In the modern scenario, human life has become very fast, hectic and demanding. The present lifestyle demands adjustment on the part of the individual. Each of us, as per our coping resources, tries to adjust in this changing world. Some adjust by becoming overactive and others by withdrawing from the situation. When we fail to make a proper adjustment according to the demands of the situation, a state of negative stress or distress develops in our personality, which gives rise to mental or psychological problems. In most people the mind always remains in a state of arousal and tension. Yoga Nidra, as a technique of pratyahara, not only provides relaxation to the body and mind but also has a number of benefits.
Yoga nidra is one of the practices of pratyahara where the awareness is internalized. Literally, yoga nidra means ‘psychic sleep’ i.e. sleep with full awareness. In the practice of yoga nidra the body sleeps but the mind remains awake listening to the instructions. In psychology, the state achieved in yoga nidra is termed the hypnogogic state, a state between sleep and wakefulness. Yoga nidra has its origin in the ancient tantric practice called nyasa. It was Swami Satyananda Saraswati (1998) who adapted and presented the practice of yoga nidra in a systematic and scientific way in the 1960s.
Stages of yoga nidra
The practice of yoga nidra is divided into the following stages:
- Preparation: Yoga nidra is performed in the posture of shavasana, with the eyes closed. In this stage, initial relaxation of the body and mind is induced by the awareness of stillness, comfort, posture, position, breath, and listening to the external sounds with the attitude of a witness.
- Sankalpa: When the body and mind are relaxed, then the practitioner is instructed to take a resolve according to his or her own wish. The sankalpa should be short, clear and positive. The practitioner repeats the selected sankalpa three times mentally, with full determination, conviction and confidence.
- Rotation of consciousness: In the third stage, the awareness is rotated around the different body parts in a systematic and organized manner. The practitioner is instructed to remain aware, to listen to the instructions and to move the mind very rapidly according to the instructions without making any physical movements. The rotation of awareness in yoga nidra follows a definite sequence: right side of the body, beginning with the right hand thumb and ending with the little toe of the right foot; left side of the body, from the left hand thumb to the little toe of the left foot; back of the body, from the heels to the back of the head; and lastly the front of the body, from the forehead and individual facial features to the legs.
- Breath awareness: In this stage, one simply becomes aware of the natural breath without making an attempt to change the flow of the breath. One may become aware of the breath by watching it in the nostrils, chest, and abdomen, or in the passage between the navel and the throat. The practitioner becomes aware of each incoming and outgoing breath by counting them mentally.
- Opposite feelings and sensations: In this stage, the physical or emotional sensations are recalled, intensified and experienced fully. Usually this is practised with pairs of opposite feelings or sensations like heat and cold, heaviness and lightness, pain and pleasure, love and hate, and so on.
- Visualization: In the stage of visualization, the awareness is taken to the dark space in front of the closed eyes, referred to as chidakasha in yogic terminology. The practitioner is then instructed to visualize some objects, stories or situations in the chidakasha.
- Sankalpa: Once again the sankalpa, taken in stage two, is repeated mentally three times in this stage with full dedication, faith and optimism.
- Ending the practice: Before ending the session of yoga nidra, slowly the awareness is externalized by asking the practitioner to become aware of the external sounds, objects and persons. They are asked then to slowly move the body parts and to stretch the body.
Benefits of yoga nidra
The practice of yoga nidra has a number of benefits. Important among them are as follows.
Minimizes tension: In the modern world the international problem is not poverty, drugs or fear of war; it is tension and only tension. A high percentage of people remain in a state of tension and frustration. This continuous level of tension in the body, mind and emotions predisposes the individual towards psychological and psychosomatic disorders. Modern psychology as well as yogic philosophy believes in three kinds of tension – muscular tensions, emotional tensions and mental tensions – which can be progressively released through the systematic and regular practice of yoga nidra. Muscular tension results from nervous and endocrinal imbalances. It manifests in the form of stiffness and rigidity in the physical body. In the practice of yoga nidra the body is progressively relaxed, which in turn releases the accumulated muscular tensions.
In day to day life individuals fail to express their emotions freely and openly. As a result, the emotions are repressed and manifest in the form of emotional tension. In the practice of yoga nidra, the practitioner slowly moves towards the deeper realms of the mind where he or she confronts the deep-rooted emotional tensions. When the practitioner recognizes these emotional tensions with full awareness and a witnessing attitude, then repressed emotions are released and the practitioner becomes calm and tranquil.
Due to excessive activity on the mental plane, the mind always remains in a state of arousal, which results in mental tension. Throughout life the mind is fed with negative data. In the practice of yoga nidra, especially in rotation of consciousness and breath awareness, the mind is relaxed, thereby releasing the mental tensions. In this way, through the regular and sincere practice of yoga nidra, tensions at the physical, emotional and mental level can be minimized. According to Swami Satyananda (1998), “a single hour of yoga nidra is as restful as four hours of conventional sleep”.
Trains the mind: The sankalpa taken in each session of yoga nidra is perhaps the most effective technique for training the mind. Swami Satyananda (1998) says, “anything in life can fail you, but not the sankalpa made during yoga nidra”. The sankalpa is taken and sowed in the subconscious mind when it is relaxed and receptive. The subconscious mind is very obedient and hence carries out the orders immediately. In yoga nidra, the sankalpa trains the subconscious mind, and then the ordinary mind follows the path automatically. The sankalpa helps in training the mind because it is planted when the mind is relaxed and ready to absorb and accept it. The essential thing is that the resolve should be planted with strong willpower and feeling. Many people make conscious resolves guided by intellect, which rarely bring results. Swami Satyananda (1998) says, “the sankalpa taken at the beginning of yoga nidra is like sowing a seed, and the sankalpa at the end is like irrigating it. So, the resolve taken in yoga nidra always brings result, if it is taken sincerely”.
Relaxes the mind: The brain is the linking mediator between the mind, body and emotions. In yoga nidra intensifying the awareness of the body stimulates the brain. When the awareness is rotated on the different body parts, it not only induces physical relaxation but also clears the nerve pathways to the brain. Each of the body parts has an existing centre in the cerebral white matter, named by researchers as ‘motor homunculus’ or ‘little man’. The sequence of rotation of awareness in yoga nidra is in accordance with the map in the cerebral white matter of the brain. When the awareness is rotated in the same sequence again and again, it induces a flow of pranic energy within the neuronal circuit of the motor homunculus of the brain. This pranic flow brings in a subjective experience of relaxation in the brain.
In one of the stages of yoga nidra a pair of opposite feelings or sensations is intensified again and again in the practitioner. This continuous invocation of opposite feelings or sensations is in accordance with the elecetrophysiological operating principles of the brain. When a neuron fires, it produces a nerve impulse which is relayed and registered in the brain. But if the same neuron keeps on firing again and again, then its relayed impulse is no longer registered by the brain. Researchers have called this ‘phenomenon habituation’. When the brain becomes accustomed to the stimulus, then gradually it becomes relaxed. The state where the brain is completely relaxed results in mental relaxation. Sannyasi Mangalteertham (1998) concluded on the basis of his study that the practice of yoga nidra brings alpha dominance in the brain, which is characterized by mental relaxation.
Clears up the unconscious: From early childhood, we tend to repress many wishes, desires and conflicts. Whenever a situation threatens the ego, the defence mechanisms are called upon and the conflicting situation is repressed or suppressed to the unconscious. All the traumatic experiences, unfulfilled desires and threatening situations are suppressed by the ego to the subconscious and unconscious realms of the mind. In the deeper realms of the mind this conflicting and frustrating matter does not die but remains alive and later manifests in the form of various pathological symptoms. The repressed desires, wishes and situations remain in the form of symbols in the unconscious mind. During the practice of yoga nidra, the instructor asks the practitioner to visualize certain symbols and images with a witnessing attitude. If the symbols and images are selected properly, then they are in accordance with the symbols of the unconscious. An abstract association is created between the guided imagery and the associated repressed experiences of the unconscious. For example, if the teacher instructs the practitioner to visualize a dog, this may bring out a past traumatic childhood experience in which the practitioner was bitten by a dog. The practitioner observes this associated painful experience with a witnessing attitude, which helps in cutting off the personal identification with the experience. When the personal identification ceases to be cut off, the painful experience associated with the dog is repressed again. In this way, the practice of visualization brings the unconscious repressed desires, experiences, conflicts and frustrations to the conscious level and then cuts off the personal identification with those experiences. As a result, the unconscious is cleared up.
Awakens creativity: Several examples from the past indicate that creativity is a characteristic of a relaxed and calm mind. When the mind is totally relaxed, the awareness slowly enters the deeper realms (subconscious and unconscious) of the mind and the person becomes aware of the creative and intuitive faculties. Whether it be Newton or Einstein or Mozart, all made significant and vital contributions in the field of creativity when they allowed themselves to relax deeply enough for the images and forms of their unconscious mind to manifest as solutions to their particular problems. Regular practice of yoga nidra helps in making a bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind. Slowly one becomes tuned with the unconscious workings and then the power of creativity automatically awakens.
Enhances memory and learning capacity: The present popular method of teaching is classroom teaching using rewards and punishments. This method may be good for the intelligent students but is not beneficial for the dull students because the conscious brain or intellect of these students is incapable of receiving the information directly. The technique of yoga nidra can be used as an educational tool for such dull children, where the knowledge is transmitted directly into the subconscious mind. The technique of yoga nidra is helpful in increasing learning and memory capacity. When yoga nidra is used in education, both hemispheres of the student’s brain are involved in learning the subject, whereas in classroom teaching the left hemisphere functions more. In this way, the practice of yoga nidra involves the total mind in learning.
Counteracts stress: Stress is a cognitive or emotional response made by the individual towards any situation, which demands adjustment. When the demands of the situation exceed the ability of the individual then distress results, which may manifest in mental and physical symptoms of abnormality. The practice of yoga nidra helps in building up the coping ability. The practitioner of yoga nidra slowly becomes aware of the inherent dormant potentialities and thus prevents himself from becoming a victim of distress. Udupa (1977) suggests that stress-related disorders evolve gradually through four stages. In the first stage, psychological symptoms like anxiety and irritability arise due to overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system. The second stage is characterized by related physical symptoms like high blood pressure, increased heart rate etc. In the third stage, the abnormalities manifest clinically in the organ systems. In the last stage, severe symptoms in particular organs result which need long-term medical management.
Yoga nidra is now prescribed by doctors in many countries both as a preventive and curative therapy in the first three stages of stress-related disease. During stress the sympathetic nervous system becomes activated due to which the organism adopts the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. In normal circumstances, the parasympathetic system takes over after the emergency goes. But mostly it has been seen that the sympathetic system remains active most of the time resulting in the experience of distress (Selye, 1974). In yoga nidra an attempt is made to activate the parasympathetic system, and slowly a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems is achieved by inducing complete physical, emotional and mental relaxation. In this way the practice of yoga nidra counteracts stress. Carrington et al (1980) concluded that yoga nidra has its most widespread application as a preventive measure to be practised by healthy, active people as a means of relieving accumulated tensions, increasing stress resistance and overall efficiency, and preventing the development of stress-related diseases.
Manages psychological disorders: When the individual fails to adjust to the situation, then distress results. Some individuals are prone to developing distress due to their unconscious urge to remain tense. When distress continues for a long period, it may result in psychological disorders like neuroses or even psychoses. In the practice of yoga nidra, the inherent tendency to become tense is rooted out and the individual starts viewing the situation as less demanding. Gersten (1978) said that the practitioner of yoga nidra becomes his own psychotherapist, recognizing and systematically alleviating his own personal problems and interpersonal difficulties. Various researches show that the technique of yoga nidra can be successfully administered to manage various psychological disorders.
Manages psychosomatic diseases: When the tensions, conflicts and frustrations of the mind manifest in the form of physical symptoms, those diseases are termed as psychosomatic diseases. Yoga nidra aims at releasing the suppressed and repressed conflicts from the unconscious, thereby relaxing the mind. When the potent cause (tense mind) of psychosomatic disorders is managed, the disease could also be cured. The practice of various stages of yoga nidra, like sankalpa, muscular relaxation, breath awareness and guided imagery, have been found to be a significant and effective mode of therapy for asthmatics (Erskine & Schonell, 1981). Gupta et. al. (1979) reported that 18 out of 27 asthmatic patients showed improvement in respiratory function and greater freedom of breathing after intensive training in yoga nidra, and 63% had definite relaxation and dilation of the bronchial tubes when tested on a spirometer. Jansson (1979) reported that after three weeks of relaxation training the symptoms of colonic irritability significantly reduced. In the case of cardiac patients, Cooper (1979) reported that yoga nidra significantly lowered levels of serum cholesterol in cardiac patients. Researches also show that the practice of yoga nidra lowers the elevated blood pressure levels of hypertensive patients (Datey et al, 1977; Bali, 1979). In this way, researches show that the practice of yoga nidra effectively manages various psychosomatic diseases.
Cancer and yoga nidra: As a technique of meditation, yoga nidra can be adopted as a therapeutic model in the treatment of cancer. In cancer therapy yoga nidra works at four different levels:
By releasing repressed matter: Researches on cancer have brought out the fact that the repressed and suppressed material of the subconscious and unconscious mind reinforces the multiplication of anarchic tumour cells, resulting in cancer. In yoga nidra, cancer patients are taught to relax in a true sense. In the state of complete relaxation patients practise the technique of visualization, which helps in bringing up the repressed unconscious matter to the present area of awareness. When these repressions are observed with a witnessing attitude, the ego identity is cut off and no more repression or suppression takes place. In this way, slowly the reinforcing factor of cancer is rooted out.
By pranic healing: In the practice of yoga nidra, the subtle bioplasmic energy, prana, is awakened and mobilized throughout the body. The practitioner is asked to consciously imagine the flow of light or energy within healing the infected area of the body. Slowly this conscious imagination activates the dormant self-healing capacity and actual healing takes place in the patient. This kind of healing is termed pranic healing.
By mental healing: In yoga nidra, healing can also be initiated on the mental plane through the technique of visualization. Here the cancer is visualized shrinking in size; an army of white blood cells is visualized fighting the cancer cells. This results in the activation of dormant mental power i.e. the power of the unconscious to heal the infected part. When the body is visualized to be in perfect health again and again, the inherent potency of the mind actually starts healing the cancer.
By promoting willpower: In most cases of cancer the patients become devoid of hope and give up the fight against the disease, which further worsens the situation. To overcome cancer, enormous willpower and sustained endurance is needed. For this purpose, sankalpa is practised in yoga nidra. The sankalpa helps in building up willpower and optimism in the patient because it is sowed in the subconscious and unconscious mind again and again.
In this way, by developing confidence, willpower and optimism, by clearing up the unconscious repression, and by healing the cancer site at the pranic and mental levels, yoga nidra may help to cure cancer. This fact has been supported by the study of Simonton (1972) who found in controlled trials that a specific form of yoga nidra significantly increased the life span of cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy.
From the above discussion, it becomes clear that the technique of yoga nidra has preventive, promotive and curative value. It prevents stress and stress-related disorders by inducing deep physical, emotional and mental relaxation, by training the mind to remain calm and quiet and by rooting out the repressed desires and thoughts from the deeper realms of the mind. As a promotive science, yoga nidra awakens the inherent creativity and promotes the learning and memory abilities of the practitioner. Researches also indicate that yoga nidra can be used as a therapeutic technique to cure psychological disorders like anxiety, hostility, insomnia etc. and psychosomatic diseases like asthma, coronary heart disease, cancer, hypertension etc. In our present modern lifestyle, where psychological and psychosomatic problems are on the rise, the technique of yoga nidra may serve as a real boon for mankind.