If You're Having a Hard Time Falling Asleep, You're Not Alone — Try Yoga Nidra

Have you ever fallen asleep at the end of a yoga class while lying in Savasana? You feel like you're floating above yourself, and when you finally come back to attention, you feel this incredibly overwhelming sense of calm? If you love that feeling, or have never experienced it and yearn for it, you'll want to try yoga nidra.

What Is Yoga Nidra?

Yoga nidra is a form of guided relaxation that can be highly restorative, which can feel "as much as a full night's sleep in a fraction of the time," said certified yoga instructor Rachel Cowan. It's also referred to as "yogic sleep," however, during yoga nidra, you do not sleep in the traditional sense. It's a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping, where your body is relaxed and your mind is awake.

Yoga nidra brings you into a state of deep meditation, and when researchers studied the brain activity of subjects in such a state, the EEG (electroencephalogram) indicated that subjects were in a deeply relaxed state similar to that of sleep. They weren't in a drowsy or unconscious state during the relaxation but actually remained considerably aware of what was happening.

The teacher or guide leads you systematically through the process of relaxing your body part by part, much like a computer shutting down and closing out one application at a time. Gradually, one may lose body awareness and notice the state between sleep and wakefulness. "The narrative follows a particular order, which directly maps to the brain, and as we relax in this sequence, we naturally ease into a deeper state of consciousness," Cowan said. After relaxing each body part, you don't use it for the remainder of the class, and total stillness and calm is naturally achieved. "Whatever your experience in yoga nidra, you are doing it right. The process will work without you having to do anything," she said.

What Should Beginners Expect From a Yoga Nidra Class?

A yoga nidra class can be anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes, depending on the offering. So if you only have 15 minutes to spare, you can still practice. Cowan explained that for the first quarter or third of class, you usually begin with some light stretching to prepare your body for rest. Breath awareness practices and gentle movements calm your mind and help to transition into the practice.

After stretching is complete, yoga nidra is practiced lying down in Savasana. Loose comfy clothing, a warm blanket, a small pillow or folded blanket under your head, and maybe a pillow or bolster behind your knees all set you up for your most restful experience. Many classes conclude with some additional guided visualizations and a gentle return to wakefulness.

Who Can Benefit From Yoga Nidra?

If you're stressed out, anxious, or having trouble sleeping, yoga nidra can be a simple and effective way to help. Cowan also said that personally, it helped her with insomnia and pain management. "I came to yoga nidra after a serious skiing accident," she said. "I'd damaged both my knees and required two surgeries with over six months of recovery time. I was grappling with severe pain management, immobility, and insomnia. I was determined to sleep and find some way not to think about the pain even if only for a few minutes."

She purchased Dharma Mittra's recorded series of yoga nidra called "Psychic Sleep" from Alo Moves, so she could listen from bed. Cowan said, "The results shocked me. I almost always fell asleep right away, and while that wasn't the point, I knew it was what my body needed desperately. I would wake realizing I'd forgotten the pain I was previously experiencing and feel as though I'd been asleep for a very long time. Every time I would practice, I would notice something different and have a truly unique experience."

Can I Do Yoga Nidra at Home?

You can absolutely practice yoga nidra at home — in your comfy bed is a great place! Even though you'll be missing out on the serenity of the warm yoga studio, the gentle breath of the other people in class practicing, and the live guided instruction, Cowan said there are tons of free yoga nidra recordings on YouTube (like the one below).

click to play video

"I recommend a free trial of Alo Moves app for yoga nidra with Dharma Mittra. He is 80 years old and has been teaching yoga from New York City since the 1970s. His calm voice and technique is quite soothing," Cowan said. If you prefer audio sessions, fellow yoga nidra instructor Malaika DosRemedios also has recorded yoga nidra sessions available on iTunes for purchase.