by Neal Ghoshal, Sacred Moves
As the popularity of Yoga continues to expand, more and more people are being drawn into practices beyond Yoga asana (posture), into breath work, into meditation, into the subtler aspects of the tradition. One of the practices that is becoming increasingly lauded is Yoga Nidra.
I first came across Yoga Nidra back in 2003 when learning to teach at the Ashram Yoga School in Parnell, Auckland. Ashram Yoga, a Satyananda style inspired Yoga school, included Yoga Nidra as part of the program.
I remember long relaxation sessions where everyone was happy to be “simply” lying down, guided into magical visualisations and into a deeply restful experience.
I loved how peaceful I felt afterwards.
Soon after completing the course at Ashram Yoga I came across the work of Dr Richard Miller. As well as being a Doctor of Psychology, Richard has been practicing, studying and teaching Yoga Nidra since 1970 (46 years), and has brought together and adapted these ancient teachings to create a contemporary approach to Yoga Nidra called iRest.
“Yoga Nidra” – it has an almost mystical ring to it! But what really is it, and how can it help you?
The purpose of this article is to attempt to somewhat de-mystify Yoga Nidra and show how this contemporised, ancient practice can be an incredibly practical tool to help us live our life with ease, resiliency, equanimity and authenticity.
We will look at the iRest Yoga Nidra protocol in some depth & offer Yoga Nidra resources and practices.
The Sleeping Yogi
Nidra essentially means “sleep”. To be a Yogi is someone who is “Awakened” (awake to their True Nature). In a sense then Yoga Nidra is a play on words, to be awake and asleep. Indeed, many times as I practice iRest Yoga Nidra I find myself right on the edge of falling asleep. I feel deeply relaxed, yet awake to the experience.
Most of us can recall a time when we are waking up in the morning, yet still in a place where we are simply resting. Like being half-asleep. It can be a very receptive place to be in and often my most creative ideas and solutions come to me at this time.
In iRest Yoga Nidra we deliberately enter into and maintain similar states of profound resting, and while there we create a space in which we investigate and enquire into aspects of our life and experience.
What is iRest Yoga Nidra?
Perhaps the iRest website describes it in the best way:
iRest Yoga Nidra meditation supports psychological, physical and spiritual health, healing and awakening.
iRest is an accessible meditation protocol that is integrative, as it heals unresolved issues and traumas, and restorative, as it aids practitioners in recognizing the underlying peace of mind that is always present amidst all changing circumstances in life.
Due to its effectiveness and ease of use, iRest has proven to effectively support the healing process across a broad range of populations, including those with PTSD, chronic pain, sleep issues, high stress, depression, and anxiety.
Richard called it iRest as he was conducting clinical research on the effects of Yoga Nidra on people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), particularly army veterans.
The term ‘Yoga Nidra’ did not appeal to the US State Department at the time, so ‘iRest’ (Integrative Restoration) was created (everything in those days was iPod, iPhone etc). Richard and his colleagues have been involved in many (29 to date) clinical research projects to prove the efficacy of iRest Yoga Nidra to help people suffering from PTSD.
The research demonstrates the effectiveness of the iRest approach to a wide variety of groups – people like you and me, and also people perhaps in greater need, army veterans, the homeless, people who have suffered family violence and many more.
There is a clear therapeutic aspect to iRest … and a focus on people experiencing their own essential wholeness. As students of an authentic Yoga we do well to remember that this is really what the Yoga tradition is about – practices and tools to empower us to see and live from our original wholeness and our true nature.
Non Dual Kashmir Shaivism
iRest Yoga Nidra has a somewhat different approach from the first practices I learnt back in 2003. While iRest does draw from the same sources that inform Satyananda’s Yoga Nidra, at its heart is the nondualism of Kashmir Shaivism – Tantric teachings from over 1000 years ago. Some key Yogic texts to understand Kashmir Shaivism are the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra (See Lorin Roche’s The Radiance Sustras) and the Yoga Spanda Karika, among others).
The iRest Protocol
At the core of iRest is a 10-step protocol. It is important to note that this protocol should not be seen as a fixed and only way to practice – it is more like a map that guides us along this path of meditation. The protocol is fluid and while of course we may practice all the steps together, it is equally possible to focus on certain stages.
While grounded deeply in ancient practice, Richard developed (and continues to develop) the iRest path of meditation as a practice that is accessible to a more western orientated mind – without dumbing it down in any way – indeed I feel it enhances these teachings by making them more understandable and tangible. And it is always being refined in response to the latest research being gathered around Yoga, meditation and mind and neuroscience.
The 10 step iRest Protocol:
- Set An Intention (include arriving in the space etc)
After settling into a comfortable position, set an intention for your practice, such as being present, at ease and safe, remaining awake and alert, or you may have a wish to simply enjoy deep rest.
- Connect to your Heartfelt Desire
Reflect on what you deeply wish for your life. What are the guiding principles to how you live? What gives your life profound meaning? While this may be an ongoing enquiry, we can affirm our heartfelt desire as a short, clear, positive statement in the present tense, as though we are consistently connecting to our deeply felt desire to be in harmony with ourselves and with the universe.
- Invite the support of your Inner Resource
Any potentially transformative and authentic meditative enquiry may of course bring up much that may be challenging for us, on all levels, physically, energetically, emotionally and mentally.So Richard Miller felt it essential to include as part of the protocol the cultivation of an Inner Resource, a place inside where we can be fully safe and secure. This may be a place in nature, something real or imaginary, a loved one, or a practice … whatever works to become more at ease. One student said it was their “happy place”.Inner Resource is one of the ways in which iRest is quite unique from other forms of Yoga Nidra. We tune into the very sensorial experience of our Inner Resource – using our visual sense, auditory, smells, taste, texture, the inner felt sense. What is it like to truly feel and be at ease, to be safe and secure? What are the sensations? We may welcome and return to our Inner Resource at any time during any practice … in fact any time of the day or night, when we need support and safety our Inner Resource is always available. So Inner Resource speaks to our resiliency in life – the more we can feel and be at ease, or enter states of wellbeing, the more we can meet life’s challenges and still remain calm and centred. The first three steps make up the Sankalpa of Yoga Nidra (whereas traditional Yoga Nidra includes an intention as a resolve, iRest expands this to these three stages. Sankalpa may be translated as “Born From The Heart”).
- Body Sensing
Having laid the vital foundations for the practice with the stages of Sankalpa, the protocol now turns to explore the physical body (in Yoga this is referred to as the Annamaya Kosha). We explore the somatic felt-sense of the body by rotating a curious attention through and around the body, taking time to truly feel as we go. The body is experienced as a field of sensation which through regular practice we become more and more sensitive to. A response to Body Sensing is that the body tends to release into a deeply relaxed state. We practice Body Sensing in a way that anchors a busy mind into feeling the body. The thinking mind slows down, the body softens and relaxes.
- Breath Sensing
After meeting body sensations we begin to explore the subtler experience of the energy body (in Yoga, the Pranamaya Kosha), and we primarily access this via our breath. So at this stage in the iRest protocol we may tune into, with a great curiosity, our breathing. A focus perhaps on our inhalation, exhalation, the pauses in between, the felt sense of breath as movement, and so on. The possibilities are almost endless.
Curiosity is a wonderful quality to cultivate in our meditative practice – it touches into our deep yearning for understanding, presence and ultimately, for ease and freedom in how we live our life.
- Welcoming Feelings and Emotions
With the ongoing support of our Inner Resource, and being more accustomed to the experience of body and breath, we may begin to welcome feelings and emotions (in Yoga and the iRest protocol, we call this aspect of ourselves the Manomaya Kosha).This is where for me personally iRest Yoga Nidra has been a particularly powerful practice. Learning to welcome all feelings and emotions and not to judge them or push them away has been truly transformational. I may, of course, be deeply affected by strong emotions such as anger and fear but, because of the practice, I might have a little more resiliency – more tools at my fingertips to be able to take a pause or have a clearer response rather than an unhealthy reaction.At this stage we can become sensitive to the felt-sense of feeling and emotions. This is why body sensing is so important – the practice grows our kinesthetic intelligence and resiliency, so that we can tolerate and learn to be with strong emotions. We can also welcome in and notice opposite sensations and emotions and learn to step back and dis-identify with them. We might, instead, connect more with what is unchanging in ourselves – our innate wholeness and goodness. Stepping back can give us the understanding that, rather than “I am sad or happy”, sadness (or happiness, or anything else) is arising within Awareness. Emotions will come, we can welcome and acknowledge what is arising (rather than rejecting it). We may ask ourselves, where in our body do we feel a particular emotion? How does it feel? What does it want, what does it need and what action might it be asking me to take?
We can learn to remain anchored to our wholeness and stay steady and at ease as experience flows through us.
Indeed, Richard says we can even see emotions (and thoughts and beliefs), as special messengers, showing us something important for us to learn about ourselves, and ultimately pointing us home to our True Self.
- Welcoming Thoughts and Beliefs
Just like welcoming feelings and emotions, we may also welcome and explore our thoughts and beliefs. (In Yoga, the Vijnanamaya Kosha).Thoughts and beliefs about ourselves and about the world arise, unfold, dissolve. When we connect to our unchanging wholeness, our witnessing presence, there is not only an observing of thoughts and beliefs, but the possibility of a more pro-active “welcoming” of them. This may be a radical departure from pushing or rejecting aspects of ourselves. By welcoming we have the opportunity to inquire into them – to see ourselves, our thoughts with greater clarity, objectivity, and with a certain amount of kindness and compassion.And again, we can also welcome and feel their opposite thoughts (or alternative thoughts). Are there any accompanying body sensations to a particular thought or it’s opposite? Experience one, then the other, then both simultaneously, and ask ourselves, now, what is the impact of this enquiry on our body and mind? Then once again, step out and into witnessing how all this experience is arising, unfolding and dissolving. Perhaps you can see how transformational (and accessible) the iRest protocol is – offering us tools that continually encourage us to connect to the somatic felt sense of our experience, and to anchor into our always present and unchanging wholeness.I feel it is important at this point to note again that not every stage of the iRest Yoga Nidra protocol needs to be practiced every time. For me as a teacher and holder of space, it is vital to keep creating a truly safe space within which to practice, establishing a strong sense of one’s Inner Resource(s), before diving into experiencing and welcoming strong emotions or deeply held beliefs.
- Experiencing Joy
As we enter ever deeper levels of meditation we may spontaneously experience profound wellbeing, ease and joy (in Yoga, the Anandamaya Kosha). This joy is somewhat different from the “joy” of a new iPhone or a holiday experience which of course tends to be rather transitory in nature.Instead we connect with and welcome an un-caused Joy, that is not dependent on anything else at all, simply and profoundly because it is our true nature.Un-caused Joy, that is not dependent on any object or event, arises naturally as our birthright as we come into contact with the deeper truth of who we really are. It is interesting to me to witness again and again, how people leave Yoga class or Yoga Nidra practice with a smile, more relaxed, and somehow more connected to a peaceful centre. Joy and wellbeing has moved more to the foreground of their experience. Indeed, for many, this is a prime motivator for their ongoing Yoga and meditation practice.
- Who is experiencing all this?
At this point in iRest meditation we can ask ourselves, “Who is experiencing all these sensations, this breath, these emotions, thoughts, joy?”We turn to observe ourselves and investigate our own nature, identity, our I-ness. Richard Miller says that at this point we enter the realm of the Asmitamaya Kosha, which again is somewhat a departure from traditional Yoga Nidra practices. We have the opportunity to make this inquiry into who is the observer, the witness. It is a question at the very heart of the Yogic inquiry – so who are we, really?And as we explore our own nature we traverse the territory of the subtler aspects of meditation, into simply being, into experiencing ourselves as a witnessing presence, and as Pure Awareness itself. For me personally, this has been one of the most profound teachings of iRest Yoga Nidra – it has helped me navigate, experience and understand more clearly these finer, subtler, quieter stages of meditation.
- Integrate into your life
As we draw the practice towards it’s completion, and we regather our attention from spacious Awareness back to the breath, to the body, to the sounds around, we can recall and re-affirm our Heartfelt Desire. We can take this process of moving on into our life slowly, mindfully, still connected to our True Nature, so that the resonance of the practice continues into our everyday life. So that we begin and continue to live our life as our True Nature.While generally, in a class setting a Yoga Nidra practice may last between 20-35 minutes, we can do lovely long practices of an hour or more, and also lovely short practices lasting a few minutes, even less. Ultimately, we can integrate the practice so deeply that we are in presence, at ease, relaxed, resilient throughout our life.
Encouraging Embodied Awareness
One of the most important aspects for me about iRest Yoga Nidra is its emphasis on embodiment. By this I mean that the protocol consistently encourages me to feel the sensations of my experience. To grow my kinesthetic and proprioceptive intelligence. To feel my aliveness. To be able to take a pause and truly notice how the felt sense of circumstances allows me the possibility to welcome and respond rather than react to the experience.
A favourite quote from writer Joseph Campbell:
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.
As teachers, it is important to remember that with meditation practices such as iRest Yoga Nidra – their effectiveness and depth is often dependent on the receptivity of the practitioner and on their personal preferences and life experiences. It also depends on the experience, style and abilities of any one particular teacher – each teacher brings their own particular style, embodiment and medicine.
On a personal level, Richard Miller and every senior iRest Yoga Nidra teacher I have met are incredibly kind, compassionate, embodied, wise, knowledgeable and truly amazing teachers – a great inspiration to me. I believe it is because the practice encourages embodiment, and those who have been steeped in the practice for a long time live more clearly, more beautifully as True Nature.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it OK that I fall asleep during iRest Yoga Nidra?
Absolutely. While we may have an intention to remain awake and alert during practice, if we should fall asleep let us allow this rather than resist sleep or even judge ourselves for falling asleep. It may be just what was needed! I have fallen asleep many times while practicing iRest Yoga Nidra – its never done me any harm whatsoever!
Do we go through all 10 steps of the iRest protocol every time we practice?
It is not necessary at all. The protocol is a fluid map and path of meditation. At times spending a session just being with one’s Inner Resource can be so very valuable. Or a long, detailed body sensing over 45 minutes may feel like the perfect practice for a particular time. Indeed, ideally we practice in a way that truly meets us in at any given time.
Do I always lie down on my back for iRest Yoga Nidra?
When I first practiced Yoga Nidra I was always in Savasana, or Corpse, or Relaxation pose. Yet I have learnt through iRest that while this is still often the case, it is valuable to experience the practice also while sitting (this can be a helpful way to stay awake!), and even standing and walking (eyes open in this case!). Being able to experience a great ease of being in many different positions and scenarios is a useful way to take the practice into more everyday life situations.
iRest Yoga Nidra Resources and Practices
Listen and download a free iRest practice with Richard Miller.
This Yoga Nidra comes from Richard’s book, The iRest Program for Healing PTSD. Richard’s first book – Yoga Nidra, a Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing, is also a highly recommended read.
The iRest Institute in The United States
Two further free iRest Practices with Richard Miller
The online store with books, cds, downloads and more
iRest trainings, retreats and workshops in Australia are held and hosted by my dear friend and colleague Fuyuko Toyota. You can find her at: premayoga.com.au
Youtube has a whole range of Yoga Nidra practices. Just search for iRest Yoga Nidra.
I have put together a number of useful iRest resources – practices, teachings, discussions as a playlist on YouTube (with Richard Miller, senior teacher Robin Carnes, and more). Watch them here.
iRest teachers I know and can happily recommend in New Zealand are Certified iRest Teacher Una Hubbard, based in Wellington and Level 2 teachers in training Sam Loe in Nelson and myself, based in Auckland and Waiheke Island.
Donna Farhi, my Yoga teacher based near Christchurch, has some wonderful Yoga Nidra recordings available too on her online shop, and while not strictly following the iRest protocol, come highly recommended. View her Yoga Nidra recordings here >>
Neal has been practicing yoga for eighteen years and teaching since 2003. He sees yoga as a map guiding us home to a place of peace and relaxed openness in each moment. He enjoys creating a safe and inviting space in which to learn and discover yoga as a balance between effort and effortlessness, structural alignment and organic fluidity, mindfulness and spontaneity.
Neal teaches as part of the core faculty on the Yoga Teacher Trainings from Contemporary Yoga, based in Auckland. Neal and his colleague Karla Brodie also offer Restorative Yoga Teacher Workshops in New Zealand and Australia.