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Originating in ancient India, yoga has become the most popular complementary health practice in the U.S. Generally, yoga involves physical postures, breathing practices, and elements of meditation. Many people practice yoga in order to increase flexibility, reduce stress, or improve sleep.
Multiple styles of yoga exist, and they differ in terms of difficulty, movement, and the types of postures and breathing exercises practiced. Yoga nidra is an accessible form of meditative yoga intended to lead to a state of complete calmness. Research shows that yoga nidra may improve sleep in a variety of ways.
We explore the details of yoga nidra, as well as potential benefits in terms of sleep, mood, and overall health. We also offer a step-by-step guide to trying yoga nidra for yourself.
What Is Yoga Nidra?
Yoga nidra is an ancient relaxation technique that involves being led through mental imagery while lying on one’s back. In yoga terms, this position is called shavasana or corpse pose. People who have engaged in the more popular hatha yoga, which involves actively moving, may be familiar with shavasana as the final pose in the practice .
The phrase yoga nidra comes from the Sanskrit language and is often described as meaning “yogic sleep.” Yoga nidra is intended to produce a state of relaxation that is similar to sleep, but involves maintaining conscious awareness of the environment.
Scientific research confirms that yoga nidra can trigger what is called a hypnagogic state, in which a person’s brain waves slow . Experts believe that if a person practices yoga nidra, they may enter a state in which the body is essentially asleep while the mind remains aware. For this reason, researchers have suggested yoga nidra could help treat insomnia.
Although yoga nidra has ancient roots, it wasn’t introduced to the public until the 1960s. At that time, a yogi named Swami Satyananda Saraswati began publishing writings that clearly outlined steps involved in the yoga nidra practice. Researchers often draw from these writings when investigating the effects of yoga nidra.
Yoga Nidra vs. Meditation
Yoga nidra and other forms of yoga typically involve aspects of meditation. Meditation is a practice of intentionally directing one’s attention in a specific way, or noticing things without passing judgment on them.
Some researchers consider yoga nidra a form of guided meditation. Others, however, say yoga nidra differs from meditation in that it is conducted while lying down, not while sitting up. Yoga nidra also differs because it involves entering a sleep-like state, which does not always occur with meditation.
Although yoga nidra is considered a type of yoga, it does not resemble what people may think of when they picture yoga. The majority of yoga practices require people to hold a variety of different physical postures. Conversely, yoga nidra only involves one posture, which is shavasana, or lying down on one’s back.
How Yoga Nidra Can Improve Sleep
A few research studies suggest yoga nidra may improve sleep, and current studies are ongoing. Existing research suggests that yoga nidra may help people fall asleep faster and experience higher quality sleep . The practice may also promote deep sleep and potentially improve sleep by reducing stress and pain.
Experts have suggested that yoga nidra may improve sleep by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and dampening the effects of the sympathetic nervous system. These are two parts of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates many of the body’s automatic processes, like blood pressure and digestion.
The sympathetic nervous system triggers a stress response, while the parasympathetic helps restore the body. By reducing sympathetic and increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity, yoga nidra may relax the body and increase time spent in deep sleep.
Other Benefits of Yoga Nidra
In addition to improving sleep, researchers have suggested yoga nidra may provide additional benefits. Yoga nidra may be especially useful since it is safe, affordable, non-invasive and may be impactful even when delivered remotely online.
Anxiety and Stress Reduction
Multiple studies have found that practicing yoga nidra can reduce anxiety and stress in adults in general . It’s also been studied in specific groups of people, including college professors , college students, nursing students, people who have experienced sexual trauma , people with high blood pressure , those grappling with COVID-19-related stress.
Yoga nidra likely improves stress and anxiety for the same reasons it improves sleep — by slowing the sympathetic nervous system and prompting the parasympathetic. Research measuring autonomic nervous system activity confirms that engaging in yoga nidra triggers a relaxation response through a shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic activity.
Reduced Symptoms of Depression
Research has shown that, in addition to reducing anxiety, yoga nidra can improve depression-related symptoms in people with menstrual concerns . This research only found improvement in people with mild to moderate symptoms, however. Those with severe symptoms of depression did not show improvement.
More research is needed to determine if yoga nidra can also help alleviate depression in the general public.
Improved Mood, Confidence, and Self-Esteem
One study found that practicing yoga nidra regularly improves mood , well-being, and self-confidence in adolescents. Another study found that practicing yoga nidra improved the self-esteem of college students.
Yoga nidra may improve a person’s confidence and self-esteem by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces stress. Past studies have found that self-esteem and stress management are closely related. For example, people having trouble managing stress tend to have lower self-esteem.
Improved Menstrual Symptoms
Multiple studies suggest that yoga nidra could be a potentially effective treatment for unwanted symptoms related to menstruation. Those who practice yoga nidra may experience fewer cramps , less pain, fewer digestive symptoms, and less anxiety and depression associated with their period.
Yoga nidra may improve menstrual symptoms through the practice’s effects on hormones . Research has found that people who practice yoga nidra have reductions in menstruation-related hormones, such as prolactin, thyroid-stimulating hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, and more.
Studies have found that practicing yoga nidra may reduce pain in people with inflammation in the lumbar vertebrae, migraines, tension headaches, and menstruation-related pain or cramping. Yoga nidra may reduce pain by blunting the stress response and promoting relaxation.
Initial studies have found that yoga nidra may provide other benefits such as:
- Increased alertness
- Faster reaction times
- Improved athletic performance
- Lowered blood pressure
- Slower heart rate
- Lessened anger
- Lowered blood sugar levels
- Reduced erythrocyte sedimentation rate, a measure of inflammation
How to Do Yoga Nidra
You may practice yoga nidra by finding an instructor in your area or following audio or video recordings available online. Yoga nidra often involve these steps:
- Lying in the shavasana pose, which is flat on your back with your hands apart
- Affirming a short, positive statement, called a sankalpa
- Mentally visualizing different parts of the body and becoming aware of where the body rests on the floor
- Focusing on breathing by visualizing air flowing in and out of the body
- Recalling sensations related to personal experiences, as well as opposite feelings, like pain and pleasure
- Visualizing specific scenes and emotions, often in a space just in front of the eyes
- Repeating the earlier sankalpa or positive statement
- Gradually returning awareness to the body, the room, and the present moment