Yoga Nidra in Prison

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

The greatest tragedy of man is that he doesn’t know how to deal with tension and his negative thoughts and emotions. In fact, the mistake is with religions. They have not dealt with man’s problems in a scientific manner. Instead, they have said, “Don’t think like that. Don’t do this. Don’t agree with that.” This is dictatorial ordinance. Man and society cannot be rectified by dictatorship; there must be a very systematic and scientific approach.

Therefore, during the practice of yoga nidra, if the mind is vacillating and full of anxiety, and if negative thoughts come, don’t let them disturb you. Give them a free passage. If you allow them free expression, at first your yoga nidra practice may not appear to be successful, but after some time, the negative thoughts and all turbulence will automatically cease and tranquility will prevail.

In 1968 I had my first experience of this principle. While on a tour of the USA, I was invited to teach yoga in a detention camp. I was very happy to do so, but when I was shown into their large hall, I found myself confronted with six hundred monkeys.

Then a man who seemed to be an officer offered me a cigarette and I felt offended. In India, even when people offer flowers, they ask first. I was not used to such behaviour, and they were not used to acting any differently. I thought I would have to leave the hall immediately as teaching yoga seemed out of the question. But I had come to teach, so as a last resort, I decided to try yoga nidra.

It took six or seven strong people to get everybody to lie down on the floor, but still they kicked and pulled each other, smoked and spat. Sometimes they turned around and stared at me, saying “Hey man, what’s happening?” The whole time I was just repeating the same sentence over and over again, “Please close your eyes and don’t move.” I would also close my eyes so I couldn’t see what was happening. It was unbearable, but I kept on for forty-five minutes.

After the class I got out quickly. The next day I telephoned the head warden and told him I wouldn’t be coming back. “But you must return!” he exclaimed. “For the first time in my experience all the inmates went to their rooms quietly and slept. Never have we had such a peaceful evening. In the morning when they were woken, the first thing they said was, “Keep your eyes closed and don’t move.”

When I arrived for the next class, they were all lying calmly on the floor, so I told them to stand up for surya namaskara. But they said, “We don’t want to do exercises, we want to practise yoga.” So I put them into yoga nidra and for seven days they practised with increasing improvement. Even though initially they had seemed over-excited, negative and dissipated, they did respond internally.

How did such a change come about? When a man is disturbed and under tension he becomes negative and his behaviour is influenced. When he relaxes, he becomes positive. Therefore, you must remember that in yoga nidra it is not necessary to make yourself peaceful. If you are disturbed or agonized mentally, it does not matter. Even if you are not able to lie down, don’t use force. The important thing is to just expose yourself to the practice.

—Printed in YOGA, Vol. 21, No. 5 (May 1983)