Going Inward with Hygge Yoga

by Janet Arnold-Grych

During the chilliest of months, my signature attire is a thick, blue fleece blanket that I wrap around me like a sari, practically from the moment I return home from work. That blue blanket brings not only warmth, it also holds familiarity, comfort, and solace. In the Danish tradition, the sense of coziness evoked by my blanket would be termed hygge (pronounced hoo-guh). Embracing hygge, we gravitate to those things or people that warm and nurture us, especially in winter.

Whether it’s cocoa with friends, thick wool socks, or a room full of candles, our favorite acts of hygge feel tailor-made for getting through those dark, frigid days. But it’s more than just the infusion of warmth. Hygge beckons us to notice the details—the softness of a favorite sweater, the smell of freshly-brewed coffee, the crackle of logs in the fireplace. Our senses key in to those simple experiences, quieting mental chatter and bringing us into the present moment. How wonderful it is that, with presence, an aromatic cup of tea can be all we need to feel cozy, calm, and complete. Rumi wrote, “When you feel a peaceful joy, that’s when you are near truth.” He reminds us that when we connect to simple, non-ego-centered joy, we connect to a richer version of ourselves.

Hygge is nurturing and comforting. It is also fleeting. Once the cocoa is gone or the fire burnt down to embers, that coziness may leave us, too, because is it grounded in the external senses. But the yogic practice of pratyahara can carry that feeling forward, because it is focused on turning inward. Pratyahara means “sense withdrawal” and it strengthens our ability to notice, to soften, and to expand the space between thought and reaction. It can cultivate a deep-seated sense of well-being that provides a well of coziness even in the absence of our mug of tea or crackling fire.

One way to achieve pratyahara is through yoga nidra, a systematic way of traversing the body’s koshas, or layers, in order to draw the senses inward. “It is a very gentle process that imparts feelings of safety, coziness, and self-compassion,” says Jennifer Reis, a Kripalu Schools faculty member and creator of Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra® and Five Element Yoga®.

Yoga nidra is typically done in a quiet room while awake or moving in and out of conscious awareness. Through a progressive process of scanning the body, connecting to the breath, feeling full body sensations, and opening to awareness without judgment, one moves through the layers toward a state that is not directed by the senses, but by a deeper knowledge.

“Our inner observer is related to the heart chakra,” says Jennifer. “It’s acceptance and love. The very witness that is used to observe the body, the breath, and sensations is designed to strengthen and enhance those compassionate aspects of our being. Yoga nidra is a sweet practice because you are lying down and getting cozy. It's very womb-like. There is a lot of permission.”

This process is initially cultivated by practicing in a quiet space to tune out external sensations. “Once you are familiar with the process, you can self-guide it at different times of the day—even in line at the grocery store with your eyes open,” says Jennifer. “You can guide yourself through a body scan in one or two minutes, come back to the witness self, notice, and go inward. When you are awake and going inward, that’s when yoga happens. That’s union.”

Our sense of equanimity deepens when we rely less on our external senses for connection, and instead harness pratyahara and our inner witness. Not only is it deeply calming, but it can impact our understanding and choices because we are directed from a place of clarity and compassion—a place much closer to the truth.

Jennifer explains that the extended effects of a yoga nidra or pratyahara practice can occur very quickly. “I have beginners who tell me they sleep better, they are more relaxed, they feel they have somewhere to go that is safe within themselves. ‘Cozy’ is getting to know yourself in all of those different levels and layers.” 

Seeking sense withdrawal doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the wonderful external hygge moments in our lives. We should continue to celebrate our mugs of cocoa and soft, warm blankets. The trick is not to rely on those moments for sustained wellness. For that, we need to release the ever-changing external inputs and instead access the ever-present internal awareness. True coziness arises from a place of inner awareness and acceptance—and that’s something we can wrap ourselves up in at any moment.

Janet Arnold-Grych is a yoga teacher and writer whose work has been published in Elephant Journal, Huffington Post, Third Coast Digest, and other outlets.