Of the famous nappers throughout history, Albert Einstein was among the most brilliant and the most prolific. As the story goes, he’d come up with answers to major mathematical problems during his naps. Many people have probably experienced this Einstein phenomenon in some (perhaps smaller-scale) way: You wake up from a nap or from the night having solved some kind of puzzle, big or small, that’s been weighing on you in your life or work. It’s in that “in-between” state – in between sleep and wake – where the answers to problems can lie, or at least, where our brains have the space and the silence to address them.
Glenn Black, who’s taught for over 30 years at Omega Institute and was featured in the much-discussed The New York Times article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” is a big fan of the state of consciousness known as yoga nidra, which is often translated as “yogic sleep.” Though it does overlap with sleep in some ways, there’s a fundamental difference – in yoga nidra, consciousness is still there. So it might actually be more accurate to describe yoga nidra as a very deep meditation, during which most of “you” falls away, but your consciousness remains.
“As a body worker, I know that, ages ago, we’d put our hands on where we were injured,” says Black. “It’s the practice of trying to recover from our lives. When our ancestors were doing fight-or-flight, we had a lot more time to recover. In this day and age, we have little or no time to recover. Yoga nidra helps people deal with stress. Without stress reduction to eliminate tension on a cellular level, we’re going to cause illness – physical and mental.”
And it’s true: An hour of yoga nidra can make you feel as refreshed as if you’ve slept for hours. But there’s another purpose, says Black, and this one can be even more affective. Yoga nidra lets you get so deep into a meditative state, that your thinking mind – all the mind chatter, all your convictions, worries and self-criticisms – falls away, and what you’re left with is just pure consciousness.
“After you’ve eliminated body and mind as obstacles from pure awareness,” says Black, “you just have consciousness – you can call it the observer or witness consciousness. You can get much clearer idea of what reality is; it’s not covered up by mind stuff, prejudice, etc. You can be in condition where you can observe anything. You find this vast space or ocean. This is what the mind is – but we’re so cluttered. It’s kind of like a real ocean, where there are seas of plastic floating all around, accumulating.” Clear out all the man-made debris, he says, and you get back to the real thing.
To experience yoga nidra, it can be helpful, at least at first, to take a class and have the teacher guide you through it. Or, you can find a guided recording online – Sri Swami Satyananda is perhaps best known for outlining all the phases of yoga nidra, and for making recordings to help guide people through them.
The response Black hears from students in his yoga nidra classes is intense, and enticing. “The feedback I get from many of students is this: they say they heard the first two words of the class and then nothing until the end of the class, when I say ‘Get up.’” But in between, they’ve been in total conscious awareness, and experienced things it’s hard to imagine with regular awareness: “I will lead people to imagine being out in the space between galaxies,” says Black. “At same time, you can go the other way, to experience the space between photons. In our normal condition, the mind has certain boundaries… But in yoga nidra, the mind is capable of experiencing all of this.”
Sri Dharma Mittra, who teaches yoga nidra classes at his New York City studio agrees that the practice can be an amazing way to “detox” from your stressful life. “Nowadays, especially in big cities,” he says, “teaming with activity and distractions and with everyone always pulled in so many directions with so many things to do, we end up expending great amounts of energy just to live. As a result, our bodies yearn for rest and rehabilitation. Also, due to this constant churning, we lose control over the mind and this causes us some additional discomfort. Yoga Nidra or Psychic Sleep is the perfect remedy for these conditions.”
Mittra also talked about how interesting he thought it would be to start a separate studio for yoga nidra, where people could go to rejuvenate during their workday. And, if it took off, he could imagine little yoga nidra studios popping up all over cities. It’s a fascinating idea – that instead of going for an afternoon caffeine pick-me-up at the local coffee shop, we could go rejuvenate by doing the opposite – by powering down as a way to quickly regain energy.
Black ends by pointing out again that part of the beauty of yoga nidra is that it lets us access that deep part of our minds that is beyond thoughts, memories, and beliefs about the self. He recommends everyone try it out, if you have the chance. “Thinking really gets in the way of meditation,” he says. “The mind is being observed through this witness; you’re not really thinking, you’re just aware. It’s not an easy state… But it’s totally essential to go there.”
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.