Yoga Nidra: Enlightened Sleep
Updated: Jan 6, 2020
The studio where Jonas teaches here in Bali offers a modality of Yoga that often puzzles first-time students. Called 'Yoga Nidra,' most first-time nidra students come to these classes dressed as usual in tights and tanks, ready to contort their way into samadhi. But this form of Yoga –also known as ‘enlightened sleep’– does not require any movements on the part of the student, other than those produced by the belly as it relaxedly inhales and exhales while we lay on our back pretending to sleep.
The scriptures tell us that Yoga Nidra means “psychic sleep” (181*). But... what the hell is that? Essentially, ‘psychic sleep’ is a form of sleep where the student is expected to relax as much as possible without fully surrendering to the allure of real, proper, actual sleep. So, you can think of it as “a state of sleepless sleep where one is on the borderline between sleep and wakefulness” (181*). We relax enough to forget about the body, yet stay awake enough to listen to the instructions of our wise teacher.
As you know, our brain emits certain types of frequencies (waves) depending on the level of activity; or, put differently, on how aware and alert we are. In this regard, Yoga sees consciousness as separate from (if still related to) our nervous system. And so, for yogis it is absolutely reasonable to infer that, as our body eases into deeper and deeper states of relaxation by accessing increasingly lower brainwave frequencies, our nervous system also relaxes. Our consciousness is then given an unparalleled opportunity to rise into a 'higher state of being’ provided we have the tools to take it there. Which means that, by subjecting our nervous system to this thorough form of ritualized yogic relaxation, we are enabling our consciousness to explore ways of being in the world that are not circumscribed to embodied states, nor necessarily reduced to organized, linear, verbal thinking. Confused much? Lets unpack this idea a bit further.
Brain Waves, Sleep, and Nidra
Our brains emit four different types of waves. Beta waves are those we normally produce during everyday, wakeful states as we go through normal, daily life. Alpha waves are those we emit in moments of relaxation, in states of mild meditation, or also when we are being creative, for example. Some scholars call this level of awareness “passive awareness” (24*) in that we are immersed into a different state of consciousness from that of normal daily life, where the passing of time, bodily urges, or even regular thoughts drop somewhat into the background.
Theta waves are those we produce while we sleep, being thus related to unconscious processes, memory, and the integration of daily experiences. These may also manifest in deeper states of meditation. And finally, delta waves are the type of waves we experience during so-called “dreamless sleep” (25*): a state where we experience a lack of ‘conscious awareness,’ if you want, and that, as a result, we never even recall. This is the part where we know we were sleeping, yet no trace of dreaming can be found anywhere.
It is this final state, the delta state, that is most productive in the perspective of Yoga, and of Yoga Nidra in particular, because, as we enter the state of dreamless sleep, our “consciousness can leave its lower levels and reside in its true center” (129**). And why is residing in this 'true center' so important? –you may be wondering. Well, that is the place where, according to Yoga, all of us –and everything there is for that matter– ever came from. The locus of Illumination, God, Divine Wisdom, Fullness and Emptiness, Eternity, Zero, Oneness. All and nothing. The place all of us should be trying to get closer to by means of committed, daily practice.
Indeed, Yoga Nidra is believed to be “a state of awareness and contact with [both] the subconscious and higher consciousness” (181*) that can be utilized as a means to radically transform our psyche. Because, it is precisely when the walls separating conscious from unconscious are at their most tenuous and tender, that the greatest possibilities for positive transformation and healing are most readily at our disposal.
And so, in Yoga Nidra classes, students are guided into a state of profound relaxation where the active part of the mind is progressively switched off. In this somewhat passive, yet highly receptive state, students are given precise instructions meant to direct their now heightened awareness through the necessary steps required for their bodies to replenish, heal, or nourish fully –because normal daily sleep is often insufficient to allow for all of this–, as well as for the seed of greater cognition and transformation to actually be planted solidly. And though we go through this entire process while maintaining just a thread of awareness, this is a state that helps us become the detached observer of whatever may arise, but as a non-reactive witness.
So... Why Nidra?
As we’ve mentioned a bunch of times, the goal of Yoga is for us to train our bodies to relax and surrender enough so that the nervous system may quieten, our mind may stop is senseless wandering, and we may gain the space necessary to slowly become witnesses to the flow of our own stream of (heightened, possibly enlightened) consciousness. Nidra, in this regard, can be seen as a type of 'smart shortcut': an advanced, yet easily performed meditative practice. In fact, it is one of the few techniques out there that makes attaining a quasi-samadhi (or near-Turiya) state possible for all levels of practitioners. And, just in case you didn't know, it normally takes decades of sustained meditative practice for someone to reach even the lowest states of samadhi.
Samadhi is thus a state of heightened consciousness we all look forward to because of its ability to ‘enlighten’ and enliven us; because of its capacity to radically transform how we experience being alive. Hence, those of us practicing nidra do it, in part, because of this. For nidra provides us with a safe and enjoyable opportunity to change harmful thinking patterns, substitute these for positively charged new suggestions, make new and helpful resolutions and intentions (planting sankalpas midway through the meditation), and thus, contribute to the healing of past traumas, as well as to the materialization of some of our soul’s deepest desires.
So if you feel like you could you use a bit of 'spiritual micro-napping,' drop by one of Jonas' classes at The Practice Bali. We promise you will leave the session feeling more replenished and fresh than ever before after joining a Yoga class!
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* Meditations from the Tantras by Swami Satyananda Saraswati (2012 ).
** Yoga and Psychotherapy. The Evolution of Consciousness by Swami Rama et al. (1976).