Each night, each one of passes through a state in between the waking and sleep states. One of near sleep, when one experiences the slowing of thoughts and an increased alertness and sensitivity to sounds or the environment. Yoga Nidra meditation is about recognising that subtle state and staying in it rather passing into the stages of sleep. There have been a number of studies in the literature on the medical benefits of Yoga Nidra meditation and some of these are discussed in the article. Finally there is a link to a 25 minute guided practice at the end of this article provided by Dr. Melissa West.
It is not correct to say that Yoga Nidra induces a state, Yoga Nidra ‘is’ a state. One in which the body is completely relaxed and the meditator becomes progressively more aware of their inner experiences such as thought and images, body sensations as well an alert awareness of the external perceptions in the world. This is usually performed through a guided practice (please find a link at the end of the article).
Yoga Nidra differs from other meditative practices that usually require attention on a single object (‘anchor’) such as the breath, meditation beads or a mantra.
The origins of Yoga Nidra are thought to be as old as yoga (the meditative practice rather than the physical exercise) itself. There is certainly mention of it in the sacred Hindu texts, the Upanishads.
“[The Ocean] becomes the bed of the lotus-naveled Vishnu when at the termination of every Yuga that deity of immeasurable power enjoys yoga-nidra, the deep sleep under the spell of spiritual meditation.”— Mahabharata, Book 1, section XXI
The true teaching of Yoga Nidra is consistent with other Vedantic and yogic traditions. The meditator remains in a state of light withdrawal of the 5 senses which is known in Sanskrit as ‘pratyahara’ with four senses internalised, that is, withdrawn, and attention solely on the sense of hearing. This is so instructions can be given but over this time, even this sense can be internalised. Some utilise Yoga Nidra to reach a meditative state of consciousness known as samadhi, which is the experience of the world without any filter of mind activity. The practice of yoga nidra can result in conscious awareness of the deep sleep state, which is called ‘prajna’ and is referred to in the Mandukya Upanishad.
For most of us however, it is among the deepest possible states of relaxation while still maintaining full consciousness. Studies point to its use in stress reduction and the US military have also used it as an adjunct to the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
This technique is not difficult to learn as all seven billion of us pass through this state every single night, but the passage is so subtle that it can ben often missed. Once recognised, to stay in that state is the key to Yoga Nidra.
Regular practioners of Yoga Nidra have increased levels of the natural ‘love’ hormone dopamine which is released from the ventral striatum of the brain. There is reduced cerebral blood flow in the parts of the brain responsible for conscious action in particular the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum. Some studies report participants have increased sensory imagery whilst in this state. One study utilised PET scanning, a sophisticated technique utilising positrons (positively charged electrons – technically antimatter) to assess metabolic activity of the regions of the brain, as a ‘surrogate’ marker for blood flow to those regions and found that the stages of reduced blood flow to the aforementioned areas was associated with an increase theta wave activity on brain-wave analysis of the meditators . The preponderance of theta waves in the meditative state is a recognised phenomenon in experienced practitioners.
A National Library of Medicline search yielded over thirsted peer-reviewed publications on a number of subjects ranging from stress and anxiety, PTSD , as well as a disproportionate number of studies on its use in menstrual disturbances. It has also been used for psychological disturbances in the young and in military veterans who are the best studied group in the literature [2,3]. The medical profession have also seized upon the utility of Yoga Nidra in chronic  and acute  pain.
1. Timing is essential, it is obviously best to do this at your normal physiological sleep time but avoid being to tired. Wait until two hours after a meal and avoid any intense mental activity beforehand. Most practitioners use the floor with the aid of a meditation mat with our without bolsters (to support the spine from the cervical to the lumbar spine or under the legs).
Set a timer for a set period or allow yourself to fall asleep naturally
2. Notice and welcome sounds, smells, and taste as well as colour and light behind the eyelids. Release excess tension throughout your body and feel a sense of relaxation spreading throughout your entire body and mind.
3. Set your intention for the session, what is it that you want most from the practice. Take some time to think about that but also how your practice may benefit others.
4. Perform a body scan meditation (see www.pandey.healthcare/meditation for more details).
5. Watch the breath, without trying to control it.
6. Welcome all the thoughts, and images, emotions and feelings and the internal body sensations that make up your inside world. Avoid ‘clinging’ to happy thoughts and pushing away negative ones.
7. Welcome all the perceptions from the five senses without labelling them mentally.
8. Shift your focus to a resting awareness where you are not focussing on anything. Initially you will only be able to do this for a few seconds before you are lost in thought necessitating returning to your anchor – the breath.
9. Every time you return to your anchor try to progressively increase the time you spend in the resting awareness state.
You will either end the practice with the sound of your meditation timer or would have planned to fall asleep (in which case please ensure your morning alarm is set!). Most importantly, don’t get disheartened, with all things in meditation, in life, it is all about the practice. There is a link at the end of the article to a guided Yoga Nidra practice by Dr Melissa West, in video format but equally you can listen to the guided meditation through your headphones with your eyes closed.
There are some meditators that use this method as their sole practice and not without good reason. It is easy to learn, although takes a little longer to master. Luckily the benefits of this technique that this article have alluded, arrive a long time before the mastery does. Good luck.
Article by Vikas Pandey
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Evaluation of an Integrative Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Treatment Program. J Altern Complement Med. 2019 Mar;25(S1):S147-S152. doi: 10.1089/acm.2018.0424.
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Effect of Selected Yogic Practices on Pain and Disability in Patients with Lumbar Spondylitis. Int J Yoga. 2017 May-Aug;10(2):81-87. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.205516.
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