How To: Yoga Nidra

This is part of Nourish’s Yoga Practise Guide Library. We were inspired to make these guides to support your own yoga practise and as a resource for teachers who want to make their classes more accessible. We were also pretty tired of all the generic teaching instructions and guides floating around the internet that aren’t inclusive, accessible or adaptable in any way. 

If you would like more guidance on making this practice accessible, we have missed something, or you have any questions drop us a comment –– we love hearing from you and really do mean it when we say yoga is for everybody!

What is Yoga Nidra?

Yoga nidra or yogic sleep (nidra = sleep) is a practice which facilitates a state of rest and relaxation. It is usually guided by a teacher while students rest in savasana or another reclining posture. For many, the most familiar element of a nidra is likely to be the rotation of consciousness, where the teacher names various parts of the body, offering us to take our attention there as we move around the body. Perhaps you’ve also experienced some sort of visualisation component, with the teacher offering a story or suggestion for your imagination to play with.

Yoga nidra can be a profoundly nourishing, resourcing and transformational practice, when held with care, inclusion and invitation at its heart. In this guide, we’ll unpack the key elements of nidra and how you can begin to explore it in your practice.

If you’re curious to learn more about yoga nidra, check out our course Leading Simple Yoga Nidras with Theo Wildcroft, or you might like to check out our podcast for a Bonus Yoga Nidra lead by Theo. 

The origins of yoga nidra

We can divide the origins of yoga nidra into three types, which do not totally neatly map into three distinct time periods, but do serve to illustrate different aspects of yoga nidra as we understand it today. 

The actual history of yoga nidra spans many centuries and diverse countries and philosophies. It is fascinating to take a deeper look at, but there is little research to provide a detailed context, overview or analysis of the whole. We have a number of inspirational fragments, rather than a clear and steady, well-understood development from the past to the present.

Nidra Shakti as deity

Some of the earliest references in yogic texts and legends are not to yoga nidra but to nidra shakti: the power of sleep described as a goddess. One interesting example is in the Devi Mahatmaya (400-500BCE) in some versions of which nidra shakti is a goddess who massages Vishnu’s feet. She does this to keep him dreaming of the universe so that all we can see continues to exist. Note that the goddess here is a servant who massages her partner’s feet so that he can rest.

In the Ramayana, (about 500BCE) Lakshman bargains with nidra shakti to allow him to stay awake so that he can guard Ram and Sita while they wander in the forest for many years. In return, his wife must sleep for the whole of that time. And when Lakshman returns, his wife awakens, but he then falls asleep. The moral here is perhaps that you can only bargain away sleep for so long, and also to be careful what promises your partner makes on your behalf?

Yoga Nidra as a state of consciousness

There are many pre-modern yogic sources, most of them a little later than the legends above, that talk about yoga nidra as a state of consciousness – as part of attempts to map the diverse esoteric experiences of meditation and spiritual awakening. These include Patanjali’s sutras (500-600CE), but also the Mandukya Upanishad (600-700CE), the Shiva Sutra (950CE) and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1450CE).

In these, yoga nidra is compared and contrasted to everyday awareness, to sleep, to sense withdrawal, meditation, concentration, and so on. 

Yoga Nidra as a set of techniques

With a few notable exceptions, what all the above texts lack is detailed instructions for the practice. There are a suite of practices,  most of them called nyaasa, that survive from pre-modern texts. These involve mentally inscribing the body, part by part, with qualities, symbols, even deities, for diverse purposes. There are other techniques, more often Buddhist in origin, which involve travelling around the body in one’s awareness. But as you can imagine, rotating around the body is a common and fairly obvious human practice, and also, what we now mean by the practice of yoga nidra has numerous other aspects.

Nonetheless, we can be reasonably confident that nyaasa, as a Tantric technique, was part of the origin story of modern yoga nidra. It’s important to note here two things. Firstly, while the other pre-modern antecedents of the practice might be unknown to practitioners of modern yoga, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist or survive somewhere in South Asia. Secondly, from the 19th Century to the present, the history of the practice has much more documentation, but also holds much more controversy and disagreement. 

What we do know is that from the 19th Century in Europe and America in particular, a therapeutic movement arose to help people rest and relax. This ‘relaxationism’ includes such gems as Edmund Jacobson’s 1934 book You Must Relax!, and many others, up to and including Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualisation, published in 1978. The first person to become internationally famous for teaching yoga nidra specifically is Swami Satyananda, and his book, Yoga Nidra, published in 1974, is said to be the first book on the practice. The swami stated that his only sources for his version of the practice are nyaasa and divine inspiration. 

Most of the modern schools of yoga nidra trace their version of the practice to the Satyananda style, with each one adding a unique flavour. For that reason, it is still controversial to suggest that anyone other than the swami himself could be part of the origins of the modern practice that is known as yoga nidra. Of course, even if Satyananda was inspired by many sources, it is still important to recognize the huge role he played in developing what we practice as yoga nidra.

Other schools of note in this development include: 

Swami Rama and the Himalayan Institute – Swami Rama first demonstrated yoga nidra techniques for scientists in 1971, but perhaps his most famous student is Rod Stryker, whose book The Four Desires was published in 2013. This style of yoga nidra tends to the mystical, relies upon a sparse delivery with lots of silence, and relies on detailed esoteric anatomy. 

Richard Miller – Richard began to develop a form of yoga nidra for the US medical and military establishment in 1987, primarily to help veterans with PTSD. He called it i-Rest originally because the institutions he was working with wanted the practice to feel very secular and accessible. His book, Yoga Nidra, the meditative heart of yoga, came out in 2005. This style of practice tends to be spiritual but non-denominational, uses a lot of contemplation of opposites, and takes the student through each kosha in turn. It can be more dissociative as a result.

The Yoga Nidra Network – Uma Dinsmore-Tuli and Nirlipta Tuli (who is also a qualified hypnotherapist), founded the first ever comparative teacher training in yoga nidra in 2010, and the network itself the following year. The network is unusual in encouraging teachers to find their own voice, and in sharing the features and relative benefits of different styles of yoga nidra. The network’s style of practice varies more than most, but can tend to the more hypnotic or devotional and to the innovative. 

It is important to know a few more things about the modern practice of yoga nidra that are less than positive. Firstly, many schools of the practice tend to be authoritarian and exclusive. They will tell you that their version of the practice is the best, and the purest version of the practice you can possibly experience is the closest to that delivered by their original swami. This leads to secrecy, proprietary knowledge, a lack of development and a certain rigidity in outlook. 

More importantly, a number of the senior teachers of some of these schools have been credibly accused or found guilty of serious abuses of students. This includes senior swamis from the Satyananda tradition. This is of course no different from many styles of postural yoga, but it does mean that exploring the diverse forms of yoga nidra, while rewarding, comes with obvious content warnings.

Making Rest Accessible

For much of human history, the experience of resting safely has been denied to many. Many of us, no matter our level of personal privilege, education and resources, have trouble resting. 

Access to a high quality of rest, and the opportunity to dream well, in safe, nurturing settings, is everyone’s birthright. The barriers to accessing modern yoga that affect marginalised groups such as people of colour, disabled people, and the underpaid, can also be a factor in accessing high quality rest, and yoga nidra practices. To be clear, if you are working hard, not paid a lot, can’t lie in a traditional savasana, or just don’t feel welcome in yoga studios, you might also have disturbed rest, a need for more rest than others, and also find many yoga-related rest practices to be inaccessible. 

Rest vs Sleep

There is much about sleep that we do not understand. We can measure brain waves, but there is still no definitive research on what function dreams play for the brain, for example. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and understand yoga nidra from a scientific, historical or philosophical perspective, only that it helps to be humble about the extent of our knowledge. 

We can rest without sleeping, but rest is often an experience on the edge of sleep, with all the loss of self-awareness, and capacity for mystery that implies. Sleep can also of course be elusive, even frustrating. We live in times that might seem designed to disturb our sleep – from a 24-hour rolling news cycle to blue light screens before bedtime. 

We can associate rest and sleep, and yoga nidra, with self-healing or rest and repair. We can also think of them as spaces in which we are open to inspiration: in the form of guidance or creativity. In yogic terms, rest is also a practice of pratyahara or sensory withdrawal.

Yoga Nidra Suggestions

Finding a Practice

Finding a practice that works for you, led by a teacher you feel comfortable with is the crucial first step to a nourishing nidra practice. You might check out the free nidra we’ve got on the podcast for you to try, or Theo’s collection of nidras on her website, or the vast array available via the Yoga Nidra Network

If you’ve been in a class where the teacher has guided a yoga nidra you enjoyed, you might also ask if they have any recommendations (or recordings you can purchase). 

If you’re not sure where to start, be prepared to experiment until you find the style of nidra you enjoy. For example, I only like nyaasa body rotations and not a lot of visualisation, whereas you might prefer deep storytelling and lots of visualisation. You might prefer some voices over others, to have some sounds included or not, for the practice to include attention to the breath or not. 

The world of nidra is wide and varied (part of the beauty of it!) so try out a few different teachers and styles until you find what works for you.

Setting Up

To get set up for your nidra practice, we recommend taking a reclining position, like savasana whether on your back or side-lying (some people even prefer a semi-reclining position with some support under the spine). Really it’s whatever position works best for you (our suggestions are just suggestions!). Make the most of as many props as you need to be comfortable for the length of your nidra. Pay particular attention to supporting your joints by padding the backs of your knees, and placing a pillow under your head if that’s comfortable. Make sure you’re warm enough, utilising extra blankets as the body tends to cool when you practice nidra. 

It’s also a good idea to check in with your environment, dimming lights, closing curtains or using an eye pillow/mask to control the levels of light in your space. Try to ensure that you’ll be relatively undisturbed for the duration of the practice, so you might like to make sure pets/household members are all tended to.

Lastly, make sure the volume of the device you’re listening to the nidra on is just right: not so quiet you’re straining to hear, not so loud it’s overwhelming. Generally we recommend listening without headphones, unless of course you prefer this.

It should go without saying, but it’s important you’re in a safe space while you’re practising nidra. It’s not a suitable practice whilst you’re driving a car (!) or in a public space where you need to remain vigilant and aware of your surroundings.

The Practice

Once you’re all set up and settled in, press play and enjoy! During the practice you’ll hopefully be nice and comfortable, but do feel free to wriggle and adjust your position if you’d like to. If at any point the practice isn’t feeling right for you, we recommend rolling onto one side (or onto your back if you started on your side) and grounding into your environment for a few moments.

Returning

Once your nidra is complete, you might be feeling anywhere from dreamy, to sleepy, to energised. We encourage you, regardless of how you’re feeling, to take a moment to do something mundane and grounding: make a cup of tea, water a plant, pet an animal, stare out the window and notice what you can see. Try not to rush into the next thing you need to do, allowing space to notice how you’re feeling, mindfully pack away your props, before returning to your day. You might also feel like enjoying some gentle movement, or going for a short walk.

When Do I Practice Yoga Nidra?

Some people like to practice yoga nidra first thing in the morning, or mid-afternoon, or as a way to soften into sleep. There is no right or best time in the day for nidra, just what serves you best. If you find that you are particularly dreamy or tired after nidra practice, you may like to ensure that you have enough time afterwards to ground and return to your day.

When Shouldn’t I Practice or Teach It?

Given the inherent trance-inducing nature of yoga nidra, it’s important that you feel you’re in a safe space where you’re not going to be disturbed or intruded upon. So it’s potentially not the best practice if you’re in a public space (a park, public transport), nor if you’re driving (!). It’s also important to be gentle with yourself: sometimes the most challenging thing to do when we’re feeling anxious or angry or sad is to lie down and invite stillness into our bodies. If that’s the case, then don’t feel pressured to do a nidra just because it could be “restful”. Perhaps consider a walk or some other form of gentle movement to help settle your body first.

If you’re a teacher working with a group of students who are newer to you, we’d recommend keeping any nidra elements short and simple (even just a body scan) until you’ve gotten to know them and established some trust and rapport. Importantly, ensure you leave enough time for nidra if you’re planning to lead one, with enough time to explain the practice beforehand and for students to make their way out in an unhurried way. 

How Do I Adapt Yoga Nidra To Make it Accessible? What Are Some Common Difficulties?

  • Rest and sleep disturbances: falling asleep during a nidra practice is very common (and also totally ok!). If you are worried about it, we recommend setting an alarm for 5 minutes longer than the length of your nidra, so you are woken up and able to return to your day. If you fall asleep during your nidra, you might find yourself awake a bit longer that night. Again, this is ok, and usually doesn’t last. If you find falling asleep in nidra continues to impact your sleep at night, perhaps take a break and consider trying other rest practices instead
  • Sensory, memory and time distortions: it’s quite common to have odd sensations, or remember nothing about the practice while feeling you didn’t sleep, feel like the practice took hours (or no time at all), or so on. Different parts of the nervous system will ‘sleep’ at unpredictable times. These new experiences can be worrying, but they’re not necessarily a problem and are largely to be expected. If you have an experience that unsettles you, but want to try the practice again, we recommend trying the practice sitting up or even walking around the room so you can hear what the practice is like in a much lighter trance.
  • Dissociation: Dissociation is a general term for ‘not being present’ which ignores the obvious reality that none of us are aware of everything around or within us all the time. Dissociation can be very helpful, such as distracting yourself from toothache by reading an engaging book. In fact, dissociation is only unhelpful if the person involved is unaware or not in some active control of the situation. Yoga nidra is inherently dissociative. The more complex, charismatic, hypnotic the practice, the more likely it is to take youto a level of dissociation that you are not used to, but also the more powerful and transformative the practice will feel. 
  • Triggers and distress: In a suggestible, vulnerable, resting state, perhaps dissociating in new ways, it is clear why you might be more likely to be distressed by an image or sensation that is uncomfortable for you. We want to stress that in no way have you done anything wrong if you experience distress as a result of your nidra practice. If you experience distress, we encourage you to prioritise grounding, re-orienting in your physical space (for example, what can you notice around you that is green?)

How Do I Teach Yoga Nidra To A Mixed Ability Class?

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Making yoga nidras radically accessible follows similar principles to those you will find in accessible and trauma sensitive trainings. We’d really recommend our Leading Simple Yoga Nidras training as the perfect place to dive deeper into guiding yoga nidras, but in brief and as simply as possible:

  1. Above all, keep things simple and easy to understand. If in doubt, keep things short in length and light in tone. We can keep our imagery-related instructions very optional, very short, leave them out, and/or check with students in advance how they feel about, for example, imagining themselves in deep dark, water filled caves. (!)
  2. Emphasise choice and agency, but without giving your students so much mental work to do that they cannot rest. 
  3. Start from a place that is as safe as possible by encouraging and celebrating the development of inner resources and spaces of comfort. 
  4. Balance giving clear invitations and instructions with acknowledging a diversity of possible experiences in response. 
  5. Affirm your confident watch over the boundaries of both the space and relationship, while leaving your students their own control over how and whether they feel safe. 
  6. Try to give your students a broad idea of what they’re signing up to, so they can consent to the practice in an informed way.

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