Resources of the Himalayan Yoga Tradition

Conquering Sleep: The Practice of Yoga Nidra

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It was 10:00 P.M., and I was fading. Sitting in a meditative posture, I was doing my best to stay awake and listen to the words being spoken by Swami Veda Bharati, my meditation teacher, but my head kept drooping forward. Then I'd wake and pick it up, and it would droop again. Opening my eyes, I saw I was not alone in my drowsiness: Others in the room had lolling heads.
The conquest of sleep is an important practice in yoga, so much so that in the Bhagavad Gita, the hero Arjuna is called Conqueror of Sleep (Gita 2:9). But I was being conquered, not conquering.

Many years before, I'd read about a great yogi from the Himalayas who visited the Menninger Clinic, in Kansas, and was hooked up to brain-wave instruments. When the devices showed him to be in deep sleep, and he was snoring loudly, the researchers chatted amongst themselves near the sleeping body. Later, much to their surprise, the yogi was able to recount everything they had said while he was "sleeping." Rather than being asleep, he had been in yoga-nidra, "yoga sleep", a state in which the body and mind are deeply relaxed in sleep-like restfulness, yet with full conscious awareness.

Swami Veda Bharati, is a disciple of that awake-yet-sleeping adept, and he too is a master of yoga-nidra. I lived in his ashram along the Ganges river in India, and learned never to say anything near him when he was sleeping that I didn't want him to hear.

Swami Veda had a habit of staying up all night long reading, doing correspondence, working on projects, writing jokes, and meditating. He slept in the morning for only four or five hours. When asked how he got by with so little sleep, he said, "yoga-nidra."

"People", he said, "only go into deep sleep for a relatively brief time each night, and then spend much of the rest of their sleep-time dreaming. But dreaming isn't so restful. When I sleep, I drop into deep sleep for the first two hours like everyone else, and then wake up and enter conscious sleep after that, and get all the rest I need in a much shorter time. Why waste all that time dreaming?"

Now it was 10:30 P.M., and my head rolled again. As I struggled to listen to what Swami Veda was saying, wishing he'd end the talk but wanting to hear what he was saying, I thought, "Maybe this is a way of forcing us to learn yoga-nidra?" He had been prompting his students, for years, to learn it and I knew he was not beyond setting up a situation to motivate us to learn.

I was motivated. I wanted to learn yoga-nidra to be better rested, and also because yoga-nidra enhances learning. One time Swami Veda was in Italy, and he was to speak before a large Italian crowd. He wrote out his talk in English and handed it to his Italian-speaking student, who translated it into Italian. Then, Swami Veda laid down and went into yoga-nidra, appearing to be asleep, and the student read the speech to him, in Italian, one time. That night, I witnessed Swami Veda give the hour-long address in Italian without notes. He had remembered the whole talk, in a foreign language, after hearing it only once while in the yoga-nidra state.

Seeing how yoga-nidra was so helpful, I made sure to get trained in the practice. In one class, Swami Veda instructed the students to lay on the floor on our backs, in shavasana, the corpse pose. He asked us to lay with heads slightly raised on a thin pillow or blanket, arms a little away from the body with palms up, and legs separated. He had us cover up to stay warm because when deeply relaxed, the body can get cold.

Then, in his resonant, musical voice, he guided us through the preparatory techniques of relaxation, first establishing smooth diaphragmatic breathing, and then guiding us to be successively aware of various parts of the body and relaxing them. After that, he led us through a "point-to-point" relaxation, with inhalation as if through the crown of the head and exhalation as if through various points that he named. The whole process concluded with breathing in and out through the heart center with silent awareness.

I ended up extremely relaxed, energized and rested.

It is one thing to be led into yoga-nidra by one who has mastered it, and a different thing to get there myself. This is because yoga-nidra is a state of awareness, as is sleep, and not a technique. A technique invites the state, like laying down and closing the eyes invites sleep, but as anyone who has ever experienced insomnia knows, sleep may not accept the invitation. It's the same with yoga-nidra.

I had experienced yoga-nidra in the class because Swami Veda taught from the yoga-nidra state, and drew my mind into it. It was an initiation. The next day, when, in the privacy of my room, I went through the process from the previous day, my mind kept chattering and I didn't go nearly as deep. I realized that Swami Veda had given me a glimpse of the goal and taught a technique, and to attain yoga-nidra on my own, I would have to practice.

In a subsequent yoga-nidra seminar, Swami Veda said that yoga-nidra is "a matter of slipping yourself between the sheets." The sheets he was referring to were the "waking" and "sleep" states of awareness. "Practice right upon awakening, when the sleep and waking states are both present, and learn to keep your awareness right in-between." This was very helpful.

Back at the nighttime lecture, at just after 11:00 P.M., I gave thanks when the lecture ended. Dragging myself to bed, I instantly fell into deep nidra--sleep--but not yoga-nidra. It says in Patanjali's yoga-sutra (chapter 1, sutra 14) that one has to practice a long time, without a break, and with respect, love and positiveness, for the practice to become firm. I have a long way to go. Yet, sometimes, my mind slips into a little more peace, and this encourages me to keep at it. Besides, I just know Swami Veda is going to give another of those late-night gem-filled talks, and this time I want to be awake.