“Rest is not self-indulgent, but vital. To give the world the very best that you have to offer.”
When I first started practicing yoga I was one of those students who could not understand, and straight up could not stand, savasana. Savasana, for those of you unfamiliar with yoga is the final resting pose of the class that can run anywhere from five minutes upwards. Five minutes of doing absolutely nothing. Five minutes to, as so many of my teachers always said, “receive the benefits of the practice.”
In the early days of my relationship with yoga, those five minutes were excoriating. I couldn’t get over the feeling that it was five minutes wasted. Five minutes where we could have been working harder on our bodies. Five minutes where I could get back to working hard at work. Five minutes where I could have been doing something, anything, more productive than just lying there.
Years later, as I began a reluctant foray into mediation (a requirement of my yoga teacher training), this attitude prevailed. I started with, ironically, five minute meditations. For those first five minutes sessions, I felt trapped in the prison of my restless body and mind, guarded by the cruel warden of my cell phone timer and my own stubborn determination.
I wasn’t alone in this prison cell. I saw it in the wiggling bodies and furrowed brows of my fellow beginner meditation students, and eventually in the yoga classes I taught. If you’ve ever attended a yoga class in Toronto’s corporate centre, the Path (back when you could do those sorts of things), if you stay for Savasana, you will likely end up alone in the room as I discovered. Everyone, including the teacher, was rushing off to the next thing. Not giving their bodies a chance to recover, or simply enjoy a few moments of rest, let alone receive any insights the practice might have to offer.
This need to be and feel productive is a strong one. Particularly in our Western culture that has for years perpetuated the belief that busy = good. Busy = successful. Busy = a fulfilling life. “How are you?” goes our general greeting. “Busy” comes the answer all too often. Too busy to even really contemplate how we are, let alone take the time to share that with someone else. But while corporations and cultures, and corporate culture, continue to propagate this idea that productivity = abundance = happiness, the opposite is happening. The health and well being of individuals, and the planet, suffers. I was one of those individuals who suffered.
Working in sales and marketing for 15 years, I wholeheartedly believed the hype. Rest for me was equivalent to unproductiveness, boredom, and weakness. “You can sleep when you’re dead” – I used to say all the time. I used this to justify overworking, staying too late at the party, or taking on too much. “I don’t have time to rest.” That was another one I used to tell myself. What I didn’t know then, was this was a boundaries issue. I didn’t actually have time to rest. Trying to carve out a 5 minute meditation in my day seemed impossible. And 8 full hours of sleep? Forget about it. I was existing on 4-6 hours a night.
The path of being under rested is a scary one. And our present society is very much under nourished as a whole when it comes to rest. The consequences are dire. All animals need sleep. Our minds and bodies do not function without it. But when you actually deprive animals of sleep – as was done to rats in a ethically questionable study out of the University of Chicago in the 1980s – certain death ensues. Generally around 15 days. In the days prior, these rats experienced body mass loss, despite eating more than the sleep rested rats. They could no longer regulate their core temperature. They started to develop wounds and sores on their skin. According to Matthew Walker in “Why We Sleep,” the outward signs of degrading health were shocking. The adrenal glands that respond to infection and stress were markedly enlarged and circulating levels of the anxiety related hormone corticosterone had spiked in the sleepless rats. “The internal damage revealed by the final postmortem was ghastly…Far from a vicious infection that came from the outside, it was a simple bacteria from the rats’ very own gut that inflicted the mortal blow – one that an otherwise healthy immune system would have easily quelled when fortified by sleep.”
When Covid first arrived on the scene, over a year ago now, my sleep began to suffer once again. I was addicted to following the news, which for the most part I only had time to read right before bed. The worry, the uncertainty, the monotony of our days, the late night screen time – everything contributed to my newfound insomnia. It was at this time that I really discovered the practice of Yoga Nidra, a lying down meditative practice that essentially drops the body into a hypnagogic state that mimics deep sleep. A 20 minute session is said to equal the healing benefits of about a half nights’ sleep. Finally I’d found a practice I could make time for. One for which I had to make the time. For the past year, I have used Yoga Nidra to help me still the body and quiet the mind to fall asleep. I use it to rest in bed on the mornings I wake up too early. And I use it during those afternoon energy slumps, instead of my old coffee break standby.
I’ve learned our ability to rest is directly related to our skill in applying boundaries. Boundaries for ourselves and our time. Boundaries for our monkey minds that want to move quickly from one thing to another. And boundaries towards others and our commitment to them. There is no time to rest if I’ve overcommitted at work, or to family and friends, or even to promises I made to myself. While we can say everyone can find 5 minutes to meditate, or take a mindful break, in the past, I was so sleep deprived and lacking clear focus I couldn’t see how that was possible. And the answer was, it wasn’t. It required changes to my lifestyle.
It’s taken me a long time to appreciate that Savasana, sitting in meditation, lying down for Yoga Nidra, and good old sweet, sweet sleep, are not minutes or hours wasted. In fact, they are the things that keep us going, through all the challenges and all the joys life presents. Stopping to rest is not weak. It is in my opinion, a sign of great strength. A sign your practice is working. A sign your awareness is increasing. A sign you have the ability to tune into what really nourishes you. As those poor rats have taught us, rest is not a luxury. It is essential to our physical and mental well being.
I invite you to join me and the other teachers and members of the CEC community this month in the radical act of resting, and together, we will rise up rested.