Yoga Nidra: Help With Sleep and Anxiety
Research suggests that yoga nidra, a type of guided meditation, could be a simple, low-risk treatment. for insomnia and stress.
Insomnia, smoking and sugar consumption were struggles that caused 50-year-old Allan Cox to feel restless and unhealthy. Then he started a yoga nidra, or yogic sleep, practice. Within several months, he felt more calm and started sleeping better, which led him to naturally eliminate his unhealthy behaviors.
He says that yoga nidra provides a relaxation skill set that makes him self-aware and less impulsive. Cox, a librarian from Canton, New York, generally does a 45-minute yoga nidra, twice a week to keep him on course.
“As far as stress reduction, that hour and a half a week gives me just as much benefit, probably more, than exercise does,” says Cox. “Some days are not that easy, but I’m able to create a calmness, and I attribute that to yoga nidra.”
What Is Yoga Nidra?
Yoga nidra is different from a yoga practice or seated meditation because you lay on your back, completely still and allow the teacher to fully guide you. You withdraw from all of your senses, except listening.
In a systematic progression, the teacher talks you through a script that brings your awareness from your surroundings to your breath and then body. During a body scan, the teacher will say a body part and instruct you to bring your awareness to it – and then quickly away from it.
After the body scan, you’re invited to explore your own mind and subconscious through drawing on memories and experiences during a series of visualizations. After the practice, you shift your awareness back to the body and breath, before finally returning to your external surroundings.
According to a research review published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy in 2013, yoga nidra, based on observing an experienced practitioner, an individual demonstrates all the signs of sleep – including deep sleep indicated by delta brain waves, and associated with the deepest levels of relaxation and restoration – while simultaneously remaining fully conscious.
Researcher Erica Sharpe studies the effects of yoga nidra at the Helfgott Research Institute at National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon. She’s also an adjunct professor at the State University of New York at Canton, where she teaches chemistry, botanical medicine and music.
“You’re not supposed to sleep during yoga nidra, we know that,” explains Sharpe, who also teaches yoga and yoga nidra. “But we also know that people sleep during yoga nidra, and I think that is part of the benefit. It seems like this interesting kind of trick that is part of the practice. Where you’re saying, ‘Don’t sleep. But I’m putting you to sleep.'”
While prior research on yoga nidra examined experienced yoga practitioners benefiting from states of sleep during yoga nidra. More emerging evidence suggests even first-time participants can also achieve similar results.
A Promising Therapy for Insomnia and Anxiety
According to an abstract Sharpe co-authored in July 2021 in the journal Sleep Disorders, insomnia and related anxiety affect 30% to 50% of the U.S. adult population. These conditions often coexist, and contribute to increased mortality from depression, heart disease and stroke.
The abstract describes a study in which online yoga nidra was offered before bed. Seventy-four individuals joined the study, of whom 71% reported having insomnia and 74% reported having anxiety when they joined the study. After just one practice, 52% of respondents reported that it took them less time to fall asleep that night, and their overall state of anxiety also decreased by 41% immediately after the practice.
“We found improvement after just one practice in the time it took someone to fall asleep and also in self-reported anxiety,” Sharpe says. “That’s really promising for us to start using yoga nidra as a long-term, consistent practice and how that might affect someone who has insomnia.”
In another study Sharpe published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy on November 11, 2020, 22 participants with insomnia were examined for the effect of yoga nidra on brain waves, sleep onset and the autonomic nervous system.The researchers compared the effects of them just lying quietly versus them listening to a yoga nidra script.
The classifications used to detect sleep involving brain wave measurements determined that nearly 80% of participants experienced sleep for an average of 50% of their yoga nidra practice. This supports the 2013 review paper describing awareness during sleep in yoga nidra. In a separate study, led by Sharpe, most participants were able to vividly describe their experience during yoga nidra, despite evidence that sleep occurs during much of the practice.
Sharpe believes that yoga nidra could be a low-risk treatment for insomnia alongside or instead of cognitive behavioral therapy (a form of psychological treatment that involves a variety of strategies to change behavioral patterns, the current standard of care) or pharmaceutical use.
For Cox, yoga nidra improved his sleep hygiene, which has improved his life and well-being overall.
“Now I lay my head on the pillow and it’s rare that I’m not asleep in 20 minutes,” Cox says. “I’m getting seven hours of sleep. Before, on the bad nights, I’d sleep for only two hours.”
A Free and Accessible Relaxation Tool
Cox practices yoga nidra by listening to a recording his yoga teacher made for him or an online script. He usually listens to it in the evening after work. He says the fact that yoga nidra is a guided meditative experience without the obstacles that come along with a seated meditation, makes it more approachable, sustainable and effective.
“I remember when I first started trying meditation,” Cox says. “I remember sitting there in nothing but silence and it almost gave me an anxiety attack. There’s something about yoga nidra being guided. I can just let go. I don’t have to do anything but listen.”
Yoga nidra classes can be found for free on apps like Insight Timer and on YouTube.
“This is a very passive and easy practice that targets physical, mental and emotional relaxation,” Sharpe says. “And releasing all three of those and entering a state of deep relaxation we propose is why this is therapeutic for so many aspects of wellness.”
Supplemental Help With Addiction and Bad Habits
While more research needs to be done, Sharpe has seen anecdotal and preliminary clinical research results that yoga nidra bolsters better decision making and pain management. In theory, yoga nidra may affect how we process our impulses.
“There’s this really interesting concept of the state of yoga nidra, where you’re between being awake and being asleep, and you’re maintaining your awareness through both states,” Sharpe says. “You’re passively learning about yourself on a very deep level.”
Through practicing yoga nidra, Cox is less reactive, which helped him eliminate his unhealthy habits.