Imagine a scenario with me:
Imagine you go to see a psychotherapist and decide to work with him to help you with some issues you've been facing in your emotional life and relationships for a while. You feel stuck and everything you try doesn't seem to help. After explaining all this and talking about a lot of different things during the first session, the therapist brings up the idea of homework.
After imagining worksheets or something boring, you're pleasantly surprised when he brings up doing a daily meditation practice designed for just the kind of issues you're having. He says takes about half an hour to do every day. You haven't meditated before and aren't sure you can do it and say so. He reassures you, "This is a very easy practice. Just listen to this recording once a day and follow along with the instructions. I think you'll enjoy it actually." He also explains that this isn't the sort of meditation that requires sitting on the floor or doing anything particularly special. In fact, traditionally it's done lying down, like at the end of a yoga class. He adds that it's optional; you can try it and not continue if doesn't work for you.
In the end, you're impressed at his conviction that both the meditation and the psychotherapy will help your problem from different directions--that they'll work synergistically to help you resolve your problems more quickly and easily. He also indicates that the meditation will help with your sleep (which has been a problem off and on) and help you to unwind from stress.
After you get home, you decide to try it. The therapist has emailed you an mp3 which you conveniently cue up that evening. You do find it relaxing. In fact, you fall asleep. But over the next week, you find you enjoy making the meditation part of your routine, and find you only fall asleep when you're utterly exhausted from the day.
The next time you see the therapist, he explains that falling asleep is the biggest "side effect" of the meditation and not to worry. Even when you're asleep, he says, the meditation does some good. And probably you needed the sleep. You have a good session with him and are beginning to feel a bit better, even though it's only been a little over a week.
As time passes, doing the meditation feels quite natural. You discover you can be deeply relaxed when you do the meditation and still be aware of what's happening, and you actually fall asleep rarely. You find this relaxation and sense of awareness slowly carries over into your daily life:
Things that normally catch you or bother you up seem more matter-of-fact. You feel as if you're making different choices about how to respond to your life. This leads you to change some significantly things in your life--things you've thought maybe you should change for a while but now have the perspective and will to do something about. A quirky physical issue you didn't know was related to your level of stress starts to improve. You find working with the therapist insightful and gives you another way of looking at your relationships and the patterns of your life up to this point.
Over time, it feels like your life has gone from riding white knuckled in a canoe down rapids to gliding along on a beautiful mountain lake. It's not clear exactly why things have changed, but they definitely have.
As you might guess from the title of this blog entry, the meditation in this scenario is a practice called Yoga Nidra. Despite its Sanskrit name, this practice is very accessible and is designed for modern times. In the 1940s and 1950s, a Swami named Satyananda Saraswati created this meditation style, adapting it from much more complex and esoteric Hindu practices that were available at the time. It has continued to evolve and be modified by other meditation teachers since then. There are actually many varieties of yoga nidra now, including those taught by the Bihar yoga school (which Satyananda founded), a form adopted for working with trauma and anxiety called iRest, and types adapted by other schools of yoga, and various yoga teachers all over the world. In its current form(s), yoga nidra has pieces that are similar to mindfulness meditation (especially the body scan and mindfulness of breath--two of the most common mindfulness practices), and also has elements that are like hypnosis or guided imagery. There are other elements that are similar to Hindu or Buddhist tantra, and there are elements that are unique.
The best general description I can give is that it's a guided deep relaxation practice that's made up of smaller practices that all work together, like a well-formulated multi-vitamin or a Chinese patent medicine. The practice is non-dogmatic, requiring no spiritual experience or beliefs, and is very straightforward to do.
As a psychotherapist, I have been attracted to yoga nidra because it is so compact and easy: A lot can happen in the 30-45 minutes it takes to do yoga nidra. It's not a big time commitment for someone with a busy life, is easy to do, and the effects are good.
It is also infinitely adaptable. Meditations can be tailored for specific goals or to solve specific problems, and with specific people in mind: I have been working, for instance, on yoga nidra recordings that are suited to help with common problems that bring people into therapy. You can get one of these practices here if you join my e-mail list (which, at the time of this writing, will send you notifications of when I write more blog articles).
Based on my study of yoga nidra, hypnosis, traditional medicines, mindfulness, and related psychological models, I've also started designing yoga nidra practices especially for certain people or groups of people. This really is akin to formulating a Chinese or Tibetan herbal formula that treats a specific condition in a specific person with few (if any) side effects. If you know anything about Chinese herbal medicine, you know this can be quite a spectacular thing.
This personalization is also relatively rare: Although Swami Satyananada would do this, most yoga nidra is taught in yoga studios and/or is based on general scripts. If you attend an open yoga nidra class, you'll get a very general experience. Although these general experiences can themselves be therapeutic--deeply relaxing, meditative, spiritually relevant, mindful experiences--they're only a part of what is possible.
That said, this practice is not magical. I hope nobody reads my scenario and sees anything supernatural or unrealistic: therapy (and beneficial change in general) is still work. And I would still recommend having a therapist to work with in concert with using a home practice like yoga nidra if using it as part of a treatment. Yoga nidra is also not a replacement for other meditation practices. I continue to recommend loving kindness or mindfulness practices instead if those are what are what would be of most benefit. My intention is simply to convey that this is a great tool.