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Yoga Nidra Guides Exploration
of Body, Emotion, and Belief

By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA

Complementary and alternative therapies such as yoga and mindful meditation increasingly are being combined with social work practice to enhance therapeutic benefits. A lesser-known yoga technique called yoga nidra recently has gained the attention of social workers after positive results were reported for veterans with PTSD.

Though yoga nidra often is compared with relaxation or meditation, it involves more than the traditional relaxation conducted at the end of yoga classes or the mindful meditation used by some therapists.

Researchers have documented physiologic and neurologic activity that distinguishes yoga nidra from relaxation and meditation. As a result, Parker et al (2013) proposed the following definition: “Yoga nidra represents a state in which an individual demonstrates all the symptoms of deep, non-REM sleep, including delta brain waves, while simultaneously remaining fully conscious.” This yoga sleep is being used to treat not only PTSD in military veterans but also a range of other conditions, including anxiety, depression, stress, substance use, grief, and insomnia/sleep disorders, according to the Integrative Restoration Institute. The institute is a nonprofit organization that conducts its primary program, iRest yoga nidra, in a variety of clinical settings. It also offers iRest teacher training and certification for yoga instructors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, and other clinicians.

What sets yoga nidra apart from other forms of relaxation and makes it especially useful for clinical social workers is the guided exploration of the opposites of body sensation, emotion, and belief, and the embrace of those opposites, leading to greater awareness of and ability to tolerate life’s challenges, says Amy Weintraub, ERYT-500, MFA, a LifeForce yoga practitioner. Weintraub is trained in iRest yoga nidra and is the founder of the LifeForce Healing Institute, which trains mental health professionals in using yoga-based practices appropriate in the clinical setting.

“The regular practice of yoga nidra reduces emotional reactivity and increases self-regulation,” Weintraub says. Its ability to reduce emotional reactivity led to its current application in treating PTSD in the military.

Research began in 2006, when the U.S. Department of Defense, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the Integrative Restoration Institute conducted a study on the efficacy of yoga nidra. Richard Miller, PhD, the institute’s founder, developed the iRest protocol and applied it in sessions with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who were experiencing PTSD; they reported improvements in mood and sleep after participating in iRest sessions.

After the success of the study, the iRest protocol was integrated into weekly treatment programs for soldiers at Walter Reed, and additional iRest programs were set up at a few other VA hospitals. Now, the Integrative Restoration Institute and iRest support active duty military, veterans, and families of service members in more than 30 military facilities across the United States.

The clinical benefits of iRest yoga nidra also were described in a published, peer-reviewed study of PTSD in Vietnam and Iraq veterans who participated in eight weeks of yoga nidra. Participants experienced reduced rage, anxiety, and emotional reactivity and increased feelings of peace, self-awareness, and relaxation despite ongoing challenges to mental focus and intrusive traumatic memories (Stankovic, 2011).

In many of these studies, social workers have been involved as iRest instructors. Weintraub says the body scan and breath awareness combined with the exploration of opposites during a yoga nidra session easily can be employed by trained social workers in individual and group therapy sessions to help clients with negative thoughts and feelings and to encourage therapeutic dialogue.

After clients identify and fully experience the negative feelings within the body and mind, the social worker encourages them to breathe into it then identify an extreme opposite of that feeling. “Guiding the client back and forth between polar opposites with controlled breathing helps reduce the grip of the negative,” Weintraub explains.

Finally, clients are encouraged to find awareness that embraces the opposites, which may help them establish a third realistic thought between the two opposites. “This final step in yoga nidra enhances self-regulation and seems to reduce anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms,” Weintraub notes.

Yoga nidra is a marriage of eastern and western philosophies that allow the use of mind-body practices in the clinical setting, says Sherry G. Rubin, LCSW, RYT, a LifeForce yoga practitioner and mentor who is trained in iRest yoga nidra and certified in Divine Sleep yoga nidra and has been using yoga nidra in her social work practice since 2007.

Immediately drawn to yoga nidra when she first experienced it in 2006, Rubin integrates her experience as a yoga nidra practitioner and instructor with her clinical social work skills to assess and help her clients meet their clinical goals. For example, in individual sessions, she weaves yoga nidra with periods of narrative. Yoga nidra has physical, emotional, and cognitive components that, when merged with breathing exercises, help clients appreciate how they carry and deal with their experiences and better position them to make therapeutic changes, she says.

“The guided experience of yoga nidra helps people access their innate ability to self-soothe and calm their nervous system. It directly taps into the parasympathetic nervous system to balance, calm, and soothe. Yoga nidra is an antidote for our stressful, goal-oriented, work-driven culture,” she explains. It’s also dose dependent, Rubin emphasizes: “I tell clients if they do a little, it will help a little. If they make it a consistent long-term practice, they will experience positive and sometimes unimaginable life changes.”

While having knowledge of yoga is useful, it is not necessary to learn yoga nidra, Weintraub and Rubin say. Social workers are well suited to handle the suppressed feelings and strong emotions that may arise during a yoga nidra session by creating a supportive and safe environment.

— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a freelance writer based in Reading, PA, and a certified yoga instructor.

Parker, S., Bharati, S.V., & Fernandez, M. (2013). Defining yoga-nidra: Traditional accounts, physiological research, and future directions. International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 23(1), 11-16.

Stankovic, L. (2011). Transforming trauma: A qualitative feasibility study of integrative restoration (iRest) yoga Nidra on combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 21(1), 23-37.