A Conversation with Richard Miller about Consciousness, Meditation, and the Rejuvenation found through iRest and Yoga Nidra
By Dale Nieli
During the first workshop I ever took with Richard Miller, I entered a state of consciousness that I had never before experienced. Having known Richard both personally and professionally throughout the years, I can tell you that his personal life and what he teaches are the same; he is one of the most trusted and respected yoga teachers in the world today. Richard is known for being the co-founder of the renowned non-profit International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) as well as the developer of iRest, a modern-day application of the deep yogic meditation practice of Yoga Nidra.
Richard Miller: iRest is a modern-day adaptation of the very ancient meditation practice of Yoga Nidra that dates back thousands of years. I’ve traced it back as early as 4500 BC in its rudimentary form. The practice focuses on helping a person gather their attention, develop their concentration, proactively learn how to meet, greet, and welcome all of their body sensations, emotions, and thoughts, and be in relationship with themselves as a human being. It also supports them to experience their interconnectedness, not just with themselves, but with the entire universe. iRest is essentially a practice that awakens the qualities of love, kindness, caring, and compassion at all levels of our humanity.
How is iRest different from Yoga Nidra?
Richard Miller: iRest, as a modern adaptation, differs from classical Yoga Nidra in several ways. When I learned Yoga Nidra, I was teaching primarily to people who were showing up for my yoga classes and who wanted to learn meditation. Over the years I became interested in reaching a wider, more secular population. I began to adapt the classical form of yoga nidra by dropping the archetypal imagery of India. Instead of imposing images, colors, or forms on people, I began to ask my students what they were experiencing when they brought their attention to various parts of their body, or their emotions, or their thoughts. I began to teach yoga nidra as a deep form of self-inquiry to help people deeply contact themselves. As I started working with populations that included active duty and veterans with PTSD, as well as folks in homeless shelters, and addiction and recovery centers, I began adding various components to the classical practice. For instance, the classical yoga nidra begins with an intention, called a Sankalpa. I split this single intention into three aspects:
- Our intention(s) for a particular practice of yoga nidra.
- Our intention(s) for our life.
- An Inner Resource, our intention or felt-sense of well-being and safety within.
This third aspect, the Inner Resource, I found to be particularly helpful with individuals who’ve experienced some sort of trauma. For as we progress deeper into the practice, we are able to relate to disturbing thoughts or emotions from an inner sanctuary of safety, security and ease of being.
What was happening in your life when you first encountered the practice of yoga nidra?
Richard Miller: It was when I first moved to San Francisco from the East Coast in 1970. As a way of meeting people I took a yoga class. At the end of the first class the teacher taught a rudimentary form of Yoga Nidra, during which I experienced a deep connection with myself and the feeling of being at one with the entire universe. This experience had a deep, profound impact where I felt like I came home to myself. In my teenage years, I’d experienced a lot of depression and separation, and this moment in yoga nidra brought me home myself, which in turn set me on this path of deeply inquiring into this practice of Yoga Nidra.
How would you describe this state of consciousness that iRest facilitates?
Richard Miller: When we look at the research we’ve been doing with iRest, as well as research on meditation in general, when we do Yoga Nidra, a number of things are happening: Your natural opiates such as serotonin and oxytocin are being stimulated in your brain and throughout your body, which produces a natural high and feeling of joy and well-being. We see places in your brain, which create your sense of self, self-narrative and self-criticism, that a friend of mine, Gary Weber, calls “The blah blah blah network” and others refer to as the “default network,”, go off-line. These parts of the brain calm down and self-referential thinking stops. At the same time, other parts of your brain which form the “present centered network” come online. These areas are involved with creative thinking and insight. So with yoga nidra your self-narrative slows down and creativity and insight come alive. We also see your brain turn on reparative and restorative processes throughout your body that help boost your immune system, increase your overall sense of well-being and joy, reduce stress-related symptoms of PTSD, and support you to have restful sleep at night.
DN: In your work with veterans how does iRest affect trauma or PTSD?
Richard Miller: A lot of people, especially military, have a skeptical view of meditation and yoga nidra. When we present the science behind the practice, it helps them bridge the gap from skepticism to a willingness to experience yoga nidra and experience the first-hand effect of it themselves. One of the best answers I can give to your question comes from a recent experience I had at VA center (Veterans Administration). I was asked to deliver an iRest class to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). These are severely injured and often profoundly depressed veterans who are receiving treatment as inpatients for six to nine months or more. I taught an iRest Yoga Nidra class with a group of them, and at the end, one of the fellows, when I asked for reflections said, “I feel like I just came home.” This is a report I hear a lot as a result of people experiencing iRest. The practice is helping them heal through terrible wounds and memories. We know that one of the effects of PTSD is that leaves people to feel disconnected from themselves and from the world around them. During Yoga Nidra, these folks start to feel reconnected to themselves and the world around them and experience the feeling of finally coming home from the war, to themselves, their families, and daily life.
What suggestions would you have for beginners?
Richard Miller: Starting a practice, like any journey, begins with an intention. Write down your intention for why you want to take up this practice, what you’d like to take away from it, and how you’d like it to impact your daily life. Then take up the initial practices of learning to sense and rotate your attention through your body. As you move into experiencing sensation, your thinking slows down and that alone can have a deeply restorative and relaxing effect. Take up the practice slowly and incrementally. As you enjoy body sensing, learn how to weave in various breathing interventions, and then learn how to work with your emotions and thoughts, and develop a deep sense of joy and well-being. Yoga Nidra begins with that first intention and then, step-by-step, learning to create a daily practice. Begin with a few minutes and build incrementally. It also is important to find a well-trained teacher and to have guided audio to support your practice.
What would you like to see for the future of iRest?
I would love to see every yoga and meditation teacher having learned iRest or other forms of Yoga Nidra, and weaving elements of the practice into their classes. I’d like people who otherwise wouldn’t learn yoga nidra be able to experience it and understand how to weave the practice into their daily lives. I’d also like to see every hospital and VA center offering iRest as a supportive practice so that everyday people could experience the effectiveness of it in their lives for health, healing and well-being.
How have you seen yoga therapy change over the years?
Yoga therapy is becoming more mainstream and people are searching it out as an alternative practice. When I began teaching in 1973, few people really understood yoga. Now, our challenge as teachers and yoga therapists is to showcase the deep efficacy and potency of yoga to the growing audience of people who want to practice, teach, or integrate it into their lives and professional settings. In the beginning there was little research available on asana, pranayama, and yoga nidra. I’ve made it my life’s work to keep adding to the research literature so that folks can see, “Hey, this isn’t,’Trust me,’ rather, yoga is something that deeply impacts people on all levels of the body, mind, and spirit.”
Along with yoga, meditation is becoming a mainstream affair for people. I want yoga teachers to deeply appreciate the tradition of yoga that they’re involved in and to incorporate meditation into every class they teach in one form or another. We have a rich tradition of meditation in the field of yoga. Yoga Nidra is a form of yogic meditation that enables teachers to offer a systematic and easily learned regimen of meditation for their students. iRest in particular, and Yoga Nidra in general, is simple to practice, yet profound and exquisite as a doorway into meditation. I don’t see how people can live without meditation because of the effect that it has on our well-being, joy, love, and interconnectedness with ourselves, in our relationships, and in how we relate to the world around us.
Learn more about Richard Miller, his teacher trainings and retreats at: www.irest.us
Richard is teaching his iRest Level I training at YogaWorks, October 1-5, 2014 and again March 22-26, 2015.