I’ve had a revelation over the past week. I signed up to a yoga nidra teacher training, mainly out of a whim, and now I am definitely a convert. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it before – I’ve always fallen back on yoga nidra when feeling restless or unable to sleep. But practicing it every day has weirdly left me feeling incredibly inspired and creative – I’ve come up with so many ideas for new projects and ventures!
So what is it about yoga nidra? I’ve gone through the literature to look for studies that interrogate yoga nidra and its physiological impact. I want to keep this digestible, so I’m breaking it up into chapters. Chapter one is mental health.
But let’s start with the basics…
What is yoga nidra?
Yoga nidra is a type of guided relaxation and meditation (also sometimes called yoga sleep), which has routes in both the ancient texts of yoga philosophy and in modern psychology (a true example of the magic that can happen when cultures mix).
A yoga nidra session will typically involve a phase of scanning through the body, a phase of focusing on the breath and some kind of visualisation exercise, although the exact mix will vary depending on the teacher and school they follow.
Does it really help with mental wellbeing?
In short, the evidence seems to say yes. All the studies report improvements in participant wellbeing compared to baseline, including reduction of how stressed participants felt, their levels anxiety and depression, as well as improvements in perceived quality of life and ‘happiness’.
Stress and anxiety
In studies evaluating impact on stress, yoga nidra was found to reduce perceived stress among a variety of study participants, including teenagers, university students (1, 2), college professors, nurses, and older adults. Yoga nidra also significantly reduced anxiety – super interesting is that the same study compared yoga nidra with mindfulness meditation (MBSR-based mindfulness of breathing) and found that, while both were better at reducing anxiety than the control, only yoga nidra had a significant effect compared with baseline (ie anxiety before the programme started). This might be because it doesn’t require as much focus as mindfulness, although this is definitely just a hypothesis.
Yoga nidra improved depression and depression-related symptoms in older adults, although this was no different to the improvements in the control group, who listened to music instead. Another study among university students also found significant improvements in depression (but had no control as far as I can see).
But you have caveats again, right?
Yes, sorry. I love yoga nidra and there is clearly evidence to show that it helps with mental health. But, as usual with yoga and psychology studies:
- There are only a handful of studies out there – I can see so much research opportunity, but there is obviously little funding opportunity out there
- The studies are small! 20–60 participants on average. But at least I’ve managed to find a wide range of demographics.
- Not all of them were controlled and one was based on qualitative feedback only.
- Is it the same as yoga? Is it the same as mindfulness? Is it the same as other meditation? Is it the same as just lying down for 20 min and listening to relaxing music? More studies need to unpick this.
- As usual, I could only access and review a couple of them beyond abstracts so I can only go on what the abstract says.