“(This) extraordinary sleep of no slothfulness, which removes (any) thought of the world of multiplicity, manifests for people when all their former attachments have vanished because of the superiority of their inward awareness. Yoganidra, in which extraordinary happiness arises from uninterrupted practice, blossoms in the yogin whose basis of intentional and volitional thought has been cut off and whose network of Karma has been completely uprooted. Having mastered cessation (of the mind while sleeping) in the bed of the fourth state, which is superior to the three states beginning with the mundane, O friend, forever enter that special thoughtless sleep, which consists of (just) consciousness.~ Yogataravalli
Yoga Nidra, or deep conscious sleep, is becoming more and more relevant for today’s modern human. The high stress levels, poor eating and sleeping habits, and increased screen time have made nidra a priority in the yoga world. Many find that nidra is an easier and more accessible way to enter into deep states of meditation, without too much forcing of the mind. While it may seem that nidra is a type of guided relaxation, in fact yoga nidra is one of the most advanced practices in yoga. A sustained practice can allow one to develop the capacity to actively reach different states of consciousness while fully alert and awake. However, it starts with a lot of falling asleep ;).
Yoga Nidra takes the practitioner through the five sheaths, or koshas, to get to the inner most essence of one’s being. These sheaths move from gross to subtle [physical body (annamaya kosha) –> energy body (pranamaya kosha) –> mental body (manomaya kosha) –> wisdom body (vijñanamaya kosha –> bliss body (anandamaya kosha)]. By guiding the mind in an attentive way through these sheaths, one can allow the body processes to fall asleep to restore and renew, and take the mind back to it’s original home – the lotus of the heart. Remember – all of the brain is in the mind, but not all of the mind is in the brain. Many high caliber yogis tell us that the mind finds it’s deepest rest in the present moment. It is here that we can truly say that we are at peace with what is.
So, how does it work?
YOUR BRAIN ON NIDRA
The relaxation response balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and balances the left and right brain. Sympathetic means the freeze, flight, & fight response that is stimulatory to the body and necessary for active processes, and parasympathetic means the rest, relax & digest response that is salutory for the regeneration and overall health of our internal organs.
Modern humans undergo what is known as “allostatic load“, or the chronic exposure to elevated or fluctuating endocrine or neural responses (aka stress!). This causes severe “wear and tear” of the body which contributes to faster decay.
Yoga Nidra therefore helps to reduce the amount of allostatic load on the nervous system by promoting balance – rewiring the brain to feel safe and secure enough to turn of the sympathtic system when it is not needed.
In the process, your brain shifts from beta, an awakened state with lots of brain activity, to alpha, a more relaxed state.
In alpha, the mood-regulating hormone serotonin gets released, and this calms you down.
People who spend little time in an alpha brain-wave state have more anxiety than those who spend more time in alpha.
Shifting your brain into an alpha state starts its process of “powering down,” or coming into a rest state with slower, restorative brain-wave activity.
From alpha, you go into a deep alpha and high theta brain-wave state, the dream state or REM sleep.
In theta, your thoughts slow down to 4 to 8 thoughts per second. This is where super learning happens. Kids and artists experience a lot more theta activity in their brains. Emotional integration and release also happen here, and structures in the brain change termed neuroplasticity (scientists used to believe that after a certain age, the brain was unable to adapt and change – now that theory is also defunct to mirror what yogi scientists have been saying all along).
It’s here that some people sometimes have random thoughts or see images. A person in theta may see colors or visions or hear the voice of a person talking yet at the same time not hear this voice. It’s where you being to enter the gap of nothingness. Lucid dreaming also occurs when the brain enters the theta state and the mind is conscious of this.
After theta, you are guided to delta, where your thoughts are only 1 to 3.9 thoughts per second. This is the most restorative state, in which your organs regenerate and the stress hormone cortisol is removed from your system.
When you’re put under anesthesia, you’re put into a delta brain-wave state. People in comas are also in a delta brain-wave state, which gives their bodies a chance to restore their systems.
In our culture, very few people are going into the deep states of sleep like theta and delta on a regular basis, and as a consequence, our bodies are not powering down and getting the chance to restore themselves.
From delta, the guided yoga nidra experience takes you down into an even deeper brain-wave state epsilon—one that can’t be reached through conventional sleep.
In this fourth state of consciousness, below delta, your brain is thoughtless. This state is like a complete loss of consciousness, but you are awake.
This state is one of such a deep surrender, where your consciousness is so far away from the physical body, that living here every day would be difficult. Not everyone who practices yoga nidra touches this state, but the more you practice, the more you’ll receive glimpses of it. This epsilon state, or the state of superconscious meditation, is the yoga nidra of advanced level yogis.
Yoga Nidra According to the Tantras
Vishnu sleeps on the cosmic ocean, suppported by the cosmic serpent. As he dreams the dream of the universe, a lotus arises from his navel. On that lotus sits a Brahma. Every time Brahma opens his eyes – a world age begins. Every time Brahma closes his eyes – a world age ends. When Brahma dies and the lotus recedes back to Vishnu’s navel. And then another lotus arises, and on that lotus another Brahma opening and closing his eyes. Every universe governed by their own Brahma, their own Vishnu, for endless time. (Paraphrased from Joseph Campbell)
The Mandala Brahmana Upanishad states:
“There are five states (Avastha): jagrat (waking), svapna (dreaming), sushupti (dreamless sleeping), turiya (the fourth), and turyatita (that beyond the fourth).”
In the yoga sutras, AUM is pranava, or the primordial sound of creation itself. Within its three syllables is contained the creation, sustenance and destruction of the entire universe. The “A” stands for the waking state, the “U” for the dreaming state, and the “M” for the deep sleep state. The silence after AUM is representative of the state beyond all three, the state that we attempt to reach in Yoga Nidra.
The waking state, jagrat avastha, relates to the physical body, annamaya kosha (sheath) and to the sthula sharira (gross body).
The waking state is where we take in our outer world through our thoughts, emotions and memories. We have periods of clear attention as well as distraction and mental dullness. The outer world of physical nature has many fluctuations, uncertainties and is ultimately transient – this transience and constant input of information makes it difficult for our minds to remain relaxed in the present moment.
The dreaming state relates to the pranamaya, manomaya and the vijnanamaya koshas (sheath) and to the sukshma sharira (subtle body).
Yoga teaches us that we have a dream Self with its own existence and identity, known in new age terms as the astral body. We naturally abide in this astral body all the time. The subjective world of our dream state is borne of our thoughts and imaginations that are collected and stored in this body. Most of the time our dream state points to our deeper rooted emotions and traumas that manifest in strange and mysterious ways through messages in dreams. Sometimes, when the dream state is aligned to the wishes of the buddhi manifest in the wisdom body, dreams can be very prophetic and spiritual.
In the Yoga Nidra practice, it is possible to pass through this conscious experience of our astral body and its more subtle messages through sensations, emotions, memories and thoughts. It is good to remember that all states, from the most gross to the most subtle, can give us insights and clues to our own transformation and not to grasp for the “highest state”.
The deep sleep state relates to the anandamaya kosha (sheath) and to the karana sharira (causal body). This causal body is what stores the deepest karmas and samskaras (imprints) which are resposible for the nature of our rebirths.
In the deep sleep state we return to the realm of unmanifest consciousness, in which everything is in seed form. Most of the time, we are not aware of ourselves in the deep sleep state.
In this state we are renewed, our pranas (life force) are balanced and we are vitalized for another day.
The root of our human incarnation dwells in the deep sleep state in which we return to our source unknowingly. This unknowingness is the ignorance that is called mula avidya in Vedantic thought. Mula avidya is the root ignorance behind our lives. It is the primary barrier between this “I” and any higher consciousness.
Deep sleep is the natural samadhi state, yet it is born of ignorance. It is has a dull heavy tamasic quality. (Tamas is one of the three gunas or qualities/attitudes of mind and properties of nature), yet at the same time reflects the samadhi-like qualities of peace and happiness (known as the sattva guna). Until we move beyond deep sleep and the ignorance attached to it we will remain obscured from our true nature. Moving beyond deep unconscious sleep to deep sleep awake frees us spiritually to lift the veil of illusion, and look to the reality beyond the 5 senses.
The Mandukya Upanishad describes the Turiya Avastha as thus:
“That which is neither conscious nor unconscious, which is invisible, impalpable, indefinable, unthinkable, unnameable, whose very essence consists of the experience of its own self. Which absorbs all diversity, is tranquil, and benign, without a second, which is that what they call the fourth state – that is the atman. That it is which should be known.”
The fourth or ever-wakeful state is the yogic state of samadhi or unity consciousness. The three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep are able to manifest because the fourth state, the Turiya state, is that which is the substratum, the invisible support of these three states. It is like the space element that holds all other elements. The Turiya Avastha is the pure consciousness, the awareness that is unchanging and permanent. It is the Sat-Chit-Ananda, Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.
In Yogic thought, there exists an ever-wakeful awareness, beyond the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep, which is the goal of all higher yogic practices, and which takes us even beyond time and death.
Now as we move into the more esoteric realms of consciousness, there is a finetuning of the different states of samadhi itself.
The Turiyatita Avastha is the home of Nirvikalpa Samadhi – when the practitioner has become fully established in the fourth state Turiya and no longer identifies with the mind, going beyond the final and 6th sense itself. This is also the state of samadhi without fluctuations, the highest form of Self-realization according to Yoga. Some well saints and sages that have achieved this state are: Ramana Maharishi, Anandamayi Ma, Neem Karoli Baba, Swami Rama, Bengali Baba, Paramahansa Yogananada, Ramakrishna, etc.
The Yogi is one who has realized Brahman Consciousness, which is Turiyatita. In this consciousness, there is no more differentiation between the will of nature and the will of the individual. The yogi, once having accessed this state, becomes an instrument of nature Herself – sharing, teaching and spreading the Dharma of Yoga to all in its most purified form. As yoga practitioners and teachers, it is our responsibility to purify our mind to be able to share that purity for the benefit and upliftment of all beings!
Om Shantih Shantih Shantih