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Defining Yoga-Nidra: Traditional Accounts, Physiological Research, and Future Directions

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Abstract

The term yoga-nidra has been used in many empirical studies to refer to relaxation and guided imagery. These techniques do not represent the intention or physiological correlates of yoganidra discussed in the traditional yoga literature. We propose an operational definition of yoga-nidra that is supported by several physiologically testable hypotheses regarding its outcomes and effects. Traditional descriptions of yoga-nidra and contemporary accounts of its practice are reviewed, and studies examining the physiological correlates of yoga-nidra are examined. Proposed hypotheses for future research using this operational definition are provided.
Abstract
The term yoga-nidra has been used in many empirical studies
to refer to relaxation and guided imagery. These techniques do
not represent the intention or physiological correlates of yoga-
nidra discussed in the traditional yoga literature. We propose
an operational definition of yoga-nidra that is supported by
several physiologically testable hypotheses regarding its out-
comes and effects. Traditional descriptions of yoga-nidra and
contemporary accounts of its practice are reviewed, and studies
examining the physiological correlates of yoga-nidra are exam-
ined. Proposed hypotheses for future research using this opera-
tional definition are provided.
Key Words: yoga-nidra, mindfulness, neurophysiology,
yoga literature
Corresponding author: parkpsych@yahoo.com
Yoga-nidra is a pop
ular subject for seminars about yoga practice
and yoga therapy. Although many teachers use the term yoga-
nidra as a syn onym for relaxation (Feuerstein, 1999), some
practices have little relationship to the traditional definitions in
the literature. In the majority of studies of yoga-nidra, subjec-
tive questionnaires and rating scales were used to examine the
effects of relaxation protocols; however, yoga-nidras physiolog-
ical and neurological processes were not systematically evaluat-
ed. Consequently, the operational definition of yoga-nidra has
become diluted and confused, making systematic hypothesis
testing and cross-study comparison and replication difficult.
We propose an operational definition of yoga-nidra that is
based on the traditional yoga litera
ture and accounts for empir-
ically measurable, physiological markers th at distinguish it
from other states of relaxation. Physiological studies, particu-
larly those measuring brain function using electroencephalog-
raphy (EEG) and positron emission tomography (PET) may
support Swami Rama of the Himalayass assertion that all of
the body is in the mind but all of the mind is not in the body”
(Rama, 2002, p.58).
A Proposed Definition
In 2011, Sw a mi Veda Bhar a ti sponsored an inte rnati onal con f e r-
e n ce on yoga-nidra to revi ew tr a d iti onal desc ripti ons and me t h-
ods of pr a cti c e, ev aluate cu rre n t re search, and promote a dia-
l o g u e . The goal was to initiate a discuss i o n be tween tho se re pre-
se n
ti n g the or al tr a d iti o n of yoga and re sea rch sc i e n tists. Bhar ati,
a former profe s sor of South As ian studies at the Un i ve rs i ty of
Mi n n e sota, is among the mo st se n i or monks in Ind ias Sw am i
ord e r. He has inhe rited the histori cal and or al - i n itiatory tr a d i -
ti on of the great ph il o sophe r, Sank ar a carya, th rou gh initiati on
from his guru, Sw a mi Rama of the Hi malay as. Bhar ati propo sed
a defi n iti o n of four levels of yoga-nidra pr a c tice that would pro-
vide measu r able phy s i o l o gi cal hy pothe ses for empi ri cal inve s ti-
g a ti on. Spec i fi cally, yoga-nidra (yoga sl eep) re p re se nts a state in
wh i ch an ind ivi dual demonstr ates all the symptoms of dee p,
non-REM sl ee p, inclu d i ng delta br a in waves, w
h ile simultane-
ously re mai n i n g fully consc i ous.
Neurologic Activity
Delta waves (frequency of 4 hz) are most consistent with deep
non-REM sleep. Theta waves (4–8 hz) are associated with con-
centration and meditation, dreams, hypnosis, and hypnogogic
imagery. Alpha waves (8–13 hz) indicate deep physical relax-
ation, and beta waves (> 13–30 hz) suggest alert functioning of
the waking state. Gamma waves (30–80 hz) indicate processing
involving multiple sensory modalities and execution of specific
cognitive or motor functions. For a detailed review of medita-
tion studies that used EEG, refer to Cahn & Polich, 2006.
T he te rm yo g a - nidra is often used to re fer to proc e sse s
and pr a c tices that are pre par atory to yoga-nidra prope r. We
s
u gge st a defi n iti o n that includes four disti nct levels of pr a c-
ti c e. Level 1 re pre s e nts a state of deep rela x ati on. Du r i ng th is
phase the br ain fi rst produces alpha waves, wh i ch may ve rge
on the ta waves du ri ng dee p er pr a cti c e. The s e dee p er exe rc ise s
may be used for sel f - h eal i ng, su c h as redu c i ng bl o od pre ssu re
and deal i ng with migr ai ne hea d a ches, among othe rs. The s e
protoc o ls are similar to tho s e used in cl i n i c al hy pno s i s
( Ham mond, 1990).
Level 2 represents a state that is characterized by creativity,
invention, achieving decisions and solutions to problems, and
c o mpo s i ng lectu res and re s earch pa
pe rs, poe t ry, minutely
detailed action plans, and the like. This stage is evidenced by
theta waves that verge on delta waves during deeper practice.
During Level 3, the practices of Level 1 result in the transi-
tion to yoga-nidra, or the state of abhava-pratyaya; that is, cog-
nition of negation in a cave of the heart center (Yoga Sutras I.10;
see Bharati, 1986; Zambito, 1992). During this state, the brain
may initially produce theta waves, followed by delta waves. The
participant experiences deep non-REM sleep but remains aware
of his or her surroundings. Attainment of this level may require
i n stru c ti o n by an adv anc ed tea che r. Sw ami Rama of the
Himalayas recommended that one not remain in Level 3 in
excess of 10 minutes at a single time.
Progression to Level 4 occurs after the first three lev
els are
mastered. During Level 4 the mind simultaneously remains in
International Journal of Yoga Therapy — No. 23 (1) | 2013 11
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Defining Yoga-Nidra: Traditional Accounts, Physiological Research,
and Future Directions
Stephen Parker, PsyD, E-RYT 500,
1,2
Swami Veda Bharati, DLitt,
3,4,5
Manuel Fernandez, PhD
6
1. St. Mary's University, 2. University of St. Thomas, 3. Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust University of Medical Sciences,
4. Swami Rama Sadhaka Gram, 5. Sadhanamandir Ashram, 6. Center Mahamudra
ARTICLE
two sta tes consisting of sleep and simultaneous conscious
awareness (a-japa japa, or the effortless repetition of a mantra
in spontaneous meditation) and meditation during which the
person is aware of kundalini. Kundalini is the subjective experi-
ence of the very subtle power of consciousness in meditation. A
practitioner may alternate between theta and delta waves dur-
ing this process. Unlike Level 3, which is time limited, this
process may last as long as 3.5 hours.
When Levels 3 and 4 are mastered, one may gradually tran-
sition into turiya, during which yoga-nidra and turiya become
indistinguishable. Turiya is a state during which the highest
form of meditation in samadhi (called asamprajñata [a-cogni-
tive] in yoga and nirvikalpa [free of t
ho ught] in Vedanta)
becomes ones normal state of awareness and is maintained at
all t imes (see definitions from Yoga-vasistha, translated in
Venkatesananda, 1993). It is hypothesized that at this point,
EEG readings may register no discernible electrical activity.
This hypothesis has yet to be demonstrated under controlled
conditions.
Traditional Yoga Literature
Descriptions of yoga-nidra in the traditional yoga text tend to
be oblique and often refer to the state of yoga-nidra rather than
descriptions of the practice. When discussing the traditional
yoga text we are not rigidly referring to texts of formal yoga phi-
losophy. Because yoga is primarily a discipline of meditation,
we have taken into consideration information about meditation
practices from multiple oral and written p
erspectives, including
the yoga Upanishads and Vedantic, Ayurvedic, and Buddhist
texts. Though the topic of yoga-nidra is vast, there is a paucity
of descriptions related to relaxation exercises and subtle-body
practices. For example, the hatha yoga texts contain few explic-
it descriptions of yoga-nidra, which might lead one to conclude
that few exist (see Vasistha-samhita III.57-75; Yoga Yajnavalkya
VII-1-37, translated in Bharati, 2001; 771–773).
The Oral Tradition of Yoga
There are two potential explanations for the scarcity of textual
accounts of yoga-nidra. First, many practices were traditionally
taught in response to the ne eds of the individual and were
almost solely communicated by word of mouth (Bharati, 2001).
Second, the injunction, “Do not teach! Do not teach! Do
not
teach!” was very common in texts about yoga practice (prayoga-
sastra). As such, written descriptions are often partial a nd
devoid of essential details. Further, the practices of yoga-nidra
were often reserved for those deemed to be qualified, which was
determined in the context of a one-to-one relationship between
teacher and student.
One of the pramanas (means of correct knowledge) in the
yoga system is agama, “that which has come,” usually translated
as scripture (Monier-Williams, 1899,1970; Zambito, 2010). The
yoga tradition includes the action and speech of a master as
agama, not what is solely written in the books (Bharati, 1986).
It is important to consider the oral teachings as well as the writ-
ten works, many of which were deliberately left incomplete or
did not explain the practice of yoga-nidra in its entirety.
Therefore, w
e do not rely exclusively on written material when
we refer to the textual tradition of yoga.
Vedic and Epic Literature
The term yoga-nidra can refer to practice as well as to an object
of devotion. In the Vedic literature (roughly 5000 BCE to 1000
CE) and Epic literature (approximately 700 BCE to 1000 CE),
yoga-nidra refers to the mythological dissolution of the cosmos,
or Vishnus cosmic yoga-nidra. It also r epresents Vishnu's
power of tamas, or the universal p rinciples of inertia and
entropy, and is identified with the Divine Mother as Kali, the
shakti of cosmic tamas (see Jagadishswarananda, 2003, for fur-
ther description). Yoga-nidra may also refer to a deity who was
involved in the birth of Krishna (Campbell, 1974).
Jainia and Buddhist Literature
The Mahayana Buddhist traditions, and the Vajrayana in par-
ticular, refer to a practice of clear, light sleep similar to classical
yogas account of yoga-nidra. This light sleep is described in the
fou r tee nth centu r y text, Book of Three In spiration s , by
Tsongkhapa the Great, guru of the first Dalai Lama (Mullin,
2005). This practice involves concentrating on the heart center,
the cakra, associated with the state of deep sleep. The individual
progresses through four stages of emptiness to an “experience of
a light like that of a dawn with a clear sky” (Mullin, 2005). Its
description is identical to that of the practices included in the
Yoga-Vedanta and Tantric traditions (Aiyar, 2000; Dyczkowski,
1998; Rama, 1982; Rama, 1988).
These experiences are described in Mahayana tradition as
states of samadhi. It is likely t
hat the clear, light state is very sim-
ilar to the state of turiya described by Vedantic writers from
Gaudapada onward. As with turiya, the clear, light state is an
experience beyond which there are “no further signs(i.e., the
highest attainment, liberation), and it eventually pervades all
states of consc i o us n e s s, waki ng, dream i ng, and sl e e pi n g
(Mullin, 2005, p. 207). Through the experience of turiya, there
appears to be a practical link between the clear light meditation
practice and yoga-nidra.
The Theravada Buddhist yoga literature contains no refer-
ences to yoga-nidra, because it is described in the hatha-yoga
literature. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition has a discipline of
dream yoga, which does not apply to the state of deep sleep;
however, it is related to the practice of cle
ar, light sleep and
involves the dissolution of all thought and an experience of
nothing but pure awareness (Rinpoche, 1998). Although the
Jaina yoga literature includes some references to yoga-nidra, it
does not appear to include descriptions of yoga-nidra practice.
Ayurvedic Literature
In Ayurvedic literature, the Charaka-samhita, a revelation that
is partially ascribed to Patañjali, contains a discussion of the
theory of sleep in the Sutra-sthana, which culminates in the
verse, “The same sleep, if properly enjoyed, brings about happi-
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ness and longevity in human beings as the real kn owledge
brings about siddhi in a yogin(Chandra & Dash, 2008, Verse
21.38). Although this intimates that sleep is an entry point to
elevated, superconscious states, no detailed description of the
practice is included.
Patañjalis Yoga Sutras (approximately 200 BCE) does not
explicitly describe the technique of yoga-nidra, but the nature
of sleep as a mental operation is explored (I.10), as are the
dream and sleep states as a means to enter samadhi. Sutra I.10,
abhava - p rat yaya - alambana - v rt t ir- nidra, defi nes the me ntal
process (vrtti) of sleep as concentration on nescience (abhava)
and its cause (Bharati, 1986). This has important implications
for the practice of yoga-nidra. When used in
conjunction with
a mind that has no focus (alambana) or has nonbeing as a
focus, the mind becomes very malleable, and the power of the
mind field can be shaped by ones intention (samkalpa). This is
valuable in processes of learning and self-healing. Even more
important is the observation of the dream (svapna) and deep
sleep (nidra) states as a means to enter into samadhi. Sutra I.38,
svapna-nidra-jñana-alambanam va, states that one may enter
samadhi with su pport of knowledge of dream and [deep]
sleep(Bharati, 1986, 361). The practical details of this process
are not described, however.
In Shiva - sutra I.7 of the Shaiva tr a d iti o n of Kash m i r
(approximately 950 CE), Vasugupta asserts that the yogi experi-
ences
the fourth state of consciousness (turiya) in the midst of
the other three states: waking, dream, and sleep. This gives rise
to a classification of states of consciousness wherein each of
these three states is inherent within the other (Shiva-sutra I.10).
The result is a schema of nine states of consciousness (10 or
more if you count turiya): waking in waking, waking in dream,
waking in deep sleep, dream in waking, dream in dreaming,
deep sleep in dreaming, and so forth (Dyczkowski, 1998; Jhoo,
2007; Singh, 1999). Several of these, particularly waking in deep
sleep (jagrat-susupti), dreaming in deep sleep (svapna-susupti),
deep sleep in dreaming (susupti-svapna), and deep sleep in deep
sleep (susupti-susupti), describe aspects of the levels of practice
of yoga-nidra mentioned by Bharati earlier in this
article. Verse
75 of the Vijñana-bhairava-tantra describes the nature of the
concentration on sleep through which this is accomplished:
When sl eep has not yet fully appeared, that is when one is
about to fall asl eep and all the exte rnal objects (thou gh pre s-
e nt) have faded out of sight, then the state (be tween sl ee p
and waki ng) is one on wh i ch one should conc e ntr a te. In
that state the Supre m e God d e ss will reveal he rself (Si ngh ,
1999, p. 70–71).
Though most written references describe the state of yoga-
nidra as the goal, three texts describe the process of achieving
yoga-nidra in some detail. The Hathayogapradipika (IV.43–50)
describes the process of khecari-mudra, which culminates in the
attainment of yoga-nidra (Digambarji & Kokaje, 1998).
The
Shandilya-upanishad (I.35) describes a similar process with the
same sequence of steps (Aiyar, 2000). Finally, Shankaracarya
also describes the process of going into yoga-nidra in his Yoga-
taravali (Deshikachar & Deshikachar, 2003).
In Hathayogapradipika and Shandilya-upanishad (IV. 43-
44), the process of entry into yoga-nidra is described in similar
terms. When the sushumna-nadi or shunya-svara, the central of
the three primary energy channels of the energy body (prana-
maya - k osa), seizes the prana, khecari is establ i shed”
(Digambarji & Kokaje, 1998, p. 147). From establishment of
khecari, the state of unmani, the “upw ard mind, ensu e s
(Digambarji & Kokaje, 1998, p. 148.) “One should practice khe-
cari until yoga-nid
ra is attained. Once yoga-nidra is attained,
there is no such thing as kala (time)” (Digambarji & Kokaje;
1998, p. 149). The text proceeds to describe the state as one in
which there is no thought, and life activities (vayu, movement
of prana) are reduced to a minimum.
In Ve r ses 17–26 of the Yo g a - tara vali, Shank a r a c ary a
describes entry into th e state of yoga-nidra. Verses 17–19
describe movement into the state of unmani, a state in which
the mind and senses are under volitional control and inhalation
and exhalati o n cease (kevala - kumbhaka; De s h i k a c har &
Deshikachar, 2003). Verses 21 and 22 relate how yogis enter
amanasaka-mudra, a s tate in which there is no activity of
manas, then describe how the breath transcends t
he mind (has
entered the sushumna-nadi) and how they “are linked to the lit-
tle space in their hearts” (Deshikachar & Deshikachar, 2003, pp.
56–57). In this state the mind (manas) is described as “void of
activity” (vritta-shunya). This state, sahaja, is spontaneousor
natural,and there is no activity of the senses (Deshikachar &
Deshikachar, 2003, pp. 58–59). The state of yoga-nidra then
occurs. Specifically, “when both intentions and imagination are
cut off, when uprooted from the web of karma, through unbro-
ken practice, the yogini achieves yoga-nidra(Deshikachar &
Deshikachar, 2003, pp. 62–63). The practitioner is encouraged
to remain in turiya, in the nirvikalpa state. It is evident from
Shankaracaryas explanation that activity of the sensory and dis-
putative mind (manas) ceases ent
irely in the state of yoga-nidra.
In the highest state of turiya, neither the s ensory nor other
aspects of mind evidence activity, though the person m ay
appear to be awake.
Contemporary Yoga Literature
T h e conte mpor a ry yoga lite r atu re includes a nu mber of
descriptions of methods of yoga-nidra. Millers (2005) general
description states that during yoga-nidra, we enter into a state
that approximates sleep during which dream-like movements
spontaneously appear. But unlike sleep, during which the mind
identifies with these movements, during yoga-nidra we bear
witness to these mental dream-like fragments(Miller, 2005, p.
34.) He goes on to describe a series of processes of dealing with
thoughts and images, memories a
nd visualizations, which he
pairs with levels of embodiment according to the Vedanta con-
ceptualization of five bodily sheaths or koshas. Finally, he reach-
es a point at which he prescribes making the great turndur-
ing which “in Being, the ego-I, thought could not be sustained.
It dissolves into its source. . . . Observe how the mind stops and
thinking dissolves. . . . This is what happens in deep sleep
(Miller, 2005, p. 55). In this last step, Miller may come closer
than anyone to achieving the traditional description of ones
awareness in yoga-nidra.
Satyananda, of the Bihar School of Yoga, describes several
prel i m i n ary pr a ctices related to yoga-nidra. They include (a)
Yoga Nidra: An Examination of the Construct 13
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making mental resolution or setting an intention (samkalpa),
(b) initiating rotations of consciousness through the body, (c)
practicing breath awareness (nostrils, throat, chest, counting
the breath), (d) relaxing the mind and emotions, (e) visualizing
various images, and (f) reaffirming mental resolutions or inten-
ti o ns (samk a lpa; Sar a s w ati, Sw ami Saty a nanda, 1998).
Although this is the most detailed description of the prelimi-
nary practices of yoga-nidra, it does not include resting the
mind in the heart center or instruction about how to enter a
state of deep sleep during which the mind, as manas, does not
function. These methods are also not consistent with Shankaras
definition.
Satyanandas successor, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati,
als
o briefly discusses yoga-nidra in his book, Yoga Darshana
( S ar as w ati, Sw ami Ni r anjanananda, 1993). In additi o n to
d e s c r ibi ng the proc e ss of yoga-nidra in similar te rms to
Satyananda, he denotes three preliminary levels of yoga-nidra.
No mention is made of the “mindless” state of yoga-nidra itself,
however.
Panda (2003) describes yoga-nidra vis-a-vis the eight limbs
of yoga. This description includes an array of asana and
pranayama techniques, as well as mudra and bandha practices.
Panda explains the Vedantic theory of the evolution of the
mind, the body she ath or kosha system, the cak ra system,
Kundalini, and a great deal of ancillary yoga-vedanta theory. In
his description of the preliminary practices of yoga-nidra, he
delineates several form
s of external and internal rotations of
consciousness, as well as a complex tantric system of nyasa
(Panda, 2003). He includes a discussion of Freudian psycho-
analysis and contrasts it with Indian theories of mind, then
briefly examines common threads between the two theories,
characterizing hypnosis as an externally suggested trance and
yoga-nidra as an autosuggestion.We contend that hypnosis is
a process of autosuggestion, whether or not it is accompanied
by external facilitation, and consider hypnosis to be a special
case of yoga-nidra. Last, Panda describes yoga-nidra as a state
between waking and dreaming, which is incorrect because it
misidentifies the brain waves emitted during yoga-nidra as pri-
marily theta rather than delta.
Swami Rama writes of five meth
ods of yoga-nidra and
describes two of them. The first is a full procedure that includes
preliminary relaxation exercises and a short method that fol-
l o ws maste r y of prel i m i nary rela x ati o n tech n i que s (Rama ,
1988). The full procedure begins with a mental statement of
intention to remain aware (samkalpa), followed by progressive
relaxation of major muscle groups. This is followed by a 61-
point relaxation that focuses on marma points, with the goal of
relaxing the subtle body, and point-to-point breathing,or
shithali-karana, t ranslated as “making or doing relaxation
(Rama, 1988, p. 186–191). Shithali-karana entails cultivating
awareness of the flow of the breath from the crown of the head
through successive p
oints in the subtle body, exhaling and
inhaling, through the eyebrow, throat, and heart cakra f ive
times each. Awareness then moves to the heart center, with
nothing but awareness of the breath. An individual may use the
shorter method of breathing through the three upper cakras
five times each to quickly enter yoga-nidra in the heart center
after mastering the three preliminary relaxation practices.
The approaches that exclusively use r elaxation exercises
and visualizations do not lead to the absence of mental activity
described by Shankaracarya as essential to yoga-nidra. Rather,
they are relaxation techniques that are preliminary steps in the
process of yoga-nidra (for a detailed description of the practice,
see Rama, 1988).
Our review of the historical a
nd contemporary yoga text
suggests that yoga-nidra is a state during which activity of the
mind is suspended. Neither thoughts nor images are present,
and th e practitioner experiences conscious, deep, dreamless
sleep, possessing awareness of the surroundings but neither
thinking about them nor interacting with them. This review
suggests that methods of relaxation that exclusively use imagery
and/or relaxation are only preparatory steps in the process of
yoga-nidra. These activities produce predominantly alpha and
theta brain wave activity rather than the delta activity charac-
teristic of deep REM sleep.
Research Literature
The research literature about yoga-nidra is scarce and limited
by the lack of an empirical definition of the state of yoga-nidra.
A numb
er of investigations have examined various physiologi-
cal criteria related to yoga-nidra, but their lack of empirical
consistency and rigor make it difficult to draw any definitive
conclusions.
Early Physiological Studies
Early empirical studies of yoga-nidra were conducted in the
1970s and reported in several non-peer reviewed publications
(Greene & Greene, 1977; Moffat, 1974). In one investigation,
Swami Rama of the Himalayas participated in an EEG study of
yoga-nidra during which he was observed to enter conscious
deep sleep for about 10 minutes, at which time delta waves were
recorded. He was able to recount verbatim all the conversations
that occurred in the lab during that time, demonstrating his
awareness of his surroundings.
In his comments about this experiment, Swami Satyananda
sta
ted that “the capacity to remain consciously aware while pro-
ducing delta waves is one of the indications of the super con-
scious state, turiya(Saraswati, Swami Satyananda,1998, pp.
176–177). Although it is true that someone in turiya would be
conscious of his/her surroundings, this kind of awareness is also
characteristic of t he state of yoga-nidra prior to entry into
turiya, according to Swami Rama an d Swami Veda Bharati.
Bharati contends that the state of turiya is accompanied by a flat
EEG rather than by delta waves, indicating a moment-to-
moment state of asa mprajñata or nirvikalpa-samadhi, when
measurable cognitive activity ceases altogether, despite appar-
ent wakefulness. To date, no carefully controlled demonstration
of such a state has been accomplished (Bharati,
2006).
In 2004 Dr. Dean Radin of the Institute of Noetic Sciences
used more tightly controlled experimental conditions in an
effort to replicate the Swami Rama study. A number of physio-
logical parameters were measured while Swami Veda Bharati
entered a state of delta wave sleep while maintaining conscious
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awareness of his surroundings, similar to Swami Ramas experi-
ence (Bharati, 2006). After examining the EEG data collected
while talking with Swami Veda Bharati prior to the experiment,
Radin suggested that “Swami Veda's ordinary state of awareness
is analogous to that of a normal person in a deep meditative or
sleep state(Bharati, 2006, p. 69). The EEG trace showed pre-
d o m i nant produ cti on of delta waves even du ri ng casual conve r-
sati on with his eyes open. Ne u r ol o gi cally, th is is highly unusual.
Recent Physiological Studies
Several empirical studies of the iRest method of relaxation
developed by Richard Miller have been conducted (Birdsall,
Pritchard, Elison-Bowers, & Spann, 2011; Engel et al., 2007;
Pritchard, Elison-Bowers, & Birdsall, 2010; S tankovic, 2011;
unpublished research at www.irest.u
s/programs/irest-research-
and-programs). These investigations used questionnaires and
rating scales to measure participantsexperience. They provid-
ed evidence of the subjective effectiveness of relaxation but did
not measure the physiological correlates associated with the
state of yoga-nidra. A discussion of their findings is beyond the
scope of this article.
In 1999, PET and EEG were used to assess changes in cere-
bral blood flow patterns in a sample of 9 yoga teachers, each
with more than 5 years of experience practicing relaxation
meditation (yoga-nidra). Researchers found consistent patterns
of brain activity during meditation and relaxation. Specifically,
EEG outcomes revealed alpha and theta waves during what was
described as the practice of yoga-nidra (Lou et al., 1999). These
patterns of
brain activity are consistent with those of states of
relaxation and meditation but do not meet the criteria for vol-
untary production of predominantly delta waves while retain-
ing conscious awareness. These findings represent evidence of
neurologic states attained during preliminary practices rather
than the state of yoga-nidra.
In another study, Kjaer and colleagues used PET scans to
examine dopamine production in the ventral striatum during a
yoga-nidra rela x ati o n med itati o n for 8 highly expe ri e n c e d
meditation teachers (Kjaer et al., 2002). They reported that
subjectively, yoga nidra [was] characterized by reports of vivid
imagery and decreased attention towards action(Kjaer et al.,
2002, p. 256). EEG data p
rovided evidence of increased theta
wave activity, which is consistent with an experience of imagery
(Kjaer et al., 2002). The traditional texts and the personal expe-
rience of Swami Veda Bharati maintain that neither imagery
nor other thought process are present during the state of yoga-
nidra, suggesting that participants were engaging in practices
that are preparatory to yoga-nidra.
Kumar and Joshi (2009) studied 40 students who were
tr ai ned in the yoga-nidra me t hod of Sw ami Saty a nanda
Saraswati (Saraswati, Swami Satyananda, 1998) and a specific
breath i ng exe r c i se (pranakarsa - p ranayama) devel oped by
Shriram Sharma Acharya. Students’ brain waves were measured
using EEG, and galvanic skin response was also assessed.
Participantsbeta wave activity was
gradually replaced by alpha
waves during the practice. Alpha waves indicate a state of relax-
ation preliminary to yoga-nidra, but not the predominant delta
wave pattern observed during the state of in yoga-nidra.
Another study examined EEG data for 20 individuals who
used the Bihar School of Yoga protocol for yoga-nidra. As in the
Kumar and Joshi study (2009), participantsbeta wave activity
was gradually replaced by alpha waves. After more than 30 ses-
sions of practice, alpha waves were found to be replaced by
some theta waves (Mandlik, Jain, & Jain, 2009). Because no
delta wave activity was detected, participants were likely in a
state of relaxation generation and imagery generation but not a
state of yoga-nidra. The production of theta waves suggests that
participants experienced the seco
nd level of practice prelimi-
nary to yoga-nidra.
T he se studies demonstr ate that what is often re fe rred to as
yo g a - nidra in conte mpor ary re search is often a state of dee p
rela x ati on and image ry ge ne r ati on that is a precu r sor to yo g a -
nidra. Du r i n g th i s state, alpha and the t a br ai nw a ves, as
oppo s ed to the delta wave activity fou nd du ri ng the state of
yoga-nidra, are re p orted. The state of yoga-nidra is devoid of
i mage r y, thou ght, and mantra re p e t iti on and cons i sts only of
the aw are ne ss of be i ng. This is char a c te ri z ed by aw a re ne ss of
the breath du r i ng wh i ch one ob se r ves the mind and body in
sl e e p. To date, extant re s earch and fi n d i n gs are inc ons iste nt
with
tho s e of early studies. It appears that yoga-nidra as it is
d e sc ribed by Shank ar a car ya and its phy s i ol o g i c al correlate s
have yet to be stu d i e d.
Implications for Empirical Investigation
Clearly, it is important to empirically test Shankaracaryas tradi-
tional model of yoga-nidra, and as such, we suggest the follow-
ing hypotheses for empirical investigation:
1. The state of yoga-nidra represents a conscious entry into
a state of non-REM sleep. Individuals entering this state
will be observed to voluntarily generate predominantly
delta waves, as measured by EEG. Persons will also
demonstrate awareness of their surroundings, as
measured by the verbatim recall of a list of words.
2. Replication of existing yoga-nidra studies will reliably
demons
trate the production of alpha wave activity, a
precursor to entry into yoga-nidra proper.
3. Levels 2, 3, and 4 of Bharatis model (clear predominance
of delta waves) will be empirically distinguished using
EEG data.
4. Consistent with Shankaracaryas criterion, we predict
that the state of turiya will be indicated by an absence of
EEG-observed brain activity, which would indicate
cessation of mental activity (citta-vriti-nirodha). This has
yet to be demonstrated in carefully controlled conditions.
We suspect that the state of consciousness present in Level
2 of the Bharati model bears a strong resemblance to those
observed during clinical hypnosis. This has implications for a
wide range of lea
rning and self-healing strategies for both men-
tal and physical health. This line of inquiry will require further
refinement, particularly in terms of measurement of the EEG
correlates of hypnotic states. These hypotheses challenge the
contention that consciousness requires brain activity. While it
Yoga Nidra: An Examination of the Construct 15
www.IAYT.org
may appear ambitious, inquiry of this nature would test the
premise that yoga practices transcend the physical senses.
The studies involving Swami Rama of the Himalayas and
Swami Veda Bharati cited earlier provide preliminary support
for our hypotheses. A more carefully controlled pilot study is
under development at the Meditation Research Institute of
Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama in Rishikesh, India, in collabora-
tion with Dr. Shirley Telles. We hope to report study results sep-
arately in the future.
Postscript
Swami Rama once intentionally produced two cysts on his arm
while a group of German doctors watched. He identified one
cyst as malignant cancer and the other as benign. He asked that
biopsies be taken. He then made the two cysts di
sappear. The
biopsy results confirmed his prediction that one cyst was malig-
nant and the other benign (Greene & Greene, 1977). The physi-
cians did not publish their observations in fear of the reaction
of their coll eagues. Sw am i ji gave up su ch demonstr a ti ons
because it was clear that people would not believe what their
senses were telling them. Let us be rigorous in our empirical
study of yoga but courageous in accepting the challeng es of
what our rigor may reveal.
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International Journal of Yoga Therapy — No. 23 (1) | 2013
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... 19,25,26 Yet, to the authors' knowledge, while Yoga Nidra has been demonstrated as having potential to affect sleep quality, as a secondary outcome, in studies on program development for veterans, 19 and on depression in older adults, 20 this practice has not been directly investigated as an intervention for insomnia. In addition, the changes in consciousness produced during the practice of Yoga Nidra have been very minimally researched, 27 and thus, an investigation of participant experience would fill an important void in the literature. ...
... The results of this study add to existing evidence supporting the effects of Yoga Nidra on sleep, pain, and stress, as well as its acceptability and credibility as a potential intervention for sleep. 17 27 and they extend upon the literature by giving voice to the experiences of novice practitioners of Yoga Nidra whose responses suggest that even a single practice can produce deep relaxation, sleep, and a unique state of awareness. Accounts of maintained awareness throughout sleep; pratyahara/sense withdrawal; self-reported mental, physical, and emotional relaxation; and sleep (by nearly one-third of the sample) align well with traditional descriptions of Yoga Nidra. ...
... Accounts of maintained awareness throughout sleep; pratyahara/sense withdrawal; self-reported mental, physical, and emotional relaxation; and sleep (by nearly one-third of the sample) align well with traditional descriptions of Yoga Nidra. 12,34 Helping to validate the intervention (i.e., the selected Yoga Nidra recording and its delivery to participants), participant experiences in this study agree with previous studies that describe accounts of the state of Yoga Nidra, experienced as cognitive awareness during physiological sleep, 27,34 withdrawal of senses to decrease pain and discomfort, 17 and decreased executive attention during Yoga Nidra. 33 The participants' experiences also support previous reports of enhanced relaxation 35 and perceived improvement of sleep. ...
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Introduction: Insomnia affects up to half of the U.S. population, and due to limitations of current treatments, there is a growing interest in mind-body practices to reduce insomnia. To understand how a guided meditation practice, Yoga Nidra, may affect relaxation and align with current descriptions of nonpharmaceutical practices that could improve sleep, qualitative and quantitative methods were used to explore participant experience of a single Yoga Nidra practice, administered in a group setting. Methods: Current insomnia (Insomnia Severity Index), sleep practices, and mood (positive and negative affect schedule [PANAS]) were measured at intake. After 30 min of Yoga Nidra practice, the PANAS was readministered. In a focus group that followed, participants discussed their experience before, during, and after the practice and the likelihood of repeating it. Six groups were conducted. All interested adults were welcome to join. Results: In the final sample of 33 individuals (79% female), 80% of participants reported insomnia at intake and 45% reported a regular mind-body practice, supporting the prevalence of insomnia in the society as well as the interest in mind-body practices. After the Yoga Nidra intervention, mean negative affect decreased 5.6 ± 4.5 points, a 31% decrease from baseline, and positive affect decreased 3.5 ± 9.7 points, a 13% decrease. Three major themes were identified from focus group discussions: response to the practice (relaxation, perceived sleep, and sense withdrawal); factors that affect engagement (delivery method and intrapersonal factors); and potential as a clinical intervention (for conditions including sleep, anxiety, and pain). Conclusion: Yoga Nidra appeared tolerable within the sample, and descriptions suggest it may be useful for enhancing relaxation, facilitating sleep, easing anxiety, and reducing pain. Results from this study will inform the design of future studies of Yoga Nidra for insomnia and related conditions.
... Nidra tradition stems mainly from Hindu spirituality 5,6 and from Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, 7 but scant scriptures characterize the practice. At present, a clear definition of yoga nidra is still lacking, as is a distinction between the formal practice of nidra and the nidra state itself 7 : This problem also has to be faced when dealing with other meditation practices (in particular with "mindfulness" 8 ). Moreover, the term nidrâ yoga is not commonly used by the scientific c o m m u n i t y, and it has been (sometimes impro p e r l y ) replaced by the more recent yoga nidra. ...
... • Eventually, nidra culminates in stage 4, characterized by the dissolution of all conscious contents (sensory, thinking, or intentional) and the experience of nothing but pure awareness, which corresponds to turiya or the Buddhist "clear light" 7,11 and to contemplative neurosciences terms such as "pure consciousness" and "nondual awareness." 12,13 International Journal of Yoga Therapy -No. 31 (2021) www.IAYT.org ...
... This could be due to the length of the sessions (2 hours) making it difficult to recall vivid imagery experiences that are usually present in the early phases of yoga nidra. 7 Finally, unchanged introspection and absorption (very high both during baseline and yoga nidra), as well as unchanged arousal and internal dialogue (very low both during baseline and yoga nidra), may be related to the high level of meditative experience of our subjects, who were perfectly able to introspect, relax, and control mental rumination even during a short resting state: This is a learned meditative trait commonly reported in the contemplative neuroscience field. 21,[54][55][56] Regarding EEG visual inspections, we found no EEG signs of sleep (e.g., delta waves, K-complexes, and sleep spindles) in any of the participants during the practice. ...
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Nidrâ yoga is an ancient yogic practice capable of inducing altered states of consciousness characterized by deep relaxation, strong concentration, acute self-awareness, and joy. In modern contemplative neuroscience language, it is known by the name yoga nidra, and few studies have investigated its phenomenological and psychophysiological effects. Six healthy volunteers (four females aged 31–74) performed 12 yoga nidra sessions guided by an expert during a 6-day retreat. Each session consisted of 10 minutes in a resting state (baseline) followed by 2 hours of yoga nidra. Psychometric data regarding dissociative experiences (Clinician Administered Dissociative States Scale) and the state of consciousness (Phenomenology of Consciousness Inventory) were collected after baseline and yoga nidra, while high-density EEG was recorded during the entire session. During nidra sessions, no sleep hallmarks (i.e., K-complexes and sleep spindles) were detected by the EEG in any subject. Psychometric data we re analyzed using a Wilcoxon signed-rank test corrected with the false discovery rate approach for multiple comparisons. Compared to baseline, yoga nidra practice was related to: (1) increased dissociative effects (p = 0.022); (2) perception of being in an altered state of consciousness (p = 0.026); (3) alterations in perceived body image (p = 0.022); (4) increased “meaningfulness” attributed to the experience (p = 0.026); (5) reduced rational thinking (p = 0.029); and (6) reduced volitional thought control (p = 0.026). First-person experience is discussed in relation to descriptive EEG power spectral density analysis, which was performed in one subject because of severe EEG artifacts in the other recordings; that subject showed, compared to baseline: (1) early increase of alpha and beta power, followed by a progressive widespread reduction; (2) widespread early increase of theta power, followed by a progressive reduction; and (3) widespread increase of gamma power in the latest stages. The present preliminary results enrich the knowledge of yoga nidra, elucidating its phenomenology and suggesting some psychophysiological correlates that future studies may address.
... More precisely, this practice, executed in supine position, naturally stimulates a hypnagogic state wherein an individual is physiologically asleep yet maintains an internal/external awareness (Sharpe et al., 2021); there is a withdraw from other senses, and only the auditory channel is open so that the participant stays aware of the directions coming from the instructor, but practices detachment from all other stimuli. YN interventions have been associated with significant improvements in sleep parameters such as sleep onset latency and sleep quality (Datta et al., 2017;Moszeik et al., 2020) because of a general parasympathetic dominance (Markil et al., 2012) and a subsequent high cardiac vagal control (Werner et al., 2015; see also YN Effects and Potential Benefits on Athletes); it first stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system increasing heart rate variability (HRV), or its high-frequency components (Markil et al., 2012), and alpha waves, to then demonstrate the symptoms of deep, non-REM sleep, including theta and delta brain waves (Parker et al., 2013). ...
... Its regular mental repetition "drives" the unconscious toward the desired state by stimulating cognitive restructuring processes (Moszeik et al., 2020). Encompassing a sequence of guided body awareness, visualization, and breathing exercises, YN is also described as a complete and systematic method of inducing physical and mental relaxation achieved by turning inward, away from most of outer experiences (Saraswati, 2009;Parker et al., 2013). For a more comprehensive description of YN stages, see Table 1. ...
... After this time, the brain enters the sleep modality, and it would be necessary to complete four to five cycles of normal sleep to properly recover. On the other hand, advanced YN practitioners, after 45 min, can access theta and delta wave states with full consciousness (Parker et al., 2013), ultimately aiming for a super-conscious sleep experience. A constant practice and an instructor with theoretical and practical knowledge would be the keys to not fall asleep and to sleep quality and emotional balance improvement. ...
... We introduce here a meditative practice that is seemingly most appropriate for addressing insomnia but has yet to be studied in this context: Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep or psychic sleep). 30,31 This practice naturally produces a hypnogogic state (indicated by alpha brainwaves 30,[32][33][34][35] , without the use of hypnotic drugs. Yoga Nidra represents a distinct limb of yoga called pratyahara, or sense withdrawal, and is a scripted (and therefore reproducible) group of activities (rationalized in Table 1). ...
... Yoga Nidra represents a distinct limb of yoga called pratyahara, or sense withdrawal, and is a scripted (and therefore reproducible) group of activities (rationalized in Table 1). With practice, these mental activities may produce the unique state of yoga nidra, wherein an individual is physiologically asleep (producing all sleep stages), yet maintains a subtle internal and external awareness 30,35,36 that allows for profound transformations within the conscious and unconscious mind. 30,31 This practice therefore has excellent potential as both an independent insomnia treatment and alongside CBT-I; Yoga Nidra is not only purported to improve sleep but is traditionally used for self-learning and improvement of self-control, outcomes that could be highly influential in the effort to improve responsiveness to CBT-I. ...
... The postpractice survey will also include an open-ended comment box asking about participant experience during the practice, with the intention of phenomenologically exploring 28 any possible awareness occurring during sleep states 45 that may describe the state of yoga nidra. 35 Objective Data EEG, HRV, and respiratory rate will be collected continuously throughout the 90-minute measurement periods at both visits. The EEG montage used complies with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine guidelines for detecting sleep using EEG 46 and includes electrodes attached to one frontal lobe location (F3), a central lobe location (C3), an occipital lobe location (O1), both eyes (EOD), and the chin. ...
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... Delta is reported to increase in deep meditation, especially with higher states of consciousness (Mason et al., 1997;Parker et al., 2013;Berman and Stevens, 2015;Parker, 2017). Unusual Delta activity generated in deep meditation is affiliated with nonconceptual awareness; it may enhance the capacity to suddenly recognize complex, subtle informational patterns that serve to provide novel, relevant solutions to complex problems through insight (Horan, 2009). ...
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... BMRMI, a kind of mindfulness meditation, has been found to reduce anxious and depressive symptoms, without any side effects [12]. BMRMI resembles yoga; in that, it promotes the ability to change physiological behavior during a guided relaxation process and also facilitates positive emotional experiences [13]. More importantly, BMRMI involves listening to musical melody and relaxation instructions, which enable individuals to balance their physical and mental state and promote the recovery of cognitive function and negative emotions [11]. ...
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... Practitioners of yoga nidra may appear to be asleep, but their consciousness is operating at a deep level of awareness [12]. This level of consciousness is accompanied by a profound sense of relaxation. ...
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Yoga nidra, also known as ‘yogic sleep’, is a simplified form of an ancient tantric relaxation technique. The most general description of the practice is that it combines guided mental imagery with a specific yoga posture called Shavasana (or “corpse pose”). The goal of yoga nidra is to promote a profound state of relaxation, which differs from sleep inasmuch as there is still an awareness of one’s surroundings. While several components of the practice have been known since ancient times, it was not until the nineteen-sixties that an updated and systematized system of practice was introduced to the public through the writings of Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Unlike other schools of yoga, which emphasize concentration or contemplation, yoga nidra’s goal is complete relaxation. As such, its advocates claim that it is suitable for all individuals, from beginners to advanced practitioners of yoga. The calm inner stillness induced by yoga nidra is claimed by practitioners to be an effective stress management tool as well as a means for attaining greater receptivity to personal resolutions. These resolutions can range from the goal of achieving self-transformation, enhancing creativity, or improving one’s learning ability. Additionally, yoga nidra is claimed to promote beneficial changes in physiological and mental health. The following narrative review summarizes the basic steps used to achieve the final state of yoga nidra relaxation as well as some recent experimental findings regarding its physiological and psychological effects. Standard research databases were searched for relevant articles. Clinical studies have shown that yoga nidra meditation is associated with positive physiological changes, including improvements in several hematological variables, red blood cell counts, blood glucose levels, and hormonal status. Two neuroimaging studies have shown that yoga nidra produces changes in endogenous dopamine release and cerebral blood flow, a further confirmation that its effects on the CNS are objectively measurable. The practice has also been shown to reduce psychometrically measured indices of mild depression and anxiety, although these benefits were not shown in an experimental study to extend to severe depression or severe anxiety.
... The researchers should consider using Nidra yoga during this phase. Nidra is a deep relaxation practice promoting physical, mental, and emotional relaxation (Parker et al., 2013). As a result, patients with HF would be able to sleep and reduce the symptoms of fatigue. ...
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Complementary and alternative medicine are broadly considered mind–body interventions (MBIs) that support physical and mental wellness in patients with heart failure (HF). The aims of this review were to integrate and summarize current evidence from MBIs in patients with HF and to identify gaps for future research. We used PRISMA guideline and conducted a literature search through six databases. Fifteen publications met the criteria, published between 2013 and 2021. This review stipulated that MBIs included yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, reflexology, massage, relaxation, and breathing interventions. The findings emphasized that MBIs could reduce physical and psychological symptoms and improve health outcomes in patients with HF. MBIs had encouraging results for patients with HF on selected physiological and behavioral outcomes. Despite the early state of the evidence in this field, it seems that MBIs will play an essential role in the future for alleviating the symptoms of patients with HF.
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