Non-Sleep Deep Rest: Beyond Traditional Sleep

Words like 'yoga' and 'hypnosis' intimidate many people despite their transformative power. To make the practices friendlier, neurobiologist Dr. Andrew Huberman coined a new name, "non-sleep deep rest (NSDR),” as an umbrella term for deeply relaxing mind-body techniques. Modern scientific evidence suggests what ancient yogis already knew — NSDR transports practitioners into a new state of consciousness, radically transforming their mental and physical wellness.

Key takeaways:

NSDR: Rest like a baby without the sleep

Non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) is a state of rest similar to sleep where one is still consciously aware. Using NSDR practices, the brain and body shift into profound relaxation, entering a transformative state of consciousness and shedding a hyperactive, overwhelmed, stressed, or tired mind.

Some people equate NSDR with yoga nidra, but it includes other practices, too, like hypnosis and shallow naps. These tools allow you to better control your nervous system, mindset, and associated physical symptoms, like a rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, and an overactive immune system.

Specific breathing methods, meditative-like states, and visualization typically characterize deep rest techniques. This sounds a lot like traditional meditation, but despite the similarities, NSDR is different and separate from meditation.

The ultimate goal of meditation is not relaxation and is practiced in a more aware and active state. It includes widespread methods to train the mind to focus, foster awareness, and redirect thoughts.

NSDR, on the other hand, is a near-sleep state that preserves awareness. The benefit of NSDR is its simple, self-directed downshift at any moment of the day to reap restorative benefits like an invigorating power nap.

How NSDR works

After decades of studies, scientific data shows powerful health benefits from mind-body practices. Some practices increase one’s focus, while others may help change specific behavior or open particular energy pathways. Deep rest techniques decrease the mind's hyper-vigilance and related fatigue.

Like other practices, some of the benefits of NSDR are directly related to deep and slow breathing. This type of breathing slows heart rates and calms the nervous system. Some NSDR tools include visualization or focusing on a specific intention, which helps the mind focus and reduce distraction and racing thoughts.

As the mind and body find calm, brainwave frequencies decrease — often shifting into theta wave frequencies — and the number of thoughts shrinks. The practitioner remains aware of their surroundings, noticing sounds and air movement, but the mind is not driven to focus on the external stimuli. Yoga nidra experts can even decrease racing thoughts and distractions to just a few per minute.

This relaxed state of mind slows the release of stress hormones, like cortisol, as the restful parasympathetic nervous system takes over. NSDR, thus, restores and energizes a body tired from being in a hyperactive and stressed state.

Studies also show that yoga nidra and other NSDR tools replenish some essential neurotransmitters like dopamine more than traditional meditation.

According to a 2022 review on yoga nidra published in the international journal Sleep and Vigilance, practicing one hour of yoga nidra may equate to 4 restorative hours of sleep. Some experts say even 30 minutes has a similar power. Most NSDR experts recommend 10–30 minutes at least three times a week, saying the more non-sleep deep rest you experience, the greater the benefits.

Health benefits of NSDR

Like many mind-body practices, NSDR offers impressive mental, physical, and spiritual health benefits, revealing the brain's power to impact whole-body health. These potent results are mainly related to a calm nervous system and restored mind and body, much like the benefits of deep sleep when your brain rewires its neural connections.

Still, like other wellness tools, the scientific data on NSDR is quite promising but still developing.

Mental health benefits of NSDR

According to research, neuroimaging, and clinical practice, deep rest techniques may offer these cognitive and mental health benefits:

  • Boosted neuroplasticity, sharpening memory retention, focus, and cognition
  • Increased creativity
  • Enhanced learning
  • Improved sleep quality and insomnia
  • Relieved stress
  • Soothed anxiety and depression
  • Eased post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms

Physical health benefits of NSDR

Studies have also shown that NSDR offers impressive physiological health benefits, connected mostly to a calmer nervous system and restorative rest:

  • Reduced cortisol levels, the 'fight or flight' stress hormone
  • Enhanced dopamine release, helping people stay focused and motivated
  • Improved pain management
  • Slowed heart and breathing rates
  • Increased blood flow to the brain
  • Lowered blood sugar levels in people with diabetes taking glucose-lowering medication
  • Improved red blood cell count
  • Corrected hormone levels, mainly in women with difficult or painful menstruation
  • Reduced physical symptoms of anxiety

Spiritual health benefits of NSDR

According to experts and studies, some people who practice NSDR, particularly yoga nidra, feel realigned to their spiritual and psychological inner selves. They report these benefits:

  • Deeper sense of meaning
  • Inner transformation and healing
  • Greater access to the subconscious and unconscious mind
  • Renewed self-exploration and discovery
  • Bliss and serenity

Types of NSDR practices

In general, NSDR encompasses practices whose goal is deep relaxation by reaching a near-sleep state and still maintaining awareness. Here’s an overview of some of the most common NSDR techniques.

Yoga nidra

If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you may have practiced a simple form of yoga nidra without realizing it.

At the end of many yoga routines, it’s traditional to lay in śavāsana, or the 'corpse pose,' for up to 10 minutes. This is the ancient pose for yoga nidra, also called yogic sleep. According to the 2022 review in Sleep and Vigilance, ‘yoga nidra' derives from two Sanskrit words that mean union (yoga) and sleep (nidra).

In general, NSDR guides recommend laying or sitting for most NSDR practices. Yoga nidra, on the other hand, specifically uses the śavāsana pose, pronounced 'shavasana,' where one lays on their back with arms and legs comfortably open.

Yoga nidra aims to transform the body and mind by finding a conscious sleep state of total relaxation. According to the authors of the review, the Vijñāna bhairava (a primary document source for yoga) says this non-sleep deep rest occurs "when sleep has not yet fully appeared…and all the external objects (though present) have faded out of sight."

Practitioners often achieve this state with a guide leading them through a body scan, visualization, and slow, deep breathwork for 10–30 minutes. Yoga nidra can become more in-depth and complex, with some experts lying in the corpse pose for an hour.

For those just starting, experts recommended asking your yoga teacher for yoga nidra training or simply using guided recordings on YouTube.

Hypnosis

Surprising to many, hypnosis is a powerful tool used in many mental health clinics. Even Dr. Huberman reports practicing and benefiting from self-hypnosis. Fortunately, it's different from the Hollywood version of hypnosis, where clients often cluck and flap their arms like chickens.

Hypnosis is a potent and deep mind way to address specific problems like insomnia or phobias. Most hypnotic approaches are led by a trained clinician for 10–60 minutes and are highly centered on the client's needs and symptoms.

In 2018, the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine published a systematic review of hypnosis and sleep improvement studies. According to the authors, "hypnosis is considered a cost-effective and safe intervention with reported benefits for multiple health conditions.”

The review found that studies often recommended practicing self-hypnosis at home. While it’s best to first learn mind-body exercises from trained specialists, audio recordings for self-hypnosis — led by experts — are available on the Internet.

Shallow power naps

NSDR technically includes 'non-sleep' techniques. Still, Huberman includes shallow naps as NSDR, perhaps because one is not entering a deep sleep state. On various podcasts, however, he personally reports benefiting from yoga nidra more than from naps, despite being a self-proclaimed nap lover.

Scientific literature shows that 20–30-minute shallow napping solidifies new learning activities. much like other NSDR practices where deep rest helps consolidate new material more quickly and deeply. As a result, experts recommend napping anytime during the day when learning something new.

Studies also show that naps calm the nervous system, help prevent cardiovascular diseases, and increase recovery for sleep-deprived athletes, among many other physiological benefits.

Still, naps can be a double-edged sword.

Some yoga nidra experts say that most mental tensions aren't resolved with shallow napping as they can be with other NSDR practices. According to some yoga nidra traditions, sleep is a state of darkness or ignorance instead of enlightenment.

For people with insomnia, experts strongly advise against napping because some studies have shown that naps worsen sleep quality for insomniacs. Instead, experts recommend deep rest techniques, which research has shown to improve insomnia. Furthermore, according to studies, the restorative rest NSDR supplies may reduce the number of nighttime sleep hours one needs.

Tips for practicing NSDR

NSDR costs nothing, is easy to start, and doesn't require much time.

A 2022 study published in Current Psychology found that an 11-minute yoga nidra practice proved powerful enough to reduce stress and improve sleep quality and overall well-being. Most people today would quickly trade 10 minutes for such potent results.

To begin any NSDR practice, start small and build the practice as you can. Trying a 3-minute yoga nidra will whet your appetite for more next time to your practice. To obtain the greatest results, experts recommend building to 10–60 minutes at least three times a week. You’ll see a significant difference with a 10-minute daily practice.

One can do NSDR practices at any time during the day, even as a morning routine. Whenever you need to recharge or rest your mind, you can also substitute yoga nidra for a longer nap, possibly reaping greater benefits in less time. Some practitioners use NSDR practices during their bedtime routine to prepare their minds for sleep.

If you lack a yoga teacher, plenty of apps and YouTube videos offer NSDR sessions. Huberman even offers a 10-minute guided yoga nidra-like NSDR practice on YouTube.

Don’t worry if your mind is busy or your body struggles to rest at first. It can take time to learn how to enter deep rest. Short, consistent practice is the best way to start, according to experts.

Embracing NSDR for wellness

NSDR practices could boost your sleep, cognition, inner peace, and overall health and well-being. Most people learn mind-body practices best in person with a trained clinician, but according to Huberman and other experts, NSDR is safe enough to try at home.

Experiment with different practices, guides, and places to see what works best for you. Consistent, frequent practice over time will produce the greatest restoration.



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