Hypnotism covers a broad spectrum of altered states about which little is known from a scientific viewpoint. Despite this lack it is useful to make some general comparisons between yoga nidra and hypnotism because people are often confused about their relationship. The form of hypnotism taken for comparison is known as hypnotherapy and is a technique used by western psychiatrists and psychotherapists. The same technique is used in self-hypnosis or autogenic training and is not too difficult to learn.
This technique should be carefully distinguished from theatrical hypnotism. In the popular mind the mention of hypnotism usually conjures up images of a bearded maestro with piercing eyes and flamboyant clothes who persuades people to perform spectacular feats against their will. This is a false conception of the true state of affairs, at least in hypnotherapy. Other misconceptions are that the person hypnotized never has any recollection of what happened during his hypnotic 'trance' and that the hypnotist experiences a loss of personal power or energy as a result of his activities. To understand hypnotherapy these concepts need to be discarded.
In hypnotherapy, as it is actually practiced, relaxed states are induced that are very similar to the ones developed in yoga nidra. As in yoga nidra, these states may vary from shallow to deep. It should be clearly understood that hypnotherapy does not produce an unconscious state, nor does it aim to. Ideally the subject remains conscious throughout, sleepy but alert and aware of all that it going on. If there is a loss of awareness or if sleep occurs, the therapist will wake the subject up in order to continue the session. Naturally this part will be forgotten by the subject, but only this part, or parts. Normally the subject's mind is focused wholly on the therapist's instructions and/or suggestions, or else it is diverted by some activity such as counting numbers or breaths as the therapist keeps talking. Like yoga nidra the aim is to speak directly to the person's subconscious mind without the interference from the conscious mind that is usually experienced.
In hypnotherapy both verbal suggestion and visual concentration are used to achieve the desired state of relaxation. The subject may be asked to concentrate on a slowly beating metronome, a small black square on a white wall, or the therapist's index finger moving towards his eyebrow centre. At the same time the therapist talks to him in a continuous patter, telling him in a confident, directive voice that his object of concentration is becoming blurred, he is feeling sleepy and so on. As long as the person has willingly submitted to this physical and physiological discipline, very often only ten to fifteen minutes are required to reach the desired state of hypnosis. It should be noted, however, that a large proportion of the population is not susceptible to this kind of suggestion, mainly because of their refusal to submit to overt direction from another person. In fact, a psychological test has been devised to identify such people, who score highly, for example, on items such as independence and self-assertiveness.
The material given to the subject in hypnotherapy usually consists of positive instructions given in a persuasive and confident voice, a directive and/or nurturing voice like that of a parent speaking to a child. This material is intended to act as a counter to negative programs and the habits deeply ingrained in the subject's psyche, and for it to be effective it must be implanted at a similar level. The aim is to break persistent patterns of behaviour so that new ones can develop. For those who are responsive to this kind of treatment, the suggestion technique is quite a powerful one and great care must be taken in the choice of a therapist. However it should be stressed that hypnotherapists are not able to implant patterns of thought or behaviour fundamentally conflicting with the person's value system or detrimental to his health.
Hypnotherapy is not the only healing method used in the hypnotic state. In this state it is possible for the subject to recall material from his life and childhood not accessible to him in his normal waking consciousness. Hypnoanalysis takes advantage of this by encouraging the subject to engage in free association around the topic that is causing him disturbance, in the hope that this will reveal helpful insights. Whatever material arises is thoroughly discussed and analysed while the patient is still relaxed. In some instances the patient may be instructed to forget material after hypnosis, for example if it has not been completely worked out. This kind of induced post-hypnotic amnesia is not often used however; when it is, then it is only to protect the person from any undue disturbance.
Like yoga nidra, hypnosis can be learned and practiced on oneself. In the consumer-oriented societies of the west, many people keep returning to their therapist for hypnotic sessions but this is not really necessary and, moreover, fosters a dependent relationship. A good therapist will generally encourage subjects to learn the technique for themselves, unless there is a possibility that a person will find this disturbing.
The present state of knowledge indicates that yoga nidra and hypnotherapy induce similar relaxed states, but the contents, goals and methods of the two practices are very different. In yoga nidra the method does not depend on suggestion or persuasion, although it is true that the instructions are given authoritatively and directively. What happens is that the subject induces his own state of relaxation by following the instructions, and the role of the teacher is more like that of a friend guide who shows you the way, given that you wish to take the journey. For this reason people who find hypnosis too coercive have no problem accepting yoga nidra. More-over, in yoga nidra self-practice is encouraged right from the start.
The whole point of yoga nidra (and yoga in general) is to develop your awareness, your consciousness of your inner being. Whatever insights are revealed or images arise are to be viewed with detachment; there must be no analysis. In yoga it has been found that analysis only perpetuates the karmic cycle by giving the material more force on all levels of the mind; it reinforces the problem rather than removes it. By practicing awareness you review the contents of your mind like a detached witness; you make new discoveries but do not become involved in them as involvement means regression.
In both yoga nidra and hypnotherapy the first part of the practice is devoted to achieving relaxation, greatly facilitated in yoga nidra by adopting the pose of shavasana. After this the hypnotic session is devoted to therapy, whereas in yoga nidra various feelings and visualizations are evoked. The only therapeutic material contained within yoga nidra is the resolve and this is entirely up to the person doing the practice; it is not given by the instructor and moreover it is only a very small part of the whole procedure.