Yoga nidra offers a “best of variety pack” for physical and mental relaxation. It offers tools that help us break old thinking habits and encourage new positive thought processes—all for a calm and receptive mind. One caveat of working with yoga nidra, however, is that you must remain awake and present in the practice in order to receive its full benefits. It is very easy to fall asleep in yoga nidra—you are resting on your back, with eyes closed and your body supported by props, listening to a soothing voice guide you into a state of deep relaxation. The big question, then, is “How do I practice yoga nidra without falling asleep?”
When our bodies are accustomed to resting, we are better equipped to remain awake during yoga nidra.
In this article, I will discuss various tools to keep sleep at arm’s length, allowing you to practice yoga nidra without dozing off. It is important to point out that in a world where people are glued to technology, which invites and facilitates mental distraction, many of us are often sleep deprived. When there is a quiet opportunity and an ideal setting, the body will accept the chance to let go and embrace sleep. In order to relax, we first need to make sufficient deposits into our "sleep accounts." When our bodies are accustomed to resting, we are better equipped to remain awake during yoga nidra. Along these lines, if you find yourself always falling asleep in yoga nidra, it is a great indicator that you need more sleep. Only once sleep reserves are replenished can you then focus on practicing yoga nidra without falling asleep. That said, if you are unable to sleep and find that yoga nidra is conducive to a better sleeping habit, then go ahead and continue to use this practice as a sleep aide.
In yoga nidra, you may be asked (or you may ask yourself) to stay awake via an affirmation such as "I am awake and aware" at the beginning of the practice. If you feel that you are drifting off, reminding yourself of the affirmation may be enough to ward off sleep. If it's not, you may waver between states of wakefulness and sleep, especially if the practice is 20 minutes or longer. This is why it's helpful to begin with yoga nidra practices that are 5 to 10 minutes long. Once you can remain in a deeply relaxed state for that amount of time while following the guided yoga nidra script, you can then pursue longer practices—gradually working your way up to 40 minutes or longer.
There are many yoga nidra recordings available. Choose a practice based on length of time, teacher voice, and content (pick a script that you connect with). Familiarity with the script offers additional relaxation, allowing the journey inward to feel known and trusted, which helps some practitioners. Once you find a script that works for you, practice the same yoga nidra again and again. In this way, you will be able to grow comfortable with the script in its entirety over time.
When beginning a new yoga nidra practice, the most common experience is to drift in and out of consciousness—some parts you will remember, and others you will not. Although it is said that we receive the entire practice subconsciously, it is still useful to know what you are focusing on in a practice (for example, sensations like heaviness and lightness, or visualizations such as entering a forest or watching waves collide against a rock). One exercise that I do after yoga nidra is to reflect on my practice by journaling, writing down what I remember about it. This may include those parts of the practice I was alert for; what I remember about the body scan; any realizations about my experience (for example, feeling my body sweating when prompted to feel the heat of my body); my initial intention for practice; and anything else I find important.
A physical reminder to stay awake will keep you from slipping into dreamland and potentially snoring away in class. Try this: Lying in shavasana with your arms by your sides, bend one of your elbows so that your fingers point toward the sky. The upper arm and shoulder rest on the floor and only the forearm and hand are in the air. Every time you doze off, your hand will fall toward your body or the floor and awaken you.
Setting a timer can also serve as a physical reminder to remain awake. (This is appropriate only for a private practice rather than a group setting, as it could distract others.) The timer should be at very low volume, barely audible, and set to the tune of bells, chimes, or gongs. The senses are enhanced during yoga nidra, and what might ordinarily seem an average volume level could be jarring or shocking while in a meditative practice. You do not want to be startled. I remember once being in a yoga nidra class that was set to live drumming. Very cool in theory, not so delightful in my experience. I must have drifted off, and I awakened to what I thought were the loudest thumps and bangs ever—I sprang right up, heart racing and fully alert. My whole body was propelled into shock mode. I use this as a cautionary reminder to set those timer sounds very low, or even on vibrate, so that they serve as just a gentle reminder to ask ourselves if we are present during practice. You may want to set your timer to go off after every five minutes or so, or just a single time during practice (the latter would be more appropriate for shorter yoga nidra sessions).
Traditionally, yoga nidra is practiced lying on the floor in shavasana (lying on your back). But to prevent dozing off, you can vary the position in which you practice. One option is to lie on your side. It's said that lying on your right side will induce a calming, restful sensation that may be conducive to the practice of yoga nidra—perhaps because when you're lying on your right side, you are better able to breathe through the left nostril, which helps to keep the ida nadi, which corresponds to cooling passive energy, open and flowing. However, I would encourage you to choose whichever side feels more comfortable to you. In fact, it's generally recommended that pregnant women practice longer yoga nidra sessions lying on their left sides so that the inferior vena cava (which brings blood from the lower half of the body back to the heart) is not constricted.
Some suggestions for propping the body while lying on your side include placing blankets under the body to pad the mat for a softer surface; placing blankets under the hip bones; a bolster behind the back to provide a sense of comfort and grounding (since the back is not on the floor); a folded blanket between the thighs and/or shins; feet on blocks; and more blankets under the head and arms to support shavasana on your side.
Seated yoga nidra is another option. In this case, sit in a chair with your feet firmly on the floor, or on blocks if the feet do not come comfortably to the floor. Let your hands rest in your lap, and keep your spine long. Use any sort of prop under the knees that will help you maintain a long spine with as little physical effort as possible.
Practice yoga nidra at a time of the day when you have a lot of energy. If that is right in the morning for example, you might rise a little bit earlier in order to make space in your morning for a practice. This way, you will not feel as much inclination to fall asleep during the practice.
We are each our own harshest critic. Do remember that falling asleep in yoga nidra isn’t a bad thing, but neither is striving to stay awake. As long as we use the practice to learn about ourselves, our habits, and our tendencies—rather than judging ourselves for not staying awake the entire time, not achieving "perfection," or not seeing major transformations after just one session—we will move further and more quickly in our practice.
I hope these tips are useful in your yoga nidra journey, and that the fruits of your practice benefit you greatly. In the words of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois: “Do your practice, and all is coming.”