The benefits of sleep yoga

Neuroscientists are unanimous in their opinion that yoga nidra can improve our ability to cope with stress and promote mental health. But how exactly does “yogic sleep” work?

The profound effects of yoga nidra have been intriguing scientists for decades and by now there is a solid body of work in the scientific world that explains the mechanism of this practice.

Yoga nidra, or “yogic sleep” is a meditation practice, a method of systematic conscious relaxation and even a technique that may help us attain our highest potential.

It’s been gaining a lot of popularity in recent years, and for a good reason – in the age when the Earth seems to be spinning faster by the second, not to mention pandemic stress and an increasing inability to switch off our busy minds, yoga nidra offers a mental refuge, a restful break that practitioners claim feels like another dimension.

The promise and benefits of yoga nidra are enticing, and meditators claim that they can viscerally feel its effects – a noticeably calmer state, better quality of sleep and stress management are just the beginning of yoga nidra’s plethora of wonders. But do we even know how it works?

It turns out we actually do.

Yoga nidra and your brainwaves

The practice of yoga nidra begins as you are prompted to feel your body and your breath using a technique called nyasa, in order to trigger the relaxation response.

The relaxation response balances the two aspects of your nervous system: sympathetic (commonly called “fight-or-flight” mode) and parasympathetic (“rest-and-digest” mode). This in turn aligns the activity of your right and left brain hemispheres.

In the process, your brain shifts from beta brainwaves (an awakened state with lots of brain activity), to alpha brainwaves (a more relaxed state that is associated with sitting in a relaxed position with eyes closed and visual channel disconnected).

There is a scientifically proven link between anxiety and how much time we spend in a state where beta brainwaves prevail. So as you move into alpha-state, you are slowing down the brain activity and beginning to shift into a restorative, restful mode.

Next, yoga nidra takes us even deeper – into the theta brainwave state, which is associated with very deep relaxation, creativity, memory consolidation and stress release.

But the most enticing part is that yoga nidra is capable of taking us all the way to delta state, which is characterised by very slow brainwave oscillations. This is the most restorative and restful state, in which our organs and organ systems can regenerate and repair themselves.

Sadly, under normal circumstances, very few of us get to experience delta states on a regular basis, which means we are not allowing our bodies and brains to restore completely and to regenerate our vital systems. This is why adding yoga nidra to your menu of self-care practices is so important.

Yoga nidra and your brain chemicals

Not only does yoga nidra have an effect on our brainwaves, it also affects the production of hormones and neurotransmitters in our brain and bodies.

As the parasympathetic system gets activated in yoga nidra, there is a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. Excess cortisol is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity amongst others. So, by indulging in restful yoga nidra meditation you are offering your body an opportunity to metabolise excess cortisol from your system and enjoy better health and vitality.

In addition to decreasing cortisol, yoga nidra boosts the production of serotonin – the neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, mood, behaviour and even appetite. Serotonin also helps the body to heal wounds, regulates anxiety and reduces depression.

Yoga nidra practice also increases the production of GABA – an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. GABA slows down signals between nerve cells and helps us keep calm even in stressful situations, regulating anxiety, stabilising mood and lowering muscular tension.

As if this was not enough, yoga nidra also stimulates the production of pleasure hormone oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin has become popular in recent years as scientists have discovered its role in parental and romantic bonding, sexual arousal and reproduction. It’s a chemical that makes us feel good: safe, calm, secure and at ease. It regulates blood pressure, reduces pain and makes wounds heal faster.

The best news is, yoga nidra is a meditation practice that is just as suitable for a beginner as it is for an experienced meditator. It is restful and effortless, and will definitely help you relax and forget about stress. What’s not to love!

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