- I tried yoga nidra, a sort of guided meditation that invites you into the state of consciousness between waking and sleeping.
- It feels more accessible than many meditation practices, since it’s entirely guided, you do it lying down, and you can’t mess up.
- The practice is linked to reduced anxiety, deeper self-awareness, improved sleep, and more.
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I only made it to number 16 when counting down from 18 before my focus faded and a dream state settled in.
I caught myself and tried again: 18, 17, 16 … and off my mind meandered once more. Not to grocery lists or work assignments, but to the type of strange and colourful story threads the mind can only conjure on the edge of sleep.
Could it be working?
I wasn’t undergoing anesthesia or hypnosis, but rather a practice called “yoga nidra,” a refreshingly accessible alternative to meditation also known as yogic sleep. Philadelphia-based yoga instructor Jake Panasevich told me it’s like “verbal acupuncture,” and yoga teacher Autumn Adams wrote her husband has dubbed it “advanced napping.”
Whatever you call it, the practice is linked with loads of mental and physical benefits, and may be especially appealing during the pandemic, as it’s a fail-proof way to destress, improve sleep, and ease pain without leaving home.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world,” yoga nidra teacher Hilary Jackendoff told me, “and it does all of things you hope meditation will provide you with,” even, as I â€” someone who neither does yoga nor meditates â€” experienced, on the first try.
All you need is a floor, a recording, and as little as five minutes
Yoga nidra simply involves lying down (or in yoga terms, in shavasana) and letting an instructor â€” live, online, or via a recording â€” guide you through mental exercises designed to move you “from a state of thinking and doing to a state of being and feeling,” Panasevich said.
In my case, the exercises, led virtually by Jackendoff who graciously gave me a complementary 45-minute session, included paying attention to the sounds around me (especially those between the car horns and radiator clanking), a body scan, the countdown, and perhaps other techniques that escaped my conscious recollection.
Unlike many forms of meditation, which encourage you to attune your focus â€” to your belly rising and falling, for instance, or to the soles of your feet connecting with the earth â€” yoga nidra invites you to lose focus and sink into deep mental, physical, and emotional relaxation.
“In deep sleep, there’s no awareness. We don’t know how much money we have or who our partner is,” Jackendoff told me. “In yoga nidra, we’re moving to that deep state of sleep, and that’s a very freeing experience.”
It’s also freeing to know you can’t really do it wrong. You can do it for five minutes or an hour, daily or whenever you need a reset. If you remain mindful and don’t fall into the zone between sleeping and waking, “there are tons of benefits to be gained,” Jackendoff said. If the opposite happens and you fall asleep, that’s a good thing as well.
These days, “we are fundamentally exhausted and if people are tired, they need to sleep,” said Jackendoff, adding that when she offered in-person yoga nidra classes, it wasn’t uncommon for people to snore.
Often, though, people don’t go to the either extreme and rather “slide between different states of awareness,” she said.
That was true for me. At the start, my mind was quite awake, wondering for instance how I’d write about my yoga nidra experience if I couldn’t remember it. Since in fact I don’t recall it all, I may have fallen asleep at some point. But I do know the body scan drew me into that semi-conscious sweet spot, and left me feeling zen hours after the session closed.
Yoga nidra is linked with reduced anxiety, better sleep sleep, and less chronic pain
Research has linked yoga nidra with reduced stress and anxiety, with one study, for instance, showing its anxiety-reduction benefits among college professors were superior to those of seated meditation.
Another showed it improved heart rate variability, essentially teaching the body to turn off the fight-or-flight stress response and settle into the “rest and digest” response of the parasympathetic nervous system.
The list goes on: It seems to help improve sleep by prepping your brain to fall into it, make up for lost sleep by maximizing time in the brain’s most restorative state, prompt creativity and deeper self-discovery, heal trauma, reduce chronic pain, and may even help control blood sugar in people with diabetes.
But for Panasevich, who’s largely substituted his meditation practice with yoga nidra during the pandemic, one of the biggest perks is simply the chance to lie down and be told what to do.
“Our whole culture is based on focus and getting more done, and ‘you’re not doing enough,'” he said. “For me, it’s permission to deliberately disengage.”