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Sleep of the Yogis

The ancient Indian practice of Yoga Nidra offers rest, peace—and a journey to the highest states of consciousness.


Last Updated: 06/05/2014 8:18 am
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  • Annie Internicola

Karen Brody had a history of exhaustion and anxiety, but everything came to a head one day 11 years ago, in a supermarket in Little Rock, Arkansas. The mother of two, punch-drunk from sleep deprivation, had just dropped off her toddler and baby at morning daycare. As she shopped, Brody suddenly felt the aisles of the store begin to spin around her. She called a friend for help, and a simple grocery errand turned into a run to the nearest emergency room. Awaiting a diagnosis, Brody feared the worst (cancer?)—only to be told she was having a panic attack. For the next three years, she popped anti-anxiety pills and carried on with her full-throttle life of motherhood and work. But all that changed the day she wandered into her local yoga studio and found herself in a class that taught a little-known deep-relaxation practice called Yoga Nidra. All she had to do was lie down and listen to the instructor guide her to a place that hovered gently between wakefulness and twilight sleep. It was delicious bliss. Brody became a regular in the class—and felt so much better that she flushed her anti-anxiety meds down the toilet. "Of course, it's not like I don't get exhausted sometimes," says Brody, "but by practicing Yoga Nidra, I now have a tool that gives me both restoration and a 'True Self' GPS. This has helped me tremendously in life."

The Power Nap, Made Mystical

If we're alive in the 21st century, chances are that we're feeling depleted. Our supercharged, 24/7, go-go modern culture is the perfect recipe for insidious stress and deep fatigue. Studies show that such states can lead to impaired cognitive function, weight gain, increased inflammation, and greater risk of heart attack and stroke. We need rest, but it's the last thing on our to-do list, if it's on there at all. And it doesn't help that most people think naps are for wimps. "Virtually all healing modalities prescribe rest as a way to heal," says Brody, who's on a mission to share Yoga Nidra with the world. For years, she's been working with new moms and birth workers, but now she's going mainstream. Her new company and app, Bold Tranquility, offers streaming audio sessions of Yoga Nidra instruction and inspired podcasts from guest speakers. (The app will become available this month, and will have an official launch in August.) "It's a fatigue-management system for daily life. Yoga Nidra is even better than a nap, because it's not a checking out. It's a checking in. And you don't feel groggy afterwards. You go to sleep to wake up—mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually."

Known as the "sleep of the yogis," Yoga Nidra hails from Kashmiri teachings that have their roots in Tantrism or Shaivism, branches (or philosophies) of Hinduism that date back many centuries. Glenn Black—a Rhinebeck-based master teacher who is leading a Yoga Nidra workshop at the Omega Institute in August—describes Yoga Nidra as both a process and a condition. The process is a guided relaxation meditation, while the condition is what Black calls superconsciousness—a heightened sensation of wholeness or oneness. "Yoga" means "union" in Sanskrit, while "nidra" means "sleep"—yet "nidra" references the consciousness that pervades all states, from waking to sleeping. Practitioners are not supposed to actually fall asleep during a session, but if that happens it's okay, and probably needs to happen. "There is no one person who cannot derive some benefit from the practice of Yoga Nidra," says Black. "The practice addresses so many of the mental and physical conditions that have been arising in our modern civilization. The ancient sages foresaw the results of an ever more complex style of living. I believe that is why they developed this practice."

Black is famous for his no-nonsense style and for his scathing critiques of modern yoga, which he believes focuses too heavily on the asanas (postures) rather than on the higher states of consciousness described by yogis and sages of yore. ("Sorry that I am not all Light and Love," he tells me in an e-mail.) Yet with Yoga Nidra, suggests Black, we're getting much more than pretzel poses and New Age commercialism. We're getting the real deal.


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