There’s no doubt that the last year and a half has been stressful for all of us, for all the reasons. And, while it seems as though we’re starting to settle back into some semblance of normal (whatever that means!), some of those big stressors and emotions are, well, still very much present.
In a lot of ways, those fears and anxieties are almost hard to let go of after living so long in a locked down world. None of us want to be stressed, of course, but it seems that many of us are finding letting go and relaxing to be really, really challenging. It’s almost as though our default emotional system and body is set to high alert, and we’re afraid to lower it to more feel-good levels.
Because of all of that and SO MUCH MORE as you’ll read, we are thrilled to share an excerpt from Tracee Stanley’s book Radiant Rest: Yoga Nidra for Deep Relaxation and Awakened Clarity.
Tracee is a noted and lineaged teacher of yoga nidra, meditation, and self-inquiry. Her practices are inspired by the tradition of Himalayan Masters and Sri Vidya Tantra, into which she was initiated in 2001. She is co-founder of the Empowered Wisdom Yoga Nidra School and created the Empowered Life Self-Inquiry Oracle Deck. Tracee travels internationally leading retreats, teacher training, and presenting at festivals and conferences including Oprah and Gayle’s Girls Get Away. She has online classes available at Commune, Yoga Journal, Unplug Meditation, Pranamaya, and Wanderlust TV. For more information, go to her site here.
Her new book Radiant Rest is a must-read for those interested in self-development and inquiry. Through the book, Tracee guides readers beyond the technique of yoga nidra and into the depths in order to experience deep relaxation and awaken to your power. She offers bedtime and wake-up rituals, along with insights on some of the obstacles many of us have to relaxation and the factors that play a part in blocking us from our birthright of deep rest and spiritual awakening. It’s an incredible read.
And, in this excerpt from her book, Tracee is sharing why it’s so hard for us to relax, ways to heal, and practical tips to find ease, and — best of all — finally get some radiant rest.
How to Relax and Find Ease
By Tracee Stanley
One of the first things I became aware of, as I began to practice and then share deep relaxation, was that it’s difficult for most of us to “let go.” Yoga teachers often give this instruction without the slightest consideration for how it will be received in a class full of people with varied life experiences and possible traumas. At the very least, life can be stressful, and over time it can create the type of tension that requires more than commanding ourselves to “let go” to relax.
It is hard to let go of the tension and constriction in the body and mind that have taken many years to accumulate. Some people say that “our issues live in our tissues,” and Denise La Barre explains in her book, Issues in Your Tissues, what this means: “‘Issues in your tissues’ are emotions we haven’t allowed ourselves to feel fully, or thoughts with a heavy emotional charge. As energetic residue in the body, they accumulate and build over time, starting first as tension and solidifying into disease according to our reactions to our life experiences.”
Deep relaxation practices help us to relax systematically and to bring awareness to all the parts of ourselves that require loving attention. Because we are taking a journey through the subtle body as we practice, that awareness may extend to our physical body, our thoughts, and even our beliefs. Unfortunately, it is a common tendency to identify with and hold on for dear life to parts of ourselves, like thoughts and beliefs, that lead to patterns of behavior that do not support our thriving. Remember the manomaya kosha. Because of our insecurities, fears, and biases, we may also hold on to ways of being that ensure that others cannot thrive, especially when we are in positions of power. This shows up as systemic racism, misogyny, or the mistreatment of others as a way to protect ourselves from perceived harm and scarcity.
Certain habits and thoughts may feel familiar and safe, and they can be reinforced by those around us, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t keeping us stuck. We may be scared that if we let go of these long-held ways of being, we will dissolve, even if they are causing us or others pain. The more we rely on what is familiar, the less we will grow. This recycling of suffering means that we have to learn the same lessons over and over again. This holding shows up everywhere in our lives, as tension in our bodies and our relationships and as an inability to move forward in life and in the collective as history repeating itself. If we can create an opportunity in our yoga nidra practice to create more awareness and ease within ourselves, it will be reflected outward in our lives.
Healing Trauma With Yoga Nidra
For many of us, the tension, stress, and emotional energy we’re holding on to can be traced back to distressing or overwhelming events, known as psychological trauma. Trauma survivors who have practiced yoga nidra attest to its efficacy, with regular practice over time, at helping to loosen the hold that such events have on them. Richard Miller is largely to thank for the spread of yoga nidra practice outside of yoga studios. He’s taken his iRest system into hospitals, military bases, prisons, and Head Start programs, to name a few, spurring interest in the research community to look for evidence to back up what anyone who has tried the practice already knows is true — that it works.
New studies continue to investigate yoga nidra’s efficacy for those suffering from trauma, depression, and PTSD. A 2011 pilot study published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy found that veterans with combat-related PTSD reported less rage, anxiety, and emotional reactivity and more feelings of relaxation, peace, self-awareness, and self-efficacy after eight weekly iRest sessions. PTSD and trauma are complex topics of ongoing research. But early results support the theory and yogic teaching that consistent yoga nidra practice can help to improve the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of survivors.
If you are suffering from PTSD, depression, or trauma, it is important to investigate modalities and find teachers who not only understand and are educated in what you are experiencing, but who also promote agency and choice in your practice. The support of a therapist is invaluable when you are feeling overwhelmed, and many are now working on a sliding scale to make services more affordable for those in need. If you are a teacher of yoga nidra, it is important to educate yourself further about these conditions, address your own traumas, and begin with your own healing.
9 Ways to Find More Ease in Your Practice
If you feel restless or struggle to settle in for deep relaxation or yoga nidra practices, there are things you can do to invite more ease into your practice when you feel difficult feelings arising. If you are a teacher, please consider experimenting with the following modifications so you can offer them to your students and community when needed.
- Keep your eyes slightly open during practice.
- Practice with a trusted person or pet in the room.
- Physically touch or move the parts of your body that you would like to relax. Let go of the idea that you must “remain perfectly still.”
- Practice standing up. (Yes, you can.)
- When practicing in a group, let the teacher know that you would like to find a spot in the room that feels safer for you instead of lining up or being contained in a circle formation.
- Try a weighted blanket. It feels like a giant hug for the whole body. (Note: These blankets are said to ease anxiety, but they can also make some people feel confined, so test it out before making an investment.)
- If complete silence makes you feel uneasy, experiment with adding sounds from nature, such as a rushing river or rain, soft wind chimes, crystal singing bowls, hang drums, or music you find soothing.
- If lying on your back does not feel comfortable or sustainable over a long period of time, find a position that works for you, such as lying on your side or leaning against a wall facing the door with your eyes slightly open.
- Remember that you have choices. Remember, you don’t have to close your eyes if it feels uncomfortable. Leave the room if you need a break. You can also open your eyes with a soft focus and then return to the process. Work with a teacher on creating a safe place or inner resource. If something feels too uncomfortable, you can end the practice. Open your eyes and sit up as you mentally say to yourself, I am choosing to end this practice now. Try to take a few minutes to journal about your experience afterward.
Is It Safe?
Our bodies can hold on to the effects of stress for a long time, which can become a chronic low-level stress in itself. Stress can stem from anything — a demanding boss, a fight with a loved one, a struggle to secure childcare, a health scare, financial issues, politics, unmet basic needs, or trauma. For people living in Brown, Black, female, or LGBTQIA bodies, life may not feel safe, especially when there is a constant stream of evidence that safety is not always assured and in some cases intentionally denied. It doesn’t feel safe to relax in a world that isn’t welcoming to you, that labels you as lazy, that is oppressive, that can be a threat to your life in certain environments, and that is actually set up to make sure you don’t thrive.
Research suggests that recent exposure to race-related stress can have a sustained impact on physiological stress responses for African Americans. Gail Parker, PhD, is a psychologist and yoga therapy educator and the author of Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma. She reminded me that race-based stress and trauma are not the same as PTSD: “PTSD is regarded as a mental health disorder that is triggered by a life-threatening event that leaves the individual unable to shake off the trauma. Race-based stress is traumatic, but it is triggered by an external race-related event that causes emotional pain, not a threat to life, and unlike PTSD, it is recurrent, ongoing, and cumulative.”
She added that this can all be further complicated by centuries-old intergenerational trauma, which is trauma inherited from our relatives.
“It is important for people in Black and Brown bodies to know that feelings of relaxation or peacefulness can feel threatening to a nervous system that is conditioned to be on high alert. So learning to relax can seem stressful at first and takes time. The edge for people directly impacted by race-based stress and trauma isn’t to push harder, it is to feel safe in stillness. To avoid retraumatizing others, we must each do our healing work as it relates to our own race and ethnicity.”
How far back can you trace your family tree? Some Native Americans believe that our actions affect the seven generations both before and after us. Our ancestral lineage makes us who we are. Even if we never met those long-ago relatives. Many times, we may experience a kind of psychic pain or restlessness that doesn’t seem to belong to us. I have heard many students say they have felt a pain or sadness “that doesn’t feel like mine.” We are made up of so many stories from the past. We all have some form of trauma in our DNA. If that is true, we must also all carry the love, hope, and prayers of those who came before us. Many students have shared that they have felt the presence of loved ones or sensed that they were being “supported and protected” by their ancestors.
You may find it helpful to call your ancestors into a circle of healing. Extending your intentions for healing and rest to encompass your family lineage is a powerful way to explore forgiving, healing, and honoring those who came before you. We may have complicated relationships with our predecessors, from not knowing who they are or having been harmed by them to the knowledge that they were responsible for causing intentional suffering to large groups of people. For this reason, we can first begin by connecting to what the author of Ancestral Medicine, Daniel Foor, calls our “wise, kind and loving ancestors that are well in spirit.” This means connecting with those with whom you already feel relationship. If there aren’t any humans that come to mind, you may want to include pets, spirit guides, or deities or connect to our collective and oldest ancestors: the earth, moon, sun, or stars.
Energy follows thought and prayers of healing, and love can reach as far and wide as we can imagine, beyond the confines of what we experience as linear time and space. Inviting ancestors into your practice for support and protection can help expand your experience of feeling supported and has the potential to extend healing deep into the roots of your family tree.
From Radiant Rest: Yoga Nidra for Deep Relaxation and Awakened Clarity by Tracee Stanley © 2021 by Tracee Stanley. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, Co.