What's a bunch of sweaty poses in a heated room filled with athleisure-clad yogis going to do for my sleep, you wonder? Nothing, because yoga nidra is totally different.
There are no poses and no movement in yoga nidra. Instead, it takes place lying down on a mat, sprawled out on a blanket, or even in bed when you’re trying to fall asleep — or fall back asleep after you’ve been jostled awake and can’t seem to find rest again. The best part? It’s said that a 45-minute yoga nidra session can deliver the same kind of rest and rejuvenation as a three-hour nap.
While research hasn’t proven that quite yet, it does show that if insomnia or anxiety keep you awake at night, yoga nidra can help.
What is yoga nidra?
Yoga nidra, roughly translated as “yogic sleep,” is more like meditation than the flow-filled vinyasa yoga many of us are familiar with. But it’s not quite meditation, either. Instead of sitting up and focusing on the present moment with thoughts floating by like fluffy clouds, “it’s generally a lying down, guided meditation, but it varies from school to school,” explains Jennifer Reis, a leading yoga nidra teacher. “It’s sequential, a little bit like different meditations stacked up in a row.”
Yoga nidra is a specific, chronological meditation that moves through the five levels of being, or “koshas,” according to the “Upanishads” — the philosophical and religious texts of Hinduism that are widely considered to contain the first mention of yoga. As you’re guided through each layer, the koshas begin to fade into the background to make way for the next until the final level of being, the bliss body, is reached, which feels just as lovely as it sounds.
Moving through the stages of yoga nidra
Beginning with the first kosha (the physical body), the practice generally starts with a body scan that travels across all parts of the body, from individual fingers to the tops of the feet.
“Then there’s a breath meditation to get into the energy breath body, the second kosha or level of being,” Reis says. In a yoga nidra practice, this can involve being instructed to breathe out of one nostril or the other, or the mouth versus the nose.
Next, the practice moves into the third kosha, or the “messenger” between our outer and inner bodies. “The third level is the mind and emotions, where our problems really stem from,” Reis says. “So a way to balance the mind and emotion is feeling whole-body sensations and feeling them in opposites.”
In yoga nidra, this is done by contrasting body sensations. You’re guided through feeling alternatively heavy and then light so that “the mind and emotions kind of give up because they realize they’re not in control,” Reis explains. Other options include alternating between feelings of solid and liquid or contraction and expansion, but Reis tends to go with just one contrast pairing per session.
Then the practice moves into the fourth kosha, our higher mind. “It’s the part of you that observes and has no comment, that observes and accepts, that observes and has compassion. And that’s the main event of yoga nidra,” Reis explains. The fourth kosha is actually accessed as we progress through the earlier sections of yoga nidra, which move us beyond our physical body and often-humming mind.
Once we unlock this natural state of acceptance, yoga nidra then transitions into an imagery experience. Reis simply refers to this state as imagery that can range from biting into an orange to walking through the woods. “It’s activating all the senses,” she explains.
It’s here, in the space between when the visualization ends and when you’re guided out of the session, that yoga nidra practitioners begin to access what the “Upanishads” refer to as the bliss body: the fifth and final kosha.
“According to yoga, we have this fountain of bliss that is unending within us and if we’re not feeling it, then probably the mental and emotional level is taking up a lot of attention,” Reis says. By moving through the first four koshas and letting them gently fade into the background, “you get into this bliss state. That’s why people love yoga nidra.”
Reis associates this state with accessing the parasympathetic nervous system in a way that leaves practitioners content but also sometimes asleep — and research shows there are clear benefits to be had.
Benefits of yoga nidra for sleep
Dr. Erica Sharpe has conducted several studies on the effects of yoga nidra at the Helfgott Research Institute at the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon. In one trial conducted remotely during COVID-19, more than half of the surveyed participants were able to fall asleep roughly 10 minutes faster thanks to yoga nidra. Further, 32 of the 74 participants reported that their anxiety was reduced by 42 percent.
In another, Sharpe hooked up 18 participants to an EEG machine that measures brain waves to detect sleep. She found that participants who did yoga nidra fell asleep faster than the control group, which was simply tasked with laying down quietly and attempting to sleep.
“We found that most people did fall asleep at some point during the practice. If someone has insomnia, they may very well be able to fall asleep during the practice and then sleep through the night, which is the application,” Sharpe says.
Esther N. Moszeik — a yogi and psychologist who, after discovering yoga nidra while traveling across Australia when she was 19, now studies the practice’s impact — agrees. “It improves sleep in all sorts of ways,” she says.
Moszeik began studying the effects of yoga nidra when she was a master’s student. “I was just this student no one knew about and 800 people signed up” for her study, she says. Over 30 days, participants did just 11 minutes of yoga nidra. Moszeik found that the practice led to lower stress, higher wellbeing, and improved sleep quality.
Now, as a Ph.D. student, she’s looking at the difference between short yoga nidra sessions like the 11-minute one and longer, more standard sessions that last between 20 and 30 minutes.
“What we’ve found is what we expected — the more you (practice yoga nidra), the higher the impact is and the more benefits they are,” Moszeik says. “It’s very interesting because this time we didn’t ask people if they feel less stressed or if they slept better, but we took into account their stress level by measuring cortisol in saliva.”
Even participants who tend toward being more energetic and extroverted, and who reported that the longer sessions stressed them out, demonstrated an effect. Their saliva said otherwise; they were actually getting physically more relaxed even if they didn’t feel it.
“It’s the level between sleep and awake,” Moszeik explains of the practice. “You get the relaxation, but it doesn’t make you tired. It gives you back the energy.” Plus, you don’t have to do it every day to reap the benefits, she says.
Getting started with yoga nidra
Sold on yoga nidra and ready to try it out? Reis says that it’s not something you should dive into alone. Instead, it’s something you need to be guided through to experience properly. But that doesn’t mean you have to find a studio.
“Some people will feel more comfortable in the presence of a teacher where they can ask questions. … But even virtually, that group energy is palpable,” she says. Reis also offers recordings of her yoga nidra sessions so that listeners can use them to sleep better at home. She started doing so after she noticed students relying on yoga nidra for sleep some 15 years ago.
“It might take a little while to find (a recording) that works because people do it a little differently,” she says. “It’s about finding one that works for you.”