What is Yoga Nidra? This blog post summarizes my takeaways from a virtual 25-hour teacher training and includes a sample guided practice.
At 35 weeks pregnant, a yoga nidra, or “yogic sleep”, training from the comfort of my home seemed like it would be good medicine. The catch – you’re not supposed to sleep.
Typically, staying awake through 50 minutes of deep relaxation wouldn’t be a problem for me. I tend to run on the anxious end of the spectrum (yes, this for a yoga teacher), so nearly an hour of a guided meditation might be just enough time to ease my messy mind. But I quickly learned that things are very different when you’re extremely pregnant. Nights become harder to sleep through without waking, and napping becomes much easier – unintentional, even.
Admittedly, I don’t remember much from the six dreamy yoga nidra sessions that our Laughing Lotus teacher, Cathy Dirkx, led us through. But I do remember hearing the instruction, “Tell yourself you will not fall asleep.”
Why? The object of yoga nidra is for the mind to become progressively relaxed while remaining inwardly alert. In the ideal practice, our brainwaves would drop down from low beta waves (15-40 cycles/second, the brain waves associated with active thinking) to calm alpha waves (9-14 cycles/second, the brain waves associated with creativity and relaxation) to dreamy theta waves (5-8 cycles/second, the brain waves associated with daydreaming and flow state) and finally to delta waves (1.5-4 cycles/second, the brain waves associated with dreamless sleep).
During this steep descent into cessation of the mind’s fluctuations, the brain is said to transitions through a hypnogogic state, which is the state between sleep and wakefulness. Notably, this almost-sleep space is a state at which fleeting perceptual hallucinations may occur. This is also a state that visionaries like Salvador Dali, Thomas Edison, and Mary Shelley were said to have accessed to awaken to some of their most insightful ideas.
In addition to being a platform for inspiring creativity and insight, the hypnogogic state is also a state in which we may become highly suggestible, as it is the state associated with hypnosis. Yet unlike hypnosis, in yoga nidra, the teacher continually reassures the practitioner that they are in control.
So what is the process of journeying into this sleep-like awakened state?
The format that we were taught began with a short portion of gentle yoga that transitioned into stillness. This portion truly is key because if we can’t ease practitioners into a sustainable comfortable position, they may become distracted by sensation in their bodies. Generally, the meditative portion of yoga nidra is practiced lying on the back, but there can be some exceptions to this rule (e.g., pregnant people like me are instructed into a left-side-lying savasana).
Next, we cue practitioners to dial down their sensory input so that the only thing they’re taking in is the sound of the teacher’s voice.
Rotation of consciousness
We then cue students to visualize the body, which, in yoga, is considered to be our first, most tangible energetic layer. We might instruct students to visualize a glowing light moving up the body or warm oil moving down the body.
There is a specific order to way the body parts are cued that is said to sequentially “ping” areas along the sensory-motor complex of our brains. The body parts that we cue are meant to be proportional to the sensory awareness we have of our bodies, according to neuroscientific mapping of the way we perceive our bodies. Thus, regions of the hand and face are given more attention than large the legs or trunk during the rotation of consciousness.
After inviting awareness to the physical body, we invite students to become aware of breath, which is considered to be the energetic layer of the body. This can be done by counting the breath backwards, by hands-free alternate nostril breathing, or by using a silent mantra with breath, among other techniques.
Pairing of opposites
Next, we instruct students to feel seemingly opposite sensations, such as heavy and light or happy and sad. This brings students into the emotional layer of the body.
The synesthete in me loves fast visuals, but I unfortunately was never awake during the training to experience them. During this portion, we cue students to imagine a rapid-fire of short, descriptive images on the screen of their minds. This part can be quite poetic as it’s meant to invoke common sensory experiences. This portion may also be quite triggering to some as it may bring up flashbacks and memories that are deep-seeded within the subconscious mind.
Fast visuals may collectively take on a theme, such as earthy images or images of a beach. Below is an example of the pink-themed fast visual list that I wrote for the training:
Strawberry ice cream
An enchanted woodland in spring
Paris after the rain
Cotton candy melting on your tongue
The tooth fairy
The way it feels to blush
The sound of bubble gum
Chilled rosé in the summer
The feeling of being in love
A field of tulips
Then, the images begin to slow into a longer guided visualization that is meant to paint a fantasy-like picture in our minds. For example, we may cue our students into a nature hike, up a mountain, or into outer space.
From the depths of the ocean (and our subconscious minds), we are gently plunged back into our bodies. Strangely, I would always awaken easily at this point, as if the words “come back to your body” was an alarm clock. We were taught to awaken the students before the sankalpa, or intention, to ensure that they are present for this stage. We instruct the participants, to look into their hearts and set an intention based on what they see. Fresh from this dream-like journey, this sankalpa is said to be what our subconscious truly needs.
So, what if we fall asleep?
Somehow, some of the magic of yoga nidra is still retained even if we fall asleep. I can say so from first-hand experience. Although I was never alert long enough to be aware of the fast or long visualizations, I have fleeting memories of a word or two here and there as I meandered between wake and sleep. For example, “the taste of chocolate” stands out from the first day.
On the last day, we were said to have gone deep into an exploration of scenes from our childhood during the fast and long visualizations. Although I have no memory of that, I do recall briefly waking up to a sleepy vision of becoming a grandmother. For a fleeting moment, I was convinced that it was my snowpea, not me, who was going to be giving birth during the summer. I’m certain that some of what I heard while I was sleeping must have stuck.
Finally, as we came upright to set our sankalpa, I would suddenly feel intensely present. One day, when we looked into our “crystal ball” for our heart’s desires, I vividly imagined snowpea’s open eyes looking into mine and telling me that I am enough. I felt little flutters in my heart. That’s not an image I would typically conjure up during my normal waking state.
Although I slept through most of the yoga nidra sessions, I am thankful for the opportunity to learn the technique during my waking hours of the training. Next up on Laughing Lotus’s virtual schedule is a 25-hour Fly training. Should I go for it? While yoga nidra at 35 weeks may have been doable, I have a feeling that 39 weeks isn’t the ideal time for inversions and arm balances, but maybe next time?
A sample practice
At the end of the training, we were encouraged to submit a sample guided yoga nidra practice. Would you like to practice along with me? Get comfortable, and get ready to practice along with this audio track. Feedback is always welcome!
Here's where to access the practice: https://soundcloud.com/lacey-ramirez-246326352/yoga-nidra-pink