Image by Helen King/Corbis

Why is it so hard to relax?  We all know that stress isn’t good for us.  We all know what it can feel like too:  rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, racing thoughts, shaky hands, perspiration, inability to concentrate, inability to sleep, inability to just calm the heck down.

Meditation is becoming more and more popular.  We see articles in the popular press and hear of doctors and hospitals “prescribing” meditation for stress and all the ailments  it aggravates.  But meditation can be difficult in the beginning and many people get frustrated and stop before they can feel its true benefits.  In my practice as an ayurvedic practitioner, I often hear, “meditation’s not for me” or “i’m not good at meditation.”  Actually, meditation is indeed for everyone and no one’s bad at it.  In the beginning, however, it can be challenging to feel its effects.

What if I told you that you can achieve true and profound relaxation just by lying down (or sitting in a chair, if that’s more comfortable) and following my voice as I guide you through a series of visualizations?  This can be done in person or by listening to a cd.  You don’t even have to know any yoga poses or sanskrit mantras.  All you have to do is be present and follow my voice as I lead you through the practice of yoga nidra. Yoga what?

Yoga is the unification of mind, body and spirit.  Nidra means sleep.  yoga nidra = yogic sleep.  Yoga nidra is deep relaxation with an inner state of awareness.  It is conscious relaxation and it’s sort of like being asleep and being awake at the same time.  Your body is relaxed, your mind stops its endless quest to distract you and slows down, you feel peaceful and almost dreamy.

It is said that one session of yoga nidra is the equivalent of 4 hours of deep sleep.  Yoga nidra calms insomnia, PTSD, panic attacks, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, autoimmune disease, heart disease and all other ailments with a stress component.  It’s also useful for managing plain, old, everyday stress–the stuff that goes on at work, in our relationships, getting cut off in traffic, raising kids–everything that we call “life.”

Some of you may choose to stop reading here.  I hope you’ll come to one of my yoga nidra classes and feel it for yourself.  You truly only need to show up and put on your listening ears.  I’ll do the rest.

Others of you may wish to know a bit more about yoga nidra.  If so, read on!

The modern form of yoga nidra we practice today is based on an ancient tantric practice called nyasa where mantras or sanskrit alphabet sounds corresponding to specific body parts are chanted.  Through the practice of nyasa, a profound sense of peace and stillness is achieved while the practitioner is awake–this is the state of being in yoga nidra.  Swami Satyananda Saraswati adapted these practices for modern life.  It’s no longer necessary to know obscure sanskrit mantras or devanagari.  In fact, modern yoga nidra techniques can be adapted to any language, any culture and works on people of all ages.

The structure of a full yoga nidra practice leads the practitioner from the most gross levels of existence to the most subtle.  It’s a trip through the koshas.  A kosha is a veil or layer.  Each of us has five koshas that go from the least subtle (the annamaya kosha or physical body) to the most subtle (the anandamaya kosha or bliss body).  Each part of a yoga nidra practice is designed to work on a specific kosha, leading you deeper and deeper into the more subtle levels of your being.

Because of this, yoga nidra can also be used as a spiritual practice.  In the framework of the yamas and niyamas, it’s a form of svadyaya or self study.  When we travel to the deepest workings of our own minds in a relaxed and restful state, realizations and insights are often the result.  I sometimes think of yoga nidra as yogic psychotherapy without all the drama.

In the framework of the eight limbs of yoga, yoga nidra is a form of pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses) that can lead to the states of dharana, dhyana and samadhi.

Lastly, one of the most important and personal aspects of the yoga nidra practice is the repetition of your own sankalpa, your intention.  A sankalpa is a short statement in which you declare your deepest desire or a specific goal (hopefully reflecting your highest aspirations).  You’re asked once at the beginning of the practice and again at the end to repeat your sankalpa silently to yourself.  Your sankalpa serves as a communication from your conscious mind to your unconscious mind.  It’s also a personal vow from you to the universe.  We plant the seeds of intention at the beginning of the practice and water them at the end so they can take root and grow.

Sankalpa is a powerful tool for yoga nidra and for everyday life.  You can use your sankalpa in the morning when you rise and at night before you go to bed.  You can remember it while waiting for the bus, picking your kids up at school or brushing your teeth.  Living with intention helps us feel truly alive.  Using your intention within your yoga nidra practice helps to make sure it becomes reality.

Come to yoga nidra class or get a cd.  It will subtly change your life.  Now, get out there and relax!