Could this special type of yoga help you feel happier and less stressed and even sleep better? We’re in.
woman laying on yoga mat
Credit: Keiko Morimoto

If you could reap the benefits of a four-hour nap in a 20-minute yoga session, would you do it? That's the promise of yoga Nidra. And it's quite the opposite of the yoga you might imagine—filled with lots of Downward Dogs, challenging sequences and long periods of gracefully (or not so gracefully) maintaining Tree Pose. Practitioners are guided into a relaxed state while simply lying down in Savasana, or Corpse Pose. "I describe it as meditation made easy," says Kamini Desai, Ph.D., author and executive director of the Amrit Yoga Institute in Salt Springs, Florida.

How to Practice Yoga Nidra

The first (and only) step is to pick a comfortable spot and lie on your back— Savasana is a favorite yoga pose for a reason. You can use a pillow for your head, a bolster under your knees or a blanket for warmth. From there, it's about bringing your awareness to your breath and away from your thoughts by calling your attention to your body parts one by one, starting at your toes and working up to the crown of your head, pausing to focus on each one in detail—every toe, finger, part of your face. (An app like Yoga Nidra: Sacred Sleep can walk you through it.) According to Desai, this guided body scan is meant to ease the transition into a meditative state between sleeping and wakefulness, "where one can access those brainwaves as if we were going to sleep." If it sounds like the beginnings of a nap, you're not far off. The whole process takes between 20 and 45 minutes.

Does it Work?

Yoga Nidra has been praised for its ability to induce deep relaxation, reduce anxiety and promote better sleep. And there's some evidence to support those claims. In a 2018 International Journal of Yoga study, participants who did yoga Nidra and seated meditation for 45 minutes, twice a week for three months had lower levels of anxiety, stress and depression compared to volunteers who didn't practice them. While both were beneficial, the researchers found that yoga Nidra was easier to perform. Another review from investigators at Harvard and UC San Diego on the mental and physiological effects of various meditation practices showed that yoga Nidra can increase levels of the "happy hormone" dopamine, which helps regulate mood, attention, sleep and reward-motivated behavior.

In fact, yoga Nidra is increasingly being used by veterans, people recovering from addiction and those who are just plain overstressed. "In the Western world, we live hyperactive lifestyles, so you may not know where you're holding your grief, trauma, anxiety or even just your work tension," says Kelli Wefenstette, a yoga instructor and owner of Wildlight Yoga in Chicago. Unlike seated meditation, where a practitioner can lose focus or become self-conscious, the body scan in yoga Nidra takes away that pressure to "do it right." Even as you begin to relax, you'll still largely be aware of the instructions—and by focusing on your body, you're not dwelling on your racing thoughts and anxieties, if only for a little while, which can help reconnect mind and body.

"If you practiced yoga Nidra three or four days a week, it's like putting $15 of gas into your tank," says Desai. "If you're using only $10 worth, your tank will always have what you need plus a little bit more."

EatingWell, December 2020