Richard Miller on Yoga Nidra as a Way of Life

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing is a field. I’ll meet you there.

—Rumi

We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.

—Albert Einstein

Walking the path paved by the revolutionary thinkers quoted above, Richard Miller, PhD, has made his non-dualistic way of living his mission. Combining traditional yogic practice with Western psychology and neuroscience, the world-renowned spiritual teacher, author, yogic scholar, researcher, and clinical psychologist has been bringing the healing benefits of iRest—a yoga nidra practice he created specifically for a modern audience—to all segments of our population. 

iRest is offered at yoga studios, community centers, clinics, schools, hospices, correctional facilities, and U.S. military hospitals. Based on current iRest studies in the military, the Defense Centers of Excellence has approved it as a complementary alternative medicine warranting continued research for its use in the treatment of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). And the U.S. Army Surgeon General has listed yoga nidra as a Tier 1 approach for addressing pain management in military care based on research with iRest.

In addition to founding the iRest Institute, Miller was also the co-founder of the International Association of Yoga Therapy and founding editor of the International Journey of Yoga Therapy

In June 2019, in the spirit of embracing a range of yoga nidra methods, he brought together experts in the field for a five-day event at the First International Yoga Nidra Conference at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, which was filmed by Yoga International. 

I sat down with him there and again afterward to learn about his understanding of the practice of yoga nidra, his work with the U.S. military, and more. 

What is yoga nidra?

Yoga nidra is a term that's thousands of years old. To me, yoga means our embodied experience of non-separation. Everything… the trees, the rocks, the mountains, other people—everything is made out of one essence. And yoga means we know that in our body as our felt experience. 

Nidra is a word that means “sleep” in Sanskrit, but it can also stand for a changing state of consciousness. So nidra can represent the different stages of sleep, dream, and dreamless sleep, for instance, but it can also mean the different changing states that we're experiencing while we're dreaming—for example, anger, sadness, happiness, joy, fright, and distress. And that means it can also represent the changing states of consciousness we have in our waking state. Yoga nidra, for me, means our ability to feel that sense of non-separation—to stay in touch with that underlying essence no matter the changing state of consciousness.

Are there common misconceptions about the practice?

Yes, many people have a definition of yoga nidra as something they do [only] in a lying-down position in a state of relaxation, where they may even fall asleep. I teach yoga nidra lying down, sitting, standing up, and [I also have] people walk around so they're learning to integrate it into every way they might find themselves during their day or when they sleep at night. And it's very important that we see yoga nidra as a complete path of meditation, not just a nice relaxation. It's a comprehensive path of awakening to who we really are as human beings.

I also teach yoga nidra to students while they are doing hatha yoga. I give the same instruction as I do while they’re lying down while they're moving, twisting, turning upside down, or backbending to help them integrate it into their different body positions. Then I give them what I call a “sleep yoga nidra” to do before they go to bed at night so they can carry their meditation into their dream life.

An integrative practice such as this can be useful in everyday life when a difficult emotion arises from a challenging interaction with someone or from an unwanted event. 

Yes, because the situation triggers some belief or a memory about yourself. So [the question is], in the immediacy of the moment, can you bring in all these tools you've learned, or do you have to wait until you get back to your mat tonight and lie down in yoga nidra to work through the circumstance? We want to learn how to do it in the midst of life. 

Traditionally in yoga nidra, there is a stage when the practitioner is guided to invite opposing sensations into their experience. Can you explain how this practice can help someone move through daily life in a more balanced way? 

Working with opposites is a very ancient and powerful way for us to navigate our daily lives. We can go back to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, where, in Chapter 2, sutras 33 and 34, he talks about being challenged by a circumstance that we're not able to reconcile, and he says to contemplate its opposite. 

We can infer what that means on many levels. For instance, we know when we're feeling stressed that going for a walk or going to the movies—taking ourselves out of the circumstance and then coming back—can give us new insight. So in yoga nidra what we do is, we learn how to contemplate opposites of sensations like pain. Let’s say pain is present in a particular area of the body, but also comfort is still present somewhere else in the body. We can go to the pain, then go to the comfort, and then learn how to hold them both at the same time. 

We can also do that with challenging emotions, like fear, sadness, anger, and grief. We can do it with memory, images, beliefs, as well as thoughts. What we've discovered is, when people hold opposites at the same time, it's impossible to do it with the thinking mind. Experiencing opposites takes us out of thinking, out of our default network of our nervous system, and it puts us into an entirely different network in our nervous system—a present-centered network, which opens us to insight independent of our past. It offers us a new way of solving problems and seeing things that brings insight we otherwise can't access because we're trapped in old memories and behaviors. 

Can you contextualize this practice for people who might be frustrated with politics and current events in our country right now?

In life, we all experience challenges in our relationships, our economic environment, our social environment, and our political environment. What we're learning to do through [working with] opposites is how to listen first. If we're not truly open to listening and receiving the other, we've created a sense of separation. They're over there, we're over here. Yoga nidra helps us stay connected to the other person even as they may have differing opinions, and therein lies the possibility of dialogue.

We stay connected because yoga nidra helps us become very grounded, individuated human beings who can speak from our own intelligence in a responsive manner. And we may come to realize there are actions we need to take in the world that go against current policies. So we're meeting life on its own terms but realizing life is asking something of each one of us and that if we don't adhere to it, we will start to feel “off” in our own sense of self.

As people really develop a strong practice of yoga nidra, they develop this very deep moral compass within themselves that may go against the morality of the culture they are a part of or the family they were raised in, but they also realize this is in a way a deeper morality or ethical essence that they have to follow. 

Once someone cultivates this level of practice, how can they stay true to themselves without becoming selfish or overly preoccupied with their own agenda? 

The difference between the self-centered person and the narcissist is the narcissist sees others as separate from themselves. When we're really centered in the self we can really see others. Conflict and violence follow narcissists, whereas the person who's really centered in their self doesn't create violence. So I like to say Buddha, Jesus, and people like them were the most self-centered people in the world. They only saw themselves everywhere. They gave no sense of separation, and they were able to follow their inner moral compass and ethical compass even though their lives were threatened. And this is, I think, what we each have to come to ultimately. 

How did you start working with U.S. military, and can you tell us about your work with vets and soldiers?

In 2004, a yoga nidra teacher named Robin Carnes was teaching yoga nidra and yoga at Walter Reed Army National Military Medical Center to a bunch of veterans. A researcher who was sitting in recognized the possibility of yoga nidra as a healing modality and asked Robin if she would enter into some research. Robin was familiar with my work and called me to ask to train her in my modality of yoga nidra. So we entered into a mentorship, and she ultimately became the lead teacher and I the consultant on a research study. We looked at how the iRest yoga nidra practice helped wounded warriors heal from severe PTSD at Walter Reed, and our research concluded in 2006. 

Based on the success of that study [which showed “decreased PTSD symptomatology” among participants], Walter Reed then implemented the iRest program into their healing regimen, and today anybody going through their healing programs can opt in and take iRest as part of their practices for PTSD. 

Subsequently, one of my students learned about this. She was down at the Miami V.A. and got a study started there. Then another one of my students picked it up at the Chicago V.A., and another at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, and all of a sudden we started getting more and more research.

We're in many V.A. sites now throughout the United States. The Canadian military has invited me in to teach iRest as a resiliency training. The Australian military is now interested in it as a resiliency training for people coming into the service, for families while they're deployed, and for both populations as they’re returning to civilian life. And the British armed forces and the prison systems now are interested in iRest, as are certain prisons in the United States.

Was there a concern about how a relaxing meditation practice would affect soldiers with respect to their ability to perform their duties?

Initially at Walter Reed I had a meeting with military leaders who were concerned about what would happen to our soldiers who took up the practice. And I conveyed to them several things. One is that soldiers would come to understand that there is an underlying essence that connects us all and that the people on the other side of the battlefield are in a way their brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles. In other words, they aren’t separate. 

Some people would put down their weapons because they couldn't do the fight, and those are the people that you want to take out of the battlefield to do different jobs because they become a danger to themselves and to their peers. They're the ones who would eventually fire over the heads of their enemies because they wouldn't be able to kill. 

But the others would realize they're born warriors. They have a job to do. And those are the ones we want on the battlefield, because they're not going to battle out of hatred or anger. And when the job was finished, they'll put down their weapons, cross the battlefield, and help the very people they were just battling.

This was exactly what they wanted to hear. They want people to go into battle out of caring, not anger. They said they’re not interested in people going to war, but if they have to do it, they want to get it done as quickly as possible and then tend to the injured on either side of the battlefield. 

That ended up leading into an almost three-hour discussion on yoga, yoga nidra, the Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, and meditation in general. And I was later invited to come back and have further discussions with them, because they were so interested in the possibility of this as a program. They appreciated that it would help people develop an integrated understanding of what they're doing in the job they have to do. I also found this in the Canadian and the Australian military. They came back with the same kind of comments. They want people to be able to do their job not out of violence but the need to do it right.

A sense of duty or mission…

Yes, and that's what the Marines came back and said—we see this as helping us do our mission, whatever it is.

What plans are in the works with this population?

I’m currently working on a program that comprises 42 meditations I've created based on my book The iRest Program for Healing PTSD. We're giving that meditation program now to veterans to help them heal through their symptoms in the comfort of their own homes. 

If that’s successful, then I'm going to offer that same program to the Department of Defense to give to families and individuals who are coming into service. They would have it all through their service and as they return to civilian life. We would study and compare them to a control group that doesn't have the program to see how they navigate their duties, their enlistment, their relationship with their spouse, and how they exited back into civilian life. This is long-term research. 

From my perspective this is where a program like iRest can be very successful in helping couples stay together while one or more of them are deployed. Helping them navigate the difficult challenges they are inevitably going to face whether deployed on a battlefield or stationed in various locations around the world. And helping them navigate the challenges they face exiting and entering into civilian life and letting go of the family they created while they were in service [so they can enter] into a new setting of family and civilian life, which many soldiers don't navigate very well. 

So can we decrease the suicide rate both after service and while in service? Can we decrease the divorce rate of couples—because when one or both members of a couple are deployed the divorce rate is high. Can we decrease that and keep families happy while they're challenged with these circumstances? Those are the questions this research would address. 

How have religious participants responded to iRest?

Because we’ve stripped away very spiritual language, we are able to go into a hospital, a clinic, a V.A. setting and offer a practice that people have said to me is resonant with their own spiritual, religious, or philosophical view of life.

I have had fundamentalist Christians say they can't find anything that is at odds with their fundamental Christian views. I've had Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists come to me and say the same thing. They find that the practice supports their own understandings and helps deepen them into their particular religion, spiritual understanding, or philosophical view.

The word love comes up often when you speak about yoga nidra.

Yes. There is a further aspect, which many yoga nidra practices don't address, which is this aspect of what I call awakening or enlightenment. We call it awakening because we're waking up what I think of as a vestigial organ that, for many of us, has gone to sleep. 

When we were children we didn't know a sense of separation; everything felt connected. But we can lose touch with this as we go through our lives. iRest helps us reawaken that organ within ourselves that doesn't know a sense of separation.

This is really important in this challenge of global warming we’re facing, where oftentimes the Earth is treated as an object for our use; we don't have a caring relationship with it as something that is made out of the same substance that we all are. We might call that ultimate substance love.

It is my sole practice. I think of yoga nidra as 24/7, 365 days a year. My wife joked with me that I never take time off. And I said, “Well, where am I going to go where I'm not?”

How has the practice changed you?

The practice has been revolutionary in my own life. It has helped me feel deeply connected to myself—feel this interconnectedness with everything around me where when I look at you or look at another I respect the sense of difference. We are different as a man and a woman or as one personality to another, but can stay connected with that underlying essence that we are both born out of. So this practice keeps the sense of love and kindness and tremendous compassion in my daily life. And it is my sole practice. I think of yoga nidra as 24/7, 365 days a year. My wife joked with me that I never take time off. And I said, “Well, where am I going to go where I'm not?”

Sounds like a zen koan…

It is. It's not just a practice, I think of yoga nidra as a way of living life. And it's the way I live my own life.

Photography: Andrea Killam

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Kathleen Kraft

Kathleen Kraft

Kathleen Kraft is an editor, writer, and yoga teacher at Yoga International. Her chapbook, Fairview Road, was published by Finishing Line Press, and her work has appeared in many journals, including... Read more>>  

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