BODY EASE AND MIND’S REST: Yoga Nidra

I was all set for my trip to Boston.

Reservations had been made, shop flights booked. Everything double-checked; necessary documents at hand. I got Malcolm up at five AM so I could be at the airport with two hours to spare.

I should have felt secure but I didn’t. I was deep into a feeling of apprehension and on my way to anxiety. I got to anxiety on the drive to the airport. I almost hit panic standing in line to go through American customs. The line was endless and slow. Word on the line was it was somehow Trump’s fault!
I got to the flight with more than enough time to spare for breakfast. I sat, pilule of course in the front row of the waiting room so I wouldn’t miss anything. I made sure once more that I had my passport and ticket. Checked again to make sure I had my wallet.

I never watch the movie on a plane: sensory deprivation often triggers anxiety. But I do eat the snack. The flight was short and sweet and I had a double seat all to myself. Take-off and landing were both uneventful, with my help, of course!

Then I arrived in Boston…a new place for me causing a recurrence of apprehension …found a cab, anxiety, and headed to the hotel. I hadn’t known about the tunnels: panic.

I was in Boston to do training in Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra®. I had done my research. Yoga nidra is purported to alleviate stress and anxiety disorders, help with the symptoms of PTSD, and aid in the education of those with autism. There were also claims that this form of meditation could help with psychosomatic disorders and type 2 diabetes. I was here to learn how to teach this yoga but also to find out for myself if it actually did what was being claimed. I’m a ‘show me’ kind of person; I take little on faith.

Previously, I had had only one experience of a nidra class. Over the next five days, there would be a full class daily: some asana prior to a 30-45 minute nidra session. As well, we had a daily opportunity to work with a partner, giving and receiving shortened versions. We were also given specific self-practices as homework. By the end of the second day, I was a little burnt out, missing home and getting restless.

Day three: everything changed for me. I had finally slept well the night before; I was focused on what was happening there rather than worrying about what was happening back in Montreal; I became easy about not knowing what was to happen next and allowing the teacher, Jennifer, to be my guide; I gave up my need to maintain my illusion of being in control: I became focused on the moment and stopped stressing about the trip home.
So, what is Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra®?

Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra® is a guided meditation that systematically guides and relaxes you at every level of being including your physical, energetic, mental, emotional and spiritual layers (called five koshas). Through the use of breath awareness, body scanning, and imagery, Divine Sleep invites you to become aware of each layer of being without needing to change or fix anything. This is a meditation practice where there is nothing to do but to ‘notice’. This contemporary practice is based on ancient yogic wisdom and meditation to make a powerful tool for modern day life.

So there is a tradition here. But how might it fit with modern day life?

In the last decade, there has been a lot of scientific research into yoga nidra.

The US military has shown an interest in all types of yoga (asana, yin, pranayama, etc.)(1) for its therapeutic value. In 2006, the Department of Defense conducted research at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) on the efficacy of the practice of yoga nidra. The researchers found that PTSD symptoms, which included anxiety, decreased and feelings of being in control increased among the participants.

At the Integrative Restoration Institute, founded by Richard Miller(2), researchers have documented physiologic and neurologic activity that distinguishes yoga nidra from relaxation and meditation. As a result, Parker et al (2013) proposed the following definition: “Yoga nidra represents a state in which an individual demonstrates all the symptoms of deep, non-REM sleep, including delta brain waves, while simultaneously remaining fully conscious.” Yoga nidra is being used to treat not only PTSD in military veterans but also a range of other conditions, including anxiety, depression, stress, and substance abuse, grief, and insomnia/sleep disorders.

A 2012 study published in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology reports yoga nidra may improve blood pressure and heart rate variables in patients with menstrual problems. The yoga group participated in yoga nidra practice for 30 to 40 minutes daily, five days per week for six months. The researchers found that blood pressure, postural hypotension, sustained hand grip and heart rate variables were significantly improved by 25%.

Researchers at S.S. Medical College in India administered either a yoga nidra program and oral hypoglycemic drugs or oral hypoglycemic drugs alone to 41 Type 2 diabetics for 90 days. The researchers found that the yoga plus hypoglycemic drugs group had improved diabetes symptoms compared to the drug-only group. So, it seems that yoga nidra may reduce the symptoms of diabetes and help control blood glucose levels.

Just as with regular yoga practice, more and more research is being conducted every year. The research I found was certainly interesting to me. But even more interesting was the effect that five days of Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra® had on me.

Before I had even left on this journey I had stressed about having enough time to get to the airport on time for my flight home. I even requested that I leave the workshop early.

Wednesday, early evening. When my taxi showed up at the studio, I was busy saying good-bye to my new friends and he had to wait a few minutes. The drive was easy. The tunnels seemed much shorter than I remembered. In the line-up for security (a long wait: they were training new personnel) I was joking with the others in the line. The flight was uneventful: I didn’t feel I had to consciously participate in the takeoff and landing went almost unnoticed. I didn’t worry about finding Malcolm outside…I trusted he would call me. It was just fine.

The next morning, dropping off my car for servicing and heading downtown to teach my McGill classes, I had some time to analyse.

Although I manage it well and don’t show it, it is rare that I don’t feel some anxiety nibbling at my edges. I realized that I hadn’t felt that since midway through the workshop. At that moment of epiphany, speeding underground in a subway car without stressing it, I suspended belief. A few days later I had to face it: I was anxiety free. No matter what I faced…remember, I am a studio manager/owner and a teacher (eight classes a week)…I had felt calm and equanimity.

To be honest, with the November Challenge at the studio, I have been taking more classes, delegating more of my management duties, doing a regular meditation practice, eating well, have cut back on caffeine and have abstained from alcohol. So, obviously that change in my lifestyle also had an effect. But I am sold on yoga nidra. I do an occasional self-practice now (a body scan to help me sleep) and regularly spend time with CDs by my teacher Jennifer Reis(3).

Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra® is no panacea and I do not believe it ‘cures’ but it may help to relieve some of the symptoms of modern day life.

I like this analogy of a cat. When she sees a dog she goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode: arched back, hissing, puffed up fur. As soon as she perceives the threat is gone she lies down to clean her face as if nothing happened. This is a healthy functioning of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. For us today…with our jobs, traffic, politics, family concerns…it is as if we never leave the ‘fight or flight’ position. We need to come to the ‘cleaning the face’ mode from time to time. Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra® is one way to get there.

(1) See our website, Eclectic Yogis page http://yogaonthepark.ca/yoga-for-anxiety-2/ for a previous blog on Yoga for Anxiety.
(2) Originator of the iRest yoga nidra program.
(3) Jennifer Reis is a regular teacher at Kripalu.

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