Despite an otherwise admirable record in my first years in school, I always failed one activity: rest time. Having to lie on a little mat, attempting to be quiet and stay still, was torture.
I didn’t do much better with my next foray into rest time when, at summer camp, we’d be confined to our bunks for forty-five minutes, restricted from doing the fun stuff like swimming or making little objects out of popsicle sticks to give to mother for her birthday, hoping for a delighted, if somewhat staged, display of enthusiasm.
(It was not until I was a camp counselor myself that I understood that rest time was created for counselors, offering a short oasis in their otherwise crazed days.)
Bottom line: I have no creds to talk about rest.
My husband and cat love taking naps together. Which proves that we all come from different species. For me, napping during the afternoon is tantamount to surrender (never!) in the great war of getting things done. I refuse to collapse on the job! (Plus I find it very hard to wake up.)
A growing exhaustion
Yet, I am one of the millions of women beyond a certain age (this may apply to men but I’m not an expert here) who are chronically exhausted. Many suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, a devastating if poorly understood condition in which the body says, “no go” to most activity.
The National Sleep Foundation reported, in 2014, that a whopping 24 percent of women surveyed said they had not felt well-rested for the past seven days. Studies suggest that the high rates of depression among women may correlate with feeling chronically “on” and not well-rested. (I think they might also correlate with the current imbroglio in Washington, D.C. and decline in national civility, but that is as yet unproven.)
Our need for sleep
Having been sleep-deprived for many years, Arianna Huffington is on a roll to promote the benefits of sleep, as she tells you in her book titled, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time. She has definitely caught the national ear, arguing that our culture’s condescending attitude toward the need for sleep is contributing to faulty decision-making and compromised health. She recommends a set of sleep practices that may make it easier to go to sleep and stay asleep.
But sleep is one thing, rest is another, and it is possible to get sleep without feeling rested, a fact a lot of us, unfortunately, can attest to.
How to get Rest
Enter two authors with strong perspectives on the importance of rest. Author Marilyn Paul describes the benefits of taking a Shabbat (Sabbath or rest day), as she first experienced it through her Jewish faith. She makes a powerful case for the importance of taking a day of rest weekly. Karen Brody offers a daily practice that can guide us to attain a much deeper level of rest.
Create an Oasis in Time
Answering the skeptics who fear that they would be less productive or efficient if they were to step off the line for one day a week, Marilyn Paul argues that the practice of stopping for a day each week will make you more productive.
Marilyn (We were friends in grad school) learned the need for rest the hard way. Confronted with the over-adrenalized pace and pressure of being a grad student at Yale, she became ill and exhausted. It wasn’t until she discovered the benefits of taking a weekly Shabbat that her health turned around. She has continued this practice for many years, and wrote her book An Oasis in Time: How a Day of Rest Can Save Your Life to bring the benefits of a rest day to her colleagues in the secular world.
As a professional coach, she sees the toll exhaustion takes on many of her almost burned-out clients, wreaking havoc on their family life and health. She’s passionate about the benefits of declaring STOP and turning off otherwise productive activities once a week. (Making meals with friends, walks and family time are still OK.)
Although Marilyn understands that not everyone may be ready to try a full day of rest, between you and me, she’s not willing to stop recommending the idea of a whole day off. But we all need to start where we can! (You can learn more in my upcoming podcast interview with her.)
Dare to Rest
Karen Brody takes a different approach, wanting people to build a practice of rest, one meditation session at a time. She notes that a lot of the things we do in order to chill, such as watching television or reading a book, are still activities, not rest. She writes, “To rest is to surrender from the active, the goals, and the will to achieve something.” While our relaxation activities may be good for us and fun, we still need the benefits of rest.
As a burned-out professional with young children, she stumbled into the practice of Yoga Nidra, a “sleep-based, conscious relaxation, and meditation technique,” and finally found the deep rest she was craving. By doing twenty to forty minutes of Yoga Nidra, a practice done lying down with no yoga postures, Brody discovered a path to rest that can also awaken our consciousness and return us to a sense of our selves.
Brody now teaches Yoga Nidra. Her book, Daring to Rest: Reclaim Your Power with Yoga Nidra Rest Meditation, describes the yogic practices and offers text for the meditations that are the backbone of the technique. Through the meditations, we are offered to drop into a deep level of rest, as we are guided to drop into different subtle levels of consciousness without trying to do anything.
If she could have bottled the sense of deep relaxation and refreshment she described, I would have bought it immediately. Unfortunately, like most things good in life, Yoga Nidra takes practice; her book invites the reader into a forty-day program that can be done at home.
Now the truth
I intend to try both. But the truth is, as a rest-dropout, I need to take my recovery one step at a time. When I used to try to take a rest day a week, a practice recommended by the spiritual group I was in, I got terrible, migraine-like headaches. A sure sign of addiction, one might say.
Currently, I’m taking recovery in really small increments: ten-minutes at a time. I’m exploring how we might beneficially use our breaks, those unacknowledged ensemble players in the great drama of our lives. Research suggests that our bodies prefer to work in ninety-minute cycles, which says that every ninety minutes (give or take a little) we should be taking a break. Maybe if we learned to take breaks that stimulated our imagination, allowed us to relax, or refueled our intentions, we wouldn’t get so fried and frazzled during the day
I’m writing a book exploring this idea, tentatively called: The Ten Minute Miracle: Finding magic in small breaks. I hope to have it out this summer.
Taking breaks doesn’t mean we don’t still need a practice of rest.
Which is why I’m bringing out my yoga mat and blankie, and thinking about my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Johnson, who wanted me to stop squirming. I’d love to tell her that yes, I am finally willing to lie down and rest.