EASTON — It’s Friday night and while others unwind over cocktails after a tough week, 14 people come to Easton Yoga Center to lie side by side on the floor, under blankets and essence of sage oil spritzed in the air. Eye pillows block out the light.
After a few preliminary stretches, participants are asked to lie completely still on their backs for the next 45 minutes.
This yoga isn’t about exercise.
Yoga nidra is a systematic, multistage set of relaxation techniques that help induce a deep, meditative state. It’s as old as yogis, but has gained both in popularity and credibility in recent years in the West as an effective way to relieve stress and anxiety. It is particularly useful during the holiday season, says instructor Lees Yunits. “when we are detangling the mesh of too much shopping, too many family issues, and too much sugar and alcohol.”
“The world is so full of disease and unrest, we need tools to help us through the stress of our lives,” she says.
Unlike exercise-based yogas, yoga nidra’s health benefits are more closely akin to those of meditation practices and have been researched accordingly. Studies have shown that yoga nidra may help with insomnia, anxiety, depression, addiction, and chronic pain. In 2006, the Department of Defense conducted research at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on the efficacy of yoga nidra on soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. This led to the incorporation of yoga nidra into weekly treatment programs for soldiers in several VA facilities across the country.
The University of Massachusetts Medical Center has proposed a new National Institutes of Health study on yoga nidra’s benefits for chronic pain. If approved, potential research sites would be the Veterans Administration centers in Springfield, Northampton, and Worcester, according to Richard Miller, a consultant on the project, a psychologist, and the creator of the type of yoga nidra that will be used in the study. A second grant proposal would study yoga nidra’s effect on chronic pain at the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center in Washington, D.C.
Many of the participants tonight at the Easton Yoga Center are regulars, who say they come to these monthly yoga nidra sessions to deal with the stress of the work week. Patty Mazza, who owns a small manufacturing company in West Bridgewater, says it also helps make her more focused at work.
Sam Bonacci, who owns an appliance store in Franklin, says he only came the first time because his wife “dragged him here,” but that he came back tonight of his own volition. “I was so relaxed, it lasted a week.”
The version of yoga nidra that Yunits offers at Easton Yoga Center is called
“Divine Sleep,” which was developed by Jennifer Reis of Lenox, a yoga teacher and trainer. Also a faculty member at Kripalu Yoga in the Berkshires and an international presenter, Reis is considered one of the early local pioneers of yoga nidra.
She estimates that in the last five years alone, she has trained about 500 people, many of them yoga teachers, in the practice — and about half of those students now offer their own yoga nidra in classes and workshops in New England.
Reis’s version of yoga nidra sticks closely, she says, to the style developed from traditional Tantric practices by Swami Satyananda Saraswati in India. It is a five-stage process that begins with a body scan to engage the physical body, and incorporates meditation on the breath, the balancing of emotional states, visualization, and self-healing. It includes setting a positive intention, which is called a “sankalpa,” to give the participant a specific purpose to the session.
The step-by-step process is designed to relax the body and awaken the subconscious and conscious mind, Reis says, leading to inner healing of both physical and emotional tensions. She calls it “an antidote to modern life.”
“We are so stressed out living our lives in the flight-or-fight mode that we have lost the ability to switch out of it,” she says, adding that when nervous systems are stuck in this mode, it leads to a variety of health problems, including digestive issues, tight muscles, vascular illnesses, and asthma.
Carie Gavigan, a psychotherapist in Boston and Newton who includes yoga nidra in her therapy practice, echoes that observation. “We live with so much tension in our everyday lives. People are tense all the time, running around. It feels like we don’t know how to relax.”
She says that while more and more people are beginning to learn about the health benefits of meditation, they often have trouble meditating at home and become frustrated. This guided form of meditation is more accessible and the relaxation more immediate.
In her practice, Gavigan uses the version of yoga nidra developed by Miller for the Department of Defense studies called iRest (short for Integrative Restoration). Here Miller “westernized” yoga nidra, changing some of the terminology used in order to help make it more palatable to people with no background in yoga or meditation. This 10-step version, which also involves setting an intention, is tailored to patients who might be suffering from trauma.
This iRest version doesn’t require participants to lie down or remain still, so it is more adaptable to an office environment, she said. Gavigan says she doesn’t use it with all patients, but when she does, she sends them home with a CD for repeated practice “I get an immediate positive response from patients,” she says. “It helps people feel more relaxed, kinder, better about themselves, and more motivated.”
Contacted at the Integrated Restoration Institute in California, which provides iRest programs and teacher trainings, Miller says he first learned about yoga nidra 40 years ago. “I thought it was a wonderful healing methodology as well as an incredible approach to meditation.”
He began using it on patients both individually and in group sessions. “I started to see incredible results in people healing from depression and chronic pain.”
He was brought in as a consultant in the first Department of Defense study, and says that since then there have been about 15 yoga nidra studies on everything from insomnia to cancer to multiple sclerosis.
In 2010, the US Army Surgeon General endorsed yoga nidra as an intervention in treating chronic pain. The Department of Defense Centers of Excellence in Washington has recommended continuing and ongoing research in using yoga nidra to treat post-traumatic stress.
It is an inexpensive mental health intervention, with no side effects, Miller says.
The author of “Yoga Nidra: The Meditative Heart of Yoga,” and other yoga nidra books and CDs, Miller says yoga nidra can be done in small doses of 10- and 15-minute increments or as longer stand-alone practice. “When I teach yoga nidra, I welcome people to lie down or sit up in a chair, stand, even walk around the room,” he says. Eventually, he’d like them to integrate the practice so well into their lives they could do it while “working at the computer.”
Back at the Easton Yoga Center, Yunits asks participants to talk about how they use the practice in their everyday lives.
Mary Prada Vaiani of South Easton, who says she suffers from claustrophobia, volunteers that she used yoga nidra to get her through a recent magnetic resonance image (MRI) test without using drugs.
“I just did the breathing and instead of fighting the experience, I welcomed in that awful noise and did not have a second of panic,” she says.