Yoga nidra has become a popular and effective relaxation tool common in many yoga studios. But it is not always practiced with an understanding of its original purpose. Translated, yoga nidra combines yoga, union of mind, body, and consciousness, and nidra, sleep. Strictly translated, yoga nidra is the ability to sleep while maintaining a state of heightened awareness. But the true practice of yoga nidra is much more!
Yogarupa Rod Stryker has taught yoga nidra for 40 years and has a book coming out called Enlightened Sleep. I’m very excited to bring him onto the podcast, where we dive deep into yoga nidra.
Is Yoga Nidra Sleep?
Interestingly, Dr. Mark Halpren, founder of California College of Ayurveda, also has a book coming out on yoga nidra and he describes it not as sleep at all, but as a unique state of consciousness. Both experts describe a technique with potential far beyond the benefits of relaxation.
The Mandukya Upanishad describes four states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, sleeping, and a state of consciousness called turiya, which I will define in a few paragraphs. Yoga nidra is not a state of sleep in the classical sense.1
Yoga nidra takes the body through stages of mental and physical relaxation, where body and mind appear to be asleep, but are, in fact, fully awake and aware.
This experience, the body and mind deeply relaxed, still, and silent, and yet fully awake and aware, is one of the goals of Vedic science. It is the coexistence of opposites: body and mind are perfectly still and awake at the same time.
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Yoga Nidra, Meditation + Sankalpa
Yoga nidra is described as a form of meditation, delivering the same benefits. Brainwave studies show similar effects: meditative alpha and theta brainwaves are boosted, as well as gamma waves, linked to lasting states of higher consciousness or self-awareness.2,3
Because the body can become fatigued by sitting meditation, being guided into a deep state of fully awake, fully aware restfulness in yoga nidra often takes away the distraction of muscle fatigue. They key, however, is not to fall asleep.
As Rod Stryker says, the worst that can happen is that you fall asleep and the best that can happen is that you tap into a state of awareness that may deliver spiritual progress and dramatic healing benefits.
In both yoga nidra and meditation, the ability to elicit a healing effect is well documented. According to Dr. Halpren, yoga nidra has been shown to support health concerns such as cancer, hormonal imbalances, brain function, pain, anxiety, depression, and blood sugar concerns.3 Meditation has a similar resume.
The theory is once you enter this state of consciousness where the body and mind are stilled and one’s awareness is heightened, you can be trained to initiate thoughts or intentions from this place. Called siddhis in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, or sankalpa in yoga, initiating thoughts or having pure intentions when fully awake in yoga nidra can fulfill deep heartfelt desires to heal or transform.
Stryker explains that kalpa means vow, or “the rule to be followed above all other rules.” San, he says, refers to a connection with the highest truth. Sankalpa, then, is a commitment we make to support our highest truth.”
By definition, a sankalpa should honor the deeper meaning of our life. A sankalpa speaks to the larger arc of our lives, our dharma—our overriding purpose for being here.”4 The sankalpa becomes a statement you call upon to remind you of your true nature and guide your choices.
Do Nothing, Accomplish Everything
We can learn to function from a state of non-doing, where we act without being the doer of our actions. The mind lets go and a flow of consciousness becomes the doer or driver of the chariot. In the Dhanurveda, the Veda of Transformation, the analogy of the bow is used: If you pull back the bow and are moving the bowstring, there will be little to no accuracy from shooting the arrow. But if you pull the bow back, become perfectly still in mind and body, and then release the arrow, the flight of the arrow is transformational.
Yoga nidra and meditation are both designed to open us to the fourth state of consciousness, turiya, described in this way in the Manduka Upanishads:
Not inwardly cognitive, nor outwardly cognitive, not both-wise cognitive,
not a cognition-mass, not cognitive, not non-cognitive,
unseen, with which there can be no dealing, ungraspable, having no distinctive mark, non-thinkable, that cannot be designated, the essence of assurance, of which is the state of being one with the Self1
The message is that this is a non-thinking, non-doing state. Yoga nidra seduces body and mind into a place where they are fully aware, but not engaged in doing. Not doing anything, aware of everything, you have potential to act in a transformational way. This highlights one of my favorite Vedic sayings:
Do less and accomplish more. Then, do nothing and accomplish everything!
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Silence, Intention + Biophotons
New science suggests a mechanism for sankalpa or siddhis. The human body has been found to be both an emitter and receiver of biophotons, or what are called ultraweak photon emissions (UPEs). These photons have been found to communicate between cells and DNA.
Meditation has been able to change production of biophotons. Studies have linked these changes to a reduction in reactive oxygen species, or free radicals.5 UPEs have also been found to be affected by intention. Since we can transmit and receive these photons, emerging science suggests that having an intention during meditation or yoga nidra may explain the healing and transformational effects described in the Vedas as sankalpas and siddhis.
Quantum physics suggests these photons are not limited by space or time, which may explain phenomena like distance healing and healing prayer.5
Einstein called this spooky action at a distance, where observation elicits a change in what is observed instantly and over extremely large distances. Could meditation or yoga nidra make changes to or heal the body simply because you are self-observing it with a positive intention?