Yoga Nidra is usually referred to as conscious sleep. It is a pratyahara (withdrawing into awareness) exercise. Can it also be an insight meditation exercise?
As a quick reminder, here are the eight stages of progression in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi.
Meditation can be a very misleading word. The Sanskrit dhyana means attention (also colloquial word for attention in many Indian languages).The Buddhist Pali word sati is awareness/mindfulness/attention.
In Yoga Nidra, the body and mind are brought to a state of deep sleep while maintaining full, alert awareness. The mind withdraws from external stimuli by first calming the body and stabilizing the mind. The wandering mind is withdrawn into awareness, the part that pays attention, the knowing part. Paying full attention to what arises within, not trying to change anything. Not judging anything. Focused objective awareness. Allowing things to arise, letting them pass, without any clinging, without identifying with anything, no reacting. Not jumping into the movie screen, not becoming part of the movie, not writing the script and playing roles. And if any of this is happening, as it naturally will happen, to know that it is happening and letting it pass (this too shall pass)—that is the exercise. This is paying attention, objective witnessing. It is the basis to everything.
That is how healing can potentially take place: looking and letting it pass, looking and letting it pass, over and over again, until the troubling thought/experience finally stops arising or loses its potent emotion and trauma. This is also part of Buddhist insight practices.
CALM TO CONCENTRATION TO VISION
There are two components to the process in both traditions: calming the body and mind; focusing the mind. (Samatha, calming and focusing, and vipassana, insight/vision, in Buddhist Suttas.) Concentrated attention leads to insights, wisdom, vision. Yoga Nidra is associated with the first component. Yoga Nidra practitioners stop there, at calming the mind and looking. It is not considered an “insight” practice. And yet it very much is! With repeated, diligent practice, attention becomes more and more focused and concentrated and insightful.
After over more than 40 years of practicing and teaching Satyananda Yoga Nidra, my experience is that it can bring the same insights/direct knowledge/wisdom as the Buddhist contemplations set out in the Satipatthana Suttas. There is so much that is the same. For my personal practice, Satyananda Yoga Nidra and the contemplations of the Satipatthana Suttas have gone hand-in-hand. Many people find insight meditations very difficult. For them, Yoga Nidra could be a path to the same direct knowledge.
To all my former students, now feeling “stuck”, I hope this post is helpful. Also, it’s important to share that we all get “stuck”, sometimes for a long period of time. That is not the time to give up!
In this post I am going to discuss the first step in Satyananda Yoga Nidra: rotation of consciousness around the body or body awareness. It can be moving around the different parts of the body—head, neck, arms, etc. It can be the skin, muscles and flesh, bones, internal organs, veins, arteries, nerves. It can be the five tattvas or elements: earth, water, fire, air, space/ether (which have corresponding chakras).
The object of awareness is the body.
The Satipatthana Sutta also has body contemplations that can be parts of the body, the elements, as well as body positions.
This is how Satyananda Yoga Nidra works and it is the same as the guided Buddhist body contemplations.
HOW IT WORKS
1. Object of awareness has two components: the object and the awareness of the object. The two are separate. This separation exercise is very important as normally our awareness is fused with the object.
3. External sights, sounds, stimuli, tend to fade away. The mind is gradually drawn into awareness. Instead of extended focus on the breath, which is so hard, the mindful awareness is kept moving before it has time to get bored.
2. Depersonalizing the body happens by “clinically” witnessing it as a neutral object or objective. Focused observation. Stepping back and away. It is like paying close attention to a cloud in the sky or the waves in the ocean. This requires sustained practice over a long period of time. It is work to keep stepping out and back.
4. The guided practice keeps the practitioner from getting lost in thoughts. Not being caught in thoughts is very healing and restful for the mind and body. That is why Yoga Nidra is so deeply relaxing and popular.
5. There is no time to cling! Before the clinging and getting lost can happen, the voice has guided the mind forward. The seed of thought is not given the time to germinate and develop in the rotation of awareness around the body.. It is when the seed is allowed to germinate, develop and take roots, often becoming deeply rooted, that we get lost and stuck in the creation of that narrative.
INSIGHTS OR DIRECT KNOWLEDGE DERIVED
1. Deep relaxation is a result of the five points made above—no identification with the body, no clinging, no fantasizing or speculation. Just awareness (which is free from emotion) of the object, the feeling, in that moment, nothing else. This relaxation creates space for healing and release.
2. The body is an assemblage of many parts that come together under certain circumstances, just like the parts of a car.
3. Just like the parts of a car, there is wear and tear, breakdowns, old age.
4. Identification with the body weakens. Awareness of the body is not the body. Awareness of the object is not the object.
5. The body is impermanent. We all know this intellectually—dust to dust, ashes to ashes. The impermanence of what we identify with or call “mine” is mortally tough to swallow. There are many stories throughout the world of people seeking immortality.
6. There is no “body” within this body—just parts, molecules, atoms, space, energy flows. There is nobody. No “I” to be found. The solid body parts over time are no longer solid, no longer have defined shapes. They can be experienced as empty spaces, as flows of energy that extend beyond the contours of the physical body. Some may see streaks of light, sparks. This is all direct experience and knowledge as we keep developing the practice and as effortless concentration develops.
6. There is nothing to cling to, nothing to grasp at—which is the essence of the Jain principle of aparigraha. No need to personalize life and living.
7. Holding on, grasping, clinging are all forces of tension and stress.
8. Feeling the elements in the body, there is direct knowledge that the body is a microcosm of the macrocosm. It is made up of the same elements as everything else on earth. It is no different. The body is also totally dependent on other forms of life and cannot survive without them. So there is a sense of one-ness, of compassion for all life. We directly see and know interdependence. There is nothing extraordinary or special about “me” above everything and everyone else. No thing is more special than anything else. That is a hard one given the current culture where “me” is such a central figure of importance.
Insights and visions cannot be imposed on our minds. The process must unfold spontaneously.
WHAT IS THE POINT OF IT?
Seeing things as they are, devoid of hard-wired concepts, conditioning, our narratives, can be unsettling and very difficult. It can be relaxing, peaceful, but the deeper one goes, the more deep-rooted issues will arise and come to the forefront. So why go through it? For the potential to be free from them. Because it is those very narratives that cause us endless suffering and pain; it is our identification with it all that creates discontent and unhappiness. To stop being unhappy.
YOGA NIDRA AUDIO TRACKS TO GET STARTED
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