I've always been a pretty good sleeper. I can easily fall asleep anywhere: on the ground, on a plane, on a long car ride — you name it. But recently, my coronavirus insomnia has been turned up a notch. I've been finding myself wide awake at 2 a.m., exploring some random rabbit hole on TikTok (I'm currently deep in Bimbo-tok) when I should be enjoying a dream. Luckily, I came across something called yoga nidra, aka sleep yoga, and I think it could change my life.
Sleep yoga is a form of deep relaxation meditation, explains Hilary Jackendoff, a Los Angeles-based yoga nidra and meditation teacher. "In yoga nidra, we're seeking to disengage entirely from the senses in the same way that we do during sleep," she says. "That's part of how it trains you to sleep more deeply, and reduces sleep-onset insomnia." (That's a fancy term for having serious trouble drifting off.) "And it enables you to feel rested even if you haven't slept," " Jackendoff adds, "Over time, it repairs sleep cycles and also allows you to deepen your sleep quality."
The word yoga may be making you think of downward dogs and pigeon poses, but yoga nidra is a little different. It's performed lying down, for one. And all you do is listen to a set of guided instructions for relaxation, delivered by a yoga nidra teacher in person or online, and follow along. "Surrender and follow the guidance of the teacher to the best of your ability," Jackendoff says. "Pay attention without trying too hard."
The practice often starts off with a body scan, bringing awareness to specific parts of your body one at a time while relaxing your muscles and deep breathing. This is meant to help ease you into a conscious, sleep-like state. Different teachers have their own techniques. In Jackendoff's Yoga Nidra for Deepest Sleep, for instance, she also has you travel back through the day's events, listen in to your own heartbeat, reflect on your goals and needs, and create a statement of intent. So you may want to listen to a few before deciding whether the practice is or isn't for you. There are plenty of free recordings you can find by doing a quick Google or Youtube search, and Jackendoff has sessions available to listen to on Insight Timer. The good news is that yoga nidra can't be done wrong, she says, so don't sweat it if you feel like you're not really able to "let go."
Perhaps counterintuitively, the point is actually to stay awake during the meditation. In fact, Jackendoff recommends practicing yoga nidra in the middle of the day, at around 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., when most people tend to experience a natural lull in their energy levels due to the body's natural circadian rhythms. The dose of relaxation will carry over to the night, so you’ll fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply once you do hit the hay. And if you have insomnia, this afternoon session gives your exhausted body and mind a chance to rest, helping you function better for the rest of the day. That said, I popped on a recording in the middle of one particularly restless night, and I fell asleep almost immediately.
Jackendoff says that practitioners often claim that 20 to 30 minutes of a sleep yoga session can be as restful to the body and the mind as two to four hours of deep sleep, because it affects the brainwaves in a way that mimics what happens while you doze. Even so, she emphasizes that the practice is only meant to help people sleep better, not replace sleep.
There aren't many large, peer-reviewed studies that prove what Jackendoff claims. But one recent study of 95 participants found that listening to an 11-minute meditation every day for a month lowered stress, increased well-being, and improved sleep quality, reports the journal Current Psychology. Other research available has shown that yoga nidra can help ease stress, which can certainly have a favorable effect on sleep. A very small study of 11 Vietnam War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder showed that practicing weekly yoga nidra increased feelings of relaxation, peace, self-awareness, and self-efficacy.
Even if the practice doesn't have a huge impact on your sleep, lying back and zoning out for a few minutes after lunch or before bed certainly won't hurt you. In fact, you may find it kind of habit forming. I, for one, love being able to count what feels like lying down and zoning out as "yoga" — and if it continues to help me combat my COVID-induced insomnia, even better.