Meditation on the Mat
Take a break from contortions and headstands. There’s an ancient form of yoga practice that can offer inner calm and physical healing without the sweat.
Yoga nidra, sometimes called “yogic sleep,” is a form of deep meditation that works by triggering the relaxation response in our parasympathetic nervous system. It is an antidote to the fight-or-flight instinct that gets our heart racing and adrenaline pumping in stressful situations.
In a typical session, practitioners rest in savasana, or corpse pose, and are guided through a 35- to 40-minute meditation and visualization, by a teacher (or CD or other audio). You begin by setting an intention for your life and practice, such as, “I flow through life with ease.” Then you are guided through several stages, learning to focus on your breath, body, emotions, and thoughts. Throughout the practice, you’re encouraged to observe without judgment and relax into the peace of the present moment.
Yoga nidra engages the hippocampus and frontal cortex of the brain, which enhances clarity of mind, and moderates the amygdala, helping us calm extreme emotions and making it easier to replace negative patterns with positive ones.
This was the experience of Rick Echler, 43, of San Rafael, California, who took his first class in 2007 while he was struggling with chronic depression and anxiety. “After the class, I immediately felt a shift, like whatever I’d pushed down deep inside of me, my feelings and emotions, had moved toward the surface,” he says. “With each subsequent class, I became less anxious and started to thrive.”
Echler was introduced to the practice through psychologist Richard Miller, who developed a program he calls iRest after having his own life-changing experience with yoga nidra more than 40 years ago. “It had a profound impact on me,” Miller recalls. “It awakened me to my non-dual interconnectedness with the entire universe.”
The founder of the Integrative Restoration Institute and co-founder of The International Association of Yoga Therapy, Miller’s program of iRest Yoga Nidra has been used at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to help active-duty service members and veterans heal their post-traumatic stress syndrome. The U.S. Army surgeon general subsequently recommended the practice for healing chronic pain.
Today, yoga nidra has moved outside the yoga studio and is practiced at military bases, VA clinics, homeless shelters, schools and preschools, hospitals, hospices, chemical dependency centers, and prisons, including San Quentin State Prison in California. “Yoga nidra is truly about awakening as a human being,” Miller says. “It’s a way to heal our sense of separation and reexperience our wholeness with all of life.”
Echler agrees, and after being trained in the iRest system, now works as a project manager and community liaison for Miller’s Integrative Restoration Institute. “Yoga nidra helped to heal the underlying causes of depression and anxiety that used to control my life,” Echler says. “It taught me how to meet myself and life with a sense of freedom and ease.”