Do you like naps? I like naps—a lot.
What I don’t like is setting up the perfect nap environment only to wake up groggy and grumpy when I inevitably sleep longer than intended. Naps also screw up my sleep at night.
As the title of this article suggests, there is a better way to rest without actually sleeping. It’s not a substitute for sleep but it’s great for recovery, focus, emotional well-being, and overall productivity.
Non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) is a powerful tool that big shots in Silicon Valley rely on to retain more information, avoid burnout, and stay at the top of their game. It’s a free self-care technique that merits wider recognition.
What Is Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR)?
Non-sleep deep rest is a relaxation technique popularized by our favorite Stanford neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Huberman. It’s an intense form of mental, emotional, and physical rest that involves passively listening to a 10-30 minute audio script that guides you through various relaxation exercises.
NSDR helps you rest and recharge by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system – also known as the rest-and-digest or relaxation response. It slows your brain waves down and is synonymous with a lower heart rate, slower breathing rate, and an overall healing state. It’s like a power nap, but better. Plus, research shows that deep rest lowers stress levels and enhances sleep quality and general well-being.
This dreamlike awareness resembles sleep but isn’t sleep. When you sleep, you cycle through four different stages, taking roughly 90 minutes to complete a sleep cycle. Naps are problematic because people often wake up during a sleep cycle, resulting in grogginess, fatigue, and brain fog. While short naps of around 30 minutes are usually okay, NSDR is a better option for many people.
It’s ideal for those struggling with insomnia, chronic pain, brain fog, high blood pressure, anxiety, and poor focus.
So, how long has NSDR been around?
NSDR isn’t a new concept; yogis have practiced a similar technique called yoga nidra for centuries. It’s an ancient form of conscious sleep done in savasana, or “corpse” pose.
Yoga scholars claim that 45-60 minutes of yogic sleep is the equivalent of 3-4 hours of restorative sleep. In fact, some Buddhist-level yogis have teamed up with researchers to study how they enter deep delta wave sleep while remaining aware of their surroundings (*mind blown*).
This practice is largely unknown because, in the West, yoga is more about how much you can do instead of how much you can rest. However, Dr. Huberman recently coined the term NSDR to make this centuries-old practice more accessible, relatable, and generally less “woo-woo.” He brought it into mainstream consciousness by talking about it on the Huberman lab podcast and offering a free NSDR video on YouTube.
If you’re turned off by spiritual concepts that often come with yoga and meditation, NSDR is worth a shot. Sure, some might object to the mainstream appropriation of yoga nidra. But it’s hard to see the harm in making this tool more accessible.
What if you can’t meditate?
If you struggle with traditional meditation due to a wandering mind, you’re not alone. Your brain is designed to wander and scan your environment for risks; it’s totally normal.
Fortunately, NSDR induces deep relaxation by slowing down your thoughts. It gives you the tools to “turn off” your mind. It’s one of the reasons I prefer NSDR Meditation to be regular. Plus, all you do is effortlessly listen to the guided script and immerse yourself in the experience.
Huberman swears by doing 20-30 minutes of NSDR or up to 60 minutes when sleep deprived. And he’s not the only one. Sundar Pichai, the Google CEO, mentioned NSDR in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. It helps him handle stress and stay focused and productive in his high-pressure job. In fact, many high-performance individuals rely on NSDR for a “time-out” during the day.
I’m feeling more relaxed just writing about it.
What Are the Health Benefits of Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR)?
Let’s dive into the physical and mental health benefits of non-sleep deep rest.
Heads up, NSDR doesn’t have peer-reviewed research behind it yet (although Huberman and others are studying it). Most of the studies refer to yoga nidra. However, since NSDR is basically yoga nidra by another name, it’s fair game.
1. Reduces Stress and Anxiety
NSDR is an ideal practice for students, entrepreneurs, high-performance professionals, and anyone dealing with anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A study found that doing yoga nidra for eight weeks reduced stress, worry, and depression in college students.
Research shows it lowers cortisol, a stress hormone that wreaks havoc on our bodies when it’s too high. Furthermore, regular yoga nidra can also improve heart rate variability (HRV), which measures the flexibility of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Low HRV is associated with depression, anxiety disorders, and PTSD. Relaxation exercises like NSDR help to balance the ANS (1).
2. Supports Learning and Memory
Regular NSDR may reduce fatigue and enhance mental clarity and concentration by helping you feel rested and refreshed. Dr. Huberman also recommends NSDR to support neuroplasticity and help you learn faster and retain more information. Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to create new connections between neurons in response to new experiences.
So, doing NSDR after a hardcore study session or period of intense focus can strengthen newly formed neural connections and help with information retention.
Next time you hit a block while studying or doing a cognitively demanding task, take a break for NSDR.
3. Improves Sleep
Even though NSDR is about not sleeping, it may improve your ability to switch off when you go to bed at night. It trains your mind and body to slow down, which is helpful for sleep.
This is an area of interest for Dr. Huberman and others in neuroscience. He suggests doing NSDR if you wake up at night. It’s way more effective than counting sheep.
In this study from 2012-2016, people with insomnia tried cognitive behavioral therapy or yoga nidra. Both groups experienced improvements in sleep time, sleep efficiency, and sleep quality, along with fewer nighttime awakenings. But here’s the kicker: only the yoga nidra group had lower stress markers and better deep sleep quality.
Even if it doesn’t solve all your sleep problems, NSDR during the day can still restore your energy and make you more productive. The positive effects can last throughout the day, providing more energy, clarity, and focus. It’s also helpful for staying alert when traveling and dealing with jet lag.
That said, NSDR isn’t a replacement for quality sleep. You still need to take care of your sleep hygiene, cut down on caffeine, and manage your overall stress to optimize sleep. If you need more help with your sleep, check out this and this one.
4. Increases Productivity and Drive
A fascinating study found practicing yoga nidra meditation increased dopamine release by 65 percent.
Dopamine is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter that keeps you motivated, driven, and focused. It gives you the get-up-and-go to chase your goals. Most of us need a productivity boost during the day, especially with all the crazy distractions available nowadays.
5. May Reduce Chronic Pain
Pain, no matter the cause, is constructed in the brain. While acute pain is a warning system, chronic pain is perpetuated by the brain long after the original injury has healed. Neural pain pathways become ingrained, perpetuating the cycle. However, ongoing research on chronic pain suggests calming the nervous system can rewire pesky neural pathways in your brain that keep the pain cycle going. This makes regular NSDR an excellent candidate for reducing chronic pain (and the anxiety that comes with it).
A 2017 study on people with chronic back pain found that yoga therapy – including yoga nidra – improved pain levels.
Another study found that yoga nidra reduced pain during a colonoscopy and improved the overall experience.
6. Improves Athletic Performance and Recovery
As every athlete or exercise enthusiast knows, building rest days and recovery strategies into your routine is essential for optimal physical performance. Neglecting recovery can lead to injuries and lousy performance.
However, recovery doesn’t mean doing nothing at all. Walking, stretching, eating high-quality carbohydrates, and getting good sleep are some of the best rest-day activities. Plus, using NSDR as part of your recovery strategy helps your nervous system enter a state of “rest and repair” to support optimal recovery and overall physical performance.
This study on athletes found yoga nidra and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) significantly improved their sleep. They fell asleep faster, spent more time in bed, and had a better sleep quality overall.
7. May Lower Blood Pressure
The benefits of NSDR go far beyond relaxation and stress reduction. Research suggests it may even improve blood pressure and overall quality of life in those with hypertension (2). It may even positively impact other heart disease markers like LDL and HDL cholesterol levels (3).
In the coming years, I’m pretty sure we’ll see NSDR become a standard lifestyle recommendation for folks for heart health.
8. May Regulate Premenstrual Symptoms
Research suggests NSDR may support women with painful or irregular periods. There’s some solid research that a 35-40 minute yoga nidra practice five times a week may improve hormone levels. This study found it lowered thyroid-stimulating hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, and prolactin.
It may also improve autonomic nervous system function in women with menstrual irregularities (4). And we can’t forget about the anxiety and depression that crop up during that time of the month. Regular NSDR may improve anxiety and depression associated with premenstrual syndrome (5).
9. May Support Longevity
Research suggests that meditation-based activities, like NSDR, may support healthy aging. People who have been meditating for years have higher plasma levels of telomerase, an enzyme that supports longevity by protecting chromosomes from becoming damaged and shortening.
Personally, this motivates me to stick to my NSDR practice long-term (not to mention all the other noticeable benefits).
So, how the heck do you do this thing?
Non-sleep deep Rest (NSDR) Protocol
Most NSDR scripts use a bunch of relaxation methods to help you focus inward and reach a state of deep relaxation. This may include body scanning, self-hypnosis, breath awareness, extended exhalations, and progressive muscle relaxation.
Let’s look at a few of the most common NSDR techniques and what they involve.
1. Body Scanning
Body scanning is a classic NSDR technique by directing your attention to different body parts, one by one. It’s all about non-judgmental awareness of the sensations in your body.
As you deliberately and carefully move your focus from one area to the next, you begin to deeply relax. For example, focusing on the front part of your right foot, then the sole of your right foot, moving to your right ankle, etc.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Like body scanning, progressive muscle relaxation helps you unwind by intentionally tensing and releasing different muscles. This technique improves your body awareness, helping you release tension you may not have been aware of.
3. Diaphragmatic Breathing and Extended Exhalations
While breathwork techniques like Wim Hof are popular amongst “biohacking” and wellness enthusiasts, it’s the opposite of breathing used in NSDR and yoga nidra. Wim Hof breathing deliberately stresses and activates the nervous system with rapid, deep breaths. While NSDR aims to downregulate with slow diaphragmatic breathing and extended exhalations.
Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, triggers your relaxation response and gives your abdomen a good massage in the process.
Another relaxation tip is extending your exhalation. This engages your parasympathetic nervous system and naturally lowers your blood pressure and heart rate. NSDR often uses breathing exercises like “cadence breathing.” It goes like this: breathe in through your nose for a count of 3, and then breathe out through your mouth for a count of 6. As you get better at it, you can increase your count by breathing in for 4 and out for 8.
Overall, consciously breathing with your diaphragm, slowing your breathing rate, and deliberately extending your exhale are simple yet powerful NSDR technique.
How To Incorporate Non-Sleep Deep Rest into Your Routine
Incorporating NSDR into your routine has few barriers to entry because it’s easy and free. You don’t have to pay to attend a course or buy any gear.
There are a bunch of online resources offering guided NSDR or yoga nidra meditations. Plus, emerging startups are latching onto the popularity of NSDR.
Look, I like shiny new apps as much as anyone. However, you don’t need one to establish a regular NSDR practice. YouTube offers plenty of free guided NSDR videos. Here is one I’m enjoying at the moment.
It takes trial and error to find a practice that works for you. Once you’ve found one you like, you can start building NSDR into your routine.
Schedule time for NSDR throughout your week and set reminders to help you create a habit. You can put sticky notes on your desk, set a reminder on your phone, or put it in your diary. This makes you less likely to prioritize other activities instead.
Create a comfortable and quiet space where you can lie undisturbed for 20-30 minutes during the day – on a bed, couch, carpet, or yoga mat. Close the blinds and grab a blanket, a comfortable pillow, and an eye mask (if you’re feeling fancy). This is easier if you work from home, but many professionals create a conducive environment in their office or workspace.
Overall, stay consistent. Rewiring your brain and changing habits requires a consistent approach.
How often you practice NSDR depends on your preferences, schedule, and needs.
The more you practice, the more likely you’ll experience the health benefits of deep rest. Most experts suggest incorporating 20-30 minutes of NSDR once a day. However, even a few times per week is beneficial.
There’s no wrong time to do NSDR (I mean unless you’re operating heavy machinery, driving, or in a job interview).
You can do it whenever you need to de-stress or recharge. Most people find it helpful to do during their lunch break or in the afternoon after a busy period of work and mental focus.
However, you can also do it first thing in the morning if you haven’t slept well or want an extra boost of focus. Additionally, you can practice it before bed or in the middle of the night if you have trouble falling asleep.
The benefits of NSDR are noticeable from your very first session. Most people notice more focus and well-being after their first 20-30 minute NSDR practice—this is long enough to enter a relaxation response, which is where the magic happens.
However, everyone is different. Some people may need to practice consistently over a few weeks or months to notice the benefits in their everyday life. Overall, the more you commit to NSDR and stay consistent, the more you’ll feel benefits to your energy, productivity, recovery, focus, and learning.
The purpose of NSDR is to rest your brain and body and promote focus during the day without falling asleep. It puts your mind in a deeply relaxed yet alert state. While regular NSDR is linked to better sleep quality overall, it’s not intended as a sleep meditation per se.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with using NSDR protocols to relax before bed if it works for you. There is no right or wrong answer here.
NSDR is safe for people of all ages. Learning about deep relaxation from a young age sets kids up for a lifetime of good stress management, mental focus, and recovery.
However, you may need to get creative to help your child understand the NSDR Benefits. This could involve setting up a fun rest area in their room, using an NSDR-like meditation story designed for kids, or inviting them to join you during your own NSDR practice.
Not exactly. While some people describe feeling like they’ve woken from a good night’s sleep after an NSDR session, we don’t recommend it as a substitute for quality sleep.
NSDR is a tool for recharging your mind and body and may help you learn faster, reduce anxiety, and boost your mood.
While NSDR is deeply restful, it is distinct from sleep. Sleep is essential for all humans, while NSDR is an optional tool to support your overall energy and productivity.
During sleep, your brain cycles through multiple stages, including rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. The most restorative stage is NREM slow-wave sleep, or stage 3 deep sleep. This stage is similar to NSDR as it slows your brain waves and reduces muscle activity. Having said that, cycling through light and REM sleep before you enter deep sleep is essential and carries many unique benefits.
Technically, there isn’t a significant difference between NSDR and meditation.
NSDR incorporates various guided meditation techniques, like body scanning and breath awareness. However, meditation is tricky for many people because it requires focus. You may struggle to observe your thoughts without getting caught up in them. On the other hand, NSDR quiets the mind by slowing down brainwaves and triggering a restful state.
NSDR is intended to rest your brain and body without falling asleep. But falling asleep is common when you first start NSDR. It’s completely normal to drift off when you’re that relaxed. However, you’re less likely to sleep through the experience the more you practice.
If you’re on a tight schedule and can’t afford to nap, do your practice in the morning, avoid your bed, and set your alarm for 20-30 minutes.
NSDR is a safe and risk-free relaxation practice that anyone can do. The only generic caveat is that you shouldn’t practice it while driving or operating heavy machinery.
Non-sleep deep rest is one of the best replacements for your mid-afternoon power nap. I think NSDR beats a nap because it teaches you to deliberately release stress and tension and activate the rest-and-digest nervous system.
In summary, incorporating a 20-30 minute guided NSDR into your daily routine is an effective (and enjoyable) self-care practice for managing stress, enhancing inner calm, and maintaining focus and productivity.
About the Author
Katherine is a South African-born nutritionist, freelance wellness writer, and rooibos tea enthusiast (iykyk). When she’s not researching new “biohacking” trends and writing for her clients, you’ll find Katherine swimming at a local Cape Town beach or practicing breathwork at any opportunity.