Every day we focus on the world around us. We extend ourselves outward and take in the world’s distractions with all five of our senses. During the practice of yoga nidra, we are asked to temporarily disconnect from our senses and shift our attention to our own body and mind. There are as many interpretations of yoga nidra as there are teachers, but most nidra sessions will include the following stages:
In this stage, you are asked to initiate the process of shifting focus from the exterior to the interior by settling in to a comfortable position in a place in which you feel secure. Our senses will not relinquish their focus on external stimulus until you feel safe in the place you have chosen to practice. Pick a quiet spot with soft or natural light where you will not be interrupted. Once you find your ideal place and position, you are then asked to close your eyes, cease movement, and focus on the sounds of the space you are in. Over the course of this practice, hearing will feel like the only sense that is still active.
The practice progresses with an internal statement of a resolve (traditionally called a sankalpa). This is a short phrase or a single word that encompasses a change you’d like to make, a state of being you’d like to find, or a trait you are working to develop. It should be a generalized, positive reinforcement of the what you might need to realize concrete plans or goals you have made. If at your job you need to make a presentation but your are a shy person, a resolve of fearlessness could be used. Be thoughtful, and take time to craft this intention. Once chosen, it should be used for numerous sessions so that the seed of the idea behind your resolve can be planted deeply in your mind.
Rotation of Consciousness
Your nidra guide then orients your focus toward the body by asking you to do a quick mental survey of its parts. This is a bit like creating a spotlight in your mind that you can then shift from one body part to the next. As you focus on and move between different parts of the body, the mind simultaneously accesses and moves between corresponding areas of the brain. Repeating these sequences of focus 2-3 times enforces the process of sensory withdrawal, and creates a feeling of energy flow or movement. It also effects a significant change in brainwave patterns, felt by the practitioner as relaxation, or ‘letting go’.
Rotation of consciousness finishes with a sustained focus on the breath. This is not unlike many well known meditation practices, but in yoga nidra, it is practiced after the body has already been guided to an unusually receptive, relaxed state. Physical relaxation is continued further with attention to the movement of the body as it is affected by each breath taken. The deepening, and slowing of the breathe that automatically occurs during this time engages our parasympathetic nervous system, effecting physiological changes in the body that encourage rest.
Your nidra guide then asks you to manifest opposing or complimentary experiences in your body. Some common pairings include heaviness/lightness, heat/cold, pain/pleasure, and sadness/joy. The experience of these states normally begins with the body’s response to outside stimulus. In nidra, you learning how to induce and then move between various physical and emotional states on cue. This process helps you develop greater understanding of these states, and of the mind’s role in how you experience them. With repeated practice, you can learn to adjust your physical and emotional responses to the state you manifest, and thus gain greater control over how you cope with them when they occur in the real world, outside of meditative practice.
Visual imagery is introduced as your guide gives you a series of words that act as visual cues. At this point, you have arrived at a state that is between sleep and wakefulness. You are effectively building a bridge between your conscious state and other potential states of consciousness. Images and events come to your mind that normally only occur in dreams, and you are presented with the possibility of conscious interpretation of their hidden meanings. You are participating in, but also the observer of, a controlled lucid dream. The images we are asked to picture are often symbolic. They are carefully chosen for the purpose of inducing deeper mental relaxation by purging the mind of painful or negative imagery. Regular practice with this type of directed visualization makes it easier to concentrate without distraction.
The visualization usually finishes with an image that evokes profound feelings of peace and calmness. At this point, the mind should be very receptive to positive suggestion. Nidra ends as it begins, with mental repetition of the resolve you chose at the beginning of the practice. Your mental state is dramatically altered by all of the previous phases, and your connection to a newfound state of consciousness is strengthened. The resolve you make can therefore be reinforced by parts of your being not normally accessible to you.
Finally, you are guided back to the external world through a directed awareness of the room you are in, and slow reintroduction of the senses. Often you will not realize just how affected your mental and physical state is until you start to externalize, and begin to move your body.
If repeated often enough, practicing yoga nidra can make you quite skilled at altering your typical, sensory based reactions to the world around us. In other words, you can learn how to relax easily and quickly in life’s more difficult moments.