Meditation is much in the news these days, from the cover of Time magazine to another CEO “coming out” as a meditator. As a meditation teacher, I encounter non-meditators who imagine that meditation is all about zoning out. I encounter even more people who have tried meditation and wonder where the zoning out comes in. They tell me they are “bad” at it because their mind wanders or they can’t stop thinking about the brief due the next day.
Many years ago, I fell at least somewhat into the latter camp; I was an off and on meditator because I didn’t feel like I was making much progress. It was frustrating, sitting still but thinking about all the work I had to do because I couldn’t help it. I knew that meditation was a long-term practice, but making it into one entails actually practicing. And that wasn’t easy for me.
Encountering Integrative Restoration
I decided to look for a more structured approach, one that would help me really make meditation a part of my life. I quickly discovered just how stressed out Bay Area folks are when I found classes filled months ahead of time. I also discovered that Apple didn’t have a trademark on all terms beginning with “i” when I encountered a class for something called “iRest.” iRest is an abbreviation for Integrative Restoration and one thing that caught my attention was the fact that iRest was not only used to treat posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) but that the Department of Defense was the one using it. I thought if you can get a bunch of soldiers to sit around and meditate and it can actually help someone who’s had an IED go off next to them, surely it can help with my ordinary, humdrum life.
I soon found myself lying on a yoga mat with over 50 other eager meditators as Richard Miller, a clinical psychologist and creator of iRest, guided us in a 30minute meditation. I was so relaxed at the end of it, I took Richard’s advice to move around and gather my wits before, as the pharmaceutical industry says, “operating heavy machinery.” This was not my mother’s meditation.
Before saying more about iRest, a little about meditation in general. One of the most common ways to meditate is to focus on your breath. You might bring your attention to the air as it passes in and out of your nose or to your belly as it rises and falls. Your mind will soon wander. At some point, you will realize that your mind is wandering and tell yourself, “!#?!#!. I need to focus here. Okay, back to my breath.” You will do this over and over again. Sound fun? Probably not, as you realize this is what “practice” entails. In teaching, I tell students that meditation is like going to the gym for your mind—you have to put it through its paces if you want results.
So why do it? Because it helps with many concrete things (focus, sleep, anxiety, the list is long) but I think one of the most important is improving your ability to pay attention as you go about your daily life in such a way that instead of reacting to events, you can respond with equanimity. Increasing mindfulness is the trendy term. Examples from driving seem to resonate with my students: if someone cuts you off in traffic, would you rather be able to let it go in a few seconds or spend the next thirty minutes stewing about it? Meditation makes the first option much easier.
iRest is a modernized version of an ancient practice: yoga nidra—sometimes translated as “sleep of the yogi,” a reference to the way yoga nidra induces a physiological state similar to sleep. About 40 years ago, my teacher and now friend Richard Miller walked into a yoga nidra class at the Integral Yoga Institute near Dolores Park in San Francisco. After a few decades and an enormous amount of work, study and research, we have iRest.
Despite these yogic origins, you are not “doing yoga” as many think of it. You lie on the floor or sit in a chair and it is practiced by people of all faiths and none. I practice in my bed more than anywhere else. iRest starts by getting you out of your head by using imagery and sensation to connect to a bodily feeling of calm and safety. You then bring your awareness to different parts of your body, simply taking in what you notice, not trying to change anything. You then work with your breath, further relaxing both mind and body.
By this point, you are relaxed enough so that you can feel safe working with challenging thoughts, beliefs and emotions. Maybe you find yourself angry by the end of each day. Or you think you’ll never be good enough for your boss. Or you’re blaming yourself for talking back to the judge that day. Whatever is on your mind, iRest helps diffuse its hold on you by having you work with it and its opposite thought, belief or emotion. Overall, the effect is deeply relaxing and helps you feel more in control of yourself and your thoughts.
With iRest, instead of just trying to focus on something like your breath over and over, your mind is occupied with a variety of tasks. I have found it much easier than other forms of meditation I have tried. And it felt like I was making progress right away, not years down the road. Like most people, I started by listening to a recording to guide me through. Eventually, I found I didn’t need that. And iRest is flexible so if you just feel like sensing your body one day, maybe working with a troubling thought or just trying to get to sleep you can do it for a few minutes or thirty.
The Integrative Restoration Institute
It was iRest’s ease and effectiveness that piqued the interest of the military. The Department of Defense conducted its own study of iRest at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center as an adjunct treatment for PTSD and found it to be so effective that they hired the director of the study to immediately implement a program. Since then, the use of iRest among active duty soldiers and veterans of all faiths and backgrounds has grown steadily. Tens of thousands of soldiers have practiced iRest and it is now used at over 85 military venues, including various Veterans Administration facilities around the country. It is now being introduced to military venues in Canada, Britain and Australia. Several short films have been produced about its use by soldiers. You can view one soldier’s story in this moving video on YouTube.
Founded here in Marin in 2006 by Richard Miller, the Integrative Restoration Institute trains the teachers that bring iRest to all of these soldiers. But iRest is flexible enough that it can be tailored to serve diverse populations. IRI has developed programs for a wide variety of settings, from helping the homeless to treating addiction. A former lawyer friend of mine, Kamala Itzel Berrio, is one of several people helping to develop a program for young women that have been the victims of human trafficking. Some of these programs help right here in Marin, including iRest for grief (offered at Hospice by the Bay) and iRest for the incarcerated (including San Quentin.)
The dedication of IRI’s small staff and the help of many volunteers allows it to train teachers, develop programs, and support diverse research. It also offers meditation retreats around the world, from here in Marin (at Dominican’s Santa Sabina Retreat Center) to Ohio to Bali. I highly recommend the retreats, which are open to everyone.
If you are interested in learning more or supporting IRI, you can find out more about IRI’s programs and donate on its website. Richard has written two books on iRest, both available on Amazon and he has recorded a course, also available on Amazon. You are most likely to find a public offering in connection with a yoga studio, although you are still more likely to find traditional yoga nidra, which is much less oriented towards each individual meditator’s personal needs. As a certified teacher, I sometimes offer trainings to stressed-out professionals as well as a class for those going through divorce. I also find a wonderful symmetry in the fact that a friend and I lead a weekly iRest meditation open to everyone every Thursday evening at the Integral Yoga Institute in San Francisco, the very place Richard first encountered yoga nidra.
Rob Rosborough is Of Counsel to Monty White LLP. He mediates disputes where an ongoing relationship is at stake, particularly adult-family conflict such as disagreement over caring for an aging parent and HOA disputes. He maintains an estate planning and general advisory and transactional law practice focusing on personal and small business issues. Rob also teaches at USF’s Fromm Institute (conflict resolution and history of science) and helps lawyers cope with the practice of law by teaching them meditation skills as a certified iRest® meditation teacher.