What Is Sleep Yoga?

Sleep yoga, or yoga nidra, offers all of the benefits of a nap without that groggy post-snooze feeling. . (Photo: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock)

When you think of yoga, do you think of stinky mats, sweaty gyms and uncomfortable poses? You might want to take a closer look at yoga nidra, a style of yoga geared more to restoration than twisty pretzel poses. Also called sleep yoga, yoga nidra is a restorative style of yoga that looks (and feels) more like taking a nap than exercise.

Practiced lying down and in a comfortable position, yoga nidra is similar to meditation. In fact, according to Jennifer Reis, a certified yoga therapist and creator of Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra, "Yoga nidra IS meditation. It's a guided form of meditation most often practiced lying down." Many styles and schools and teachers of yoga nidra exist, so there are different approaches to what is guided, says Neis, who talked to MNN. Most yoga nidra classes walk students through a series of stages aimed to help relax the mind and body.

You know that savasana pose (the one where you lie on your back and take lots of deep breaths) that serves as the finale of most yoga classes? If that's your favorite part of doing yoga, then you're going to love yoga nidra. Think of it as a cross between meditation and napping where the focus is on full-body restoration and relaxation while remaining awake and alert.

Giving it a try

I followed along with this video in which the instructor guides you through relaxation exercises that focus on each part of the body. Her silky-smooth voice almost lulled me into dreamland. But even without the actual snooze, I felt refreshed and relaxed when the video was over.

Studies have shown that sleep yoga can help reduce stress and anxiety, improve focus and alleviate insomnia. One study, published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, looked at the effect that regular yoga nidra practice had on military veterans who suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder.) Of the 16 vets enrolled in the study, the 11 who completed weekly sleep yoga sessions reported "reduced rage, anxiety, and emotional reactivity, and increased feelings of relaxation, peace, self-awareness, and self-efficacy," after eight weeks.

You can practice yoga nidra by taking a class at your local gym or listening to a CD or YouTube video. "At first, one needs to be guided by listening to a teacher in a class or recording," Reis says. "Eventually one can guide themselves but most people love to continue to listen and be guided." And don't worry, you don't need to be a meditation pro to give it a try. According to Reis, there's nothing to master before you practice, making sleep yoga accessible to everyone.

Nap or yoga nidra?

How often do you need to do it to reap the benefits? "Any yoga or meditation practice works best when done daily," says Reis. "It's a little like brushing your teeth: They don't get clean unless you brush!" The key is to find a time of day when you have few minutes to wind down and truly relax. That might be when you first wake up, before sleeping at night, before any meal, or right after work. If you suffer from insomnia, you can also try practicing yoga nidra right before bed or when you wake in the night. Reis' CD, "Deep Relaxation Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra" has a track specifically geared toward helping people deal with insomnia.

The next time you're feeling lethargic in the afternoon, skip the java and forget about taking a nap. Try a quick shot of yoga nidra instead and you may just get the boost of energy you need to get you through your day.