I have a confession to make. I struggle almost every day to stay resilient in the face of stress.
I realize the irony in admitting this. After all, I work in the industry of self-improvement and resilience – an industry where most “experts” purport to live a perfect life, where happiness and success arise almost effortlessly.
I wish I could make a similar claim. But even after over a decade of intensive mindfulness training, on some level, my experience of reality still feels utterly normal. My mind is more open than it was before. But my life still includes daily moments of overwhelm, fear, and profound suffering.
So today, I thought that I would share my personal go-to practice for shifting my energy on those days when I feel anxious, overwhelmed by stress, or exhausted. It’s an ancient practice called yoga nidra.
Of all the inner technologies of the mind, yoga nidra might just be the most powerful – at least for me. Just 10 to 30 minutes of it leaves me feeling rested, recharged, and feeling the deep relaxation of a beach vacation in Mexico.
I stumbled upon this practice a four years ago thanks to my colleague and friend at Life Cross Training Priti Patel. I then did an intensive training on yoga nidra with Rod Stryker– one of the great yoga masters of this generation – to go deeper into the practice.
The phrase yoga nidra essentially means “yogic sleep.” In Sanskrit, nidra means “sleep” or “slumber.” And, if you’ve ever done yoga, you’ve probably experienced a brief taste of it. In almost every yoga class, after finishing a sequence of vigorous postures, you end with 5-10 minutes of total relaxation (savasana), where you lie on your back and let yourself be effortless.
That’s yoga nidra. It’s like the dessert you get to eat at the end of the yoga meal. And I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to do all that hard work of traditional yoga practice– that it’s OK to skip the salad and dive into the dessert.
The benefits of this practice begin with the brain science. As you may know, our mental states correspond to patterns of electrical activity in the brain. Just about all of our waking and sleeping moments can be divided into four states:
Here’s why the science matters. Most of us have a pretty bad Beta habit. We spend the bulk of our waking hours stimulated and engaged. For the most part, this a great thing. It allows us to complete the never-ended list of to-dos that we have each day.
But here’s the problem. This beta habit can get so intense that it becomes a conditioned state that makes it difficult to relax. This is why so many of us feel exhausted and find it difficult to turn off at the end of each day. The reason is that we’ve spent virtually every waking hour building the habit of this hyper-stimulated Beta state.
And that’s why yoga nidra changed my life. It’s a doorway to a rare but extraordinary state of deep rest and it’s a way of breaking out of this ordinary state of hyper-stimulation. The emerging research on yoga nidra shows that it has a powerful effect on mitigating stress, anxiety, depression, and even PTSD.
The instruction is simple: find 10 to 30 minutes during your day when you can lie down on your back, place your arms at your sides. Let go of all effort and see if you can relax into that subtle space between sleep and waking. Ideally, your mind is aware but your body is asleep.
It’s extremely helpful to use a guided yoga nidra track to walk you through the practice. I recommend the yoga nidra app, Rod Stryker’s guided tracks, Richard Miller’s book (another leading nidra expert), or check out the “relax deeply” module in the XT Digital Program.
Finally, here are a few tips:
First, do this practice a few hours after your last meal. Jumping into yoga nidra right after lunch is a recipe for falling into literal sleep.
Second, make sure that you are in a quiet place, free from distraction.
Third, if you notice that your neck gets tight during the practice, place a soft towel or a thin pillow under your head to support your neck. If you notice you lower back gets tight, place a pillow underneath your knees to support your back.
The final tip is to remind yourself of the productive power of this practice. This is tip because we live in a world where lying on the floor for 10 to 30 minutes can seem like a complete waste of time. Of course, this belief is part of what leads so many people to chronic stress, anxiety, and burnout.
It’s so seductive that you may soon forget the fact that a brief practice like yoga nidra is actually often the best thing you can do to achieve peak states of productivity, creativity, and overall wellbeing.