It was Christmas Day
My in-laws were going to be at the apartment in one hour. I was juggling a million things at once, double checking if everything would be prepared for them by the time they arrived, and all I could think about was the first day of my 300-hour teacher training at ISHTA Yoga, a yoga studio on New York City. I had been preparing for this training for months: practicing yoga every day, being mindful of my diet, and even though I was putting in extra hours at work to make up for the time I’d be taking off, I made sure I got at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Then, all of a sudden, after bending down to pick up a paper towel, I tried to stand up and all I could think was “what the hell is that?!” I could barely stand up straight. Turns out, I had herniated my L5 and my S1 vertebra. It wasn’t until four months later that I would be able to breathe without pain. But for those four months, my life as I knew it had changed. My active lifestyle was brought to a halt. And even worse, the pain was so intense that I could not get to sleep on any given night.
But I was in denial. I thought, There’s no way I am going to allow this injury to stand in the way of my normal, everyday life, including my sleep. Not only was the pain of my injury getting in the way of my sleeping, but the stress of trying to get to sleep was keeping me awake. Every night, my mind began to race and my breathing became shallow. I had to find a way to let go. Then, one weekend during teacher training, I was introduced to Yoga Nidra.
Yoga Nidra is a guided meditation that is usually practiced in savasana. Savasana in Sanskrit means “corpse pose” and is a pose of total relaxation, meaning that it’s one of the most challenging poses to do correctly. Yoga Nidra is based on an ancient tantric technique called nyasa. In nyasa, the practitioner holds his/her awareness on a particular part of the body for an extended period of time. We use nyasa in a rotation of awareness throughout different parts of the body to both relax it and make it more conscious. We use the pairing of opposites and visualization to purge the subconscious and unconscious, which is what governs our behavior.
In Sanskrit, nidra means sleep. In Yoga Nidra, we bring ourselves into the state between sleeping and dreaming, which is most often referred to as the “hypnagogic state.” This state, which occurs right before we fall asleep, does not usually last for more than five minutes and is characterized by Alpha brain waves.
All of us have five (Beta, Alpha, Theta, Delta, and Gamma) brain frequencies, each with their own set of characteristics representing a specific level of brain activity and a unique state of consciousness. One particular brain wave will have to be dominant depending on the state of consciousness that you are in. For example, Beta waves are known as high frequency, low amplitude brain waves that are commonly observed while we are awake. They are involved in conscious thought, logical thinking and tend to have a stimulating effect. Having the right amount of Beta waves allows us to focus and complete school or work-based tasks swiftly. Higher Beta frequencies are associated with high levels of arousal. When you drink caffeine or have another stimulant, your Beta activity will naturally increase. Think of these as being very fast brain waves that most people exhibit throughout the day in order to complete conscious tasks such as: critical thinking, wringing, reading, socialization. Beta brain frequencies range from 12 Hz – 40 Hz.
The Alpha brainwave frequency bridges the gap between our conscious thinking and subconscious mind. In other words, Alpha is the frequency range between Beta and Theta. It helps us calm down when necessary and promotes feelings of deep relaxation. Alpha brain waves are usually present when the eyes are closed when you’re slipping into a lovely daydream, or during light meditation. It is an optimal time to program the mind for success. It also heightens your imagination, visualization, memory, learning, and concentration. It is the gateway to your subconscious mind and lies at the base of your conscious awareness. The voice of Alpha is your intuition, which becomes clearer and more profound the closer you get to 7.5 Hz.
In Yoga Nidra we train ourselves to lengthen the amount of time we spend in the hypnagogic state, holding our consciousness between wakefulness and sleep. By remaining awake and alert in the Alpha predominant state, we experience total relaxation and are able to tap into the subconscious and unconscious.
Just twenty minutes of Yoga Nidra is often compared to four hours of sleep. This is because in Yoga Nidra, we are maintaining a deep state of relaxation, which we might not even get when we’re sleeping. If we fall asleep without spending at least five minutes with the brainwaves in Alpha rhythm, we often wake up feeling exhausted. In Yoga Nidra we’re lengthening the time we spend in that rhythm before we falling asleep, leaving us feeling restored and well-rested. Many use Yoga Nidra as a technique to slow the mind down and eventually fall asleep.
To induce sleep, Yoga Nidra should be practiced in bed. To begin, you can prepare the body for the surrender of savasana by drawing your knees into your chest while giving yourself a big bear hug. Prop your knees up with pillows. This allows your lower back to relax and is perfect for anyone with lower back tightness or injuries. Check to make sure your neck is long and lengthened as it rests on your pillow. Lay your arms beside you with your palms facing up. Savasana is also known as Mrtasana, incorporating the word mrta, meaning “death,” and sava, “corpse.” Savasana gives you the opportunity to surrender into the earth that supports you and allows you to find Ishvarapranidhana, the release into the supreme love and respect for our connection with things greater than ourselves. It is in this surrender of savasana, usually done during the last 10-15 minutes of most yoga classes, where we practice our most important release and our final slumber: death. In this moment, we surrender into what is.
Once in savasana and after several expansive breath cycles, you’re ready to begin your Yoga Nidra wind-down. In this preparation stage, you’ll find that your body and mind are induced by the awareness of stillness, comfort, posture, position, breath, and listening to the external sounds happening around you. This is when you start entering sankalpu, when the body and mind are in a relaxed state. Now is when the rotation of consciousness begins. The practitioner guides the awareness by rotating through different body parts in a systematic way, forming a circuit of energy passing through various energy points in the body. The key is to stay aware, listen to the instructions, and to move the mind accordingly without any physical movement, resting on each area for 2-5 seconds: forehead, throat, right shoulder, right elbow, right wrist, tip of right thumb, tip of right index finger, tip of right middle finger, all the way down to the center of your chest, the left side of chest, back to the center of your chest, the navel, lower abdomen, etc. Once the rotation of consciousness is completed, the practitioner will bring your attention to breath awareness. In this stage, the practitioner becomes mindful of the natural breath without changing the flow, watching it in your mind’s eye, and guiding you to feel it in the nostrils, chest, and abdomen. Before ending a Yoga Nidra session, the awareness will become slowly externalized: you’ll be directed to become aware of external sounds and allow yourself to melt into your bed (if you make it to that point) where most often, you’ll find that you’ve already fallen fast asleep.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “How am I going to relax and fall asleep when I’m thinking of every step and Sanskrit word?” You don’t have to memorize anything. There are plenty of Yoga Nidra sessions available to you on YouTube, Yogaglo, and iTunes, making it an easy and accessible way for you to release your stresses, tensions, and anxieties like I did.
For obvious reasons, Yoga Nidra is my go-to sleeping tool that I use every night and in my personal practice. Its effects have been life-changing not only for my sleep but for my back pain. My back has more-so completely healed, and now there are other injuries, operations, and daily stresses that have challenged the quality of my sleep. But whether it’s pain associated with these injuries or just difficulty in quieting my mind, Yoga Nidra consistently brings me to the most peaceful sleep I’ve ever had.
Originally submitted for Issue 8 of Undo Magazine.
Writer – CHELSEA SCOTT