The Lived Experiences of Yoga Nidra Practitioners: From Relaxation to Spirituality

Sannyasi Ramdas (Ameet Malhotra), Occupational Therapist/Researcher, UK

My pranams to Sri Sivanandaji, Sri Swami Satyanandaji, Sri Swami Niranjananandaji and Swami Satsangiji, and thanks in a way that words cannot express. As I was waiting to do this presentation today, a lady asked me what I was going to speak about, and I said I was going to speak about yoga nidra. She said, "Maybe you should do yoga nidra before you present your talk." I said, "Even better than that, I just received diksha from Swamiji!"

I am here today to talk about some research that has been recently completed. It has a long title: 'Exploring the lived experiences of yoga nidra practitioners: from relaxation to spirituality' and the methodology used is called Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis, which I will explain shortly. It is my intention to share the inspiration behind this study, the context of this study, the data, and some of its implications. As with all studies, there are some limitations, and together with the limitations there are also some strengths. I will try to point out some of the limitations, and hopefully the strengths will be obvious.

The main thing with this research is that it does not try to prove anything. In an attempt to explain what it is about, I might use the analogy of the rasagulla experience once more. Swamiji beautifully described the researcher who has an understanding of the rasagulla, but who has never eaten the rasagulla. Then there is the experiencer who has only eaten the rasagulla. This study attempts to discover the experience of eating the rasagulla. What really inspired me in this study was the number of rather phenomenal results that I experienced with the few people I had been working with.

Positive results of yoga nidra

While working in a prison, an inmate came to a class once and then I did not see him again. Six months later I received a letter saying that, thanks to the yoga nidra, he had given up the life of crime.

In another case, there was a patient who had had a stroke eighteen months previously, and who was told that she would never be able to breathe into her abdomen again. Two yoga nidras later, not only was she breathing into her abdomen, but she was out walking every day in the countryside.

A third case occurred while working with alcohol and substance misuse patients. One patient had been drinking around eighty units of alcohol a day, and as a result, the staff thought he had done some permanent nerve damage. After about two weeks of talking to him and trying to build trust, I convinced him that we should do yoga nidra. The night before, his hands had been shaking so much that he had to have someone help him have a cup of tea. We did one yoga nidra and as he emerged from the practice, he had a big smile. He raised his hands up, perfectly still, and he looked at his hands in disbelief. The consultant psychiatrist said, "What did you do?" I said, "We did yoga nidra." He did not know what it was, but I said, "Look, I am writing a paper on it."

There are many other stories, but let me share one last one. There was a person I was working with who had a criminal history of violent crime. He would tell me that when he does rotation of awareness in yoga nidra, he can feel the crimes that he has done with his hands, but it is as if he has not done them. It is as if they are leaving him, they are leaving his hands.

Research methodology

Of course, I had my own personal experiences with yoga nidra; thanks to the Bihar School of Yoga, you can now eat rasagulla in England as well! With these stories and my own experiences, I became interested in understanding what is happening while people practise yoga nidra. What are the phenomena? To a certain extent, I know what happens when I practise when I stay awake, but what do other people experience? Are there any common themes that people might be experiencing? As part of a research project, I undertook a literature study to see what research had already been done.

Yoga nidra has been successful in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder and compassion fatigue. If you are not sure what compassion fatigue is, imagine that you are working in a healthcare setting or something similar where you are heavily exposed to a lot of trauma. Over time, you lose your ability to be compassionate with the people you are working with, and this is 'compassion fatigue'. Yoga nidra has been successful in reducing compassion fatigue for healthcare workers in war zones and is also, of course, a stress reliever.

There is an emerging body of evidence around quantitative studies, but I still felt intuitively that the potential of yoga nidra is much more than that. As occupational therapists we were interested, not in how you get back to work or how to adjust your desk, but how meaning is experienced. How is meaning generated in our lives? Together with that, there have been a lot of public stories in the UK about the failings of the healthcare service – specifically, too much focus on achieving targets. As a result, research which seeks to understand the patient's experience has become more accessible and more acceptable.

I decided to use the same methodology of understanding the patient's experiences and apply it to the practice of yoga nidra. Of course I had to go through a variety of ethics clearances, which was completed, and then I had to recruit some people to interview. At first, nobody wanted to speak to me, they just said, "Oh, well I just fall asleep, I don't know what happens, so I can't say anything." Then, after a while, I convinced people that it does not matter whether they know or not, there are no right or wrong answers, we would simply talk.

I conducted some in-depth interviews with people and we were able to set the room up in a way as though they were practising yoga nidra. The idea was that they would have some access, hopefully in a positive way, to some of the experiences. I recorded the interviews, I transcribed them, I typed them up and I had to listen to them many times.

Then I got the transcriptions, stuck them on the wall, closed the door and, metaphorically speaking, threw away the key. I ate, slept and lived in that room for somewhere between two and three months, just reading the data, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, absorbing it, performing trataka on it. I tried to understand what the emerging themes were, what was happening. Were people talking about the same thing at all? After a few months, I came up with a few themes.

I'd also like to mention that one of the limitations of this study is that it only really applies to this study, it does not apply to you or your experience. Nevertheless, it may resonate with you. Some of the information may prompt you to think, 'Yes, possibly.'

Yoga nidra themes from the study

Being a witness: There was one theme that encompassed all the other themes. This is not straightforward and it is not linear, it is quite complex, and I have tried to make it as simple as I can. The first theme that people spoke about was that of being the witness, and that interrelated with all the other themes. People talked about being able to witness sensations, their thoughts and their behaviours.

Profound and real relaxation: The main theme, the most profound and the biggest theme was the next one, which has been described as 'profound and real experience of relaxation'. A profound and a real experience. It is not deep relaxation, what they spoke about was a profound experience. By profound, it means that it touched them somewhere in their life. Somehow it changed them on some level. At the same time, the relaxation was real. Therefore, the methods they had used in the past for relaxation were changing; their habits were changing. The other day Swamiji said something beautiful about habit: You can take away the 'h', take away the 'a', but there's always a 'bit' left.

Allow me to share with you some data, which I have tried to keep in the voices of the experiencers: "Well, I think in my previous life, in this life, I would have seen relaxation as falling on the couch and watching TV. Or maybe at a push I would see it as a relaxing kind of walk or a drink. I mean, I used to drink, not very much. Well, not very much by other people's standards. But that was seen as the relaxing option. Whereas now, it's absolutely not at all (relaxing), it would just play havoc with my mind. TV is a distraction. Drink is not an option. You know, yoga nidra instead."

It has been stated that whatever is welcomed into awareness without resistance and without egoistic manipulation can be spontaneously transformed. As Dr. Alex Hankey said the other day, taking from Swamiji's talk on habit, "If you get rid of the 'i', you can 't', you can transcend." However, for another person in the study, a 'bit' remained. She said: "Usually I try to do it (yoga nidra) quite regularly, but it doesn't happen because I watch too much TV in the evening."

Change of perspective on past events: Another point that emerged, and this is where it becomes quite interesting, is that people would talk about how, during the practice, they were able to go to such a deep place that they could look at things which they could not normally look at in their ordinary waking life. By looking at it in that place, they can change their perspective. Somebody talks about pairs of opposites: "I've imagined coming from an operation in a hospital, and waking up in a great deal of pain. So I had an operation, and I'm waking up with a sudden sharp searing pain in my body, and that's my painful experience. And I can hear people groaning, and I realize it's me, after a while. The person I thought was kicking off is really groaning and moaning. Now, I have two memories, one was of the original experience, which I can look back on, and the other is my yoga nidra view of it. One would have been quite traumatic for me, but I don't feel traumatized by it any more. What the yoga nidra has done for me is actually allowed me to integrate the experience of the trauma, instead of keeping it away because it's painful, because it hurts, because it was difficult."

Again, this supports the idea of how yoga nidra can be useful for traumatic experiences: by being able to go somewhere so deep that you can look at something without really having to face it. We all have stories and the story we have or our relationship with that story affects how we live today. It shapes our actions, our thoughts and our perspectives, and it affects our tomorrow. What we are going to do tomorrow, how do we see our own healing story? Again, through yoga nidra we can develop this perspective on the story, and this is one of the themes: a perspective on our stories.

From body awareness to expansiveness: The next theme was that people reported feeling more embodied, like they were more able to observe their thoughts and feelings through having a better connection with the body. This is where I think it becomes really interesting, because through becoming aware of the body, people talked about losing awareness of the body. Thus they were able to develop a greater feeling of spaciousness, and in some cases this went much further. There was a lady I was speaking to, and she could not quite put it into words, but then she took some time and this is what she said: "That's it. It's putting me in touch with what's already there, with that sense of me that's connected to every other me, and every other thing."

I think that is actually what it is. It is not mystical, it is normal. For me anyway, and perhaps for most people, I am not that real me a lot of the time. I am with the mask outside me, and I think yoga nidra is a profound yet such a simple way of realizing that.

—Address, 26 October 2013, Polo Ground, Munger