I used to think sleep issues were hereditary. Growing up, when I’d tell my mom I spent the entire night tossing and turning, she’d simply shrug and say no one in our family is a good sleeper. As I got older, and with the help of therapy, I realized that there were things I could do to combat my insomnia. I’ve done it all—sipping calming tea, taking melatonin, and powering down my phone—but for me, the only thing that works every time is prepping for the next day. If I write down everything I need to tackle and choose what I’m wearing ahead of time, I can almost always fall asleep quickly.
But on the days I still can’t fall asleep or had to wake up extremely early without enough hours of shut-eye, I have a new secret: yoga nidra. I discovered it on a recent visit to the Ritz Carlton at Amelia Island, Florida, where they have in-house Yoga Nidra experts, including Liam Gillen, who led my 30-minute class. Yoga Nidra is the best kind of yoga because you’re literally required to do it laying down—as in, yes, not moving at all. You don’t even need to hold your head up.
Yoga Nidra is the practice of entering the conscious state of mind that falls somewhere between sleeping and being awake. You’re "awake" the entire time you practice, but you’re not exactly alert. The goal is to enter a conscious sleep state and totally relax your brain, therefore releasing any unwanted tension in your body. If you do it right, a 30-minute session can be equal to three to four hours of restorative sleep for the body, according to Gillen. Here's what happened at my first Yoga Nidra experience and how you can recreate the meditation at home.
"Yoga Nidra is the best kind of yoga because you’re literally required to do it laying down—as in, yes, not moving at all. You don’t even need to hold your head up."
As if laying down to do yoga wasn’t enough of a luxury, Gillen’s class also provided a blanket and headrest to allow you to get into a truly comfortable state. Gillen said the temperature of the room should never be a distraction, so if it’s drafty, you should make sure to cover up with a blanket.
Once I was completely comfortable and tucked underneath my blanket, the class began. Gillen instructed us to set an intention. Since I usually have a hard time completely letting go during a class or massage, I set my intention to be as open and as present as possible as the Yoga Nidra class took place.
It seemed I was already on the right track, as Gillen mentioned the term “letting go,” multiple times throughout the class. “True relaxation can only occur when you disengage the mind,” he says. “When we disconnect from the thinking (the thinking never truly stops, by the way), you disconnect, create separation from the waves, and tap into this really still, powerful place internally that’s at peace and sustains the body all day long.”
To start the process of disengaging the mind, Gillen instructed us to take some deep breaths. And then made us aware of each of our limbs, by asking us to lift each heavy section of our body (arms, legs, pelvis, head) and gently drop them back down. Getting a sense of how your body interacts with gravity was part of relaxing your thoughts. Gillen then led the class to bodily touchpoints and told us to focus on relaxing each space. He had us make fists and release them; he had us be aware of our mouth line and relax our muscles; he told us to have our jaw slightly opened in a relaxed position.
In between calling on the class to relax parts of our body, he’d make us aware of our judgment. Repeatedly, he reminded us that we can allow any distraction—either a noise distraction or a thought—to draw us further into our meditation. If we noticed we were getting sidetracked, he simply told us to use that to pull ourselves deeper into the peace we were exploring.
"True relaxation can only occur when you disengage the mind."
He then led us through a counting breath sequence that went like this: One I am breathing in, one I am breathing out; two I am breathing in, two I am breathing out, and so forth. After Gillen instructed us to return to our regular breathing, he described images to pull us deeper into the trance. He described snow-capped mountains in our view and changed them through various nature scenes.
At this point, I was fully relaxed. I felt my mind grow still and the distractions became infrequent. For me, when I hit a peak Yoga Nidra state, my body felt heavy, but still, my thoughts were completely in line with Gillen’s voice, and I woke up feeling like I had just crawled out of a long nap.
It really is that simple. The key is believing in what you’re doing, taking the process seriously, and actually making time for it. So how do you know if you’ve done it right? According to Gillen, the breathing sequences allow your body to relax, so even just spending a few minutes per day doing that will help you feel refreshed and calmer. But if you complete the 30-minute Yoga Nidra meditation by staying awake, hearing the instructor's voice louder than the distractions of wandering thoughts, and going through the breath instructions, you’re doing it right.
Gillen also stresses that optimal times to practice Yoga Nidra are as soon as you wake up, after lunch when your blood sugar drops, or at night before you go to bed, to truly lull you into a relaxing sleep. But truly, the point of Yoga Nidra is to stay awake. If you want to try practicing at home, all you have to do is lay down in a comfortable position, and you can play Gillen’s guided meditation videos. Whether you have five minutes or 30, practicing Yoga Nidra can turn your body off of fight or flight mode, and truly allow you to power down in a way that’s restorative.
But if you ever happen to be in Amelia Island, Florida, pay Gillen a visit. There’s nothing like truly making an effort to quiet your mind on vacation, and then rushing back to sit by the ocean as soon as your class is over.