Do I have to take my shoes off?’ I bark on arrival at a bijou yoga studio where a Zen Brad Pitt lookalike will be attempting to relax me. I don’t rate his chances. I was up until 3am working, on top of a missed night’s sleep, haven’t eaten, and am so rictus with tension I might punch someone. I also hate breathing. Breathing stresses me out.
‘You’re going to tell me to breathe, aren’t you?’ I demand.
‘Brad’ replies that he’s not going to tell me to do anything. Forty-five minutes later, I am lying dazed by his side, having never felt more unwound in my life. ‘Er, you know how you said you weren’t a guru?’ I ask. ‘Well, you totally are.’
James Reeves is the author of The Book of Rest: Stop Striving, Start Being, written with Gabrielle Brown, his partner in life as in business. Reeves is Europe’s leading expert in yoga nidra, known as ‘sleep yoga’, but more accurately referring to a transformative state of deep relaxation. Together they run the Oxfordshire yoga school Restful Being, which has worked with Oxford University, Oxfam, and an array of Hollywood luminaries, not least Emma Watson, who has enthused about the mental balance Reeves has brought her.
James is 45, ‘Gabs’ 41, and they share not only their careers, but two children, aged five and two, meaning my session is with the former, while the latter holds the fort. Reeves is so frequently informed that he resembles a young Pitt that he takes my exclamation about this in his stride. But it’s not his looks that strike me, but his presence – utterly soothing, reassuringly human. There’s nothing creepy or preachy about him. He is witty, intelligent, and entirely at one with my swearing. ‘I’m not a monk,’ he laughs. ‘This isn’t about refusing life; it’s about celebrating what we’re all really looking for. It’s not weird, or Stepford.’
He stumbled across his calling as a burnt-out musician-turned-DJ-turned software salesman in a mid-20s crisis.
‘I was hoodwinked into yoga while travelling in Asia and wasn’t convinced – until I experienced yoga nidra,’ he says. ‘My resistance manifested as a massive headache. It built with an incredible intensity, then suddenly I felt myself dissolving out into the day, as if I had fallen into nothing. It was quite weird – not uncomfortable, but it took decades to understand what had happened in this temporary loss of self. It was like coming home to myself – I was somewhere more familiar than I had ever been – yet, at the same time, there was no me.’
Hooked, he embarked upon years of training that took him all around the world, not least to California, where he studied with Dr Richard Miller, founder of iRest, an institute that integrates Western psychological studies with Eastern yogic scholarship.
Despite the ‘sleep yoga’ tag, yoga nidra concerns itself with rest rather than sleep. Reeves explains: ‘The difference is that with sleep we are unconscious, whereas with rest we are conscious. Our recollections of sleep are typically blurry and muddled but with rest, our experiences come with a distinct awareness.’
That said, rest certainly facilitates sleep: ‘The better we sleep, the more rested we feel; the more we rest, the more likely we are to catch sleep. I’ve had people come to day-long sessions go home and sleep 16 hours straight.
‘When we rest or sleep, we stop taking in stimuli and support our body’s natural healing, immunity and rest systems. In this way, the key to good rest is to make sure it actually is rest. A lot of the things we believe are restful are highly stimulating.’ Say, posting one’s yoga routine on Instagram? Reeves rolls his eyes. There are no show-off poses in yoga nidra, one just lies there.
In fact, the difficulty with writing a book about the discipline is that its principal lesson is to do nothing – and that you already have this nothingness deep within you. I suggest The Book of Nothing might have proved an intriguing title. Reeves proposed it, but his publisher wasn’t keen.
One can see why, because nothingness is our great cultural bogeyman. It terrifies us – which is why we fill our lives with distraction. Most of us indulge ourselves with nothingness only when ill. Otherwise every second is spent seeking stimulation. In this freneticism, even meditation becomes too conscious, too willed a state.
‘We live in a restless society,’ James observes, ‘in which we’re on a constant mission to fix, refine, improve: consuming spiritual catchphrases, sharing images of physical perfection, and analysing ourselves from every angle. But what if feeling OK, sorted, complete, was possible without doing anything? If you took a moment to stop, then you’d see that what lies at the very core of your being is already perfectly at ease, perfectly peaceful. We’re asking people to just be.’
I tell him I resist this situation with every fibre of my being – it’s radically countercultural, this nothingness thing.
He asks me to start by considering the moment I wake up – that blissful three seconds before one’s critical faculty sets in – when one gets a glimpse of an expansive, liminal state of mind.
‘Start with the glimpses,’ he advises. ‘Just saying: ‘I let go of all the struggles, the desires, the narrative’. Entertain those few moments – the peace, the coming home. Losing its dominance is the mind’s worst fear, but it’s also the mind’s medicine.’
Then he tucks me up in blankets and steers me through a version of one of the ‘enquiries’ (or exercises) in the book, adapted to my yearning for a spacious, rather than constricted brain. He maintains that his words are ‘a sideshow’, to start me off, then ignore, as I access my nothingness. It feels impossibly wonderful.
It is clear why yoga nidra is becoming the next big thing. We are all exhausted.
‘If more people could experience a glimpse of what we’re talking about, could recognise the state of rest at the deepest level? I hope this doesn’t sound pious or checked-out, but there’s something truly gorgeous about it.’
It doesn’t, and there really is.
The Daily Telegraph