In times of stress, many people cope by turning to yoga or meditation. Yoga nidra is a practice that's especially effective at reducing stress and anxiety and can even help with insomnia.
What Is Yoga Nidra?
In many ways, yoga nidra is more similar to meditation than to what most people think of as yoga. It doesn’t involve any stretches or poses. Yoga nidra instead focuses on relaxing and reaching deep consciousness.
But unlike meditation, yoga nidra is done while lying down. It also involves more structure than guided meditation, with 10 primary steps. A session that lasts about 45 minutes is ideal, but if you’re just starting out or don’t have that much time, you can certainly do a shorter session. Yoga nidra can be practiced on your own or in a classroom setting.
Yoga Nidra Explained
Yoga nidra works by tapping into your autonomic nervous system, which is the system in charge of the things your body does automatically, like maintaining your heart beat, blood pressure, body temperature, digestion, and metabolism.
The autonomic nervous system is made up of two parts — the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system helps your body manage stressful or emergency situations by controlling your fight-or-flight response. An engaged sympathetic nervous system may result in:
- Accelerated heart rate
- Dilated pupils
- Widened airways to make breathing easier
- Increased muscular strength
- Sweaty palms
- Slowed digestion
Sometimes, your body may get stuck in fight-or-flight mode. Practices like meditation and yoga nidra can help calm your sympathetic nervous system and allow the parasympathetic nervous system to take charge. The parasympathetic nervous system controls your body when it’s in neutral and works to conserve and restore energy.
Your brain’s activity can be measured by the frequency of your brain waves. There are five types of brain waves:
- Beta brainwaves cause an awake, normal, and alert state.
- SMR brainwaves create a calm, quietly alert state.
- Alpha brainwaves create a relaxed and calm brain state.
- Theta brainwaves cause a deeply relaxed or meditative brain state.
- Delta brainwaves cause a deep, dreamless sleep.
Theta brainwaves are notably involved in meditation. They're also involved in daydreaming and some of the lighter stages of sleep. Yoga nidra allows you to access delta brainwaves, which are responsible for the healing and restoration that happens in your body during deep sleep.
Activating delta brainwaves during yoga nidra allows your mind and body to rest while you're awake. Yoga nidra also activates the pineal gland. The pineal gland is a tiny gland, about the size and shape of a pea, that sits at the top of your brain stem. It’s part of your endocrine system, which secretes hormones.
The main job of the pineal gland is to control your circadian rhythm, otherwise known as your body’s sleep/wake cycle. It does this by secreting the hormone melatonin, which is mainly known for synchronizing your circadian rhythm but also helps regulate menstrual cycles and prevent neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. By activating the pineal gland, yoga nidra also helps activate the release of melatonin.
Yoga Nidra Benefits
Research has shown that yoga nidra can help reduce stress, anxiety, and insomnia.
A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Yoga recruited 60 college professors and divided them into three groups: a group that practiced yoga nidra, a group that practiced meditation, and a control group. Over 3 months, researchers monitored the participants’ stress, anxiety, and depression levels. They found that although both yoga nidra and meditation were effective tools for managing stress, yoga nidra was better at reducing anxiety.
A 2017 case study published in Sleep Science Practice looked at the effects of yoga nidra on chronic insomnia. This was a small study with only two participants, but both patients benefited from practicing yoga nidra.
The first patient slept for the same amount of time as usual each night, but was able to fall asleep faster when they practiced yoga nidra before going to bed. The second patient was also able to fall asleep faster but additionally reported being able to stay asleep for a longer time.
Yoga Nidra For Beginners
If you’ve never tried yoga nidra before, there are multiple places online where you can find audio recordings and videos to guide you. Don’t feel obligated to try a long yoga nidra session when you’re first starting out.
Dr. Richard Miller, psychologist, yoga scholar, author, and founder of the iRest Institute, offers a 10-step guide for practicing yoga nidra for deep rest. Before you begin, make sure you're lying comfortably on the floor or in bed. If needed, you can support your lower back, spine, or head with a yoga mat or blanket. Try to practice in a dark room, and cover your body with a blanket if you’re concerned about getting cold.
Here are the 10 steps:
- Connect to your heartfelt desire. This desire could be a life goal or wish. Feel this desire with your entire body.
- Set an intention. Think about what you want to accomplish in this yoga nidra session.
- Find your inner resource. This is similar to the idea of “go to your happy place.” Think of a place or experience that makes you feel secure.
- Feel your body. Move your attention throughout your body, feeling the sensations in each area.
- Be aware of your breath. Feel each breath and the way it moves through your body.
- Welcome your emotions. Don’t try to change them. Allow yourself to experience your emotions and recognize how they feel in your body.
- Witness your thoughts. Allow your thoughts to flow as a stream of consciousness.
- Experience joy. Welcome feelings of warmth, joy, and security into your body and mind.
- Find lasting peace. Don’t overthink them, but observe and accept your feelings.
- Reflect. Take a moment to look back on your yoga nidra session and what you’ve accomplished.