Yoga Nidra - Psychic sleep for physical and mental rejuvenation

Swami Hridayananda Saraswati

It goes without saying that the body and mind are closely interrelated. To see this clearly, recall any individual you know who is either mentally anxious, depressed or unhappy most of the time and see how clearly this mental state is reflected in his or her facial expression and body language. You will see how the state of our mind determines the very lines and wrinkles of our countenance, the facial mask through which we interact with our environment.

Consider the person who is always depressed and unhappy. The muscles of his face adopt the same attitude with drooping down turned mouth and gaze, while his body movements become slow, stereotyped and dull.

Now consider an individual who is perpetually anxious and irritable. How clearly this state of mental strain is reflected in the constantly frowning forehead, tense mannerisms, speech and muscular armour. In fact, medical researchers and doctors today readily acknowledge that well over 80% of the diseases which afflict man, leading to suffering, degeneration and premature death, are psychosomatic in origin. That is, they originate in the mind as stressful patterns of thought which become habitual to the individual- fears, feelings of inadequacy, depression and so on. Research studies have shown that it is only a matter of time before various bodily systems and organs respond to our mental states, beginning to dysfunction with gradually increasing severity until the full scale disabling symptoms of one of the major degenerative illnesses manifest.

While researchers, by and large, accept that severe disorders such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis and hypertension have either a psychosomatic origin, or a large psychosomatic component in their genesis, they have not been able to offer a clear cut and effective means of stress release. Tranquilizers and hypnotic drugs are today being prescribed for enormous numbers of people throughout the world, yet they do not offer a truly satisfactory means of coping with intra-psychic and mental tension on a long term basis.

The ancient practice of yoga nidra is a simple and extremely effective alternative to tranquilizers which enables stressed individuals to attain for themselves deep relaxation of body and mind, breaking the vicious circle by which stress accumulates, worries compound upon themselves and tension multiplies from day to day.

Yoga nidra is a practice which can be widely applied in the modern world to improve the quality and increase the happiness of human life. The word yoga means inner communion; it is the process that leads to this state. Nidra means sleep. Yoga nidra is the simple, yet profound technique of yogic sleep which has been found useful in the following areas:

  1. Induces deep and permanent relaxation of the entire body, mind and personality.
  2. Brings about the state of meditation.
  3. Eradicates deep rooted psychological problems, complexes, neuroses, inhibitions, etc.
  4. Helps to remove a vast number of psychosomatic ailments such as high blood pressure.
  5. Acts as a non-chemical tranquilizer that quickly removes insomnia and induces deep sleep.
  6. Rejuvenates the whole human organism on all levels- physical, pranic and mental.
  7. Opens up the potential of the mind and awakens the faculty of intuition.
  8. Increases the memory and learning capacity of students. Brings extraordinary improvement in the absorption and retention of information from external sources as well as the internal knowledge within one's own mind.

States of yoga nidra

Yoga nidra is a specific practice which induces a deeper, more relaxed state of being. The mechanics of the practice are easy to understand and define, but the state of being will be experienced differently by various people. There are three main states of yoga nidra which progressively rid the mind of heavy tension, induce physical and nervous tranquillity, and bring about the state of meditation and awareness of inner knowledge.

Deep, refreshing sleep is the first state attained by those who are exhausted and constantly worried. Many people attend yoga nidra class to sink into the oblivion of sleep, nothing more or less. Psychic sleep is the next state achieved by those who have been practising yoga for a few years. This is the state of conscious dreaming, midway between sleep and wakefulness, where one has a vision of the subconscious mind and confronts many deep seated problems, suppressions, fears, etc. In this state the mind is gradually cleaned and polished. Cosmic sleep is the highest state of yoga nidra where one balances on the razor's edge between introversion and extroversion. This blissful, mystical state corresponds to the awakening of kundalini, the path of sushumna leading to super consciousness. It has been described by many saints, bhaktas and sages throughout history. In the scripture 'Yogataravali', Shankaracharya has written:

"When sankalpa (desires) and vikalpas (fancies and imaginations) are rooted out then one is influenced no more by karma. When sankalpa and vikalpa are removed by constant yogic practices the ever blissful state of yoga nidra dawns."

This is the unspeakable state that must be experienced to be understood.

Layers of the mind

Yoga nidra is a method of exploring the different layers of the mind. According to certain schools of modern psychology there are three dimensions of the mind- the conscious, subconscious and unconscious. In yogic terminology these are known as jagrat, swapna and Sushupti. They are described as follows: Jagrat is the conscious mind, waking state, surface thoughts and perception of the outside world. It corresponds to sthula, the gross dimension. Swapna is the subconscious mind, the dream state, individual memory and mind. It corresponds to sukshma, the subtle dimension.

Sushupti is the unconscious mind, deep conscious sleep, total memory. It corresponds to karana, the causal dimension.

Yoga nidra actually starts from the swapna state, that is, exploration of the subconscious mind. With mastery of this state the perception becomes deep enough to contact and explore the Sushupti or unconscious mind. Great yogis go even further - they transcend the mind and enter the state of super-consciousness. In yogic terms this state is called turiya, the fourth dimension of being. This is the highest state of yoga nidra which few attain. In 'Yogataravali' it says:

"Beyond these three states (jagrat, swapna and Sushupti) there is turiya. It is a state that is spontaneously experienced by yogis. It is real yoga nidra in the form of pure illumined consciousness. This yoga nidra is not part of prakriti (nature) but it is the manifested form of purusha (consciousness)."

The aim of yoga nidra is to progressively explore and transcend the different layers of the mind.


The word nyasa means 'to place'. Nyasa is the original practice of yoga nidra found in the ancient tantric texts. It is a practice in which specific mantras are placed and felt at different parts of the body. This is the traditional form of yoga nidra used by yogis throughout the ages and still practised by many Hindus. There are many specific and ritualistic forms of nyasa, for example, the 'Aruneyi Upanishad' (v. 5) advises all wandering sannyasins to practise nyasa at all times by chanting Om and placing it mentally at different parts of the body.

Several more forms of nyasa are described in the 'Maha Nirvana Tantra':

  • Matrika nyasa involves placing matrikas or letters of the Sanskrit alphabet at different parts of the physical body while chanting the corresponding sound. Hridayadi sa danga nyasa literally means placing the hands on the six different parts (sa danga) of the body, beginning with the heart (hridaya). Specific mantras are chanted, for example, when touching the heart 'namah', the head 'swahan', the crown 'vasat' and so forth.
  • Kara nasa, in which mantras are placed and chanted on the fingers, thumbs and palms of the hand, is closer to the modern version of yoga nidra but without the mantras.
  • Vyapaka (all pervasive) nyasa is so called because the energy of the mantras, together with awareness, is distributed throughout all the parts of the body. Specific mantras are placed and felt on the head, mouth, heart, anus, two feet, and so on.
  • Nyasa is an ancient ritual which has far reaching benefits. It is intended to induce pratyahara (sense withdrawal) in preparation for dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation). All these methods of nyasa are very powerful. They can be practised externally (bahya) when the parts are physically touched, or internally (antar) when the mantras and awareness are mentally placed. The mantra chanting and rotation of awareness harmonizes the nervous system, balances pranic flows and renders the mind one-pointed. Each part of the body is systematically charged with the energy of the mantras. The whole body and mind are purified and prepared for meditation.

The modern form of yoga nidra has been adapted from these traditional practices of nyasa by Swami Satyananda Saraswati to meet the needs of modern man. Though the mantras have been omitted to make the practice acceptable to all people of the world, the present version has been carefully designed to retain its power to transform the personality and receptivity of the practitioner.

The practice

Yoga nidra can be divided into the following nine stages:

  1. Preliminary adjustment of the body
  2. Preliminary relaxation of the whole body
  3. Preliminary relaxation of the mind
  4. Sankalpa or resolve, a short simple statement of your individual aim
  5. Rotation of awareness through all the parts of the body, external and internal
  6. Awareness of feeling
  7. Visualization
  8. Reflection and awareness of symbols and psychic centres
  9. Return to external awareness.

These nine stages are sequential, they should be practised one after the other in the order given. Variations can be adopted within this basic framework.

Instructions for yoga nidra can be given in three ways: directly from a teacher, from a tape recording, or by your own mental commands. It is best to learn yoga nidra directly from a teacher first so that the instructions can be modified to suit your individual needs. When the correct method is firmly imprinted on your mind, however, you can practise alone either by self-instruction or listening to a tape recording of your teacher's lesson.

Sound link

During yoga nidra there is no need for physical contact between the teacher and the practitioner. The contact is psychic through the sound of the voice. The teacher's voice should be calm and clear. Speed of instructions should be sufficiently fast to capture the attention of the practitioner, and varied according to the needs of the situation. The teacher must feel the needs of the student, and for this, intuition is required. The instructions hold the attention of the practitioner and prevent the mind from wandering here and there or brooding on problems. When the student reaches deeper states of relaxation, then the instructions can be slowed down. For the practitioner, the sound of the voice is very important. It is the link that enables him to maintain awareness while exploring the deeper layers of the mind. Without this guidance he would soon fall asleep (which is perfectly acceptable in cases of fatigue and insomnia). It must be understood that yoga nidra is more powerful and effective when the practitioner doesn't intellectualize about the instructions or try to remember them. He should follow them spontaneously without too much effort. The secret to successful yoga nidra is to flow with the sound of the voice.

Helpful hints

Make yourself completely comfortable before beginning the practice of yoga nidra; exhaust all need to move, scratch, etc.

To gain the most from the practice be sure to carry out all the preliminary preparations.

You can practise at any time during the day or night, except immediately after meals (wait for an hour or so). Practise when you feel physically or mentally tired. If you suffer from insomnia or disturbed sleep, practise when you go to bed at night.

Yoga nidra means sleep with a state of inner awareness. There is a big difference between ordinary sleep and psychic sleep in yoga nidra. In ordinary sleep there is no awareness, either internal or external. In yoga nidra, on the other hand, there is wakefulness to the internal environment. No difference, however, between ordinary sleep and yoga nidra will be detected by the external observer.

The essence of yoga nidra is awareness. Before practice, repeat to yourself, 'I am going to relax completely, but I will not sleep'. This resolution can be repeated at various times throughout the practice. Sleep is very difficult to control in yoga nidra because one becomes so relaxed. Even if you have just slept for ten hours you can easily drop into a state of slumber in yoga nidra. This resolve will help you to maintain awareness. Sleep is not yoga nidra. You have to maintain awareness from moment to moment. Keep alert and sharp without tension. Find the balance between too much effort and no effort- one leads to tension and the other to sleep.