Growing up in North Carolina, I’ve had the privilege to hear stories of the indigenous Cherokee people.
One such legend is about an elder teaching his grandson about life:
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the young boy. “It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf is angry, envious, greedy, arrogant, sorrowful, guilty, malicious, judgmental and full of self-pity. The other wolf is joyful, peaceful, loving, hopeful, kind, compassionate, generous, truthful and serene. The same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about this for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win the fight?”
The wise grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”
This reverent story reflects the qualities we seek to develop as massage therapists and as human beings: inner peace, hope and compassion for the world around us.
Yoga nidra is a meditation practice that offers us a technique to grow these “loving wolf” qualities.
Understanding Yoga Nidra
Dissecting the words yoga and nidra, we can better understand the concept of this nurturing practice.
Yoga means to yolk or join, as in joining your physical outer body with your mind and inner experience. Nidra simply means sleep in Sanskrit.
Yoga does not mean stretching the body and holding physical postures to improve strength, balance and flexibility. This is actually the practice of asana, one of the eight threads that weave the tapestry of yoga.
There are seven other threads that make up yoga: yamas (integrity), niyamas (self-discipline), pranayama (yogic breathing), pratyahara (cultivating the inner observer), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (bliss consciousness).
Putting those meanings together, yoga nidra means to join (the body and the mind) with sleep.
In my work as an ayurvedic practitioner, sleep is valued as medicine. Sleep is a time when the body naturally heals itself from the physical and emotional experiences of the day. Even if we’re getting plenty of sleep at night, the result of taking a break once a week or more for guided, meditative sleep is beneficial to the body and the mind.
My yoga nidra teacher, Melissa Lido, explained that an hour of this guided mediation technique can feel like the equivalent of a full night of sleep. As an additional benefit, epiphanies can be realized within the meditative experience.
The Science of Yoga Nidra
Exploring the science of the brain helps us understand what’s actually taking place during yoga nidra. During our normal waking state, eyes open and alert, our brain is functioning in wavelengths of energy patterns called beta waves.
When we close our eyes for a few moments and take deep breaths, our brain waves slow to alpha state, from which we can easily and swiftly transition back to beta state.
When we sleep at night, our deepest sleep consists of slow, long brain waves in a delta state.
Somewhere between beta and delta wake and sleep, we can enter a state of brain waves called theta state. These are slower than beta brain waves and are accessible to us via mediation and yoga nidra.
Profoundly relaxed by the body’s release of relaxin hormones, this theta state is incredibly reviving and nourishing to our being. Gama waves, which are quite fast but also fleeting, are accessed during this theta state and are experienced in the form of sudden realizations and epiphanies.
This explains why sometimes when you come out of yoga nidra, you have solved a problem without thinking about it or realized something that facilitates growth in your life.
Practicing Yoga Nidra
Yoga nidra is accessible to all ages and skill levels. You needn’t have an established asana practice, or yoga pants or props to explore yoga nidra.
According to The Huffington Post, “The ancient practice of yoga nidra, also known as yogic sleep, is a meditative practice that results in conscious deep sleep. Current research suggests that yoga nidra can help relieve menstrual problems, diabetes symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”.
In addition to these benefits, simply lying on your back stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to release relaxation hormones, which have been indicated to reduce cortisol levels and lower blood pressure.
Equipped with any surface to lie upon in a safe setting, the benefits of yoga nidra are available to you.
Establishing A Practice
Here’s a step-by-step guide of how to experience this profoundly relaxing practice.
- First, decide how much time you can dedicate to this practice. 20 minutes is wonderful. Sixty minutes is better. Set a timer on your phone or alarm clock and sink into this restorative practice. This can be practiced in the morning, afternoon or evening, and some folks opt to skip the wake-up timer, using yoga nidra as a way to slip peacefully into sleep at the end of a long day.
- Lie on your back on a yoga mat or on the floor or bed, with or without support under the knees. If lying flat is unavailable to you, you can simply create a supported reclining seat with legs outstretched and back leaning on a mountain of pillows.
The full expression of the pose is to have the palms facing up, surrendering all stressors and ailments to the vast Universe.
- Once you’re in position, choose a guided meditation that works for you and begin your journey into yogic sleep. On YouTube, I like “Guided Meditation for Sleep…Floating Amongst the Stars” by Jason Stephenson.
There are also several free yoga nidra apps available. Experiment with various recordings to find what works best for you. If you live in a city with yoga studios, attend a yoga nidra class or workshop.
- Any shape your yoga nidra practice takes, prepare to go on a journey of the self, through the deepest layers of the self to enter a place of unified consciousness. Essentially, this technique feeds the compassionate wolf inside you who yearns to transcend judgement and fear.
Bringing love and light into the world, we can flourish and thrive. In total surrender, we can intentionally enter a place of self-healing that permeates all divides.
About the Author
Sally Raspberry is an ayurvedic practitioner with a background in therapeutic massage and yoga. As well as being a member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association and Yoga Alliance, Raspberry is an approved provider of continuing education through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork. For more information about ayurvedic fasting, the doshas and more, contact her or sign up for an upcoming class. Her approved courses include Meditation, Ayurveda, Sound Healing and Yin Yoga. She wrote “Love Your Mama: Mother Earth Needs Us” for the March 2017 print issue of MASSAGE Magazine.
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