Imagine there’s a kind of yoga that can help you wake up but also fall asleep. It could train your focus on the tiniest part of your body and transport you into the cosmos. This seemingly paradoxical yoga can help overcome trauma, anxiety and pain — even if you can’t (or don’t want to) get up and practice asana. If you’re like me, you’re wondering why you haven’t heard more about yoga nidra.
What Is Yoga Nidra?
“It’s restorative, it’s meditative, it’s transformational,” said Beryl Bender Birch during her yoga nidra workshop at Yoga Journal LIVE! San Diego last weekend. “It’s a way to get anchored in the present moment. It’s certainly a great way to ease into a meditation practice, a guided relaxation where we drop down into a quieter state.”
This pioneer has been practicing yoga for 40 years and meditating for longer. Birch explains that while asana works on the physical body, or annamaya kosha, yoga nidra taps into the mind and causal fields, the manomaya and vijanamaya koshas, where deep-seated traumas often reside. This is one reason she teaches it to veterans, as well as modern yogis craving calm in an overstressed world. (Sign me up!)
The Benefits of Yoga Nidra
Yoga nidra has roots in ancient texts like the Upanishads, but was revived in the mid-20th century by Swami Satyananda Saraswati who developed a systematic relaxation practice from tantric teachings. Yogis used it to purify the samskaras, or deep impressions that create our karma. Modern research shows it can help everything from headaches to PTSD. Birch says, while the intention of the practice is to stay awake — “yoga nidra” means conscious sleep — many students find it a cure for insomnia. “It’s adaptogenic, kind of like Ginseng. It can give you energy or it can help you sleep.”
The Experience of Yoga Nidra
As is done in the classical practice, we set our intention to stay awake. After all, it’s only 4 o’clock on a summery Saturday afternoon in the enchanting seaside town of Coronado, California. The Yoga Journal conference in full swing. There must be a hundred of us yogis settling into Corpse Pose on the conference room floor at the historic Hotel Del Coronado. After an action-packed day of asana — finally, extended Savasana!
Our Yoga Nidra journey begins in our imagination, sprawled on the warm sands of our favorite beach. (Mine happens to be right outside.) We set a sankalpa, a first-person statement we’d like to actualize. For instance, I flow through life with ease and grace. I choose the intention: I am healthy, strong and resilient. A yoga teacher I know practiced with a sankalpa ‘I have a great publisher that sells millions of my books’ and soon after got a big book deal. It can span the worldly and the celestial.
“I am now journeying above the red-shingled towers of the historic Victorian hotel, seeing pink and blue and orange dots crawling along palm-tree lined promenades, surfboards and sailboats bobbing on sapphire waves.”
Guided by Birch’s warm, resonant voice, we listen to the beating of our own hearts, become immersed in complete darkness without even the slightest twinkle, and slowly feel that give way to a field of light. “Let’s take our consciousness on a tour, like you’re a butterfly alighting on each part of your body. Touch down and alight again, illuminating and electrifying,” Birch instructs. My attention rotates through my limbs, flitting first to the right thumb, the second finger, third finger and so on. There isn’t space to think, just sense and observe.