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Yoga nidrā योग निद्रा : The power of yogic sleep

Yoga Nidrā, often referred to as "yogic sleep," is a profound practice that traces its roots back thousands of years in ancient Indian civilisation. It can be described as an absorbed state of meditation, deep relaxation and conscious sleep, where the practitioner remains aware while experiencing a profound sense of relaxation. Derived from the Sanskrit words "yoga", meaning union or yoke, and "nidrā", meaning sleep, this practice combines elements of meditation, deep relaxation, and self-awareness. Over time, Yoga Nidrā has evolved and gained recognition for its numerous benefits for modern-day practitioners, addressing physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

The origins of Yoga Nidrā can be found in the ancient texts of yoga, such as the Upanishads, Tantras and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1:38). It is believed to have been practised by yogis and sages seeking spiritual enlightenment and inner transformation. The technique involves lying in a comfortable position while being guided through a systematic process of deep relaxation, conscious awareness, and visualisation.

Yoga Nidrā has been embraced by various yogic traditions and lineages throughout history. However, in the 20th century, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, a controversial but influential yoga teacher, played a key role in popularising and elevating the practice. Through his teachings and writings, he brought Yoga Nidrā into the spotlight and founded the Bihar School of Yoga. His structured and methodical approach resonated with people worldwide, making Yoga Nidrā more widely practised. Today Yoga Nidrā continues to be adapted and rebranded as NSDR (non-sleep deep rest) or iRest for a primarily more health focused and less spiritual Western audience. However, I believe it is important to discuss not only its benefits for our body and mind, but also its historical and cultural roots.

The Yoga Nidrā we practice today draws inspiration from a tapestry of sources. It intertwines threads from the Tantric ritual of nyasa and elements found in later Hatha Yoga texts, including the Shiva Samhita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, where it is described more as a state to be attained rather than as a practice in itself. The tantric nyasa practice is a ritualistic technique employed in Tantric traditions to awaken and activate specific energy centres within the body. By systematically touching, chanting, or mentally placing sacred syllables, mantras, or deities on different body parts, accompanied by mudras (sacred gestures) and visualisations, practitioners seek to invoke divine energies. This process is believed to align and harmonise their physical, energetic, and spiritual aspects. Nyasa is believed to awaken dormant energies, purify and balance the subtle energy channels known as nadis, and activate the corresponding chakras or energy centres.

However, while still honouring the ancient roots of Yoga Nidrā, I feel that it is also relevant to mention the likely influence of the late 19th and early 20th-century Western 'relaxtionism' movement, which emphasised the importance of relaxation and stress reduction for overall well-being and is likely to have had an impact on how Yoga Nidrā is thought of and practised today. The relaxtionist movement emerged as a response to the rapidly changing, industrialised, and increasingly stressful nature of life at the time. The relaxtionists promoted techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training, guided imagery as well as meditation and mindfulness in order to try and counterbalance the stresses and pressures of life by promoting self-care and mental well-being. Doesn't seem so different to today really, does it?

To the present-day practitioner, one of the key benefits of Yoga Nidrā lies in its ability to induce a state of profound relaxation, ease and stillness. In our modern, fast-paced world, stress and anxiety have become pervasive issues. By practising Yoga Nidrā, individuals can experience deep physical and mental relaxation, which helps to alleviate stress, calm the nervous system, and reduce anxiety levels. The practice also enhances our quality of sleep, providing relief from insomnia and promoting better overall sleep patterns.

However, Yoga Nidrā is not merely a practice of relaxation; it is a powerful tool for self-exploration and personal growth. Through guided instructions and visualisation, practitioners may be encouraged to explore their thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, aiding them in fostering greater self-awareness and self-understanding. This process can support those looking for the resolution of inner conflicts, emotional healing, and the discovery of one's true nature.

Another significant benefit of Yoga Nidrā is its positive impact on the physical body. While in a state of deep relaxation, the body's natural healing processes are activated. This can result in reduced muscle tension, alleviation of chronic pain, and enhanced immune system functioning. Additionally, regular practice of Yoga Nidrā has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, and boost overall vitality.

In the realm of mental health, Yoga Nidrā has proven to be a valuable practice. It can help individuals manage conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction. By cultivating a sense of inner peace, resilience, and acceptance, practitioners can develop healthier coping mechanisms and a greater sense of emotional well-being.

Yoga Nidrā also offers a gateway to spiritual growth and inner awakening. As practitioners journey through the layers of their consciousness, they may tap into deeper realms of existence, experience a sense of interconnectedness, and access their innate wisdom and intuition. This practice encourages the integration of body, mind, and spirit, leading to a more balanced and harmonious life.

There is no doubt that Yoga Nidrā is a powerful practice as well as a state of deep relaxation and conscious sleep, and while lesser known in today's modern yoga studios, in tradition Yoga Nidrā Śakti (pronounced shakti) can also be referred to and revered as a great goddess. In some traditional Hindu texts, such as the Devī Māhātmya (‘Glorification of the Goddess’), Yoga Nidrā is personified as the manifestation of the goddess as sleep itself. Yoga Nidrā can be seen as a deity that represents the state of profound relaxation and the source of rejuvenation, healing, and transformation. She is regarded as the divine mother, providing nourishment and restoration to the practitioner. However, today in modern postural yoga, Yoga Nidrā is primarily known as a practice rather than a goddess and is often taught as a technique to induce deep relaxation, release stress, and explore the realms of consciousness.

A branch of Yoga Nidrā can also be found in Buddhism. While Yoga Nidrā originated from the yogic tradition of ancient India, a similar practice known as "Shamatha" or "Shamatha with Awareness" can be found in Buddhist meditation. Shamatha, which translates to "calm abiding," is a meditation practice aimed at developing single-pointed focus and mental tranquillity. It involves cultivating a state of deep relaxation, stability, and mindfulness. Through Shamatha, practitioners can develop greater clarity, concentration, and insight into the nature of the mind. Although there may be differences in terminology, techniques, and philosophical underpinnings between Yoga Nidrā and Shamatha, both practices share the goal of cultivating a calm and alert state of mind, leading to deep relaxation, enhanced awareness, and spiritual growth.

As it is, the history of Yoga Nidrā spans millennia, originating from ancient yogic texts, Tantric rituals and practice and evolving through the teachings of (sometimes problematic) modern masters. Its benefits for modern-day practitioners are extensive, encompassing relaxation, stress reduction, self-exploration, physical healing, emotional well-being, and spiritual growth. As we navigate the challenges of our fast-paced lives, the practice of Yoga Nidrā offers a sanctuary of stillness, rejuvenation, and transformation. By delving into the depths of our being, we can awaken to our fullest potential and live more fulfilling lives.


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