Literally translated, yoga nidra means yogic sleep. But, as I have experienced it, the practice entails entering a liminal dream space, not actually falling asleep. Elsewhere on this site, you’ll find a lot of exercises for getting yourself into hypnagogia or hypnopompia. You can also get there through yoga nidra. My book, Liminal Dreaming: Exploring Consciousness at the Edges of Sleep, contains a chapter about yoga nidra from which this content is excerpted.
Mention of yoga nidra goes back as far as the Indian epic the Mahabharata, though modern forms of the practice were initially formulated in the 1960s and 1970s. Through guided meditation, practitioners slowly withdraw the senses to achieve a hypnagogic state in which they achieve deep Samadhi. Practitioners come to rest in the deepest possible state of physical relaxation while maintaining mental acuity. Yogis use yoga nidra for a wide range of purposes, from conquering insomnia to healing physical maladies to spiritual exploration.
Practicing yoga nidra usually entails getting into a relaxed position—generally lying down but it can be done sitting up as well—and listening to someone guide you through a series of steps. At some point in this process, you enter hypnagogia. I usually find myself there during the process of rotating consciousness through the body, but there are several steps in which people usually drop into what I consider to be liminal dream space.
I’ve done both initial and intensive teacher training with Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, co-founder of the the Yoga Nidra Network and initial teacher training with Richard Miller, founder of the iRest school. During one of these trainings, at the end of a week of multiple nidras a day, I had a next-level hypnagogic experience.
During the last yoga nidra of the day, as I sank into myself, I realized I could hold a vast, swirling, and ever-changing world of thought and image in my mind in incredibly fine detail. In a single moment, I saw a bird made of glitter in flight, the sun reflecting the shimmer of its wings; I floated above the spires of an ethereal, imaginal sci-fi city awash in watercolor blues and purples; I looked through a rusted rack of satanic rock records from the 1970s set on a strip of lawn in front of my grandparents’ house; I remembered a human-driven Ferris wheel I saw in Burma and recalled the quality of the sun on my skin; I felt the unbelievably soft texture of the mat on which I was lying. All this happened in a single moment, and completely changed in the next. Throughout it, I maintained awareness of the room, and heard the teacher’s words and the breathing sounds of other students.
It’s impossible to describe the complexity and detail of this experience. My awareness felt vast, and yet totally honed and granular. Sunlight glinted on each bit of glitter of the bird, highlighting the beauty and fluidity of its movements, so it appeared as a solid thing though it was really a cluster of glitter flakes moving as one, almost like a flock of birds. I sank into the memory of the Ferris wheel, both aware I was recalling the experience and at the same time feeling as if I was the younger version of me in the scene I was remembering. I appreciated the unreal quality of the city, with its spires and onion domes solid but moving and melting like wax. I noted the detail on each of the album covers. One cover had a pentacle against a mostly black background; another had an old woodcut of the devil drinking from a chalice. In that moment, I recalled several other dreams I’d had that took place at my grandparents’ house, a place I often return to in my dreams. I listened to the sound of the teacher’s voice, ignoring what he said but experiencing it at the same time. This single moment contained more than I can explain, and in a moment shifted to an equally rich moment, and then another, and then another. Trying to describe it is like trying to explain a wave by detailing every drop of water. I think this was truly the most psychedelic experience I’ve ever had.
The myriad benefits of yoga nidra include relaxation, mediation, healing, and extraordinary experiences with consciousness. There are several schools of yoga nidra. I recommend experimenting with different styles until you find one that’s right for you. I offer a few links to free nidras by people with whom I have studied, but a quick search will turn up many more.