As many of you know, Yoga Nidra is one of my greatest passions – and I spend most of my time teaching it as a stand-alone meditation practice. However, my background is one of yoga AND meditation. Despite the fact that I am ‘Meditation Chick,’ yoga and meditation are two sides of the same coin. In fact, thousands of years ago, the words yoga and meditation were used interchangeably. There was no separation. To divorce yoga from meditation would be to separate the ocean from the waves. The two are one in the same and flow into each other endlessly, without distinction. I could write endless blog posts on the subject…and perhaps I will!! But for now, I’ll keep things (relatively) short and sweet and spend a little time unpacking Yoga Nidra, within the context of the Yoga Sutras to help you understand how intrinsically linked yoga and meditation truly are.
Patanjali’s 8 limbed path of Ashtanga Yoga, as laid out in the Yoga Sutras, identified meditation, dhyana, as the 7th limb of the journey. To reach a state of meditation, the yogi must first develop personal discipline and a strong ethical foundation through the yamas and niyamas. (In another blog post, I will dive into the necessity of an ethical foundation when undertaking a meditation practice. But another blog for another day!) After mastering the yamas and niyamas, she must master the body through asana, the breath through pranayama, the senses through pratyahara and finally, the mind, learning how to focus the mental energy through concentration, or dharana. From dharana, the true state of one-pointedness that is meditation, or dhyana, emerges. That which lies beyond the state of meditation is samadhi, the realization of unity and oneness.
Now things get really interesting. Yoga Nidra is a multi faceted practice. On one level, it can function purely as a practice of pratyahara. Here, you lose identification with and interest in the sensory channels. You may hear some sounds in the distance, or feel the floor beneath you, but you can easily let these experiences pass. Your mind does not get involved with them or add to them, in any way. Thoughts float by in the same way and have a soft, dream-like quality to them. Neither the outside world nor the world of mental constructs are very alluring to you. On a state of consciousness/brain wave level, this is when you are resting between waking and dreaming; you may be in the slowest beta brain waves, but most likely you will be in the alpha brain wave state, perhaps occasionally slowing things down towards theta. When your Yoga Nidra practice remains at this level, it is operating as a ‘deep relaxation’ technique.
But there is so much further to go. In my opinion – and I am very much open to discussion here, as this is truly MY interpretation of the practice, based on my subjective experiences, my experience as a teacher, and my understanding of source texts – in many cases, Yoga Nidra moves you effortlessly through and beyond dharana to rest in the state of meditation. While there may be some brief periods of concentrated focus, the practice is designed to swiftly move you through these moments of concentration and drop you into a state beyond dharana – and quickly. Unlike seated meditation practices, this ‘dropping in’ experience is not dependent on the strength of the neural pathways in your brain. Or how much gray matter you have built up in the Prefrontal Cortex. Nor is it dependent on how long you have been practicing meditation. Nope. A total newb could rock up for his first ever Yoga Nidra class and go deeper than the person lying next to him who has been practicing meditation for 20 years. This moving through dharana is a completely spontaneous experience that is dependent entirely on your ability to let go. Yoga Nidra is The Great Equalizer of meditation practices. It’s like the DMV for the evolution of your consciousness. Yoga Nidra teaches you how to let go and open to the experience that is life. Just like in life, and at the DMV, resistance is futile…and will usually yield the opposite results to that which you desire.
So how does this ‘moving through dharana’ work, you ask? Oftentimes, in Yoga Nidra, you are concentrating on the instructions and following them carefully for a few brief moments, usually at the beginning of the practice – this is the presence of dharana. Your body has started to let go and soften, you might be starting to feel a little melty…and suddenly you realize you missed the last instruction…or the last five minutes of the practice! Upon realizing this, you gently guide yourself back to the practice. This is dharana – the state of ‘returning to.’ There may even be moments of concentration and returning to interspersed throughout the practice, as you weave in and out of the various states of consciousness. However, at a certain point, there is no longer an option to ‘return to’ this level of consciousness. YOU, as the doer, are no longer present. You have moved through dharana and have entered the state of dhyana, the state of meditation. More on that in a moment.
Let it be made clear: not everyone spontaneously moves beyond dharana! For many people, Yoga Nidra is purely a dharana practice. Let’s explore what that means for a moment. Dharana implies a certain training of the mind – a returning to the object of focus again and again. There is concentrated effort involved in dharana. Now, remember that Yoga Nidra, by design and definition, is a practice that teaches you and gives you permission to let go of all effort. Yoga Nidra trains you to simply be. To be in a state of complete letting go – to know what that feels like, on every level of experience – this is the beauty of Yoga Nidra. But not all students can reach that state immediately – and even if they can, it doesn’t mean they will be able to access it every time. It’s important to understand that you can’t necessarily go deep, every time. To have this belief is to attach desire and expectation to your practice. Bad idea. Sure, you can ‘get good’ at Yoga Nidra, but really all that means is knowing a deep, soul level what it feels like. To know, in an embodied way, what it feels like to drop into the space of awakening, healing and transformation.
When used as an awareness-building concentrative practice, you are in a state of wakefulness the entire time. Perhaps you occasionally lose track of the instructions, but the experience of the practice is dominated by a careful following of the instructions and continual returning to the present object of focus. I talk to many students who have not yet learned to fully let go, but nevertheless derive great benefits from consciously participating in the practice in this way. They go through the practice, stage by stage, recounting everything I said, in great detail – sometimes even remembering the exact order of the visualizations. At this level of experience, I consider Yoga Nidra a sort of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness practices of body scan and breath counting can certainly be likened to Body Rotation and Breath Awareness in Yoga Nidra, but that is where the similarities end. In fact, it would be more accurate to call it a ‘Tantric mindfulness practice’ because the instructions and progression of stages seek to build sensitivity to the subtle body, (including the chakras) and provoke specific experiences, using visualizations or by cultivating various physical sensations or emotions. Within secular mindfulness, one remains firmly grounded in what is, rather than in what might be.
So far, we have explored Yoga Nidra as it relates to pratyahara and dharana. Moving on to dhyana. As Patanjali described it, dhyana is the state of meditation. Pratyahara and dharana are the practice of meditation. There is doing. There is effort. There is separation – there is the object of focus, there is the awareness that continually returns to it – and there is the connection to the self-identity. The body is present. The mind is present. The Ego is present. In dhyana, however, this is not the case. Dhyana is the spontaneous perfection of the practice. The point at which the awareness effortlessly merges with the object of focus – this is dhyana. In Yoga Nidra, the object of focus may be the body, or the breath, or the images floating across the screen of the mind…but truly – the object of focus – the purpose of the practice is letting go of our identification with our limited understanding of Self grounded in Mind/Body/Ego – and merging our awareness with the realization and knowledge of Truth, Oneness and Bliss. In this state, you realize that you are not your body, your mind, your job, your desires, your emotions, or your fears. To use the analogy put forth in Kamini Desai’s book on the topic, you are the container in which these experiences arise. You are not identified with the contents of the container. You are the experiencer of the container. You are pure awareness. And you know rest in a state of knowing this.
When you spontaneously arrive in this state of knowing through Yoga Nidra, there is no conscious connection whatsoever with the external world. Nothing is smelled, tasted, felt or heard. NOTHING. You are in the void, the shoonya. There is no concern with the email in your inbox from your boss, or the laundry that must be folded. Nope. None of this occupies any level of your awareness. You have moved far beyond all of that. There is only a beautiful, blissful experience of nothingness…or perhaps I should say everythingness! On a brain wave level, you are resting in Delta, the brain waves that characterize the state of deep sleep. And yet, your awareness is present. Although it feels as though you’re sleeping, your awareness remains.
This highly subjective experience can be difficult to identify, especially if you’re not simultaneously monitoring your brain waves! However, I find definite commonalities among my students in their descriptions of this state. For instance: ‘You stopped talking for a while in the middle. Nope, I definitely was not asleep. I was awake the whole time. No way you said that! I definitely would have heard…I was lying right in front of you. I didn’t hear anything after the body parts, until you said ‘wiggle your fingers and toes. What are you talking about? You definitely did not tell me to visualize a wolf in a forest. Or a crack in the earth. Yeah, I feel amazing. I’ve never felt like this before. I feel so clear and blissed out.’
So there you have it, my friends. I could go further with this discussion, diving into the notion of Yoga Nidra being the gateway to samadhi…I could pivot into a conversation about the 5 states of consciousness and how that relates…but I think I’ve given you (and me!!!) a lot to digest at the moment….I would love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve hypothesized here!!
If all of this has peaked your curiosity and you want to come and try out Yoga Nidra for yourself, come to my event on Sept 16th at Tantris, or swing by any of my group classes at The DEN Meditation. Check out my class times here!!
Xs and Oms,