Pause for a moment and ask yourself: does stress really affect my health? If your answer is “No,” think again. Medical researchers estimate that up to 90% of illness and disease is stress-related. Something as slight as a cold to the more crippling ailments of heart disease and cancer can be stress’s accomplices. Some claim that no matter what you do-whether you work too much or not at all-you still accumulate tension at the physical, mental, and emotional levels. While certainly yoga can help, stress and tension run deep and may require more attention.
Here’s where you can call on Yoga Nidra. Over thirty years ago, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, founder of the renowned Bihar School of Yoga in eastern India, adapted ancient tantric meditation techniques into a practice he calls Yoga Nidra, which he translates as “Psychic Sleep.” This practice induces complete relaxation while maintaining consciousness. The Swami calls the prolonged suspension between Yoga Nidra ‘s wakefulness and sleep the “hypnogogic state,” attesting that this place holds untold and far-reaching benefits. Here, our deepest levels of creativity and healing energies can awaken.
In this state one can ultimately change thought patterns– and even the personality-for the better. Yogis through the ages have known this, using the technique to purify samskaras, or the deep impressions and conditioned behaviors that are the driving forces behind our habitual negative reactions. Even if deep transformation is not your aim, you will be happy to know that you will emerge from Yoga Nidra feeling rested and ready to engage in the world (A 20-30 minute session of Yoga Nidra is said to be the equivalent of approximately 3 hours of deep sleep!).
This is good news, which Daniel N. Guerra, Psy.D, Director of Psychological Stress Management Services in New York City endorses. “In this fast-paced world that we live in, we have lost a much-needed connection with our minds and bodies,” he explains, ” Yoga Nidra helps to reestablish this connection and is beneficial on many levels. It brings muscular relaxation, better understanding, and control over our emotions and improved psychological health.”
One practices Yoga Nidra while lying in savasana (corpse pose) and following the spoken instructions of a teacher or recording. In the first phase of the session, you progressively relax your muscles by quickly rotating awareness through different parts of the body. The Swami drew this from the ancient tantric practice of nyasa (meaning “to place” or “to take the mind to that point”). This is followed by other tantric meditations: awakening the sensations of polar-opposites; awareness of the whole body, the brain, and internal organs; and feeling contact between the earth and the body. Next, you could be asked to focus on and count the breath in a particular way. The last phase is a rapid visualization of images from nature and abstract symbols.
An avid scientist, the Swami unravels the reasoning behind each of the stages. From the perspective of neurophysiology, he explains that each part of the body has a corresponding control center in the brain called the motor homunculus. The movement of awareness through different parts of the body, especially when done routinely over time, not only relaxes them but also clears nerve pathways to their parallel regions in this part of the brain. One result is less-fragmented awareness.
Next, the meditation on polar opposites stimulates the centers of the brain responsible for maintaining harmony between inner and outer environments. This helps to balance our basic drives. Finally, when asked to visualize these symbols rapidly, the conscious mind has no time to react. You remain detached and the ego becomes temporarily inactive. This phase helps to resolve suppressed conflicts, desires, memories and samskaras.
At the start and finish of each session, you will be asked to repeat a sankalpa, or resolve. It should be a short statement, phrased in positive language and in the present tense. Choose something that you would like to develop in your life that will have a positive effect. For example, your resolution could be: “I am at ease in all that I do.” This resolve gets embedded into the depths of your unconscious, where it will later bear fruit by motivating changes in behavior and lifestyle.
The next time you are feeling run-down, roll out your mat and fast forward– straight to savasana. Enjoy diving into the still and deep mystery of Yoga Nidra.