Infinite Awakening:The Practice of Yoga Nidra and its Application in Psychotherapy

Nondual awareness may be described as the container, the agency and the agent of healing in psychotherapy. Yoga Nidra (to be knowingly awake as awareness throughout all states of consciousness) is an ancient tantric (psychocosmological) process in which the various psychic processes within consciousness, both positive and negative, are explored and welcomed into awareness. In welcoming, we find our self as nondual awareness in which resistance to what is dissolves and in which healing spontaneously unfolds.


In this chapter, the author provides a brief overview of his personal and professional experiences using Yoga Nidra as a psychospiritual tool for self exploration. The 12 step process of Yoga Nidra is explained along with an overview of the core constituents of Yoga Nidra, which include awareness, listening, welcoming, the perspective of the opposites, disidentification, immanence and transcendence. A case study is provided that elucidates the use the use of Yoga Nidra during psychotherapy and selected readings are provided for further studies.

When a person dwells on the pleasures of the senses, attraction for them arises within the mind. From attraction arises desire, the lust of possession, and this leads to passion, and anger.


From passion and anger comes confusion of mind, then loss of remembrance, the forgetting of duty. From this loss comes ruin of reason, and the ruin of reason leads man to destruction.


But the soul that moves in the world of the senses and yet keeps the senses in harmony, free from attraction and aversion, finds rest in quietness.


In this quietness falls down the burden of all sorrows, for when the heart has found quietness, wisdom has also found peace.


There is no wisdom for a person without harmony, and without harmony there is no contemplation. Without contemplation there cannot be peace, and without peace can there be joy?

Bhagavad Gita 2:62-66

Personal Experience


I first became acquainted with the practice of Yoga Nidra during my initial yoga lesson in 1970. As I lay on the floor our instructor led us through a guided body meditation, which I later learned was a form of Yoga Nidra. I drove home that evening a freedom from all conflict. I felt radiantly joyful and attuned with the universe-that my self, the universe and everything in my life was perfect just as it was. I experienced my self as a witnessing presence that was both in my body as well as aware of my body. For the first time in my life I realized that I was not separate, but part of the mystery of life. While these experiences slowly faded over the next few days, they left behind a longing to fully embody this radical understanding and to seek out a greater knowledge of the process of Yoga Nidra.


During the subsequent years I have investigated this process through many avenues including readings into the nondual tantric wisdom traditions from which the practices of Yoga Nidra are derived, countless personal experiments with the processes of Yoga Nidra as well as my experience in leading hundreds of students and clients in the process of Yoga Nidra during innumerable Yoga classes, meditation retreats and psychotherapy sessions.


I continue to be impressed with the simplicity of the process of Yoga Nidra and how it can lead to profound transformation and radical awakening. Yoga Nidra evokes the truth over and again that awareness pervades everywhere, sees everything and is intimately involved in and part of every thing. My first-hand experience through this practice is that we are not separate from awareness or life, but integrally part of everything. And awareness, when it is fully embraced, is like the mother’s caress. As we describe our troubles into awareness, awareness reaches out and receives our troubles with utmost attention, tenderness and love. As we steep in the caress of awareness, we are encouraged to describe even more of what troubles us. In this describing, everything empties out into awareness and our troubles dissolve because they are formed out of false beliefs. As we describe our self into the caress of awareness, our sense of separation dissolves and our true underlying nature as nondual joy that is independent of cause spontaneously arises.


I have witnessed clients in the depths of despair and suffering suddenly give way to great joy even as they continue to experience their grief. When we recognize our nondual nature in the midst of travail, we find we can handle life as it is. We don’t have to change circumstance or self. When we recognize that we are not separate our underlying nature, which is causeless joy, emerges. The perfume that arises from such insight lingers in the body and mind even as the residues of separation remain. Our underlying nondual nature is always present, even when it goes unrecognized. But once glimpsed, it leaves behind the unmistakable perfume that stimulates an even greater longing to come back from our misperception of separation and suffering to our ground of nondual awareness, which is forever perfect just as it is.


Awareness


Clients present in psychotherapy with some situation, experience, memory, emotion, sensation or life circumstance that they are having difficulty being with. As therapists we enjoin our clients to explore their resistance to being with these events. And this exploration unfolds in the awareness of both the client and the therapist. Awareness may be described as the perfect agent, agency and container in which all psycho-spiritual healing unfolds.


Awareness, which may be liked to space, pervades everywhere, contains all things, sees all things, judges nothing, is nondual in that it encompasses all duality and is free of separation. Nondual awareness may therefore be said to be an agency of welcoming as awareness has no stake in anything being other than as it is. It is this welcoming attribute of awareness that enables psychotherapy to work.


During therapy, clients are entreated to fully describe their experiences into awareness. As clients relinquish trying to change themselves and enter into the process of describing the ‘what is’ of their experience, resistances dissolve and unsought resolutions spontaneously appear to what at first may have appeared as hopeless or irresolvable conflicts. All this unfolds in awareness.


Awareness forms the space in which all activity unfolds. Thoughts, emotions, sensations, conflicts and traumas all arise, unfold and have their resolution in awareness. Awareness is therefore a perfect holding environment wherein all is contained. Because it is without judgement, awareness is, in fact, a perfect holding environment for awareness is always present, never rejects, and therefore welcomes all that arises. Awareness is without sentiment, and is perfect love and compassion in that it contains no idealization wherein projections can unfold completely and be seen for what they are. Awareness, therefore underlies the therapist’s ability to be a therapeutic holding environment for the client. The therapist’s awareness enables clients to completely unfold their stories of conflict, pain and trauma, work through their projections and uncover the resolutions appropriate to each life circumstance. Nondual awareness may therefore be viewed as a perfect container in which the client finds their freedom.


Awareness is also a passive-active healing agent because awareness is full of compassion and love in that it holds and allows everything, judges nothing, perfectly mirrors projection and allows clients to unfold their stories without neither client nor therapist needing to be other than they are. When clients, through proper therapeutic guidance, are oriented to and learn to stabilize their attention in the compassionate and non-judging ground of awareness, and as they are able to fully describe their experiences into awareness, right and appropriate action to each life circumstance is always revealed. Awareness is therefore the active healing agent behind all insights in psychotherapy.


Listening


Psychotherapy entails the art of listening. True listening is free of direction. It is open without preconception. It is the ability of therapists to listen, without agenda or judgement, that enables clients to completely explore and reveal the hidden and disregarded aspects of themselves.


From the perspective of listening, clients contain both the presenting dilemma and its solution. In listening all issues and their solutions find resolution in awareness for listening is an aspect of awareness. In non-directional listening, as in all-pervading awareness, the deep movements of body sensation, energy, feeling, emotion, belief and imagery have the freedom to completely unfold without prejudice of preconceived beliefs of how things should be.


Yoga Nidra


Yoga Nidra (yoga = living in and as nondual awareness; nidra = sleep), is an ancient tantric process that reflects this perspective of awareness as the container, agency and agent of healing. Yoga Nidra provides not only a framework for how transformation and healing unfolds but provides the client with a process for healing their presenting issues as well as an opportunity for them to experience their fundamental nature as nondual awareness.


The word ‘yoga’ means the abiding action of living in and not-separate from nondual awareness. Nidra, in the application of Yoga Nidra, refers to our ability to remain awake as, and not separate from, nondual awareness even in the midst of the circumstances of life. During Yoga Nidra the client is supported by the therapist to describe their presenting issue and listen to and welcome into awareness all of the attending body sensations, energetic movements, emotions, beliefs and images until an appropriate resolution is revealed. In supported non-directional listening and welcoming, resistance to what is dissolves and the client finds him/her self vulnerably open in their expansive nondual awareness in which healing spontaneously unfolds.


Disidentification from the structures that give rise to suffering, which include sensations, emotions, thoughts, memories, images and the sense of being a separate ego-I, occurs spontaneously during the process of Yoga Nidra. When clients are supported in welcoming the both their pain and its opposite, their shadow material and its opposite, their projection and its opposite, healing unfolds spontaneously and naturally in the passive-active container of nondual awareness.


The Perspective of the Opposites


Much of the transformative power of Yoga Nidra lies in its recognition and capitalization of the play of opposites. When we live in the experience of being a separate ego-I we live fixed in an attitude of having to negotiate with existence. The separative ego-I is governed by the law of opposites in which all that is seen as positive is held captive by its opposite. Where there is darkness there is light. Where there is good, there is evil. What we create we destroy and what we destroy is recreated.


But opposites are never separate. They are actually complimentary polarities arising within a unified field of awareness. When a movement arises, its opposite always co-arises. Neither is separate from the other and neither is separate from awareness. Darkness cannot exist without light and good cannot exist without evil. Pain cannot exist without pleasure and conflict cannot exist without its opposite, resolution. And none of these exist separate from the field of awareness in which they arise.


Duality, which is made up of the complimentarity of opposites, is a fact of life and exists within the unified field of awareness. Duality co-arises with the body, mind and senses for whatever exists in space-time, in duration, forms the very fabric that makes up the world of duality. But duality does not imply dualism. Dualism arises when the unified field of awareness is apparently split by the mind into an observing subject and an observed object. In Dualism this split is believed, by the mind, to be real. Subject is perceived to be separate from the object and both are perceived to be separate from awareness. The split into dualism is the product of a divided mind, which does not experience itself as existing within and as part of unified awareness. In dualism, the mind perceives itself to be a distinct and separate ego-I. Interestingly, suffering, conflict and striving to be other than we are co-arise with the experience of feeling separate. Both are projections of the divided mind. Suffering and the feeling of separation always co-arise-they exist one with the other. Neither can exist without the other being present. This is one underlying explanation why Yoga Nidra can be such an effective tool for both client and therapist.


The therapist educated in Yoga Nidra is oriented to the understanding that clients suffer because they feel separate. It is not the job of the therapist to talk the client out of feeling separate. Clients are convinced that they are separate and that they are suffering and need to find a resolution to their problem. It is the job of the therapist to help the client describe their pain and feeling of separation as if it is all that exists because the therapist understands that when the pain of suffering and its associated experiences are fully described into awareness, unsought resolutions spontaneously arise. Mere describing often evokes resolution. However, at other times, clients appear unable to move beyond their conflict and sense of separation because their descriptions are incomplete.


At these junctures, the therapist enables the client by exploring the opposite movements to the client’s experience and descriptions by assisting the client to embody the opposites of their experiences. By moving back and forth between opposite sensations, emotions, images, thoughts, memories or beliefs and then by allowing both experiences to stabilize in awareness, unexpected synthesis occurs spontaneously and the client discovers unrealized truths about their previous experiences that had been overlooked due to their experiencing only one half of the equation.


The Ego-I


The ego-I is the product of a divided mind that has split into a ‘me’ subject that is separate from an ‘other’ object. The divided mind does not accept the interdependence of the opposites for this would mean the end of its apparently separative existence. Instead, the ego imagines a dualistic split between the opposites which, in-turn, gives rise to conflict, attachment and aversion. Splitting, conflict, attachment and aversion all co-arise. They are mutually interdependent facets of a single movement. From this perspective any attempt to eliminate one pole of opposition only creates further conflict.


Therapy based on the premise that clients need to change begins and ends in conflict. This way of seeing is based in the divided mind and therapy ultimately fails when it emphasizes the need for the client to somehow be other than he/she is. It is in welcoming all that we are-pain and the joy, conflict and its opposite, projection and its opposite-that are we able to go beyond the pairs of opposites into a true resolution of what is ailing us.


Identification and Disidentification


The inherent tendency of the mind is to identify with whatever thought is currently present. And the main underlying thought is the belief in being a separate ego-I. This belief gives birth to reaction and defense, attraction and aversion. The ego-I reacts to each situation by expressing “I should” or “I shouldn’t”. Neither of these reactions is welcoming of what is actually arising. Guilt and remorse always co-arise with the tyranny of the should. Guilt and remorse are secondary reactions to the primary reaction of the belief of separation, which is based on a refusing of welcoming the truth of the moment.


Immanence and Transcendence


The sense of ‘I-ness’ is both immanent and transcendent. We experience our self immanently living as, and therefore not separate from, our name and form. But we also experience our self transcendentally aware of, and therefore distinct from, any experience. We live immanently in and as our lived bodily experience and we exist transcendently, as the awareness which is aware of bodily experience. Both are true simultaneously. Immanence and transcendence are paired opposites that mutually co-arise.


When the transcendent quality of ‘I-ness’ remains hidden, immanence is all that is experienced and changes in the status quo of our life are experienced as fearful and threatening. We feel limited when we live only the immanent dimension of life. Fear limits life, but also signals us that we are refusing one half of the equation. In order to heal suffering we must recover our transcendental nature as nondual awareness.


While identification gives rise to separation and suffering, disidentification heals separation and suffering. Disidentification constitutes the ability to experience any and all states, contents and psychic events without reactive defenses. Disidentification is not dissociation, but the willingness to experience what is without any attempt to change or make it different. Dissociation is a refusing to be with what is. In disidentification we are immanently open to experiencing what is, while being transcendentally aware of each experience.


Relevant Sutras


Various spiritual texts affirm the process of disidentification with the pairs of opposites as a way of healing the sense of separation and its consequent retinue of suffering. For instance, Maharshi Patañjali states in his Yoga Sutras:


I.12 abhy¡sa vair¡gy¡bhy¡ tan nirodha?
By approach and relinquishment and experiencing the pairs of opposites, suffering ceases.

II.33 vitarka b¡dhane pratipakßa bh¡vana
When distress arises, ride opposing thoughts back into non-dual awareness.


II.35 ahi s¡ prati߆h¡y¡ tat sa nidhau vaira ty¡ga?
By reversing instability into stability, from refusing into non-refusing, hostility is relinquished.


II.48 tato dvandv¡ ‘nabhigh¡ta?
Through disidentification the pairs of opposites cease their noxious effect.


III.6 tasya bhmißu viniyoga?
By reversing the pairs of opposites stability and the release of suffering is quickly achieved.


The Dimensions of Yoga Nidra

Seven dimensions that make up each experience, conflict or life circumstance can be explored during the process of Yoga Nidra. These dimensions include sensations, feelings, emotions, thoughts/beliefs, images, pleasure/joy and the sense of ego-I separation that accompanies the experience being described. As each of these levels is welcomed into awareness through exploration and description, disidentification naturally unfolds and we increasingly rest in our natural disposition as the nondual awareness that is equally aware of as well as participates in, each level of experience.


The process of Yoga Nidra can unfold in as many as 12 stages.


  1. Intention

    The client is invited to describe the presenting issue and to affirm his/her intention to participate in the process of Yoga Nidra. This affirmation includes the intention to describe, experience, listen and welcome into awareness whatever arises rather than trying to fix or change the presenting issue.

  2. Negative and Positive Beliefs

    The client is asked to affirm both a statement of negative belief that is believed to be true about his/her self in relationship to the presenting issue, and its opposite as a positive statement about his/her self if the negative belief were no longer true.

  3. Sensation

    With the help of the therapist, the client rotates attention through body sensations that arise in relationship with the presenting issue, first in one part of the body and then in an opposing location. For instance, if there is sensation of contraction in the abdomen, the abdomen is split into opposites, i.e., left and right sides, front and back, bottom and top, inside and outside and sensation is systematically enlivened first into one half, then in the other.

  4. Breath

    After sensing the body, attention moves with the breath into each of the opposing areas where sensation is being experienced in relationship to the presenting issue (or where it has moved as the process of Yoga Nidra unfolds) to further enliven the attendant body sensations. This stage evokes a letting go of concepts about the issue and facilitates the deepening of an energetic relationship with the underlying sensations associated with the issue.

  5. Feeling

    Opposing feelings, such as heavy-light, comfort-discomfort, tense-relaxed that have to do with the presenting issue are welcomed into awareness by first locating and then rotating attention through each feeling and its opposite.

  6. Emotion

    Opposing emotions that have to do with the presenting issue such as sad-happy, angry-calm, resignation-accepting are welcomed into awareness and attention is rotated through these opposites of emotion.

  7. Thought/Belief

    Opposing thoughts and beliefs having to do with the presenting issue are welcomed into awareness and attention is rotated through these opposites.

  8. Imagery

    Opposing images and memories having to do with the presenting issue are welcomed into awareness and attention is rotated through these opposites.

  9. Peace/Pleasure/Joy

    Opposing experiences of pleasure-pain, joy-sadness or peace-upset having to do with the presenting issue are welcomed into awareness and attention is rotated through these opposites..

  10. Separation

    Opposing experiences of separation-oneness, isolation-relationship or abandonment-closeness, which have to do with the presenting issue are welcomed into awareness and attention is rotated through these opposites.

  11. Affirmation

    The original beliefs that were present at the beginning of the process of Yoga Nidra are welcomed into awareness and explored to see how or in what form they appear in this present moment.
    Completion

    New insights are integrated into awareness with the emphasis upon the embodiment, across all levels (including sensation, feeling, emotion, belief, joy and I-ness) of the insights rather than merely upon their intellectual fortitude.


Readings

Miller, Richard C., Ph.D., The Yoga Nidra Workbook, Anahata Press, 1985.

Miller, Richard C., Ph.D., The Principles and Practice of Yoga Nidra Audio Tape Set, Anahata Press, 1990.

Niranjanananda, Swami, Prana, Pranayama, Prana Vidya, Bihar School of Yoga, 1994.

Satyananda, Swami, Yoga Nidra, Bihar School of Yoga, India 1976.

Satyananda, Swami, Meditation from the Tantras, Bihar School of Yoga, 1974.

Richard C. Miller PhD Written by Richard C. Miller PhD

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