Yoga nidra is the most popular practice in all our classes. People enjoy yoga nidra because it gives them a feeling of total relaxation. It is one of the most powerful opportunities that people can take in order to escape from the tension of materialistic life, the whizz and the bang of all the things that have to be done. By entering the state of yoga nidra we get a chance to see the softness and beauty which is inside. It is just a glimpse and it is an introduction to meditation.
What does yoga nidra mean? Yoga means 'yoga' and nidra means 'sleep'. The difference between yoga nidra and nidra without yoga is sleep without sleeping, conscious sleep. The person practising yoga nidra can sometimes experience the state of sleep, but still be conscious throughout. In yoga nidra we have a chance to experience all the facets of the mind, all the nooks and crannies of the mind, without the constraints of the physical body.
When we practise yoga nidra we go through a process of rotation throughout the different parts of the physical body. In the brain there are two parallel nervous systems, the motor and the sensory, which are like two hemispheres. In our normal conscious waking state they are joined together, so that if we feel heat, we jump away, or if a mosquito bites us, we slap it. We protect ourselves without thinking. As soon as we sense something, we react. It is a conscious state of mind. If we have been working hard and have a lot of tension, we take that conscious tense state to bed with us. When we go to sleep and start dreaming, then the body starts tossing and turning, we start throwing blankets off and running in our sleep, and we wake up exhausted. But in the practice of yoga nidra, by rotating our consciousness through the different parts of the body, we actually separate each of those nervous connections.
The practice of yoga nidra was formulated by Swami Satyananda Saraswati from a system of tantric worship in which people prepared themselves for pooja by putting water on the different parts of the body. The nervous systems of the brain are described in the fifteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. Here it says that man is like a person or a tree upside down in the brain, with the feet or the roots at the top and the leaves and branches down below.
Based on this idea we have the separation of the personality, which means that the mind is free to operate without the constraints of the physical body. This is a wonderful thing because it means that we can experience cold without immediately rushing off to get another blanket. We can experience heat in the next moment without peeling off our clothes. We can just witness the experience. We can be lying in yoga nidra and watch our legs grow long, or our body expand, or float up. We can have many different psychic experiences without freaking out.
If these experiences come in meditation, they can sometimes be overpowering and frightening. Through the practice of yoga nidra we can prepare ourselves, because these experiences can surprise us if we are not ready for them. Sometimes the body goes around and around, sometimes it seems to be looking back, sometimes we see the back of our head, sometimes the front, sometimes the top. These different experiences can be quite disconcerting and take us away from our practice, whether it is mantra, concentration on the breath or something else.
Pratyahara is really another way of describing the first state of yoga nidra. It is also the first state in meditation. As aspirants of yoga and meditation, we practise yoga nidra to somehow prepare ourselves for the way. When the motor nervous system and the mind are free, that is the state of pratyahara. If we were still in a conscious state of mind, then it would not be possible to follow these experiences in meditation.
With meditation we have to withdraw from the physical. This can be done through concentration on the physical, but there has to be some sort of nervous separation. The moment that happens we have an experience. There is a jump, a break. We pass through this whenever we go to sleep and whenever we wake up. If we can watch ourselves falling asleep, then we can be conscious of the process. Sleep comes slowly. Then there is an intermediate stage, which is the stage of yoga nidra or pratyahara.
Sankalpa is a very important tool which we always include in the instructions for yoga nidra. Sankalpa means direction or resolution in life. We make the resolve before and after yoga nidra. Yoga nidra is a semiconscious state of mind, a place where we have many sorts of dreams and visions. If we lie in a state of yoga nidra without any directions, we will find that all sorts of vague images come. In that place where all these forces are pulling and pushing us in different directions in life, we can intelligently place a particular resolve which can give meaning to our life.
Sankalpas can be hundreds of things, but usually it is better to choose something that will give meaning and direction to the whole of life or at least to a good section of it. Some people are lucky enough to be able to discover their resolve or sankalpa. It just springs up from within and that is a blessing because it has true meaning. If we have not discovered our resolve then we can decide upon one. I have stuck to mine for a long time. Even though I have tried to leave yoga at times, I have still hung onto the same sankalpa and I am still here. Sankalpa is a wonderful thing because it does not let you lose the track.