YOGA NIDRA for those with ME/CFS
Satyananda Yoga teacher Rebecca Allen gives an overview of the practice of Yoga Nidra and its benefits for people with ME/CFS.
Some of you will be familiar with Yoga Nidra, the deep relaxation technique developed by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, founder of the Bihar School of Yoga. Yoga Nidra (meaning yogic sleep) is one of the most powerful forms of deep relaxation available.
To practise Yoga Nidra no effort is involved, we do not even have to "try to relax" (which can in itself be stressful!), we simply lie down, keep as still as possible and listen to the instructions.
Yoga Nidra can be done in a yoga class, led by a teacher trained in the technique, or practised at home listening to a good recording. It is one of the most effective and accessible yogic techniques to support our health and development throughout our lives, whether we are happy and creative, fit and well, unwell, bedridden (or severely disabled), or dealing with crisis.
Many of the beneficial effects of Yoga Nidra are particularly useful for people with ME/CFS.
In the 1980s Scientists at the University Clinic in Cologne, Germany used EEG to monitor brain activity of individuals whilst practising various relaxation techniques. The results showed that Yoga Nidra deep relaxation was a more effective form of deep relaxation than the other suggestive or hypnotic based techniques (1). Yoga Nidra was seen to cause consistently positive changes in brain wave activity, and a balancing effect on the interaction of the two sides of the brain. These results were confirmed by Dr. Hans Lou and Dr. Troels Kjær, from the Kennedy Institute at The State University Hospital in Copenhagen. This later study used a PET scanner to take pictures of the brain during Yoga Nidra as well as monitoring by EEG (2).
It is generally accepted, that deep relaxation (as opposed to just putting your feet up) produces many beneficial physiological changes in the body. These include balancing the central nervous system, strengthening the immune system, normalising the blood pressure and more efficient respiration (3). In her book Beat Fatigue with Yoga, Fiona Agombar found that her dysfunctional central nervous system, measured by a "heart rate variable" monitor, was significantly helped by a period of deep relaxation and meditation (4).
As Yoga Nidra is such an effective form of relaxation, all the inherent benefits of deep relaxation can be extremely efficiently achieved through the regular practice of the Yoga Nidra technique.
For people living with fatigue, Yoga Nidra can immediately revitalise and energise the physical body, whilst at the same time calming and clarifying the mind. This is invaluable for people with ME/CFS who may be physically fatigued, whilst being simultaneously exhausted by overactive minds or befuddled by "brain fog"! One hour of Yoga Nidra is the equivalent to 4 hours of normal sleep (5). It can be practicsed instead of sleep at times when we are suffering from insomnia. The regular practice of Yoga Nidra can relieve insomnia and sleep disturbances.
Further benefits include the reduction of pain levels by the release of physical, emotional and mental tensions. In addition the "pairs of opposites" stage of the practice helps tolerance of pain by working on the electric activity in the brain dealing with states of awareness such as pain. One of the results of the change in brainwaves during Yoga Nidra is a balancing effect on the different dimensions of the brain. This has the direct effect of improving coordination in the body.
Swami Satyananda developed the technique of Yoga Nidra from a number of ancient Tantric practices. The original purpose of these practices were to attain self realisation (Samadhi).
Yoga Nidra is more than just a relaxation technique. In addition to the physiological benefits directly achieved from the practice, the various stages develop the ability to "witness", to access and understand oneself at a deeper level. This inner wisdom, enabling an enhanced ability to pace oneself and to find and use appropriate healing methods to really make a difference. Yoga Nidra provides us with a way of using our current state of body and mind as a stepping stone to transformation and positive change, achieving greater awareness, contentment and achievement in life.
How does it feel, this "State of Yoga Nidra"?
When we practise Yoga Nidra and reach the "state of Yoga Nidra" it feels fantastically good! For me it's a feeling of intense relaxation with an expansive, peaceful, intuitive awareness. It's a little bit like that delicious feeling of floating on the brink of sleep, which you may occasionally have experienced.
From my experiences of teaching Yoga Nidra over the last 13 years, a positive experience arises for most people right from their first time doing the practice. For a few people, however, there can be a period of resistance, which may manifest in a sense that they have just fallen deeply asleep or a feeling of being a bit fidgety and unsettled. It seems that most people feel better after the practice, regardless of their experience. The instructions still get through to those who are snoring loudly, as they have an effect on the subconscious mind.
Yoga Nidra, can literally be translated to mean "yogic sleep" or "sleeping with one pointed awareness". This is the state of consciousness to which you are led by doing the practice. The word "sleep" however is a little misleading as we are in fact hovering on the borderline between wakefulness and sleep. The technique triggers the change from externalised wakeful fast beta brainwaves to extended periods of alpha brainwaves (during which we are aware but in a very relaxed dreaming type state of awareness) interspersed between beta, theta and delta brain waves. Theta brainwaves occur when the subconscious dreaming mind is active and delta brainwaves during very deep dreamless sleep. In advanced states of Yoga Nidra the alpha waves can be consistently present throughout the fluctuations from theta to delta, hence "sleeping with awareness". There is also a balance brought about in the electric activity (EEG) in the two halves of the brain, leading to the two halves of the brain communicating better with each other (1). We experience this yoga Nidra state as a fluctuation of consciousness from what feels like deep sleep to a really relaxed but heightened awareness. This heightened or "one pointed awareness" is very different from our everyday awareness, which is generally very much caught up in busy, sometimes racing, intellectual "front brain" activity, reacting, worrying and fantasising! Of course, the more regularly someone practises Yoga Nidra, the more efficiently this state of Yoga Nidra is obtained and maintained, with tests on experienced and regular practitioners showing constant alpha and delta activity for prolonged periods.
How does it work?
There is no need to know how and why Yoga Nidra works, and for some people an intellectual preoccupation with the practice can interfere with actually getting on with doing it! The best way of understanding the benefits of Yoga Nidra is to do it regularly and experience first hand the benefits. The more regularly it is done the more efficiently we reach the state of Yoga Nidra and the more profound its beneficial effects become. It is also useful to use the same set of instructions over and over again for periods of time.
However, a brief understanding of the technique may remind those of us who already appreciate the practice how effective it is and encourage us to practise it more regularly. For those who have not tried it, perhaps you will be encouraged to try it out for yourselves.
This article can only briefly introduce the practice of Yoga Nidra. If you are set on further knowledge see the Book "Yoga Nidra" by Swami Satyananda Saraswati (6) and for a more in depth examination of the scientific analysis of the effect of relaxation, see Issue 11 of "Bindu", the magazine of the Scandinavian Yoga and meditation School (7) which has a number of articles about Yoga Nidra, meditation and the relaxation response. It also refers to scientific studies carried out on the beneficial effects of relaxation techniques on, HIV infection, diabetes, epilepsy, cancer, chronic pain, normalising the blood pressure and asthma.
A Systematic progression into profoundly deep relaxation
There can be anything from a minimum of two to eleven stages in a Yoga Nidra session. These include preparation and settling, resolve (sankalpa), rotation of consciousness, body/floor awareness, breath practice, pairs of opposites, chidakasha awareness, image visualisation and or alternative visualisations, resolve again and externalisation. In this article there is only room to examine the "rotation of consciousness" stage in any detail. For a more in depth examination of the remaining stages of a Yoga Nidra there would need to be a part two to this article!
Rotation of Consciousness
The fundamental element of a Yoga Nidra is the rotation or the awareness around parts of the body in a particular order and with specific emphasis on particular parts. This element of the practice stems from Nyasa, the ancient tantric practice of mentally placing complicated mantras on specific parts of the body. Swami Satyananda simplified this practice to a rotation of the mental awareness around the different parts of the body. The practice of Nyasa illustrates the innate understanding of human physiology these ancient Yogis had.
To understand how the rotation of consciousness works I will introduce you to the "little man" or "motor homunculus", a well-known figure in the modern day field of neurology.
The "little man" or "Motor Homunculus" is used to represent a neuronal map of the physical parts of the body, which are directly connected by nerve pathways to specific parts of the brain. As you can see from the picture, this "little man of grotesque proportions" has a huge face and hands. This is because the proportion of brain tissue relating to these parts of the physical body is correspondingly large. The rotation of consciousness precisely follows this neuronal map of the brain specifically following the correct order and emphasis on the relevant body parts.
In an operating theatre, a neurosurgeon can stimulate a part of the body by stimulating the corresponding part of the brain. In Yoga Nidra, we just do this in reverse. By resting the awareness on a part of the body we stimulate the nerve pathway to the corresponding part of the brain. A connection is made along the neuronal circuit in the brain and at the same time the practitioner experiences a release or "letting go".
The effect of this rotation of consciousness (bolstered by the other stages in a Yoga Nidra) triggers a deep release of muscular, emotional and mental tension, which is rarely achievable through just resting or "trying to relax". This state of Yoga Nidra creates a "relaxation response" which is the direct opposite of the "fight or flight" response. As mentioned earlier, one of the primary benefits of this level of relaxation is the balancing effect it has on the nervous system as a whole and the strengthening effect on the immune system.
Resolve and Visualisation
In the state of Yoga Nidra the rotation of consciousness causes a withdrawal of the awareness from the physical senses and motor activity. In yogic terminology this is known as Pratyahara - "sense withdrawal". The faculty of awareness awakened in Yoga Nidra means we become more intuitive, closer to the subconscious or unconscious layers of our being. In this relaxed state, when our brainwaves are fluctuating from alpha to theta and delta brainwaves we can access our subconscious and unconscious levels of mind. We are therefore able to identify what it is that we truly need to develop, change, or address in our life spiritually and/or practically in any respect that may be relevant.
"No personality is beyond reformation and no fear or obsession is so deep rooted that it can not be changed"
Swami Satyananda Saraswati
This wisdom can be put to further use in a Yoga Nidra through use of the "resolve" or "sankalpa" a positive affirmation for change, and in more advanced practices in the "visualisation" stage of the practice.
So to conclude, if possible, it is best to practise Yoga Nidra under the instruction of a teacher trained in the technique, especially the first time the practice is done. It is a powerful technique and is best used to its full benefit under proper guidance. However, if this is not possible, the practice can be done at home, by listening to a recommended recording for beginners. I suggest anyone starting with Yoga Nidra stay with a beginner's level for a good few months at least, even years before moving on to more advanced levels. If necessary, the practice can even be done in bed (although it is harder to remain awake and aware in bed!). Yoga Nidra can be done as often as you want, with daily practice producing efficient achievement of the state of Yoga Nidra and all its benefits. I find with my own practice and that of my yoga students, the more we practice, the more we benefit - it's up to us.
(1) http://www.yogameditation.com/articles/issues_of_bindu/bindu_11/the_relaxed_state_and_science see paragraph headed "The original Yoga Nidra compared to relaxation based on suggestion".
, also reproduced in Yoga Nidra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati ISBN 81-85787-12-3 page
see paragraph headed "The immune system is balanced"
(4) " Beat Fatigue with Yoga", by Fiona Agombar, Chapter 9, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, What causes CFS?, page151
(5) Yoga Nidra Swami Satyananda Saraswati ISBN 81-85787-12-3 p14
(6) Yoga Nidra Swami Satyananda Saraswati ISBN 81-85787-12-3
Rebecca Allen, January 2010
Sheffield Yoga for ME/CFS