Workshop Experience: iRest Yoga Nidra for Healing, with Dr. Catherine Lewan
On Saturday, March 31st a group of 8 people gathered at the Infinity Holistic Wellness & Yoga studio to learn the science behind iRest Yoga Nidra-- a specific type of Yoga Nidra created by Richard Miller—and then the fun part…be lead through the practice itself. Yoga Nidra is far from new—but it has been getting much more attention in the last decade or so, due to the growing amount of research on its benefits. Dr. Catherine Lewan, our instructor for the workshop, was asked only one question after everyone awoke from their Yoga Nidra, “When are we doing this again?”
So, what is Yoga Nidra and iRest?
(The science behind it & what makes iRest unique)
Meditation is NOT the absence of thought. It is not about “quieting” your mind. It is about becoming more aware of your mind, and training your mind. And, in the case of Yoga Nidra, we are actually training our physiology.
As a yoga teacher & yoga therapist, I have been trained to lead the traditional format of a Yoga Nidra, or “yogic sleep”, and I currently lead it in a class every week, as well as in sessions with clients. Walking into this room, I was aware of the basics of the practice of Yoga Nidra: it is an extended meditation done lying down, in a comfortable position with the option to cover your eyes with an eye pillow.
Just like the traditional format for Yoga Nidra, we are invited near the beginning of the practice to use an intention (aka sankalpa) for the practice, an “I am” statement in the present tense. It is a practice in which you become extremely relaxed yet still aware on the level of the subconscious mind (but not asleep), as a means of training your nervous system to move towards the parasympathetic nervous system while remaining awake.
(The para—what? Ok, I will back up a notch. The central nervous system has two branches. There is the sympathetic nervous system, which is “fight or flight,” gets triggered when our brain receives signals that there is danger or stress. Then there is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is sometimes called “rest & digest.”)
The sympathetic NS is not the “bad guy” here. We needed it when a ball was flying at our head in PE class and 50% of the time we managed to get out of the way (ok—maybe that was just me, bad example). Our ancestors needed the sympathetic NS to run away from a wild animal chasing them; nowadays, nothing is chasing us, but we are still bombarded by stimuli (deadlines at work, phones ringing, cars honking, family stress) that our NS reads as “danger.”
Unfortunately, our modern society and lifestyle has made us WAY off balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic. When we are in sympathetic (that’s “fight or flight”) too often, we aren’t digesting or assimilating the nutrients from our food properly, our libido might be low, we probably have trouble sleeping, and we might have chronic muscular pain or tension.
Richard Miller, the creator of iRest, is a clinical psychologist, researcher, and yogic scholar. He adds his own spin on it based on western psychology and research.
These are Richard Miller’s unique steps in an iRest guided Yoga Nidra:
*Inner Resource: This part is really key in iRest—especially for anyone practicing with trauma. You identify a place (real or imaginary) where you can be completely at ease. You go there as explicitly as you can in your mind, which physiologically is the same is actually being there. This is based on research that to heal, we must feel safe. A really cool part about this idea of “inner resource” is that you are able to return back to that place whenever necessary in the practice. If you want to tune out the instructor’s voice and go there, you can. Your inner resource is totally personal: maybe it is a white sandy beach with water lapping at your feet, or safe in your cozy bed, or riding a freaking awesome unicorn through a cloud.
Heart felt desire: What is your most heart-felt desire? When you are still, and being totally honest with yourself, what does your heart want?
Intention: “I am” statement. NOT “I’m going to really try to ______” but saying it as if it is already true. When we do this over and over, and infuse this into our subconscious mind, all of our physiology begins moving in this direction. This usually has connection to our heart felt desire.
Physical body sensation: This is traditionally called a “rotation of consciousness,” in which various areas of the body are named and the meditator simply becomes aware of that part. Certain areas have many more nerve endings than others and have much more connection to the brain; the most sensation is in the lips, face, and hands (and of course, the erogenous zones, but we don’t get kinky in Yoga Nidra).
Breath: A focus on slow, deeper breaths with a longer exhalation.
Feelings/ emotions: Opposites are usually brought into awareness like “happy/sad,” “pain/pleasure,” “joy/anger.” We are guided to go from one experience to the other, to experience this large spectrum, and ultimately, what lies right in the middle: contentment, awareness, and wholeness.
Beliefs: Witnessing our feelings, emotions, thoughts. If I am observing the emotion/ feeling/ thought, than I am not the emotion/feeling/thought. I am the one that is aware.
Bliss/ joy: Meditator is guided towards experience of joy.
Awareness: Aware of the entire experience, of intention, of the present moment.
Integration: A transition back to present with awareness of the experience.
My personal experience of the workshop & practice:
Our instructor was the brilliant, bubbly and warm Dr. Catherine Lewan, a licensed physical therapist and certified yoga therapist, who has also been trained in Richard Miller’s iRest program. I, personally, might love neuroscience more than the average yogi…but even if I didn’t love it, I would have been excited by the engaging way Catherine presented the research on Yoga Nidra and health.
After fidgeting for at least 5 minutes, I finally got comfortable: One blanket rolled on the edge to support my neck, a bolster under my knees, big cozy socks, another blanket to stay extra cozy, an eye pillow, and my body symmetrically placed on the floor. Like many do when they practice Yoga Nidra, during the meditation, I went in and out of being completely aware of the words that Catherine was speaking.
I do know that my inner resource is being in nature: I envision being in a forest within a huge mountain range. A little stream trickles by the trail that I am hiking. It is summer, so it’s hot, but in the mountains and the shade of the trees it is cool and peaceful. Something about mountains just really gets me where I want to be inside—grounded, but still connected to the enormity of the earth and expansiveness of the sky…
As we worked our way through the layers of being, I became less distinctly aware of the words being spoken. I felt more and more at ease and connected with the ground under me….the instructor’s voice was soothing and steady… then, I think I may have reached bliss a little before I was “supposed to,” and then my time there ran out. My consciousness was back in my body again---and darn, my neck was hurting. (A previous accident as left me with chronic pain in my neck that has been bugging me again lately because I’m holding my sweet newborn daughter a lot lately.) So, there my mind goes, jumping all over the place: oh crap, I was all blissed out & then this is happening…its cool, I’m just going to notice the sensation, become aware of the discomfort… maybe if I just adjust this blanket a little….ok, now think about my inner resource…nope, now I’m just pissed.
So I tried something else. Catherine mentioned during the lecture was that the awareness of distinguishing from left & right is a really important element in the healing of physical pain, and that studies show that becoming aware of left and right can help with physical pain almost instantly. So, I gave it a try here. I thought: right thumb, left thumb, right pointer finger, left pointer finger, etc. What I noticed as I kept switching awareness from right to left was that the pain in my neck seemed less intense. Chronic pain is partly a neurological problem: our body senses that there is danger or an injury to an area when there is not (or at least, not anymore). But when I focused on the switching of left and right awareness, it was as if my brain was so busy being aware of the other parts and laterality, it wasn’t able to sense the pain in my neck as much.
It was time to gradually start moving and return to a seated position. I felt calm & rested, like I had taken a nap. And with a newborn baby and a 3 year old at home, it was much needed! Other than the left & right awareness and benefits for chronic pain, another huge takeaway for me were this idea of Inner Resource, and how important this could be for people with trauma. It helped me feel safe and relaxed, but it could be a life-line for individuals that may become triggered within the mediation. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It is always refreshing to be still enough to observe everything that is really present in the moment, in my own inner world.
*Stay tuned for details on our next iRest workshop with Dr. Catherine Lewan: iRest for Chronic Pain. Coming fall 2018. If you’d like a personal email reminder about when this is scheduled, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.