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The Principles and Practice of Yoga Nidra

© Richard C. Miller PhD

Foundational Stages
There are a number of foundational stages that make up the structure of Yoga Nidra. Each stage emphasizes a different body-sheath or kosha as they are referred to in Yoga. These sheaths include, as we mentioned before, the physical body, the energy body, the bodies of sensation, emotion, thought and imagery, and the bodies of bliss and ego identity. Each kosha may be likened to a territory we travel to during the process of Yoga Nidra. Upon arrival, we explore and map out the territory of each kosha - - getting to know it, so to speak. We have no agenda in our exploration other than being with the various sensations, images, thoughts, etc., that we encounter as we explore. This perspective of having no agenda is an important consideration to understand and contains within it a profound spiritual paradox that we must reconcile.

The aim of Yoga Nidra is for us to discover who we are. But who we are is not an object that we, as a separate experiencer, can discover. We can never see ourselves as we would an object that appears separate from us. We can only be who we are for our Essential Essence is non-objective Presence or Awareness.

When practicing Yoga Nidra it is easy to be confused that there is something we are trying to obtain or do. But anything that we obtain is not who we are as it remains a fragile object in our awareness. So Yoga Nidra is not in the becoming process. Yoga Nidra can never take us, through striving, to what we are. When we strive we are actually going away from who we are. Striving keeps us fixed in a mental image that prevents us from being who we are.

Each kosha represents a way our mind has turned what is actually a non-conceptual Unity into a conceptual, objectified perception. But all objects that are beheld in awareness ultimately dissolve as they return to their original nature as Presence. And Presence is what we are. With each dissolving of what we thought we were, we come to what we are. With a mind oriented in the understanding that what we are is not an object, each kosha is welcomed just as it is. When we live in this attitude of welcoming, the solidity of each kosha deconstructs, and we spontaneously disidentify from each body-sheath. As koshas dissolve we realize our natural ground of being which is non-objective, Pure Presence.

Intention
In the first stage of Yoga Nidra we assert our intention to enter into the practice of Yoga Nidra. We acknowledge that we will give the practice our undivided attention. This intention sets the direction and tone of our practice. Our intention is to remain focused and undistracted throughout each session. Yoga Nidra is therefore connected to mindfulness training, training the mind to return to its natural state of one-pointedness.

Our mind is currently many-pointed. It appears to be going in many directions at once, moving from thought to thought and from object to object. Our constantly changing mind sees a constantly changing universe comprised of innumerable separate objects. This constantly shifting mind is distracted, pre-occupied and identified with the pairs of opposites like attraction and repulsion, pleasure and pain and satisfaction and dissatisfaction. These pre-occupations reinforce our sense of duality and provoke feelings of separation, isolation and alienation. From the perspective of Yoga Nidra the many-pointed mind is the cause of suffering.

On the other hand the process of Yoga Nidra evokes the natural one-pointed foundation of the mind. One-pointedness exposes the Unity underlying the changing nature of the mind. And Unity awareness dissolves the misperception of dualistic thinking. With the disappearance of duality the underlying background of peace, joy, and serenity breaks through into our everyday living. And with the dawning of Unity Consciousness, we intuitively realize that the apparent multiplicities of the world are, in actuality, expressions of the underlying Unity Consciousness.

It is important to establish a firm intention at the beginning of our practice. As we enter deeply into the process of Yoga Nidra we come close to the state of deep sleep. Dream-like images, sensations, thoughts and emotions spontaneously appear. When our attention wanders we identify with these movements and unconsciously fall asleep. Our forthright intention at the beginning of Yoga Nidra affirms our aim to witness these mental dream fragments rather than falling into an unconscious sleep with them. So we set the intention right from the start, to remain alert and aware even while hovering at the edge of sleep consciousness.

During Yoga Nidra we witness the body/mind while having the experience that our body is actually asleep. This is the paradoxical process of being awake while asleep that Yoga Nidra invokes. This can be a strange experience at first. But this orients us as the witnessing Presence.

Our true nature is Presence. And Presence is always present, aware and awake whether during waking, dreaming or dreamless sleep. When the body falls asleep, the mind identifies itself as a dreamer. When the body is awake the mind identifies itself as the waking doer. In our identification with the waking and dreaming ego-I, the fact that Presence is present is missed. The mind is caught up in the foreground movements while the background remains uninspected. As the mind’s identification with being a waking and sleeping doer dissolves witnessing consciousness becomes more apparently present. We find ourselves being the witness that is always aware and always awake. When objects are present there is witnessing of these objects. When objects are absent, as in dreamless sleep, witnessing is still present, but with nothing to witness but itself. This is why, upon waking from dreamless sleep, we are able to report that we had a wonderful sleep.

As witnessing moves into the foreground we identify ourselves with and as the witness. But we still feel separate from what is being witnessed. But as this identification deepens this stance of being separate collapses and we find ourselves being witnessing. In being witnessing there is no separation between the perceiver and what is being perceived. There is only perceiving, there is only witnessing. In being witnessing we openly live our true nature as Unity Consciousness knowingly knows itself whether during waking or sleeping consciousness. This is the culmination of the process of Yoga Nidra.

So our initial intention during the first stage of Yoga Nidra is very important. Self-inquiry demands undivided attention and total interest. The consistent practice of Yoga Nidra develops mental clarity and the ability to remain one-pointed. So we begin with the intention to remain focused, to be present, in each and every moment.

Prayer and Affirmation
After we have acknowledged our intention we move onto the next stage of Yoga Nidra. Here we evoke the heart-felt prayers that are living inside of us. These are prayers we hold about loved ones or ourselves. They may be prayers about health, healing, gratitude, compassion or enlightenment. We acknowledge and bring these prayers into clear detail in the forefront of our conscious mind. As we ponder them, we bring them into the present tense. We don't hold our prayers for the future.

The future never comes. When the future arrives we will still be standing in the present moment. When we were standing in the past we were likewise, standing in the present moment. We are always living in the present moment. When we think of the future we are thinking about the future in the present moment. The same can be said for the past. So we phrase our prayers in the present tense. Instead of saying "I will be healthy," "I will gain enlightenment," or "my friend will be cured of disease," we say "I am healthy," "I now rest in enlightenment," or "my friend is healed and healthy." The future will never arrive. There is only now. When the future comes, it will be the present moment. So we always set our prayers in the reality that they are already true, now.

Then, once our prayers are acknowledged, we set them aside. We come back to them at the end of our practice of Yoga Nidra when we are in a disposition of complete openness. In openness our prayers are not future events, but present moment actualities. Living our prayers as actual facts opens them to their full potential and power.

Bodily Rotation of Consciousness
Now that our intentions and prayers are in place, we begin the next stage of yoga Nidra by systematically rotating consciousness through the Anamaya Kosha—the physical body sheath. Our objective here is to re-awaken the body into its pristine natural state of infinite expansion that has no center or periphery.

While we presently experience our physical body as defined by boundaries it is actually a vibrational expanse radiating into infinity. But this is not likely our present lived-experience. In fact, we are numb to many of the physical sensations that are present in our body. This is one reason why disease processes go undetected for months or even years before they erupt to the surface of our awareness

When we are unable to perceive the subtle on-going sensations that our bodies are constantly offering up, we must wait for the grosser impressions to emerge into consciousness. Unfortunately, by the time we recognize these grosser symptoms it may be more difficult to bring forward the healing that is necessary for a speedy recovery. As we attune to the subtle resonances of the body through the processes of Yoga Nidra we become sensitive and creative caretakers of these beautiful temples we call our bodies.

For instance, take a moment and feel the sensations that constitute various areas of your body such as your mouth...your ears...your eyes...your scalp...your shoulders…your hands...your abdomen...your legs...and your feet. While some of these areas are easily experienced, others may be only faintly perceived. Yoga Nidra invites us to re-awaken these buried sensations and bring them blazingly to the forefront of consciousness.

When we rotate awareness through the body we begin and end in a particular order. We begin in the mouth and end in the feet. The areas we primarily work with are richly supplied with nerve fibers and reflex to the sensory cortex in the brain. If you were to see a picture of the sensory cortex mapped onto the human body, a homunculus or "little person" with enlarged features would appear. When you look at the picture you see that the tongue, mouth, lips, face, hands, genitals and feet are enlarged to a greater extent than the torso, arms or legs. So during bodily rotation of consciousness we begin with the tongue and move to the throat, mouth, and lips, and on into the hands, down through the pelvis and into the feet. As we move through the physical body we simultaneously travel through the brain by way of the sensory cortex.

This method of rotating consciousness through the physical body insures a quick and profound relaxation in the body and brain. And when we rotate consciousness through the body over and over again, practice after practice, we create pathways of conscious awareness. This process re-awakens the native disposition of the physical body as an expansive vibration. Where once we experienced the hand as a dense mass of sensation bounded by the walls of the skin, now we experience the hand as a vast field extending outwardly and inwardly in all directions into infinity. We find that the body is a vastness unfathomable to the mind, unlimited by conceptual boundaries. And we realize that this is the truth concerning all objects. All objects are radiating energies without distinct boundaries. Everything, taken together, is One radiating pulsation, vibrating from itself into itself.

Vitarka, Vichara, Ananda, Asmita
During Yoga Nidra we pay attention only to the naturally occurring phenomena in the body/mind. We invent nothing. We deny nothing. We have no agenda other than exploring and mapping the territory we are investigating. From this perspective, Yoga Nidra is not a strategy of self-improvement. We are simply observing the natural attributes of the body/mind. Listening and welcoming are our tools and Yoga Nidra is our path. In this attitude of listening and welcoming we are simply open to what is without intention. Since we have no goal, we are open to openness itself.

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About The Author
Richard Miller's teachings come out of his direct experience of living truth as echoed in the timeless teachings of nondualism found in Advaita, Zen and Chan. He is recognized as a leader in the field of nondualism, honored by Yoga Journal and featured in American Yoga and Will Yoga and Meditation Really Change My Life? Richard is the founder and director of the......more
 
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