Thousands of years ago, yogis discovered they could bridge a sacred space between states of consciousness and sleep.
However, the formal meditation practice yogis use to achieve this state--known as yoga nidra, literally translating to “yogic sleep”--only dates back about 50 years.
Yoga nidra is more than just a spiritual practice: it’s also rooted in science. EEG brain scans show that yoga nidra triggers theta-wave activity that mimics sleep, indicating that the yogi is literally conscious and asleep at the same time while practicing.
“We need to sleep, and that’s why people are so drawn to yoga nidra,” says Jennifer Reis, founder of Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra.
According to Reis, some swamis believe 20 minutes of yoga nidra is the equivalent of two to three hours of deep sleep. The practice balances the “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” nervous systems in the body, shifts brain wave activity and even fights insomnia, anxiety and depression. In a country where 35 percent of us are chronically sleep-deprived and 18 percent have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, it’s no wonder the practice of yoga nidra has become so popular.
Yoga nidra gets its mental-health-boosting properties from the transition from beta-wave to alpha-wave brain activity, which occurs during both yogic meditation and sleep. During this shift, the body’s serotonin production skyrockets while cortisol levels plummet. The result? A blissful state of rest and relaxation.
During a typical Divine Sleep practice, Reis guides students through eight stages, beginning with a body scan and reconnecting with the breath. According to Reis, Divine Sleep’s emphasis on breathwork sets it apart from other yoga nidra classes, allowing students to access their inner healing energy. As Anne Douglas, founder of Anahata Yoga Therapy and Senior Trainer at the iRest Institute, says, “Yoga is a form of meditation, and yoga nidra is a profound form of meditation."
Pioneered by Dr. Richard Miller, a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher, iRest blends traditional yoga nidra practice with therapeutic techniques, encouraging students to take advantage of their mindful state to challenge limiting beliefs.
In addition to offering guided meditations to students, the iRest Institute has also pioneered research supporting the power of yoga nidra to address physical conditions like depression, chronic pain and even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
To best harness the physical and mental benefits of yoga nidra, Douglas suggests setting an intention at the beginning of practice, while Reis recommends starting with guided yoga nidra meditations, either seated or lying down, and gradually easing into independent practice.
Whether your goal is deep sleep, self-discovery or radical healing, practicing the technique of yoga nidra can help you reconnect with your inner purpose. Check out your local yoga studio for a yoga nidra class, or listen to one of these free, at-home yoga nidra meditations to start reaping the benefits of sleeping while awake!