Yoga teacher Tracee Stanley discusses yoga nidra, connecting to our ancestors, and the importance of deep rest
Rest and joy are our birthright. These words from renowned yoga teacher and author Tracee Stanley resonated deep in my bones during our recent interview. Like so many women, people of color, and working people, I often feel a pang of guilt for resting, even measuring my days off by how much I get done: how many steps I get in, how many errands I run, how many pages I read.
As Tracee reminded me, there is another way. In particular, the practice of yoga nidra – also called the “yoga of sleep”– offers us a way to connect to our deepest selves through meaningful rest, she says. Yoga nidra is not about handstands, downward dogs, or any of the fancy poses often associated with yoga in the West. Instead, as Tracee discusses in her new book Radiant Rest: Yoga Nidra for Deep Relaxation & Awakened Clarity, the magic of yoga nidra can be found in lying still, letting go, and breathing.
In our interview, Tracee discusses the resistance we often have to allowing ourselves to rest, the deep transformation that can come through rest, the particular importance of rest for people of color, how ancestral trauma may show up in our yoga practice, and how we tap into our ancestors’ joy, hope, and wisdom through intentional rest. She also shares how she went from producing action movies in Hollywood to sharing the healing power of yoga. After our conversation, I felt like I had been to church. Tracee’s words served as a much-needed reminder that no matter who we are or what messages society has fed us, we all deserve the healing and joy that can come through deep rest.
Irie: How would you describe yoga nidra to people who are unfamiliar with that part of yoga?
Tracee: The yoga nidra is defined as the yoga of sleep. It is very commonly talked about as sleep with a slight trace of awareness. It really is this process of systematically relaxing the body, allowing yourself to surrender into the earth and be held unconditionally. And at that point, there becomes a sort of dissolution of awareness of the physical body.
Yoga nidra, in my definition, is really a practice of remembering. Because it’s not only a technique that guides us there, but it’s the state of consciousness that this technique leads us to.
Yoga nidra is actually freedom and the process by which to arrive at the freedom. And then there’s another aspect of yoga nidra that is the feminine quality of the goddess [yoga nidra] – divine mother, however you want to think about her – and she is the one who presides over the process that leads you to freedom.
“We become very aware that there is a level of deep rest that we may not really have instant access to. That, to me, is where the practice starts to shift away from the dynamic type of yoga to a quieter, more subtle form of yoga. ”
– Tracee StanleyPhoto by Chloe Crespi
I: I think for people who have only really encountered yoga in a studio, I think this might feel really different – this process of being held, this very feminine process. What’s been your experience about how people ease into this practice?
T: I love that you used the words “ease into the practice.” I think that it is interesting because when people are used to practicing dynamic asana [yoga poses or postures] and dynamic yoga that is divorced from the philosophies and the lineages and the teachers of yoga and the history of yoga, there tends to be this idea that there’s only one kind of yoga and that is the physical form of yoga.
We become aware very quickly, if we practice often, the resistances to resting – whether they be physical, energetic, or mental. We become very aware that there is a level of deep rest that we may not really have instant access to. That, to me, is where the practice starts to shift away from the dynamic type of yoga to a quieter, more subtle form of yoga.
I: As you’re talking, I’m thinking of some of what you talked about: the resistance. Getting to that place of truth I think can feel very frightening. You talk in the book about letting go – having to let go of our own trauma – but also the ways that we participate in the trauma of other people. I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit more to that. Wading through this resistance, it feels scary and messy and hard.
T: It’s definitely not cute.
You know, when you’re doing the practice at a deeper level, it is a practice of not only dissolution but disassembling. And we get to wake up to our thought patterns. We get to wake up to the emotions and things that are held energetically in the body, in our energetic body.
If you’re actually practicing yoga and all of the limbs of yoga, there is an element of self-study. We don’t just lay on the mat, do our practice, get up and forget about all the things that arose while we were in our practice. And we start to be able to see: Oh. this is the samskara. This is an impression, something that has landed in my physical body, my mental body, my energetic body. And it’s expressing itself now as this coloring or as this part of my personality.
Think about this idea that some impression that landed 30 years ago has formed a coloring because it’s concretized and has never been looked at, has never had any light shone on it – has actually informed my personality – which means that my personality is not actually who I really am.
If I look at those impressions and I’m aware of how those thought constructs shape my reality, my way of thinking, my way of seeing, I also will be open to noticing how I may be projecting onto others because of my fear. Because of my trauma. Because of all of the things that have happened to me and all the protections that I needed to create, all the armoring that I needed to create to be safe. [This] allows me then to be a certain way in the world, which can be a way of traumatizing others or hurting others without even knowing that that’s what is happening.
That’s why I think these practices of yoga nidra, of meditation, of definitely self-inquiry and self-study, of being in a sangha [community] of like-minded people who are willing to speak the truth to you and with you – it’s very important because if we want to shift anything in the outer world, we have to look at ourselves to see where do we need to dismantle all of the places that inside of us are not free, and all the places where we try to keep others from being free because we think that that is going to keep us safe.
I: This makes me think of anti-racism work and the role that something like yoga nidra can have in that process of working inward as you work outward. Have you seen that growth in some of your students or even in yourself of using this practice as a way to shape and change how you’re interacting with the world around you?
T: One hundred percent. This is what the whole practice of yoga is about. I mean, if you’re really practicing yoga and all the eight limbs of yoga.
The answer to that is yes and not only is it necessary for us to understand the machinations of our own mind and our own heart, but also to be able to deeply rest – especially for those who are doing antiracism work because they need to just be rested so that they can continue on without being exhausted, without losing hope, with being able to touch in to that part of them that is joyful and eternal in a twenty-minute practice and to know that is an eternal place. And that’s a teaching right from the Yoga Sutras.
I:I want to discuss this idea of rest in cultures or backgrounds that maybe have traditionally had a complicated relationship with rest. In your book, you talk about how in communities of color, in working class communities, you really didn’t want to get caught resting. It was kind of seen as a negative thing.
How can rest be transformative for people who’ve come from cultures that have normalized working without taking time for rest? [Editor’s note: This is often in response to belonging to societies where people of color, women, or working-class people were coerced into working without pause due to racism, misogyny, and classism.]
T: I feel like that’s something we can all relate to, because that is the dominant culture. The dominant culture is basically saying, “You don’t get a chance to rest.” And then there’s another layer where it’s actually not safe to rest. Where the memory in your DNA is that My life will be in jeopardy if I take a moment to rest.
I believe that the way it can help to transform is that the message is really: “You don’t deserve to rest. Rest is a luxury. It’s not something that you can afford, and by the way, it’s also not something you deserve.”
So that is the thing we need to do, is to reclaim rest as our birthright, because it is our birthright.
“We’re here to realize that our joy is eternal. Our Black joy, in particular, is eternal. Our ancestors are eternal. And nidra is a portal into that. Rest is a portal into that.”
– Tracee StanleyPhoto by Chloe Crespi
I: Tell me what you mean by that – by it being our birthright.
T: Think about if – not to get too religious – but if God created man in his image, he took a day to rest. It’s in every religion, practically, that there is a sabbath. There is a day of rest. And so, it’s our birthright to be able to realize and know our true nature. [In] the Yoga Sutras, there’s a sutra, 1:36: Visoka-Va-Jyotismati.
Visoka refers to a state that is free of pain and suffering. And Jyotismati refers to this inner divine light. And it’s said that there is tranquility and peace that can be attained by remembering this light. Rest and sleep and practices like conscious sleeping allow you to taste that light. Once you have tasted that light – which is joy and effulgence and radiance – no one can take that away from you. And that’s our birthright. We’re here to realize that our joy is eternal. Our Black joy, in particular, is eternal. Our ancestors are eternal. And nidra is a portal into that. Rest is a portal into that.
I: As you were talking about – “You don’t deserve it” – those words came from somewhere. They didn’t come from my parents. I don’t know where they came from, but they came from somewhere.
T: I think that any person of color has, whether their parents have immigrated here or not, there’s this idea that you have to work harder than everybody else to get the same as what someone else has. When I was growing up, my dad would basically say you have to be 200% better to get the same opportunity.
I: I heard the same thing.
T: So, if the world is telling you you have to be 200% better, when do you actually have time to rest?
I’m lucky that my parents actually modeled for me this idea of resting. But it was resting – and this is something for people to think about, because a lot of times people will say, “I don’t have time to rest” – is they actually gave up having a social life in order to make sure that they stayed rested. They went to bed at like 9:30, they woke up, my dad especially, woke up before the sun was rising. And to him it was more important – his success rested on working hard but also knowing that he needed rest.
I: How might our ancestors’ trauma show up in our yoga nidra practice as maybe even part of our own trauma or part of our own experience? What kind of tools do you use to work through those traumas?
T: Everyone’s experience with yoga nidra is different. It requires really you to approach the practice as though you’re creating a relationship with the practice, which is why I wrote [Radiant Rest]. I wanted people to create and cultivate their own relationship with yoga nidra: the goddess, the technique, and the state of consciousness.
A lot of times people will say, “I feel like I have this pain or this sadness or this fear that doesn’t feel like mine. I can’t trace it back to where it came from. It doesn’t feel like mine.”
“Everyone’s experience with yoga nidra is different. It requires really you to approach the practice as though you’re creating a relationship with the practice, which is why I wrote [Radiant Rest].
– Tracee StanleyPhoto by Chloe Crespi
A lot of times we will come into this understanding that, oh, this actually isn’t mine. I actually see the face of an ancestor. And it may be an ancestor that I know by name. But it also may be an ancestor that I’ve never seen or an energy of an ancestor that I don’t know. But I have this inner knowing that this is a part of me, and so anything can happen – from receiving messages [or] wisdom.
The way that I teach, especially how I’ve shared in the book, is really about you calling in the ancestors that are well in spirit so that those ancestors can be there to protect and guide you and that you can begin to form a relationship with them because they are well in spirit. And I think that that’s important because there’s a healing then that happens, I believe, and as I’ve been taught, through the lineage. Just by you calling in the ancestors that are well in spirit, they can start to take care of the other ancestors that have experienced trauma. Unless you’re really diving deeply into ancestral healing, which is a completely different topic.
[Editor’s note: Tracee recommends the work of Daniel Foor and Malidoma Some for those who want to explore the topic of ancestral healing further.]
I: I know for me, when I think about my ancestors that I don’t know, I often think of trauma. [Life] was so hard, and it was so difficult. [I’m starting] to think about the ways connecting deeply to oneself allows you to connect also to their joy and persistence and positive things that they passed on to us.
T: If they didn’t have joy, we wouldn’t be here. As I said before, our joy is eternal. Our ancestors are eternal, so that means that their joy is also eternal in us. If their trauma is in our DNA, so is their joy. If their trauma is in our DNA, so are their prayers – and so is their hope.
And that I think is a really interesting thing, because when people try to oppress you, they are also trying to oppress the joy out of you. And yet we are one of the most joyful, creative people despite all of what has happened over the centuries. And that is because our joy is living in us. Our ancestors’ joy is living in us and we have this eternal joy that is always there for us to access, but we need to become still in order to really access the depth of that joy and that light that is there.
I: I wonder if you can talk about some of the ways that you’ve found to help people adapt the practice to their realities. I know you talk in the book about – like you can have a couple of kids running around, this is still something that’s accessible to you. That might be surprising for a lot of people. Or for people who are working from home or people who are in neighborhoods or environments that don’t feel safe or don’t feel like a yoga place. What are some of the tools or methods that you give people to start adapting the practice?
T: This idea that we have to do yoga in a studio is a lie. We need to dispose of that. I think that over the course of this pandemic we have already realized that.
The other thing that has been commodified by Western yoga is this idea that the yoga practice needs to be an hour long or an hour and a half to be valid, which is another untruth.
If we think about this idea that we have access to the practices of yoga and stillness all the time because we are constantly breathing, that it really means that at any point during the day, we can take a moment to spend three minutes just observing our breath. Something as simple as having your hands on your belly and feeling the navel rising and falling and allowing the chest to become more and more still will automatically start to shift things in the mind and your nervous system.
The question really is taking a look to see where you are in your day distracted and wasting time. And reframing the idea of practice and instead of taking three minutes to scroll on Instagram or to read emails again for the nineteenth time in the day is to create those boundaries for yourself so that you are protecting your own space to be able to fall into these three minute little practices of just laying down on the earth or noticing the breath and just again owning the fact that you deserve this practice – whether you want to call the practice yoga, or not.
The practice is: Let me be mindful [and] observe my breath. Let me allow my body to rest on the earth and be held. It’s very simple. It doesn’t need to be complicated.
I: You mentioned a couple of times [about] practicing yoga in its fullness and connecting to the philosophies of yoga – can you speak a little more to the importance of being connected to those roots in our quest to deepen our yoga practice?
T: I think that if you want to deepen your yoga practice, you should go back and re-read or maybe read for the first time a translation of the Yoga Sutras so that you understand yoga philosophy. It is not yoga asana.
The importance is, if you are getting a recipe that’s being handed down from your grandmother, you want your grandmother to put all of the ingredients in the recipe. You don’t want the version that she’s going to give to the neighbor where she kind of leaves out one thing because she doesn’t want to give her family recipe out [laughs]. You want the full recipe.
If yoga is a recipe for freedom, why would you want to leave out any of the ingredients? You have an incomplete practice.
I: Can you talk a little bit about your yoga journey? I was listening to a podcast with you and Dr. Gail Parker when you had her on your podcast. You talked about early in your practice, you were one of the first people up in handstand. And I was like, “I have never seen Tracee Stanley in a handstand in my life!” It was just so hard for me to imagine that was a part of your practice. I loved hearing that. I wonder if you can speak about your yoga journey, just to give people a picture into how you’ve changed and grown.
T: The journey began before I even knew it began. It began in South Africa. I was sitting on the balcony of my apartment looking over Table Mountain. The sun was rising off in the distance and I fell into a spontaneous state of meditation. That really came from, in retrospect, being still, being quiet, and being focused on waiting for the sun to rise.
I started to look into spirituality [and] meditation. I walked into a yoga studio and I told them that it was my first time doing yoga; I had never practiced yoga before. The woman at the counter said, “Go left.” I went left and I found myself in a kundalini class.
I have always been someone who has been physically inclined. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an athlete, but I definitely did a lot of athletic things when I was younger. And it was a really hard class!
At the end of the class, the teacher played the gong. I remember this feeling as though somebody had just opened up my heart center, and they were pouring in molten gold. And from that moment, I was basically going to class four or five times a week. I did that for about four years until one day the teacher was sick, and there was no sub. And the person at the front said, “Go right.” I went right, and it was a hatha yoga class. And in that hatha yoga class, people were doing arm balances and handstands and I was like, “What is happening here? This doesn’t seem like the yoga that I know!”
The athlete, ego part of my mind was like: I need to know how to do this, so I started practicing both kundalini and hatha yoga simultaneously – often sometimes going to class twice in one day. And I was doing a very rigorous, dynamic form of yoga.
I was going on a yoga retreat and I went to buy a yoga book to take with me and I stumbled on a translation of the Yoga Sutras. That was a shift in my understanding of what yoga is. Because up until then I thought that yoga was the poses. In reading the Yoga Sutras, I was like, Oh. I’m actually not practicing yoga. I’m practicing a physical form of yoga, but it’s not the fullness, and I need to find a teacher or a system that’s going to teach me the things that are in this book.
I found my way to the tradition of the Himalayan masters and sri vidya tantra and began studying. As I was studying, I had a completely separate career. I was a film producer, and I thought, Okay the people that I’m seeing in these classes – I’m always the only person of color. I find it hard to believe that there is a lack of desire to practice yoga, so I want to open a studio.
I opened a very tiny little studio in West Hollywood. I opened it on donation only so that it was affordable to everyone and I hired a bunch of my friends who had just graduated from their teacher trainings and gave them jobs as yoga teachers.
Basically, I felt like I created the home or the yoga studio that I wanted to go to and the teachers I wanted to see. I wanted to see teachers of color. I wanted to see Black men teaching yoga. I wanted to see and learn from people of Indian descent.
There was a day where someone was sick on a weekend and I had to teach their class. When I taught their class, I remember the feeling of like, Wow, this feels so much more fulfilling and gratifying to share these practices than it does to make an action movie with Steven Seagal.
I just started teaching at 6 o’clock in the morning so that I would be able to teach, and then I could go to work. I was arriving on those two days a week that I was teaching in the morning more energized and more inspired. And so, I started to plan how I could have this life where I could really teach and share these practices with people.
I: I wonder if you would end with the transformative potential and power of this practice for whoever wants to try it?
T: The best way that I can describe it is because this practice becomes so personal – yoga in general becomes so personal – that I can’t give you a specific of what will be transformed. Because what will be transformed is what is needed to be transformed so that you can be free – and so that you can experience freedom. And that doesn’t mean that you’re going to experience freedom in every moment. But it means that you will experience freedom so that you know that that is your essence. And that you always have that as your foundation.
Yoga in itself and yoga nidra specifically – because yoga nidra is, I believe, the most accessible yoga practice there is – if you’re someone who is suffering from trauma, you bring in your therapist or your dear friend to help you process what is being revealed, because it is a practice. The word “nidra”, while it is translated as “sleep” it is also translated as ni meaning “void” and dra meaning “that which is revealed” or “to draw forth.” It is a practice that will reveal to you everything that is not you. And everything that is you. Sometimes we’re very attached to those things that are not us. And that’s part of what we have to face when we do practices like these.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
About Tracee Stanley: Tracee Stanley, founder of Empowered Life Circle shares teachings that are inspired by more than 20 years of study in the traditions of the Himalayan Masters and Sri Vidya Tantra. The focus of her teaching honors life as a ritual and she is devoted to yoga nidra, meditation, self-inquiry, nature as a teacher, and ancestor reverence. She is the creatrix of the Empowered Life Self-Inquiry Oracle Deck and host of Radiant Rest Podcast which celebrates the practices, teachers, and traditions that prioritize the rituals of rest, sacred dreaming, and self-care.
Tracee’s book Radiant Rest – Yoga Nidra for Deep Relaxation and Awakened Clarity published by Shambhala Publishing is now available where books are sold. Learn more at radiantrest.com, and traceeyoga.com.