What is Yoga Nidra?
There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this, you already know a little bit about yoga nidra. Before we dig into how yoga nidra works from scientific and ontological angles, let’s take a moment to clarify what yoga nidra actually is.
Yoga nidra is a meditative, breath-based deep relaxation practice. It could be described as a way to quiet the mind and unload its burdens through states of aware rest. Mere minutes of yoga nidra has restorative and replenishing effects similar to those of sleep. In this practice, we are able to relieve stress by targeting its primary source: our minds. Yoga nidra allows us to reach subtler states of being where we can access and exercise freedom of choice more readily. When we engage with this technique, the choice to respond or ignore our thoughts rather than being controlled or wrapped up in them is available to us.
Let’s be frank: modern life is complicated. Technology, global health crises, and political strife are advancing every day, prompting us to keep up. On top of the usual daily stressors that stem from our families, work, and finances, are the inner stressors like worry, anxiety, or the challenge to stay empowered in these uncertain times. In light of this, a natural and holistic method to relieve stress is more valuable than ever before. By developing a deep relaxation and meditation practice like yoga nidra, we empower ourselves and our students to manage and relieve stress by quieting and calming the mind.
How does Yoga Nidra work? (And what does science say?)
“The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress… and the opposite of the fight or flight response.”
- Herbert Benson
It may seem like a lofty or intangible practice but in fact, the science backs up the efficacy of yoga nidra for stress relief and overall well being. Several recent studies indicate the many therapeutic benefits of deep breathing and deep relaxation-based yoga practices. In order to understand how yoga nidra works to help us manage our stress, let’s look at human stress response and how it is often misaligned with the modern stressors that we face every day.
Stress begins in the brain. Our eyes confront a stress, our amygdala receives the information and interprets the image to determine if it’s dangerous. Then, it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus (like our command center) that then mobilizes our whole system to deal with the threat in one of only a few ways: “flight, fight, or freeze”. (Experts are also now considering that there is a fourth possibility, called “fawn,” which is most closely compared to people-pleasing.) With acute stress, the stressor comes, the stressor goes, and the body returns to homeostasis. No big deal, right?
Unfortunately not. Think about it. When an argument with your spouse or a good friend causes you stress, does that stress disappear when the argument is over? Usually not. The vast majority of the U.S. population today experiences chronic stress; our bodies are trained to be unable to distinguish between a deadly lion and a work deadline. When we are in this kind of a state for prolonged periods of time, and the sympathetic nervous system is over-exerted, our digestion is weakened, our adrenals become fatigued, our cholesterol elevates, and we begin to lose bone mineral and store unnecessary fat. In fact, stress is found to be a significant factor in all non-communicable diseases.
The deep breathing exercises that are a part of a comprehensive yoga nidra practice work to counteract the stress response in as little as 30 seconds. Breathing deeply along with beginning to consciously relax the physical body stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, where our digestion is enhanced, we experience creativity, concentration, and begin to recover from day to day stress. When we practice yoga nidra, we are providing ourselves an opportunity to “catch” or access theta brainwaves, where emotional healing can take place.
Today, researchers are studying how yoga nidra works to treat numerous psychological conditions. Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD is a researcher and associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Research Director at Kripalu whose work explores the effects of yoga on mental wellness. He has authored and co-authored peer-reviewed studies that suggest a link between yoga practice and alleviating symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and chronic insomnia. His studies have also postulated that meditative and yogic practices like yoga nidra can help musicians struggling with performance anxiety and high school students with lower GPAs.
Khalsa and his peers also cite studies that suggest practices like yoga nidra enhance self-regulation and cognition in test subjects. More thoughtful stimulus-response and sustained, heightened mental acuity are known results of yoga nidra practice, so these proposed links to the practice seem likely. These effects and others that are the result of practices like yoga nidra may work together to produce the reduction of psychosocial stress symptoms described above.
While he and his colleagues agree that our understanding of yoga’s therapeutic effects on mental wellness is not yet complete, there is mounting evidence from his clinical work that indicates a clear connection between practices like yoga nidra and a clear, healthy, uncluttered, and capable human mind.
What yoga philosophy says
Alright, now that we’ve refreshed our sense of what this practice is and consulted the science of how it works, let’s begin to explore what’s happening ontologically when we practice yoga nidra. Ontology is a lens to study being from a philosophical perspective. In the case of yoga nidra, the ontology of this practice is ancient, with the first textual reference to it being found in the sacred Upanishads scriptures. If we analyze something like a yoga practice ontologically, we’re looking at philosophical or ideological descriptions of the spectrum of our consciousness.
Looking from this perspective, the ontology of yoga nidra describes five distinct states of being, or koshas, that we move through when engaging in this practice. These koshas, which have been described as layers or sheaths, progress from “denser” (more concrete, physical) states to “subtler” (less concrete, metaphysical) states.
Let’s have a look at each of these koshas and their unique traits.
- Anamaya Kosha — Also known as the “foodstuffs” layer, this is the ‘densest’ layer and it includes all physical material. Our bodies and the food that we eat are both in this category. Anything that is solid and can be touched in nature falls into this kosha.
- Pranamaya Kosha — The next most subtle/least dense layer, this kosha is one of breath (prana), life force, and energy.
- Manomaya Kosha — This kosha is in the realm of the mind and emotion. Our judgments and lists of what we like and don’t like are home here.
- Vijnanamaya Kosha — This kosha represents wisdom. When we take a moment to pause before reacting to stimulus, exercise creativity, enter flow states, practice divination, and consider what we’re committed to, it can be said that we are operating from this Kosha. It is very therapeutic to engage with this kosha.
- Anandamaya Kosha — This is the kosha of the pure being. It is the most subtle, least dense state of being in the ontology of yoga nidra. It can be thought of as a blissful state with little separation from the divine. It is characterized by wholeness, contentment, peace, and true restfulness.
By focusing on the breath and methodically and mindfully engaging with different parts of the body, we are able to move through these Koshas and relieve our overall tension and stress.
Conclusion and what now?
As you can see, yoga nidra is a deeply rejuvenating practice for the mind, body, and consciousness. It’s been used in India for millennia; today, more people in the Western world are beginning to see the immense value it can bring to humans’ overall well being.
So, what now? The unfortunate reality is that most studies show us that changing lifestyle habits is incredibly challenging and rare. It is difficult to begin with, and becomes more difficult, is less likely as we age. Maybe the philosophical context and scientific backing is exactly what will begin to break up the skepticism around how this and other holistic healing modalities actually work.
As students and instructors of yoga nidra, we are the lucky ones! We have an amazing opportunity to share this practice in our yoga classes and along with other practical tools for inner peace to benefit people in ways that will truly transform their lives. We also get to experience this transformation directly and see firsthand how this deep relaxation technique helps our whole self manage stress and live life from a place of profound internal peace, clarity, and stability.
The Flow and Restore Collective is committed to seeing that holistic wellness practices are made as available and accessible to the average person as any other Western Clinical Practice is for maintaining their health and wellbeing, healing from illness, or treating a chronic condition.
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