Two women lying on yoga mats in savasana pose in a sunny, open-air studio.What mental image does the word “yoga” conjure for you? Probably a spandex-clad individual in downward dog or balancing on one leg in tree pose. Or maybe they’re in a complicated full-body knot that requires five times more flexibility than you’ve ever had? Does it look like hard work? 

That’s certainly one version of yoga, the kind that dominates the modern notion of yoga in the West, but it’s not at all what we’re talking about today. 

What if I told you that there is another kind of yoga, one in which you don’t move at all? You don’t even sit or stand; you lie down the whole time. That’s yoga nidra. “Yoga nidra” literally means “yogic sleep,” sometimes translated as “conscious sleep.” The goal of yoga nidra is to achieve an altered state of awareness where you are neither awake nor asleep but in a liminal space in between—or maybe surpassing both. (Technically, the term refers to the state of consciousness beyond wakefulness or sleeping. That is, “yoga nidra” is the destination, not the journey it takes to get there. But in common parlance, people use it to mean the entire practice.) 

Yoga nidra offers the opportunity to step outside your body, thoughts, and emotions. It is a state of deep relaxation and, say proponents, of deep healing where your subconscious becomes more open to learning and establishing new thought and behavior patterns, stress dissipates, and you move towards physical health and homeostasis. “Equivalent to fours hours of deep sleep!” is a common selling point. 

The latter may or may not be true, but it’s clear that yoga nidra has a lot to offer by way of promoting relaxation, better sleep, and even recovery from major stress and trauma. There isn’t a person operating in the modern world who couldn’t benefit from slowing down and intentionally tapping into relaxing, restorative practices. Is yoga nidra right for you?

A Brief History of Yoga Nidra

Modern yoga nidra practices have roots tracing back into many ancient yoga and meditation traditions. In ancient texts, yoga nidra or yoganidra sometimes referred to that non-sleep, non-waking level of consciousness or to the goddess Yoga Nidra Shakti. Yoga nidra was often described as a higher state of being, one in which normal mental and bodily activities ceased, and the yogi achieved a state of bliss. 

The type of yoga nidra practice you’re likely to encounter today was probably inspired by 19th and 20th century “relaxationists” and hypnotists who were interested in harnessing the healing power of rest, according to scholars, but it really got its kickstart thanks to the teachings of Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, Satyananda devised a method of using breathing techniques and body scans to achieve progressive relaxation and tap into yoga nidra. If you take a yoga nidra class today, there’s a good chance you’ll be following his method, or something quite like it.

Yoga nidra has since enjoyed a surge in popularity, as well as academic interest. In the 2000s, clinical psychologist and yoga scholar Dr. Richard Miller developed his iRest protocol—a version of yoga nidra—and institute of the same name to help people dealing with issues ranging from “normal” stress to severe PTSD, sleep disturbances, and chronic health issues. More recently, Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman coined the term “non-sleep deep rest” (NSDR) to encompass practices that can promote stress release, neuroplasticity, more efficient learning, and better sleep, among other benefits. Huberman counts yoga nidra, hypnosis or self-hypnosis, and napping as types of NSDR.

What Happens During a Yoga Nidra Practice?

Yoga nidra involves a guided, meditative practice designed to achieve a deep state of relaxation where you transcend waking, sleeping, and dreaming states to arrive at a deeper level of consciousness. You remain aware of the outside world (unlike when you’re asleep), but you are totally detached from it. You are aware but not really awake. There but not-there. In a true state of yoga nidra, you reportedly experience not only profound relaxation but a sense of interconnectedness with the universe. 

This is where yoga nidra differs from traditional meditation in an important way. With meditation, you are usually sitting up and cultivating intense focus, sometimes on the breath, a chant, or a mental image. You are very much awake, and your conscious awareness is very much “on.” In yoga nidra, conscious thought is “turned off,” replaced by an awareness that is neither focused nor intentional. As yoga scholars Dr. Stephen Parker and Swami Veda Bharati describe it, “Neither thoughts nor images are present, and the practitioner experiences conscious, deep, dreamless sleep, possessing awareness of the surroundings but neither thinking about them nor interacting with them.” 

Like all forms of yoga or meditation, the particulars of your practice will depend on who’s guiding you. Depending on how your guide or teacher was trained, they may follow a script or they may tap into a more intuitive flow during the session. Either way, it will probably involve a similar series of steps, something like this:

Benefits of Yoga Nidra

According to traditional wisdom, yoga nidra is a deeply healing state. Yoga nidra is especially touted as an effective way to alleviate stress, sleep better, and improve overall well-being. And there are plenty of studies to support these assertions, for example:

Scientific studies (small though they are) provide some evidence about the physiological effects underlying sthe mental and physical health benefits practitioners observe.

Getting Started

There’s no question that all forms of yoga and meditation can offer tremendous physical, mental, and even spiritual benefits for people who practice regularly. However, other forms of yoga have barriers to entry—concerns that you might not be strong enough or flexible enough, for example—that can scare people away. And a lot of people give up on meditation because they find it too hard to quiet the monkey mind and achieve the desired focus (although that does get easier with time). 

The beauty of yoga nidra is that it can be practiced anywhere by anybody. No special equipment nor physical fitness capabilities are required. There are lots of free yoga nidra exercises online, and many yoga studios offer in-person classes. Some are as short as 10 minutes, which are great when you need to take a quick break. To really tap into the benefits, though, most yoga nidra practices will last 30 to 45 minutes or so. 

If the idea of disconnecting from the conscious mind while still retaining awareness, of “surfing the interface between sleeping and waking consciousness” (a common tag line of yoga nidra) feels a bit too abstract for you, I’d encourage you to give it a try nevertheless. All you have to do is lie still and listen to the teacher’s voice. Consider it a practice of deep relaxation to start. Who couldn’t benefit from that?

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About the Author

Lindsay Taylor headshot

Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.

As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.

Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life.

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