Yoga Nidra: An introduction

Traditional Understanding of Yoga Nidra

Yoga Nidra (Sanskrit for Yogic Sleep) is a powerful technique from the Tantra Yoga tradition. It is both a name of a state and of a practice which creates an altered state of consciousness allowing the practitioner to relax and heal their being, expand their faculty of imagination, enter the realm of subconscious & superconscious, effectively manifest seemingly magical changes in their life, certain karmic debris in their life clear (if you believe in Karma) and assist in reaching a state called by some enlightenment.Yoga Nidra, although Tantric in origin can be classified as a part of the Raja Yoga system’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, the well-known codification system of the Yogic practices by Patanjali (an Indian sage who lived around 200 B.C.). In fact no less than three of the eight limbs of yoga can be seen in this practice:1) Pranayama: Control of breathing through specialized exercises and the subsequent ability to amass, control and direct Prana, the life energy force.
2) Dharana: Concentration, cultivation and heightening of inner perceptual awareness3) Pratyharya:Control over the sensory mechanisms of the physical body specifically though exercises which deal with willful withdrawal of the senses and influences of the  mind. The influences of most  interest being those which do not serve us on the path of enlightenment and/or liberation

The 3 main traditional aspects of the Yoga Nidra practice

1) A systematic method of inducing complete mental, physical and emotional relaxation while maintaining awareness at deeper levels.
2) A way to manifest any desire (physical, mental or spiritual).
3) A method of altering karma and finding Moksha (Liberation).


The practice itself may be vastly older than its purported origin in the 1960’s and there is evidence that many of its aspects have existed for millennia. Even its supposed creator, Satyananda Saraswati claims to have had the practice passed on to him, and references Vedic traditions in his explanations of it, so the jury is out on how old it really is. The first written potential reference to the Nidra aspects exists in the Manduka Upanishad (around 1st century AD) with its description of the sound OM and its relation to the different states and layers of consciousness. Yoga itself, and not just its Tantric offshoot, has dealt with different aspects of Yoga Nidra through the use of various mind-body-consciousness altering meditation practices for millennia. There are also references to the Nidra practice from the 1800’s in the works of an Indian sage, Sri Deep Narayan Mahaprabuji.

There is no question the practice is powerful. Not unlike other Indian esoteric exercises and technologies, it had good reasons to have been kept secret, potentially for centuries until the 1960’s when it was reintroduced to western students by Parmahansa Satyananda Saraswati founder of the Bihar School of Yoga.

Side Note: It was generally a rule in Indian esoteric traditions, (as well as most other mysteries schools) to keep all yogic practices regardless of its many branches or origins away from the general population (the prevalence of illiteracy didn’t help matters eithers). Most traditions were passed on orally or through demonstration from teacher (guru) to student (adept, disciple) and usually in a traditional gradual manner often taking years if not a lifetime to acquire and master.  Jealous guarding of secrets aside, many aspects of yoga do have the ability to not only heal, acquire paranormal abilities and provide means of evolving spiritually but to also cause damage to one’s physical, mental and psychological being, so a certain amount of caveat emptor is always advisable when engaging in yogic practices. In addition to the more prosaic physical injuries incurred in overtly vigorous, ambitious or poorly instructed physical (Hatha) yoga practice, loss of certain mental and emotional faculties as result of Pranayama, Pratyaharya and Dharana exercises along with disruptions in the body’s energetic field can occur; which I have personally witnessed with some of my own overtly ambitious students.

Fortunately by comparison, Yoga Nidra can be classified as an extremely safe practice and quite possibly the easiest to follow on a regular basis with the minimum of effort.

Typical effects

The most easily observable effect of the Yoga Nidra practice is the extremely deep relaxation of the nervous system and healing of the body by allowing it the rest and recharge it usually lacks in our all too busy lifestyles. Yoga Nidra has been clinically shown to be one of the most powerful methods available to achieve this state of deep relaxation and sedation without the use of chemical agents as demonstrated in various clinical trials both in the US (Menninger Foundation research in the 1970’s, and in various academic experiments in Copenhagen, Denmark) Brain scans were used to observe and study the changes occurring during and post-practice with startling results.

“We had not expected the meditators to be able to control their consciousness to such an extent.”
(Brain researcher Troels Kjær, The Kennedy Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark)

Neuro-Psychological Factors

Various centers in the brain control, modify, and affect our bodily functions. In fact, there is a center in the brain for every act, whether willful or reflex, physical or mental. Experimental data have identified many such specific centers. Stimulation of these centers leads to appropriate actions, be they motor or sensory, secretary or emotive, affective or cognitive. Thus we have a holographic representation of the body on the brain.

In Yoga Nidra exactly opposite process is used to make the brain centers active by focusing awareness on the parts of the body in a definite sequence. Thus, the person tries to stimulate various parts of the brain by focusing the awareness on the corresponding parts of the body. By awareness is implied ‘attitude of witnessing’ towards physical or mental actions of the body.

In extraordinary simplistic terms the 3 primary, essential functions of the brain are:

1) The hunger/thirst mechanism control

2) Awareness of pleasure & pain

3) Control of body temperature within a narrow optimal range

Much of this deals with the concept of homeostasis, a balance of all things with the physical. For an excellent synopsis article on brain function please click here.
Yoga Nidra activates the functions of the three areas mentioned above with very specific visualizations. Think of it as a yogic brain gym.

Scientific experiments with Nidra demonstrate that our brain waves measured on advanced practitioners follow the exact pattern during Nidra meditation as they would during  regular sleep but much more relaxed and controlled.  Although the state is difficult to describe in consensual reality terminology, imagine witnessing a dream, be aware of the fact that you are witnessing it and control it at your pleasure. How cool would that be? This is what Lucid Dreaming touches upon but Nidra provides an exceptional training in its mastery.

Common is the sentiment, from the Eastern Tao to Western Mysticism:

“ He who controls his dreams, controls his life”

What is Sleep?

Although sleep is still very much a mystery, even to the scientists studying it with the latest technologies, what they do agree upon is that sleep can be described as  a naturally recurring state characterized by reduced or absent consciousness, relatively suspended sensory activity, and inactivity of nearly all voluntary muscles. It is distinguished from quiet wakefulness by a decreased ability to react to stimuli, and is more easily reversible than being in hibernation or a coma. Sleep is a playground of a variety phenomena which combines memories, acquired impressions, imagination, deep seated fears and desires and makes a tangible and cohesive experience. It is also a doorway to other layers of consciousness available to us.

Sleep is also a heightened anabolic state, accentuating the growth and rejuvenation of the immune, nervous, skeletal and muscular systems. The purposes and mechanisms of sleep are only partially clear and are the subject of intense research with many researches having conflicting ideas as to what sleep even is. Many of its effects beyond those which have been studied remain a mystery but the one thing that everyone agrees on is that sleep is vital for the human organism to survive and thrive at optimum.

Ordinary sleep (which most of us are usually chronically deprived of in sufficient amounts) is not relaxation, for tensions cannot always be resolved completely in ordinary sleep, in fact think of the amount of rest you feel you get in a night where you had to deal with unpleasant or action-filled dreams.

Yoga Nidra is qualitatively different, as the name implies, sleep and relaxation. It is a ‘sleep’ where we train ourselves to reduce and eliminate the stress burdens and triggers from within the psych to attain more blissful state of awareness, a relaxation much more intense than you can accomplish with “ordinary” sleep with some remarkable additional side benefits. There is some evidence that an hour of Nidra is equivalent to several hours of ordinary sleep.

Meditation & sleep

Many people in the East and the West are attracted to various Yoga practices, some of out of curiosity, some because it is trendy, some because they think they can find solutions to every problem therein; be it physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. It seems that the ancient ways from a distant, exotic land, which seems to be somewhat lost in time, likely hold answers to the most daunting and enduring of human questions like “Who are we?”, “Why are we here?”, “What are we really supposed to do here” and other assorted queries like karma, destiny, free will and what happens when we die? Much importance in the various spiritual disciplines, particularly Eastern, is attached to relaxation techniques (mostly meditations) that might help a person in easing the tension caused by a stressful life style.

Yoga Nidra accomplishes this eloquently and expediently, not only for physical or mental relaxation but also for preparing the mind for other spiritual disciplines, with the overall goals of removing the effects of sensory stimulus and its various effects on us (pratyahara), increasing concentration (dharana), increased awareness etc. The ability to meditate with a single pointed concentration on an object or concept as well as being able to suspend all thought altogether achieving a state of what the Japanese Zen Buddhists call “no mind” state has been venerated for millennia, practiced world wide and is the foundational element of all spiritual disciplines of any worth. Even Western mysticism schools have placed a great deal of emphasis on its mastery:

“ For concentration does indeed unlock all doors; it lies at the heart of every practice as it is of the essence of all theory; and almost all the various rules and regulations are aimed at securing adeptship in this matter. All the subsidiary work — awareness, one-pointedness, mindfulness and the rest — is intended to train you to this”
Aleister Crowley

Other Aspects of note

Amongst the numerous fascinating aspects of the Yoga Nidra state is that advanced practitioners (although this can spontaneously occur in first time practitioners) develop the ability to remain fully awake and aware and yet fully asleep (even while snoring audibly). In other words you become an aware external witness of your entire physical, mental and emotional experience, and it is from this perspective that you are able to see or feel and or experience some of the many aspects and absurdities that affect your bliss, be they past present or future projections and influences. You can also witness that which brings you joy, pleasure, happiness, fulfillment and is an expression of your authentic self. Some have called this aspect the cosmic or unlimited self. That Self which has chosen to express itself through this experience most commonly known as your current Life.

“A great saint, a mahatma, a yogi, a prophet or a gyani lives on this earth like any other human being. He thinks, enjoys and eats like others. The great difference between a yogi and an ordinary man is that he has awakened a dormant faculty in man called awareness, whereas the ordinary man has not. He is always aware. He is called a drastha – a seer. He is the witnesser of events. Your aim on the path to realising and awakening your dormant potential should be to gradually unfold this faculty of awareness within you. Become a seer.” (Paramhansa Satyananda, from “Lessons in Nidra”)

Trance (The gateway to subconscious)

“At the point of meaningful rest when sleep has not yet come and external wakefulness vanishes, at this point being is revealed.” (Vigyana Bhairava Tantra)
The most direct way of communicating with the more interesting aspects of your self is through a use of what is known as a trance state. Much of eastern spiritual tradition from the Indian Yogas to the Chinese Tao utilize mediations and breathing exercises (pranayamas) which induce a state of trance (an altered relaxed state of consciousness) through which we can then communicate with the our other aspects of our being. Shamanism worldwide utilizes the abilities of the shaman, the go between the world of spirit/nature and the world of man through a variety of trance induction means among them chanting, dance, starvation, exhaustion, hallucinogens etc.
In Western mental and life mastery practices be they Thelemic or Quabbalistic the concept of gnosis is a required element for effective practice. Gnosis in its essence referring to a controllable state of trance with various induction means suggested. For example the Islamic Suffis spin in circles until a state of gnosis/trance is achieved.

Yoga Nidra holds within itself an exceptional method for the achievement of a trance state. Trance defined as a state where we are suspended between realities of wakefulness and sleep, a place where we are most receptive to suggestions and where we can experience an altered state of consciousness and even depart for a time period from our physical beings (Out of Body Experiences, Astral Travel etc).

Trance is associated with the concept of suggestibility, which is also why hypnosis even in this day and age is misunderstood and regarded with a great deal of distrust by the average public. This ability to influence change in a state of trance has been utilized by hypnotists and hypnotherapists for well over a century and has wonderful therapeutic properties, provided you find an eloquent practitioner able and aware enough of non-intruding their personal reality onto yours while in trance. For more information on practitioner intrusion-free therapeutic modalities please look up the work of the late David Grove relating to Clean Language.

As great as having an external practitioner lead you through the therapeutic trance state is, it is always more advisable to be able to create the desired changes in your system yourself. It’s also far more effective, authentic and satisfying.

Once the Nidra practitioner reaches the deepest state of physical and mental relaxation the mind becomes receptive to new concepts. By reaching this stage through the specific sequence of mind-activating visualizations, one will access the subconscious part of the mind which is in fact our controlling aspect processing around 4 billion bits of data while the conscious can only handle around 4 bits). This gives us a unique opportunity to effectively implant an affirmation of your choice.
This brings me to the most fascinating aspect of the practice, which regrettably is often overlooked in its commonly found teachings of Nidra as it deals with the fulfillment of one’s desires, no matter what they may be. The very concept of Desires and their fulfillment unfortunately having been universally reduced to the l’enfant terrible of the spiritual milieu as it is so often prone to excessive abuse and the person engaged in such activities labeled doing something “dark” or of the “left hand path” lest they stray from purely spiritual desires.

Classic Tantric spirituality aspects of Yoga Nidra

As Swami Satyananda Saraswati in his preface to “Yoga Nidra” says:
‘When awareness is separate and distinct from vrittis – mental modifications, when waking, dream, and deep sleep pass like clouds, yet awareness of Atman remains, that is the experience of total relaxation. That is why, in Tantra, Yoga Nidra is said to be the doorway to samadhi!’

A  historical reference in Indian Spiritual Mythology which relates directly to Nidra is the story of Vishnu, what the Vayshevite followers of Hinduism would call the supreme god ( a kind of Indian Zeus with specific superhero powers) others see Vishnu as one of the main 3 aspects of the supreme god, his role in the triumvirate being that of maintenance and preservation of whatever the aspect known as Brahma has created, and what the Lord Shiva aspect can transform or destroy. These three aspects being known in Sanskrit as Trimurti (sanskrit for three sided or three forms of the Supreme).
The Nidra connection comes in the mythology of Vishnu (aka Lord Narayana) doing his appointed task while suspended in a state of yoga nidra, deep conscious sleep or trance. He is often depicted as lying on a boat made of a multiheaded cobras floating on the ocean of milk. This is an example of a vital aspect of the mythological divine expression utilizing Yoga Nidra for its purposes.

No wonder religion and myth following yogis utilized Yoga Nidra, and proposed it as a spiritual path and self-contained practice in its own right, held to prepare and refine a seeker (sadhaka) spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically for consciousness and awareness. More mythological and archetypal aspects that the yogi may work through are the consequences of deeds (so called karma), cleansing the stored consciousness and purifying the unconscious mind. The state may lead to Samadhi (realization) and satchitananda (complete awareness). The yogi is held to be in communion with the divine. A tantrika (Tantric practitioner) engaged in this sadhana may become aware of past or future lives or experience the astral planes and alternate reality through out of body travel.

Nidra however has a bit of a spiritual Trojan Horse contained within itself. Technically you are supposed to remove aspects of “bad” karma (from this life and lives past), “bad” thoughts (conscious and unconscious), removing all desires and generally be “pure” in your thoughts and actions and simply allowing yourself to swim in and be a part of the cosmic soup of oneness.  Nidra however, offers alternative temptations. Because it allows for and has a place to interject your own desires…..any desires. It’s like going to an exquisite buffet only to be told that if you want to do the “right” thing, you really should stick with the organic lettuce. Essentially your desires were not supposed to stray much past the point of actually not having any desires, aside from those deemed more spiritual. For this reason, the quintessential resolve, affirmation that the Nidra sadhaka was encouraged to focus on translates to be:

“ I am awakening the kundalini energy which is coiled like a serpent at the base of my spine.”

The Kundalini awakening being the quintessential sought after energetic experience of yoga.

Technique breakdown

Yoga Nidra usually takes from twenty to forty five minutes to complete. The process is carried out by first doing a few asanas (practicing a few yogic postures). Then lying on the back in savasana, the corpse pose. Eyes are lightly closed, arms are kept with palms facing upwards, and breathing is natural and quiet. Remaining awake during the duration of the practice is important, although many people find it difficult. Even if you do fall asleep you will receive peripheral benefits as your subconscious mind remains aware of everything that you take in with your sensory inputs (including sounds). Falling asleep during the practice, particularly in the beginning is very common so don’t get discouraged.

Please note that it is extraordinarily challenging if not impossible, to do the practice on your own without external instruction (either through a recording or listening to a live teacher). It simply takes too much effort to remember and go through a fairly complicated sequence of visualizations and exercises; and it takes away from the experience of just being and witnessing. Eventually however, with sufficient, usually long term repetitive practice, the Nidra state can be entered into at will.

Creation of an Effective Resolve or sankalpa

Before the rotation of awareness the practitioner should make a positive resolve about a particular aim in life. The wordings should be clear and precise. Please go to this link for more information on effective formulation of the sankalpa (resolve, affirmation)

A few other examples of simple affirmations:

a) I awaken my spiritual potential,
b) I am successful in my all undertakings,
c) I have and enjoy total and optimal health
d) My awareness and concentration improves daily
e) I am a positive help in spiritual progress of others, etc.
f) Every Day and in Every way I’m getting better and better.


The 8 stages of the Yoga Nidra Practice:

1) Internalization / Relaxation – preliminary preparation of the body.
2) Affirmation (Sankalpa) – A personal goal previously decided upon is declared silently.
3) Rotation of Consciousness – the consciousness is taken on a tour of the whole body in a structured fashion.
4) Respiration awareness – a period of awareness of the breath at special positions in the body.
5) Manifestations of Opposites – pairs of feelings and emotions are experienced.
6) Creative Visualization – Various Archetypal images are visualized mentally.
7) Affirmation (Sankalpa) is repeated and, now in a highly suggestible state of consciousness, is programmed into the subconscious mind.
8.) Externalization / Return to Full Awareness – a careful and gradual return to a normal state.

There are some really fascinating and startling aspects of Yoga Nidra practice which point out to an advanced level of development of understanding of the human energetic, biological, psychological, emotional and spiritual aspects by the ancient Tantrics. For example, the specific guided sequence of the physical relaxation points in Yoga Nidra, (stage 3) developed by the old yogis, which is unusual in that the physical relaxation starts by bringing awareness to the right thumb, parallels the exact sequence of the brain centers sequence as shown by findings of recent neuro-medical research into the nature and structure of the brain. The brain is directed to relax in a sequence which parallels the actual structure, which allows for a deeper and quicker relaxation. Imagine baking a cake and following a specific sequence of actions and timing to get optimal results as opposed to haphazardly mixing the formulae at random or not as efficiently. Nothing half-baked about this practice. If you are interested in researching more on that aspect please look up (Cortical homunculus)

1. Rotation of Consciousness

During the rotation of consciousness, you visualize the part of the body mentioned by the instructor; (it can be a live teacher or a recording). The student must not move any part of his body. Quickly corresponding with the instructions, he or she has to shift his or her awareness from one part to the next. The aspirant should not imagine the next part before the instructor mentions it. The whole process should be a pleasure and not a burden. There should not be any anxiety or expectation.

The usual pattern is to start focusing awareness in the following sequence:

First on the right side: The thumb, fingers (one by one), palm of the hand, then the wrist, the forearm, the elbow, arm, shoulder, right side of the back, hip, thigh, knee, leg, ankle, foot, great toe, other toes of the right foot.

The same sequence is repeated for the left side.

Then awareness is focused on the proximity of the body with the carpet (ground). Back of the head, shoulders, back and spine, thighs, heel. Next the front of the body-surface is brought in to awareness. Face, brow, eyes, nose, lips, mouth, ears, chin, neck, chest, abdomen.

2. Awareness of breathing

After rotation of the consciousness focusing the attention on the act of breathing completes physical relaxation. One simply maintains awareness of breath, either at the nostril or of its passage through the navel and throat. It is claimed that the process, in addition to concentration of mind, assists in “pratyahara” – withdrawing the sense centers from their objects of sensations.

3. Feelings and Emotions

Next comes visualization at the level of feelings and emotions. Attempt is made to bring to memory the intense physical and emotional feelings; they are re-experienced or re-lived and then effaced. Usually this is practiced with pairs of two opposite feelings like heat and cold, lightness and heaviness, pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, etc. Relaxation at the emotional level, building up of strong will-power and engaging the faculties of imagination are the three major outcomes of this procedure.

4. Object Visualizations

The final stage of yoga nidra relates to mental relaxation. The aspirant tries to visualize the objects as described by the instructor. Usually such images and symbols are chosen are archetypal, meaning that they have universal, iconic significance. To quote a few: A mountain, river, the sun, ocean, moon, temple, fire, religious figures and symbols, various times in the day night cycle, a variety of animal forms, etc. If you are interested in finding out more about the universal archetypal images please investigate the brilliant writings of Joseph Campbell, particularly “The Power of Myth” and “A hero with a thousand faces” as well as the works of the psychiatrist Carl Jung who coined the word archetype.

This aspect of the  practice helps to develop self-awareness, faculties of imagination, instinctual reactions to concepts within the deep psyche and in dharana (concentration).

5. Ending the practice

Once again the resolve or sankalpa is intently thought of or even visualized. Thus, consciously one tries to direct the unconscious mind onto the predetermined goal in life. This time the unconscious is very receptive and therefore will accept the suggestion from the conscious mind more readily. In due course, depending upon the sincerity and regularity of the Nidra mediations, the resolve bears fruit in the practitioner’s life.


– Everyone can practice. Even beginners who have no experience with meditation.
– Physical stresses and tensions are removed.
– Mental stresses and unwanted impressions are removed.
– Emotional balance is restored.
– The faculties of imagination and visualization are practiced and enhanced.
– The subconscious is focused on, and able to manifest any personal goal be it physical.
– Mental, Emotional of Spiritual.

It can assist in the achievement of a state of so called self-realization (complete self-awareness) Yoga Nidra helps in restoring mental, emotional, and physical health by way of relaxation, and makes the mind more conducive to pratyahara -withdrawing senses from their objects, dharana -concentration, and meditation. The practice helps harmonize the two hemispheres of the brain and the two aspects of the autonomous nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic). The impressions in the subconscious are brought to surface, observed, experienced and removed. Thus, the fixation of awareness on the body is replaced with the awareness linked to subtler aspects of prana (the life force) and spiritual dimensions allowing for maximizing of the pure yet unmanifested potential within.  Above all Nidra is a fantastic tool for manifesting change in one’s life. In my more than two decades of studying the art and science of conscious life creation I can say from personal experience and with absolute certainty that it is one of the most powerful techniques I have ever come across. The hundreds of students who I had a privilege to share this technology with also report remarkable effects as result of the practice.


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