A much-abridged list of places I’ve cried: Ikea, my thesis advisor’s office, a battleship, the A train, the C train, the 4 train, the F train – actually, most trains in the Northeast, including regional rail.
I never expected to cry at yoga, but that changed the first time I tried yoga nidra.
Let’s start with the basics: Yoga nidra is not regular yoga. You won’t do a single downward dog, flow through chaturanga, or break a sweat. Instead, you’ll lie perfectly still while your instructor prompts you into a meditative state that hovers between sleep and consciousness. In this state, the body feels asleep but the brain feels awake. The mind traces awareness across different parts of the body and images suggested by the instructor while the body experiences deep, deep relaxation. When I emerge from a yoga nidra class, I feel like I’ve woken up from a full night’s rest – it’s no surprise that the practice is sometimes called “yogic sleep.”
So how does it actually work? Yoga nidra and other meditative practices give the brain a break from the stress responses it’s peppered with all day long and activate the body’s recovery mechanism: the parasympathetic nervous system. We spend much of the day taking cues from the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers our immediate responses to stress. Yoga nidra deactivates this system, instead waking up the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us recover. The parasympathetic nervous system is nicknamed the “rest and digest” response, which makes total sense – yoga nidra made me feel well-rested and helped me process difficult emotions. The practice has been used in clinics for veterans, hospitals, and prisons because of its conduciveness to emotional healing.
Yoga nidra’s roots can be traced back to 1000 BC, but the meditative practice only recently became a mainstream offering in yoga studios. Interest in yoga nidra, and yoga in general, has boomed alongside the rise of the wellness industry, which grew from $3.7T to $4.2T between 2015 and 2019. While health and fitness consumers of the previous decade looked for ways to improve their bodies, today’s wellness-focused consumers increasingly prioritize mental components of bodily health. The number of adults practicing yoga in the US grew by 63% between 2012 and 2017, and the number practicing meditation grew by a whopping 282%.
After three months of weekly yoga nidra practice, I’m kind of stunned how many emotions have been shaken loose during my walks home from class. These emotions aren’t simply layered on top of my existing emotional ecosystem, they are drawn out from below it. If this sounds like something you want to explore, check your local studio listings for a yoga nidra class or try one of the many free recordings available online. And if you happen to find yourself tear-soaked afterwards, don’t worry – you’ve given your brain and body the recovery they deserve.