Columbia residents learn to relax through yoga nidra

No downward dog or tree pose here. In a Columbia yoga nidra class, it's even perfectly acceptable to doze off.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008 | 3:11 p.m. CDT; updated 3:06 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Ken McRae, co-owner of alleyCat Yoga on Cherry Street, demonstrates a typical position for Yoga Nidra before leading a session. Practitioners of Yoga Nidra usually use pillows, blankets and eye covers to reduce external stimuli and help induce complete relaxation.

Frances Hayashida lies on a mat in a quiet room as a soothing voice washes over her, guiding her toward a tranquil place.

She listens as the yoga nidra instructor talks her through the emotional and spiritual process of becoming aware and letting go.

As she slips into a serene state, Hayashida is suddenly startled by a familiar sound.

The person next to her snoring.

In yoga nidra, a practice devoted to intense relaxation and self-awareness, participants often unwind to the point that they may actually fall asleep.

Yoga nidra literally means the sleep of the yogis, a yogi being a yoga master or practitioner. It is a sensing practice that helps release tension.

In Columbia, yoga nidra is gaining popularity among students and hip professionals, and it has also been used to help soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It helps you to slow down and focus on what you are doing,” said Hayashida, who admitted that after a few sessions she began to need her “weekly fix.”

This winter, Hayashida, an assistant professor of anthropology at MU, began her journey inward by attending the yoga nidra sessions at alleyCat Yoga on Cherry Street in downtown Columbia.

Yoga nidra classes do not involve the typical stretching poses familiar to Westernized yoga. Instead, participants can expect to spend an hour-long class lying down, most often with pillows, blankets and cushions to provide maximum comfort.

At alleyCat Yoga, Kathleen Knipp, a glowing woman with the warm, encouraging air of a kindergarten teacher, plays soft music as participants trickle into her class.

After everyone is settled, she asks students to focus on different areas of the body, starting with the mouth, moving on to the brain cavity, then finally to the hands and feet.

Later, the class transitions to breathing exercises. Afterward, students may shift gears to thoughts or emotions. The coaching helps participants escape worldly distractions and explore what’s present in their inner world.

“Our North American culture is about doing all the time,” said alleyCat’s co-owner Ken McRae. “But people are never being.”

McRae, a native Canadian, has been practicing yoga for 30 years. Speaking about his experience transplanting this Eastern practice to the Midwest, he said he needed to actually show people that it could work for them.

“My belief is that it will work for everybody,” he said.

Rob Odom, a computer programmer for University Hospital, has been practicing yoga nidra for almost two years.

“I’ve become more aware of my body,” he said of its influence on him.

Odom said he used to sit at his desk for long periods and unknowingly clench his jaw. “I (now) know to take a couple of breaths or just unclench,” he said.

Yoga nidra’s positive effects also can be applied to those with mental health issues or strong economic burdens.

Richard Miller, director of a non-profit organization dedicated to the teaching of yoga nidra, has repackaged it as iRest for U.S. soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

His Center of Timeless Being in Petaluma, Calif., conducted several studies to measure the impact of iRest on the mental health of these soldiers, as well as on the homeless.

The center’s first study at Walter Reed Memorial Hospital in West Virginia in 2006 showed that practicing iRest dramatically lowered levels of stress, depression and anxiety in the soldiers.

After the study was complete, Miller said, the hospital invited a teacher from the center to create an ongoing program for soldiers there.

Miller also worked on two studies in Petaluma that measured the effects of iRest on the homeless and came to the same conclusion.

In Columbia, registered nurse Terry Wilson has been conducting pilot studies to investigate the effects of iRest on college students. The studies have yielded positive results.

Even individuals facing the daily grind of work and family find yoga nidra a successful way to unwind, relax and learn something about themselves.

“We all have had these experiences where people curse us to believe that we are a certain way,” McRae said. “But with yoga nidra, you realize you are something more.”

Beyond the actual practice of yoga nidra is an underlying convention known as non-dual philosophy that enables individuals to see themselves as part of the bigger picture, not as a single entity, McRae said.

“Non-dual philosophy means that we are not separate, we are the same,” he said. “If you and I really are the same thing, whatever I do to you, I am doing to myself.”

Yoga nidra also helps people avoid negative ways of dealing with stress.

“People tend to have maladaptive self-coping mechanisms, such as alcohol,” said Wilson, the health promotions coordinator at MU.

Some harmful habits may not be as severe as alcohol, but they can still adversely impact one’s life. Odom’s weakness was road rage.

“Getting mad in traffic is one of my problems,” he said. He found that yoga nidra helped him approach anger and his physical reactions differently.

“Now, instead of getting totally mad, I’m aware that I’m getting mad,” he said. “I’m able to stop before engaging the anger.”

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