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I'm exhausted and stressed - can Emma Watson's 'rest guru' really help me switch off?

Photo of a woman lying on a mat, being taught Yoga Nidra by a man in a denim shirt, who is sitting on the floor
James Reeves runs a Yoga Nidra session for Hannah Betts Credit: Julian Andrews

“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. 45 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 in collaboration 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 5 and 2, 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. However, it’s not his looks that strike me, but his presence – utterly soothing while being reassuringly human. There’s nothing remotely creepy or preachy about him. Instead 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 suffering a mid-twenties crisis. “I was hoodwinked into yoga while travelling in Asia and wasn’t convinced – until I experienced yoga nidra. My resistance manifested as a massive headache. It built and 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: “There are similarities between the two, but the difference is that with sleep we are unconscious, whereas with rest we are conscious – we remain present with the experience. Our recollections of sleep are typically blurry and muddled. However, with rest, our experience - insights, sensations of expansiveness and feelings of deep understanding - 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 workshops go home and sleep 16 hours straight. When we rest or sleep, we stop taking in stimulus 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, that is, you’re not taking in stimulus.

A lot of the things we believe are restful are highly stimulating.” Say, Instagramming one’s yoga routine? 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 that 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 everything by way of distraction. Most of us indulge ourselves with nothingness only when ill. Otherwise every second of every day is spent seeking stimulation. In this freneticism, even meditation becomes too conscious, too willed a state. 

James Reeves teaches Hannah Betts yoga nidra Credit: Julian Andrews

“We live in a restless society,” observes James, “in which we’re all on a constant mission to fix, refine and improve ourselves: endlessly consuming spiritual catchphrases, sharing images of physical perfection, and analysing ourselves from every angle. But what if feeling okay, sorted, complete was possible without you having to do 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 counter-cultural, this nothingness thing. “Yup,” he says, “pretty much everyone feels this way. You don’t have to accept our proposition, but you can play with it. See what happens. Be willing to try it on as you would some clothes you’re not sure will suit you.” 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 tight, white, constricted brain.

Throughout, his maintains that his words are “just a sideshow,” something to start me off, then ignore, as I access my own nothingness. The effect feels impossibly wonderful. It is clear why yoga nidra is becoming the next big thing. We are all exhausted. Could Reeves and Brown provide salvation? “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. It may be nothing, but Reevesian rest might just save the world. 

The Book of Rest by James Reeves (RRP £12.99). Buy now for £10.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514