On a recent podcast*, Blindboy discussed the creative process with his guest, singer/songwriter Sinéad O’Connor as he interviewed her about her new memoir.** Asked about how she writes her songs, Sinéad responded that her subconscious really does the job for her. She sometimes wakes to a snippet of a song in her head and realises that something might develop from there. So she doesn’t force it; she just carries on with her day, fully confident after a lifetime of creating music that the song will be revealed to her if she just lets it happen. Over time, it comes together, more or less ready for her to write and sing. Obviously, Sinéad’s vast, inherent talent plays a huge part in the process. Still, the conversation got me thinking about the power of the subconscious.
Exploring a direct route to the subconscious is one of the joys of Yoga Nidra. Pioneered in the early 1950s by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, the practice is (arguably, as is the case with many yoga practices) based on ancient tantric techniques. The effort to reward ratio is pretty inviting. All you have to do is lie on the mat with your eyes closed and be guided by the teacher’s voice. It’s a particular treat for those of us accustomed to a dynamic yoga practice. I don’t think I’ve ever met a student who doesn’t love to be told, “now it’s time for Yoga Nidra”. But as you hover in that beautiful, tranquil space between wakefulness and sleep, what exactly is going on?
A lot that’s very good for us indeed, as it turns out. Research now shows that Yoga Nidra is good for our brain, body and entire physiology and psychology. Practised regularly, it reduces anxiety, improves concentration and memory, enhances creativity and helps you get a good night’s sleep.
Neuropsychology explains what’s happening: As the teacher’s voice guides you through your body, directing your awareness to your breath, around your body and through a series of visualisations, your brain activity responds. The constant internal chatter that fills our heads daily keeps us in our normal beta brain wave state. You know how it goes: what to have for dinner, what you might say at a meeting tomorrow, why your partner said that thing to you last night, who killed Erin in Mare of Eastown….and so on. And on. And constantly, incessantly on. Sanskrit has a word for this mind chatter: “Vritti”.
Beta waves mean the mind is engaged and busy, potentially stressed and anxious. When talking, interacting with people, and thinking our approximately 6,200 thoughts daily (yep, someone in a lab somewhere has counted them), we’re experiencing beta brain waves. This Beta state is where we hang out most of our waking hours.
The job of Yoga Nidra is to guide us gently away from there to where initially, our alpha brain waves take over. Slower and higher in amplitude, the alpha waves show up when the mind first starts to slow down, suggesting that we’re beginning to chill. In this state, Seratonin, the chemical that triggers wellbeing and happiness, kicks in. When we’re content, and in psychological flow, we’re in the alpha state – immersed in something we love, like painting or playing music. We could be just pausing, reflecting, relaxed and satisfied. Maybe after we’ve finished a challenging task, or as we leave a meeting where things have gone really well. Our stress hormone production slows down in this state, as does our blood pressure and heart rate.
Drifting into this alpha brain wave state in Yoga Nidra, you’ll notice that it’s more difficult to cling to the mental chatter that prevailed just a few minutes before. The body moves into absolute stillness, and you feel very deeply relaxed. If you only get to this first stage of moving from the beta to alpha brain wave state as you practise, then it’s time on the mat well spent. Just allowing your brain to be gently coaxed away from the beta state means you’re helping diminish the stress that pummels your body and mind every day.
But Yoga Nidra has even more to offer. As you continue to lie and listen in stillness, here’s what happens next: You slip seamlessly into the theta brain wave state. Theta activity is strongly linked with creativity, intuition, daydreaming and fantasising. Theta waves are strong when focusing internally, maybe in meditation, savasana, or anytime we’re connected to a sense of spiritual awareness. The theta state is as close to sleeping without actually being asleep that you can get. Your body is deeply relaxed by now, but your mind is alert. This edge between wakefulness and sleep, known as the gateway to the subconscious, is where the real magic happens.
Here, subconscious thoughts, mental blockages, memories and unprocessed grief can arise and be processed. They can dissolve and release the hold they have on you that (you may not even realise) causes unhelpful habits, fears, moods and thought patterns. Whatever you experience here, what you hear and say to yourself can be profoundly transformative. This is why we set a “Sankalpa” in Yoga Nidra. Sankalpa is the Sanskrit term for an affirmation or a statement of intent. By planting the seed of a desire, resolve or aim you have for your life in the subconscious mind during Yoga Nidra, it’s more likely to come to fruition. As one textbook puts it: “the subconscious mind is a very obedient disciple and immediately carries out any orders you put into it. Then the ordinary mind and intellect follow suit“.
Yoga isn’t always about movement. If ever there was a time to explore a Yoga Nidra practice, it’s now. Most of us are more stressed out and anxious than usual, operating in the sympathetic “fight or flight” state too much of the time. Anything that helps us calm down and move to the “rest and digest” parasympathetic state is worthwhile. Sinéad has the right idea. The “not thinking” state, without the whirlpool of mental chatter cluttering our brain, is where we can tap into our subconscious and our deep wellspring of ideas and creativity.
Yoga Nidra is especially recommended for anyone who finds it challenging to be still and quiet the mind in a seated meditation or savasana. It might feel like an indulgence, as you lie there all cosied up, being gently guided into what feels like sleepy time. But just remember how much good you’re doing for your body and mind. Yoga Nidra is a surefire, relatively effortless way to connect to your intuition and inner self. At the very least, you’ll leave the mat feeling rested, more energetic and more inspired. At best, it can bring about real healing and transformation. You never know, you might even get a good song out of it.
*The Blindboy Podcast on Acast
** Rememberings, by Sinéad O’Connor, published by Penguin
If you would like to download a free copy of my Yoga Nidra recording, just email me at email@example.com and I’ll send you a link.