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Bust Stress and Boost Your Brain with Yoga Nidra

Quiet the mind to quiet and calm the body, and ultimately access an aspect of yourselves you couldn…

Originally published in The Scribe.

Imagine you could melt away the stress of finals week in about 20 minutes. This is precisely the promise of yoga Nidra. And it’s a practice accessible to everyone. 

     Sometimes called yogic sleep, yoga Nidra isn’t your everyday yoga flow. There aren’t any pushups, Downward Facing Dogs, or balance-challenging Tree Poses. In fact, the entire yoga Nidra practice is done lying down in what’s called savasana, or Corpse Pose. 

     Yoga Nidra is a guided meditation with visualization that helps “unfold tension in the nervous system and the psyche,” says Austin Richman, yoga teacher and co-founder of Cambio Yoga, a donation-based yoga studio in Colorado Springs. 

     “It gives the mind an attention project, by rotating consciousness through the five Koshas, or layers, of the body,” Richman says. And this rotation of consciousness“fills your cup in a way sleep can’t.” It quiets the mind, which quiets and calms the body, and ultimately helps us access aspects of ourselves we couldn’t access with a cat nap.

     Yoga Nidra starts by setting an intention, which can vary depending on what you want and need in the moment. Some example intentions are: “I want to feel at peace” or “I’m going to relax”. After this, you bring awareness to your breath, keeping your intention in your mind. From there, you go through a full-body scan, pinpointing your attention with a soft focus on your feet before working your way up your entire body– legs, torso, arms, hands, neck –until you reach the crown of your head.     

     The goal of yoga Nidra is to reach a state of active rest where you “induce full-body relaxation and a deep meditative state of consciousness,” according to Yoga Journal. (Technically, there’s no “goal” in yoga Nidra; the aim of the practice is defined by your intention.) Then, you go into a period of auto-suggestion, wherein the teacher guiding the Yoga Nidra practice lists a few random images for you to picture in your mind’s eye. 

     According to YogiApproved.com, restorative practices like yoga Nidra benefit the parasympathetic nervous system by slowing your heart rate, softening muscles, and quieting the mind. This not only reduces stress, but can also help improve quality of sleep and our brain function over time. 

     Sleep and mental alertness are regulated by our circadian rhythms. But excessive smartphone and laptop use can disrupt those circadian rhythms, negatively affecting our sleep cycles and our brain’s executive functions such as attention, memory, and critical thinking.

     Meditative practices like yoga Nidra can also help regulate the brain’s circadian rhythm, according to a study done by Harvard Medical School, which helps boost brain function. 

     Richman says it’s a good idea to practice Yoga Nidra during those times of the day when you feel like taking a nap, but know you’d benefit more from just a few minutes of screenless quiet time. Or, 30 min to an hour before a test or a paper, take a break from studying, and try a 20-minute yoga Nidra. 

     This “refreshes the mind in a way that allows you to access peak executive function,” says Richman, which means you’ll be better able to recall important information and synthesize creative ideas. This translates to better performance on exams and papers. 

    Richman also suggests beginners should start with 20 minute practice 2-3 times per week to build up the full length of the practice, which is about an hour long. He likewise stresses the importance of the teacher’s voice. Look (or, listen) for a voice that “is calming– almost boring and a bit monotone,” he says. This will ensure that your attention stays on the meditation and not on the distracting nuances of the person’s voice.

     One of Richmans’ favorite free, at-home practices are this 20-minute Yoga Nidra by Amy Weintraub and this 20-minute practice by Rod Stryker. (This 30-minute Nidra by Brett Larkin is my personal go-to, and is great to do before bed.)

Feature Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash