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Yoga Nidra

Learn how yogic sleep can help you manage pain and relax deeply.

Woman practicing yoga nidra

Did you know that September is Pain Awareness Month? You might want to consider yoga nidra as an option to manage pain.

By helping you achieve a deep state of relaxation, yYoga nidra can help you manage chronic pain; reduce anxiety, depression, insomnia and inflammation; ease sleeplessness; lower heart rate and blood pressure; alleviate arthritis; and help with infertility and aging (Martin 2008).

Michele Hébert and Mehrad Nazari, PhD, founders of the Raja Yoga Institute in La Jolla, California, define yoga nidra and explain how it works.

Yoga Nidra and Brain Waves

Nidra in Sanskrit means sleep. Yoga nidra is a practice of deep rest in which you go beneath the alpha brain-wave state of relaxation into a deeper state where the brain is producing theta or even delta waves (Parker, Bharati & Fernandez 2013). In these states, the body experiences deeper rest than it does while sleeping, yet the mind is present and aware of everything in its outer environment.

Yoga teaches that in the theta state, the subconscious mind is easily accessed and can be imprinted with whatever knowledge or visualization you wish to assimilate. In the delta state, you rest in pure being—pure awareness—without thought.

You can see why yoga nidra is helpful in pain management. In this unusually deep state of relaxation, you can experience yourself as separate from your body and separate from the pain and use your mind to direct the pain to subside.

See also: Research-Based Yoga for Seniors

Yoga Nidra Practices

You may want to work with a yoga nidra practitioner until you understand how to access the yoga nidra state yourself. Instructors might use a variety of practices, including the following:

  • slow, conscious diaphragmatic breathing
  • systematic progressive relaxation
  • marma point relaxation (the marma points are found where tendons, bones, muscles, joints, veins, nerves and other tissues meet)

Or you can learn with videos on YouTube or other online resources.

Practice Relaxation

So what if you can’t access a deep brain wave state immediately? You can still benefit!

Stephen Parker, PsyD, psychologist, yoga scholar, yoga teacher and author of Clearing the Path: The Yoga Way to a Clear & Pleasant Mind: Patanjali, Neuroscience, and Emotion (Ahymsa 2017) says that even deep relaxation (the alpha state or precursor to yoga nidra) provides benefits. In 2011, Harvard Health Publishing released a report showing that certain genes involved in controlling free radicals, inflammation processes and cell death can be turned on and off by the relaxation response (Harvard Medical School 2011).

Through consistent practice, he adds, you can learn to relax more deeply and move from the alpha state of simple relaxation to theta, where the subconscious can be accessed and programmed. With mastery of the technique, a shift into the delta state becomes possible.

See also: The Benefits of Yoga Nidra: The Yoga of Sleep

iRest: A Contemporary Adaptation

iRest, a modern adaptation of yoga nidra, was developed by Richard Miller, PhD, a clinical psychologist, yogic scholar and spiritual teacher, who combined traditional yoga nidra with Western psychology and neuroscience to create the program. There are currently trained iRest teachers in 43 countries (irest.org).

Multiple iRest studies report its benefits for health, healing and well-being in diverse populations, including active-duty soldiers, veterans, college students, children, seniors, the homeless, the incarcerated, and people experiencing issues such as chronic pain, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and chemical dependency.

Branches of the U.S. military have used iRest since 2006, when it was introduced into the Wounded Warrior Program at Walter Reed National Medical Military Hospital in Washington, D.C. Subsequently, as a result of positive research findings, it was adopted by other areas of government, as well.

In 2010, the Defense Centers of Excellence recommended iRest as an effective complementary and alternative medical practice for managing chronic pain and treating PTSD. Based on research into iRest, the U.S. Army Surgeon General listed yoga nidra as a Tier 1 approach for addressing pain management in military care (Nassif et al. 2015).

To learn more, go to irest.org.

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Harvard Medical School. 2011. Relaxation response affects gene activity, from Harvard’s Stress Management Special Health Report. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020: health.harvard.edu/press_releases/relaxation-response-affects-gene-activity.

Nassif, T.H., et al. 2015. Using mindfulness meditation to improve pain management in combat veterans with traumatic brain injury. Accessed Sep. 9, 2020: irest.org/sites/default/files/SBM-Poster-Final-Nassif.pdf.

Parker, S. 2017. Clearing the Path: The Yoga Way to a Clear & Pleasant Mind: Patanjali, Neuroscience, and Emotion. Minneapolis, MN: Ahymsa Publishers.

Parker, S., Bharati, V., & Fernandez, M. 2013. Defining yoga nidra:  Traditional accounts, physiological research, and future directions. International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 23 (1), 11–16.

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