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In these stressful times, our bodies need rest more than ever. NSDR and yoga nidra are both tools that can help you let go of anxiety and racing thoughts and even fall asleep. But, which practice best suits your needs?
The Roots of NSDR (Non-Sleep Deep Rest)
NSDR was reportedly coined by Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, who has been studying—and practicing—it for more than a decade. In an interview with podcaster Tim Ferris, Huberman says he chose the term and acronym because he believed it would be more palatable to people who are not comfortable with meditation or yoga.
He says NSDR involves both a self-directed state of calm and focus on something, such as breathing or a visualization. NSDR is a catch-all term that encompasses practices as wide-ranging as yoga nidra, hypnosis, or even a nap to achieve a state of deep rest. According to Huberman, NSDR has been shown to also enhance the rate and depth of learning as it effectively “recharges your brain.”
NSDR is not to be confused with ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), a genre of relaxation-inducing videos that have swept TikTok and other social media platforms, usually featuring someone whispering into a microphone while also performing various other “triggers” like clicking sounds with the mouth, crinkling paper, or using a hair dryer.
To practice NSDR, Huberman recommends either a free self-hypnosis app called Reveri or a guided meditation that slowly takes you through a series of focusing on breathing, then sounds, visualizations, and body awareness, for up to 30 minutes.
What is yoga nidra?
Yoga nidra, also known as “yogic sleep,” is an ancient practice dating as far back as 700 B.C. According to yoga experts who teach it, yoga nidra is more complex than a routine you can pick up by watching a Youtube video. Rather than compare it to NSDR, Ayurvedic and yoga therapist Indu Arora believes it’s more similar to meditation and Savasana (Corpse Pose).
“Yoga nidra is a bridge between the last two steps of yoga: meditation and samadhi [a state of meditative absorption],” Arora says. “You do certain practices in which you actually slowly detach from the physical body, the mental body. You actually do some practices which are bringing you back to the core. The practice of yoga nidra is abiding [remaining in place] in that center.”
Certified yoga therapist Jennifer Reis, who created a teacher training called Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra, describes the practice as a lying-down guided meditation. While Reis utilizes the same protocol each time she teaches it, she acknowledges there is a great variety of styles and ways of delivering the practice.
However, there are certain ways to prepare for yoga nidra in order to get the most out of the practice, says Arora. Lying in Savasana or chanting Om enable you to enter a state of being that enables you to practice the technique. “Om is the journey into yoga nidra where the silence that follows the humming sound describes the state of yoga nidra.” In the Sikh tradition, this “silence” that follows sound is called naad or the “vibration of the cosmos.”
However it is achieved, yoga nidra involves entering different mind states, Reis says. “It draws you into the unconscious and subconscious levels of mind while you are awake,” she explains. To get there, Reis’ protocol guides the practitioner through the five koshas, or levels of being. These include the Physical body, the Energy-Breath body, the Mental-Emotional body, the Intuition-Witness body, and the Bliss body. “There are different levels that are being awakened in specific stages,” she notes. This step-by-step process induces deep relaxation.
What Reis describes as a series of different mind states, Arora calls brain wave modulations. “It is the dormant presence of delta brain wave modulations, which is only noted in a human being when someone is in deep dreamless sleep, which in another language is called non-REM sleep, she explains. “When you are able to produce the same brain wave modulations and go into non-rapid-eye-movement sleep, but with awareness—relaxed awareness—that is called yoga nidra.”
While Reis uses the koshas to achieve yoga nidra, others might take a journey through the elements, from Earth to water to fire, says Arora. An Ayurvedic practitioner might use the pranas. “Everyone will approach it in a different way but, ultimately, [yoga nidra] is a state of dissolution—it is a state of nothingness,” Arora adds.
Is yoga nidra dangerous?
This profound state of nothingness is not for everyone. Because yoga nidra can tap into the unconscious and subconscious mind, Reis takes precautions with individuals who struggle with mental disorders such as PTSD. In those cases, she might guide them to stay more grounded in the physical body during a yoga nidra practice, or to take shorter journeys of 5 to 10 minutes before stretching sessions out to 20 minutes or more.
Arora agrees that for a person with PTSD or under the influence of mind-altering substances, yoga nidra can lead to hallucinations and should only be practiced under supervision—if at all. “What can be beneficial for everyone is a simple relaxation practice where we learn how to relax the body and we learn how to relax the breath,” she says.
The benefits of yoga nidra
And relaxation is, ultimately, what yoga nidra is about. Reis says a deep relaxed state can be achieved in a session lasting a few minutes or as long as 45 minutes. Because she combines different types of meditation (body scan, mindfulness, visualization), there are many potential benefits, including reducing stress, aiding sleep, relieving pain, and boosting immunity.
But Arora the proposed benefits are not the point of yoga nidra. “The benefits of yoga nidra are in the process of it,” she adds. “It allows us to experience the state of yoga and maintain the state of yoga.” This happens through building awareness. Getting in touch with the body and mind is another positive “side effect” of regular practice.
While yoga nidra practices can be readily found in app stores and on YouTube, Arora suggests learning from an individual who has deeply explored the practice, preferably in an established training program. Whether you experiment with NSDR, deep relaxation, Savasana or yoga nidra, do it with intention. “These practices require a lot of self-inquiry, a lot of contemplation, a lot of hard work to get to know ourselves and to be ready to be with ourselves,” she says.
So, what’s best for you?
NSDR is probably better for people who wish to find a simple daily routine that reduces stress and enhances concentration for difficult or mentally taxing tasks. Yoga nidra might be the right choice for those who already do yoga and want to try an ancient method that can be incorporated into their current practice in order to experience a deeply relaxed state of well-being.
Ziba Kashef is a freelance writer and author of four books. Formerly an editor at Essence and Pregnancy magazines, she specializes in health, mental health and lifestyle topics.