Yoga Nidra as Medicine for These Times
Updated: Aug 21, 2022
Feb 9 Written By Sarah Aborn
Yoga Nidra is a deeply relaxing, meditative practice done laying down in savasana (corpse pose). The practitioner is guided through pancha maya kosha (the five layers of self) in a systematic method that promotes deep, nourishing rest and transformative healing. It is accessible to nearly everybody and easy to implement as a regular practice. The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root Yuj, meaning to yoke together. Yoga is not what people in the West tend to think it is. It is a spiritual practice that remembers and celebrates the natural union of body and mind, of self and other. It is the act of bringing our perception of duality and division back to the truth of our exquisite diversity within our oneness.
The word Nidra has THREE meanings - she is a Goddess, a practice, and a state of being. Ni: the void, the place we touch in death and even in deep sleep. Dru: to draw forth from
So, in this practice, we visit the Mother Goddess that is the dark, empty void, the place of nothingness, yet pregnant with universes and all of creation - manifest and unmanifest. From this rejuvenating place we bring back potent medicine, aligned with our heart’s deepest longing. The result is a greater recognition of our wholeness and oneness, accompanied by updated shifts made to the beliefs that are wired throughout our neural networks.
When we are in deep sleep, our bodies go into Delta brainwave activity. It is in Delta that the Human Growth Hormone is created. HGH helps to maintain, build, and repair healthy tissue in the brain and other organs. This hormone can help to speed up healing after an injury, build muscle, boost metabolism, and benefit the skin. Delta merges us back with the Void. It’s when we are in this slow and low Delta state, that we are presented back into the Cosmic Womb. We are taught to fear the unknown, the mystery, the darkness, this Void. However, this is where our regeneration takes place, not only physically, but on the levels of the mind, emotions and soul. It is where we touch into the love, the wisdom, and the truth of the universe. It’s where renewal awaits us. The author John Steinbeck once said: “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
Which brings us to a quick lesson in Brainwaves:
Gamma is the fastest vibrating wave that we know of. This is a highly focused state, where we are fully awake and aware and completely immersed in what we are doing. Much more typically, we operate on a level stepped down from Gamma, in Beta. This is our normal waking state where we are tasking and taking care of business. When we are relaxed and in a creative flow, or playing we are in Alpha. As we relax deeper, such as immersed in meditation, a daydream, or transitioning into sleep, we come into Theta. When we are running Theta it only takes TWO REPETITIONS of a thought to create a new neural pathway, vs. the THOUSAND it takes in Beta, our activated, waking state. This is incredibly useful! What a very efficient way to affect fundamental change to our limiting beliefs - so much better than trying to hammer home affirmations and resolutions, or talking something to death in therapy. After Theta we come into Delta where we merge with the Void…In Nidra we are able to touch this state with our awareness intact.
Long before any knowledge of brainwaves, ancient Non-Dual Tantra texts made many references to the Four States of Consciousness, which are explained in the Advaita Vedanta as follows: Jagrat (Wakefulness), Svapna (Dreaming), Sushupti (Deep Sleep), and Turya (Connection with all, a recognition of interconnected oneness). This state is the common thread - the only one present through all four states, experienced as pure awareness. They also speak of a state "beyond the fourth," or beyond Turya, where we are fully immersed in this oneness, where duality dissolves and subject and object cease to be regarded as separate. Knower, knowing, and known are experienced as inseparable.
To remain awake and aware throughout all four states and into the state beyond Turya, is the goal of Yoga Nidra. There is a vital transitional "gap" between each of the four states that the Yogis were very interested in accessing. These gaps happen throughout the day and if we can catch one as it's happening, we can touch into Turya. As described in Kashmir Shaivism: The Secret Supreme: "This gap is a junction between the waking state and the dreaming state. There is also a junction between the dreaming state and the dreamless sound sleep, and there is a junction between sound sleep and the waking state. This junction is only a gate, the entrance to Turya...". The ancient Tantrikas knew these transitional states to be rich portals of potential for our spiritual evolution, in particular the transition between waking and sleep. Verse 75 of Swami Lakshmanjoo's translation of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra says, "By entering that state that precedes sleep, where the awareness of the outer world has faded, the mind is absorbed in the threshold state which the Supreme Goddess illumines". Further instruction encourages us to rest our awareness at Anahata Chakra (the Heart center), when we are fortunate enough to be aware of this gateway gap to Turya, as it is happening.
Albert Einstein – who, by the way, was known to give himself 10 HOURS of sleep a night –would take these short naps during the day to access this transitional state, known today as the “hypnogogic state”. He would sit in a chair, holding a fork in his hand with a metal plate on the floor beside him so that just when he fell asleep the fork would fall out of his hand, hit the plate and wake him up providing him with otherworldly insight. Thomas Edison had a similar process he used when he was stumped. He'd set himself up to nap in a chair, holding marbles, and when he was about to nod off, the marbles would fall and the noise woke him up, at which point he frequently had that eureka discovery that solved his challenge. Salvador Dali, Edgar Allan Poe, and Leonardo DaVinci were also said to hack into this hypnogogic state in similar ways.
The neuroscientist Nkechi Njaka describes this potent transitional gap this way: "Hypnagogia is the liminal space that exists between wakefulness and sleep - beginning at the onset, when the mind is first impacted by sleepiness, and concluding when the mind finally loses consciousness. This transitional phase lasts only a few minutes and includes lucid thought, lucid dreaming, and hallucinations. The experience of this space is far less immersive than a dream experienced in REM sleep and has often been a space artists rely on to amplify their creative expression".
Research shows that one hour of Yoga Nidra can be equivalent to 3-4 hours of sleep. Instead of taking a midday nap to relax your mind, try substituting this with a 30-minute session of Yoga Nidra.
We live in a culture that praises a patriarchal, white supremacist, capitalistic system, rooted in slavery. It sees bodies as tools for profit and bases our worth on how hard we work and how much we produce. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is a favorite saying in a land where ‘grind culture’ is exemplified. Rest is Resistance to this toxic system. And it is the way back to remembrance of our divinity. In rest we can hear the stirrings of our heart, the guidance of our ancestors, all of nature as one, and little by little, as we lean into this, the world begins to heal.
When we don’t sleep and we are in constant fight/flight/freeze/appease/dissociate, it slowly kills us. DEEP REST is our ticket to a modulated nervous system, where we soften and our cells can regenerate, our blood pressure can regulate, our digestion can operate, our tissues can repair - just to name a small handful of the physical benefits.
Rest is MEDICINE for mind, body, soul, community and Earth. And it is needed now. You can find Yoga Nidra videos on my YouTube channel, Sacredly Sustained.
Some logistics: Try to stay awake, but don’t try too hard. The idea with Nidra is that we are entering these deep states of consciousness while aware, but If you fall asleep it’s because you need it. If you become uncomfortable, there is NO SHAME in changing your position! You can come into a fetal position on your side, or you can even lay on your belly if that’s ok on your neck. Move slowly and tend to yourself as if you were tending to your Beloved. If laying down is too uncomfortable physically or mentally/emotionally (if you feel unsafe and this level of letting your guard down activates a trauma response), you are more than welcome to practice this sitting up with your back propped up with pillows against the wall. You may also choose to keep your eyes open, and even sit in a spot in the room that you feel comfortable, perhaps facing the door. Make it work for you.
Now, take some time to set up a deliciously cozy nest for yourself. Use a Yin Mat or plenty of blankets, props, padding beneath you, pillows under your knees, arms and head if you'd like.... More is more, not less is more. This is a yin, feminine practice. Let it be luxurious, sensual, soft and supportive.
Namasté ~ the light in me honors the light in you. When you are in your light and I am in mine, we are together as One.