An Introduction to Yoga Nidra

«Relaxation does not mean sleep. Relaxation means to be blissfully happy: it has no end. I call bliss absolute relaxation; sleep is a different matter. Sleep gives only mind and sense relaxation. Bliss relaxes the Atma, the inner self; that is why, in tantra, Yoga Nidra is the doorway to Samadhi.»

 Swami Satyananda Saraswati, from «Yoga Nidra» 1976

Yoga nidra is a systematic practice, both a meditation and a relaxation technique, derived from ancient tantra. It was developed by Swami Satyananda of the Binar School of Yoga in the seventies, as a technique to induce deep body-mind relaxation, with the ultimate goal of increasing self-awareness and enable exalted states of higher consciousness. 

Yoga nidra combines a body scan with breath awareness, and also adds in a visual and sensory component. Yoga Nidra is often referred to as ‘yogic sleep’, as it induces a state that is in between being awake and being asleep. This gives the body an ideal state in which to relax and recover; activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for our bodies rest and digest mechanisms. 

In ancient Indian texts, Yoga Nidra is referred to as the state that occurs when the Indian god Vishnu sleeps at the time when creation is destroyed. Vishnu is the power pulsing through the universe, so when he sleeps, the universe dissolves.

Yoga Nidra has its roots in tantric practices, and in the tantric process of Nyasa. Nyasa translates to ‘to place’ or ‘to take the mind to a point’, and is a practice of consciously touching various parts of the body while repeating mantras. The purpose of this practice is to awaken subtle energies within the physical matter of the body. The founder of Yoga Nidra, Swami Satyananda, knew of the power and potential of such ancient tantric practices, but felt that our modern society needed a new and adapted translation. Through simplifying these practices, he made them more accessible and familiar to our modern world.

«The present system of yoga nidra, which I have derived, enables people who are unfamiliar with sanskrit mantras to gain the full benefits of the traditional nyasa. It can be beneficially practiced by people of any religion or culture.»

-Swami Satyananda

Yoga nidra is a powerful tool when learning how to consciously relax. As our bodies drop into relaxation mode, it switches off the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight and freeze), and switches on the parasympathetic nervous system (rest, digest and recover). Most people today tend to spend too much time in ‘on’ mode, with the sympathetic nervous system activated, leaving not enough time for relaxation. This can lead to stress-related issues and chronic diseases, such as insomnia, allergies, asthma and digestive issues. 

Of all the different yoga styles and practices, yoga nidra is perhaps one of the easiest practices to develop and maintain. It is best practiced lying down in savasana, and the practitioner is guided through a systematic mediation that takes her through the Pancha Maya Kosha (the five layers of self). 

Let us take a moment to look at these five layers of self..

The Pancha Maya Koshas
According to yogic philosophy we are holisitic, multi-dimensional beings made up by many levels. Within the yogic framework, we specifically look at five different levels; five koshas. They are known as Annamayakosha, Pranamayakosha, Manamayakosha, Vijnamayakosha and Anandamayakosha.

The first level is the Annamayakosha, and it is the physical body. The word ‘anna’ in Sanskrit translates to ‘food’, and ‘maya’ translates to appearance. The Annamayakosha can be decribed as the body we can see, touch and feel, and it is perhaps the layer and aspect of ourselves in which we are most familiar with.
The energetic body is represented in the second layer, and is called Pranamayakosha. Prana translates to ‘life force’ or more commonly to ‘energy’, as it is the source of life pulsating through all beings and through all of creation. Prana is closely related to our breath, and during the practice of pranayama (breathing techniques), we can facilitate and increase the flow of prana in our bodies.
Manamayakosha is the mental-and-emotional body. The manamayakosha is the layer of our being expressed as our mind; though thoughts, emotions and feelings. These mental faculties is what gives us our ability to absorb, process and interpret our life, experiences and impressions trough the senses of the physical body.
Vijnanamayakosha is the wisdom body, or the subtle body. According to yogic philosophy, there exists a higher mind underneath the mind that thinks, processes and is reactive. It can be described as a higher level of our being, a part of us that beholds a deeper wisdom of the Truth. The Vijnanamayakosha represents our consciousness and the part of us that has the ability to experience a deeper insight into ourselves and to the world around us.
The fifth, and final layer of our being is the Anandamayakosha; the bliss body. We do not mean the bliss we experience when we feel positive emotions such as joy and happiness, but the state of bliss that arises from an expanded experience of our reality. It is the bliss living in a place far beyond limitation and separation, the expression of unconditional love in its absolute totality and in its very purest form.

During the practice of Yoga Nidra, we move through all these different layers of the self; the layers of our being. As we engage in the practice of withdrawal of senses, known as Pratyahara in yoga (Pratyahara is the fifth limb in ‘The Eight Limbs of Yoga’, and comes before Dharana; concertration, and Dyyana, the complete presence we sometimes experience in meditation) we can move into the higher states of consciousness that ultimately brings us to Samadhi (liberation, freedom, enlightenment).

As we develop a steady practice of yoga nidra over a longer period of time, yoga nidra not only helps to strength and support our body, but also changes our psyche. This can help us to become better at listening to our own personal needs; teaching us to be more still, present and joyful in our lives; and to make more conscious choices, and find a deeper sense of freedom within this life and in this lifetime.