Spiritual Prescription: Yoga Nidra Meditation

Dr K. K. Aggarwal
Padma Shri and Dr B C Roy National Awardee
President, Heart Care Foundation of India 

Many people in the East and the West are attracted to yogic practices, for they think they can find a solution to every problem therein; be it physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. Hence, much importance is attached to relaxation techniques that one thinks might help a person in easing the tension caused due to chronic stressful lifestyle. Yoga Nidra is one such wonderful technique, not only for physical or mental relaxation but also for preparing the mind for spiritual discipline. It concerns mainly with pratyahara (withdrawing senses from sense-objects) and dharana (concentration).

It is to be understood that ordinary sleep is not complete relaxation, for tension and stress cannot always be resolved completely in ordinary sleep. Yoga Nidra is qualitatively different relaxation. It is a ‘sleep’ where all the burdens are thrown off to attain a more blissful state of awareness, and hence it is a relaxation much more intense than ordinary sleep.

As Swami Satyananda Saraswati (Preface to “Yoga Nidra”, 1982, Bihar School of Yoga, Monghyr, Bihar, India) says: ‘When awareness is separate and distinct from vrittis – mental modifications, when waking, dreaming 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!’

Neurophysiologic Basis
There is no doubt about the close relation between the body and the brain. Various centers in the brain control, modify, and affect our bodily functions. In fact, there is a center in the brain for every action, whether willful or reflex, physical or mental. Experimental data has identified many such specific centers. Stimulation of these centers leads to the related actions, be they motor or sensory, secretory or emotive, affective or cognitive. Thus, we have a holographic representation of the body on the brain.

To put it more concretely, it is a proven fact that the left half of the body is represented in right half of the brain and vice versa. As far as the muscular actions are concerned, the representation is in an ‘upside down manner’ in motor area of pre-central gurus of the brain. Thus, at the top of this part of brain, the lowest portion of our body, -foot- is represented. Then comes ankle, leg (calf), knee, thigh, hip, trunk, shoulder, arm, elbow, wrist, palm, fingers, thumb, neck, jaw, face, eyes, ears, tongue, taste, swallowing, etc. The same thing is applicable for sensations. Stimulation of brain centers of sensory cortex evokes sensations on the opposite half of the body.

Yoga Nidra Practice
In Yoga Nidra, exactly the opposite process is followed 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 meant ‘attitude of witness’ towards physical or mental state of the body.

The Technique
Usually it takes from 20-40 minutes to complete one Yoga Nidra session. The procedure is carried out by first doing a few asanas -practicing a few postures. Then the person lies on his or her back in totally relaxed posture (shavasana -posture simulating dead body). Eyes are lightly closed, arms are kept with palms facing upwards, fingers are half lifted from the ground, and breathing is natural and quiet.

Resolve or sankalpa
Before the rotation of awareness, the aspirant should make a positive resolve about the aims in life. The wordings should be clear and precise. It is not expected that the ‘sadhaka’ makes minor resolves like, ‘I will give up smoking, or alcohol, or tobacco’, but he or she should think of something higher. A few resolves can be:
a) I will awaken my spiritual potential,
b) I will be successful in my all undertakings,
c) I will achieve total health, or
d) I will be a positive help in spiritual progress of others, etc.

1. Rotation of Awareness
After the resolve one can begin the rotation of awareness. The person has to just visualize the part of the body mentioned in the instructions – it can be a teacher or a tape-recorder. The student/person must not move any part of his body. Quickly and 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 pleasurable one 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 in sequence – 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, and other toes of the right foot.

The same sequence is repeated for the left side.

And then the 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 awareness is brought to the front of the body-surface – face, brow, eyes, nose, lips, mouth, ears, chin, neck, chest and abdomen.

2. Awareness of the breath
After rotation of the consciousness in such a sequence, focusing the attention on the act of breathing completes the physical relaxation. One simply maintains the awareness of breath, either at the nostril or to 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 relaxation at the level of feelings and emotions. A conscious attempt is made to bring the intense physical and emotional feelings to the memory; they are re-experienced or re-lived and then effaced. Usually this is practiced with two opposite pairs of feelings like hot and cold, lightness and heaviness, pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, etc. Relaxation at the emotional level and building up a strong will power are the two major outcomes of this procedure.

4. Visualization
The final stage of Yoga Nidra relates to mental relaxation. The aspirant tries to visualize the objects as described by the instruction. Usually such images and symbols are chosen which have universal significance. To quote a few: The mountain, river, ocean, temple, church, cross, saint, flower, etc.

This practice helps to develop self-awareness and helps in concentration – dharana. Rarely, even meditation – dhayana – may be the natural outcome.

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 about the goals in life. This time the unconscious is very receptive, and therefore may accept the suggestion from the conscious mind with more intensity. It is claimed that, in due course of time, depending upon the sincerity and regularity of the sadhana, the resolve bears fruit in sadhaka’s life.

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. Such a practice helps to harmonize two hemispheres of the brain and the two aspects of autonomous nervous system viz. sympathetic and parasympathetic. The impressions in the subconscious are brought to the surface, experienced and removed. Thus, the fixation of awareness to the body is replaced with the awareness linked to subtler aspects of Prana and spiritual dimensions.