“There’s nothing more important to your performance than sleep, and I don’t care how you measure your performance….nothing breaks you faster than sleep deprivation”
– Dr. Parsley, former Navy Seal
Neuro Nidra to Rescue Sleep
Not sleeping well isn’t just painful, it’s damaging and frustrating. Before having our kid, I was a sleeping machine. Then, being on call for a tiny human night after night disrupted my sleep for years. I became a different person; snappy, exhausted, and overwhelmed by simple things. We need sleep; not just to feel good but to function and live well. According to Doc Parsley, Naval Special Warfare’s expert on Sleep Medicine, sleeping 6 instead of 8 hours each night for 11 nights in a row has the same effect as being awake for 24 hours straight, and cognitively compares to having a blood alcohol level of .08-.1. No one wants to live impaired and unable to let go into the gift of sleep.
I recovered by diving into Yoga Nidra, and it remains my secret weapon against insomnia. Nidra is a passive, guided practice that brings your brain and body into slow-wave states of conscious sleep and deep repair. “Neuro Nidra” is my fusion of this yogic practice with principles from modern neuroscience. Now I help people practice Neuro Nidra who struggle due to shift work, caregiving, unresolved trauma or nervous system dysregulation. It’s easier than meditation, and you can practice it without ever rolling out a yoga mat or saying “OM….”.
Nidra in the Tree of Yoga
Yoga has several different areas of study beyond the typically-thought of poses, breathwork, or meditation. You don’t have to dedicate your life to yoga’s path to use any of these tools. They have been handed down by human beings studying human nature for melinia into practices that can help anyone.
Yoga emerged thousands of years ago when the indigenous Rishi of India were studying how human beings can optimize and heal through skills that work with nature. Patanjali captured the ‘sutras’, or threads of knowledge, from the Rishi into writing sometime between the 2nd century BCE and the 4rth century CE. He outlined eight components of progressive study that are rooted in principles, not dogma or religion. Yoga is designed to be tested and to evolve with our ongoing engagement. B.K.S. Iyengar famously helped bring yoga to the West and described these eight limbs in his book, The Tree of Yoga. Using the tree analogy, we can look at where Nidra fits in a helpful progression of skills.
The roots and trunk of the tree are universal principles you can study about human nature in relationship to community and self. These are called the “Yama” and “Niyama” and include ten principles such as non-grasping, benevolent truth, moderation, self-discipline, and surrender. Again, there is no religious dogma here, these principles are meant for personal inquiry. Try stealing, lying, and bingeing and see how that goes. We get to define how these principles fit in our real lives through trial and error.
The branches on the tree are the bendy, twisty shapes of yoga poses called “Asanas”. The leaves are naturally the breath, or “Pranayama”. The bark represents “Pratyahara”; the practice of withdrawing the senses to develop control over reactivity. The sap running from the roots through to the whole tree represents “Dharana” which means concentration; the ability to harness sustained connection through the entire body. The flower of the tree is “Dhyana” or meditation, and the fruit from all of these efforts is “Samadhi”; the end of our illusion of separation from nature; enlightenment.
If you’ve tried meditation to help with sleeplessness and found it difficult without clear rewards, that’s because meditation is hard. The Tree of Yoga shows us why; values, movement, breathwork, sensory control and concentration skills were designed to come before meditation. For example, if you don’t move much or breathe well, during meditation the body will be in pain and the mind will be distracted. We can’t force a flower to bloom. We can create the right conditions to support it, and watch it unfold.
All parts of the tree are connected. Breathwork, for example, can be used anytime. It can be the single point of focus to help enter meditation, but a rich pranayama practice involves complex patterns of breathing that can be harmful if someone has not first learned how to read the body’s cues and work skillfully with the nervous system. We can gain these skills from any conscious movement practice that engages nasal breathing. Healthy green leaves grow when the branches can spread in many directions with ease, strength, and flexibility.
Yoga Nidra is in the bark, Pratyahara. These practices protect us from sensory overload and train us to stop seeking stimulus for distraction or pleasure. Think of Nidra and the bark as an insulated container inside of which you become attuned to your inner needs before reacting to the sensations outside of you. Healthy, thick bark develops with the branches and leaves, before the flower of meditation. In a modern life designed to over-stimulate the senses, Nidra is a gift. This doesn’t mean you can’t skip ahead to meditation, it just means Nidra is a lot easier. Having a breathwork and movement practice will make it easier still. All you have to do is protect your space from the outside world, lie down and listen to guided instruction for 20 minutes to reap Nidra’s rewards.
Why Does Nidra Work?
In Nidra, the body rests in stillness flat on your back like a kid in the grass staring at clouds. The brain is given something to do in a guided rotation of consciousness through parts of the body. This tricks the mind from spinning in thoughts that keep you restless.
By mapping parts of the body in 1 to 3-second cues, the brain drops into alpha, theta, and delta wave-dominance. These slow, parasympathetic brain waves are the opposite of the thinking and doing states that fester in our daily lives. Slow oscillations allow for dreaming, memory, intuition, and cognitive repair. Being semi-awake is part of why it trains us to deactivate stress in general. This is not real sleep. When asleep, you aren’t conscious of your rest. In the Nidra state, you fade in and out of perceptive hearing, but you are aware. This means these states can become part of your waking consciousness. For sleep issues, this is critical to passively train states of consciousness associated with allowing sleep to happen. Because you’re semi-conscious during Nidra, you learn the sensations associated with replenishing systems, restoring vital energy, and disrupting the vicious circle of sleepless anxiety.
Beyond the brain, the body learns in Nidra how to sense and be without doing. This is super important. Why? Because most of the body’s learning and activities during daily life involve movement, pain, or disconnection as the feedback mechanisms. We workout, work, tick through tasks, eat, and rest by consuming media on screens and books. We try to meditate and feel stuck. We have no bark or protection, and feel exposed, raw, and drained. We fall asleep exhausted and wake up hypervigilant with stress hormones cycling through our blood. If you have high sympathetic tone or low arousal conditions, over time parts of the body store non-specific tension and sensory amnesia as a protective mechanism. This means you carry tension or disconnection in the body all day, and a vicious cycle of restless detachment and reactivity ensues.
In Nidra we layer up with bark-like protection from interruptions and passively cultivate awareness of our physical body without sensory input from movement or touch. Tension melts, and areas cut off from consciousness are remapped and reconnected without external sensory input. With practice, Nidra can disrupt unwanted patterns of physical tension, compensation or sensory-motor amnesia. Basically, you remember how to be physically aware without stress activation to embody your rested ready state more fully. This means when it’s time to sleep at night, you haven’t been repeating physical stress patterns as much, and can allow yourself to reset and rest.
How Can You Start?
If all you do is set up a space where you manage for all potential interruptions and push play on a yoga nidra download, you are in business. You don’t have to go to a special training, have a yoga practice or find religion.
To rescue lost sleep, yogic sages have said that 20 minutes of Nidra can mimic 2-4 hours of deep sleep. The recipe for that in modern research shows that slow wave sleep states can require up to 4 hours to cycle into 20 minutes of slow wave sleep when you are sleep deprived. This is because you repay debts of the lighter sleep stages of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) first when you are depleted at the expense of deeper slow wave or Delta sleep. REM sleep is prioritized to process emotions and memory. Delta deep sleep takes time to access and happen after functional maintenance is covered. With practice, 20 minutes of Nidra can help you regain the benefits of deep sleep regardless of how many hours you logged the night before.
It has been shown that regular Nidra practitioners access Delta dominance in the brain, usually associated with super slow wave sleep, during wakefulness. This means a human being can be completely alert and functioning while allowing deep repairs to take place on the entire body. Rested readiness at its finest.
Use Nidra anytime of day, including morning, to balance your system and recover lost sleep. Use it if you wake up in the middle of the night and don’t know how to fall back asleep. Most people I work with who struggle with chronic insomnia or dysregulation during the day find that three, 20-minute sessions of Neuro Nidra* each week restores them to the kind of energy they forgot was possible.
*To learn more about the guidance and stages of practice, check out our Neuro Nidra webinars and downloads. Emily Hightower created Neuro Nidra to infuse ancient yogic knowledge with modern neuroplasticity principles. She can help you implement the practice for deep recovery to elevate your game.
1 Swami Satyananda Saraswati 2009 reprint of Yoga Nidra