Difficulties, Attention, Neuroscience and Yoga

Man lying prone with a shoe stepping on the side of his face
Life’s challenges can feel like this

Let’s face it – we can be challenged by what life brings our way. The list of circumstances is endless: an irate customer, a sideways glance, a faulty product, a work project stalled, a marriage falling apart, a child or an elderly parent having difficulties, a traffic jam standing in the way of getting to something important, a personal health crisis, a hail storm decimating the garden, a fire destroying home and community.

When we pay attention, we may see that it is us deciding (influenced by infinite factors) that the situation is bad or good and that the event itself is inherently neutral. This realization is not trivial; there is an insight that matures over time and subsequent understanding comes in waves or spirals of increasing depth. For instance, we may realize that the irate customer may have had a challenging day and possess some degree of equanimity in the face of his ire. But the circumstances don’t seem neutral when your loved one dies or your community is hit with a catastrophe. At least, not until insight is substantially matured.

The tendency is to be in reaction mode, racing to fix or blame or escape or ignore. This is not a surprise; proliferating neuroscientific research is showing us that our predominant mode of attention is meant to alert us to danger, a primordial survival instinct. Sadly though, we are using this type of attention when circumstances don’t really warrant it.

Balancing rocks on the shore of a body of water
When working in Default Mode Network, our minds continuously weigh whatever we encounter

When we truly take note, we can appreciate that these trials aren’t just occasional. Every single moment, a subtle part of our psyche decides whether we like or dislike what is unfolding. This evaluation is coloured by a vast array of influences, including beliefs and earlier events and has little to do with the current scenario. I remember guiding a class in a tea-tasting meditation, the purpose being to experience, among other things, the pure sensation of smelling, hearing, tasting, seeing and touching, throughout the undertaking of a single sip of tea. Wasn’t I surprised when I realized that the taste of the oolong tea I had enjoyed for so many years was really unpleasant to me! It was exceedingly bitter, a taste that wasn’t at all appealing. I suspect that I had unknowingly attributed health benefits and a certain exotic character to oolong tea that shaped my usual opinion. And I also suppose that, on another day, the bitter taste might have evoked a more appreciative response.

Clear glass pot and cup of steaming tea
Just seeing this picture starts a cascade of sensation, memory, evaluation

We start to realize that we can choose how we attend to life.

We start to realize that we can choose how we attend to life. Some situations demand the default mode network, the one that scans around actually searching for danger. As time elapses and circumstances evolve, a focal type of attention may serve to solve some residual physical problem by allowing us to focus, deeply and locally, to get the task done. And another type of attention, associated with insight, creativity, and improved health, involves defocusing, almost like a peripheral vision or feeling outward in all directions, aware and detached while noticing moment by moment unfolding of life – sensations like sounds and feelings, emotions, beliefs, thoughts, dreams. When we are well established in this state, we can actively choose whether to examine something in more detail. This state that I like to call being Awareness is the attentional mode in which we should spend most of our time, in my opinion.

sunset over land with lines moving toward a focal point and a sky with some clouds and birds flying
Awareness in which everything is arising.
Present-Centered Network mode of attention

Allowing Awareness to be foreground takes three key factors: motivation, courage and effort. A deep desire for increased ease and agility, less reactivity, and some semblance of control over the mind tends to have a motivating effect. Having the intention to cultivate Awareness is a crucial step. Courage is boosted by nourishing a sense or feeling of security, acceptance and wellbeing. I associate this feeling with a visceral faith in a wellspring, or endless resource, that is always available. These three, a heart-felt desire, an intention, and a foundation of security or inner resource comprise bhavana, a concept that has a long and elevated history in yoga practice.

a dangling old-fashioned key

Sometimes, like everyone, I get down on myself. “I didn’t achieve such and such, I don’t measure up, I’m a terrible so and so.” Practice of being Awareness has allowed me to (more often) have some distance so I recognize that such a frame of mind does me no good. I see that it sets me up to respond poorly to any, even slight, difficulty I might encounter. And then I realize I have a choice in the mode of attention I use to view the world.

I started writing this article with the intention of discussing how my life-embedded yoga practices have become somewhat of an inner resource for me. Although I wrote about much that wasn’t originally on the radar, I think I covered at least one angle!

Equanimity

Tranquil Lake

We all want to be happy and peaceful. And yet these qualities are elusive for many, and transient even for those who generally themselves as possessing them. Regardless of creed or station in life, we all encounter problematic situations and may come to associate some of them with certain people. These circumstances range from mere annoyance to catastrophic disaster. They disturb our happiness and peace. We tend to see in black and white, good and bad. And our reactions are tempered, if not regard entirely shaped, by these evaluations.

So how to we become happy and peaceful? I believe we cultivate these qualities in the process of developing equanimity.

Equanimity probably is one of the loftiest emotional and spiritual attainments, a “state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind. The virtue and value of equanimity is extolled and advocated by a number of major religions and ancient philosophies.” (Wikipedia, accessed 2019-03-16). It is not a dry or dissociated, apathetic state but one that stems from unity with something deeper than changing circumstance.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, said to his contemporary, Jeronimo Nadal, “God is to be found in everything.” (http://ctscatholiccompass.org/finding-god-in-all-things/, accessed 2019-03-06).

Interesting. Sounds good in theory.

In the Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot plainly states, at the end of a reverie on flagging motivation and disenchantment, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

Other than beating up on ourselves for not automatically seeing good in things or loving all people, or dissociating, becoming apathetic, spiritually by-passing or dropping all our boundaries, how do we develop the balance and composure of equanimity?

Different spiritual traditions and psychological schools have offered a variety of paths to foster equanimity. Of the methods I’ve tried, I am partial to the integrated, understandable, effective, and practical paradigm and protocol offered by iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation. It can be used by people of any faith or inclination.

To find out more about iRest, see here.

What Is iRest® Yoga Nidra Meditation and How Can It Help You?

At the very least you will rest. . .


As yoga continues to extend its reach into mainstream use, more people are finding their way to practices beyond yoga asana or posture, into breath work, meditation, and the subtler aspects of the tradition. Yoga nidra is one of the practices that is gaining considerably more attention, and for good reason.

I can’t quite recall my first experience of yoga nidra because I sense that it made its way into guided meditations and end-of-class relaxation sessions given by my initial teachers. But I received a lovely and fairly thorough introduction to iRest Yoga Nidra by Kathleen Ludwig in my yoga therapy training at Mount Royal University in 2009, which was complimented by more training with Amy Weintraub, founder of Life Force Yoga®, in 2013.

I remember leisurely relaxation sessions in which everyone was content to be “simply” lying down, guided through magical imagery and into a deeply restful experience.

I marveled at how peaceful I felt afterwards.

I knew something of the philosophical and psychological underpinnings from my training up to that point.  But in 2014, Anita Sielecki, president of the Yoga Association of Alberta at the time, convinced me to attend a week-long yoga and meditation retreat led by founder of iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation, Dr Richard Miller. My time and energy were stretched but I consoled myself with the thought, “oh well, what can I lose by laying around and relaxing for a week?” I was in for a surprise; the retreat was that and so incredibly much more! 

In addition to being a Doctor of Psychology, Richard is a true yoga master. Among other studies, he has been practicing, studying and teaching Yoga Nidra since the 1970s, and has compiled, integrated and adapted these ancient teachings to create a contemporary approach to yoga nidra called iRest.

Since attending that retreat, I have attended three more week-long retreats as well as Level 1 training with Richard and Level 2 training with a senior iRest trainer. Currently, I am qualified as an iRest Level 2 Teacher. I continue to study with a supervisor and am registered to attend Richard’s Advanced Practitioner Retreat at Santa Sabina this summer. This is a deep body of work that never ceases to amaze me!

I’d like to de-mystify yoga nidra and demonstrate how this modernized and secularized ancient practice can be an invaluable practical tool to help us live life with ease, resiliency, equanimity and authenticity.

The Sleeping Yogi
Nidra means “sleep.” To be a yogi is to be on the path of “awakening” (awake to one’s True Nature). In a sense then, yoga nidra is a play on words, to be both awake and asleep. In fact, many people often find themselves right on the edge of falling asleep when they practice yoga nidra. Personally, I feel deeply relaxed, yet awake to the experience most of the time.

A majority of us can recall times when we were waking up in the morning yet still in a simple resting state, like being half asleep. This state is known to be a particularly receptive place and, among other things, can be evocative of creative ideas and solutions.
In iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation, we deliberately enter into and maintain similar states of profound resting, and while there we welcome all experience and use effective tools to investigate and enquire into aspects of our life.

What is iRest Yoga Nidra?
Perhaps the iRest website (accessed 2019/01/07) describes it in the best way:

iRest is a meditation practice based on the ancient tradition of Yoga Nidra and adapted to suit the conditions of modern life. When practiced regularly – a little and often – iRest enables you to meet each moment of your life with unshakable peace and wellbeing, no matter how challenging or difficult your situation.
iRest was developed by Dr. Richard Miller, a spiritual teacher, author, yogic scholar, researcher and clinical psychologist, who combined traditional yogic practice with Western psychology and neuroscience. It is practiced and taught by thousands of people worldwide in a wide range of settings, including health centers, schools, community centers, yoga studios, correctional facilities and military hospitals.
Based on current studies with iRest in the military, the Defense Centers of Excellence has approved iRest as a Complementary and Alternative Medicine warranting continuing research for its use in the treatment of PTSD. In addition, the U.S. Army Surgeon General has listed Yoga Nidra (based on research with iRest) as a Tier 1 approach for addressing Pain Management in Military Care. iRest has been shown to be effective in scientific trials for conditions including chronic pain, sleep problems, depression and anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
iRest is simple to learn and easy to practice. It can be practiced by anyone, regardless of physical ability or experience with meditation. Once learned, iRest becomes a set of tools for life.

In the early 2000’s, Richard called it iRest (short for Integrative Restoration) as he was conducting clinical research on the effects of yoga nidra on people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), particularly army veterans. The term “yoga nidra” did not appeal to government or medical people at the time, so “iRest” was created (corresponding to the trend to call innovative offerings “i____”, like iPod, iPhone). Richard and colleagues have been involved in many clinical research projects that show the efficacy of iRest Yoga Nidra in helping people who suffer from PTSD.

Research demonstrates the effectiveness of the iRest approach to a wide variety of groups – average people and also people in greater need such as army veterans, the homeless, people who have suffered family violence and more.

There is clear therapeutic benefit from iRest. Further, there is a focus on facilitating people’s experience of their own essential wholeness.  Students of authentic yoga do well to remember that this is what the yoga tradition really is about – practices and tools to empower us to see and live from our original wholeness and true nature.

The iRest Protocol
At the core of iRest is a 10-step protocol, a fluid and agile map that guides us along this path of meditation. We may practice all the steps together but we equally may decide to focus on certain stages.

While grounded deeply in ancient practice, Richard has studied and distilled and expanded its elements into the coherent iRest path of meditation. Driving that process of evolution with continued investigation and research is a desire to make it iRest most accessible to a more western orientated mind without losing any of its sophisticated elegance or philosophical vigour.

The 10-Step iRest Protocol:
1.      Connect to your Heartfelt Longing
2.      Set An Intention
3.      Invite the support of your Inner Resource
4.      Feel Your Body
A response to Body Sensing is that the body tends to release into a deeply relaxed state. The thinking mind slows down, the body softens and relaxes.
5.      Sense the Breath
6.      Welcome Emotions and Feedback Systems
7.      Welcome Thoughts and Beliefs
8.      Experience (Uncaused) Joy
9.      Find Lasting Peace
10.    Reflect on the Journey and Integrate into your Life


Experiencing Incarnated Immanence
One of the aspects I find most formative and exquisite about iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation is its emphasis on working with the often-gritty experience of being incarnated, embodied. The protocol consistently encourages me to feel sensations, to improve my kinesthetic and proprioceptive abilities, to feel the pulse of life. At the same time, the protocol doesn’t shy away from letting me sense the larger reality of Essential Nature and that it and I are the same. This ability to pause and fully notice the felt sense of circumstances in the midst of Essential Nature allows me the possibility to welcome and respond rather than react to experience.

Richard Miller and every senior iRest Yoga Nidra teacher I have encountered are fantastic mixes of compassion, embodiment, wisdom, knowledge and generosity.

Frequently Asked Questions
Is it OK if I fall asleep during iRest Yoga Nidra?
Absolutely. We may intend to remain awake and alert during practice, but if we fall asleep we want to welcome it. It may be just what was needed! There is evidence that we continue to derive meditative benefit from the practice even if asleep.
Do we go through all 10 steps of the iRest protocol every time we practice?
Not necessarily. The protocol is a fluid map of meditation. We could spend most of a session simply being with one’s Inner Resource or a long, detailed body sensing over 35 minutes may feel like the perfect practice for a particular time. Ideally, we practice in a way that meets our needs at any given time.
Do I always lie down on my back for iRest Yoga Nidra?
Savasana, or relaxation, pose is the most common position yet it is valuable to experience the practice while sitting especially if one is sleepy, and even standing and walking. Experience ease of being in many different positions and scenarios is a useful way to take the practice into more daily situations.

Much can be said about each step in the protocol and it is best learned through experience. Here’s a teaser from Richard that I’m sure you will enjoy: https://www.irest.org/staying-connected-divided-world-mp3

Finding the Divine in All Things: Working with “Problem” Feelings, Emotions and Beliefs using iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation

9 – 4, Saturday, April 13, 2019
FCJ Conference and Retreat Centre

Click here for more information.