Nyasa is a Sanskrit word which translates as “placing,” “applying,” or “touching.” But it is much more. Nyasa is the conscious act of touching or placing the fingers or hands on sacred, sensitive, or medicinally active points of the body. In hindu tantric meditations and pujas, the practitioner lays his hands on himself in each of these places, in special sequences. The meditator infuses each location with a special mantra, visualization, or feeling, which is spoken aloud or mentally conjured.
In the case of nyasa during tantric maithuna (sacred sexuality), the male anoints each part of the female with aromatic oils, ashes, or
sandalwood paste, and the touching and mantra infusion both sanctifies each body part, arouses it sensually, and creates empathy, or
connection, between the partners. In modern western terms, nyasa creates mind-body connections by linking together neural networks, merging physical sensation in the body with thoughts and feelings of sanctity, joy, devotion, protection, and warmth. It is the predecessor (by thousands of years) of the practice of “anchoring” thoughts and behaviors in modern Ericksonian hypnotherapy and in NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming).
In eastern spiritual terms, nyasa is a consecration, a ritual protection (through invocation and the creation of sacred space *within* the body), sensuality and foreplay (in the case of maithuna), and a physicalized meditation on divinity of the the body itself. Interestingly, the guided relaxations taught at the end of most yoga classes today, and called “yoga nidra” (yogic sleep), were originally
complicated mental nyasa, in which the practitioner would relax on her back and mentally “place” the sound of a mantra in each part of her body, accomplishing relaxation, connection, and sanctification all at once.
In the early 1960s, Swami Satyananda Saraswati of the Bihar School of Yoga decided that the religious overtones of this practice might repel many westerners who might otherwise benefit from yoga. So, by his own admission, he created “yoga nidra” by combining traditional yogic technique with western hypnotic relaxation and the information he read in Herbert Benson’s seminal 1960′s work “The Relaxation Response.”
Before 1960, “yoga nidra” did not exist. There was only nyasa and the dream yoga techniques known as “nidra yoga.” To experience a simplified, non-religious western nyasa, try the following:
First, close your eyes visualize a yellow smiley face, just like the ones made popular in the seventies and now seen on email “emoticons.” A big, happy smiley face right in your palm, and the size of your palm. Look at your imagined yellow smiley face until you start to smile. Now, with your eyes closed, “place” that smiley face in the center of your chest, by touching your palm to your chest, rubbing your palm in gentle circles, and saying the word “happy” a few times out loud. Then repeat this “placing,” this time on your belly, placing the smiley face in your belly by rubbing your belly gently with your palm, visualizing the smiley face laughing out loud, and saying “happy”.