We think, we know what a word means, and then close our file, and by so doing, close ourselves off from being receptive to totally new ways of understanding a phenomena.
This is the way with the word “Sleep!”
We know what sleep is, we do it every night. It’s when the body rests and the mind, well it dreams but, otherwise it rests too. Meaning what?
Scientifically speaking, the difference between being awake and sleeping is due to different activity in the thalamus, which is part of the midbrain. Its job is to direct attention and switch sensory input on and off. Its vibrations are the brain waves that we measure. It has two relevant connections: the Reticular Formation (RF) which is part of the brain-stem (at top of the spine), who’s job is to stimulate the cortex with its various activities into action, and the Hippocampus where personal memories are en- and decoded. The three are the physical lynchpins of consciousness. The waking state is a fully active co-operation of these.
The cortex, the processing plant of the brain, is connected to these by a dense mesh of pathways, through which there is permanent traffic back and forth. When these pathways are blocked, no sensory input is processed.
Wakefulness, is created and maintained by the activity in the Reticular Formation (RF) which relays messages back and forth between Thalamus and Cortex. During sleep this activity is reduced and indeed blocked. This is like shutting the window to the activity of the world.
In the dream state the door to the Hippocampus, the personal memory store, is still active sending messages back and forth especially to the limbic system, memory and sensory processing areas, producing internally generated sounds, smells etc.
In fact the brain is nearly as active in dreaming as it is in waking. Yet there is no ‘reality check,” no link to the world outside.
During non-dreaming sleep there is an even tighter blockage; keeping the activity, the vibrations of the Thalamus at a steady even pace. Having no connection to other parts, hence being undisturbed, it just vibrates in a steady slow rhythm by itself. This is what we would call deep sleep (Delta waves). It means in deep sleep there is activity, there is the vibration of knowing, of consciousness, but it is not connected to mental activity as we know it.
When we talk about Yoga Nidra on the physical level, it is this state that we are connecting to. Hence Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, mentions sleep deep sleep amongst the thought forms. Thought waves are there but have no content; they are about nothing.
In Pada 1/sutra 10, Patanjali says: "Thought-waves about nothing are sleep."
Swami Veda Bharati's interpretation of this is, “ Sleep is the modification or operation of the mind-field resorting to the cognition principle of absence….”
To most of us it would not occur to see sleep as a thought vibration, not even the thought of absence. It isn’t as if we are aware of consciously constructing thought, or even that there is a root energy there that is still “doing its thing” when there is “no-thought”.
The Thalamus vibrates whether we use it for processing thought, creating dreams, or sleep. So in that context, thought and sleep are the same. They have the same source.
Yoga Nidra, conscious sleep, is a state of awareness that connects with that source energy: Life-potential with knowledge.
While Yoga Nidra has the element of relaxation that sleep has, because the brain is not engaged in its usual activity including the interaction with the body, it has also some very deep and may be even more important facets, and this brings us to Sankhya Philosophy.
Recall, that the brain is only the hardware tool of the Mind. So the brain, the tool – having a break means the Mind sits in its own glory!
The actor on the stage, during a break is simply a man or woman.
Hamlet, of the stage is simply Joe Blow. He has all the knowledge, but isn’t acting it out.
Mind, being, without its occupation, is simply subtle mind.
It’s enfolded, it’s sub - conscious, i.e., below - with - knowing (Latin: con science).
One of the great insights in Sankhya is the principle "from the subtle to the gross,"
meaning, in this context, that first there is the vibration of knowing, then there is the knower and object of the known, and finally the resultant activity.
In this context, this means that “source”/ pure mind /subtle mind or latent mind as it has been called in Yoga is the pre-curser, the potential of that, which later becomes thought; which becomes mind-stuff; which becomes that which shapes our personality.
In Yoga, we call these Samskaras, which are the deep impressions, the birth-script as the new Age calls it, that are behind our karma; behind the form of our life and its patterns, problems, and joys. So there, in the core vibration in the latent mind, which we could associate with the Thalamus, we have the energetic blue-prints of my “Me-ing” -that which “makes me into me”, me into my personality.
Now we can go one step further and say that the vibrating energy carries my blueprint, activates the process of all three states: Waking, dreaming and deep sleep. It itself has in turn received its power , its energy from the pure unadulterated Self, which the Sages of all times called the fourth dimension, Turiya.
Yoga Nidra is the ante-room , the pre-curser, the training-ground for that fourth state.
From this, it is clear that Yoga Nidra is not dreaming, or having nice fantasies
and relaxation in the sense of visual imagery, but it is beyond any of this; or,
should I say it takes us underneath these, behind these and opens the door to see behind the activity of the mind, to the source.
However, we need to keep in mind, that Yoga Nidra is neither the ultimate experience of pure consciousness, nor is it Meditation. Yet both prepare for the highest experience.
Which brings us again to Sankhya Philosophy. One of the main principals in Yoga Philosophy is that of creation and dissolution as a permanently ongoing process.
In Sankhya, we understand the most subtle level to be the Indescribable infinite, expressing itself as Purusha and Prakriti:
Purusha – consciousness as “all knowing”, as a principal, not as something tied to human or any other mind.
Prakriti as the source of the world of becoming, is pure potential, it is that energy which reflects that knowing, and with it whirls and moves into creation as we know it. That happens in 24 principals (tattvas).
The movement happens because Prakriti itself has as her very nature the three Gunas:
Sattva — lightness and knowing, Rajas— activity and desire, Tamas—heaviness and obstruction/inertia. Each of these contain each other, contain each other ad infinitum. So all three gunas include rajas, meaning permanent change, movement, action.
Now hold the image of milk being churned into butter, it helps to see the process.
The first principal to manifest, coming out of this churning movement, we could say: the first born form is the intelligence principle, without distinguishing marks or features; we could call it cosmic mind. Yogis call it Mahat.
That intelligence, because of the presence of Tamas, limits itself to becoming the various ego-principles. The specific mixture of “mind stuff” produces the principal of “individual”, ego-Ahamkara. Some-one called it “ soul- dust”.
We can imagine it like a wispy cloud, before it actually becomes a real heavy cloud that carries rain. Each of these globular, churned “mind stuff” in a specific mixture of the gunas/Elements, produce the principal of “individual” ego: Ahamkara.
Remember, that even this “puff of mind-cloud”, made of Prakriti, shows her inherent qualities which we know as the three gunas. As these continue their churning they become more and more manifest, producing the five elemental energies, we call energy-fields!
On the subtle level each energy field holds a potential that then manifests on the subtle level the ability of the tanmatras (five subtle elements ): seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching, and even within these rajas, tamas and sattva are still active.
Their churning within the individual produces the fivecognitive senses (eyes, ears etc.) through which we perceive the world around us as made by Five Gross Elements. We act and interact with the world via the five active organs of hands, feet, speech organ etc.
So the seeds, the starting point of our individuation lies in the mixture of cosmic “mind –dust” before it becomes gross! Here our personality is stored as trends and characteristics that shape our life, our karma.
Remember, in Yoga Philosophy , there is a constant process of evolution and devolution, of creation and dissolution.
So the personality I am, the way I interact, the way I think, the way my memory is used as a data-bank for my thought processes determines how I see the world.
It determines how I am stressed, whether I am happy or unhappy, etc. So on the Path of Yoga we try to go back and dissolve these patterns, these mind patterns
One could say, we are attempting to take off the colored glasses we wear.
So we try to get detached from the way we coloring our existence. (In the word vairagya, non-attachment, hides the word raga, which is means “coloring”.) We try to get back to the pure vision, to see the source of our existence, as it is.
With the Zen teachings we could say we try to see “what our face was like before we were born”, pure, not torn between likes and dislikes, demands and stresses of our own making.
Being aware of the process of manifestation, we can dissolve the whole mirage.
And that is where YOGA NIDRA comes in.
We relax the body (asana/ stilling the organs of action) we draw the senses inward, pratyahara (stilling the tanmatras), and thus to all intents and purpose we are preparing for sleep.
In yogic terms, it seems like Tamas is taking over, tamas veils the senses, covers buddhi or consciousness and we feel like “ sleeping”, but its only the surface level of our awareness which is covered by tamasic energy. As we now know, the actual vibration of knowing, whether we understand it to be connected to the Thalamus or not, is there even though disconnected from the instrumentation and filing-cabinets of our gross mental activity. Despite all the relaxation, our purer mind, latent mind, subtle mind is still working. For example:
If we drift off into the dream-state, the mind is feeding on its own stored material,
as no new input is received. It wonders here and there, feeding on old food.
Old food is stale, un-digested food. That is so for the stomach-or the mind.
In dreams mind feeds on stale memory, undigested events, etc., and that’s why Yogis dream less and less. Monitor your dreams, it will give you great insights into your progress!
To clean this “ back-log of stale issues”, or to prevent tamas taking over, some suggest to use a mantra or affirmation.
Good, but that means the mind is not yet at the subtle state of Yoga Nidra, not yet at the causal level from which it arose. There is still vritti, still mental activity, returning to the scientific terms used in the beginning: The activity between the Thalamus and the neo-cortex is not yet blocked. Returning to sankhya terminology, we are still working in the realms of the Ego mind, ahamkara.
At the junction-point, on the finest level where those energies play, we can observe the subtle mental waves, vrittis, that create our karma, our personal mixture of rajas, tamas, sattva, and by observing they can become balanced. Awareness itself is the cleaning fluid!
And here lies the merit that is referred to when it is said that Yoga Nidra works on our deep Samskaras (subtle mental impressions). What will come up at the stage of aware- sleep is that individual stuff, the mind stuff, that triggers and shapes our behavior. In a more sophisticated way we can say: This subtle cloud, subtle body (Linga sharira) is propelled by past life tendencies, seeing the past life patterns (bhava) is an opportunity to change these deep energy patterns.
In this wakeful, relaxed sleep the mind faces its own storehouse, or archives, the place where thoughts emotions, images sensations, are stored and are stuck!
Because there is no input from the outer world the mind looks at these.
One could say Yoga Nidra is the ultimate tool of AWARENESS!. This sounds a strange contradiction to our expectation what sleep is. Yoga Nidra is a tool to look and erase some of the old patterns, habits, deep impressions at the root, in their latent states.
Gradually the conviction comes, that "I am not these patterns, not these emotions."
"I am other than my thoughts and concepts. Then who am I?"
So, gradually, we get through the personal Ahamkara stuff, to the source, which is the pure reflection of the cosmic mind, what we call the Atman; the subtle “golden mirror” which reflects divine, super-consciousness. And that golden Mirror is Silent, with no thought but pure awareness!
Once we reach that deep Silence within, Yoga Nidra is reached, a state of wisdom as it is, without personal coloring.
Now let me start on yet another angle: From the subtle to the gross:
On an energy level, we recognize five different energy fields, which work from the subtle to the gross throughout our body, in three bodies (gross, subtle and causal), as well as in five layers of what we could call sheaths or Koshas, which cover our light. These interact, lifting, increasing and decreasing frequencies of energy from one energy-field to another via transformers we call Chakras. The energy gets further distributed throughout the body via invisible channels carrying these energies to manifest various organs. Ultimately they shape the state of our physical organs, as much as our psychological make-up.
These are recognized by all systems of Yoga as well as Indian, Chinese, Japanese and other medicines and psychologies.
By understanding and mastering these energies on the subtle levels one gains mastery over the gross level. In the subtle body, linga sharira, the activities of waking, dreaming and deep sleep, the first three stages of consciousness, work via specific Chakras.
The seat of the mind, the thinking mind, is behind the Ajna Chakra, the space between the eye brows. Working with the thinking mind, we are obviously working with waking consciousness.
Again, scientifically speaking, it is on the underside of the frontal neo-cortex that we find the processing area for the sense-input. Here we become aware of the respective activity. This “center of awareness, is marked by the ancients as the third eye or the Ajna Chakra.
The Dream state of consciousness is said to work with the energy of the throat center. It’s from where creativity is said to arise, from wherewe create our dreams. To me this is very much related to the energy of Space, Space being the energy of the Throat Chakra. Space is the mother of all creation, nothing can manifest or appears that is not brought forth into Space, from Space. Hildegard von Bingen called this the greening power, viriditas.
In the deep sleep state, the latent pure awareness is said to work through our heart Chakra. What has the deep sleep – awareness have to do with the heart?
The clue I think lies again in our preconceptions of words: Here, heart doesn’t mean “the biological heart”; nor does it mean the hrdya, spiritual heart. Rather, "heart" here refers to “center” of things, the turning point, the achsel, the hub of a wheel. Once we come to the hub of a wheel, how ever much churning and turning it does the hub is a still-point. In Swami Veda Bharati’s list of characteristics for the word deva (divine), one of the meanings: is sleep! Sleeping, resting, in the Divine, in the ever-wakeful Divine, Not mine, but Resting in HIM. That is the HUB!
There is no desire, nor any dreams, all of that has subsided into undifferentiated consciousness. With coming to rest in the heart, we rest in purity, open to unlimited love, this is the domain of Yoga Nidra.
The three Chakras work with consciousness, subconscious and Super-consciousness in relationship to the gross, subtle and causal planes of existence.
In the Tantric Yoga tradition, this is referred to as Tripura (the three cities).
Yoga Nidra is that State where you have travelled through the three cities, and are leaving the individual limited activity of consciousness to find that which lies beyond, the experience of that State which is without limitation of conditioned personality. Touching that dimension is touching Turiya the Fourth State of consciousness, the abode of the Real Self where we abide in the pure spiritual self, the Atman. It says in the Mandukya Upanishad:
Pure Consciousness is neither inward turned nor outward turned nor both. It is not un-differentiated, it is beyond cognition and non-cognition. Not experienced by the senses, nor known by comparison or inference, incomprehensible, unthinkable and indescribable, pure consciousness, the real Self , the cessation of all phenomena, tranquil, all blissful, one without the second. In this fourth state, Turiya , the Atman (Real Self) is to be realized.
To live in that fourth state of consciousness of undifferentiated “being-ness is also referred to as Samadhi. Yoga Nidra, is not Samadhi, it’s not yet “living” in the undifferentiated state of Turiya!
However Samadhi is residing in the unchanging Reality, a state before all activities of the gunas, before all change. According to the great commentator of the Yoga Sutras, Vyasa, “Yoga is Samadhi” as we know. Yoga is living in unclouded Union with the unchanging Reality.
Yoga Nidra is experiencing the ante-chamber. Swami Veda called it, the bridge. Once we have reached the state of Yoga Nidra beyond “the practice of Yoga Nidra” we are ready for entering into the State of Yoga beyond Space and Time, and then, by Divine grace it might become ‘Samadhi’ i.e. “Integration with wholeness or Truth”.