The Healing Power of Silence – Richard Miller on iRest Yoga Nidra

Richard Miller, clinical psychologist, is best known for developing Integrative Restoration (iRest), a method of yoga therapy developed for veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He spoke to us about his work with military, the power of holistic healing, and the science behind meditation.

If someone asked you to guess which institutions are green lighting programs to explore the healing power of yoga and yoga therapy, the United States military probably wouldn’t be high on your list. But, in 2004, the military approached clinical psychologist and yoga expert Richard Miller to ask if he would consider adapting the meditative yoga practice he had developed for a very vulnerable population: veterans with PTSD.

Miller agreed, and began to organize a study at Walter Reed hospital for a small group of wounded veterans with PTSD. It was so successful that the program immediately became a permanent part of their Deployment Health Clinical Center, giving every wounded warrior the opportunity to undertake to a three-week program of what Miller had begun calling “Integrative Restoration” or “iRest.”

“When we began [the] study, it was [called] ‘Yoga Nidra,’” Miller explains. “But very soon, the military came back to me and said that they didn’t understand this word, ‘Yoga Nidra’…They said, “Look, we’re Marines and we don’t do Yoga’… So I thought long and hard and, with their support, changed the name to Integrative Restoration. ‘Integrative’ because I feel that it helps integrate us as a human being and helps us to become fully functional with our emotions and thoughts and body sensation. And then ‘Restorative’ because I feel that the program…helps restore us to our essential well-being and wholeness and our interconnectedness, both with ourselves and the universe around us.”

Eventually, the army agreed to change the name back and Miller began calling it Integrative Restoration Yoga Nidra. But, regardless of what anyone was calling it, the Walter Read program was a huge success. It inspired similar research studies in Miami Brooke Army Medical Center as well as many other Veteran Affairs and Department of Defense sites. To date, there are iRest Yoga Nidra programs in 35 V.A. Centers and six D.o.D. sites. Both active duty military personnel and veterans have access to the services.

What’s behind Miller’s success? First, it’s worth noting that Yoga Nidra is different than what many people imagine when they think of yoga—it’s as informed by the philosophy of mindfulness and Miller’s experience as a clinician as it is traditional poses and breathing techniques. He explains: “I began looking at the protocol of Yoga Nidra as a complete path of meditation. Along the way, as we’re working in meditation, we see that it has a healing effect because we have to learn how to deal with all the aspects of our being human—our body, our emotions, our mental thoughts and, as you said, this inner deep healing of well-being. So I began to utilize that not just as a relaxation technique or approach but really for healing all of our self as a human being.”

This holistic approach to “healing all of the self” has proven to work especially well for populations with PTSD, a type of anxiety disorder that is notoriously difficult to treat. In the past, clinicians have relied heavily on drugs and psychologically draining “exposure therapy,” in which patients are re-exposed to whatever traumatized them in a controlled environment. But the success of Miller’s methods points to a way forward.

“[Patients] can come back to this inner resource within themselves where they can feel grounded, a sense of peace or a sense of stillness,” he says. “They can ground, take a time out, and then come back and visit the material that they’re needing to face…I think this is why it’s been so instrumental as an approach for healing, say, trauma, or post-traumatic stress or anxiety…It helps them heal it. That fear drops away as they feel more deeply connected with themselves.”

And Miller has the science to back it up. He describes how the brains of people with PTSD, clinical depression, and chronic pain display enlarged limbic structures of the portion of the brain that controls emotional response.

“They become hostage to their emotions and they can’t turn them off,” he says. “Their hippocampus actually has shrunken and the hippocampus helps us find perspective and develop context. And without perspective and context and being held hostage by our emotions, we lose our ability to navigate.”

When people with PTSD are able to manage their symptoms—with therapy, or with alternative methods like yoga and meditation—their hippocampus actually thickens and grows, giving them back the control over their emotional life that they had previously lost. This large-scale brain transformation is the ultimate goal of iRest Yoga Nidra and what Miller has dedicated his professional life to developing.

“Long term, people suffering from PTSD, depression, anxiety, they start to break free of these ways that they’ve been held hostage,” he says. “They begin to regain perspective. The depression starts to clear. The PTSD drops. The anxiety goes away. The fear begins to get diminished. And they begin to navigate their world in a much more authentic and happy way.”

For more information of iRest, including information about services for veterans and teacher training for yogis, check out their website and look for Miller’s new book The iRest Program for Healing PTSD and Trauma, which will hit shelves in November 2014.

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