Welcome to Sleep Yoga
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because non-sleep yoga is HARD.
Lie down. Palms facing up. Knees gently bent. Mind quiet.
That’s normally the last couple of minutes of a yoga class, known to many practitioners as “corpse pose” (or “nap time”). But with yoga nidra, that’s where you’re going to stay.
Though yoga has become a massive fitness craze for its role in keeping people physically fit, that’s not the only thing that yoga — as in the ancient branch of Hindu philosophy — is used for. Yoga nidra is yogic sleep, a form of guided, hyperaware relaxation. You lie on the floor for the entire class period, listening to the voice of your teacher in what amounts to a form of guided meditation. The goal: to give your body the feeling of a short, restful sleep.
“It’s the non-conceptual experience of being very relaxed, physically and otherwise,” says Tina Foster, a San Francisco meditation expert who teaches yoga nidra. “The experience is difficult to put into words, but a common phrase that comes up is ‘a sense of profound safety.'”
Foster discovered the practice when recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder. A teacher, hoping to help her improve her meditative practice, gave her a cassette tape of yoga nidra narration. Years later, while she was living in a different country, her tape broke — and with no yoga nidra teachers around, she tried to do the practice without the tape. “It was actually very, very natural. I could remember every single word. … Some part of the mind continues to stay open when we sleep.”
Some proponents of yoga nidra claim that half an hour of it is as restful as a few hours of regular sleep, though the rubric for measuring “restfulness” is never made clear. I tried it a few times — all you need is a nice place to lie down and access to YouTube. And dudes, it is kind of wacky.
Not the practice itself. Nobody tells you you are getting sleepy, or even how relaxed you must be feeling (a pitfall of guided meditations I have failed before). You simply lie down, set an affirmation — the woman’s voice suggested something like “I am happy and healthy” (but I will admit mine was “After this I will get some duck confit”) — and then follow the voice telling you to focus on each individual body part in turn, sending your mind up and down your physical body.
The wacky part came after, when I finished my allotted 20 minutes: Opening my eyes felt more like waking up from a nap than like just getting up off the floor. I didn’t feel weightless or ecstatic, just different. During my next session, my 17-pound cat came and sat on my chest for 16 minutes and I was too relaxed to worry about it. After acknowledging the sound of purring, I moved on to focusing on my thumb, forefinger, middle finger, ring finger, pinky, back of the hand.
“You find it very easy to be still,” Foster explains. “You actually kind of lose awareness of even the possibility of moving.”
Yoga nidra is a popular research topic — in the past year, the practice has been found in academic studies to lower stress in university students, raise the self-esteem of burn victims and help people undergoing colonoscopies manage their pain.
Are the 20-minute sessions as restful as a few hours sleep? Let’s put it this way: I will continue to get regular sleep like a regular person and not find out if I can sub in a few yoga nidra sessions, because I love sleep even more than I love duck confit.
Seriously though, not everyone feels hyper-rested every time, Foster says, but everyone’s experience on the mat on any given day is different. However, yoga nidra may work for you where other meditation has left your mind … wandering.