Kamini Desai is a master teacher of Yoga Nidra. She has been teaching for over 30 years and has created a unique body of teachings combining the ancient wisdom of yoga with science and modern psychology.
What inspired you to start teaching yoga and how did your career develop?
I grew up in a spiritual community as the daughter of a yoga master back in the late 60s. I don’t think I fully appreciated what I had until I went away for a junior year abroad while at Smith College. Suddenly alone, without any social network or support, I found myself getting depressed. I felt isolated, alone, and disheartened. I had dreams of becoming a diplomat and being a part of bringing peace to the world. However, I soon figured out that the peace process is not so peaceful and found myself disillusioned.
As I had grown older, I had dismissed the wisdom of all I had received as a child – convinced that I knew better. However, being far away from friends and family, was the only thing I knew to stabilize myself. I practiced every day until I began feeling like myself again. Somehow, the word in my apartment building got around. People started asking me to teach them how to manage their stress, sleep better, and deal with anxiety. It was then that I realized what a great treasure I had received. I realized that peace begins within. In a way, I did become a diplomat – a diplomat of inner peace.
I eventually switched my focus and higher education to Psychology – getting a Ph.D. I saw a fascinating overlap between the deeper philosophical teachings of east and western psychology. I felt that the two could be brought together in a synergistic way to bring even more clarity, practicality, and modern application to these ancient teachings.
I mostly began working in the corporate sector with corporate stress and team building. It was not always easy back in the 1980s when things like yoga, meditation, and relaxation were largely marginalized. However, there were a few leading corporations in the field who had the foresight to invest in their people. It was a great training ground for me because it forced me to be able to articulate esoteric concepts into practical, relevant, and immediately useful material in the workplace. People were not always immediately ready to take what I had to offer at face value and it forced me to step up my game – something for which I am grateful to this day.
What programs do you offer?
I have taught all kinds of workshops and training including team building, conscious communication, relationships workshops, yoga teacher training, mindful movement, partner yoga, relaxation courses, yoga therapy, and more. However, what I have found to be the most consistently accessible, universally effective, and beneficial for everyone is Yoga Nidra and that is my main focus these days.
What is the difference between “regular yoga” and Yoga Nidra?
The most obvious difference is in the doing – or not doing. A typical Yoga class involves yoga poses – a series of stretches, flowing and static movements that we put the body through to optimize strength and flexibility. Yoga Nidra however is a non-doing practice. The purpose is to remove as much “doing” and effort as possible to give the nervous system a profound rest and return to a state of stillness.
After a little bit of stretching or tension and relaxation exercises, the person is progressively guided into subtler levels of internal awareness and meditation where any struggle or effort to make anything happens falls away. Using a series of body, breath, and awareness techniques, attention is withdrawn from the outside world to the inner world.
The less we do in Yoga Nidra, the more we arrive at a sense of profound inner peace. Think of the techniques of Yoga Nidra as means to clear the sky that you are of its many clouds. Eventually, the clouds disperse so much that you are able to rest as the sky itself. Ultimately, Yoga Nidra is a meditation technique, but it is meditation made easy. Even though Yoga Nidra is a form of meditation, you are not sitting. It is usually done lying down in a comfortable position. The techniques take you to a place between waking and sleeping where you are not efforting or struggling to meditate – it simply happens. This is great news for so many people who know a meditation practice would be beneficial, but who find it difficult to actually meditate.
What is common to both Yoga and Yoga Nidra is the word Yoga. Yoga means integration, wholeness, or being at peace. In Yoga Nidra, we find peace through stillness. In Yoga, we find it through movement.
One way to practice physical Yoga is to challenge ourselves to find silence in the midst of disturbance. We are on a yoga mat doing a yoga pose and our muscles are protesting (but not at risk), our mind is saying, “How much longer.” Here, we are being challenged to find peace under pressure. Using the breath, conscious relaxation and deliberately letting go of the struggle in the mind, we practice coming back to a place of peace and relaxation with what is. Yoga works from the outside in; we are working with the physical body to access peace.
Yoga Nidra means Yogic Sleep. Rather than working from the “outside-in,” we work from the “inside-out.” We are guided to a space that is beyond both body and mind. We are guided to the cessation of all phenomena that is at the core of our consciousness. A place we can return to that is always peaceful and always silent. In Yoga Nidra, we soak in this place. We let it become a part of us until, through repeated practice, it becomes stronger. Our connection to that place strengthens over time and becomes the foundation from which we live. Connected to this place, we can find peace in the midst of chaos and know that there is a part of us that remains changeless in the midst of change.
Yoga Nidra allows us to rest in contentment and peace while Yoga can be used to learn to keep that peace even in the midst of disturbing circumstances. In this way, both are very complementary. Yoga Nidra restores us to our peaceful nature and Yoga poses help us keep it more of the time.
That said, what I love about Yoga Nidra is that it is accessible to everyone. It is very easy for individuals to deselect themselves from a physical yoga practice for all kinds of reasons – age, physical limitations, body image issues, and more. However, Yoga Nidra has a very low threshold. If you can lie down and not fall asleep, you can do Yoga Nidra! It is for everyone. Even if you do fall asleep, your body still gets many regenerative effects until your body learns to remain gently alert in deeper brainwave states. Not only that – it feels great to do it! You come out deeply rested, relaxed, mentally balanced, clear, and focused.
Often it seems like the things that are good for us are hard to do and take effort. Yoga Nidra is so easy and has fantastic benefits including anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effects. In Yoga Nidra, your own body naturally releases many of the same neurotransmitters and hormones that depression and anxiety medications do; including Serotonin and GABA. It is a great practice for those with insomnia as it naturally increases the release of melatonin and slows its breakdown. This means that Yoga Nidra practiced during the day not only helps you fall asleep – it also helps you stay asleep. Some people even use Yoga Nidra at night as an aid to falling asleep. Others use it if they wake up at night but cannot fall back asleep. According to Yogis 45 minutes of Yoga Nidra is as restorative as three hours of regular sleep. If you cannot sleep, at the very least Yoga Nidra will allow the body its rejuvenation/restoration time.
What can a person expect from the Yoga Nidra session?
You’ll be guided to lie or sit in as comfortable a position as you can find. Ideally on the back with some height under the knees and a little bit of padding under the head. Usually, you’ll be invited to cover yourself with a blanket as your body temperature will drop when you go into deep brainwave states. If you can’t lie on your back comfortably, any position where you are least likely to move and most comfortable will work. You can do Yoga Nidra sitting up as well.
There are as many styles of Yoga Nidra as there is yoga, but there are some things that are common to all. You’ll be asked to close your eyes, even invited to cover your eyes with an eye pillow, turn off your phone and manage distractions around you as much as you can.
Generally, a Yoga Nidra works gross to subtle. So you might begin with releasing tension in the physical body by contracting and releasing the muscles, or doing a couple of stretches to prepare the body.
Once that is complete, you’ll settle in comfortably. There is nothing for you to do except receiving guidance. Because Yoga Nidra works through a complete subtraction of effort, it is usually guided. That is so that you can optimally receive without having to exert effort to think about what’s coming next.
You can do a Yoga Nidra with or without an intention. Some Yoga Nidra experiences will invite you to bring your intention into your awareness. An intention targets anything you struggle with, feel stressed about, or habits that block your highest potential. It is formulated like an affirmation – by focusing on what you want – not what you don’t want. If you want to use an intention in your Yoga Nidra, think about it beforehand. What would you really like more of in your life? More love? Connection? Peace? Abundance? Any of these can be an intention. In some traditions, your intention is defined as your heart’s desire. That could be your intention too. A visual image or felt sense of what you want to create in your life might speak to you more. Whatever it is and however you access it, remember to focus on your vision for yourself versus your worry or fear around it.
Usually, a Yoga Nidra will include a breathing component. Breathe as deeply and as steadily as you can, but without strain. Then you’ll be invited to move awareness through the body in one of many variations of a body scan. It could be sweeping your attention systematically from your head to the toes, through the major joints of the body, or to the right and left sides of the body. As you are guided, you’ll feel yourself settling down into a quiet space.
Sometimes the apparatus of the mind will go on thinking, but you won’t be participating in your thoughts. At other times you’ll feel yourself dipping in and out in the twilight zone between waking and sleeping. Sometimes, you’ll think you fell asleep, but if you come back when asked to, you were not asleep. You were in a deep state of relaxation. Slowly you’ll be guided out of the Yoga Nidra experience. It is important to give yourself time to come back fully before driving, as it can take about 10-15 minutes of external data processing to fully come back online. Once you are, you will find that you are more refreshed, energized, and productive.
What is the most important detail in maintaining a relationship of mutual trust with customers?
I train others to lead Yoga Nidra. I emphasize the importance of meeting people where they are and respecting their comfort level. Some people do not like to lie down or prefer to keep their eyes open with a soft gaze. Some, even in private sessions, prefer to keep their reasons for coming to a session to themselves. Or they don’t want to create or use and intention. Whatever it is, we respect it. We never try to get someone to be where they are not. The more we can allow people to get the benefits of the practice in a way that is most comfortable to them, the safer they feel – and the safer they feel, the more the practice works. What I feel is most healing for anyone anywhere is acceptance. Receiving people as they are without judgment is one of the greatest gifts we can give.
What is the best part of your job?
There is often a moment when people come out of a Yoga Nidra looking years younger, radiant, and unburdened. I will often hear them say, “What was that?” They have never experienced being so deeply silent. To be able to aid people in finding that sense of peace within themselves that they can always return to is deeply fulfilling.
In my training, the Yoga Nidra experiences are combined with philosophical teachings. It is amazing to watch each person go through their own process as they digest the teachings and see how it relates in a very real and profound way to their lives. Years later I have had numerous people tell me the course was a turning point in their lives. I feel honored to be a part of that and there’s nothing else I would rather do with my time on the planet.