What Is Yoga Nidra? Yoga Nidra Unpacked

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If you’re looking for an accessible yoga practice that explores the subtle layers of your being and transformation, then yoga nidra may be the practice for you. Often considered the yoga of sleep but more accurately it can be interpreted as the sleep of awakening and the great news is it’s a very accessible practice.

In this article we’ll explore:

  • What is yoga nidra?
  • Some of the styles of yoga nidra
  • The benefits of yoga nidra
  • What happens during the practice
  • How yoga nidra is different from meditation
a woman practicing yoga nidra whilst lying down with her headphones plugged into a laptop

What is yoga nidra? | Pronunciation and translation

Yoga nidra or yoganidrā is pronounced yo-gah nid – RAH.

Rooted in ni and dru, nidra means:

dru =to reveal, surface up, squeeze out, draw forth
ni = nothingness, absence

What is yoga nidra? | Origins and history

The concept of yoga nidra is mentioned in The Mahābhārata (dated between 300BCE and 300 CE) so this is definitely not a new form of yoga.

Yoga nidra’s first references were not directions for practice but descriptions of God’s transcendental sleep.  It wasn’t until the medieval period that nidra was referred to as a practice to attain liberation and the term was often used synonymously with samadhi.

“Yoganidrā is a term that has a diverse and ancient history in Sanskrit literature.  It has been used with various meanings and can be found in Epic and Purānic literature, Śaiva, and Buddhist Tantras, medieval Haṭha and Rājayoga texts (including the widely known Haṭhapradipīkā) and it even became the name of a yoga posture (āsana) in the 17th century.”

– Jason Birch and Jaqueline Hargreaves  

What we consider as yoga nidra is a relatively new formation of the practice and was largely a response to the 19th and 20th-century dissemination of yogic teachings in the West combined with an interest in New Thought, self-improvement, and subsequently well-being.

Satyananda was a key figure in popularizing yoga Nidra practices in the mid-1970s with his traditional tantric Nyasa approach.  His seminal book Yoga Nidra continues to be widely read and has been of great influence for other emerging schools.

a sunset reflected on a lake

What is Yoga Nidra? | The practice

Yoga nidra is a systematic guided meditation that is usually practiced in śavāsana or a supported, comfortable position.  This accessible practice that doesn’t require movement is suitable for beginners and promotes deep rest and relaxation. 

Kamakhya Kumar says that “Yoga Nidra induces complete physical mental and emotional relaxation…it is a state of consciousness, which is, neither sleep nor awaken, neither is it concentration nor hypnotism, it can be described as an altered state of consciousness.”

Once in a restful, interoceptive state practitioners can work with subtle layers of the practice such as self-inquiry, “interconnected nature”, and awareness of the unchanging true self. This powerful practice relies on the practitioner resting in the state just between being awake and asleep – conscious but in a state of deep rest.

“Many consider Yoga Nidra a technique. I don’t. At its heart is the exquisite embodiment of who we are meant to be and opens us up to true authenticity, spontaneity, vulnerability, intimacy and the realization of the true Self” – Richard Miller

four people practicing yoga nidra whilst lying on a sandy beach

What is yoga nidra? | The benefits

While there has been very little scientific research into the benefits of yoga nidra its gaining popularity speaks for itself.  Mainly through the work of Richard Miller and his iRest method yoga nidra has been used as a therapeutic tool for working with PTSD, trauma, and psychological illness.  It is important to work with an experienced teacher if any of these things affect you.

Yoga nidra affects different people in different ways but the spectrum of benefits ranges from the physical to the spiritual.  Let’s unpack some of the plausible ways yoga nidra can be helpful.

Physical Benefits

  • Yoga nidra is known for its relaxation techniques which are helpful in dealing with everyday stresses, sleep problems, and health conditions.
  • Life is stressful and overstimulating which means that many of us spend a little too much time in our sympathetic nervous system.  While the sympathetic nervous system shouldn’t be vilified, we do need to be able to move fluidly between it and its opposite – the parasympathetic nervous system.  Yoga nidra helps us to move from stress (sympathetic nervous system) to rest (parasympathetic nervous system) by stimulating the relaxation response.
  • Healing takes place in a restful state and practicing yoga nidra is said to reduce stress hormones, improved glucose sensitivity, and improve heart rate variability.  It can also be helpful for healing the major organs of the body.
  • Many of us spend too much time in our heads and navigating the world around us and the practice of yoga nidra can help us to develop our interoceptive capacity.  Yoga nidra helps us to hone in on the sensation of our bodies and ultimately gives us better tools to respond to how we are feeling. 
  • Nidra can also help us to develop fluency in moving through different brain wave states This can be particularly helpful for those who struggle with winding down and sleep.
a woman in savasana with her hands in a mudra and an incense stick burning in the foreground

Mental/Pyscho-Emotional Benefits

  • Developing self-awareness through the subtle layers of the practice can be helpful both within the practice and in everyday life. 
  • Improved cognition and focus are also linked to yoga nidra.  The nature of the practice requires the student to be alert and attentive despite the body being relaxed.  In a world filled with distractions and stimulation, many of us have diminished attention spans, and yoga nidra requires us to develop our capacity to sharpen our attention.
  • Yoga nidra can be constructive in quietening pain sensitivity.  By using techniques to divert attention yoga nidra helps the brain to recognize parts of the body that do not perceive pain and in fact can lead the practitioner to be more fluent in acknowledging feelings of comfort.  The practice of opposites can be particularly helpful for dealing with pain.
  • We’ve all been in a position where we want the quick fix or we want someone to do the fixing for us.  Yoga nidra encourages us to take responsibility for ourselves and our own well-being.
  • The practice is a good way to explore our reactivity (samskaras) to situations, thoughts, and feelings as well as our responses and in turn alleviate stress symptoms and anxiety.
a woman lying on her back practicing yoga nidra

Spiritual Benefits

  • Developing a sense of wholeness and our unchanging nature is one of the later stages of yoga nidra.  This non-dual approach encourages us to explore our connection to source and to question our notion of being a singular entity or ego
  • Yoga nidra can develop our capacity for recognizing joy as an inherent state.
  • The ultimate goal of the traditional practice is that of transformation and spiritual awakening and encourages exploring our attachments and desires. 

It’s important to note that while there is a primary focus on rest and healing in the practice of yoga nidra now that wasn’t necessarily always the case. The modern practice of yoga nidra is often associated with relaxation but this was not the original view “yoganidrā was used as a synonym for a profound state of meditation known as samādhi” – Jason Birch and Jaqueline Hargreaves  

What is yoga nidra? | Behind the scenes

Yoga nidra is a rich practice that can aid rest and sleep preparation but a more experienced practice can evoke a deeper sense of self-inquiry, concentration, and transformation. 

Beyond the first stages of yoga nidra and its ability to relax it can be a practice of moving into the subconscious where the practitioner can explore emotions, feelings, memories, and habits as a way to transform.

“Yoga Nidra guides practitioners into the “hypnagogic state”—the threshold between alpha and theta waves—the knife’s edge where the body “sleeps” while the mind is lucid. Swami Karma Karuna describes it as a point “beyond the personality, where the logical, analytical aspect of the mind is suspended.” This passive/active state allows access to subconscious memory and repressed experiences—unlike hypnosis where the person is totally inert.” – How Yoga Nidra Works – Huffington Post

What is yoga nidra? | Practice structure and the koshas

For many people, understanding the structure or the “behind the scenes” can be helpful for getting the most out of practice.

The koshas are considered to be energetic layers of the body and in this context, they provide a multidimensional approach to working through all layers of our being within a yoga nidra script.  The koshas in relation to yoga nidra can be interpreted and set out in the following way.

a lotus floating on the water

Most schools use some variation on the following structure:

  • Preparation with particular attention to settling of the body
  • Attention to sensation with elements of relaxation
  • Sankalpa or intension setting
  • Rotation of consciousness in the form of a body scan
  • Breath awareness
  • Exploration of opposites such as hot/cold or heavy/light
  • Visualization
  • Connection to source
  • Return.  This often includes revisiting the sankalpa
what is yoga nidra? the word 'rest' written in the sand

What is yoga nidra? | Styles and approaches

Yoga nidra has evolved through its teachers over time and some of the most influential teachers and practices include:

What is yoga nidra? | Is it the same as meditation?

It depends on how you define meditation.  The state of yoga nidra and meditation is often considered the same and they share the goal of samadhi but the process and journey are slightly different.

The predominant difference is that meditation is practiced seated and yoga nidra is generally practiced supine in a comfortable position such as śavāsana.  While this may seem like a subtle difference, for many people sitting can be extremely uncomfortable even for short periods of time making yoga nidra a much more accessible and enjoyable experience.

Yoga nidra, unlike meditation, acknowledges the body as our home rather than something to ignore or fix.  Where meditation is more about the mind yoga nidra works with the brain and body in conversation.

a woman practicing yoga nidra in a dark room under a blanket

Ready to find out more about yoga nidra?

Yoga Nidra – Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Yoganidrā An Understanding of the History and Context – Birch and Hargreaves

Manduka Upanishad – Swami Rama

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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