Think 'yoga' and you probably picture hanging out in downward dog, hovering precariously in a balance move, or working up a sweat in a lunge-like 'warrior' pose. But what if there was a type of yoga that could give a range of health benefits, all while lying down?
Too good to be true, you say? Think again – it's called yoga nidra, it's been around for more than 2000 years, and all you have to do is lie back, relax, and try not to nod off.
Yoga Nidra for beginners
With its roots firmly in ancient tradition, 'nidra' means 'sleep' in Sanskrit, which is the classical language of Hinduism and Buddhism.
These days, it's also referred to as 'yogic sleep' or 'dynamic sleep,' but we're not talking about simply catching some zzz's.
Instead of snoring into oblivion, yoga nidra is all about easing into a state between sleep and wakefulness, a zone where your body is completely calm but your mind is still aware. The aim is to get into the alpha brain pattern, which is a slow, relaxed phase we usually move through on our way to a deep slumber.
Some yoga pros call this alpha zone a 'hypnagogic state', and when we're in it, our overactive minds can set about tidying, cataloguing and decluttering, and it's thought to be a place that allows the body to release any physical, mental and emotional tension.
Yoga nidra fans say the practice can boost feelings of deep relaxation, promote better sleep, and even help with everything from anxiety and headaches to chronic pain, asthma, and irritable bowel syndrome. And while it might sound 'out there' to some, the practice has been catching the attention of health enthusiasts and scientists alike.
For clinical geneticist and yoga teacher Nerine Gregersen, it was this juxtaposition of modern science and ancient holistic health that attracted her to the world of nidra.
"There's increasing evidence on how our environment influences gene expression," she explains. "So paying attention to relaxing, and regulating the internal environment and the external environment, is actually good for the body at a very deep cellular level."
Getting in the mental zone for Yoga Nidra
The thing with brain waves is, it can be hard to readily control them. In a typical yoga nidra class, an instructor talks you through a series of mental exercises that are designed to ease you into a deeper relaxation, with the aim of staying in the alpha state.
"Ideally you're lying on your back on the floor, and the time can vary but I think you'd need a minimum of 30 minutes," says Nerine.
"I ask people to lie as still as possible, and to try to stay awake. Then I go through a series of verbal instructions, including a body scan (bringing the attention to each part of the body), a breath exercise, and some visualisations."
People regularly nod off in class, but Nerine says the brain can still reap the benefits, even when we're snoozing. "Falling asleep isn't a bad thing, because the subconscious mind still hears, and still processes," she says.
"With time and practice, people are less likely to drift asleep during the session, and a lot of people dip in and out of different levels of consciousness through the practice."
How Yoga Nidra is a boost for body and brain
With a solid practice of regular yoga nidra behind her, Nerine says she's seen a range of cumulative health benefits, including feeling more calm and centred, and coping better with everyday stress.
"For me, it's a tool in my toolbox for self-care," she explains. "I find myself being less reactive to situations. It's like I'm able to stay more detached and more aware, and that way I can make better choices and better decisions."
As sitting quietly with yourself and relaxing with your thoughts can be quite a personal experience, Nerine never asks for feedback after a class. But out of the people who come to her to share their experiences, most have said nidra has helped them to deal with insomnia, and to boost relaxation and stress relief.
Occasionally, it can also bring long-buried emotions to the surface.
"It can trigger unpleasant memories for some people," Nerine explains. "However, that's only happened perhaps twice in the five years I've been taking classes. Yoga nidra has wide applications and can be used for very specific healing, but this has to be done in a one-on-one setting. In a class, we use it purely for relaxation and restorative purposes."
And it's not just the wellness warriors who are dipping into nidra. The practice is becoming increasingly mainstream overseas, and it's now formally recognised by the US Army as a complementary alternative therapy in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.
In the science world, imaging with a PET scan has mapped which areas of the brain showed the most activity during yoga nidra. The study, carried out by The State University Hospital in Copenhagen, found the visual centre at the back of the head – a section of the brain that controls speech, language, and memory − and an area at the top of the head associated with the sense of touch, were particularly active during yoga nidra practice.
The images could help to explain why many yoga fans report being able to visualise, access memories and process emotions while in the nidra zone. Scans also revealed a brain pattern of steady, sustained theta and alpha waves similar to what happens during normal sleep, but without the drowsiness that usually comes with such a deep level of relaxation.
Other research from Ohio University found regular yoga nidra led to a significant decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, while a small study by social work professors from Western Carolina University looked at the benefits of yoga nidra in helping to treat substance abuse. The researchers found those who practised the ancient technique experienced fewer negative moods, greater self-awareness, and a reduced risk of slipping back into addiction.
"Yoga nidra is something that everyone can benefit from," says Nerine. "I think unless you've tried it, you've never known what it's like to truly relax. Until you've experienced it, it's hard to convey it in words. These ancient practices really complement your wellbeing, and supplement your life."
To find a teacher, visit yoganidra.nz