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Why I’ve used Yoga Nidra to help my own surgical healing

Often called yogic sleep, Yoga Nidra is an extremely powerful, meditative practice that really needs to be experienced to be understood. It’s a process of enabling very deep relaxation and rest, during which the person is awake but enters a different state(s) of consciousness. It has very important therapeutic benefits and I can personally vouch for the efficacy of many of these.

The effects of yoga nidra can be measured scientifically, observed as different brainwaves. During a single session of yoga nidra, a person may experience all the stages of a night-time sleep, but compressed into a short timeframe. That's why people often say they feel like they have just woken up in the morning after their practice.

Having just had foot surgery yet again, my second operation in under 12 months, I decided to devote some time to studying and practicing yoga nidra in depth. Over the past few weeks I have been enjoying daily nidras and found that these meditations have helped me to feel less restless, to be more mentally positive, to relax and to accept that I just need to rest at the moment.

This article explains what to expect during a yoga nidra practice, the different stages you will encounter and what researchers know happens to the brain.

What does a yoga nidra practice feel like?

People often describe feeling like they are asleep and yet gently awake. Or that they are about to drop off to sleep but then come back again. Others report a trance-like feeling and a sense that they have been in that state for a very long time. But they haven’t. Sometimes when people come out of a yoga nidra practice, they say they feel like they’ve just had a 4 hour nap, when actually, they were just resting for 30 mins.

All these lovely things can be experienced during yoga nidra, which has been shown to offer many physical and mental benefits. For instance, yoga nidra can be used to support healing, treat insomnia, boost creativity and mental focus, replenish our energy levels, manage chronic fatigue or long Covid, reduce anxiety and improve digestion by restoring the ‘gut brain axis’.

“Yoga nidra induces complete physical mental and emotional relaxation…it is a state of consciousness, which is, neither sleep nor awake, neither is it concentration nor hypnotism, it can be defined as an altered state of consciousness.” (Kumar 2012).

Key stages of a yoga nidra practice

Different yoga teachers will practice or offer yoga nidra in different ways, depending on the lineage they have been taught or adopted for themselves. The format might vary slightly, but is based on a similar, 10 phase structure. The various stages and transitions into and out of them can be very subtle, you may not even be aware of them during a practice. Below is a brief summary of what you can expect.

The mental journey that is yoga nidra begins with prepping, to make sure you have everything you need to be comfy, cosy and totally relaxed. You don't have to be lying on your back in a regular savasanna pose, you can take whatever position is most comfortable.

This is followed by a settling down period when you can fidget and make important adjustments to your position. The settling process is possibly the most important stage because if you are not 100% comfortable and warm, you will not be able to fully engage with the experience. Settling also includes the subtle transition between everyday consciousness and the special, yoga nidra state of consciousness.

After these initial stages, depending on the lineage, you may be invited to recall your sankalpa or innermost desire, or to set an intention for your practice. I have written about sankalpa and how to use one before.

This is followed by what immediately comes to mind for most people when they think of yoga nidra – the Rotation of Consciousness. This is most easily understood as a mental journey around parts of your body as you visualise it to be, sometimes amplified with visualising a light or touch as you focus on each area. There are lots of different itineraries and each produces a different experience. For example, starting at the right thumb, crown of the head or in the mouth.

Some schools follow this with a Pairs of Opposites stage, where the practitioner is invited to recall types of opposites – maybe feeling heavy or light as a feather, feeling warm and chilled.

Later stages include guided breathing practices, perhaps bringing attention to where you can sense the movement created by your breathing. It could be sensing the coolness around the nostrils, or maybe a sense of your breath traveling through the body. Other styles may also include visualisations, possibly visualising a journey or just noticing an imagery that comes to you.

The practice starts to conclude with a return to the sankalpa and reflection on a particular intention, before being invited to gradually return to an alert state. It really is an amazing experience and is deeply relaxing and invigorating.

My course teachers at the Yoga Nidra Network describe what happens very beautifully as “a journey that starts and ends in the physical body, and in an everyday state of consciousness…making yoga nidra a vessel in which to explore other aspects of the body-mind, and other states of consciousness.”

What happens in the brain during yoga nidra?

This is where yoga nidra becomes really fascinating. Scientists have studied what is happening in the brain during yoga nidra, by monitoring the types of brainwaves produced during the different stages. This is performed using electroencephalography (EEG).

Studies have shown that all the different types of brainwaves produced by humans can be detected, which relate to the person practicing yoga nidra being in different states of consciousness. Uniquely, because the practitioner is essentially 'awake during sleep', they are experiencing and witnessing all this at the same time.

Sometimes, if you do a yoga nidra when you are extremely tired, you might feel like you have fallen asleep for part of the practice. It happens to me too and I believe it doesn’t matter. You still benefit but in slightly different ways and you will just have a different experience.

During a practice of yoga nidrā all of the states below are experienced at different times and for different periods.

  • Beta brain wavesour normal wakeful state when we are alert, working, doing whatever we do all day and focused on mental activity. Experienced before and after the yoga nidra practice.

  • Alpha brain waves – these are ‘being in the moment’ brainwaves, usually present during meditation, when we are day dreaming and quietly resting. They are important for supporting mental co-ordination, calmness, and learning. The alpha waves start being produced during the settling down stage and in between other stages.

  • Theta brain waves – these are normally produced during REM sleep when someone approaches the end of a sleep cycle and experiences vivid dreams. They can be observed by EEG during a yoga nidra practice and offer many benefits including boosting creativity and helping to move information from short to long term memory. Time spent in the theta conscious state helps us to process experiences, clear our heads of useless information, repair tissue damage, enhance learning through conscious memory recall and could also help with improving digestion.

  • Delta waves - these are normally generated in deep, dreamless sleep, but can also be detected in deep meditation and yoga nidra. Healing and cell regeneration are stimulated in this state, which is why deep sleep is so important for healing. Time spent in the delta wave state helps to reduce sleepiness, heightens our alertness, enhances concentration and helps boost our moods. This is one reason why people feel so good and well rested after yoga nidra, why it feels like you have been for a really good rest and yet only been doing the practice for 30 minutes. Some yoga teachers describe the overall state of yoga nidra as being in 'conscious delta' i.e. being awake and yet in a deep, dreamless sleep.

  • Alpha-Theta Boundary – this state experienced during yoga nidra refers to two states, the transition periods before falling asleep is the 'pre-sleep hypnogogic' state and the 'pre-waking hypnopompic' state just before waking up again. Both these states can be experienced during transitions within yoga nidrā and time spent in either state helps increase creativity and aids problem solving.

What's Next? Yoga Nidra Practices are launching soon!

Learning about yoga nidra and how to offer it as a practice has been fascinating. I’ve enjoyed being my own guinea pig very much and can personally vouch for the benefits, having successfully used it to promote my own healing after surgery.

I look forward to being able to share this practice with people very soon and am currently planning sessions.

Keep an eye out for dates in the next few weeks.

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