Tantra and Yoga Nidra
“At the point of sleep when sleep has not yet come and external wakefulness vanishes, at this point being is revealed.” (Vigyana Bhairava Tantra)
The above quotation, from a more than 4000 year old text, describes an experience in the relaxation Yoga Nidra.
Tantra is a timeless tradition with methods for raising consciousness. The word Tantra means to expand – consciousness, knowledge of life – and to liberate – one’s self.
To meditate or philosophize
The ‘real’ Tantrics use methods and gain experience – they act. They don’t philosophize, and are reluctant to write down anything at all. If they do, then it is solely for the purpose of inspiring others to do something themselves, to meditate for instance, instead of philosophizing.
Not everyone comprehends what it means to walk the path of self realisation. For the teacher, the object is to teach those who are receptive and who will actually use what they learn, but, to withhold his knowledge from those who are merely curious or sensation-seeking and who are only curious and without sense of the deeper perspectives – wanting just a little taste only to hurry on to something else.
Intentional language in Tantra and elsewhere
Much of what we find in Tantra is therefore secret; it was either not written down or was written in code language, which in Sanskrit is called Sandhabhasa.
These codes, or paraphrasing, may appear as innocent stories. Well, not always innocent: they may also have a sexually-explicit content to scare or fascinate, so that the reader would not discover the hidden content of the text. The real practices, if they were written down at all, were hidden in rituals, religious or sexual texts, or behind names or numbers that would have to be swapped with other words. They can only be understood by someone who has already been initiated. And even then, the practices described in the scripts remain veiled in allusion, compared to when one receives guidance directly from another individual.
This was not only an Indian phenomenon; but was also found in other places, among them in Iceland, where it was called Launmál (hidden language), meaning that behind the story, lies another story, an initiation, a practice.
The aspirant is tested
The aspirant receives various tasks over a long period, to ensure that his or her attitude is open and receptive. It is important to know whether he or she will misinterpret the teacher’s actions and intentions, and if the person in question will really abandon fear and habitual thoughts about his or her own limitations.
Also, the student must be prepared gradually with various easier practices, and above all, his or her patience must be put to the test. Life in an ashram, or in the teacher’s home, can provide the right environment for this training.
My teacher Paramahansa Satyananda stayed with his teacher Swami Sivananda for twelve years in Rishikesh. He did mainly Karma Yoga there, which consisted of various practical tasks in the administration of the ashram and in its printing press.
Later, he travelled around India as a mendicant. For a period of his wandering years he had the possibility to withdraw and, among other things, practise the methods he had learnt in his daily association with Swami Sivananda. Swami Sivananda had also put him on the track of secrets in the yoga and Tantric tradition, which, during his travels, he could find, draw forth, investigate and practise himself, before passing it on to others.
My teacher Swami Satyananda
Swami Satyananda was an exceptional teacher. No one else, either before or since, has elucidated the Tantric practices to such a degree. As early as 1963, he began to teach, among other things, the deep-relaxation Yoga Nidra. In 1968, I learned different Yoga Nidra variations directly from Swamiji. In texts from the Indian middle ages, we find exact descriptions of the content of Yoga Nidra. They are more or less inaccessible, and how one can make use of them is not clear. Swami Satyananda understood how to reveal these methods, and through his teaching, show them as usable and beneficial techniques.
Theory or practice
It is my experience that the more one talks of, for example, meditation, instead of practising it, the less one’s mind believes it is necessary to do it – after all, you ‘know it all already.’ The problem is that merely ‘knowing’ has no effect. The body and mind have no use for knowing if the exercises are not applied.
A few years ago, I experienced something interesting during a one-month Kriya Yoga retreat that I held. Students come to learn the great Kriya Yoga in silence. They have been prepared during previous courses with various yoga and meditation methods and with a certain amount of theory. Apart from a few talks and discussions at the start of the course, I felt an urge to just let them meditate, do yoga and generally be engaged with practical tasks. In other words, I had no desire to give lectures during the period of silence, which was quite appropriate as the students do not talk, write or read anything during this time. The silence helps remove the deeper lying tensions and maintains a good balance in the brain while also increasing the ability to experience.
Nevertheless, about halfway into the silent period, I needed to clarify a few things and to theoretically explain a little of how you can let go of automatic reactions and habits in the nervous system and in the mind. The lecture I gave that evening was, I am sure, inspiring for both the students and myself.
The following morning, the students had a physical yoga class with another teacher. After the class, the teacher told me that the awareness and concentration present the other mornings was not really there that morning. The students had daydreamed a little and time and again it seemed as though they had to force themselves to follow the instructions. It only happened that one morning during the entire course – the rest of the time they were quite alert.
When the silence was over, I asked them if they could remember how they felt the morning after the lecture. I promptly received an explanation from one of them with which the others agreed. He said that the interesting things they had heard the evening before had filled his head to such an extent, that his mind thought his body no longer needed to do the exercises. It was not necessary – ‘he knew it all already’.
Conception or experience
What is theory worth, when it is not based on experience? If theory comes first, the intellect will block the experience with expectations and too much effort. At the same time, a know-it-all attitude hinders the openness to follow guidance (for example, in a meditation). This kind of attitude gets in the way of sensitivity and the ability to experience what cannot be expressed verbally or in written form.
It all quite easily becomes indoctrination. You are told how it is, instead of experiencing it yourself. Opinions and concepts become something learnt by rote and clung to, believed in, and defended, even though they are not based on personal insight and first hand experience.
Take a word such as meditation. It has widely become a concept. The mind can come up with all sorts of ideas about what meditation is and actually avoid the essential. “Oh, but I have my own meditation,” and then you sit and dream a little. You never leave the limitations of the mind behind. Some even get the bright idea to teach on the grounds of such notions. And there are those who claim to receive answers to all sorts of things in their meditation. It is probably true, but oh, they never leave their minds in peace.
It is the same with the word relaxation, which is used today to describe all kinds of things, from hypnosis to music.
Already in the 1970’s, I recognised the problem with these labels as I prepared the release of a Yoga Nidra tape. I wanted to make clear what Yoga Nidra was about and called it a deep-relaxation. It only took a few months before that description was used for every kind of possible and impossible ‘relaxation’.
Today, unfortunately, the name Yoga Nidra is also used for relaxations that have nothing to do with the effective technique that stems from the Tantric tradition and Swami Satyananda.
Meditation is a break from all impressions, a way of emptying the mind. It is also a search for one’s true identity, one’s centre – and for this, you need methods that ensure you don’t cheat yourself, but really reach your innermost.
The ritual in meditation helps you bypass the limitations of the mind
Classical meditations from Tantra show such an approach. The Tantric ritual consists of methods, which continuosly occupy the mind, leaving the thoughts to do as they please and drift by in the background. There is no need to struggle with them. You have something else to do. And if for a moment, you become preoccupied with a thought, then all you need to do is realize it, remember what it was you were doing, and return to your practice.
Kriya Yoga is an example of this, using methods that open and cleanse the energy flows in the body, raise the level of energy and create an absorption that is independent from the mind’s endeavours, expectations and ideas.
In Yoga Nidra, you do not try to relax, but rather your mind and body is occupied with the methods given, experiencing the increased awareness. Therefore, one cannot hold on to any attitude or tension. The instruction ‘to relax’ is not given. You are never asked to feel relaxed, no such suggestions are used. The relaxation is triggered – it happens by itself, without effort.
How long can one concentrate on a thumb, for example? One second? Two? The mind wants to go on to something else. Therefore, the restlessness of the mind is accommodated and consciousness is transferred to the index finger, then the middle finger, and so on. The mind is occupied in such a way that it does not have time for anything else and therefore it cannot hold any tension.
The purpose of the sexual ritual
” While being caressed, sweet princess,
enter the caressing as everlasting life.”
(Vigyana Bhairava Tantra)
The famous or notorious sexual rituals (of which I have written a variation in the book Yoga, Tantra and Meditation in Daily Life) are good examples of Tantric rituals and practices having other purposes than people normally think.
It is usually believed to be an excellent therapy for people with sexual problems, or is thought to help achieve greater sexual freedom, and intensify sexual enjoyment. Yes, it probably does – but it has another purpose.
“At the start of sexual union,
keep attentive on the fire,
and, so continuing,
avoid the embers in the end.”
It is a matter of capturing the mind, and the sex drive is well suited for this purpose.
“When in such embrace
your senses are shaken as leaves,
enter this shaking.“
When you are prepared through all the various practices belonging to the ritual, then the desired result is inevitable.
“Even remembering union,
without the embrace,
The purpose is to expand consciousness and increase the energy.
A timeless and living tradition
Anybody who proves to be suitable and receptive can share in the Tantric knowledge. A knowledge that is so comprehensive that its methods can be compared to contemporary science. In addition to techniques to expand, raise and liberate human consciousness, Tantra also contains mathematics, astronomy, healing practices, and art of the highest calibre. It could be said that the Tantric tradition contains all conceivable means of helping people through life – and in mastering themselves.
Unfortunately, it has become fashionable nowadays to associate Tantra with sexual rituals alone. They are, of course, part of this extensive system, just as there are people who benefit from using them – but they are just one small part of the rich Tantric tradition.
An uninterrupted experience
“The meaning of life
life itself provides,
until we begin
to inquire “
(A Grook by Piet Hein)
The mind can imagine all kinds of things, both too much and too little, and it loves to argue, it loves to discuss. It can prove anything, and it can just as well disprove it. But you don’t have to let the activity of the mind interrupt your meditation. Accept your mind’s activity – and let it be. Return to the practice again and again.
When you dare to receive directly – when you do not expect sensational ‘experiences’ or demand an answer for everything – then you can begin the transformation. The methods remain secret until you are ready to use them. You learn Kriya Yoga in silence.
Not giving out the methods to the uninitiated is a principle Tantrics have in common with Celtic druids (for whom it was directly forbidden to write anything of what they had learnt), the Egyptian initiates and with the indigenous people (Aborigines) living in the deserts of central Australia. Contrary to the Celtic and Egyptian elite, Tantra was and is part of the local culture.
The treasures of Tantra are not only reserved for a learned social class, but also form part of the living tradition in many villages, where knowledge and experience are passed on from person to person for generations.
The initiations are based on an uninterrupted process of transformation. In an altered state, you see through your previous limitation. The initiation is a ritual in the sense that the mind is constantly occupied until it lets go and opens up for new insights and possibilities. Yoga Nidra is such a ritual:
We are now going to deal with a group of methods and practices that are used in the Tantric rituals – also the sexual ones. They are part of what we popularly call relaxation and meditation. Their purpose is to alter the state of your physical body and of consciousness, so that you become present, receptive and sensitive to what is further happening in the ritual or in the meditation.
These methods have a collective name: Nyasa.
According to the Oxford Sanskrit English Dictionary, the word Nyasa means:
“to place, to set on or in, to use, to touch”.
What is touched are the body’s various parts – what is placed, is a mantra (sound), for example, on the appropriate places.
It is worth noting that the dictionary further defines Nyasa as:
“Mental consecration or allocation of various bodily parts to guardian spirits“.
This definition is correct, as far as I can see, but is insufficient as it stands. Apparently, the ‘facts’ elucidated in encyclopaedias depend on who is supplying the information; the diverse and at times peculiar or limited definitions of Yoga and Tantra are clear examples of this.
The purpose of using Nyasa in Tantric yoga is to awaken consciousness. With that in mind, however, I will now quote a definition by Agehananda Bharati:
“Literally, Nyasa is the process of charging a part of the body, or an organ of another living body, with a specified power through touch.“
And he continues.
” For instance, by placing the fire mudra [a way of holding the fingers when touching] on the heart region uttering the fire-mantra ‘ram’, the adept’s heart is made into the cosmic fire…”
” The little human” (motor homunculus) shows, along the marked band across the cerebral cortex, which regions of the brain are linked with the various parts of the body
Nyasa can consist of touching the various bodily parts by hand. It can be performed by oneself, or by one’s partner or teacher. But it can also be done mentally, by thinking of the specific areas and calling them by name. This happens, for example, during the teacher’s guidance of Yoga Nidra.
Nyasa also involves the placing of a mantra (a sound, a syllable or combination of syllables, a string of words) on different parts of the body. This is done mentally, or the mantra can be said aloud.
These methods can be combined so that you touch your body, or that of your partner, at the same time as you name the mantra for the place that you touch.
The Sanskrit alphabet, just like runes in the Northern countries, does not only serve as a group of letters used to form words, but also each letter has an inherent power, a vibration that forms the basis of the science of mantra. In one form of Nyasa, the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are distributed over the whole body. This is called Matrika Nyasa:
“Matrika is the source of all mantras, the origin of all sciences and the soil from which all the principles, all sages and all knowledge are born.” (Laxmi Tantra)
Matrika Nyasa is a different form of Nyasa from that which is used in Yoga Nidra. But if you have experienced the Deep Yoga Nidra you will be able to see the similarities between one of the larger sections of the relaxation and Matrika Nyasa.
The earth, water, fire, air and ether (space) elements also play a role in Nyasa. The body is divided into five parts, each with its own element.
And as previously mentioned, the body and its various parts can be consecrated to one or more guardian spirits – even to planets or holy places. The name of the spirit or god, of the planet, place or element is then added to the string of mantras and recited aloud or repeated mentally.
Naturally, Nyasa is used because it has an effect on the body and mind. It’s not just an empty ritual. Nyasa is related to, and possibly predates, Shiatsu and Acupuncture. But whereas these other two methods are based on the physical body and its energy points, and are mainly used for healing, Nyasa is more than this, in that it also has methods for ‘touching’ and awakening our numerous dimensions, e.g. through the psychic chakras.
The long and deep Yoga Nidra is based on simple and therefore very effective variations of Nyasa, from beginning to end.
Once you have followed the guidance in the deep Yoga Nidra, you are familiar with the way you move your awareness through all parts of the body; with how you experience heaviness and lightness, warmth and cold, pain and pleasure. And with how you get in contact with the chakras in different ways, and experience certain symbols, landscapes, pictures etc.
There are several dimensions to our being. In daily life, we are familiar with the body, breath, thoughts, emotions, moods – and with states like wakefulness, dreaming and sleeping. But there are other states such as the meditative, the shamanic, the hypnotic, the intoxicated … The dimensions of the human being can be described from the basis of different backgrounds. Jung and Freud introduced concepts such as the conscious, the subconscious, the unconscious and the libido. In the European occult or mystic tradition, there are concepts that, to a certain degree, correspond with those of other cultures: the physical body, body humours (as in Ayurveda), vital energy, the astral body and the causal body. Similarly in Europe, there is, or was, a concept such as bliss (intense and independent happiness).
In the Indian texts, the Upanishads, we find the following description of the human dimensions:
The five sheaths
(from the Paingala Upanishad)
“Then the five sheaths made of food, vital air, mind, understanding and bliss.
What is brought into being only by the essence of food, what grows only by the essence of food, that which finds rest in earth full of the essence of food, that is the sheath made of food. (Anna-Maya-Kosha) That alone is the gross body.
The five vital airs, along with the organs of action constitute the sheath made of the vital principle. (Prana-Maya-Kosha)
Mind along with the organs of perception is the sheath made of mind. (Mano-Maya-Kosha)
The understanding along with the organs of perception is the sheath made of intelligence. (Vijnana-Maya-Kosha)
These three sheaths (of life, mind and intelligence) form the subtle body.
The experience of one’s own form is the sheath made of bliss. (Ananda-Maya-Kosha) That is also the causal body.“
The purpose of Nyasa and of Yoga Nidra is to touch and experience the various planes, to awaken consciousness in areas where it is normally dormant due to tensions. It can be in such ordinary places as organs and muscles. The tensions are thereby released, but that is only one step of the process. The aim is to realize that you are not bound to just one dimension, but that you contain them all – and this leads to the insight that one’s true identity is the experiencing consciousness behind it all.
It is more than just an idea, it is something you realize – an insight.
In order to see the use of Nyasa in another light, let us look at what we call Chakra.
Chakras, the psychic centers, small and major
By means of the Nyasa method, you go through the body mentally at such a pace that you only have time to mentally touch the places named in the guidance, and not enough time to think of anything else. Thus you release the relaxed state. By thinking of these body parts, or feeling them, the whole body is gradually made conscious – as are the respective areas in the cerebral cortex (see the illustration of ‘The little human’).
Energy whirls and flows
The subtle body, or energy body, consists of numerous energy whirls or points of consciousness. They are also called chakras and are evenly distributed over the whole body. Between them flows Prana, the psychic energy, through channels traditionally called nadis. These minor chakras are touched in Yoga Nidra. (Compare with Sei or Gen points and Ki or Chi energy and Meridians in Chinese medicine, see also Yoga and the finer energy).
In itself, the body is one big chakra: a point of consciousness, an energy whirl.
The major chakras
On the physical level, the major chakras are central areas in the body, which are linked to the nervous system and the nadis.
- They are found above the perineum: Muladhara;
- in the spine: Swadhisthana, Manipura, Anahata, Vishuddhi;
- in the head: Lalana;
- and in the brain: Ajna, Bindu and Sahasrara.
There are a few others, but these are the ones most commonly used.
The various dimensions of a chakra
A chakra is not only physical, but consists of all the human dimensions. A chakra can be regarded as a microcosmic image of an individual, just as an individual is possibly a microcosmic image of the universe. That, at any rate, is what the Hopis (in northern Arizona) say:
“The living body of man and the living body of the earth were constructed in the same way. Through each ran an axis, man’s axis being the backbone, the vertebral column, which controlled the equilibrium of his movements and his functions. Along this axis were several vibratory centers which echoed the primordial sound of life throughout the universe or sounded a warning if anything went wrong.”
(Book of the Hopi, F. Waters)
The chakras were known to many other cultures; the alchemists and Gnostics in Europe and the Inuit of Greenland and Canada, are but a few of the more evident examples.
Initially, the body is brought into harmony with yoga exercises. Then blockages in the energy flows are removed by breathing exercises and relaxation techniques. Yoga creates a solid and lasting balance in the entire organism and in the area of each chakra. Thereafter, additional consciousness is brought into these centres by the use of Yoga Nidra, Kriya Yoga and other Tantric meditations. Now begins a cleansing of the old attachments, habits and inhibitions (vrittis) rooted in our actions and mindscape.
Once you are not carried away by deeply embedded patterns and behavioural traits (samskaras) that have been imprinted on the mind through the ages, then the chakras are ready for awakening.
During the awakening, which comes and goes at first, until it has become completely established, the encounter with the contents of the various planes of consciousness continues.
“An individual’s destiny is determined by his or her unconscious radiation,“
a Danish writer, Poul Martin Møller once expressed.
The relationship between body, mind, emotions and vital energy (prana) is mediated through the major chakras. When they are awakened, you gain insight into the different layers of your being, and into your normally unconscious reactions. You realize how your states influence the outcome of your actions.
Eventually, the chakras can be fully opened – and the filters that interpret the cosmic energy rays or vibrations are gone. When we no longer hold back, but allow all the chakras to communicate freely, with energy flowing unhindered through them, as it does through the universe, then we enter into a greater wholeness as true cosmic beings.
The Rainbow Dharma by Tan Swie Hian:
“In the wilderness, the voyager told the great white light,
‘I cannot look into you.’
The light immediately turned itself into eight rainbows.”
The above-mentioned phenomena illustrate how the various regions of the brain communicate better as a result of meditation; as evidenced by the results of scientific measurements and people’s experiences. Better contact with the emotions and between body and mind is achieved.
Tools for raising consciousness
Through Nyasa, to rouse consciousness in various parts of body and mind, and connect them with mantra (sound), yantra (potent diagrams) and symbols, has much in common with the way a chakra is made conscious or awoken.
The individual chakra can be touched in Nyasa in different ways, many of which are used in Yoga Nidra. Here are some of them:
- Through feeling the body’s contact areas (in the classical yoga poses, for example);
- Through tones and the finer inner sounds (this happens in Chakra Vajrohan, where tones are sung in each chakra; in inner Nada Yoga , sound yoga; and to a certain degree, in a particular form of Indian music, outer Nada Yoga).
- Through the mind, which has several dimensions, by naming the chakras, by placing their seed mantra on them, and by the use of symbols.
- Through the five elements, and their respective symbols and diagrams.
- Through animal symbolism (possibly a connection back to shamanism).
- Through energy, where breathing exercises also play a vital role in cleansing the energy passages (Nadi). In Nyasa, you tune into the frequency of the energy passages linked to each chakra by ‘placing’ letters or mantras on the lotus petals which represent these passages. See for instance, the four petals of Muladhara Chakra above.
- Through ‘keys‘ in the form of diagrams (Yantras) and symbols that create a contact with the chakras deeper dimensions.
- Through mandala (or deities) as seats for (or representation of) the cosmic energy that flows through the chakra and keeps it open and clean.
- And through consciousness itself.
Where does the knowledge of these instruments and symbols come from? We know that such things can appear in our dreams, and therefore one could answer that perhaps they come from that other reality, the inner one. Yes, but they also come from the experiences of the yogis. Descriptions of these keys are nevertheless only signposts along the way, to be confirmed or rejected by one’s own experience.
This has been about touching (Nyasa) and a little bit about awakening the chakras, but it is far from the whole story.
After a chakra has been cleansed and awoken through yoga methods and guidance, it begins to play a part in one’s conscious life. With the awakening follow special abilities and a greater sensitivity, a kind of sense beyond the purely physical.
Furthermore, some people can see when a chakra is active in another person. My first experience of this was when I saw a spiral-shaped cone of bluish grey energy, projecting from the eyebrow centre of a Danish yoga teacher I knew in my youth.
Chakras in Yoga Nidra
According to Paramahansa Satyananda, Yoga Nidra actually begins with the experience of the chakras.
In the deep Yoga Nidra – on the CD, Experience Yoga Nidra – apart from the methods mentioned earlier in this article, the eight major chakras are part of the process in order to contact the various planes of consciousness. I use the mantras and visual symbols connected to each chakra in accordance with the traditions of India and Europe.
When I started to produce Experience Yoga Nidra, I asked the Indian musician Roop Verma to enhance the relaxation by contributing special ragas from the Nada Yoga tradition. He did, and was further inspired, as the first musician ever, to also record the ancient musical symbols of the chakras. This unique music has been merged with my guidance in the Deep Yoga Nidra.
The chakras are often spoken of in connection with Kundalini Yoga, a set of methods and meditations that can be used to harmonise and awaken the psychic energy. Kundalini Yoga is mentioned in the Kundalini Upanishad, a more than thousand year old text, that was translated from Sanskrit by Swami Sivananda in 1935.
Note: The name Kundalini Yoga is also used as the trademark of a contemporary movement – although they do not teach the original and advanced Kundalini Yoga.
Kriya Yoga is probably the most profound and effective form of Kundalini Yoga. In a remarkable way, it can strengthen the body’s energy field, remove depressions, increase creativity and open you up for a first-hand knowledge of the genuine mystical or spiritual aspects of life.
The chakras have corresponding areas in the brain. When they are relaxed and harmonised during Yoga Nidra, the release of unwanted states such as confusion and lack of concentration begins. People who awaken their chakras through yoga and meditation, open up to a previously unknown capacity for communication, insight and creativity.
The awakening of consciousness through Nyasa releases tensions and lethargy, thereby healing illnesses; but more importantly, it brings you into contact with all parts of your being.
The guidance in Yoga Nidra, through the different areas of the body and mind, does not only make the body more conscious and more relaxed and awake, but also trains your ability to utilise the various regions of the brain, both those connected to the physical body and those connected to the chakras.
From research carried out at The State University Hospital in Copenhagen – based on my CD “Experience Yoga Nidra”, measured on teachers from The Scandinavian Yoga and Meditation School, it appears that different regions of the brain are activated according to the part of Yoga Nidra with which the mind is engaged, see Pictures of the brain’s activity during Yoga Nidra (however, due to technical limitations, it was only possible to measure four times during the relaxation and the section of Yoga Nidra dealing with the major chakras was not included in this research).
Another part of the research of the effects of “Experience Yoga Nidra” was carried out a year later in a hospital in London: It showed a “65% increase of the Dopamine production”. This ‘happiness hormone’ strengthens motivation and contentment. It can also be beneficial for Parkinson’s patients.
Stimulating and or cleansing
I have been fortunate enough to learn a Yoga Nidra that is in close accordance with Nyasa as it is used in Tantra. Just reading or studying the Tantric texts will teach you little or nothing of how Nyasa can be used, in such examples as Yoga Nidra.
In the text Laxmi Tantra, which gives guidance in the Tantric rituals and sexual practices, Nyasa ends a sequence, of which breathing exercises and the cleansing of the five elements are a part. This practice is called Bhutasuddhi, cleansing of the body. Here, Nyasa builds a bridge between inner and outer cleansing.
Does this mean that one cleanses the body and mind by mentally ‘placing’ a mantra on a certain body part or merely by thinking of that part? The answer is yes. Furthermore, by using a mudra (in this case, position of the fingers) or by mentally touching and thereby experiencing a part of the body, it is brought to life and made conscious.
Micheline Flak teaches yoga in France, and also leads R.Y.E., (research into children’s use of yoga in schools: You can’t make the grass grow by pulling it). She made an experiment during this section of Yoga Nidra, first with a group of yoga teachers on a seminar, and later in her daily teaching.
One section of Yoga Nidra involves going through all parts of the body, by thinking of them or feeling them as they are named in the guidance. You start with the thumb of the right hand, then the index finger and so on. In this way, you first experience the right side of the body, and then the left side. It is done in the beginning of Yoga Nidra and normally without interruption.
“When I had guided them through the right side of the body” – Micheline explains – “mentally feeling or touching different parts of the body in the fixed order, I stopped and asked them to notice if there was a difference between the right and the left side of the body.
Afterwards when we discussed it, the students were amazed by the difference experienced through such a simple exercise.”
The students remarked that they had felt that the side of the body they had just touched mentally was alive, light and at ease, while the other side, which they had not as yet gone through, was still in that normal, slightly heavy and tired state.
From my own teaching, I received the following account from a female student, who is now a yoga teacher.
“Many years ago, I took part in a three months course at Håå Retreat Centre. We had placed ourselves comfortably on the floor and as usual we were looking forward to a guided Yoga Nidra with Swami Janakananda. And what a Yoga Nidra! For some reason or other he went through the right side of the body twice – and skipped the left side.
The effect was soon felt! We all experienced a sensation which could be described quite literally as being lopsided. It was a strange feeling of having lots of vitality in the right side, whereas it was difficult to get contact with the left. It passed, but I was reminded of how strong an effect Yoga Nidra really has.” (Shanti)
In contemporary western culture, the word relaxation is used for all sorts of things. The actual word or term relaxation is not commonly used in Sanskrit in connection with yoga and Tantra. There, the field of ‘relaxation’ comprises various techniques, which are called by different names; the word cleansing (suddhi) being one of them, and the word Pratyahara another. The results of these methods are the same as what we achieve through what we term relaxation. Relaxation means to remove tensions – the body and mind are cleansed of tensions.
That the body and mind actually form a whole is common knowledge today. It is expressed by the word psychosomatic. Tensions of the mind create tensions in the body and vice versa; removing a tension in the mind removes it in the body. In Nyasa, and therefore in Yoga Nidra, this happens without trying to relax. One experiences the body consciously, and that alone releases tensions.
The resolution you make
Using a resolution in Yoga Nidra is good and effective. It would be foolish not to make one, when you can use it to influence the direction of your life.
You make only one resolution in order not to spread your energy and confuse your mind. If you use a number of resolutions or visualisations, you will probably achieve some results, but nothing deep and lasting.
For half an hour or longer, every day or once in a while, you can allow yourself to relax in the face of your usual thoughts and emotions and let them flow by. By momentarily not hooking on to everything that crops up in the mind, you remember who you are and doubts cannot take root. In the relaxed state, your resolution works with undiminished strength. (Read more about this in The little book on Yoga Nidra accompanying the CD Experience Yoga Nidra).
For the relaxation itself to be effective, the relaxed state should not be induced by techniques or methods that are based on hypnosis – one should not use suggestions to get into an artificial and limited state.
When you experience Yoga Nidra, you will notice that you are never asked to relax, or to imagine that a particular part of the body relaxes – the word relaxation is not used at all during the guidance.
Yoga Nidra consists of techniques that trigger a state where one’s being is vitalised – the result is a stable and unbroken state of relaxation in the body and in the entire brain while practising Yoga Nidra.
Nyasa (and thus Yoga Nidra) is fundamentally different from a lot of modern therapies.
“Do not waste your time trying to change people’s mentality. After you, some Hitler might come and ruin everything anyway,”
Swami Satyananda said this to me when I was ready to return to Europe to teach. He shocked me deeply by using such a potent picture – what did he mean by that?
What help is it to have everything explained to you by an authority before you have experienced it yourself? It is so easy to be influenced by someone who comes along, possessing a powerful image and a quick solution, allowing yourself to be taken in and have the wool pulled over your eyes. People cannot be free unless they learn that only through their own practice can they achieve real independence from influences and a transformation of body, mind and consciousness.
Swamiji meant, in other words, that rather than try to change people’s outlook and habits, I should help them, by giving them means that enable them to acquire an overview, insight and wisdom.
That does not mean that they should avoid consistency and perseverance.
Experience, realisation and insight are the opposite to hypnosis. Hypnosis is like burning incense in a room that smells in order to hide the odour. The ability to experience, to make conscious, is like cleaning the room and airing it. Personally, I do not want methods that program me, but ones that liberate me from old programs and expand my consciousness.
“Everything is hypnosis,” you might say – and I can understand why you might think so. We are influenced by all kinds of things from cradle to grave. That is exactly why we need tools to occasionally empty the body and mind of the accumulation of impressions, habits and automatic thinking.
Liberation, after all, lies in using awareness and insight in order to see through what influences us. The wise person does not react against influences, he does not try to stop them; instead, he experiences everything, and lets go of what he does not need. It is on this basis that meditation has come into being.
Myths, which we constantly create to avoid a direct experience of life, are very much a form of hypnosis. With hypnosis, notions of reality often take the place of reality itself. Throughout human history, there have been countless examples of people wanting to know what they should think about reality, instead of experiencing it for themselves. So armoured, they can disagree with ‘the others’, those who have allowed themselves to be led towards a different world view. Different interpretations of reality can then clash and, on a larger scale, create religious and political wars.
The individuals whose expectations are not met by the promises of the latest mythology or therapy, often end up in a state of bitterness and frustration – and look for the cause outside themselves. Even the teacher, who is available to help one out of limitations, is sometimes blamed. Regardless of how clever the teacher is, he cannot be held responsible for fulfilling the expectations of the students – provided that he or she has not helped to create these expectations. In the end, it is society and the individual him/herself who are responsible for the expectations they have and no one else is answerable if they are not met.
Intolerance towards those who think differently does not arise amongst individuals who are aware and who experience instead of theorising. My experience is personal and I realize that others do not necessarily need my experience and my interpretation – they have their own.
However, we all have more or less the same kind of organs and nervous system, and more or less the same kind of mind. We have learned this both through modern science as well as the millennia-old tradition and experience of yoga and Tantra. From this tradition, one can unearth and preserve techniques and methods that work regardless of which attitude to life, which nationality, background or age one has.
We must each make a choice…
Naturally, we need to make a choice in relation to what we want to do with our lives, and therefore a choice of influences and of resolutions that we want to follow. The reverse would be to sit behind the steering wheel of a moving car without taking hold of it and steering. And the higher we set our goal, the easier other things fall into place by themselves.
“The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence also moves.
A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no-one could have dreamt would have come his way.”
(W.H. Murray, inspired by Goethe)
“Whatever you can do, or dream you can; begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic. Begin it now.” (Goethe)
What Goethe expresses here is not a postulate, but an observation he wishes to convey, which makes him a mystic and not a ‘priest’ repeating doctrine by rote.
In this process, one must be aware of the balance between the capacity to influence (using one’s resolution in Yoga Nidra) and becoming conscious. The expression ‘to become conscious’ does not mean in my language to analyse and judge, but to touch and awaken, or to let oneself be touched while being aware and receptive, to participate.
To feel or just to think of a place, is enough to bring life to it. To be aware of the possibilities that present themselves in life and having the courage to accept them is to live consciously.
“A great saint, a mahatma, a yogi, a prophet or a gyani lives on this earth like any other human being. He thinks, enjoys and eats like others. The great difference between a yogi and an ordinary man is that he has awakened a dormant faculty in man called awareness, whereas the ordinary man has not. He is always aware. He is called a drastha – a seer. He is the witnesser of events. Your aim on the path to realising and awakening your dormant potential should be to gradually unfold this faculty of awareness within you. Become a seer…” (Paramahansa Satyananda)
To make conscious certain places in the body, by thinking of them in a precisely determined sequence, or by feeling these areas, or by mentally naming the places, is probably the easiest, the most original, and therefore the most fruitful of all Nyasa practices – together with the experience of warmth and cold, heaviness and lightness, pain and contentment, and everything else Yoga Nidra consists of, like Chakras, mantras, symbols and landscapes.
In the Deep Yoga Nidra, all the parts of your being, all your potentials, are touched, named and vitalised through Nyasa, and it is precisely this experience which creates well-being and clarity. The aim of this is to experience that you are not bound to any one layer of consciousness, but that your full awareness can include all. This leads to the insight that your real identity, the experiencing consciousness, is in or behind it all.
“When awareness is separate and distinct from mental activity,
when waking, dream and deep sleep pass like clouds,
yet awareness of Self remains,
this is the experience of total relaxation…
That is why, in tantra,
yoga nidra is said to be the doorway to samadhi.”
It is due to Paramahansa Satyananda’s genius that we can use this effective method of Yoga Nidra today, and we must credit him for revealing Nyasa through the Yoga Nidra relaxation in a way that can benefit everybody.
A final note
The state of the one who is guiding Yoga Nidra is important; that person must have a long and deep experience of yoga as such, before he or she ventures to guide this extraordinary practice.
This knowledge was not only stressed by Swami Satyananda in his teaching but it is an insight that is shared with, for instance, Professor Larry Scherwitz in his talk with Professor Thomas Schmidt found in the article:: “Most of the stress we generate ourselves …” :
“Yoga has an age old tradition, but today it is often used in a superficial way, and sometimes people call themselves yoga teachers who have not had a proper and thorough training. Do you think that it is important that people that teach these yoga and meditation techniques really know what they are doing?
The training of the yoga teacher is very important. We have found in teaching the 12 hospital groups that it doesn’t work so well to take a nurse and teach her yoga for six weeks, and then have her to be the yoga teacher. It’s better to take a yoga teacher who has been practising for 20 years and teach him or her some medicine – about the heart and how to take care of patients.
So it’s not simply a little training that’s important. The transformation of who one is, that one knows oneself, is something one achieves through many years of work with oneself – that one has peace and confidence and inner enthusiasm motivates the patients to use yoga too. So it’s very critical.
I wouldn’t want a yoga teacher to have less training than a physician, or a surgeon. Our experience is that we need dedicated yoga teachers who’ve been doing this for a long time.”
Illustrations: The naked woman lying in Yoga Nidra and the yellow yantra at the very end were made by Bjarke. The photo of Swami Janakananda was taken by Omkarananda. Muladhara Chakra was prepared by Anandananda. The picture based upon the different coloured oval shaped forms was created by Swami Janakananda and prepared by Turiya.