Hands up if you’ve ever hankered after a better night’s sleep, or longed for a time when your mind wasn’t swirling with a million and one thoughts? Quite a lot of us, then! Yet we can feel so bogged down with never-ending to do lists and overstimulated by our digital devices that switching off can seem impossible.
So, on a quest to unwind fully and reach peak relaxation, I decided to try Yoga Nidra, AKA yogic sleep. It has been likened by devotees to that magical time just before you nod off, when your body is fully relaxed and your mind is lucid.
Finding a class at triyoga in London, I meet Leela Miller who has been teaching yoga for more than 30 years and has practised traditional Yoga Nidra for five. She explains that this technique is a stillness practice that helps down-regulate, or calm, the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system and up-regulate (strengthen) the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing access to deeper layers of mental and physical health and the unconscious mind. Put simply, it’s a deep, guided relaxation that is mentally and physically restorative and releases deep-seated tensions and anxiety, improving your ability to sleep peacefully. While, in theory, you are supposed to achieve and sustain a lucid dream state, people who are really tired and stressed may nod off, which is completely fine too.
“I’m really, really happy when I sleep in Yoga Nidra because it’s like wiping my hard drive,” Leela muses. “There have been times when I wake up and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what time it is, I don’t know what day it is’ and then I realise it’s been just half an hour and everything is ok, and I feel amazing.”
At the beginning of the class, we’re told to lie in Savasana (corpse pose), on our backs with our palms upturned and feet wide apart, and to make ourselves as comfortable as possible so we can deactivate our minds and get in the zone. With a blanket over me, another folded up as a pillow and a head bandage around my eyes blocking out the light (you can also use eye pillows), I feel blissfully cocooned. Leela then instructs us to scan our bodies and minds, letting go of any tension and negativity we may be holding onto, and tells us to set our Sankalpa – our intention. This is something simple, positive, and personal to us that we say internally at the beginning of the practice and it enters our conscious minds; we then repeat it at the end when we are hopefully more open, allowing it to permeate our subconscious minds.
Then it’s time for the ‘rotation of consciousness’, which sounds baffling but simply means drawing attention to different areas of the body, one bit at a time. “Right thumb, second finger, third finger, fourth finger, fifth finger,” Leela says quickly in her flat, evenly toned American accent and my mind quickly jumps to each anatomical part. Later, Leela explains this activates the corresponding areas of the brain and helps raise awareness of parts of the body that otherwise go unnoticed. The overall effect is strangely soothing and I’m now no longer thinking about work, but just going with the flow.
Yogis believe you can control the mind through the breath and the slow, conscious breathing we do throughout the session works towards strengthening the relaxation response and suppressing the fight-or-flight response. “It’s a lot easier to get a good night’s sleep if you’re not stressed. If you’re vibrating up here [she gestures towards the ceiling] because your stress response has hijacked you, then it’s going to take a longer time to get to a relaxed state,” Leela explains.
As I continue to breathe deeply, I can feel the tension palpably leaving my body. The next stage is imagining we’re heavy and rooted to the ground. By now, I’m so under the spell that I genuinely feel as though I’m sinking under an enormous weight. A minute later and Leela is telling us to imagine we’re floating away like an autumn leaf – and my body, which seconds earlier had felt leaden, inexplicably feels feather-light.
Apparently, this technique of experiencing opposites taps into the yogic principle of cultivating equanimity. “You’re trying to establish that it doesn’t matter if you’re hot or cold, heavy or light, happy or sad, and it’s ok,” Leela says. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s all ok.” Right now it’s better than ok, as I feel like I’m being pulled deeper and deeper into a heightened state of relaxation that I’ve never experienced before.
We are then told to think of seemingly random objects: a feather, an open book, a tree. I do so unquestioningly, not understanding why. It’s only afterwards that Leela explains this is all to do with memories – specifically the hippocampus, responsible for the processing and storage of long-term memory and the amygdala, responsible for determining their corresponding emotions and moods. For one person ‘a tree’ may conjure up happy memories of Christmas time, while another may recall a past trauma of a tree falling on their house. “Whether they’re good or bad memories, you just see them – you don’t engage with them, because by that time hopefully you’re super relaxed,” Leela says. “You’re almost resetting your reaction to it.”
We end the session with Leela inviting us to picture an idyllic scene, laying out specific details. The story is arbitrary but the aim is always the same. As with the random objects, the images can bring up memories and buried emotions that are impacting in a way we may not be aware of. “Once you make the unconscious conscious, you have a choice,” Leela later reasons. “If it’s unpleasant and you are relaxed enough, you can look at it and change your relationship to it and maybe let it go.” With that, it’s time to come to. Leela tells us to consciously become aware of the room and start making small movements with our bodies.
Pulled out of my dreamlike state, I’m genuinely mystified how only 30 minutes has gone by when it feels like I’ve been resting for hours. Dopily I look around me and see someone gently snoring to my left and another stretching contentedly like a cat to my right – and I realise, in Yoga Nidra, we’ve all found our happy place.
If too much light in your bedroom is keeping you awake, check out our pick of the best sleep masks.
Experience Yoga Nidra sleep at home
Practising Yoga Nidra sleep techniques at home can help you to enjoy a more restful night.
While guided classes are preferable and available in yoga studios across the country, you can make Yoga Nidra part of your night-time routine by listening to a CD in bed or watching a YouTube video and then drifting off to sleep.
Apps like Kardia, which let you set a gong at regular intervals to assist with your deep breathing, can also recreate some of the effects of Yoga Nidra. Doing 10-20 minutes, while listening to soothing music and going to your ‘happy place’ will help clear your mind of any stresses and set you on course for a good night’s sleep.
This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine issue 22. Read In The Moment Magazine back issues on Readly.