The term yoga nidra literally translates to “yogic sleep.” When I first learned this, my immediate thoughts were, “How the heck do you do yoga while you’re sleeping?” and also, “A workout while I’m sleeping? Sign me up!”
As it turns out, that’s not quite what it is. Yoga nidra is “a yoga session that is posture-free and assists you with slowing down and releasing stress-related feelings you may have experienced throughout the day,” says yoga instructor Keriki Purkiss. Really, it’s yoga that helps you relax by listening to guided imagery and focusing on your breath while you’re in savasana, or “corpse pose”—the lying-down position typically done at the end of a traditional yoga class.
“Yoga nidra is the practice of conscious sleep,” yoga nidra instructor Jana Roemer once told Well+Good. “Essentially, we’re figuring out how to allow the body to fall asleep while keeping the mind awake.”
The benefits of yoga nidra
Although it might not look like much, this practice has tons of science-backed perks. “When we go into yoga nidra, we downshift into an alpha brain wave state. Here, [levels of cortisol are reduced] and we go into a state of healing,” explains Roemer. This may be why research has shown that yoga nidra can lead to reduced stress, enhanced cognitive processing, and even improved red blood cell counts and blood glucose levels.
“It has been formally recognized by the US Army as a complementary alternative therapy in treating PTSD and chronic pain,” yoga nidra and meditation guide Hilary Jackendoff once told Well+Good.
But the most well-known benefit may be improved sleep—in fact, studies have shown that yoga nidra may even be an effective treatment for people with chronic insomnia.
“It allows the body and mind to relax, reducing the production of stress hormones,” says Purkiss. “When stress levels decrease, it becomes easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. Regular practice of yoga nidra, especially before bedtime, establishes a relaxing pre-sleep routine. A consistent bedtime ritual signals the body that it’s time to wind down.”
How yoga nidra differs from meditation
Lately, I’ve personally been experiencing a lot of stress, and it’s been manifesting as challenges in my sleep cycle, mostly in terms of trouble getting deep sleep. I just had a birthday and better sleep hygiene has been on my radar (to hold onto my youthful glow and energy).
So when an editor from Well+Good reached out asking if I wanted to try yoga nidra for a week and see what happened, I was intrigued, if a little hesitant. The practice sounded a lot like meditation to me, and I’ve struggled mightily with meditation in the past. I always end up more stressed than relaxed because I can’t get my mind to slow down, which just leaves me frustrated—not exactly the intended effect.
But Purkiss explained to me that yoga nidra is actually a bit different from meditation—mostly because, traditionally, you are lying down during yoga nidra. “Although not a part of standard practice, some people are in such a calm state they usually fall asleep,” she says. “Yoga nidra is a form of guided meditation that has you in a relaxed state or a state of consciousness between being awake and asleep.”
What happened when I tried it for myself
Armed with this information, I was ready to test it out. I would try a yoga nidra session every night for a week before I went to bed to see if it helped me clear my mind and get deeper sleep. To start my journey, I went to YouTube and found there were a ton of videos on there with varying run times. I decided I would start with 10-minute sessions, and work my way up to 30-minute sessions over the course of the week.
I’ve gotta tell you the truth: I was only ever able to fully get through 10-minute sessions, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Two times I attempted a 30-minute video, but I could only make it about a third of the way through before I had to stop. I just could not lay still long enough. I started to experience what I can only equate to restless leg syndrome, but in my whole body. At the beginning of the session, you are instructed not to move, and because I was trying so hard not to, that’s all I wanted to do.
During the practice you are told to scan your body and relax different body parts from head to toe. And when I say head to toe, I mean down to each individual finger. This drove my mind wild! As I was laying there, actively thinking about relaxing the muscles without actually feeling them doing anything different, I just grew restless.
You are instructed not to move, and because I was trying so hard not to, that’s all I wanted to do.
Maybe the problem was that I was in bed under all of my sheets, feeling too restricted, I thought. I started to practice under a lighter blanket. That did help, a little, but I still felt antsy by the end. The best part was always the guide telling me to start wiggling my fingers and toes—both because it finally gave me permission to move and was a signal that the darn thing was over.
I also found that it was difficult for me to focus. There is a part during most practices where you count down from 27 as you breathe deeply, but I lost count every time. My mind was actively thinking about relaxing each body part but also wondering if I was actually feeling myself relax. Was anything happening, or was I just laying there? Then, if I did move even a little bit, I started to wonder if the yoga nidra would have the intended effect. This led me to try to focus even more on not moving, in turn making me even more restless. In the session I used, the guide would say that if you lost count to start over from 27, which leads me to believe it’s a common occurrence, but it drove me nuts that not once was I able to get past 19 or so.
All that said, despite my struggle, I did actually see a change in my sleep. I tracked my sleep with my Apple watch, and saw that the time I spent in my REM, core, and deep sleep all increased from previous weeks. I also didn’t have as much time spent awake: When I’ve tracked my sleep before, I would average 15 minutes of time awake and 53 minutes of REM. In the seven days of doing yoga nidra, my time awake averaged seven minutes, with 77 minutes of REM. A solid improvement. On a few nights, I even slept through the entire night without having to get up to go to the bathroom, which is huge for me (though that could have been a hydration thing). I found these stats to be consistent even when I only got four or five hours of sleep. The sleep that I did get, even if it was minimal, was better.
My takeaways about the practice
If you’re someone who’s looking to get better sleep, and doesn’t get restless while meditating like I do, I’d suggest giving yoga nidra a shot. The benefits for your sleep quality are legit, and if you’re able to stay still for longer than I can, they might even be more powerful.
Personally, even though yoga nidra is a challenge, I plan to keep trying to incorporate it into my bedtime routine more often—and maybe even work my way up to more time. I know me, and I won’t commit to every night. But the night after I stopped doing it, I noticed a marked difference in the lack of deep sleep I got. And as a night owl with an early bird schedule, I need all the quality sleep I can get.
Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
- Kamei, T et al. “Decrease in serum cortisol during yoga exercise is correlated with alpha wave activation.” Perceptual and motor skills vol. 90,3 Pt 1 (2000): 1027-32. doi:10.2466/pms.2000.90.3.1027
- Anderson, Roberta et al. “Using Yoga Nidra to Improve Stress in Psychiatric Nurses in a Pilot Study.” Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.) vol. 23,6 (2017): 494-495. doi:10.1089/acm.2017.0046
- Datta, Karuna, et al. ‘Improved Sleep, Cognitive Processing and Enhanced Learning and Memory Task Accuracy with Yoga Nidra Practice in Novices’. bioRxiv, 28 Jan. 2023, https://doi.org10.1101/2023.01.27.23284927.
- Pandi-Perumal, Seithikurippu R et al. “The Origin and Clinical Relevance of Yoga Nidra.” Sleep and vigilance vol. 6,1 (2022): 61-84. doi:10.1007/s41782-022-00202-7
- Datta, Karuna et al. “Yoga nidra practice shows improvement in sleep in patients with chronic insomnia: A randomized controlled trial.” The National medical journal of India vol. 34,3 (2021): 143-150. doi:10.25259/NMJI_63_19