This weekend, we were walloped by a real-life blizzard. Our little town outside of Philadelphia was buried under over two feet of snow in less than 24 hours. In addition, we were buffeted by high winds that obscured visibility, made temperatures plummet and drifted and re-drifted the falling snow. Listening to the news early on Saturday morning, the weather man said, “No sense in shoveling today. The wind and quickly accumulating snow will just undo your hard work. Might as well wait until tomorrow when the storm has passed.”
As a “shovel often” type of a gal who has spent many a snow day hard at work clearing the driveway, I received that weather forecast as a free pass for what became the most luxurious day that I can remember. I rolled over and went back to sleep. When we re-woke, we had a delicious and long breakfast. I read some of my book. My daughters and I watched an episode of “Gossip Girl.” We did some grown-up coloring. My husband made cookies. We watched a movie. Curled up in front of the fireplace, I helped my daughter make a timeline to prepare for a midterm in her AP class. And, suddenly, it was time to make dinner. If you asked me to describe a “day of rest,” I would describe Saturday.
The fact that Saturday – a full day of rest – felt so unfamiliar and so blissful caught my attention. After all, my faith calls for a weekly Sabbath, or day of rest. Resting on Sunday is not just one of the Ten Commandments, it’s in the top 5! And the type of yoga I practice also calls for regular days of rest – once a week plus two additional days of rest each month when the moon is full and new. These two practices are the guiding lights of my life. They are the roadmaps for how I try to live and, daily, help me become the woman I hope to be.
Yet I am positively awful at honoring these days of rest.
Judging from the results of a highly informal poll of fellow yoga students and those who sit around me at church, I’m far from alone. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we do not live in a culture that appreciates or respects rest. For many of us, rest is the very first thing to get cut out of a busy day. Rest is viewed as something that can wait, something we’ll get to later. In fact, in a way, rest has acquired the stigma of laziness. Being busy is something we’re quite public about (just listen to your colleagues and check out your Facebook feed), but we immediately feel sheepish if we’re “caught” taking a rest.
Yet humans need rest. It is not some wanton desire or a luxury. We actually need it.
We need to rest in order to grow, to develop, to regenerate and to learn. Sleep expert, Dr. Matthew Edlund (author of The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone is Not Enough, referenced here), has found that rest is as important for people as sleep is. According to his research there are four kinds of rest: social, mental, physical and spiritual. Social rest is simply taking time to chat with friends and colleagues. In addition to the psychological benefits of social interaction, connecting with others has actually been shown to reduce levels of stress hormones.
Mental rest is basically deliberately single-tasking, even if just for a few minutes a day. While you can choose any activity, whether you’ve chosen to read a book, bake a cake or just sit still, it is important to keep yourself fully focused on what you’re doing. We have become so addicted to doing many things at once, that mental rest is especially important. When we do focus completely on the task at hand, we positively affect our nervous system, we change our blood pressure, our heart rate and our body temperature.
Physical rest involves using the body’s physical processes to calm the mind. The easiest and most powerful of these processes to work with is breathing. Taking even a minute to sit and pay attention to your breath can completely change your inner landscape. When I teach yoga, I ask my students to pay attention to about 5 breaths in the moments before we start to move. After class, many report to me that those 5 breaths are the most beneficial part of the class for them. Within those few moments, they feel their minds settle, their emotions smooth out and their body relax.
Finally, Dr. Edlund, recommends spiritual rest. He defines spiritual rest as meditation and/or prayer. This type of rest has been shown to develop the frontal lobe of the brain – the part of the brain that controls concentration, attention and focus, and is also where we analyze our problems. People who meditate also build up more grey matter in the midbrain (which handles functions such as blood circulation and breathing) and the thalamus (which controls information flow throughout the entire body.) In short, spiritual rest is one way to create a healthy and higher-functioning mind.
It turns out that while I’m very, very bad at honoring “days of rest,” without even realizing it, I am very, very good taking rest each day.
Each time I unroll my yoga mat, I am engaging in three of four of Dr. Edlund’s categories of rest. I am taking mental rest as I focus fully on each movement that I make on my mat. I am taking physical rest as I, for the 60 or 90 minutes of my practice, use my breath to calm my mind. And I am taking spiritual rest because, for me, yoga incorporates both prayer and meditation. As far as social rest, I’m getting that too. When I teach, I have the opportunity to connect socially with my students as I share yoga with them. And on other days, when I practice with my friend or when I get to attend a class, I connect with others before and after yoga.
While a full day of rest each week may continue to elude me except on special occasions, I am newly inspired by my snow day of rest to set aside regular, longer stretches of time to rest. In the meantime, I can rest easy (ha ha) knowing that yoga itself is restful in all the ways I need.