Namaste, Folks! Let’s Hit the Hay!
(Origin: Probably related to the fact that in the U.S.A. in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century mattresses often consisted of old sacks filled with hay or straw.) Yikes. I am getting itchy just thinking about it!
Anyway…….Rest. Part of every yoga class. What’s the big deal about rest anyway? Most beginners feel that it’s a waste of their time! “I sleep every night! I should pay someone to tell me to lie down and rest during the day?!! What a waste!”
But far from being wasted time, from the moment we slide into Savasana, fascinating things begin to happen! (In fact, there is a practice in yoga called Yoga Nidra (Yoga Sleep) that has seen immense popularity in the last few years in treatment of folks with PTSD.)
We are aware that a whole raft of functions takes place during sleep to make sure that we get optimal benefit from our nightly rest. But most of us are not getting enough sleep!
Sleep is the time the body can undergo repair and detoxification. Poor sleep patterns are linked to poor health - and those who sleep less than six hours a night have a shorter life expectancy than those who sleep for longer.
So sleep has a profound effect on our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
But that is for another day.
Now....how about rest. Just resting....? Does rest have a similar profound effect on every system in the body....in every cell of the nervous system, the muscular system.....well, EVERY system? The answer is a resounding YES!.... A few benefits....(for those of you who are not yet convinced!).....
• a decrease in heart rate and the rate of respiration,
• a decrease in blood pressure,
• a decrease in muscle tension,
• a decrease in metabolic rate and the consumption of oxygen,
• a reduction in general anxiety,
• a reduction in the number and frequency of anxiety attacks,
• an increase in energy levels and in general productivity,
• an improvement in concentration and in memory,
• an increase in focus
The eminent U.S. sleep specialist Dr Matthew Edlund suggests if you can't sleep, a rest can be just as curative as sleep. The key is how you rest.,,,,and let’s be clear, ‘rest’ doesn’t mean couch/TV ‘resting!’
Dr Edlund regards watching television as 'passive' rest. Although this downtime does allow for a degree of cellular renewal, the brain will still be buzzing (indeed, studies show that in some of the brain's 'rest' states, more energy is used up than when the brain is performing set tasks.)
“Active rest' is what is needed. This can make you more alert and effective, reduce stress levels and give you a better chance of a healthier and longer life.
Dr Edlund describes four different kinds of active rest: social, mental, physical and spiritual (using meditation and prayer to relax). No specific time is indicated but he believes it's vital to factor each into your daily life.
This is defined as spending time with friends and relations and even chatting to colleagues.
No matter how busy you are, it is vital to build this into your day. A famous U.S. study in the late Seventies found that socializing isn't just pleasant, it is crucial for our survival, with sociable people at reduced risk of heart disease and other serious illnesses.
More recent studies have confirmed this link, proving that social support helps you survive a cancer diagnosis, fight off infectious illness and ease depression as well as reducing your risk of dying from heart attack.
Just chatting with friends has been shown to reduce levels of stress hormones and provide hormonal and psychological benefits. Indeed, most researchers argue that social connections are at least as significant to your rate of survival as obesity or whether you smoke.
The good news is that sex also counts as social rest.
Aside: What does this have to say about our increasingly solitary lives?
Today we all try to do too many things at once - texting while driving, eating while watching TV - and we've lost an understanding of the brain's need to focus on one thing.
Doing this for even a short period has been shown to affect the nervous system, change blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature. The idea behind mental rest is to get so engrossed in something simple that the big stuff no longer bothers you.
One way is to teach yourself a very simple form of controlled concentration.
Practice: Look straight ahead and roll your eyes up to the top of your head as if you're staring at the ceiling.
Next, with your eyes looking straight up, slowly close your eyelids. A really good 'eye roll' such as this will show lots of white on your eye as you close the eyelids.
Concentrate on keeping your eyes looking up while your eyes are closed. Take a deep breath in to the count of four, and out to the count of eight. As you exhale, feel the sense of relaxation spreading from the back of your neck down your body, until you feel it spreading to your toes.
Imagine you are on a beach on a sunny day, or a sun-dappled forest. Or walking in this environment and take note of what you see.
When you are ready to finish, keeping your eyes rolled up, breathe in deeply and open your eyes. Then roll your eyes down. (My eyes got really tired doing this practice!)
PHYSICAL REST (i.e. TADASANA!)
This is about actively using the body's processes, such as breathing, to calm body and mind.
The best way to do this is to stop and take a few really deep breaths. Breathing deeply fills the lungs with oxygen, opening up collapsed air spaces, sending richly oxygenated blood around the body.
Practice. Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes facing forward. Look straight ahead and try to align your ankles, knees, hips and shoulders into an imaginary vertical straight line. Roll your shoulders back, tuck in your chin and breathe in deeply for the count of four, feeling the air filling your lungs as your chest expands.
Breathe out slowly to the count of eight, hearing and visualizing the moving air as you breathe. Focus only on two things: keeping your alignment straight and breathing deeply and evenly. Another excellent form of physical rest is to nap (for 15 to 30 minutes) if you're feeling tired.
Brain scans have shown that people who meditate are able physically to expand parts of their brains, growing bigger, fatter frontal lobes - the part that controls concentration, attention, focus and where we do much of our analysis of problems.
Meditators are also able to build up more grey matter in the midbrain (which handles functions such as breathing and blood circulation) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (important for muscle co-ordination and active memory).
They also show changes in the structure of the thalamus, a part of the brain critical for processing information flow from all parts of the body.
Praying has similar benefits. U.S. research has shown that people who regularly attend religious services live longer than those who do not. Although some of this benefit must lie in the social connection, scans show the brain responds in a similar way to prayer as it does to meditation.
All very interesting, don’t you think?!! Let’s get some rest, Folks! For more information: The Power Of Rest: Why Sleep Alone Is Not Enough, by Dr Matthew Edlund.