Doctors, gurus and neighborhood do-gooders are all in the habit of prescribing relaxation as a remedy for taut nerves, work pressures and emotional upheavals. But very few know, or will tell you, how to accomplish the deceptively simple task of relaxing.
Yoga Nidra seems to have the answer. Although it finds mention in old tantric texts, it was rediscovered 20-odd years ago by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, founder of the Bihar School of Yoga (BSY) in Munger, eastern India. He translates Yoga Nidra as psychic sleep and describes it as a systematic method of inducing complete physical, mental and emotional relaxation, while maintaining awareness at the deeper levels.
Indeed, the practice is so relaxing that it becomes almost impossible to remain awake. But you come out feeling more rested than you do after a good night’s sleep, and injected with large doses of gumption to tackle the day’s tasks. The Swami says that prolonged suspension between wakefulness and sleep—called the hypnogogic state—in Yoga Nidra may have untold benefits that go beyond the therapeutic.
You practice Yoga Nidra while lying prone and follow the spoken instructions of a teacher. It is, of course, convenient to use the Yoga Nidra tape, or record one yourself. In the first phase of the session, you progressively relax your muscles by quickly running attention through different parts of the body. This is followed by an awakening of sensations of pairs of polar opposites, such as heaviness and lightness. The last phase is a rapid visualization of some nature images and abstract symbols.
But what is the purpose of each phase of the practice ? From neurophysiology we know that each part of the body has a different control center in the brain—curiously, small ones such as the fingers or armpits claim a large brain area. The movement of awareness through different parts of the body not only relaxes them, but also clears nerve pathways to the brain.
The alternating of opposite sensations such as heat and cold, heaviness and lightness, helps to improve the body’s ability to regain balance and brings the related involuntary functions under conscious control. Visualization is a method of consciously using a symbol our image as a catalyst to provoke a reaction in the unconscious mind. But since no time is given for the conscious mind to react, you remain detached and the ego becomes temporarily inactive. This phase helps to resolve suppressed conflicts, desires, memories and sanskaras.
In each session, you also repeat a sankalpa, or resolve. It should be a short statement, phrased in positive language and in the present tense. For example, your resolve could be: “I am taking full care of my family.” The resolve gets embedded deep in the subconscious and is bound to bear fruit in time.