Yoga nidra attacks the problem of the threefold tensions directly by progressively inducing physical, emotional and mental relaxation. The practice can be reduced to the following main elements: rotation of consciousness, breathing awareness, development of feelings, visualization of stories and images. The first two sections deal with physical relaxation, the next with emotional relaxation and the last with mental relaxation. An opportunity to make a resolve is given at the beginning and the end. Relaxation is also enhanced by a short practice of body awareness and/or antar mouna before rotation of consciousness begins. The whole practice is finished by carefully withdrawing the mind from the state of psychic sleep. Throughout the practice you are asked to play a double role, simultaneously following the instructions and instructing yourself.
Physical relaxation is accomplished by rotating the consciousness through approximately 76 centres of the physical body as quickly and rhythmically as possible. These centres are fairly well-defined areas located in the outer body, including for example the fingers, knees, palms, eyes and buttocks. By 'rotating the consciousness' we mean that the mind is asked to think of these centres momentarily in an ordered sequence, such as fingers, palm, wrist, elbow, shoulder and so on, proceeding in this way around several well defined circuits in the body. It is possible to circulate the awareness around the outer body in a variety of ways, and also to circulate it through various interior passages such as the digestive system, respiratory system and skeletal structure. It is like moving a small motor car along a network of highways. Only two or three complete circuits of the whole body are enough to induce physical relaxation, as well as a significant degree of emotional and mental relaxation.
This relaxation is continued by next drawing attention to the breath. Only awareness of the breath is practiced; there is no attempt to force or change it. The awareness may be of the breath in the nostrils, in the chest, or in the passage between the navel and the throat. Usually greater benefit is gained by adding simultaneous counting. This practice serves to bring about an even deeper state of physical relaxation and narrows the mind's awareness down to a smaller area.
Next follows relaxation in the plane of emotions or feelings. We develop a state of mind where feelings are brought to the surface voluntarily, and then eliminated or thrown off. At this point the mind has ceased to process information from the outside world or the body, and the senses are subjected to its direction; a reversal of the usual way of feeling. Feelings of a strongly psychosomatic nature are recalled or awakened, experienced as intensely as possible, and then removed. These feelings include especially heat, cold, pain, pleasure, heaviness and lightness, as well as love, hate, jealousy, fear and anger. It is a practice that develops your willpower on the emotional plane but it also brings about relaxation on this plane by purging it of unpleasant sensations.
We come then to mental relaxation, psychic sleep in the realm of the mind. During this stage of yoga nidra you appear to be asleep to the outside world but you are fully awake to your internal environment. In fact you lose all awareness of your physical body. In this part of the practice a number of images are named, either in story form or a succession of items, and you try to develop a vision of these. You discipline your imaginations and fantasies to such a degree that you are able to see landscapes, oceans, flowers, temples, mountains and saints. The images that are used are chosen for their universal significance and powerful associations. By the act of visualizing them you draw material from the deeper levels of your mind and develop your self-awareness. This section is usually finished with an image or group of images that have a spiritual significance or invoke feelings of peace and calmness. At this stage the mind is very sensitive to positive resolutions or resolves. After a resolve is made you gradually bring your awareness back to the outside world.
Let us consider yoga nidra as a method of pratyahara. Most of us spend the majority of our waking life with our mind externalised, predominantly concerned with events outside the body. The mind has been habituated since birth to looking outside, and like all habits this is difficult to overcome. The biggest problem is that our mind is continually receiving data about the outside world via the sense organs. We can never really dissociate ourselves from the outside world until we train our minds to ignore this never-ending stream of sense stimuli. This is not as hard as it sounds because the mind naturally ignores much of the external stimuli and selects only that which interests it. What we try to do in pratyahara is develop this natural function so that all such stimuli are ignored.
Now the mind is like a naughty child; it does the opposite of what you want it to do. So if you try to shut out sense impressions, the mind responds by making them more intense. If, on the other hand, you force the mind to think of external things whilst the eyes are closed, it will, after some time, tend to lose interest in these and withdraw automatically, which is exactly what we want in yoga nidra. This withdrawal effect is the reason why the antar mouna technique is such a good one for starting yoga nidra. We deliberately focus our attention on outside sounds and move from sound to sound with the attitude of a witness. After a while the mind loses interest in these and naturally withdraws from them. By closing our eyes and practicing antar mouna, we close down the two mediums of sense that are the most important in keeping our mind extrovert. This leaves the sense of touch as the strongest remaining source of outside' stimulus, with the senses of taste and smell being relatively un-compelling.
Touch sensations are minimized by adopting the pose of shavasana, in which the arms and legs are spread away from the central axis of the body to avoid contact. Because the fingertips are extremely sensitive organs of touch, they are kept away from the floor by turning the palms of the hands upwards. Clothes worn are as light, loose and as few as possible. Ideally, the temperature of the room is such that there are no sensations of heat or cold and care is taken to avoid breezes or draughts being directed straight onto the body.
In this way external stimuli are considerably reduced and attention is drawn towards the body. The next part of the practice is therefore concerned with withdrawal of consciousness from the body. Again we deliberately concentrate all our attention on the body itself to accomplish this effect. The consciousness is rotated through the different parts of the body a number of times in the manner already described, and it is found that after awhile there is a strong tendency for the mind to introvert. Furthermore the state of relaxation which is induced serves to markedly reduce the input of body stimuli to the brain.
The major physical stimulus remaining at this stage comes front the floor on which the body rests. Accordingly it is useful to focus the attention on the surface or points of contact between the body and the floor. This kind of attention can flow naturally into the development of feelings of lightness - floating away from the floor - and of heaviness - sinking into the floor - if this is desired, but normally the next part of the practice is awareness of breathing. At this stage also some visualization can be introduced, such as seeing your body from the outside.
The mind's introversion is further deepened - by bringing the awareness to the natural breath. This is a subtle practice in which it is important to avoid physical effort or any attempt to change the breath. It completes pratyahara from the physical body and also assists pratyahara from the subtle or pranic body.
In the same way the practice is continued in the realm of psychosomatic emotions or feelings. There is a kind of circulation of awareness amongst a number of feelings, at first more physical in their aspect, such as lightness and heat, and then more mental, for example pain, pleasure, and if desired, anger, fear, jealousy and love. This practice can be done by remembering and re-experiencing feelings from the past or by awakening these feelings in all parts of the body in a progressive manner, like rotation of consciousness.
Yoga nidra continues with the practice of visualization, which is like taking a guided tour of the mind. By this stage the mind is completely introverted although there is still awareness of the instructor's voice. In other forms of meditation this is the stage where various thoughts and images start to arise from the conscious and the subconscious, interfering with progress towards concentration. In yoga nidra, instead of blocking these impressions we utilize them. The approach used is the same one as before, the consciousness being deliberately circulated through selected images and thoughts so as to de-activate their force as distractions. Images and symbols are chosen that stir up the contents of the deeper layers of the mind and bring them to the surface. Once this cleansing or purging process is commenced it often continues spontaneously. An indication of this is when trains of thoughts and images bubble up in the practice called chidakasha dharana or awareness of inner space, where you watch them appear with the attitude of a detached witness.
One of the most effective ways of stirring up the mind is to name a large selection of different objects quickly and rhythmically in succession; what we call 'rapid images'. Another way is to string the images together in a story form. Although at the beginning these images can only be 'imagined', with repeated practice you will find yourself developing full-blown visualizations. For well practiced persons it may only be necessary to name a few key images which they can develop themselves.
These visualizations continue the process of pratyahara but also lead you to concentration or dharana. The review of images acts both to develop powers of visualization and to exhaust your conscious and subconscious of distracting material by the power of association. At this point your mind becomes one-pointed and you are ready for the practice of dharana, in which the awareness is held on one particular object for a length of time. In many of the practices presented in this book the image of the golden egg is used, and this is a powerful psychic symbol that is particularly suitable for concentration. Pure meditation is the conscious experience of this object in the unconscious, in which the distinction between conscious and unconscious is dissolved, and all psychological images stop.
The deeper layers of the subconscious are very sensitive to suggestions from the conscious will. Yoga nidra gives us access to this region, and induces in us a state of heightened susceptibility to conscious suggestion. Suggestions implanted at this time gather behind them the tremendous force of the subconscious and can therefore exert a great influence on the individual personality. The resolve is a direct order from the conscious mind to the subconscious. The power of the subconscious will eventually force this order back up to the conscious level, and it will manifest actively in your behaviour.
As we have seen, the contents of the subconscious (samskaras) have a major influence on our way of thinking and perceiving, and upon the personality we present to others. Even as we express and exhaust existing samskaras, we are creating fresh ones. Today's thoughts and actions are influenced by past experience and today's experience will determine our behaviour in future times. This cycle of action and reaction is known as karma and it is responsible for all regression, stagnation and progression in life.
We are not helpless victims of fate, for each of us has the power to mould his own mental structure. The wise man develops his own personality by self-training and deliberately establishing drives and desires of a positive kind. No personality is beyond reformation, and no fear or obsession is so deep-rooted as to be beyond change. The seed of change is the resolve which is made in yoga nidra.
Many times we have made casual resolutions to improve our-selves by overcoming some undesirable habit. For years together a person might have sincerely tried to change, with little or no success. This is because his resolution was only working close to the surface on the intellectual conscious plane. The resolution was not backed by the deeply ingrained willpower needed to carry it through. However the same suggestion made in yoga nidra is firmly established deep in the subconscious, so that its inherent power can be directed towards constructive ends. The spontaneous impulse of samskaras to find expression through the conscious mind will be harnessed to work for us rather than against us.
Auto-suggestion is a powerful technique and should be used intelligently. Old habits that are unwanted, but so persistent that you are unable to leave off, are not true problems in themselves. They are symptoms of something deeper. To suppress one symptom (e.g. smoking) will only cause that drive to reappear in a different form. Unless you are greatly distressed by a particular habit, and cannot determine the possible source, we suggest that you do not use your resolve to rid yourself of 'bad habits'. It is more constructive for the resolve to be directed towards a positive goal concerning the whole life, a true desire to reform the personality. In the attainment of such a goal, you will automatically gain the strength to overcome undesirable habits.
It is very important that the resolve be stated in clear, positive terms. For example, there is a negative attitude behind such a resolve as 'I will overcome fear'. Reorient your attitude by saying instead 'I will develop courage and strength'. With the development of its opposite quality, an undesirable element disappears.
Your resolve should be repeated mentally with a sincere faith that it will work in your life. Mechanical repetition has little effect on the mind. You must feel your resolve, for the unconscious recognizes and acts upon suggestions that are carried on a strong emotional impetus.
The resolve should be stated in a simple, clear form and in the exact same words each time, until the aim is realized in your life. The following are a few examples; you will think of more according to your needs and inclinations.
I will maintain perfect health.
I will become positive and dynamic.
I will be true to myself.
I will remember God always.
I will find truth.