Yoga Nidra: Can It Help You Sleep? Can It Replace Sleep?

Yoga nidra is a guided meditation that promotes a state of deep rest and relaxation. It could help you get better sleep, but it doesn’t replace sleep.
Published
2023-12-12
11 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
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We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.

What Is Yoga Nidra? 

  • Yoga nidra is a relaxation technique that involves breath awareness and visualizations. 
  • It can’t replace sleep, but it may help improve your sleep by lowering anxiety and stress levels — amongst other things. 
  • You may get some of the benefits of sleep from yoga nidra (like feeling more alert), but sleep helps with much more. So, most of the time, you’re better off taking a nap or getting more nighttime sleep. There are times though when yoga nidra may be better for you than a nap.
  • The RISE app can help you find the best time to practice yoga nidra, show you when you’re sleep deprived (and therefore better off napping or catching up on sleep), and guide you through a range of other techniques to improve your sleep.

You might have heard the buzz around yoga nidra as a tool to help you get more energy, better focus, and even less sleep. But should you believe the claims? 

Below, we’ll dive into the science behind yoga nidra and share the potential health benefits, whether it can improve or replace sleep, and how you can use the RISE app to relax, drift off, and get better sleep and energy with more science-backed methods.

What Does a Sleep Doctor Think About Yoga Nidra?

What Does a Sleep Doctor Think About Yoga Nidra?

“We’re still learning about yoga nidra, but one thing we do know is it’s not a replacement for sleep. It may help you relax and drift off, though. So, as long as you’re not skipping sleep, there’s no harm in giving yoga nidra a try.”

Rise Science sleep advisor and medical reviewer, Dr. Chester Wu.

What is Yoga Nidra? 

Yoga nidra, often referred to as "yogic sleep," is a meditative practice that promotes a state of deep relaxation and conscious awareness. Yoga nidra guides practitioners through systematic relaxation techniques and visualizations to achieve a state between wakefulness and sleep, said to promote physical and mental health.

It's is also an ancient practice first referenced way back in 600 BCE. 

The meditation technique involves lying in savasana — corpse pose on your back — with your eyes closed and following guided exercises, including visualization, a body scan (focusing attention on different parts of the body), intention setting, and breathing exercises

Although it’s known as yogic sleep, it’s not designed to put you to sleep — although that may happen — and it definitely can’t replace sleep. 

As one paper on the topic describes it, “practitioners of yoga nidra claim, however, that it is not a substitute for sleep, but that its benefits go far beyond that of relaxation.” 

When practicing yoga nidra, you’re aware of your surroundings and move into a deep state of relaxation. This is said to be similar to the state of consciousness between waking and sleeping (hypnagogia).

Yoga nidra is closer to a form of meditation than more active forms of yoga you might be familiar with.

You might do a yoga nidra meditation for 30 minutes to an hour, although you’ll find practices of all lengths online.

Heads-up: Non-sleep deep rest, NSDR, is a term coined by Dr. Andrew Huberman that’s usually used to describe yoga nidra in a more generic, non-yogi way. 

The RISE app can tell you when to practice yoga nidra
Caption: Corpse pose, the asana (yoga pose) in which you practice yoga nidra. Source: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41782-022-00202-7 

What Are the Benefits of Yoga Nidra? 

Studies have found several benefits of yoga nidra: 

For sleep, studies show yoga nidra can help: 

Some non-sleep benefits may help you sleep well, too. For example, less stress and better mental health can help you get more restful sleep (RISE users say stress and anxiety are the biggest barriers to a good night’s sleep).

It sounds promising, but more research is needed on the impact of yoga nidra. 

It’s still a relatively new area of research, and studies on it are often small, vary in the yoga nidra protocols they study, use subjective sleep data (which can be inaccurate), and may not account for other factors (including other practices) that influence sleep. Plus, some studies are done on beginners, so it’s unclear whether the benefits continue the more you practice.

The number of YouTube videos and audio guides on yoga nidra has exploded as hype around the practice grows, so benefits will differ depending on whether you’re following a session led by a knowledgeable yoga teacher or not.

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Does Yoga Nidra Help You Sleep? 

Yoga nidra may help you sleep because it can help you unwind and relax. This can be useful before bed, if you wake up during the night, or during the day to lower overall stress levels. 

Here’s what it’s been shown to do for your sleep: 

  • Improve sleep efficiency: A 2023 study found two weeks of yoga nidra helped improve participants’ sleep efficiency by almost 4%, reduce wake time at night by 20 minutes, and increase deep sleep brain wave activity. 
  • Improve subjective sleep quality: A 2020 study found an 11-minute daily yoga nidra session for 30 days led to lower stress, and improved well-being and sleep quality (although the effect was small compared to the control group). 
  • Treat insomnia: A 2021 study looked at yoga nidra for chronic insomnia. It compared yoga nidra to cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), a first-line treatment for the sleep disorder. Subjective total sleep time, sleep efficiency, time awake at night, and sleep quality improved for both treatments. For participants practicing yoga nidra, the percentage of time spent in light sleep and deep sleep increased and levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased

How Does Yoga Nidra Help You Sleep?

Yoga nidra may help you sleep by causing a shift towards parasympathetic dominance (promoting a relaxed state). 

Your parasympathetic nervous system is your body’s rest and digest mode, opposite to fight or flight mode. When your parasympathetic nervous system is in the driver’s seat, you’ll have a lower heart rate and be in a more relaxed state. This is linked to more restorative sleep.

This comes with high cardiac vagal control, which is when your vagus nerve has a large influence on your heart, slowing your heart rate. High cardiac vagal control is linked to better subjective sleep quality. 

By promoting the parasympathetic nervous system, yoga nidra can increase the production of alpha waves, which can lead to theta and delta brain waves, the brain-wave state you’re in during deep sleep.

Yoga nidra may also influence cognitive structuring, or how your brain processes information. It may help your brain process information in a more relaxed way.

Research shows dopamine release in the brain may increase by 65% during yoga nidra. This is linked to a decreased desire for action, which could help you relax and fall asleep. 

And the practice has also been shown to lower cortisol, and high levels of cortisol in the evening can make it harder to fall and stay asleep.  

You can learn more about how cortisol affects your sleep here.

Plus, if you’re practicing yoga nidra before bed you’re spending less time in front of bright screens or doing stimulating activities that could keep you up. Yoga nidra could be part of a relaxing bedtime routine that helps you unwind and form positive associations with sleep. 

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Can Yoga Nidra Replace Sleep? 

No, yoga nidra can’t replace sleep, either at nighttime or in the form of a nap. You may look like you’re sleeping and feel deeply relaxed, but you’re not getting all of the benefits of sleep. So despite what some people say, and despite the name yogic sleep, yoga nidra can’t replace real sleep. 

Even if yoga nidra can temporarily boost your energy levels, help you de-stress, and improve mood, these are not the only things sleep or napping can do for you. Sleep affects everything from your emotions and ability to focus to your digestion and skin. In the long run, sleep deprivation can lead to serious health impacts including depression, obesity, and heart disease. 

“As far as we understand (and there is limited data), there are certain aspects of sleep that can be replaced with yoga nidra, but most cannot,” says Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, co-director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences at Stanford University and one of our sleep advisors. 

Yoga nidra isn’t sleep, but it can produce some interesting changes in the brain. Research from 2022 looked at brain activity during yoga nidra. It found participants didn’t fall asleep — so yoga nidra can’t be classed as sleep — but some areas of their brain showed local sleep changes while practicing. 

In simple terms, some areas of the brain slowed down and appeared as though they were sleeping while the rest of the brain was awake.  

It’s unclear what local sleep can do for you. The 2022 research above says it’s unknown whether local sleep can reduce sleep debt, which is the amount of sleep you owe your body. Sleep debt has the biggest impact on your energy levels each day. Check RISE to see how much sleep debt you have.

You can’t hack your way into getting the benefits of sleep without sleeping. We’ve covered more on this idea in our deep dive into whether you can sleep eight hours in four hours.

So there’s no replacement for a good night’s sleep. Considering yoga nidra or a nap? We cover when one is better than the other soon. 

Heads-up: Practicing yoga nidra won’t change how much sleep you need at night, either. 

The amount of sleep you need is known as your sleep need. It’s determined by genetics and it’s highly individual.

When we looked at the sleep needs of 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and up, we found it ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes. 

RISE uses a year’s worth of your phone use behavior and sleep science algorithms to work out your individual sleep need. 

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need
How many hours of sleep do RISE users need.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep need here

Yoga Nidra vs a Nap? 

Yoga nidra can’t replace sleep, so if you’re sleep deprived, you’re better off taking a nap to pay down sleep debt for lasting improvements in your energy and performance.

Check RISE to see if you have any sleep debt. Got more than five hours? Opt for a nap over yoga nidra. 

We recommend napping no later than during your afternoon dip in energy (check RISE for when this is each day), as snoozing later could make it hard to fall asleep at night. 

Yoga nidra may be better than a nap then if you need an energy boost in the evening. It may also be a better choice if you can’t risk waking up groggy (naps longer than 20 minutes can leave you with sleep inertia, although some practitioners of yoga nidra say the practice can come with a temporary bout of grogginess, too). 

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app calculates how much sleep debt you have.

Lowering your sleep debt can help you feel better in your daily life. 

“Before seeing the sleep debt numbers, I didn’t understand how exhausted I really was. The biggest difference was when I finally reduced it to 0. It was a journey of several months, but I felt years younger after.” Read the review.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep debt here.

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When to Do Yoga Nidra for Better Sleep? 

For better sleep, you can do yoga nidra during the day to reduce stress, before bed to relax, and in the middle of the night if you wake up to stay calm.

Here’s more on those key times: 

  • During the day: Use yoga nidra as a way to take a break and relax during the day. This can reduce overall stress and anxiety, which will come in handy come bedtime. 
  • Before bed: Practice yoga nidra as part of your bedtime routine to help you let go of daily worries and get into a state of deep relaxation ready for sleep. Yoga nidra can also be a useful distraction if you find racing thoughts keep you up. If it makes you feel too alert afterward, try a sleep meditation practice or RISE’s guided relaxation and breathing exercises instead. 
  • In the middle of the night: If you wake up and can’t fall back asleep after 20 minutes of trying, get up, move to a different room, and practice yoga nidra to stay calm and relaxed. You can’t force sleep (you’ll only make it harder to sleep if you do), so yoga nidra can give you something else to focus on when you’re struggling to sleep that isn’t sleep itself. If you begin to feel sleepy, crawl back into bed. 

Get Better Sleep and More Energy With RISE 

More research is needed on the practice of yoga nidra. It may help you relax, destress, and get a good night’s sleep, but it can’t replace real sleep.

If you use yoga nidra for sleep, RISE can show you the best time to do it (try your afternoon slump) and whether you’re better off paying down sleep debt with a nap instead. 

And if you’re looking for evidence-based tools to improve your sleep, RISE can guide you through relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, and 20+ sleep habits that can help you fall and stay asleep. 

RISE works fast — 80% of users get better sleep within five days.

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