The Lost Art of Rest
Our modern society seems to want everything and want it now. We are very good at stressing our bodies (and minds) beyond capacity - getting injured, fatigued and often times ill in the process. We seem to have lost our value for rest. We crave rest, but the idea of taking an afternoon nap, slowing down, or taking a day off seems "lazy" to most of us. However, our bodies need rest, and so do our minds. Even if it only comes in short doses throughout the day. In my "Mindfulness Challenge" I started 2 weeks ago, I invited folks to find 10 minutes every day at the same time (preferably, so that it becomes routine) and practice being mindful - sitting still and focusing on your breath. This is a good way to start - to give the mind a break and tune in to the inner witness so we don't lose touch with our inner "Self". Too often, when we Go, Go, Go, the mind gets caught up in the daily "To Do" list always seeking what comes next. Our lives become stressful and we go to sleep with this same laundry list in our heads, and all the worries of the world haunting our minds, which makes us unable to sleep. Then, we are even more fatigued the next day. We also end up either NOT making time for physical exercise, OR we over-exercise and over stress our bodies. I had 2 students in the same week come to class with extremely tight hamstrings and back pain from doing heavy workouts and not stretching enough afterwards or allowing enough rest between workouts. Over time, this can lead to injury. Over-exercising can also exhaust our adrenal glands. It is important to balance our exercise routine to include strength conditioning, stretching, balance, cardio and also - sufficient rest. For overworked and stressed muscles, a therapeutic or restorative yoga class can be especially helpful. Holding the body open gently in poses, supported by props to allow a gentle release in a restorative class, or doing gentle somatic movements to keep the blood and lymph circulating through the body in a therapeutic class can be a great complement to your exercise routine. Also, if you have trouble sleeping at night, listening to a yoga nidra cd or finding one that you like on YouTube can be helpful to have nearby on your bed stand, so you can turn to it whenever you can't sleep. I often play Jennifer Reis's "Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra" (available on YouTube) when I cannot sleep at night. Even if I do not fall asleep right away, and my mind is still awake, my body receives intense rest. It's important here to acknowledge that the purpose of Yoga Nidra is to cultivate awareness of "the inner witness". It is a tool for "pratyahara", rather than being a tool for sleep. However, that being said, if you are truly sleep deprived, it can also help facilitate deep rest for the body and mind - without which we will never be able to cultivate the inner witness. It will be much more difficult to meditate or be mindful if the mind is always strained and tired and the body sleep deprived. Here is a simple routine you can try to incorporate at the end of the day to help you rest and recover before getting into bed: Begin by placing your hands on the wall and walking your feet out into a Downward facing dog at the wall. (see photo at the beginning of this post). Hug your triceps inwards, allowing the inner elbows and forearms to turn towards each other (without locking) and push the wall away with your fingers spread wide, pressing down through the base of the index finger. Feel the stretch in your low back and hamstrings. Hold for several breaths, relaxing the neck and releasing tension in the jaw.
Then, step the right foot forward to the wall. Place the outer pinky toe side against the wall and step your Left foot forward (facing out) into a Warrior 2 pose with knee bent. Allow your back arm (Right arm) to touch the wall. Lift the Left arm up and reach back over your ear in Reverse Warrior. Touch the wall with your left fingertips and allow the right arm to bend, giving yourself a deep side stretch to release tension in the side body. Come back to Down Dog at the wall. Step the Left arm through and place the pinky toe side at the wall, stepping the Right foot forward into Warrior 2 on the other side. Repeat the Reverse Warrior stretch the same way you did on the other side.
Next come down to sit on the floor. Spread your legs as wide as you comfortably can, keeping the feet flexed and toes pointing upwards (do not let the feet roll inward or outward) in Upavishta Konasana. Press your hands down into the floor behind you, to lift the chest and extend the spine. Then slowly walk the hands down between the legs to forward fold, while keeping length in the spine (If your pelvis tends to rock backwards causing you to slouch in the lower back, you can do this sitting on a block). You have several options here, depending on your range of motion and how you are feeling. You might walk the hands down to forearms on the floor or bring your forehead down to a block, which is calming and grounding (no forcing here, we are trying to relax the body for rest, not overstretch and injure yourself!)
For tighter hamstrings, you could place rolled towels or blankets under the knees (Fig. 2).
You could also do this pose in front of a sofa and rest your head on the sofa on the back of stacked hands (Fig. 3).
Or, you could to this pose with a bolster propped up on 1 or 2 blocks (Fig. 4), making it more of a restorative pose. (If you do this, you can rest your head on one side, holding the stretch for a few minutes, and then turn your head to the other side and hold a few more minutes.)
Next, bring the legs together and sit in Dandasana (Staff pose), pressing down through the backs of the legs and keeping the feet flexed. If you sat on a block in the last pose, you might sit on a block here as well. You could also roll a blanket under the knees if the hamstrings are tight. Reach the arms forward towards your feet, while maintaining length in the spine. You can rest the hands on the outsides of your legs, or grab your feet, or use a strap or belt to forward fold, without rounding the upper back. Hold for several breaths.
End by coming back to the wall. Place one hip at the wall and gently swing your legs up the wall, stretching the backs of the legs. Allow your arms to rest at your sides with plams facing down on the earth, or take Apana mudra (touch the tips of the middle and ring finger to the tips of the thumbs and extend the index and pinky finger), and feel the grounding effects of this hand mudra and the downward flow of energy in the body. Lie for several minutes. Then climb into bed for your savasana! Or, take a few minutes to quiet the mind in seated meditation. You could also turn on a yoga nidra cd as you climb into bed.
In conclusion, it is ESSENTIAL to allow your body time to rest daily - to restore your physical and mental body on a cellular level and recharge you so that you are better able to meet your responsibilities to work, friends and family. Namaste!