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The Power of Rest: The Upside of Downtime

by Chrystle Fiedler

Time to hit the personal pause button? Why we can’t afford not to relax—and how yoga can help.

What if we valued intentional quiet time, sacred space, and silence? How would that change our lives? Despite our best intentions to live balanced lives, the modern world demands that we are almost always connected and productive, and this can drain us emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

“We live in a culture that perpetuates the belief that when we have a lot going on and a lot of excitement, we’re really alive,” says Anne LeClaire, author of Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence. “In truth, we are really alive when we can be at peace within our own skin.”

It may seem counterintuitive to take time out when your to-do list is a mile long, but the fact is that doing nothing can make you feel healthier, more energetic, and more alive. It can also help you enjoy life more. And yes, in case you’re wondering, you’ll be more productive as well. When we rest, it’s like letting the earth lie fallow rather than constantly planting and harvesting. “There’s a reason why we have sabbaticals, and it’s exactly that—to fill up again, to restore,” says LeClaire, who leads the program Listening Below the Noise: A Retreat on Silence at Kripalu. “Batteries need to be recharged. The best way is to rest.”

What Rest Is and Isn’t

“Rest is not what most people think it is,” says Rubin Naiman, PhD, a sleep specialist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrated Medicine. “People confuse rest with recreation, doing things like hiking, watching movies, gardening, reading, or even inebriation—getting high, stoned, tipsy, or drunk. Any of these activities can only be termed restful because they are breaks from work.”

Instead, rest can be defined as a kind of waking sleep, experienced while you are alert and aware. “Rest is the essential bridge to sleep,” says Dr. Naiman, creator of the audio book The Yoga of Sleep (Sounds True) and coauthor with Andrew Weil, MD, of Healthy Sleep. “We can never ‘go to’ sleep, just as you can’t ‘go to’ rest—it’s already there.” We achieve rest and sleep the same way, by making space for it and allowing it to happen. You can see this very clearly in the animal world: one minute a dog is sleeping, the next minute she’s barking. Animals don’t venture as far from the world of rest and sleep as humans do. “If you watch animals, [you’ll see] they spend a lot of time not sleeping but resting,” says Abby Seixas, author of Finding the Deep River Within: A Woman’s Guide to Recovering Balance and Meaning in Everyday Life. “The animal part of us needs this too. Every living organism needs rest. When we don’t take the time to rest, eventually it takes a toll on the body.”

The Benefits of Rest

Rest melts stress away, and research proves it. Herbert Benson, MD, of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, is the creator of the Relaxation Response, a method to invoke a state of deep rest. He has conducted numerous studies on the benefits of rest, and his research shows that practicing the Relaxation Response can actually lead to genomic activity changes. Put simply, the Relaxation Response affects each of the body’s 40,000 genes, producing antioxidation and anti-inflammatory changes that reduce stress in the body. Practices like the Relaxation Response, yoga, and meditation also lower heart rates, blood pressure, and oxygen consumption, and alleviate hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, depression, infertility, cancer, and anxiety. The spiritual benefits of resting are also profound. “When you slow down and get quiet, you can actually begin to hear your own wisdom, your inner knowledge,” says LeClaire. Rest and its sibling, relaxation, allow us to reconnect with the world in and around us, inviting ease in our lives and a felt-sense of belonging.

Relationships can also become more harmonious and satisfying. “How we are with ourselves affects how we are in our relationships,” says Seixas. “If you are in stress mode, just doing, doing, doing and checking things off the list, you are not going to be good with your significant other, your kids, your family and friends. You tend to have a shorter fuse. You don’t see the big picture.” When you slow down, you gain a sense of perspective on what really matters.

If you are a writer or an artist, rest sharpens your creative abilities. When we are living hectic, frantic lives, there isn’t room for creativity. “Everything on the planet needs space, whether it’s an atom molecule, art, or music. It’s actually the space between that creates the music,” says LeClaire. “It’s also the space in our lives that helps us make sense of our lives.”

Easy Ways to Rest

Simple things can help us rest, says LeClaire. “We can do things like turn off the car radio. Go for a walk without ear buds in our ears. Turn off a TV in our home. Designate a half hour, an hour, or even half a day for silence.” Even a walk in nature, without an intention or goal such as burning calories, can work. Try also taking a few conscious breaths, during which you focus on the inhale and exhale or the space between breaths. You can also mindfully drink a cup of tea, read something inspirational, write in your journal, take a hot bath, or get a massage.

Taking a nap is a powerful way to rest and recharge. “When you take a nap, you’re not just doing something for yourself, you’re making a statement to the world that there is something that is at least equally important and productive as working, and that is doing nothing,” says Dr. Naiman. “Napping also can lead to better sleep patterns.”

It’s helpful to set a specific time for rest. “You need to put boundaries around it so you can claim that time,” says Seixas. “This is especially important for women, because we tend to give that time away more easily [to] others.”

Learning to Rest

Surprisingly, most of us need to learn how to rest. Practices such as yoga nidra, restorative yoga, and voluntary silence are powerful ways to go within and achieve restful states of being, particularly when you commit to practicing them regularly.

Yoga nidra (also known as yogic sleep), a systematic, progressive guided meditation practice that is becoming more and more popular, is an extremely effective way to stop and rest. Practicing yoga nidra for just 10 minutes is equivalent to three to four hours of sleep. While most forms of meditation focus on building concentration, yoga nidra is actually a journey through the koshas, or five layers of being—the physical body, the energy body, the mental/emotional body, the wisdom body, and the bliss body. “It’s wonderful to do as a daily practice because it brings you out of ‘fight or flight,’ the sympathetic nervous-system mode, into the parasympathetic nervous-system mode, where your body does its own healing,” says Jennifer Reis, a Kripalu Yoga teacher specializing in yoga nidra.

Restorative yoga also facilitates refreshing rest. “Restorative yoga is the quintessential stress-reducing, nourishing yoga practice,” says Sudha Carolyn Lundeen, who teaches restorative yoga and leads women’s self-care retreats at Kripalu. “In restorative yoga, we use more props than in other forms of yoga, including blocks, cushions, and blankets. This is in order to support the body being held in various yoga poses for longer periods of time, with greater ease and comfort.” Like yoga nidra, restorative yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and invokes the Relaxation Response, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, relaxing muscles, and creating softer, more rhythmic breathing.

Learning the benefits of silence and bringing them into everyday life is also an effective way to deeply rest the body, mind, and spirit. “In my Silence Class, we take a clear look at our lives to see where we have or have not allowed space for silence, and then explore why we absolutely need silence,” says LeClaire, who for the past 17 years has remained in silence for the first and third Monday of every month. “Next, we experience silence through the workshops, various types of meditative walks, and periods of eating in silence, and explore ways that we can introduce silence and see the value of it. We [also] explore the many possibilities of bringing space for silence into our lives.”

Practice, Practice, Practice

Keep in mind that when you descend into restful practices, you may at first find it uncomfortable. “It’s like when you’re flying in a jetliner at 30,000 feet—as soon as you start to land, it almost always gets a little bumpy,” says Dr. Naiman. “It’s very similar with the mind and the spirit—you experience emotional turbulence.” Many people flee that turbulence by quickly getting busy again. “We’re running from our thoughts and our feelings, [we’re afraid] that if we stop we’ll discover that we’re not enough,” says Reis. But when we rest, a whole new world comes into view. “We learn that we’re more than enough,” says Reis. “We find our authentic self.”

The more we integrate periods of rest and silence into our daily lives, the bigger the payoff will be. “There isn’t a perfect ratio,” says Reis. “Much depends on our individual lives. During more tranquil periods, perhaps we don’t need to rest as much, but during periods of crisis, more rest and silence is called for. After a while it should be like brushing your teeth.” Whenever you do it, know that you are practicing preventive medicine. Says LeClaire, “The important thing is to make it intentional, to make it a sacred time.”



Chrystle Fiedler is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Natural Remedies and writes about alternative health for many national magazines.

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