Most people live in a state of high tension. Modern technology has distorted space and time, leaving man ill-equipped to meet these changes. With the telephone it is easy to cut through distances of hundreds of miles in minutes. Modern travel has again shortened time. We have breakfast in one place, and before its taste leaves the tongue, we are at lunch in a different place.
Having such facilities has increased the pace of life. Opportunity and competition have developed in all spheres - business, educational, professional and social. Success in any area acts as a motivating factor for increased striving.
In most cases, recreational activities fail to bring down tension. Many people think that a change of pace, playing a game, visiting friends or listening to music can bring about relaxation. However, these techniques do not always succeed, primarily because the individual often has worries at the back of his mind all the time he is trying to relax. Tension manifests in a thousand ways - irritability, headache, fatigue, poor memory, restlessness, stomach upsets, weeping spells, respiratory and cardiac problems.
Paradoxically, people take better care of their cars, television sets and bank accounts than of their bodies. The food they eat, their meal timings, their ideas of rest or activity which decide their movement, the mental strain in keeping up with the Joneses, are all silently abusive to an instrument which has an infinite sensitivity to changes. We are sophisticated and poised on the exterior, but violent and destructive within ourselves.
Dr. William Ostler wrote in 1910 that: "The ordinary high pressure professional man suffering from angina pectoris (a severe form of chest pain) may find relief, or even cure, in the simple process of slowing the engine." However, in the course of laboratory studies, it has been found that a person can lie apparently quiet for hours on a couch and yet have a racing heart and a high level of mental activity, as a consequence of which he will feel un-refreshed even after the so called 'rest'.
It is therefore obvious that one must learn to relax rather than take relaxation for granted. When the mind is under stress, the body secretes a hormone called adrenalin, muscles become tense and there is marked activity of the inner organs like the heart, blood vessels, colon and bladder. The visceral nervous system whips up the central nervous system, which in turn reinforces the former. Like a wheel, this goes round and round, and the individual finds it difficult to cut through the vicious circle in spite of a tremendous amount of motivation to relax. One system must become quiet before the other becomes quiet.
Is it possible to relax one's internal organs? Laboratory investigations show that it is. If one sufficiently relaxes the skeletal muscles, over which one has control, it is possible to relax the internal organs. More often than not, one needs to learn the technique of relaxation.
If a technique helps to relax the body completely, will the individual then be completely at rest? Not necessarily so, because the mind may remain active. Even during sleep, the mind is active. This is why we dream. How does one relax the mind? We often hear people say: 'I understand there is no need to be upset, but I cannot help being hurt or angry.'
Why is it that logic does not always help in an emotional situation? It is important here to understand what the mind is like. Freud divided the mind into three distinct regions: conscious, subconscious and unconscious, which were distinguished from one another by their relationship to the total consciousness.
The conscious is the everyday functioning mind about which we are normally aware: 'I wish to relax, because I feel uneasy.'
Another mode of functioning of the mind is aimed at avoiding displeasure. It respects logical connections, but censors unpleasant thoughts. It helps to justify or rationalise sometimes unhealthy attitudes by interpreting them in accordance with one's values. It represents desires that cause disturbances. This slightly subtler but different way of functioning is called by Freud the subconscious or preconscious.
The unconscious forms more than three-fourths of the mind. Ordinarily its contents are inaccessible to consciousness except in dreams, states of illness or meditative states. It disregards logical connections and permits contradictions to coexist. It contains memories and desires in the form of symbols. The unconscious also contains the intuitive and creative aspects of mind. We are aware of the conscious level; the subconscious we can reach out to; but the unconscious is inaccessible through words. This is why we can go and talk to a friend, or go to a psychotherapist about a deep seated conflict without getting real help. The therapist cannot often reach a patient's unconscious through words. This is why people often say: 'I know there is no need to be upset, but I cannot help getting angry or hurt 3. Logic does not touch the unconscious, which harbours deep seated conflicts, most of which cause mental disturbances and do not allow an individual to relax.
Yogis have recognised this problem from time immemorial. They saw man as a whole entity composed of various subtle bodies:
Beyond the mind is the spiritual dimension. The yogis knew that unconscious conflicts could distort perception, cause uneasiness and inefficient action, and they had techniques that could deal with this effectively. To tame the mind- the whole mind, including both the subconscious and unconscious - was the aim of yoga nidra.
'Yoga' means union - from 'yuj', to yoke - to unite with what is highest in oneself, and 'nidra' in its correct form, is relaxation. Thus, yoga nidra is total relaxation combined with self-awareness. A dissipated mind is at war with itself, weak and un-relaxed. The magic of a powerful mind is total self-awareness. This is the yogic secret.
Most western psychotherapeutic techniques produce physical relaxation and superficial quietness, but the deeper mind sits like a tiger in its cage deceptively quiet and ready to spring when least expected. Yoga nidra, unlike all other techniques of relaxation, induces mental and emotional stillness along with physical relaxation, because of its continual emphasis on self-awareness.
Out of a vast repertoire of methods in the yoga and tantra shastras, Swami Satyananda Saraswati has picked up one with particular relevance to the conflict ridden modern world and compiled it into a practical guideline in his book Yoga Nidra.
Yoga nidra in itself can be used as a meditation technique.
The posture of shavasana is in itself one which aids in pratyahara or sense withdrawal. The person lies on his back with legs a little apart and arms away from the sides of the body so that they do not touch each other. During the practice, the mind is directed to feel approximately 76 parts of the body and visualise them rapidly and systematically. This method helps the body to relax while awareness is maintained. After this, the awareness is shifted to the breath at the nostrils without forcing or changing it. The eyes remain closed, and when the subject has learned the technique, he gives himself the instructions mentally, thereby lessening the auditory stimuli.
Normally the mind is continually affected by external stimuli, except in sleep. In the state of pratyahara the mind learns to rest within itself and relax, while the subject is fully aware of the relaxation. Total relaxation cannot take place without awareness. With the usual auditory and tactile stimuli at a low ebb, the mind can only be agitated by inner impressions, problems, complexes, fears, worries and memories. These are called samskaras and they can cause much turbulence. Yoga nidra, in its advanced form, uses symbols and images that bring the samskaras to the surface of the mind and eliminate them. Normally many people push down fears and anxieties and avoid facing them until they explode. Yoga nidra is a process of gently and consciously accepting and purging the mind of its dross - without repressing it. This way we can understand the real nature of the mind and come to terms with it.
Physiologically, blood pressure drops and there is a slowing down of metabolism.
The best time to do yoga nidra is early in the morning and just before going to bed, as these are the quiet hours of the day conducive to relaxation. However, it is possible to practise the technique any time provided one does not have a full stomach. Bodily aches and pains can be removed by a few preliminary asanas.
It cannot be overemphasised that a beginner to yoga nidra must take guidance from a qualified teacher who will know the requirements of the individual concerned. A flippant use of the technique can cause problems. Used judiciously, yoga nidra can help an individual flower into a mature personality - fearless and creative.