Recent research estimates that approximately 25% of the world1 struggles with some form of anxiety or mood disorder. For most C-level executives, this statistic shouldn’t be surprising.
CEOs, COOs, CIOs, and other chief execs face some of the most demanding responsibilities mandated in their respective fields. Add to this workplace stress, the anxieties of maintaining a sound home and family life, health concerns, and other personal stressors, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Yoga Nidra is a mind body connection practice that has shown promise in treating chronic stress and anxiety, as well as other related issues such as insomnia, low self-esteem, and addiction. Below, we’ll introduce this ancient practice, explain its extensive benefits, and outline how you can start implementing this relaxing yoga practice into your own relaxation routine as soon as today.
What Is Yoga Nidra?
Yoga nidra is a yogic practice, but more than that, it’s both a meditative technique and a meditative state. The Hindi translation of yoga nidra is literally “yogic sleep.”
Through guided meditation, the practice of yoga nidra aims to keep practitioners fully awake and aware while at the same time, extremely close to the boundary of complete sleep. This is achieved by the instructor guiding practitioners through only the initial stages of sleep.
The result is an intensely deep level of meditation. According to researchers at The University of Minnesota, over time and with regular practice, practitioners learn to achieve, “the deepest, non-REM delta wave sleep while maintaining awareness both internally and of one's surroundings2".
Once achieved, the benefits of yoga nidra are extensive. Backed by scientific research, yoga nidra has been found to improve long-term sleep patterns, enhance physical and mental health, improve challenges associated with addiction and trauma, and boost overall resiliency and emotional balance.
Brief History of Yoga Nidra
The Upanishads, ancient Sanskrit texts, are the first to mention yoga nidra. These texts are from the 7th and 6th centuries and therefore predate both the Common Era and Buddhism itself. It was around this time that yoga nidra became a routinely practiced form of meditation.
Yoga Nidra Scripts
Relaxing yoga nidra is generally taught through the use of yoga nidra scripts. Like film scripts, these texts describe a series of intentions practitioners should pursue during a yoga nidra session. Instructors read the scripts allowed as practitioners lie in a comfortable position and focus on the instructions.
All yoga nidra sessions are unique, however, and therefore, each script may lead practitioners into different directions, with different purposes and goals. As such, there are a multitude of scripts that can be used. They can also be modified by the instructor to better fit the objectives of the class or individual student.
The main mode of communication in a yoga nidra script is visualization. Enhancing the focus on breathing and promoting a strong concentration of the mind tend to be two other common tenets of scripts.
Yoga Nidra and Meditation Are Different
Yoga nidra and traditional meditation have many aspects in common. However, they differ in several ways as well.
Most notably, yoga nidra and traditional meditation are similar in that they can both transport your mind to a new state and force you to consider a concept or set of thoughts from this new vantage point.
Meditation, however, is much more active than yoga nidra. Take, for instance, the position you are in during each practice. When you meditate in the traditional manner, you are usually sitting upright with good posture on a meditation cushion or stool or seated in a chair. Conversely, in yoga nidra, practitioners typically lie on the ground on their backs.
Likewise, the goal in traditional meditation is generally to empty the mind and, sometimes, to focus on a specific point. This point might be a thought or concept, or perhaps it’s simply breathing. On the other hand, the goal of yoga nidra is much looser. You aren’t clearing your mind as much as you are taking your mind on a journey by visiting a semi-hypnotic state. You are less in control of your thoughts during yoga nidra and far more likely to fall asleep.
As Kamini Desai outlines in his book Yoga Nidra: The Art of Transformational Sleep:
Traditional meditation requires considerable effort to ‘empty the mind.’ […] Quieting the mind in that way is difficult because it is antithetical to the actual normal functioning of the brain which is always seeking answers, solving problems, and protecting us from the outside world. Yoga nidra meditation is easy because it is based on something that the body already knows how to do: go to sleep3.
What Are the Benefits of Yoga Nidra?
Yoga nidra is associated with a long list of life-changing benefits. This is why it is so frequently studied and used clinically to treat those with mood or behaviour disorders, sleep insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other challenges. It has been implemented in treatment regiments for war veterans and children and young people who struggle with addiction and/or emotional issues. More recently, the benefits of yoga nidra have been studied and realized with individuals plagued with chronic stress and anxiety.
While it’s certainly logical to assume that beneficial change can only occur in a fully-awakened states, several cognitive strategies, including yoga nidra, aim to challenge this assumption. That is, the “non-doing” state that occurs in yoga nidra practice is actually ideal for allowing and promoting positive change.
Within this state, changes can occur that cannot occur in a fully-awakened state.
Here are the core benefits that yoga nidra provides:
Improved Thought Patterns and Reduced Stress
Not all stress is bad. A certain level of healthy stress can be thought-provoking, motivating, and grounding.
Too much stress, however, will inevitably cloud the mind and cause physical and mental damage, affecting the nervous system. This excess stress tends to stem from faulty thought patterns. By this, we mean deeply-ingrained thinking that leads you to stressful, worrisome, or troubling conclusions. Faulty thought patterns are often based on irrational assumptions and unchallenged perceptions. They are deeply ingrained — especially in adults — and, therefore, difficult to change.
Because these assumptions and perceptions are so deeply and subconsciously ingrained, it makes sense that it takes a subconscious state to access and mend them. Yoga nidra is the deep state of meditation, an altered state of consciousness, that allows you to do this. The process allows you to access your thinking patterns from a completely new angle. Instead of being fully ingrained in your thoughts, you are able to observe them from a distance. This, in turn, makes them much easier to manage and control.
Through the deep meditative state of yoga nidra, you have the opportunity to improve your relationship with your thoughts, thereby reducing your overall stress and embracing more relaxation in your waking state.
Enhanced Cognitive Performance
The enhanced cognitive function promoted by yoga nidra has much to do with the space that stress reduction allows for in your brain. When overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, the mind has little room to perform well at its given tasks. With less stress, however, the mind is unhindered and freer to perform well.
Regular practitioners of yoga nidra find that the practice improves their memory, helps prevent cognitive decline, and enhances focused attention. “Verbal, attention, and self-regulatory performance” were all found to improve4 with the intervention of yoga nidra.
Improved Self-Esteem and Confidence
Low self-esteem and low confidence have both been known to improve with regular yoga nidra practice. This finding largely derives from a recent study5 from two universities in Turkey.
The study looked at the effects of yoga nidra on the self-esteem and body image of burn patients. The results found that “yoga practice increases self-esteem and improves the body image of burn patients significantly […] after yoga practice, there was a statistically significant increase and improvement in the self-esteem and body image of the experimental group.”
Better Sleep and Improved Physical Health
While it can certainly be effectively used for stress management, many practitioners also use yoga nidra for sleep. That is, the continued practice of yoga nidra has been known to improve nightly sleep routines, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep when bedtime arrives, enjoying a full night of deep rest.
Rather ironically, however, one of the main challenges of the yoga nidra for sleep practice is not falling asleep during a session (although this is a common and ultimately benign occurrence). The true benefit of improved sleep as the result of regular yoga nidra sessions lies in the practice’s ability to completely relax the body, mind, and spirit on the edge of sleep.
In addition, when yoga nidra improves sleep, numerous associated health problems are improved as well. The Helfgott Research Institute at the National University of Natural Medicine notes that:
15% of the US population has difficulty falling asleep at night […] Combined with early work start times in industrialized nations, [this] can lead to significantly shortened nightly sleep durations. Short sleep durations lead to increased risk of death from coronary heart disease (48%), fatal and non-fatal strokes (15%), and all-cause mortality (12%)6.
In other words, figuring out how to get more sleep into your routine is worth it for your short- and long-term health and wellbeing.
Improved Waking Mindfulness
Mindfulness can be defined as a moment-by-moment awareness of life. It is a rejection of past- and future-focused thinking, in exchange for living fully in the moment. Additionally, mindfulness emphasizes acceptance of whatever is happening in the moment. Instead of judging your own thoughts or attempting to reject what is going on around you, mindfulness promotes the freeing idea that whatever is happening at any given time is not right or wrong — it just is.
So, How Does Mindfulness Relate to Yoga Nidra?
Yoga relaxation has been known to improve how easily mindfulness can be performed in waking life. This is largely due to the way in which yoga nidra offers improved focus and concentration. Naturally, this means that the benefits of practicing daily mindfulness (which have been scientifically proven time and again7) extend to the benefits provided by yoga nidra as well.
Among these benefits are:
- Overall stress reduction
- Reduced rumination
- Lowered emotional reactivity
- Improved working memory
- Improved cognitive flexibility
- Improved focus
What Happens During Yoga Nidra?
Unlike traditional meditation and other yoga practices, yoga nidra cannot be practiced without voice guidance. This is because the goal of yoga nidra is to achieve a semi-sleeping, yet fully-awakened state. This can only be achieved by being guided down subsequent levels of consciousness.
Attempting the guidance on your own will almost certainly lead to falling asleep. And while this is a common result of the yoga nidra practice in general — and not necessarily “bad” — riding the fine line between sleeping and being awake is where the benefits of yoga nidra truly occur.
Anyone can practice yoga nidra on their own with help from a pre-recorded guidance instructor on CD or MP3. Still, yoga nidra is much more commonly practiced with a live instructor who reads scripts and guides the process. The voice of your instructor is the thread that maintains your level of semi-consciousness.
Yoga Nidra: The Process
Traditionally, yoga nidra practitioners begin a session by lying on their backs with arms out and palms pointed toward the sky. Eyes are closed. Depending on your location, you may lay on your back on your bed or a couch or on the floor or a yoga mat. Sometimes, pillows, rolled blankets, or yoga blocks are used to elevate parts of the body and improve comfort.
Each yoga nidra session will be different, and how subsequent “steps” or “stages” are approached will largely depend on your instructor and the scripts they choose to read.
For the most part, the initial goal is deep relaxation and focus on a clear intention. Using guiding voice instruction, your instructor will lead you into the deep relaxation. This process is often achieved through your instructor telling you to focus on individual parts of your body, one at a time. The goal here is to hone in on each body part and sense it acutely before moving onto the next part. Then, you focus on the body as a whole.
This will be done without allowing you to fall completely asleep. Practitioners often relay feeling heavy, calm, and still. It is at this point that your instructor will use visualizations and guided imagery to bring you to an even deeper state. Throughout the process, your initial intention will be revisited many times.
Typically, there is no time limit on yoga nidra sessions. One session may be anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour; though typically, one session lasts around 30 minutes.
Reap the Benefits of Yoga Nidra by Working With a Trained Anahana Wellness Advisor
Experienced executives don’t attain their positions without hard work, dedication, and thousands of cumulative hours spent on-the-job. As a result, CEOs and COOs simply don’t have endless time and energy to dedicate to a yogic practice — even if it promises to improve their anxiety and stress levels.
At Anahana, we keep this in mind in our approach to teaching yoga and meditation. Instead of asking that you conform to a predetermined class schedule or leaving you to guide your own study, our instructors go to you and work around your schedule. By embracing the practice of yoga nidra, you can gain the numerous benefits this practice has to offer and revolutionize the way you approach daily stressors and anxieties. To get started with personally tailored Yoga class today, connect with an Anahana Wellness Advisor.