Cancer and yoga nidra:
As a technique of meditation, yoga nidra can be adopted as a therapeutic model in the treatment of cancer. In cancer therapy yoga nidra works at four different levels:
By releasing repressed matter: Researches on cancer have brought out the fact that the repressed and suppressed material of the subconscious and unconscious mind reinforces the multiplication of anarchic tumour cells, resulting in cancer. In yoga nidra, cancer patients are taught to relax in a true sense. In the state of complete relaxation patients practise the technique of visualization, which helps in bringing up the repressed unconscious matter to the present area of awareness. When these repressions are observed with a witnessing attitude, the ego identity is cut off and no more repression or suppression takes place. In this way, slowly the reinforcing factor of cancer is rooted out.
By pranic healing: In the practice of yoga nidra, the subtle bioplasmic energy, prana, is awakened and mobilized throughout the body. The practitioner is asked to consciously imagine the flow of light or energy within healing the infected area of the body. Slowly this conscious imagination activates the dormant self-healing capacity and actual healing takes place in the patient. This kind of healing is termed pranic healing.
By mental healing: In yoga nidra, healing can also be initiated on the mental plane through the technique of visualization. Here the cancer is visualized shrinking in size; an army of white blood cells is visualized fighting the cancer cells. This results in the activation of dormant mental power i.e. the power of the unconscious to heal the infected part. When the body is visualized to be in perfect health again and again, the inherent potency of the mind actually starts healing the cancer.
By promoting willpower: In most cases of cancer the patients become devoid of hope and give up the fight against the disease, which further worsens the situation. To overcome cancer, enormous willpower and sustained endurance is needed. For this purpose, sankalpa is practised in yoga nidra. The sankalpa helps in building up willpower and optimism in the patient because it is sowed in the subconscious and unconscious mind again and again.
In this way, by developing confidence, willpower and optimism, by clearing up the unconscious repression, and by healing the cancer site at the pranic and mental levels, yoga nidra may help to cure cancer. This fact has been supported by the study of Simonton (1972) who found in controlled trials that a specific form of yoga nidra significantly increased the life span of cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy. Similarly Meares (1979) demonstrated clear regression of cancer of the rectum following meditation. Again, in the following year, Meares (1980) found that meditation helped in the remission of metastatic (secondary) cancers developing from a primary cancer in the lungs. ~Siddhartha Bhushan Lecturer, Department of Yoga Psychology, Bihar Yoga Bharati University, Munger.(see very below his whole article)
The concept of yoga nidra is very Ancient in the Aryan traditions of the ancient world such as Krishna is often associated with yoga nidra in the epic Mahabharata. Also we know about the therapeutic method of conscious slumbers of Asclepius. Similarly, many yogis and rishis are supposed to have experienced yoga nidra throughout their life. In modern times, Yoga Nidra was experienced by Paramahamsa Swami Satyananda Saraswati when he was living with his guru Swami Sivananda Saraswati in Rishikesh. He began studying the tantric scriptures and, after practice, constructed a system of relaxation, which he began popularizing in the mid-20th century. He explained yoga nidra as a state of mind between wakefulness and sleep that opened deep phases of the mind, suggesting a connection with the ancient tantric practice called nyasa, whereby Sanskrit mantras are mentally placed within specific body parts, while meditating on each part (of the bodymind). The form of practice taught by Satyananda includes eight stages (internalisation, sankalpa, rotation of consciousness, breath awareness, manifestation of opposites, creative visualization, sankalpa and externalisation).
Guru Swami Satyananda used this technique, along with suggestion, on the child who was to become his successor, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, from the age of four. He claims to have taught him several languages by this method.
Yoga Nidra: A Healing Practice for People Living with Cancer
Julie Friedeberger (Priyashakti, UK)
I have practised yoga nidra since 1985, and have been teaching it almost as long. In 1993, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, yoga nidra became a central, indispensable part of my yoga practice, which as a whole was the key factor in my recovery, and in the longer term, my healing. This experience left me with a deeper trust in yoga and a stronger commitment to teaching it. Since then, the focus of my teaching has increasingly been on the healing power of yoga, and the ways in which the yoga practices can support the healing process.
Yoga and healing
The benefits of yoga nidra to general health and well-being, and its deeper spiritual effects, are known to everyone who practises it, and are doubly applicable to anyone confronting and living with a life-changing illness. In this article I offer my thoughts on the importance of yoga nidra for people who are living with cancer (or indeed any life-changing illness) and on the specific relevance for them of the individual components of the practice.
I believe that the need for healing, for wholeness, harmony and balance is common to all beings; and that yoga and healing are fundamentally the same. These two beliefs are the foundation on which I base my teaching. The word ‘yoga’ means union: yoking, uniting, bringing together. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word ‘heal’ as: “To make whole, or sound; to unite, after being cut or broken.” So yoga and healing share both meaning and goal: integration, harmony, and balance on all levels of our being; and at the deepest level, the uniting of the self with the Self. Yoga is holistic: it heals by making us whole.
We all need, and seek, healing. When a person faces a diagnosis of cancer, this need becomes urgent. Cancer pulls one into the present; it turns one’s life inside out, demanding that every aspect of it be urgently examined and reassessed. The diagnosis can leave one feeling fragmented: people say “I felt as though I was in pieces,” “I felt as though I had lost myself.” This is an extremely intense experience, and it draws many who are searching for healing and the restoration of their wholeness to yoga.
Every aspect of yoga has a role to play in the healing process. Nurturing body movement, breathing exercises, meditation, relaxation, yoga nidra – all encourage the conditions in which physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health can flourish. Our efforts to observe yama and niyama give us the inner strength, conviction, and faith to meet the challenges we face and to learn the lessons they hold for us. The sacred texts – the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – guide and support our quest for knowledge and help us prepare for death. Perhaps most importantly, they show us that we can heal into death.
Relaxation is fundamental to healing. Bringing body and mind to rest encourages our inner healing forces to work for us, and any deep relaxation technique will have positive effects on health and well-being. When regularly practised, relaxation calms the sympathetic nervous system (which initiates the ‘fight or flight’ response) and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (which gives the message to body and mind that ‘all is well). Deep relaxation slows and regulates breathing, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, releases muscular, mental and emotional tension. It improves one’s quality of sleep and powers of concentration. It alleviates the anxiety and stress that depress immune function, and creates the conditions that enhance it. Since cancer, broadly speaking, is a complex of conditions in which a compromised immune system is failing to cope with the proliferation of damaged cells, a practice that stimulates the immune response is likely to be helpful.
Satyananda Yoga nidra is a transformative practice that can bring about change on a profound level. Swami Satyananda Saraswati says: “The profound experience of muscular, mental and emotional relaxation attainable in yoga nidra enables a balance of psychic and vital energies within the psychic channels (nadis) of the energy framework underlying the physical body. Free flow of these energies forms the basis of optimal physical and mental health.”
To the general benefits of relaxation, yoga nidra adds special attributes of its own. It helps us to overcome fears, anxieties and insecurities. It creates an inner environment conducive to the transformation of attitudes. It teaches us to let go. It develops detachment (vairagya). It releases our samskaras. It awakens sakshi, the witnessing consciousness.
These will be the effects of yoga nidra for those who regularly practise it. For anyone dealing with a life-changing disease – and here we are not concerned solely with physical recovery, but with full emotional and spiritual healing – all these attributes become even more important and more necessary.
Every part of the practice of yoga nidra works to free blocked energy. Most significantly, practising yoga nidra can help us to acknowledge and accept the reality of our situation, however unwelcome, difficult, or scary it is; and can help us to acknowledge, accept, and release the powerful emotions it brings up. These emotions are understandably often bottled up and repressed, but once they have been brought into consciousness the energy that has been trapped in repressing them is freed, for more useful, more creative purposes.
Acknowledging and accepting reality means seeing ‘the thing as it is’. The fundamental truth for the person with cancer is that his/her reality has suddenly undergone a profound change. This is the case whatever the type of cancer that has been diagnosed, whether it is one of those with a favourable outlook or not, whether it has been discovered at an early stage and is treatable and manageable, or is advanced and likely to be terminal. Whether one is going to die in a month or in a year, or in 40 years, of cancer or of something else, the reality one is facing as a consequence of the diagnosis is the reality of mortality, of death.
This is a huge thing to deal with. It brings with it an onslaught of emotions that for most people are overwhelming: anxiety, terror, anger, grief, despair, fears for one’s future and for one’s loved ones. These emotions tend to hit all at once, creating an inner upheaval and a commotion within one’s heart and head that make it very difficult to think clearly or constructively, or at all.
Yoga nidra practice will quiet this commotion down, giving us periods of relative peace that enable us to resume life with our equanimity restored: then we can reflect more calmly on our situation. With regular practice, the effects are cumulative and lasting: our habitual reactions and responses to the situations we face, our ways of being in the world, change. Each time we practise, we learn something about letting go, and this learning stays with us Practising yoga nidra creates an inner environment conducive to the transformation of attitudes: in the case of a person confronting a grave illness, the attitude toward the disease and its meaning for his or her life. A cancer diagnosis is not necessarily a catastrophe. It seems so to almost everyone at first, but many people come to look at it differently: as an opportunity to examine one’s life and to change whatever appears to need changing; and as an invitation to heal on a deep level.
The illness thus becomes a catalyst for healing, spiritual growth and transformation. If this happens, the entire experience of dealing with the disease and with the treatment, and above all living with the implications of cancer for one’s future, becomes a transformative healing process. What at first appeared to be a disaster has become a challenge, even a blessing, and a spur for making constructive changes. The illness comes to be understood, and used, as a stepping-stone to healing and as a path to a richer, more rewarding life. This may lead to the healthy reassessment of priorities on the practical level, such as making significant changes in nutrition, lifestyle, relationships, home life and working life. On a deeper level a profound shift of consciousness may occur, a shift that drives the individual’s spiritual journey from that point onwards.
For those who seek its help, yoga will play a significant role in this process. Amongst the many wonderful tools in the ‘yoga bag of tools’, yoga nidra stands out as a practice of prime importance for anyone going through it.
Now we can look at the four central elements of yoga nidra: sankalpa, the rotation of awareness, the pairs of opposites, and visualization, and at their specific relevance to a person living with cancer, throughout the journey from diagnosis onwards.
The sankalpa is a resolve, a statement of positive intent. It ‘works’, because it is like a seed planted deep in the rich earth of the subconscious when the mind is quiet and relaxed and ready to absorb it. This seed will germinate, take root, and grow into a healthy plant that will flower and bear fruit, helping us to make the changes we want to make in our life, and to become all that we are capable of being.
Sankalpa directs energy towards healing and spiritual fulfilment: it inspires, supports and sustains the impulse to heal, an impulse not limited to the conscious level. My students with cancer, particularly those who have been practising yoga and yoga nidra for a few years or longer, have experienced and testified to its power; and I, observing this in them and in myself, have come to feel that sankalpa is the heart of yoga nidra.
When we make our sankalpa, we are making a promise to ourselves. We are committing ourselves to both the present and the future: to our task now, and to what we want to do, and be, in the future. Above all, we are asserting our trust that there is a future. People in full health may take the future for granted, but for the newly diagnosed cancer patient who is sure – as so many newly diagnosed people are – that she/he is going to die, the choosing and using of a sankalpa is an affirmative act that opposes this counter-productive, if understandable, fatalism. It is an act of profound significance for healing.
Here is what Swami Satyananda says in Yoga Nidra about the role of sankalpa in cancer: “In healing cancer, enormous, sustained endurance and willpower are necessary. In order to attain this, the sankalpa is practised during yoga nidra. The sankalpa is a personal resolution which is released like a seed into the subconscious mind, when the experience of relaxation is deep and the subconscious mind is laid bare and accessible. When this force rises into the sphere of conscious awareness, it can bring about even the impossible in life. Yoga nidra, by maximizing the patient’s own conscious efforts to become healthy and whole, is an effective form of cancer therapy.”
In Freedom from the Bondage of Karma, Swami Rama explains the three kinds of karma: past (the effects of our actions in the past whose consequences we have already experienced); present (the effects of past actions whose consequences we are experiencing in the present); and future, which we are creating by our conscious actions and thoughts in the present. Over the first two kinds of karma we have no control. The actions are done, and we have already experienced their effects, or are now experiencing them now, or will experience them in the future. But we can influence the third kind of karma. Swami Rama says, “The arrow which is just now being loaded in our bow is the one which we can control.”
So we can think of sankalpa: as “the arrow we are just now loading in our bow”, a tool with which we can envision and shape the future we want for ourselves, and aim at it. Then our thoughts and actions, directed by sankalpa, can follow the path our arrow cuts for us through the jungle of our fears, insecurities and illusions.
Sankalpa cannot determine the outcome of the healing process, but its contribution to it should not be underestimated. It remains affirmative and significant throughout the journey, even if the cancer becomes terminal. In that final stage, the present becomes infinitely precious, and the future must be differently conceived (but there is still a future).
The rotation of awareness
In the rotation of awareness the body and the mind are brought to a deeply relaxed state. While the focused mind follows the guiding voice around the body, the clamour of painful emotions is calmed, the burden of fear and worry lifted for a time. The act of lightly touching each part of the body with the awareness brings prana, energy, to each part (the awareness is the prana). At the end of the rotation, the awareness is expanded into the whole body, which may then be experienced as filled with energy.
The rotation teaches us to let go. As our attention moves quickly and lightly from each part of the body to the next, not lingering or ‘concentrating’, we are being taught in the simplest, clearest way not to ‘hang on’. The ‘letting go’ lesson learned during the rotation applies to everything in life: emotions, sensations, experiences, achievements, possessions, disappointments, people. Ultimately, it applies to life itself. Letting go is a lesson for us all to learn. It may be the single most important lesson of yoga nidra, as it arguably is of life.
A person with cancer has a great deal to let go of. All of it is challenging. Much of it has to do with our illusions. We all have illusions, and if we have always been healthy, we probably harbour a couple of particularly tenacious ones.
The illusion of our immortality. We live under this one until we face a life-changing illness. Until then, we probably thought of our time as unlimited. It doesn’t seem to matter how old we are when the rude awakening comes, for most, the shattering of the illusion is a shock. But it can be a blessing. For me, acknowledging my mortality at age 58 was liberating. It forced me into the present. It made me acutely conscious of the fact that my time is finite, and I resolved to use the time as well as I could, however long or short it turned out to be. The emotional intensity of that period began to subside during the following year and has long since gone, but the commitment remains, as does the consciousness of finite time.
The illusion that our body is exempt from the ills that visit the bodies of others. In a sense this is part of the mortality illusion, but it has its own special sting, particularly for those who practise and/or teach yoga. We may think: “How could this happen to me? I’ve practised yoga for years, so how could my body let me down so dramatically?” Others ask us the same question, and their astonishment feeds into our tendency to doubt and blame ourselves. We may scold ourselves, feel guilty, lose trust in our bodies, in ourselves.
But the reality is that all bodies, even the bodies of yogis and yoga teachers wear out and break down. The great spiritual masters have not been exempt: Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharishi died of cancer, so did Sri Ramakrishna, among others. Ultimately, the reality is that we are all going to have to let go of life itself, and realizing it now helps prepare for the eventuality. The rotation of awareness in yoga nidra gives us practice in letting go, gently prying us loose from our illusions, and possibly easing our journey towards death.
The rotation of awareness, and yoga nidra as a whole, may also help to renew the person’s broken connection with his or her body. A woman who has lost a breast, for example, may feel mutilated, disfigured. She may feel her body has betrayed her by developing cancer, or that it is being irreversibly damaged by chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The re-connection with the body experienced through yoga nidra is nurturing, uplifting and liberating. It opens the way to acceptance, to healing and the return of wholeness.
The pairs of opposites
In the pairs of opposites, as in the rotation of awareness, we move quickly, not lingering, not holding on to comfortable or uncomfortable sensations, or to painful or pleasant emotions, but letting go of each sensation or emotion before proceeding to the next. This part of the practice consolidates the ‘letting go’ lesson. It teaches us not to get caught up in ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’ things. In working with the pairs of opposites we learn that yes, we can let go.
Working with the pairs of opposites sparks our creativity. It teaches us to create, develop, and experience sensations and emotions, and to let go of them. The opposites teach us that sensations and emotions are ephemeral: they come and go, and do not last. Thus this part of the practice helps to release our samskaras, impressions from past experiences.
The opposites teach us detachment, vairagya, the quality that empowers us to stand back a little, not to hold onto sensations and emotions, not to get entangled in them, but to let them come and let them go. We learn to look at what is going on inside us without being afraid of it. We learn that warmth and cold are just warmth and cold, not ‘good’ and ‘bad’. They are just what they are. Pain and pleasure are simply pain and pleasure: we learn to experience them without judging them, without flinching from pain or clinging to pleasure. In creating, developing, feeling, and letting go of sensations and emotions, we learn that sensations and emotions are transitory: they come and they go, and do not last. We learn that ‘the thing is as it is’.
For people dealing with a grave illness, and with invasive treatments that generally make them feel worse than the illness itself, this is an exceptionally useful learning. As we work with the opposites, we come to realize that however intense the terror around the diagnosis, however deep the anxiety about the future, however distressing the illness, and however unpleasant or painful the treatment, these sensations and emotions will not last forever. They will end.
The different types of visualizations in yoga nidra – rapid images, story lines, the chakras, healing – allow fears and insecurities to surface so that they can be acknowledged, accepted and released. They connect us to our creativity, using our imagination to create and develop images and stories. Working with visualization in yoga nidra, when we are open and sensitive and our imagination can roam freely, helps us to remember and let go of painful stuff from the past. It accesses and releases our samskaras, the impressions grooved into our consciousness by our past experiences. This brings a release from some of the psychological, emotional, and karmic causes of illness and opens us to new experiences.
It is not unusual for people who develop cancer to probe and delve into what they may have done to cause their cancer, or failed to do to avoid it. If they have heard of the concept of karma but lack any real understanding of it, they may conclude, “It’s my karma”, and wonder what they’ve done to deserve such ‘bad’ karma. They may be encouraged in this pointless activity by well-meaning friends with a smattering of simplistic New Age knowledge, by the complementary therapists they approach for help, and by misguided fellow yogis. All this is likely to have an entirely negative impact on the healing process.
Karma is surely a factor in the development of a cancer, but there is little to be gained by obsessing over our past sins, whether of commission or omission, since there is nothing we can do on the conscious level to alter our past and unfolding karma. But the release of samskaras in yoga nidra does not always happen on the conscious level. It creates no additional problems and gives us no hang-ups. It just releases the samskaras and the energy held in them. Unlike the guilt-producing, self-scolding and soul-searching, which dissipate energy and block the healing process, it liberates energy and supports the healing process.
Awakening sakshi, developing detachment
Yoga nidra awakens sakshi, the witnessing consciousness. Sakshi teaches us detachment, the quality that enables us to stand back a little from what is happening to us, look at it, and observe it accurately.
In one of the dialogues in The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar is asked by a student: “Is the ultimate goal of yoga to always be in samadhi?” He replies: “The ultimate goal of yoga is to always observe things accurately”.
In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle says: “Be present as the watcher of your mind – of your thoughts and emotions . . . Don’t judge or analyse what you observe. Watch the thought, the emotion, observe your reaction. You will then feel the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher.”
The ‘observing presence’, the ‘silent watcher’, is sakshi, the witnessing consciousness, through which, when it is awakened, we learn to observe things accurately.
A cancer diagnosis is terrifying. The emotions that arise can be so strong and so intense that one can be overpowered by them and feel incapable of coping with them. The impulse then naturally arises to push them back down, to repress them. Without the help of the practices in the yoga ‘bag of tools’ it would be easy and natural to give in to that impulse, and to find subterfuges to avoid acknowledging and dealing with the emotions. This is termed ‘denial’, usually disapprovingly. No one deliberately ‘denies’ reality unless reality is too painful to bear: sometimes denial is necessary to protect the psyche for a time from truths it is not ready to absorb. But burying emotions for too long traps our energy, and for full healing that energy needs to be released. This is why we need techniques that help us to confront our realities, and to assimilate and accept them.
Through practising yoga nidra we develop our powers of observation. We develop the clarity and the detachment that are needed to confront a diagnosis of cancer, the challenges of invasive treatments, and the uncertainties about the future, so that we can step back a little from the emotions it brings in its wake, allow them to arise, look at them clearly, and observe them accurately. When we do this, when we bring emotions up out of the darkness and shine the light of our awareness – the light of sakshi – on them, they lose their power over us. Then we can face them squarely, acknowledge them, accept them, and eventually let them go – and when that happens, the energy that has been trapped in them is released.
When we are lying still in yoga nidra, following a voice that we trust, allowing ourselves to be guided through the practice, wherever it takes us, we are being given a special kind of strength. Not the brute, ‘battling with cancer’ strength that we read about in every newspaper obituary, but the deeper strength of acknowledgement and acceptance, the inner strength that enables us to face the challenges we are given and learn their lessons, right through the entire process, and when the time comes, right through to death.
Yoga nidra and the healing journey
When I asked the people in my class at the Yoga Therapy Centre for their thoughts on how yoga nidra has affected them, one young woman, who had been having a difficult time with chemotherapy since she joined the class, said that yoga nidra always gives her a feeling of lightness, of peace, a feeling that a burden has been lifted, and the others all agreed with her.
Another says: “Cancer, like any serious illness, can be seen as an invitation to heal ourselves on a deeper level. Yoga for me has been a very wonderful way to engage in this healing process. Starting in shavasana often feels like coming home into an alive stillness where nothing needs to happen . . . Ending with yoga nidra offers the forever surprising experience that simple presence with every part of the body creates such restfulness, a sense of being reborn in a different climate.”
I will close with the experience of a woman who has been attending the class at the Yoga Therapy Centre since it began eight years ago. At that time she had just finished treatment for an extremely aggressive breast cancer. A few months after joining the class, she wrote: “Not only have I developed my physical and mental strength through the wonderful yoga class of gentle exercises, relaxation and meditation, I have learnt an alternative and holistic way of dealing with the trauma emanating from having had breast cancer. The practice gives me control, hope and peace of mind, as well as a connectedness, within a very supportive and safe environment. No words can really express what a lifeline it has been.”
Since then she has been through three recurrences and more intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Her cancer has now recurred again, in her liver, lungs, spine, bones and brain, and is considered terminal. All through these eventful, challenging years she has described yoga as her lifeline. She feels that it has helped her to hold her balance through all the vicissitudes of the past eight years, and to look clearly and unflinchingly at her situation. She has always identified her yoga practice as the grounding, stabilizing influence in her journey, and yoga nidra as the most profoundly healing element in her practice. Now, approaching the end of the journey, she feels that yoga, and yoga nidra are helping her towards a healing death.
She says: “Yoga continues to be the core of my being able to deal with this last part of my journey, providing me with deep healing, strength, clarity and peace. My sankalpa has blossomed like a seed deeply planted and forms a guide for my life.”
It is a great privilege to pass on the wonderful practice of yoga nidra, and all the other transformative tools of yoga, to people who are in such real and deep need of them. The reward for the teacher is that each of them, in his or her own way, wholeheartedly takes up the tools and uses them on the journey towards wholeness and healing.
1 Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Yoga Nidra, 6th edition, Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, Bihar, India, 1998
2 Swami Rama, Freedom from the Bondage of Karma, Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, Honesdale, Pennsylvania, 1977
3 T.K.V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, Inner Traditions International, 1995
4 Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Hodder and Stoughton, 2001
Yoga Nidra: Its Advantages and Applications
In the modern scenario, human life has become very fast, hectic and demanding. The present lifestyle demands adjustment on the part of the individual. Each of us, as per our coping resources, tries to adjust in this changing world. Some adjust by becoming overactive and others by withdrawing from the situation. When we fail to make a proper adjustment according to the demands of the situation, a state of negative stress or distress develops in our personality, which gives rise to mental or psychological problems. In most people the mind always remains in a state of arousal and tension. Yoga nidra, as a technique of pratyahara, not only provides relaxation to the body and mind but also has a number of benefits.
Yoga nidra is one of the practices of pratyahara where the awareness is internalized. Literally, yoga nidra means 'psychic sleep' i.e. sleep with full awareness. In the practice of yoga nidra the body sleeps but the mind remains awake listening to the instructions. In psychology, the state achieved in yoga nidra is termed the hypnogogic state, a state between sleep and wakefulness. Yoga nidra has its origin in the ancient tantric practice called nyasa. It was Swami Satyananda Saraswati (1998) who adapted and presented the practice of yoga nidra in a systematic and scientific way in the 1960s.
Stages of yoga nidra
The practice of yoga nidra is divided into the following stages:
1. Preparation: Yoga nidra is performed in the posture of shavasana, with the eyes closed. In this stage, initial relaxation of the body and mind is induced by the awareness of stillness, comfort, posture, position, breath, and listening to the external sounds with the attitude of a witness.
2. Sankalpa: When the body and mind are relaxed, then the practitioner is instructed to take a resolve according to his or her own wish. The sankalpa should be short, clear and positive. The practitioner repeats the selected sankalpa three times mentally, with full determination, conviction and confidence.
3. Rotation of consciousness: In the third stage, the awareness is rotated around the different body parts in a systematic and organized manner. The practitioner is instructed to remain aware, to listen to the instructions and to move the mind very rapidly according to the instructions without making any physical movements. The rotation of awareness in yoga nidra follows a definite sequence: right side of the body, beginning with the right hand thumb and ending with the little toe of the right foot; left side of the body, from the left hand thumb to the little toe of the left foot; back of the body, from the heels to the back of the head; and lastly the front of the body, from the forehead and individual facial features to the legs.
4. Breath awareness: In this stage, one simply becomes aware of the natural breath without making an attempt to change the flow of the breath. One may become aware of the breath by watching it in the nostrils, chest, and abdomen, or in the passage between the navel and the throat. The practitioner becomes aware of each incoming and outgoing breath by counting them mentally.
5. Opposite feelings and sensations: In this stage, the physical or emotional sensations are recalled, intensified and experienced fully. Usually this is practised with pairs of opposite feelings or sensations like heat and cold, heaviness and lightness, pain and pleasure, love and hate, and so on.
6. Visualization: In the stage of visualization, the awareness is taken to the dark space in front of the closed eyes, referred to as chidakasha in yogic terminology. The practitioner is then instructed to visualize some objects, stories or situations in the chidakasha.
7. Sankalpa: Once again the sankalpa, taken in stage two, is repeated mentally three times in this stage with full dedication, faith and optimism.
8. Ending the practice: Before ending the session of yoga nidra, slowly the awareness is externalized by asking the practitioner to become aware of the external sounds, objects and persons. They are asked then to slowly move the body parts and to stretch the body.
Benefits of yoga nidra
The practice of yoga nidra has a number of benefits. Important among them are as follows.
Minimizes tension: In the modern world the international problem is not poverty, drugs or fear of war; it is tension and only tension. A high percentage of people remain in a state of tension and frustration. This continuous level of tension in the body, mind and emotions predisposes the individual towards psychological and psychosomatic disorders. Modern psychology as well as yogic philosophy believes in three kinds of tension - muscular tensions, emotional tensions and mental tensions - which can be progressively released through the systematic and regular practice of yoga nidra. Muscular tension results from nervous and endocrinal imbalances. It manifests in the form of stiffness and rigidity in the physical body. In the practice of yoga nidra the body is progressively relaxed, which in turn releases the accumulated muscular tensions.
In day to day life individuals fail to express their emotions freely and openly. As a result, the emotions are repressed and manifest in the form of emotional tension. In the practice of yoga nidra, the practitioner slowly moves towards the deeper realms of the mind where he or she confronts the deep-rooted emotional tensions. When the practitioner recognizes these emotional tensions with full awareness and a witnessing attitude, then repressed emotions are released and the practitioner becomes calm and tranquil.
Due to excessive activity on the mental plane, the mind always remains in a state of arousal, which results in mental tension. Throughout life the mind is fed with negative data. In the practice of yoga nidra, especially in rotation of consciousness and breath awareness, the mind is relaxed, thereby releasing the mental tensions. In this way, through the regular and sincere practice of yoga nidra, tensions at the physical, emotional and mental level can be minimized. According to Swami Satyananda (1998), "a single hour of yoga nidra is as restful as four hours of conventional sleep".
Trains the mind: The sankalpa taken in each session of yoga nidra is perhaps the most effective technique for training the mind. Swami Satyananda (1998) says, "anything in life can fail you, but not the sankalpa made during yoga nidra". The sankalpa is taken and sowed in the subconscious mind when it is relaxed and receptive. The subconscious mind is very obedient and hence carries out the orders immediately. In yoga nidra, the sankalpa trains the subconscious mind, and then the ordinary mind follows the path automatically. The sankalpa helps in training the mind because it is planted when the mind is relaxed and ready to absorb and accept it. The essential thing is that the resolve should be planted with strong willpower and feeling. Many people make conscious resolves guided by intellect, which rarely bring results. Swami Satyananda (1998) says, "the sankalpa taken at the beginning of yoga nidra is like sowing a seed, and the sankalpa at the end is like irrigating it. So, the resolve taken in yoga nidra always brings result, if it is taken sincerely".
Relaxes the mind: The brain is the linking mediator between the mind, body and emotions. In yoga nidra intensifying the awareness of the body stimulates the brain. When the awareness is rotated on the different body parts, it not only induces physical relaxation but also clears the nerve pathways to the brain. Each of the body parts has an existing centre in the cerebral white matter, named by researchers as 'motor homunculus' or 'little man'. The sequence of rotation of awareness in yoga nidra is in accordance with the map in the cerebral white matter of the brain. When the awareness is rotated in the same sequence again and again, it induces a flow of pranic energy within the neuronal circuit of the motor homunculus of the brain. This pranic flow brings in a subjective experience of relaxation in the brain.
In one of the stages of yoga nidra a pair of opposite feelings or sensations is intensified again and again in the practitioner. This continuous invocation of opposite feelings or sensations is in accordance with the elecetrophysiological operating principles of the brain. When a neuron fires, it produces a nerve impulse which is relayed and registered in the brain. But if the same neuron keeps on firing again and again, then its relayed impulse is no longer registered by the brain. Researchers have called this 'phenomenon habituation'. When the brain becomes accustomed to the stimulus, then gradually it becomes relaxed. The state where the brain is completely relaxed results in mental relaxation. Sannyasi Mangalteertham (1998) concluded on the basis of his study that the practice of yoga nidra brings alpha dominance in the brain, which is characterized by mental relaxation.
Clears up the unconscious: From early childhood, we tend to repress many wishes, desires and conflicts. Whenever a situation threatens the ego, the defence mechanisms are called upon and the conflicting situation is repressed or suppressed to the unconscious. All the traumatic experiences, unfulfilled desires and threatening situations are suppressed by the ego to the subconscious and unconscious realms of the mind. In the deeper realms of the mind this conflicting and frustrating matter does not die but remains alive and later manifests in the form of various pathological symptoms. The repressed desires, wishes and situations remain in the form of symbols in the unconscious mind. During the practice of yoga nidra, the instructor asks the practitioner to visualize certain symbols and images with a witnessing attitude. If the symbols and images are selected properly, then they are in accordance with the symbols of the unconscious. An abstract association is created between the guided imagery and the associated repressed experiences of the unconscious. For example, if the teacher instructs the practitioner to visualize a dog, this may bring out a past traumatic childhood experience in which the practitioner was bitten by a dog. The practitioner observes this associated painful experience with a witnessing attitude, which helps in cutting off the personal identification with the experience. When the personal identification ceases to be cut off, the painful experience associated with the dog is repressed again. In this way, the practice of visualization brings the unconscious repressed desires, experiences, conflicts and frustrations to the conscious level and then cuts off the personal identification with those experiences. As a result, the unconscious is cleared up.
Awakens creativity: Several examples from the past indicate that creativity is a characteristic of a relaxed and calm mind. When the mind is totally relaxed, the awareness slowly enters the deeper realms (subconscious and unconscious) of the mind and the person becomes aware of the creative and intuitive faculties. Whether it be Newton or Einstein or Mozart, all made significant and vital contributions in the field of creativity when they allowed themselves to relax deeply enough for the images and forms of their unconscious mind to manifest as solutions to their particular problems. Regular practice of yoga nidra helps in making a bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind. Slowly one becomes tuned with the unconscious workings and then the power of creativity automatically awakens.
Enhances memory and learning capacity: The present popular method of teaching is classroom teaching using rewards and punishments. This method may be good for the intelligent students but is not beneficial for the dull students because the conscious brain or intellect of these students is incapable of receiving the information directly. The technique of yoga nidra can be used as an educational tool for such dull children, where the knowledge is transmitted directly into the subconscious mind. The technique of yoga nidra is helpful in increasing learning and memory capacity. When yoga nidra is used in education, both hemispheres of the student's brain are involved in learning the subject, whereas in classroom teaching the left hemisphere functions more. In this way, the practice of yoga nidra involves the total mind in learning.
Ostrander (1973) said that, "using the technique of yoga nidra it was possible to teach a foreign language in 1/5th of the time required by conventional methods". Schoolteachers in several countries are using yoga nidra to augment the capacities of receptivity and attention, and to awaken the joy of learning in their young students. Flak (1978) reported that techniques such as rotation of awareness and visualization heighten the capacity for relaxation and interest among schoolchildren.
Counteracts stress: Stress is a cognitive or emotional response made by the individual towards any situation, which demands adjustment. When the demands of the situation exceed the ability of the individual then distress results, which may manifest in mental and physical symptoms of abnormality. The practice of yoga nidra helps in building up the coping ability. The practitioner of yoga nidra slowly becomes aware of the inherent dormant potentialities and thus prevents himself from becoming a victim of distress. Udupa (1977) suggests that stress-related disorders evolve gradually through four stages. In the first stage, psychological symptoms like anxiety and irritability arise due to overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system. The second stage is characterized by related physical symptoms like high blood pressure, increased heart rate etc. In the third stage, the abnormalities manifest clinically in the organ systems. In the last stage, severe symptoms in particular organs result which need long-term medical management.
Swami Satyananda (1998) has said that yoga nidra is now prescribed by doctors in many countries both as a preventive and curative therapy in the first three stages of stress-related disease. During stress the sympathetic nervous system becomes activated due to which the organism adopts the 'fight or flight' mechanism. In normal circumstances, the parasympathetic system takes over after the emergency goes. But mostly it has been seen that the sympathetic system remains active most of the time resulting in the experience of distress (Selye, 1974). In yoga nidra an attempt is made to activate the parasympathetic system, and slowly a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems is achieved by inducing complete physical, emotional and mental relaxation. In this way the practice of yoga nidra counteracts stress. Carrington et al (1980) concluded that yoga nidra has its most widespread application as a preventive measure to be practised by healthy, active people as a means of relieving accumulated tensions, increasing stress resistance and overall efficiency, and preventing the development of stress-related diseases.
Manages psychological disorders: When the individual fails to adjust to the situation, then distress results. Some individuals are prone to developing distress due to their unconscious urge to remain tense. When distress continues for a long period, it may result in psychological disorders like neuroses or even psychoses. In the practice of yoga nidra, the inherent tendency to become tense is rooted out and the individual starts viewing the situation as less demanding. Gersten (1978) said that the practitioner of yoga nidra becomes his own psychotherapist, recognizing and systematically alleviating his own personal problems and interpersonal difficulties. Matthew (1981) reported that yoga nidra is a successful therapy for both recent and long-standing psychological disturbances of all kinds, especially high anxiety levels and neurotic behaviour patterns. Bahrke (1979) also concluded on the basis of his study that the practice of yogic relaxation has been found to effectively reduce tension and improve the psychological well-being of sufferers from anxiety. On the basis of a recent study, Bhushan & Sinha (2000) reported that the practice of yoga nidra significantly reduces the anxiety and hostility level of the practising subjects. Shealy (1998) concluded that yoga nidra is a successful treatment for insomnia. In this manner, various researches show that the technique of yoga nidra can be successfully administered to manage various psychological disorders.
Manages psychosomatic diseases: When the tensions, conflicts and frustrations of the mind manifest in the form of physical symptoms, those diseases are termed as psychosomatic diseases. Yoga nidra aims at releasing the suppressed and repressed conflicts from the unconscious, thereby relaxing the mind. When the potent cause (tense mind) of psychosomatic disorders is managed, the disease could also be cured. The practice of various stages of yoga nidra, like sankalpa, muscular relaxation, breath awareness and guided imagery, have been found to be a significant and effective mode of therapy for asthmatics (Erskine & Schonell, 1981). Gupta et. al. (1979) reported that 18 out of 27 asthmatic patients showed improvement in respiratory function and greater freedom of breathing after intensive training in yoga nidra, and 63% had definite relaxation and dilation of the bronchial tubes when tested on a spirometer. Jansson (1979) reported that after three weeks of relaxation training the symptoms of colonic irritability significantly reduced. In the case of cardiac patients, Cooper (1979) reported that yoga nidra significantly lowered levels of serum cholesterol in cardiac patients. Researches also show that the practice of yoga nidra lowers the elevated blood pressure levels of hypertensive patients (Datey et al, 1977; Bali, 1979). In this way, researches show that the practice of yoga nidra effectively manages various psychosomatic diseases.
From the above discussion, it becomes clear that the technique of yoga nidra has preventive, promotive and curative value. It prevents stress and stress-related disorders by inducing deep physical, emotional and mental relaxation, by training the mind to remain calm and quiet and by rooting out the repressed desires and thoughts from the deeper realms of the mind. As a promotive science, yoga nidra awakens the inherent creativity and promotes the learning and memory abilities of the practitioner. Researches also indicate that yoga nidra can be used as a therapeutic technique to cure psychological disorders like anxiety, hostility, insomnia etc. and psychosomatic diseases like asthma, coronary heart disease, cancer, hypertension etc. In our present modern lifestyle, where psychological and psychosomatic problems are on the rise, the technique of yoga nidra may serve as a real boon for mankind.
* Lecturer, Department of Yoga Psychology, Bihar Yoga Bharati University, Munger.
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