second level is Dreaming. It refers to your subconscious and is represented by ‘U’. The third level is Deep Sleep. This level relates to your unconscious and is represented by ‘M’. The last level is Turiya, which is consciousness and is represented by the silence following each Aum chant.
The Deep Sleep of Yoga Nidra focuses on those parts of your mind that you do not have immediate access to. It is the parts that you have repressed and influence your thoughts, emotions, and actions. These parts of your mind can be called psychological imprints. Some yogi’s call this Samskaras, the driving force behind karma.
Sometimes the things that lie in your unconscious comes out in your thoughts and behaviours while you are awake. Other times they could come up while you are asleep and dreaming. With Yoga Nidra, you purposefully enter this space.
By practicing Yoga Nidra, you aim to move through the first two stages – of being awake and dreaming into a state of deep sleep. The difference between Yoga Nidra, or yogic sleep, and regular deep sleep is that you are still awake and aware during deep sleep while you are practicing Yoga Nidra.
Yoga Nidra and brainwaves
Yoga Nidra slows your brain waves way down. During the deep sleep cycle that most of us experience each night, our brain wave activity becomes very slow – these are called delta waves. We experience the same slow brainwaves while we are ‘awake’ during Yoga Nidra.
- Beta: Between 14 and 30HZ. We experience this during daily mental activities when we are alert and active. We also experience these when we are stressed.
- Alpha: Between 8 and 13HZ. We experience this when we are relaxed. It often comes around after we have been exercising.
- Theta: Between 4 and 7HZ. We usually experience this when we are drowsy or half-asleep.
- Delta: Between 0.5 and 3.5HZ. We have these brain waves when we are in the deep, dreamless sleep stage. These are the brainwaves we have in Yoga Nidra.
How do you do Yoga Nidra
Yoga Nidra is not an action; instead, it is a state of consciousness. So when we speak about practicing Yoga Nidra, we are really speaking about practicing the methods that we can use to achieve this state of deep, awake sleep. We do not do Yoga Nidra; we experience Yoga Nidra.
There are some steps you will likely experience when you practice Yoga Nidra.
- Focus your attention on the deep inner stillness – found in the space in your chest, between your breasts. Relax and drift deeper into the calm and the quiet.
- As you sink into the stillness, you will start to let go of your active thoughts. You might start to see images or pictures as you enter the dream state. Keep dinking deeper, emptying your mind. As you go deeper, your attention will withdraw from the dream state.
- Your mental activity will start to become external – nearly separate from the deepness of yourself that you are experiencing. You do not even notice any thoughts, feelings, emotions, or images. It is quiet and still. Your body seemingly ceases to exist. All there is is a vast emptiness.
- Stay focused on the space in your chest, between your breasts, and sink even deeper into the conscious Deep Sleep of Yoga Nidra.
It takes time and practice to reach the destination that is Yoga Nidra. Relaxation exercises could help you to start out with. When you practice relaxation with the aim to achieve Yoga Nidra, try to focus on your physical body instead of using visualisations. When you visualise, you are actively engaging your mind and thoughts – the opposite of what you are trying to achieve in Yoga Nidra. By focusing on your body, like on the movement of breath or energy, you fall into the habit of observing without thinking or engaging.
For this same reason, it is suggested that you focus on sinking into the stillness in your chest and not your heart chakra. When you try to focus on your heart chakra, you are likely to engage some form of visualisation or imagination by picturing a glowing green sphere of energy. Again, try to move away from engaging your mind.
Yoga Nidra resources
If you are like me and need a hand to practice Yoga Nidra there are a number of great resources around that help guide you through the process.
I love Rod Stryker’s Para Yoga Nidra You Tube video. You can check it out here.
If apps are more your thing, Insight Timer has a large selection of recordings to explore.
What is the difference between Yoga Nidra and meditation?
When you meditate, you focus on clearing your mind from distractions. Through deeper practice, you learn how to achieve a calm emptiness and enter a dream state where you might see images or pictures, much like the dreams you have when you are sleeping. The difference is that while meditating, you are conscious and aware of these images – you are still awake.
When you achieve Yoga Nidra, you have dropped deeper, through the dream state into Deep Sleep. But again, you are awake and alert. The memories in this state are formless; there are no words, images, or pictures. It is just a profound stillness, experienced consciously, rather than impassively like when you are sleeping normally. You become unaware of any form. It could be described as entering a black void, and it is here where you can experience the infinity of the Universe.
During Yoga Nidra, you do not experience those things that you have repressed as thoughts or pictures. Instead, you are in a space of existing and tapping into the causes of these things – where the seeds of your samskara were planted, if you will. When you access this space while being ‘awake’, with awareness and consciousness, you are able to reduce or decrease these issues that drive your conscious thoughts, emotions, and behaviours.
What do you experience during Yoga Nidra?
Yoga Nidra is an incredibly calm space. There are no thoughts. There are no images. At some point, it might even feel as if your whole body has dissolved into the nothingness – and the everythingness – of the universe. You feel kind of floaty and as if you have expended, filling the space while at the same time holding no form at all. You are connected to everything, and you are everything at the same time.
In this state, you encounter all aspects of your unconscious mind and being – being aware while also in some way being not aware (as they do not show up as thoughts, images, words, or pictures). During Yoga Nidra, you can work on the gunk held in your unconscious mind unhindered by thoughts or images or dreams. Imagine you could freeze the world around you. Everything comes to a stand-still. But you are able to move and make changes. You get to fix things if you will. This is what happens during Yoga Nidra. Your thoughts, feelings, triggers, all of it comes to a stand-still, but you are still able to observe them, integrate them, and heal them.
While you are experiencing Yoga Nidra, these frozen elements of your unconscious mind hold no power over you. They do not trigger any thoughts, feelings, emotions, or actions. They just are. And by merely observing these samskaras, they start to lose their power over you. Eventually, these no longer control our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours in our waking lives.
Yoga Nidra is so much more than laying in Savasana and drifting into a deep meditation. It is a profound practice where we enter a space to expand, to connect, and to heal.