One cool evening in a high-ceilinged dining hall in Novato, California, an unlikely yoga class is getting under way. Fourteen men wearing blue jeans, work boots, or running shoes roll out yoga mats and get settled on sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows—in preparation for Yoga Nidra.
The instructor, Kelly Boys, smiles as she surveys her students, residents at Henry Ohlhoff North, a substance abuse recovery center. She asks if anyone wants to discuss their experiences in the previous week’s session. A trim 52-year-old named Charles volunteers that he struggles with feelings of loneliness.
Around the room, faces relax, jaws soften, and soon snores start to rumble as the men drop deeper into relaxation.
“How does your body feel when it hits you?” Boys asks. “Tense, ” Charles says. “And where do you feel the tension?” she asks. “In my shoulders, ” he says.
“Just ask it, ‘What do you need? What do you want?’” Boys says. “We’re just bringing curiosity to it. When you really meet it, it does drop away.” Charles nods, satisfied for now.
As the men settle into relaxed positions, Boys begins to talk them through a detailed tour of their own bodies on this day and at this moment—the first step in the practice of yoga nidra. Gradually the room quiets, until the only sounds are the hum of the ventilation system and Boys’ voice: “Can you feel the inside of your mouth? Now bring your attention to your left ear. Feel the inside of your left ear. Feel your right ear. Can you feel both ears simultaneously?” Around the room, faces relax, jaws soften, and soon snores start to rumble as the men drop deeper into relaxation.
The Benefits of Yoga Nidra
See also 15 Poses to Help You Sleep Better
“In yoga nidra, we restore our body, senses, and mind to their natural function and awaken a seventh sense that allows us to feel no separation, that only sees wholeness, tranquility, and well-being, ” says Richard Miller, a San Francisco Bay Area yoga teacher and clinical psychologist who is at the forefront of the movement to teach yoga nidra and to bring it to a wider audience.
While many prominent teachers offer classes, CDs, and books on yoga nidra, Miller is responsible for bringing the practice to a remarkable variety of nontraditional settings. He’s helped introduce it on military bases and in veterans’ clinics, homeless shelters, Montessori schools, Head Start programs, hospitals, hospices, chemical dependency centers, and jails. What’s more, thanks to Miller, it’s beginning to get serious scientific attention. Researchers are examining the practice’s potential to help soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; addicts struggling to get clean; people with depression, cancer, and MS; health care workers; and married couples coping with stress and insomnia.
More than 40 years ago, in 1970, Miller attended his first yoga class at the Integral Yoga Institute in San Francisco. “At the end of that class, they taught a modified yoga nidra—deep Savasana, ” he says. “I had the most profound experience; there was this sense of my inter-relatedness with the entire universe. And a vow arose in me to really investigate this practice.”
Over years of studying and teaching yoga nidra, Miller has developed his own approach, finding ways to make the practice accessible to a broad range of people, even those with little or no education in yoga. In 2005, he published a book, , and he’s released several audio guides as well. He currently leads the nonprofit Integrative Restoration Institute, an organization dedicated to the research, teaching, and practice of yoga nidra and yoga philosophy.
“Most people are trying to change themselves, ” Miller says. “Yoga nidra asks them to welcome themselves. That moment of true welcoming is where the profound transformation takes place.”
You Don’t Have to Do Yoga or Meditate to Do Yoga Nidra
It’s a deceptively simple practice. Because yoga nidra is most often taught lying down—initially guided by a teacher—it’s appealing to people who might feel intimidated by yoga postures or traditional seated meditation. A short version of yoga nidra can be introduced and practiced in less than 10 minutes. Yet its various elements, taken together and practiced regularly, make up a sophisticated set of mind-body tools that can help practitioners navigate some of life’s harshest moments. Yoga nidra can also be practiced as an accessible form of meditation for those seeking everyday well-being.
In a typical yoga nidra session, a teacher guides practitioners through several stages. You start by developing an intention for your life and for the practice. Then you learn to focus your awareness on your breath, bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Throughout, you are encouraged to tap into an underlying sense of peace that is always present and to cultivate “witness consciousness, ” observing and welcoming whatever is present without getting caught up in it.