Book excerpt from Radiant Rest: Yoga Nidra for Deep Relaxation and Awakened Clarity by Tracee Stanley.
Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
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.
As mentioned in chapter 1, 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 wellbeing 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. You will find additional resources for this in the appendix.
Nine 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.
Tracee Stanley 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. Visit traceeyoga.com.